22 October 2020

Rossana Rossanda and the unfinished project of a critical communism

Panagiotis Sotiris


Rossana Rossanda, who passed away on 20 September 2020, exemplified the combination of a profound intellectuality and an equally profound political but also moral commitment that marked the best moments of European communism of the 20th century. With a long militant engagement and, at the same time, a very important politically-informed intellectual contribution, Rossanda escaped the contemporary stereotypes of both the academic intellectual and the militant activist, at the same time always remaining a critical voice, not by means of a critique based on a certain distancing, but, in contrast, on being immersed in the questions, contradictions and, in certain cases, tragedies under discussion.

What characterised Rossanda – but also the other members of the original il manifesto group – was that, although they were part of the broader current of the revolutionary Left that emerged around 1968, she did not come from some of the varieties of communist heterodoxy, with the mentality of the small group or sect, but from the tradition of Italian Communism. Because, however common it is today to discard the Italian Communist Party as simply an expression of the kind of reformism that led to its full social-democratic transformation, along with the tendency to view Togliatti’s conception of the ‘partito nuovo’ and the ‘Italian road to socialism’ as the ‘primal sin’ of Communist reformism, the actual history of Italian Communism is much more complex. Despite the dominant reformist line, for hundreds of thousands of militants, it offered a unique experience of a ‘parallel’ world marked by strong and bitter struggles, especially during the 1950s when Italian capital made sure that it regained control of factories and workplaces, but also of a parallel culture, a distinctciviltà that incorporated strong elements of a revolutionary tradition, accentuated by both the collective memory and experience of former partisans but also maintaining of classical organisational practices.

At the same time, it gave a certain impression of certain openness. Especially in the early 1960s, the PCI seemed, to the eyes of many militants and intellectuals of Communist parties in Europe, as the paradigm of a party with an actual culture of intellectual debate and research. The il manifesto group was formed by militants deeply immersed in this political culture that combined elements of classical Leninism, Togliatti’s reading (and use) of Gramsci and an attempt to face the complexities of post-WWII capitalism. Although critical of the main line of the Party in the early 1960s, and part of the left current associated with Pietro Ingrao, in contrast to theoperaisti, another current that emerged in the early 1960s, the members of the futureil manifesto group did not focus only on the dynamics of class antagonism in the factories but also on the questions of political strategy, trying to chart a potential left version of the PCI’s strategy to undermine the ability of Christian Democracy to form a broader social alliance and work towards the formation of a new historical bloc in the conditions of advanced capitalism (or ‘neocapitalism’, to use a term from those debates). However, the catalyst and the turning point was the enormous dynamic of the 1968-69 student and workers’ struggles in Italy, combined with the inspiration offered by the particular experience of the French May 1968.1

Moreover, it was exactly at that moment that the absolute limits of the PCI became evident. Already in 1966, the defeat of Ingrao (and of the ‘Ingraoists’ like the future il manifesto group) made it obvious that the PCI would not make a left-wing turn and follow the dynamics of the movement. The inability of the PCI to think the crisis of hegemony emerging after the eruption of the 1968-69 struggles, was, in a certain way, proof that the PCI had longed ceased to be the terrain for the potential elaboration of a revolutionary strategy. This would more tragically evident in the 1970s, when the PCI would move more to the right, avoiding facing the challenge offered by the continuous radical politicisation and advance of the movement in the 1969-73 period, adopted the strategy of the ‘Historic Compromise,’, offered indirect support (by not giving a no confidence vote) to the 1976-78 ‘government of national solidarity’, and accepted the logic of ‘anti-terrorism’ and the authoritarian measures this would entail. Berlinguer’s attempt at a left-wing turn from 1979 onwards did not manage to create a broader radical dynamic, capitalist restructuring was underway and, after the death of Berlinguer, the PCI moved even further to the right up to the formal disengagement with the communist identity in 1989.

Rossanda was formed within this broader historical experience. Her choice to join the Resistance during the German occupation represented, in a certain way, an existential choice. Her political engagement in the PCI would mean that her life in the 1950s and 1960s was that of communist cadre. Although her main duties related to questions of culture, beginning with turning Milano’s Casa della Cultura into an important and prestigious space for discussion and debate, and later in Rome, where she had the responsibility of the PCI’s Culture Commission, at the same time she also had to carry out everyday political work in Western Europe’s largest Communist party (she was a member of the Central Committee and also a member of parliament from 1963 to 1968), something which meant actually coming into contact with the realities of Italian society but also having some kind of knowledge of what was going on in the ‘People’s Democracies’. At the same time, she came to realise the limits of the PCI, along with the other members of theil manifesto group.

