The title of Rossana Rossanda’s 2005 memoir called her a “Girl of the Last Century.” Published in English as The Comrade from Milan, the tone of Rossanda’s book reflected the Italian left’s rapid slide into disaster. Not only were its glory days now long in the past, but their “glorious” character was widely put into doubt even by former communists.
Rossanda, who died on Sunday, aged ninety-six, had been a communist since the period of World War II, becoming the partisan “Miranda” aged nineteen in 1943 before joining the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1946. But while in postwar years she took up leading roles in the PCI’s cultural work, in 1969 she and her comrades were pushed out of the party.
In the decades after the PCI’s dissolution in 1991, Rossanda and her comrades from the manifesto group — creators of the eponymous dissident-communist newspaper, still now a daily — would write the most interesting works on the legacy of twentieth-century communism, including both her memoir and her comrade Lucio Magri’s The Tailor of Ulm.
Rossanda was not the very last partisan or the very last witness to the wartime PCI. But her loss is particularly saddening given that she was one of the last figures from the Resistance period who continued to intervene in public life. Even into her final months she served as a moral and political guide — drawing deep on a past of great heroism and great hopes.
Becoming a Communist
Rossana Rossanda was born to a middle-class family in Pola (today Pula, Croatia) in 1924, during the initial consolidation of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. In her childhood she moved repeatedly, first to Venice Lido and then to Milan.
There, she raced through her grammar school education (finishing a year early) and then studied under Antonio Banfi, a Communist philosophy professor. This was a decisive contact: if, as she put it, there had been “no communism at home,” it was through Banfi that she was drawn into the Resistance against fascism; his son, Rodolfo, would be her first husband.
Rossanda was just nineteen on September 8, 1943, when Nazi Germany invaded Italy; over the next twenty months, she and her comrades joined in the Resistance struggle, with the PCI as the single biggest force. Rossanda did not take part in armed combat but was involved as a clandestine messenger and courier of contraband.
Like many young Italians of her class, such Resistance work brought a whole political awakening. It meant not only the opportunity to actively shape the world at a very young age, but also a first contact with working-class Italy and a realization of its potential power.
Only after the end of the war in the spring of 1945 did Rossanda actually join the Communist Party, but she quickly rose through the ranks. As well as working at the Milan publisher Hoepli, (and promoting cultural ties with the USSR), in 1948 she was charged with running the PCI’s “House of Culture” in the city.
This Northern capital was, next to Turin, the main center of mass industry, with “red fortresses” like the Falck steelworks, Pirelli Tires, and the engineering firm Magneti Marelli — each of which saw massive strikes during the latter war years, and the resurgence of the factory proletariat as a political force.
But if Rossanda was impressed by the battalions of labor, the immediate postwar was also a period in which Christian Democracy entrenched its political dominance, in spring 1947 pushing the Socialists and Communists out of the anti-fascist government (in the PCI’s case, never to return).
The PCI was a mass force, yet also faced tough repression, continually forced to defend its own legitimacy and basic democratic rights. In this context of defeat, Rossanda’s efforts served the higher purpose of building up a kind of communist counter-society — and more specifically, introducing the great contemporary artists, writers, and dramatists to a working-class audience.
In 1958, she joined the PCI central committee and, put in charge of the party’s cultural policy, wrote a series of articles in Rinascita, edited by long-standing general secretary Palmiro Togliatti. Indeed, though in 1957 party leaders resisted the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (issued in Milan by then–PCI member Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, before it appeared in any other language), Togliatti generally granted intellectuals some limited autonomy.
This left room for Rossanda’s collaboration with such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Louis Aragon, each of whom found in the PCI a far more interesting interlocutor than anything in the French Communist Party (PCF).
The Prague Crisis
Flash points nonetheless emerged, with the contradictory and limited de-Stalinization of the Communist Parties. Both the rise of Nikita Khrushchev in the USSR, then Togliatti’s death in 1964 posed the question of how far this process would go — and what kind of revolution, if any, the PCI actually envisaged.
In 1962, there was a conference at the Gramsci Institute in which Pietro Ingrao, standard-bearer for the left wing of the PCI, challenged the party’s long-standing notion that its tasks were a matter of “modernizing” and “completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution” in a country with a backward and still-fascist-influenced ruling class. Party right-winger Giorgio Amendola instead upheld these latter positions, with an implicit drive toward social-democratic conclusions.
If Ingrao’s dissent was often hesitating, Rossanda and like-minded militants like Aldo Natoli, Luciana Castellina, Valentino Parlato, Luigi Pintor and Lucio Magri took the logic of his arguments toward a broader critique of the PCI’s practice. In this, they were spurred on by the shop-floor movements that had arisen at the start of the 1960s, but also the worldwide student revolt, which began in Italy already in late 1967.
Rossanda stayed in Paris during May ’68, visiting an occupied Nanterre where she recalled being “packed in like sardines.” She saw the PCI as reacting to the movement in a conservative manner, precisely because of the respectability the party so craved:
the communists were the most upright citizens of all: dedicated to study, work and family. Our credo was the very opposite of the 1968 slogans denouncing the regulatory function of the present social order … everything that we had not predicted we saw as disorder.
In truth, the PCI was not hostile to the students in quite the fashion of its French counterpart: the party’s leader in the 1968 era was Luigi Longo, a venerable if hardly-charismatic veteran of the Spanish Civil War and anti-fascist resistance, who issued a call to “understand” what the students wanted.
But the international revolution had also strongly affected Rossanda’s changing perception of what a Communist Party should be. In 1962 she made an abortive visit to aid the Spanish resistance to Franco; in 1967 was received in Cuba by Fidel Castro personally; and increasingly looked to both Vietnam and the cultural revolution in China as new beacons of hope for communists.
