Rossana Rossanda Upheld the Best Traditions of Italy’s Left

Rossana Rossanda represented the very best of the generation drawn to Italian communism in the 1940s. Rossanda insisted on the need for militant working-class politics throughout her life while much of the Italian left lost its political bearings.

Writer and journalist Rossana Rossanda in Rome, Italy, May 18, 1996. (Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images)

After 1945, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) rose from obscurity to become the largest and most respectable in the West. In a country still permeated by reaction and obscurantism, Italian intellectuals were central to the organization’s rapid growth. They were the “engineers of souls” (in the words of the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934) and agents of national renewal.

Rossana Rossanda was a partisan, journalist, and writer who represented the very best of the Communist generation recruited by the PCI between 1943 and 1945. After her exclusion from the party in 1969, she became a leading figure on the global revolutionary left and remained loyal to the idea of communism until her death in 2020. She will be remembered for her outstanding memoir, The Comrade From Milan; the communist newspaper il manifesto, which she cofounded; and her studies on the history of socialism.

Special Kinds of People

Rossanda was born on April 23, 1924, in Pula, Istria, to a bourgeois family brought low by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. After six years in Venice, she settled with her parents in Milan and enrolled at the university.

A conversation with her teacher Antonio Banfi in the days following the 1943 armistice changed her life. The philosopher and PCI sympathizer put her in touch with partisan circles: “I came to realize that the people who really seemed to know what they were doing were the communists,” Rossanda remembered in her memoir. They were “resolutely realistic . . . special kinds of people.”

She read the work of Harold Laski, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx, joined the Communist Party, and fought against the fascists under the code name “Miranda.” The PCI remained her constant political reference point for the rest of her life.

Rossanda graduated in 1946, found her first job in publishing, and dedicated herself to party work in Milan. The legal and physical repression between 1948 and 1950 under the Christian Democratic interior minister Mario Scelba was similar or worse than had been the case under fascism. Shootings of workers and peasants occurred frequently in Reggio Emilia, Sicily, and across the South.

Against the odds, a few thousand activists built a mass working-class party in Milan, rooted in the outskirts of the industrial city. Rossanda remembered how the local organization was built through the concrete encounter between party intellectuals and worker activists:

The entrance to a [party] meeting place would be through the central courtyard, the door clearly marked by the red flag with its hammer and sickle or a poster advertising the latest meeting. Behind it, you’d descend a few steps and find yourself in the bowels of the building, pipes everywhere, walls redecorated by the comrade painter and hung with two flags, the table draped with a red cloth, which was folded and put away at the end of the evening . . .

The secretary’s opening report was never short and it always started with the state of the world, even when the telephone bill . . . was urgently in need of attention. The address would include an analysis of international and domestic affairs, and there was always an account of what the Central Committee had discussed or any decisions that it had taken. We can smile at the approximation, or “schematism,” of this moving step by step from the center of the world to the periphery, to the quartiere [neighborhood], and from information to “party instruction,” but it was a huge process of acculturation . . .

This was the powerful party that was gradually worn down in the seventies and eighties and destroyed by the turning point of 1989; it was a laborious but living network that gave structure to the people of the left, in the face of the hostility of newspapers, radio and early television, all of which were on the side of the government . . . the people were coming together in the name of an idea of society that was maybe simplistic, struggling to ask pertinent questions and sometimes being given convincing answers; but while every other voice was driving towards the privatization of experience, the party was trying hard to see itself as part of the wider world.

From Togliatti to the Hot Autumn

Rossanda was entrusted with the task of revitalizing the Casa della cultura (House of Culture) as a hub of progressive intellectual activity in Milan. Then came 1956. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret report on Joseph Stalin’s crimes in that year shocked the Communist world.

Rossanda remained in the PCI despite her reservations about the Soviet intervention in Hungary and quickly rose to the top of the party. In 1962, she was called to lead the PCI’s cultural sector and was elected to Parliament the following year. She worked closely with the party leader, Palmiro Togliatti, at the party’s Botteghe Oscure headquarters in Rome.

Her energetic and creative attempts to renew the party’s cultural work were greeted with perplexity. She believed that conditions for radical change were not being reflected in the moderate line of the PCI. Rather than serving as a launchpad for a successful career, this period saw a widening gap between Rossanda and the party. This breach grew further after Togliatti’s death in 1964 and the party’s difficulties in recruiting younger Italians.

“As much as I criticized him later, in the 1970s,” she remembered, “I now take a different view” of Togliatti:

I have accepted that his objective was not to overthrow the status quo but to make sure that the conflict remained legitimate. I don’t know if he had reached the conclusion that this was the best possible situation in the West, or whether in the current circumstances there was nothing else you could do. I lean towards the former hypothesis; to the man who straddled the USSR of the 1930s and post-war Italy, for us to advance and change the political landscape without terrible lacerations and tragedies can’t have seemed such a bad thing.

Rossanda fought for an alternative to the PCI’s creeping reformism. The social democratization of the party catalyzed after the Left around Pietro Ingrao lost major votes at its historic Eleventh Congress in 1966. Rossanda and other combative PCI members like Luigi Pintor, Lucio Magri, Massimo Caprara, and Luciana Castellina continued to mobilize.

The students’ and workers’ movements of 1968 and 1969 made the party’s prudence intolerable to them. Rossanda wrote that “the year of the students” could act as a detonator of a deeper social explosion. In June 1969, she and the others began publishing the magazine il manifesto to make their case to the party base.