All these attest to the fact that Rossanda’s (but also the rest of the future il manifesto group’s) move to positions to the left of the PCI and their realisation that a left-wing turn was necessary in the 1960s, including a more critical position against the failure of ‘actually existing socialism’, came as a result of their engagement in the Communist movement and its experience. In a certain way, this was also acknowledged from the leadership of the PCI in the symbolism of the decision to exclude (radiare) not expel theil manifesto group. However, the very fact of the 1969 rupture and ejection ofil manifesto meant that the PCI was no longer capable of having an actual debate on revolutionary strategy.

This gave a certain quality to Rossanda’s interventions, but also the collective work around il manifesto. In contrast to many interventions coming from the 1968 revolutionary Left that comprised a certain imaginary projection of a working class in full revolutionary mode and an equally imaginary conclusion that now was the time of the historical justification of one or the other heterodox position, here was an attempt to think how the particular connection between the Communist movement and the popular masses could take a different route, actually confronting the challenge of a new historical bloc and a feasible revolutionary strategy for advanced capitalist societies.

At the same time, it was obvious that the catalyst for Rossanda and the rest of the il manifesto group was indeed the workers’ and student’s radicalism of the 1960, what we call ‘1968’ despite it being a much broader process. As Rossanda put it in the introduction of a 1971 collection of texts byil manifesto

Il manifesto is a left-wing dissidence. Although it matured, as we shall see, all through the sixties, it exploded and reached the breaking point at the moment of the movements of workers and students from 1968-69. Is it then a regime crisis or a system crisis?

A system crisis, insisted the promoters of il manifesto: the revolution is back on the order of the day in the West, again ‘spectre haunts Europe’. If it wants to avoid the defeat of the movement but also its own loss, the Party must accelerate the formation of a revolutionary bloc, adapt its strategy to the needs expressed in every ‘hot point’ of social struggles, support the development of vanguard social forces as protagonists of struggle, and challenge not only its own line but also its very institution: the Party needs a ‘cultural revolution.’2

The results of this collective work were evident in the pages of il manifesto. One need only look at the 200Theses on Communism that were published in October 1970,3 one the most important strategic texts to come out from the European revolutionary left. The main point of text is the insistence on the maturity of communism, in sharp contrast to the official position of European communist parties that the conditions had not ripened yet. In this conception and the strategic lessons incorporated in it, one can find echoes of the both the Chinese Cultural Revolution as self-criticism of ‘actually existing socialism’, the experience of the post-WWII building of the big communist parties but also an acute realisation of the challenges posed by the new radicalism of the workers’ and students’ struggles which pointed to a conception of a transition to communism as intensified class struggle. In this sense, it represents one of the most coherent attempts to actually confront the question of the ‘Revolution in the West’, the tragically unanswered since the 1920s question, in a novel way, that, although reclaiming a certain Leninism, was not simple advocating for a repetition of October 1917.

69. Abolishing the capitalist division of labour and its alienated character becomes a real need for a growing mass of workers: those who are condemned to the most unbearable and repetitive tasks, but also those who are required to be highly qualified and who find in their work no expression of their personality. A need is created to live in a different urban setting, to participate in to the overall social management, to consider the problem of health from a new angle; it becomes an implicit critique of the individualist model of social life, of the productivist character of the economic structure, of the absence of a collective planning of development. One cannot conceive of a consumption model different from the absurd multiplication of illusory goods, or from the exhausting pursuit of false needs born of development itself, without a modification of the very nature of work, a multiplication of free activities, going beyond the individualistic character of social organization. The critique of authoritarianism and the concentration of power necessarily affects their economic roots, the type of organization of production and society, the mystified character of delegated democracy, the separation between the political and the social. The fight against inequality – not only economic, but also the inequality of culture, of functions and of power –, the fight against arbitrary statutes and hierarchy, the fight to guarantee everyone a real possibility of expression, is directly linked to the principle : from each according to his capacities, to each according to their needs.


