Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Rossana Rossanda Wanted a Party of and for Workers in Struggle

Mattia Gambilonghi
David Broder

Rossana Rossanda died last month after decades of commitment to first the Italian Communist Party and then the dissident manifesto group. She insisted that a left party should be shaped by the demands of workers' everyday struggles.

In theorizing the working-class party, Rossana Rossanda sought not to turn from Marx to Lenin, or from Marx to Gramsci, but rather to turn back to Marx himself.

Rossana Rossanda, who died aged ninety-six in September, was one of the figures who did most to inspire and lead Italy’s dissident-communist manifesto group. Its peculiar history, especially after its main leaders were kicked out of the Communist Party (PCI) in 1969, was characterized by its new and original approach to the role the working-class party should play in the process of political and social transformation. In particular, its discussions set this theme in relation to the mechanisms that could drive the formation and definition of political consciousness among the working class itself.

Such debates returned attention to the tangled question — a fundamental issue ever since Lenin’s 1902 text What Is to Be Done? — of the relationship between spontaneity, consciousness, and organization. Italy’s 1970s were an especially important testing ground for these debates, given both the upsurge in working-class militancy and the hesitating response of the near-two-million-member PCI. But even within the manifesto group this gave rise to two essentially different political-strategic proposals, as articulated by Rossanda and her comrade Lucio Magri, best known to Anglophone audiences as author of The Tailor of Ulm.

Heresy and Dissent

What became the manifesto group had begun to emerge already at the start of the 1960s, as a cultural tendency within the PCI close to the positions of Pietro Ingrao, who was then a leading figure in the party. As the PCI handled the end of longtime secretary Palmiro Togliatti’s leadership, with his death in 1964, Ingrao would be the main leader of the party’s internal left wing. At its eleventh congress he promoted an “alternative development model” opposed to that of the Right’s leader Giorgio Amendola.

At first aligned with Ingrao, the members of the future manifesto group defined an original vision of the strategic turn that Italian communism would have to make, and in this sense grew increasingly autonomous from their “father figure.” They radicalized these critical positions, first as they worked on a dissident review within PCI ranks and then — after being ostracized from the party in 1969 — as a fully autonomous political group.

The dissidents aimed at “refoundation of the workers’ movement,” as they attempted to synthesize the tradition of the Comintern-derived Communist Parties with that claimed by the new left after 1968. While a first electoral test in 1972, where the manifesto group ran independently, proved disastrous, this initiative became more concrete in 1975 as they united with leftist elements of the Socialist Party who rallied around the Proletarian Unity Party (PdUP) and figures like Vittorio Foa.

The Strategy of il manifesto

In schematic terms, the origins of il manifesto‘s strategic conceptions can be located in the debate that took place at the 1962 Gramsci Institute seminar on the “tendencies of Italian capitalism.” The seminar saw the opposition between two different readings of the transformations then taking place in Italy’s economic structures — and, stemming from them, two different political-strategic approaches.

The right wing of the PCI around Amendola held that “the originality of the Italian situation owe[d] to the premature emergence of the contradictions proper to an advanced capitalist society within a society that ha[d] not yet resolved the contradictions created by a belated and distorted development of capitalism.”

It thus seemed to consider backwardness as the principal trait of Italian capitalism. In this it was loyal both to the traditional Gramscian-Togliattian idea that the working class and its political organizations needed to “complete Italy’s bourgeois-democratic revolution,” and to a conception of the “historic bloc” hinging on the alliance between dependent labor and the small proprietors hurt by the distortion of competition by the “monopolies.”

The left wing of the party shared this idea of the dual nature of the Italian economic structure. But it laid emphasis less on the elements of backwardness than on the modern problems and contradictions generated by the postwar boom, a decade of rapid growth which allowed Italy to be counted among the mature capitalist countries.

The dynamism shown by Italian capitalism in this period was thus considered the vector of new and more subtle contradictions, “the parcelization and alienation of labor, the standardized and unhuman character of consumption, the new structure of the city, the new structure of culture, and the repression of mass culture.”

This also provided the basis to update anti-capitalist discourse. The main result was the construction of an alternative development model for Italy, whose values and characteristics asserted a different “conception of man and of freedom.”