In the meantime, the invasion of Czechoslovakia — which the PCI had cautiously condemned — made a firmer break with Moscow’s line seem urgent. Soviet military intervention quickly punctured the hopes generated by the Prague Spring. “Praga è sola [Prague is alone]” was the title of the famous September 1969 edition of il manifesto.

The group was countermanded by the PCI leadership and then excluded (radiato) at a party meeting in November. Even Ingrao voted with the leadership. As the so-called Hot Autumn of mass strikes overwhelmed Italian employers, the last internal break on the PCI’s drift to the right was surgically removed. The moderate and reformist Migliorismo (Betterism) tendency around PCI leader Giorgio Amendola extended its control over the party apparatus.

Missed Opportunities

Why did the party have space for Amendola but not Rossanda? The decision by Togliatti to chart an “Italian Road to Socialism” that didn’t have to pass through Moscow had increased the PCI’s international isolation. Enrico Berlinguer and others in the PCI leadership feared that if they explicitly supported the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Moscow would stretch its long arm into the party. The sizable pro-Soviet element of the PCI would demand greater leeway for their own efforts to shape party strategy if the network around il manifesto became a permanent presence.

Rossanda, however, believed more fundamental problems of vision were behind their exclusion:

The PCI . . . didn’t realize that in Italy and internationally, opportunities were developing as never before for a restructuring of power relations and the political environment — an unexpected bonus of peaceful coexistence. It didn’t trust the as yet not fully articulated drive for change, for previously unimagined possibilities. Or it took its time, as if a period when everything was in the balance could remain open forever. In fact, the opportunity would never be so good again, and less than ten years later it was gone completely. You can see that more clearly now than we did at the time.

The party was unable to silence the group. By 1971, il manifesto had become a daily newspaper, and after 1976 it was closely associated with the Proletarian Unity Party (PdUP) — an eclectic group of left-wing Italian Socialists (who had refused to join the Italian Communist Party), Trotskyists, and other varieties of Italian communist heterodoxy. The subjects of Rossanda’s journalism ranged from an interview with Salvador Allende to a profile of Pablo Picasso and an obituary for Georg Lukács.

In these years, Rossanda was sympathetic to Maoist criticisms of the primacy given by Soviet Marxism to the productive forces in explaining historical change. Her work during this decade sought to offer an alternative history of the relationship between political parties and social classes and the centrality of social relations in the socialist transition.

As ever, Rossanda’s intellectual concerns were determined by political exigencies. In her view, the PCI’s “double hagiography” of the Soviet Union and Antonio Gramsci had led to a presentist practice and an absent vision. As she argued in her 1969 article “Class and Party”:

The only theory which has meaning is one which is formed within a praxis, a concrete historical situation: no solution to it is possible which does not start from a careful analysis of the different class contradictions in advanced societies, from the concrete forms of struggle, from the needs which the crisis of capitalism reveals today . . .

Marx’s hypothesis finds new life in the May movement in France, in many of the confrontations which occur in our societies, and which tend to escape from the control, however elastic and attentive it may be, of purely political formations. It is in terms of this fact that the problem of organization may now be posed again. From Marx, we are now returning to Marx.

Against the Current

Rossanda was critical of both the vanguardist pretentions of the leftist Italian armed groups and the PCI’s “Historic Compromise” strategy towards the ruling Christian Democracy party. Her 1978 article on the abduction of the former prime minister of Italy, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades caused a minor sensation. She argued that the members of this armed Marxist-Leninist group were part of the Italian left’s “family album” and that their political language (if not their strategy of guerrilla warfare) was similar to that used by the PCI during the 1950s.

She edited a book of interviews with the operational leader of the Red Brigades, Mario Moretti, and developed a close dialogue with the feminist movement. She collaborated with Lapis journal, edited the socialist-feminist magazine L’Orsaminore (The little bear), wrote widely on the experience of women, and sought explanations for the definitive crisis of the Communist Party to which she still owed her political identity. As she told Marco D’Eramo in 2017:

The party’s crisis was not recent and preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall. 1989 only catalysed an ongoing process that the PCI had no answer for. The party had by then accepted the judgment of its historical adversaries: “The very idea of communism was wrong.” Identical positions developed amongst the Russians, the Chinese, and the Cubans. Nobody tried to give another explanation and none of them said: “We pursued the correct ideas, but we made the following mistakes.” Nobody asked why the crisis hit everyone at the same time.

Rossanda had already sought answers to those questions in a series of major articles. “Revolutionary Intellectuals and the Soviet Union” in 1974, the opening address to the “Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies” conference in Venice in 1977, and “The Crisis and Dialectic of Parties and New Social Movements in Italy” in 1981 were all landmark interventions. The PCI leadership instead chose to double down on its accommodation to the status quo, dissociation from the historical experience of socialism, and denial of communism as a horizon of expectation.

By 1991, the Italian left had progressively ditched all reference to its old programs, visions, and identity. Rossanda strongly resisted this process and supported the foundation of Rifondazione Comunista (a party that promised to continue the PCI tradition), despite remaining outside the new organization. She vocally supported Rifondazione and vigorously defended its choice to bring down the government of Romano Prodi in 1998.

She also progressively distanced herself from the editorial staff of il manifesto over the early 2000s for ignoring the centrality of class conflict, and formally left the newspaper in 2012. She was suspicious of the recent alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement and lamented the inability of the Italian left to define itself positively against the Berlusconian and neofascist right.

She continued to believe that her adversary was capitalism — unlike most of her generation of Communists. To the end, she urged the Italian left to return to its former class references, reestablish its relationship with wage workers, and renew its revolutionary perspective. Her life and work still provides an exemplary model for socialist organizers and intellectuals today.