71. All this means that, for the first time in history, communism in the radical sense, and therefore socialism as a transition phase, have matured and constitute a possible political programme. For the first time, the working class and its party can struggle no longer by adopting the demands historically elaborated by other social strata and by expressing themselves as a subaltern, but by presenting themselves and progressing as an autonomous, force, the bearer of a new global relation of production and a radically different model of social organization. In this profound sense, the revolution can once again be, as it is for Marx, a ‘social’ fact before being a ‘political’ fact: The conquest of state power becomes the means of affirming a new social hegemony in its totality; there is no longer any contradiction or gap between power and programme; the proletariat is able to express and realize the content for which it claims power. In this new and infinitely rich way of making the revolution, also resides the value of a hundred years of history of the workers’ movement, of a century of struggles which have pushed the system to its end, while preventing it from expressing its permanent tendency to disaster. This is the key to a new strategy for the revolution in the West.4

It is true that this political line was never full put in practice, although il manifesto took the initiative of a dialogue with other tendencies of the Italian revolutionary Left. Perhaps it was the fact that it was impossible to create this revolutionary bloc with the important segments of the popular masses and their collective experience still attached to the PCI. Perhaps it was the inability of the revolutionary Left to actually put in action the political dialectic that could combine the emphasis on popular struggles and the force of autonomous movements with the necessary political and cultural articulation that would create a broader historical dynamic. Perhaps it was the success of subsequent capitalist restructurings that undermined the material conditions that had made possible the idea that factories could be the bases of a new communist offensive. Perhaps it was the fact that different tendencies opted to answer the contradictory co-existence of a continuous rise of mass struggles with a strategic impasse (accentuated by the PCI adopting the ‘Historic Compromise’ line) with simply opting for various forms of ‘one-sidedness’: from a certain underestimation of the question of political organisation by at least some of the autonomist tendencies, and the re-immersion in electoral politics by groups such as PDUP, to the tragedy of the armed groups and the fantasy of an attack on the ‘heart of the state’ that underestimated the very complexity of capitalist power. Of course, along with this, there were myriads of struggles, experiments, theoretical contributions, acts of heroism, that made the Italy of the 1970s a unique political laboratory, but still the question of strategy remained open. This was evident, above all, in the movement of 1977. On the one hand, a vast radical movement faced off not only Christian Democracy, but also, to a certain extent, the PCI. On the other hand, the radicalism and the creativity unleashed in the movement were combined with the crisis of post-1968 organisations and the lack of any coherent strategic proposal, with the armed groups trying to fill in the void.

Rossanda was a central figure in the debates around these challenges. She devoted energy to the transformation of il manifesto into a daily newspaper, and she was part of the attempt to turnil manifesto into a political organisation and later to the formation of PDUP, although, from some point onwards, she would make sure that the newspaper was not a ‘party organ’, remaining a ‘communist daily’.

From the late 1970s onwards, Rossanda’s work would be mainly associated with the newspaper, becoming one of the most respected critical voices not only within the Italian Left but also the entire Italian press, whereas other members of the il manifesto group remained more politically active, such as Lucio Magri and Luciana Castellina up until their participation toRifondazione Comunista. Rossanda managed, in a certain way, to be the critical voice of the Left, the voice that could highlight the contradictions and the complexities and at the same time defend left perspectives. Her famous ‘family album’ editorial on the Moro kidnapping and the Red Brigades is in this sense exemplary, since, in the same short text, she managed to both criticise the BR for their simplified conception of the polarisation between the people and Christian Democracy, a conception reminiscent of 1950s communist rhetoric, and to criticise the currents of the Left for having abandoned the attempt to actually dismantle the social and political bloc around Christian Democracy.5 The same ability to problematise and think through the very complexity of political sequences such as the cycle of armed struggle is also obvious in the introduction to the long interview she and Carla Mosca conducted with Mario Moretti on the history of the Red Brigades.6

Rossanda also made an important intellectual and theoretical contribution, even though she was never a classical academic intellectual. One can see this in the complex and critical stance of her essays. In ‘Class and Party’,7 she offers a profound rethinking of the very notion of the party-form, going beyond the simple call for a repetition of an imaginary Leninism, at the same time suggesting a return to Marx.

However, what separates Marx from Lenin (who, far from filling in Marx’s outlines, oriented himself in a different direction) is that the organization is never considered by Marx as anything but an essentially practical matter, a flexible and changing instrument, an expression of the real subject of the revolution, namely the proletariat.8

This line of thinking led Rossanda to insist to on the need to rethink the very relation between the political organisation and mass movement.

[T]he tensions which are present in the historic institutions of the class, whether trade unions or parties, do not only result from the subjective limitations of these institutions. They are also the product of a growth in a political dimension ever more closely linked to the achievement of consciousness, and ever less capable of being delegated. In effect, the distance between vanguard and class, which was at the origin of the Leninist party, is visibly shrinking: 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.9

In the text on ‘Mao’s Marxism’,10 Rossanda offered a very interesting reading of both Mao’s thinking and the experience of the Cultural Revolution, suggesting that their more important aspects imply a left-wing critique of Stalinism.

