Rossana Rossanda Fought for the World Revolution

Italian Marxist Rossana Rossanda was born 100 years ago today. Her country’s Communist Party sought a gradualist “Italian road to socialism” — but she insisted that the class struggle in Italy was tied to the fate of the world revolution.

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

The year 1945 was a breakthrough for Europe’s Communists. Paradoxically, the Soviet role in liberating the continent from German fascism meant that the Communists were lifted to power in Eastern countries, where both capitalism and the workers’ movement were mostly relatively weak. There were mass Communist Parties in the West, too. But Cold War conditions kept them from high office, including thanks to considerable US secret service activity — and in Greece, a bloody civil war.

The basis for communism as a Western European mass movement was its role in the fight against fascism and occupation. This was particularly true of France and Italy. In 1945, a radical Labour government came to power in Great Britain, supported by mass-membership trade unions, and the Social Democrats and Communists each grew rapidly across Allied-occupied postwar Germany. But it was especially the French Communist Party (PCF) — “the party of the 75,000 executed” — and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) that matured into huge mass organizations.

France’s PCF grew from thirty thousand members before the Popular Front policy to half a million by the end of 1945. It immediately became the strongest party in parliament with 26.2 percent of the vote and 159 seats in the National Assembly. One year later, it reached 28.3 percent and 182 MPs. In Italy, Communist Party membership soared from fifteen thousand to 1.7 million within a year. It soon became one of the capitalist world’s largest Communist parties, surpassed only by the Indonesian party, which peaked at three million members before the anti-Communist genocide of 1965.

When the US army began its invasion of Italy in the fall of 1943 and fought its way to Rome by June 1944, the perception was that Italy only knew “priests and communists.” This is the reality behind Giovanni Guareschi’s satirical stories about the priest Don Camillo and his counterpart Peppone, a Communist who rules a small rural town.

The Italian Communists’ success also owed much to their independence. This was emphasized even by legendary chairman Palmiro Togliatti, Antonio Gramsci‘s long-time companion. Nevertheless, after his death in 1964 the Soviets named an industrial city after him. Leader Enrico Berlinguer reinforced this Italian path to socialism in the 1970s. His left-wing inner-party opponents around Pietro Ingrao, Rossana Rossanda, and Lucio Magri also advocated such a course. The PCI “Italianized” communism and did not base its policies exclusively on Soviet foreign policy. According to Rossanda, the PCI’s success was because it was “still arguing and discussing,“not a monolith. This also produced a vibrant intellectual atmosphere, where Rossanda was one of the shining lights of Marxist creativity.

A Proud Party of Which Nothing Remains

Yet almost nothing remains of this proud party after 1991. In that moment it not only lost members and voters but also its name and character. It denied both, in the deceptive belief that the term “communist” and the old program were mere electoral obstacles. Recent successes for the Austrian Communist Party in some of the most bourgeois places imaginable, such as Salzburg, show how unnecessary this was.

The PCI first transformed itself into the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS) and in 2007 into the Democratic Party (PD). This ungainly broad alliance is explicitly modeled on the US Democratic Party — a little social, a little green, but above all thoroughly liberal and anti-Marxist. This hasn’t helped: today it only has one hundred fifty thousand members and barely five million voters, not even half the Communists’ typical scores in the 1980s.

Almost nothing remains of Italian communism today. One of the most stable political systems of the postwar period, dominated by a strong Christian Democracy (DC) and the Communists, is emblematic of the fragmentation of party systems and instability. Just like the Communists, the big tent DC also disintegrated from 1992 as part of the “Tangentopoli” corruption scandal.

Without the PCI’s self-dismantling, Silvio Berlusconi, the Northern League, and the far-right Alleanza Nazionale wouldn’t have made their breakthrough. And Italy would not be governed today by the (post-)fascist Giorgia Meloni, who, courted by international allies, is doing even better in the polls than in 2022. Above all, there would never have been the Five Star Movement — not a left-wing party but a vacuum cleaner able to suck up the rumbling social malaise.

