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Our Comrade from Milan: Rossana Rossanda, 1924–2020

Rossana Rossanda, one of Il Manifesto’s founding editors, passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. The following extract from her memoir, La Ragazza del Secolo Scorso, published by Verso as The Comrade from Milan, appeared in New Left Review in 2008, prefaced by a short introduction to her life and work.

Rossana Rossanda24 September 2020

Our Comrade from Milan: Rossana Rossanda, 1924–2020

Introduction to Rossana Rossanda

The history of European Communism has been written in many ways, by participants, opponents, students of the labour movement. Among memorialists, Rossana Rossanda cuts an unusual figure. Born in 1924, daughter of a prosperous notary from Istria ruined in the Great Depression, she entered university in Milan, still quite unpolitical, in 1941. Two years later, with German armies in control of North Italy, and Mussolini’s Social Republic installed at Salò, she joined the Resistance, at the age of nineteen.

A Communist in the underground, by 1947 she was working full-time in the PCI and rose through the Milan Federation to the Central Committee in 1960. By then she was an editor of the party’s influential weekly Rinascita. Togliatti, appreciating her gifts, put her in charge of the cultural department of the PCI in 1962, and she was elected a deputy in the Italian Parliament.

When the student revolt exploded in 1967–68, however, she expressed sympathy for a movement viewed with suspicion by the PCI leadership, and helped to create the first periodical in the party’s history critical of official positions from the left, Il Manifesto. Denounced at the Twelfth Party Congress, the Manifesto Group was expelled from the PCI in November 1969, going on to create the independent daily of the same name that continues to this day.

For nearly four decades, Rossanda has been its most individual editorialist and commentator, writing with a cool, unrhetorical tranchant that has made hers a unique signature in the Italian press. Characteristic of her interventions has been a consistent attention to the social, in a culture more typically riveted by the political, in its narrower senses.

In 2005, her memoir of the first forty-five years of her life, La Ragazza del Secolo Scorso, was published to widespread literary acclaim. In it, reflecting on her role as a young woman with responsibility in the party, and the hesitations she felt in exercising it, she remarks, in a tone that gives something of the tenor of her memoir: ‘Not that women do not love power, they exercise it without mercy in private and against each other. But outside private life, we are tempted to follow, however torn, paths decided by others. We feel extraneous to such decisions, and like Virginia Woolf make a point of this, not without tears and complaints at the upshot. But we rarely question that feeling, because that leads to less violence—and that might be a virtue—but also to less responsibility, which I doubt is one’.

September 1943

Badoglio had surrendered to the Allies. For less than a day we believed, with a kind of sad exultation, that it was the end of the war. It was the reverse: the King fleeing to the arms of the Allies in the South, the onset of German occupation in the North. Italy was broken in two like a loaf of bread. The long overcoats of the Germans were everywhere, their harsh orders posted on the walls. The atmosphere at the University was fraught with tension: it was time to choose—to side with the partisans, or to fight against the Allies under German command. The Italian Army had no credibility at all. We were all on our guard, careful who we spoke to, watching who was who.

Later, this period would be rewritten as one of national revolt against the Germans; but for us it was not a matter of patriotic enthusiasm. What national identity had Italy had before September 8th, 1943? The Risorgimento had involved the elites, not much more; if fascism had provided an identity, it had collapsed. We had been a state for two-and-a-half generations; what kind of national tradition starts—at best—with one’s grandparents?

The Italians were a precarious people, never tested by the choices it had to make, whether at the time of the Reformation, the French Revolution, or later revolts; the melting pot had never resulted in a fusion. Now, in 1943, the choice was not between Brindisi—where the King had fled—and Mussolini’s lair in Desenzano. We had to decide whether to stay with the Italy we knew or work for its collapse: for an end to that Italy which had blurred the border between fascism and non-fascism, and would just have carried on doing so, without the war.

I don’t know how I came to the conclusion that it was the Communists who were most sure of what they were doing—or who told me, ‘But Banfi is a Communist’. I was so ignorant that I marched straight up to him, between classes. He was leaning against a radiator in the common-room, next to the window. ‘Someone said you are a Communist.’ He looked at me. I had taken two courses with him; he must have decided that I was what I seemed—someone in need of direction, who had no idea of the lethal import of what she had just said. ‘What are you looking for?’

I told him about the leaflets I’d seen, about being confused, not knowing. He got up from the radiator, went to the desk and wrote down a list in his tiny handwriting. ‘Read these books. Come back when you have done so.’ I ran to the railway station and opened the slip of paper on the train: Harold Laski, Liberty in the Modern State and Democracy in Crisis; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Class Struggles in France 1848–1850. A book by De Ruggiero, I think. Lenin, State and Revolution. ‘By S., anything you can find.’

I was astounded. He really was a Communist—a Bolshevik. The images from Spain came into my head. I got off the train at Como and went to the public library. There was a kindly, middle-aged librarian. I showed him the list. He pointed me towards an old filing cabinet. The bottom drawer was unmarked, as if it were empty. I pulled it open. Everything was there, even Das Kapital, an Avanti! edition with a red leather cover. Nothing by S.; the only work on the USSR was a travel book by an engineer. I filled out the forms and the librarian brought me the books. ‘May I take them home?’ He nodded.

The evening tram back to Olmeda was crowded with people going home after work. Next to me were three exhausted labourers, with coarsened hands and blackened fingers. They looked as if they had been drinking; their drooping heads jerked to each movement of the tram. It was with them that I would have to go. At home I read all through the night, the next day, and the next. From Laski I went on to The Eighteenth Brumaire, then State and Revolution. I ran a fever. Everything fell into place; it was not so much a discovery as an acceptance which I could no longer defer. It was the end of my well-ordered future, my praiseworthy ambition, my innocence.

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The Comrade from Milan

The Comrade from Milan

In this much-lauded memoir, acclaimed for its blend of literary elegance and political passion, Rossana Rossanda, a legendary figure on the Italian left, reflects on a life of radical commitment.Ac...