It is true that, looked at from this standpoint, the Chinese experience calls in question in a fundamental way the whole traditional strategy of the Western working-class movement. It gives us a key for interpreting the defeats suffered by the Third International and its reformist or “Popular Front” efforts. It helps us to grasp the complex character of the “socialist” societies, rising above the Stalinist or revisionist explanations of them. Finally, it exposes the objectively counter-revolutionary nature of the links binding the Western Communist movement to the present leadership of the USSR.11

In her intervention on ‘Revolutionary Intellectuals and the Soviet Union’,12 Rossanda began with the question of the different attitudes of intellectuals facing the contradictions and tragedies of ‘actually existing socialism’, before moving on to a critique of the varieties of the ‘deformed socialist state’ position, suggesting instead the need to rethink the transition process as a constant struggle against the persisting capitalist elements both in the structure and consequently the superstructures and also the need to rethink socialist revolution as profound transformation and not simply change in ownership.

The result is that the stake of the “socialist revolution” is very different from a change in the ownership of the means of production pure and simple, with the fairer distribution of profit that follows and without all the other relations of commodities and reification being touched. What is at issue is a total decomposition and recomposition of the relations between men, between men and things, the revolutionisation of the “social mode of production of their existence”.13

In her opening address in the famous conference on ‘Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies’ in 1977,14 she attempted to stress the need for a Marxist analysis and critique of the reproduction of oppressive and exploitative social relations within ‘real socialisms’, a critique that starts from the relations of production.

We who would like to remain Marxists, however – which, despite everything, is easier in our societies – we maintain, on the contrary, that whatever the nature of the post-revolutionary societies, they can and must be interpreted and that Marxism offers a reliable instrument for doing this. Marxism tells us that in the last instance the nature of a society, its consciousness of itself, and its political expression are always determined by the social relations of production (although not one-sidedly and without mediation). We believe that the analysis of the relations of production in the USSR, Cuba, and the East European countries is the key that will enable us to penetrate the mechanisms of these societies.15

In her dialogue with Althusser on the critique of politics,16 she offered an overview of the debates around the state in Italy, in the aftermath of the ‘Historic Compromise’ and, at the same time, attempts to think beyond Althusser’s critical interventions on the crisis of Marxism as ‘finite theory’

If this is the case, the blind spot in the theme of the state, the point on which Marx stopped in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (and you really see him, in these pages, moving hesitantly, stopping, deferring) can only take form together with the withering away of ‘the mode of men to organize their existence’ proper to capital, that is with the beginning of the end of commodification and alienation. There is no right, Marx says, which precedes social forms. And it is because we are at this point, on the verge of a change of these dimensions – and it is not an accident that we are living at as an acute cultural crisis – that we feel we are finishing a history, we feel the emptying of its forms, we just barely sense new forms: of production and of the state, or neither one nor the other.17

In her contribution to a collective volume in the memory of Nicos Poulantzas,18 Rossanda took up again the question of the crisis of the party-form and the emergence of new movements, by means of an overview of the Italian experience of the 1960s and 1970s, drawing a line of demarcation with all those that were starting to deny the centrality of the workers’ movement.

The real question is rather: for those who deny the centrality of the working class [centralité ouvrière], where is the epicentre? For the centrality of the working class is not merely ‘sociological’: it is an image of the centrality of the modes and relations of production with multiple social and ideological formations which intersect and contradict each other. Or further: where would movement come from in a system without an epicentre? How would the need for change be articulated, and on what basis? As for those who still consider the relation and mode of production as central: after a century of the workers’ movement, what has changed? Or, how has society changed? And what about in the contemporary international situation, where one pole is ‘actually existing socialism,’ and the other is the radical modification of subjectivities and subjects themselves?

Without these questions, without the sketch of a response, the problem of the dual crisis of parties and movements will not surpass the horizon of a more or less ideological [ideologisée] description.19

Rossanda’s texts that deal with questions of feminism are also of great interest because they represent the confrontation between her more ‘universalist’ approach to social change and emancipation and those approaches to feminism that were stressing more the element of difference, a confrontation that however remained dialogical with Rossanda not only acknowledging the many ways that women were oppressed but also trying to grasp the significance of radical feminism, something particularly evident in her dialogue with Lea Melandri.20

And, of course, her autobiography, The Comrade from Milan,21 offers a unique reflection on not only on a personal trajectory but on the very essence of European Communism and the unique experience of being a cadre of the PCI in the 1950s and 1960s, plus important insights into the political debates of the 1960s and broader atmosphere that led to the formation of il manifesto.