In 1975, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, said that because of the Communists’ leading role in the Resistance “in the life of the Italian nation” there had been “the continuation of a cultural hegemony of anti-fascist, democratic and progressive tendencies [. . . ] in contrast to what happened in West Germany.” In Italy, there seemed to be “no more right-wing intellectuals” after 1945. So, how could this country, where almost every village still has a Via Gramsci, become the land of Berlusconi and Meloni?

The Path to Communism

The biography of the Marxist intellectual Rossana Rossanda is revealing. She later described herself as a “typical bourgeois intellectual who made a communist choice.”

She was born in Pola, on the peninsula of Istria (today Pula, Croatia), where her mother owned entire “islets.” But she grew up in Milan, where she also studied. In 1943, she joined the anti-fascist Resistance through her philosophy professor Antonio Banfi, whose son Rodolfo later became her first husband. As the partisan “Miranda,” she traveled as a courier. She later reflected:

When fascism exploded, during the war . . . with violence, persecution and death . . . mere understanding was no longer enough, we had to intervene. Those who came of age in those years were never able to see the search for their identity as a private matter. The whole world passed over us then, and it has done so non-stop ever since.

From the Resistance, Rossanda found her way to the Communist-led workers’ movement. In spring 1945, she was one of the millions who joined the PCI. She became a class traitor. This was not just the consequence of theoretical recognition but encouraged by the reality in front of her. In industrial Milan, a powerful new workers’ movement emerged, with “red fortresses” at Pirelli tires, the Falck steelworks, and the Magneti Marelli engineering works.

As was still typical of her generation, for Rossanda a love of literature and the class struggle went hand in hand. She would write as elegantly about political economy and imperialism as she did about Virginia Woolf and the art historian Aby Warburg. She translated Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Thomas Cullinan’s The Beguiled.

Rossanda had a special love affair with the culture of Germany, which had just covered the world with unprecedented barbarism. This is striking today, when great humanists from Leo Tolstoy to Anton Chekhov are being banned from playbills and curricula because of the demonization of all things Russian. “German culture,” she writes at one point, is “the object of my admiration, [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel my grandfather, [Karl] Marx my father, [Bertolt] Brecht my brother and Thomas Mann my cousin.”

Rossanda brought this bourgeois knowledge to the proletarian movement. In Milan, she initially headed the PCI’s “House of Culture,” became a member of the city council, a Central Committee member and, from 1963, an MP. For her, politics was, as for Rosa Luxemburg, the whole of life in all its sensual aspects: the “path to knowledge,” a “strict éducation sentimentale“: a “path through suffering and passions, through friendships and controversies, through trust and parting . . . .”

Rossanda’s motivation was the liberation of humanity. She dreamed of world revolution. She traveled to Francoist Spain on a secret mission in 1962 on behalf of the PCI and a nonparty “democratic committee” to sound out the prospects of the Communist Party and a “democratic revolution.” She headed to Spain wondering, “Could the revolution in the West be back on the agenda?”

The fact that she was a woman among Communist leaders drew little specific reflection. She said of her career: “We were self-confident because we knew — after observing how our mothers and aunts lived — what we didn’t want. The highest level of education and active participation would save us.” It was not until the late 1970s that she would also think more about femininity.

Thinking for the Revolution

Rossanda’s thinking was vividly Marxist. Intellectual orthodoxy laid the foundation for focus, perseverance, and systematic thinking. It thus remained unclouded by arbitrariness, laziness of thought, and intellectual fads. Thinking in and for the party was part of a collective search for meaning. Yet there was also a certain unorthodoxy, allowing for boundless intellectual creativity.

Aware of the incompleteness of Marx’s work and its constant need for application, Rossanda drew on the entire theoretical heritage of the workers’ movement — including its more unpopular elements — in order to inform practical change. An irrepressible will to study, and arrive at a Leninist understanding of truth, allowed a concrete approach to all the many colors of reality and the forces that could revolutionize it.