In this view, the problem in Italy was not only a matter of completing the bourgeois revolution, for the sake of kick-starting economic development, and thus overcoming backward and archaic social structures. This was a perspective which the PCI leadership group had considered central ever since the party’s reemergence as a mass force during the Resistance era, and which also followed from Antonio Gramsci’s interpretation of the nineteenth-century Risorgimento. What was needed, rather — here instead starting from Gramsci’s Americanism and Fordism — was a correction, and to qualitatively alter in a socialist direction the economic development that was already underway. As Rossanda wrote in 1963, “the contradiction is no longer between expansion or immobility, but in the mode of expansion.”

This also had major political-strategic consequences. It was through this analysis of the present that the members of the future manifesto group and especially Magri got to grips with — and put into question — the strategy which had underlaid the PCI’s popular-front alliances over recent decades. This meant highlighting both the limits more specifically connected to the era in which this strategy had been elaborated [the period of World War II], and its insufficiency with respect to the context defined by neocapitalism.

The greatest limit of the popular-front strategy lay in its sharp separation between the political struggle today and the transition to socialism tomorrow. Indeed, this strategy remained within a fundamentally defensive framework. The connection between democracy and socialism was neglected, for intermediate objectives remained both vague and wholly internal to a bourgeois-democratic logic.

The phase of transition to socialism and of the transformation of social structures were not conceived as the product of mass struggles and intermediate objectives posed today. Rather, given the preeminent role granted to the conquest of central political power, a deep divide was established between the bourgeois-democratic moment and the socialist one — dismissing in advance the possibility of a dialectical relationship between the two.

In this way, the PCI strategy stood distant from the late Gramsci’s notion (expressed in his Notebooks) of revolution as a process of “conquering earthworks and fortresses” and of disseminating in society the germs, the “objective and subjective elements of an antagonistic reality” (new institutions of direct democracy, different criteria orienting economic policy, etc.) fundamental for determining what il manifesto would define as the “ripening of communism” years later. In short, for Magri and his comrades it seemed clear that

the conquest of state power thus remains the center of a process that, however, seems rather less than in the past divided into two phases, a before and after the revolution … this is itself the conclusion of an articulated process through which the alternative of a new society takes form within the existing society, in the concreteness of a political movement and of a social reality…. But it is possible to arrive at that [revolutionary] crisis only through a more tortuous path, through a less “political” process, through a more “democratic” movement in which means and ends, power and program, are more intimately connected.

Moreover, the popular-front strategy — in il manifesto‘s reading, adopted by the Togliattian PCI from the immediate aftermath of World War II — was considered inadequate when faced with the dynamic neocapitalism of the economic boom years. Faced with this development, the traditional fight against monopolies — emanating from the classic democratic, anti-fascist strategy — would be wholly ineffectual. The totalitarian nature of the control that the monopolies exercised on all aspects of social life made it ever clearer that

any attempt to limit the powers of a particular monopoly group or monopolies as a whole, that does not start out from a radical, general critique of the laws of capitalist accumulation, from a critique of the system as such, and which does not attempt to define another type of social organization … risks having no effect other than to set in motion sectorial and corporatist forms of resistance against the system’s functioning….

The Magri-Rossanda Debate

So, starting from an only apparently optimistic reading of Italian and Western capitalism, a strategic proposal much more radical than that advanced by the majority in the PCI leadership began to develop within the future manifesto group.

This would, decisively, rest on a new and different relationship between workers’ struggles and the process of transition to socialism. These latter would no longer have the subordinate, secondary role they had been assigned by Togliattian strategy — in virtue of the Leninist primacy of the party and its political-parliamentary action — or be equated to popular and mass struggles in general. Rather, they would be reasserted as central to the strategy of transforming society and overcoming existing social structures, as the central axis of a new mass action.

In the analysis developed by the PCI left, the workers’ struggles of the early 1960s — now not just centered on wage questions but concerned with workers’ control of the organization of production — were seen as the instrument to define an alternative historic bloc in an ever less generically “popular” sense, and in a more specifically “working-class” one.

But to the weight that the emerging manifesto group’s strategic outlook attributed to workers’ struggles, there also corresponded a different and original conception of the party. The need to address this theme can be understood only if we take account of the close link that emerged, within their theoretical elaboration, between the structuring of class political subjectivity and the strategic perspective for the transformation of society. As Magri and Filippo Maone put it early in the review’s activity, “a theory of the party is, in fact, but the corollary of a theory of revolution.”