Decisive, however, was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which pushed Rossanda and her comrades into a sharper oppositional stance. The PCI did not back the offensive, as it had the invasion of Hungary in 1956, but adopted what Rossanda called “understatements that bordered on silence.” If Longo referred at one central committee meeting to Leonid Brezhnev’s “tragic mistake,” Rossana began her intervention at the PCI’s twelfth congress in 1969 with the blunt statement, “We are gathered here while the army of a country that calls itself socialist is occupying another socialist country.”
Knowing themselves unable to win a party congress, but knowing how isolated they might find themselves outside PCI ranks, Rossanda and her comrades opted for a middle route — founding a paper in which they could voice their positions. This was not without precedent, especially when it came to more highbrow publications; when Rossanda reported the plan for a journal of research and analysis, spearheaded by Lucio Magri, to deputy leader Enrico Berlinguer, the latter assured them that it would not mean their expulsion. Leftist leader Ingrao, opposed to this project, doubted they would be tolerated for long — and was immediately proven right.
In November 1969, the manifesto group were “radiato” — not so much expelled in disgrace as “pushed out” of the PCI, though the effect was similar. Not until the mid-1980s, would the wounds be healed. But in its early years il manifesto was encouraged by signs that it wasn’t just pushed into the wilderness.
Already the first issue in June 1969 had far exceeded expectations, selling eighty thousand copies; and the explosive shop-floor struggles of Italy’s “Hot Autumn” augured well for the project of building what Rossanda called “a bridge between the youthful ideas that were emerging and the wisdom of the old left, which had had its hours of glory.” In 1971, it became a daily.
Rossanda would, from 1969, remain one of the great historic figures associated with il manifesto, parting ways only in 2012. Before its steep decline in the 2000s, il manifesto was arguably the liveliest publication on the European left, especially in the 1970s. While its Maoist influence could be seen as a typical vice among parts of the New Left seeking an alternative to Moscow, the paper was remarkable for the seriousness of its international reporting, as especially shown by its interviews with figures from Gabriel García Márquez to Deng Xiaoping. Her spirit, frank yet nonsectarian, is well illustrated by her piece on visiting Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971:
I spoke at length with Allende over breakfast at the presidential palace. I had been invited there together with Paul Sweezy and Michel Gutelman, whom the two Santiago universities had invited to take part in a seminar on “transitional societies.” Our presence irritated the Chilean Communists, who deserted the seminar and attacked us extraordinarily crudely in their unofficial paper … they called us “ignorant gringos” and “pro-Beijing” renegades. So, when the president invited us — notwithstanding his solid links with the Communist Party — it taught them quite a lesson. He knew that none of us had played down our doubts or misrepresented our positions just because of the invitation. A few minutes after we had sat down, he asked me “Is there anything in this country that you do find convincing, comrade?”
Aside from a strong defense of the feminist struggles of the 1970s, il manifesto had libertarian tones, in particular with regard to the rights of prisoners. Rossanda was vocally critical of the PCI’s repressive approach toward the armed underground groups like the Brigate Rosse (BR). On April 2, 1978, during the latter’s eight-week kidnapping of Christian Democrat Aldo Moro, she wrote a famous editorial on “the family album of the Left” in which she maintained that anyone reading the BR’s Stalinist and Zhdanovite language could hardly claim that all this did not reflect older “ingredients” of the Italian left.
But the ground was also being laid for improved relations, as the failure of Berlinguer’s “historic compromise” — a bid to draw the PCI into a governmental alliance with the Christian Democrats — pushed him into a more oppositional stance. Over the mid-1970s the manifesto group had established, with other New Left forces, the Party of Proletarian Unity for Communism, electing a handful of MPs in the 1976 election (including il manifesto’s Magri, Castellina, and Eliseo Milani). Rossanda had always sought to bring these New Left currents into alliance with the PCI, and in 1984 they merged.
Ironically, in the final years of the PCI, as figures like Achille Occhetto and Giorgio Napolitano drew it toward reformation as a “European socialist” force, it was militants long forced out of the party who most strongly defended its specifically “communist” identity.
After 1991, indeed, it was il manifesto’s Rossanda and Magri who wrote the most intelligent reflections on what was to be saved from the Party tradition, while longtime PCIers who embraced social democracy or even liberalism abandoned all but the most tokenistic references to Gramsci, junking Togliatti in favor of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Rossanda’s comments on the PCI’s record were less consensual than Magri’s — more critical of the historic compromise and identifying its rottenness earlier in its history. But, through the disappointments of the 1990s and 2000s, the launching of il manifesto’s monthly review, and the illness of Rossanda’s own partner K. S. Karol — they remained the firmest of friends and comrades. When Magri traveled to Switzerland in 2011 to take his own life, Rossanda would be at his side; in her own final years, hit by a stroke, she would still “travel the world in her own head” thanks to her great friend Luciana Castellina.
To the last, Rossanda was a great teacher for the Italian left. In a 2017 letter to the congress of small left-wing party Sinistra Italiana, she insisted on the need to rediscover the dimension of conflict, not to accept mere platitudes about the disappearance of the working class — an “unconditional surrender to those once called the ‘class enemy.’” The great questions of labor, of class, of political subjectivity raised by the twentieth century, and the history of the PCI remained unresolved — only by confronting them seriously could the Left again become a real force in society.
For Rossanda, a partisan and a communist to the last of her ninety-six years, the past was neither to be glorified nor taken as old hat — rather, it had to be understood in all its depth, with a view to the difficulty of real choices and the reasons for the paths not taken.
With the loss of another great figure of Italian communism, those days of hope and great struggles seem a little more distant, a little less part of our own present. But with her critical spirit, her vast culture, and her commitment to the exploited and oppressed, Rossana Rossanda isn’t just a “girl of the last century.”