Rossanda is often compared to Luxemburg. She surely saw herself in the spirit of the Polish revolutionary, at a time when her “spontaneism” was still seen with suspicion by the defenders of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Rossanda once described her movement of thought on class, party, and proletarian revolution as: “Starting from Marx, we are gradually returning to Marx.”

Her thought is best understood as the search for a world revolution. Her dialectical thinking ultimately measured everything against this question. While she grew up in the spirit of Gramsci — the theorist of the failure of revolution in the West — she spoke of revolution instead of transformation. She argued sharply against “the rediscovery of the [supposedly] spurned ‘superstructure’” as well as against the later “fashionable” “slogan of the autonomy of politics.”

Rossanda was also an “optimist of the will.” Contrary to the likes of Theodor Adorno or Louis Althusser, she was concerned with the “dialectic of rupture and continuity” and the windows of opportunity for revolutionary action on the path to socialism. But unlike later post-operaists, who abandoned the working class as the subject of change, she was no idealistic voluntarist. Her Marxist thinking in material power relations and their combinations prevented her from doing so.

But how does revolution work? Rossanda remarks that she “can’t find a definition of revolution anywhere in Rosa’s work.” “How could I find one? You don’t define what you live.” But she herself defined it: revolution, she wrote in 1969, is “the indissoluble result of the material maturation of the class struggle, its self-formation in political forms of expression and the subjectively forming consciousness, whereby none of the three moments can be separated from the others.”

Such a “conception” allows “neither mechanistic nor evolutionist interpretations, because it sees the motor in the violence of the proletariat breaking in,” nor can “it be equated with a subjective design . . .  a historical and class consciousness before history and the class.”

Class consciousness arises “in the course of the struggle” The working class remains “the permanent historical subject” because capitalism creates the working class in “form and dimension” and “also alienation”; what makes it “negate capitalism is its real position. The class struggle has its material roots in the system-mechanism itself.”

Rossanda followed Gramsci’s view that the revolution in developed Western capitalisms, unlike in the dependent peripheries such as Russia, succeeds as a “war of position.” It would proceed through the struggle for hegemony by a “historical bloc” of nonantagonistic classes, rather than as a “war of movement” modeled on the “storming of the Winter Palace.” According to Rossanda’s Luxemburgist view, this would also produce a better starting point for the construction of socialism.

The “maturity of a social revolution” is characterized by the fact that it “goes beyond a merely political [revolution]” and thus “will be more radical than a political one; it will not be Jacobin [centralized, top-down] and therefore not authoritarian.” Rossanda poses the following question as the guiding question of the revolution: “What type of state and institution is capable of ensuring the preservation of the revolutionary alliance for the working class and the people — a complex formation — and at the same time changing the institutions inherited from the social division of labor, i.e., establishing a different rationality of production?”

In this view, the party is not an end in itself. The important question is what benefit it offers to the revolutionary (self-)liberation of the working class. Rossanda was concerned by the twentieth-century migration of the revolutionary process to the weakest links of the imperialist world system, while capitalism was stabilized in the imperial core. She was concerned by the fact that in the periphery, the revolution was not carried by the industrial proletariat but primarily by small farmers and agricultural workers.

According to Vladimir Lenin, the “imperialist chain” breaks first in the periphery. Here, Rossanda concludes:

The clash must . . . be properly prepared: The more ‘immature’ society is, the more the vanguard has the task of shortening, as it were, the distance between the objective conditions of intolerable exploitation and the open outbreak of conflict, by tearing the exploited and oppressed . . . out of their ignorance or resignation — making them . . . into revolutionaries.

But since the chances of success of revolution in dependent formations depend on the revolution in the centers, it is also about the core capitalist countries. However, since a completely different stability prevails in the centers, a different party form emerges here: that of the class-based mass party.