While this current on the PCI left remained strongly averse to spontaneism — the womb from which both Eduard Bernstein–style reformist evolutionism (denying the dialectical nature of the historical process in the name of abstract ethical values) and anarchism (oscillating between “primitive communism and the explosion of individualism”) were born out of — it seemed intent on establishing a less “reverential” relationship with Lenin and his conception of party. It would aim to bring out the limits of this conception, its Jacobin encrustations and the risk of bureaucratic involution.

Magri’s position was thus characterized by its attempt to historicize Lenin’s thinking, capturing both the merits of his theorization of other contemporary notions of the party, and the “idealist” roots of the most Jacobin elements therein. He thus sought to find a correction to these antinomies by fully teasing out the contribution which Gramsci had made in this sense.

While he credited Lenin with having pursued a thorough theoretical struggle against spontaneism and insisting, in What Is to Be Done?, on the decisive importance of the dialectic between proletariat and science, Magri also showed how this whole theoretical construction was fundamentally marred by — and drew its vanguardist excesses from — the fact that it rested on a Kautskyan idea of the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness.

Indeed, since Karl Kautsky considered socialism and class struggle as two elements originating from different sources, he reached the conclusion that this “socialist science” lay in the hands of “bourgeois intellectuals” — and would have to be imported into the living class struggle from the outside. To Magri’s eyes, such a conception, on which socialist consciousness was an objectivated science “separate from the movement of history” and “definable independently of the class and its praxis,” stood in sharp contradiction with Marx’s own elaboration.

Marx had instead asserted the absolute necessity of a dialectical relationship between science and historical subject (between socialism and proletariat). It is clear that such premises could only lead to the umpteenth evolutionist version of socialism, in which the proletariat — seen as nothing but the receptor for a science elaborated elsewhere — would be reduced to merely validating a self-sustaining process which was already underway.

Magri specified, however, that while Lenin had, in this sense, started from Kautsky’s erroneous presuppositions, he “never accepted such an [evolutionist] conception,” since he considered indispensable the conscious insertion of the proletariat and its party as a factor in the historical process. The problem, rather, was that of a “general conception of the party” which ended up making the class subaltern, reduced to a simple instrument within the revolutionary process.

But for Magri, the overcoming of these limits, and the resolution of the antinomies of Lenin’s theorization, should start out not from a celebration of spontaneism à la Rosa Luxemburg, but rather from Gramsci’s thinking and in particular his conception of the party as a “collective intellectual.”

Gramsci remained faithful, in Magri’s view, to the Marxian idea (again adopted and foregrounded by György Lukács) of the proletarian party as the instrument through which the class would itself suppress and transcend its own immediate social position, as well as to Lenin’s idea for the need for some “external element” to work to this end.

In this sense, the novelty of Gramsci’s elaboration, compared to previous contributions regarding the theme of the party, consisted of the fact that the Sardinian Marxist managed to reconcile the presence of this external element with the necessary dialectical relationship between science and historical subject. The intellectuals would cease to play the role of “transmitting” socialist science, instead becoming a factor mediating between “the proletariat’s social immediacy and culture in the wider sense.”

The party thus emerged as the product of the “dialectic between [these] two elements.” Its revolutionary ideology was not a definitive truth given for once and all time, simply to be adapted to historical situations, but, in a more “historicist” sense, a “continually self-criticizing truth” in constant transformation.

In short, the class did not receive some pre-packaged science from the party; rather, it found in the party the instrument through which it could launch a process of accruing knowledge and a deep understanding of the social mechanisms that keep the capitalist mode of production on its feet.

It is precisely this dialectical relationship, with its tendency toward universality, which makes the Gramscian collective intellectual a prefiguration of the future society, banishing the “Machiavellian” element implicit in the concept of “seizing power” and abolishing the differentiation between the leaders and the led. It would be a higher synthesis, but also a product of the class, constantly able to challenge and control it.

Magri’s position can thus be considered a “creative Leninism” — conscious of the possible bureaucratic-centralizing degenerations implicit within What Is to Be Done? but also convinced of the need to resist spontaneist temptations and preserve the strategic role of vanguard organization.

But Rossanda’s stance was, conversely, more characterized by the conviction that the dynamic proper to mature-capitalist society implacably pushes toward a liquidation of the Leninist framework, in favor of a rediscovery of Marx also on the terrain of organization. (Thus distancing her from Magri, who resolutely denied that any organic, coherent elaboration of that kind is to be found in Marx.)

Indeed, for Rossanda the two thinkers’ conceptions of the proletarian party sharply diverged: for her, Leninist organization was centralized, imposed from the outside and placed the class in a subordinate position, whereas Marx had assumed an extremely agile and flexible idea of the party as a simple “reflection of what is the only real subject of the revolution, the proletariat.”