What emerges from her more ‘theoretical’ texts is a critical Marxist position, which avoids simplifications and incorporates the basic tenets of the Marxist advances in the 1960s; the primacy of relations of production over forces of production; the emphasis on the constant efficacy of class antagonism; the attempt to rethink socialism as a transition process of intense struggles and profound transformation not only of the relationships of ownership but also of the productive model and of culture; the need to revolutionise the very notion and functioning of the party in light of the emergence of new movements, instead of searching for an imaginary ‘Leninism’ (a critical stance already evident in her text on ‘Class and Party’). Even the reference to the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese experience had nothing of the classical Maoist ‘enthusiasm’ and, at the same time, there is a constant apprehension and acknowledgement that the tragedies associated with the history of the communist movement, including the tragedies of ‘actual existing socialism’ were in certain way always our tragedies.

One might agree or disagree with one or the other position that Rossanda took in the various turning points of the Italian Left. However, the trace she left was much deeper. It was not limited simply to choices of political line. Rather, it had much more to do with a certain conception of communist politics: one that combined the heritage of historical Communism, in its particular European version, a heritage of moral commitment, intellectuality and insistence on the possibility of new historical blocs, with a sense of constant self-criticism and an openness to the experience coming from the new movements and the experiences of struggles. In this sense, although, to a large extent, she was the ‘ragazza del secolo scorso’, in fact her politics and thinking always pointed to the future.

The fact that, in today’s landscape of the radical Left, we can find the figure of the radical academic, that of the activist, or even that of the professional (and ambitious…) parliamentarian, yet not many examples of this new intellectuality that Gramsci had written about and which emerged in various instances in the history of the communist movement, makes perhaps the sadness about the loss of Rossanda greater. Yet, at the same time, it points to the extent that she set an example.

  • 1. Despite the fact that they were coming from an older generation. As Rossanda would put it in a 2018 interview: ‘this revolt took place I was already old. I was 44 years old. And it was a great effort for me to keep up with the students in my heeled shoes.’ (‘Rossanda. Chi ero nel 68 et altre confessioni’, interview by Simonetta Fiori, Il venerdí / La Repubblica, January 5 2018).
  • 2. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Introduction’, in Il Manifesto. Analyse et thèses de la nouvelle extrême-gauche italienne, Paris : Seuil, 1971.
  • 3. In Il Manifesto, op.cit.
  • 4. Il manifesto, op. cit., pp. 368-370.
  • 5. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Il discorso sulla dc’, il manifesto 28 March 1978 (, where the famous reference to the ‘family album appears’. See also Rossana Rossanda ‘L’album di famiglia’, il manifesto 2 April 1978 (
  • 6. Mario Moretti, Brigades rouges. Une histoire italienne. Entretien avec Caria Mosca et Rossana Rossanda, Paris : Éditions Amsterdam, 2018.
  • 7. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Class and Party’, Socialist Register 1970, (originally in il manifesto, n. 4, 1969). Also in Il Manifesto, op. cit.
  • 8. Rossana, Class and Party, p. 218.
  • 9. Op.cit, p. 230.
  • 10. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Mao’s Marxism’, Socialist Register 1971 (originally in il manifesto, n. 7-8, 1970).
  • 11. Rossanda, ‘Mao’s Marxism’, p. 79.
  • 12. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Revolutionary Intellectuals and the Soviet Union’, Socialist Register 1974, (originally in Temps Modernes).
  • 13. Rossanda, ‘Revolutionary Intellectuals..’, p. 4.
  • 14. Rossana Rossanda, ‘Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies’ (1977),
  • 15. Rossanda, ‘Power and opposition…’, op. cit
  • 16. Rossana Rossanda, ‘The Critique of Politics and “Unequal Right”’ (1978),
  • 17. Rossanda, ‘The Critique…’, op. cit.
  • 18. Rossana Rossanda, ‘The Crisis and Dialectic of Parties and New Social Movements in Italy’ (1981), (originally ‘Crise et dialectique des partie et mouvements sociaux en Italie’ in Christine Buci-Glucksmann (ed.), La gauche, le pouvoir, le socialisme. Hommage à Nicos Poulantzas, Paris : PUF, 1983).
  • 19. Rossanda. ‘Crisis’, op. cit.
  • 20. On this see cuerpo que mi abita (edited by Lea Melandri, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2018). One can see this already in her book Le altre (Milano: Bompiani, 1979) based on her radio discussions on the relation between women and politics and the emergence of feminist struggles
  • 21. Rossana Rossanda, The Comrade from Milan, London: Verso, 2010 (originally published as La ragazza del secolo scorso, Torino: Einaudi, 2005).