Il manifesto

A few weeks after these deliberations, Rossanda was forced out along with other left-wing PCI members, including two others from the central committee. The decisive factor was the founding of their own newspaper: il manifesto.

Such independent initiatives often led to expulsions: from E. P. Thompson’s the Reasoner, which led to the withdrawal of the “First New Left” from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1956, to the “Düsseldorf Debate,” which provoked expulsions from the German Communist Party (DKP) in 1984.

Still, unlike the Reasoner, il manifesto only partly emerged in opposition to the party’s justifications for the USSR’s foreign policy. Unlike in the CPGB, a relative distancing from Soviet-style “actually existing socialism” was in any case compatible with centrist and right-wing elements in the PCI. Rather, the concern of the PCI left was that the so-called “Italian way to socialism” no longer led to that end point. Rather, it amounted to an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformist illusions. This criticism, and not the PCI’s (non-)reaction to the suppression of the “Prague Spring,” was decisive.

Il manifesto was no sudden whim but the result of a long process of alienation from the PCI. Rossanda dates the beginning to 1962, and the aforementioned journey to Francoist Spain on the party’s behalf. The trip brought “doubts to light,” “which later provided the impetus” for a new departure. At the time, she had sensed “that things, when held up to the light of experience, revealed different patterns and proportions” than those advocated by the Communists. “And there is probably no communist who does not become uneasy when he recognizes his party, in whatever situation, as blind.”

She had headed to Spain with the idea of a “democratic revolution,” which was to lead to socialism on the ruins of the dictatorship. Ultimately, the assumption was that the fight against Francisco Franco would strengthen the movement much as the popular-front strategy had bolstered the PCI after 1944. The hope was that the Spaniards would have more luck after the end of their “fascism” than the Communists in Italy or Greece.

Back then, Rossanda writes, “for the first time a calculation did not work out.” “We had certainly felt the blow of 1956; we were certainly tormented by the open wound of ‘actually existing socialism’. . . . But in our own house . . . we considered ourselves knowledgeable.” From Spain, she developed a critique of the popular-front strategy because there is no “democratic revolution” that would “lead us close to the wall that separated us from socialism.”

The alienation intensified over the next four years. Togliatti died in 1964, and the question of his legacy occupied the 11th Party Congress two years later. This itself marked a rift. The congress discussed the “betrayal” of the revolution and the popular-front strategy — a harbinger of the “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy, i.e., the party of the bourgeoisie. The party conference ended in defeat for the Left. As Rossanda put it, “De facto, I was only expelled three years later, but the separation took place when I stopped thinking ‘within the party and for it’ for the first time since 1943.”

Yet this alienation also favored intellectual creativity. Her theoretical texts on Mao Zedong, party, class, and revolutionary theory were written under the “well-founded assumption of my heterodoxy.”  She “rehabilitated the classics of heresy,” above all Luxemburg. “In my head, as in other heads, a ‘left-wing revisionism’ was clearly taking shape.”

For the PCI’s left flank, the mirror image of social democratization in the West was the betrayal of the revolution in the East. The Soviet Union’s foreign policy, defensively focused on securing its existence while avoiding conflict with the United States, prevented new revolutions. While the USSR no longer sought to export the revolution and looked skeptically at Che Guevara’s adventures in the Congo or the US backyard of Bolivia, the PCI was revolutionary in name only: there were postrevolutionary states in the Eastern Bloc and a postrevolutionary party in Italy. Rossanda eventually felt vindicated by the suppression of the coup in Chile in 1973 by the US-backed military — she had visited Chile and had sympathized strongly — given that, unlike with the Cuban Revolution fourteen years prior, now the USSR and China essentially tolerated its suppression.