Marx had nothing of the rigid distinction between the class’s social being and its political being, consolidated in the praxis of the Communist Parties over the twentieth century. Rather, he closely linked these two terms.

That is why, for Rossanda, in the German philosopher’s thinking the real link connecting social immediacy and consciousness, allowing the class-in-itself to become a class-for-itself, lay not so much in the pedagogical action of intellectuals from bourgeois background, but rather in the concrete praxis of the subject itself — the class struggle. Not, then, the vanguard-science-consciousness process which first Kautsky then Lenin had set at the basis of the workers’ parties’ activity, but rather a process which saw the first moment as the class, the second as the class struggle and the third as consciousness.

In Rossanda’s reading of Marx, party and proletariat thus became interchangeable. All the political forms that the proletariat produce and give life to during the course of the revolutionary process — a workers’ party, a workers’ state, as distinct from its immediate existence as a class — can only be temporary.

Theoretically, this represented a radical turn compared to the conception that had crystallized within the Communist Parties, precisely because it sought to reassert the “Marxian dialectic where the subject is the proletariat and the object the society of capitalist production relations.” This did away with the Leninist dialectic in which the class is an opaque “objective fact” and the party is the subject and wellspring of “revolutionary” initiative.

She thus sought to push back against this shift of subjectivity from class to party — something which could only promote an instrumental vision of the class and an irresponsible conception of the party as self-legitimizing and self-regulating.

Spontaneism?

Telling in this regard is Rossanda’s different reading of Luxemburg’s contributions on the class/consciousness dialectic, as compared to Magri’s. While he tended to consider Luxemburg’s reflection little-useful, the expression of an uncritical celebration of spontaneism and of an overly simplistic and mechanistic conception of capitalist crisis, Rossanda — former head of the PCI cultural commission — robustly rejected the Comintern’s near-definitive condemnation of spontaneism.

For Rossanda, indeed, “at no point did Luxemburg theorize the possibility of the masses doing without an organized vanguard.” Rather, she had simply identified a different origin for the process that led to the need for the party and the organization aimed at its construction.

Indeed, for Rossanda the problem did not lie in the proletariat’s inability to conceive of its struggle in a political rather than exclusively economistic manner, but rather the fragmentation that afflicted its struggles and the need to give it a “unifying strategy,” a “strategic glue” through the instrument of the party.

Lastly, for Rossanda, the resolution of the antinomies present in post-Marxian theorizations of the party and class consciousness could not just be offloaded onto Gramsci’s thinking. In his Turin period — the l’Ordine Nuovo group, the factory councils — the Sardinian had doubtless shown a decidedly anti-Jacobin aspect, strongly favorable to the possibility of the class becoming the protagonist of autonomous political affirmation and growth by way of the councils. But his later elaboration (prior to the historic defeat of the revolutionary workers’ movement of the 1920s) was instead characterized by an enthusiastic embrace of the “autonomy of the political moment,” implicit within the idea of the party as “modern prince.”

Unlike Magri, for Rossanda, the “collective intellectual” did not represent a higher moment of mediation between social immediacy and the consciousness that the cultural dimension could bring. Rather, this was taken for the latest means of unbinding political initiative from its own material basis — and the latest negation of the dialectical relationship between class and consciousness.

Rossanda thus mounted a historical survey of the communist movement’s theoretical responses to the relationship between social subject and organization. And from this, she concluded that the complex interweaving of needs and struggles, promoted by the development of the productive forces (i. e. that typical of the Keynesian-consumerist-organized neocapitalism of affluent societies) rendered profoundly inadequate the subjection of the masses to the party proposed by the Leninist approach. And it was no coincidence that this latter approach had been articulated in situations where the subjective level was profoundly underdeveloped.

The profound politicization of social being, and the politicization with which the class experienced through its daily struggle, drastically “reduced the distance between vanguard and class.” This generated the deepest of tensions within the historic institutions of the workers’ movement. The resolution — and overcoming — of the organizational problems which afflicted the revolutionary movement could, therefore, come only through a full recovery of the original, Marxian inspiration.

This meant putting the autonomy and creativity of the political struggle back at its core, in such a way as to prefigure the new society already in the struggles of the present. In theorizing the working-class party, Rossanda sought not to turn from Marx to Lenin, or from Marx to Gramsci, but rather to turn back to Marx himself.