Looking back, she wrote in 1977:

The identification of ‘actually existing socialism’ with the anti-imperialist, socialist, anti-capitalist movement in the West . . . dissolved in the 1960s, for several reasons: Due to the increasingly evident great-power role of the USSR; the split that had occurred between . . . the USSR and China; in the wake of China’s changeable foreign policy, which constantly vacillated between self-isolation and advocacy for the isolated countries of the Third World; [and] . . . by [the] disastrous . . . invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Since then, revolutionary aid from the USSR and China had become “increasingly . . . mixed up with their interests on the world chessboard.” With the support of Vietnam, “everything has been used up. . . .The Vietnamese comrades have won because the USSR and China exist, but also . . . even though they exist.” “Overall, ‘actually existing socialism’ today is neither a model nor a guarantee for future and different revolutions.”

After the Chilean events, Rossanda’s thinking turned on the question of how a revolution in Italy could escape this fate. This also raises the question of “whether a revolution is possible at all without being supported or guaranteed by. . . the USSR and China.” In fact, “no revolution can escape the obligation” to “deal with the present crisis of the USSR and the ‘socialist’ camp, resulting from internal as well as external factors. It has become our own serious problem, whose solution cannot be put off.”

With this outlook in mind, Rossanda organized an important international conference on “postrevolutionary societies” in 1977. This approach was light-years away from today’s usual left-wing moralism, which first celebrates breakthroughs — Syriza’s election in Greece or the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela — projecting their illusions onto these experiences, only then to demonize them after their defeat. Similar thinking to Rossanda’s today would also demand the development of a position on China as a world-historical force. Instead, many leftists maintain a helpless non-position or even allow themselves to become the useful idiots of Western imperialism and a devastating new bloc confrontation.

Rossanda was familiar with this apolitical attitude. In 1981 she wrote:

Old and new leftists, we cling to the latest revolution that presents itself to us. . . . We are the drones of the projects and practices of others. Parasitically, we take part in their upheavals and struggles, except when they lose; then we withdraw, resentful and sullen. We are the first to anticipate the judgment of history with the archival stamp; we know the mistakes of others down to the last detail, we love the disappointments and meticulously highlight them in order to justify our own compromising turns.

In her closing speech at the 1977 conference, she insisted: “However imperfect and guilt-ridden socialism may have appeared in these societies, on the other side of the barricade stood imperialism, colonialism and finally fascism.”

Hopes From ’68

Rossanda suffered from the standstill of the revolution in East and West. The Soviet invasion of Prague was not the trigger, but a symptom of the processes that led to il manifesto. In the international 1968, including the Prague Spring, she saw the potential for a revived, revolutionary workers’ movement: as she put it “1968 washed away my melancholy.”

The “ingraiani,” named after the “leader of the [PCI’s] left wing” Ingrao, saw the world on the move. Ingrao, who remained loyal to the party, was given the label of movimentista — “the movement-oriented Communist.” For her part, Rossanda traveled to Paris to study the French May. In 1968, her book The Year of the Students was published; like her comrade-in-arms Magri in his own book, she pleaded for an alliance between the student revolt and the workers’ movement. Many students attributed the subjective failure of the longed-for revolution to their lack of connection with the working class. But connections were made as a result.

The year 1968 interested the forty-four-year-old Rossanda because of its spirit of revolt, which she wanted to infect the traditional workers’ movement. Four decades later, she reflected:

The 1968 generation had the élan to break with the old ways. But they had no political culture of their own. The PCI, on the other hand, had a long political tradition, but had lost all will to bring about social change. I think that a dialogue could and should have taken place. . . . It didn’t happen. The generational gap was too big.

The failure had a devastating effect: “Most of the political organizations and formations of the historical left of the 19th and 20th centuries collapsed internally and have not been able to recover.”

Rossanda’s break with the PCI came in 1968 and the opportunity that was missed. Hence “on an evening in July 1968, I was once again told the reasons why the party had to proceed with caution, otherwise it would collapse. . . . In those days, we pulled the first strings for il manifesto. . . . They shut us out. But we were not thrown back on ourselves: we were released into a historical process which we had to navigate.”

Communism: Defeated, but Necessary

Il manifesto’s platform published in September 1970 stated that the “communist perspective” was the “only alternative to the catastrophic tendencies of today’s world.” However, the “parliamentary path” to socialism was an “illusion” and the “center left” (1960s coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists) had failed. Social democratic reformism” had made itself the “pillar of capitalism and its state.” The prospect of a future “subaltern entry of the PCI into government” would be a strategy of co-optation by the bourgeoisie, which would “not solve the crisis, but exacerbate it.” It was necessary to “develop the theory of revolution in the West” and “build a truly revolutionary force.”

Rossanda was no sectarian. She was aware of the importance of the class-based mass party for the revolution in the West. Looking back, she wrote: “The fact is that certain voyages can only be undertaken in large ships.” Il manifesto initially sparked considerable momentum. Local groups emerged in almost all Italy’s major cities. “It’s not a split,” wrote Rossanda, “it’s a real hemorrhage that refuses to calm down.” The newspaper, which appeared daily from April 28, 1971, soon had sixty thousand subscribers.

The main party project was the “Party of Proletarian Unity” (PdUP). But the attempts to found a stable party to the left of the PCI were disappointed. The PdUP failed in elections. At Berlinguer’s suggestion, it rejoined the PCI in 1984, albeit without Rossanda.

Increasingly, Rossanda saw rising neoliberalism as the main cause of the defeat that broke the back of the workers’ movement in the West and the anti-imperialist movements in developing countries — while also increasing the pressure on actually existing socialism. Rossanda saw the collapse in the Eastern Bloc as a catastrophe. In 1994, she described the “pull” that “brought down the idea of a possibly different society with the regimes of the East.” But: “The crisis of the ‘revolutionary’ space had been brewing for a long time.”

The neoliberalization of the social democratic parties, including the degeneration of the PCI into today’s Democratic Party, for Rossanda expressed the eradication of an “entire idea of social transformation.” She saw the first Gulf War as the prelude to a new imperialism. Unlike those leftists who today invoke the need to support an invaded sovereign country while they actually support a proxy war by their own imperialist states (against Russia, and, lurking behind, China), Rossanda and Ingrao rejected thinking about imperialism in moralistic and liberal terms.

The new world order of global capitalism was already apparent to Rossanda and Ingrao. They wrote in a joint manifesto in 1995: the Gulf War is the “turning point in the geopolitical world situation”: not only is “new terrible technology being tried out, but also no less alarming categories of thought are being made acceptable: the concept of ‘just war’ . . . the notion of ‘international police action,“ with which “a new authority has been enthroned that arrogates to itself the right to impose a new world order” that “renews the domination of the North over the southern hemisphere.”

Rossanda was stunned by the complete disappearance of the socialist left. In an interview in 2018, she lamented: “Everything, everything has been lost. The voice of the humiliated and insulted can no longer be heard anywhere.” Even in the early 1990s, she wondered whether she was looking for answers to questions that no one was asking anymore. She probably remembered her trip to Spain. At the time, a Socialist Party representative explained to her what defeat means: “[T]hrown back into silence, you notice the absent-mindedness of those who saw you as a symbol and who do not forgive you when you are no longer one; sometimes they regret you, but generally they forget you.”

Her 2005 autobiography (published in English as The Comrade from Milan) featured her memoirs up to 1969. Rossanda asked: “Why were you a communist? Why do you say you still are?” She described herself as a “defeated communist.” Communism had “failed so miserably that it was essential to come to terms with it.” It “may have done wrong things, but it wasn’t wrong.”

Rossanda died in 2020 at the age of ninety-six, after over three-quarters of a century in the movement. After her death, Deutschlandfunk reported that things had become “very lonely around left-wing intellectuals” like her. But only “history will show” whether her life truly ended in defeat.