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Il Manifesto: Fifty Years of an Italian Communist Daily

On 28 April 1971, the first issue of the daily version of il manifesto hit the newsstands. Despite countless difficulties, phases when its survival was deeply imperilled, and periods when it temporarily had to suspend publication, fifty years later the newspaper is still with us — and thriving. 

Marco Grispigni16 December 2021

Il Manifesto: Fifty Years of an Italian Communist Daily

On 28 April 1971, the first issue of the daily version of il manifesto hit the newsstands. Despite countless difficulties, phases when its survival was deeply imperilled, and periods when it temporarily had to suspend publication, fifty years later the newspaper is still with us — and thriving.
Over the intervening five decades, more important and historic newspapers of the Italian left, like the Communist Party’s l’Unità — the “newspaper founded by Gramsci” as its subtitle proclaimed — and the Socialist Party’s Avanti! have disappeared. Other less historic titles have also left us, from the dailies of the extra-parliamentary Left (or “new” or “revolutionary” Left, depending on one’s tastes) like Lotta continua and il Quotidiano dei lavoratori, to those of Italy’s post-1992 Second Republic, like Rifondazione Comunista’s sometime daily Liberazione. Over the last forty years, the cemetery of left-wing publications has been filling up; the very idea of “the Left” probably has one of the biggest headstones in this graveyard of ideas.
In this far from favourable landscape, the continued existence — we might better say, resistance — of il manifesto appears as a small miracle, the reasons for which are not easily explained.
This essay seeks to offer the reader less well-informed about Italian affairs (and the yet more complex sub-species of Italian left-wing affairs) some keys that may be useful for interpreting this cultural and political adventure. In so doing, it aims to offer some initial explanations as to how this “communist daily” has managed to remain an authoritative voice in the Italian media landscape even today.
A first remark concerns the thin existing bibliography on the left-wing press and il manifesto in particular. There is a fair number of essays and articles on the initial events surrounding the il manifesto group; the birth of the “current” within the left wing of the Communist Party around Pietro Ingrao; the publication of the monthly magazine il manifesto, first appearing on 23 June 1969; the group's expulsion (or as it was said, ostracization, radiazione) from the PCI in November 1969; the transition from the magazine to the daily newspaper in 1971; and the decision to run candidates in the 1972 general election. But beyond this phase — the early years which Luigi Pintor defined as il manifesto’s “heroic” era — there are, to my knowledge, no studies which take a historiographical approach to the daily’s affairs. The exceptions come with certain works that focus more specifically on the experiences of the Party of Proletarian Unity for Communism (PdUP), of which il manifesto was the press organ during the 1970s, albeit in a relationship which was often ridden with conflicts.
Anyone seeking to consult the newspaper's historical archive will already be hindered by its limited accessibility — especially in this period of pandemic-related restrictions on access to libraries and archives. The newspaper's online archive, available to subscribers, offers an index of articles starting in January 1980, but access for actually reading the articles is only possible from August 1994 onward.
The starting point for retracing the events surrounding the newspaper is Massimiliano Di Giorgio's recent book Il giornale-partito. Per una storia de il manifesto, focused on the 1969-1972 period.
When the daily’s first issue hit the newsstands on 28 April 1971, it was printed in a run of 100,000, at 50 lire a copy; the price would go up to 90 lire in the summer of 1972.
From the very first issue, the arrangement of the topics covered followed a very precise criterion: the most important news obviously went on the front page, on the second the foreign reports, the third had domestic news — with special attention to events of social significance — while the last page was a sort of back cover, featuring the workers' inquiries.
The paper’s graphical layout was austere. There were no photos or colours, and each page was topped by a multi-deck headline (known as a "sommarione" or “big summary”) that established a political priority bringing together the information contained on the page.
The decision to turn the monthly magazine into a daily was inextricably linked to the il manifesto group's expulsion from the PCI. The expulsion of the members of the “current” had a certain impact on the party grassroots; in some cities, significant groups of militants left the PCI and created separate il manifesto circles. The paper mounted a not only cultural but also strongly political operation, centred on the “need” to create a new political formation — as Luigi Pintor made clear in the editorial of the daily’s very first issue:
So, if this newspaper were only to serve as a protest, a battle of ideas against the existing order of things, this alone would not be a wasted effort. After all, the workers' press has always had this function first and foremost: to establish a demarcation line, with what Gramsci called the partisan spirit, between those who stand against the established order and those who give in to it.
But this cannot be enough.
The political landscape we have before us today demands much more than our rejection of it.
A contest has set in motion in our country, whose outcome could decide the fate of the workers' movement for a whole historical era. If we were not convinced of this, we would not have committed ourselves to a work and a struggle whose ultimate aim is the formation of a new unitary political force of the working-class left. And we would not be producing this newspaper now.
The expulsion of the il manifesto group from the PCI changed the landscape. The point was no longer to mount a political-cultural battle within the party, to help shift its axis to the left. Now, the task was to constitute “a new unitary political force of the working-class left”. As Rossana Rossanda put it, some years later, “one could say that the daily il manifesto was the first newspaper to be born out of the experience of a political defeat.”
Il manifesto is clearly, right from its subtitle, a communist daily.
What was most striking when il manifesto came out was this brief inscription, communist daily, at the top left, near the header. It was the first communist newspaper outside the PCI. And it was precisely the il manifesto collective’s previous, deep militancy in the party and its leadership apparatus — together with a more moral than political concern for redress — that led them to define the daily in these terms.
The newspaper’s whole history would be defined by the fact that it self-defined as “communist” while also being outside the party which claimed a monopoly on this same adjective. In the early years it did so in a “love-hate” relationship with the party that had expelled its founding group; then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union, it did so posing the question of what it meant to still identify as “communist”. Il manifesto would often express positions critical of the PCI, but essentially without any drastic break. There was nothing comparable to the violent clashes with the PCI that throughout the 1970s characterised the press (daily and otherwise) linked to the other organisations of the New Left. Il manifesto came from the PCI and continued to have a reference in that party and among its militants; a sort of nostalgia for the PCI’s past, and some of its leaders, remained a constant, as well as a theoretical reference point.
Despite this, the PCI did not react kindly to the new paper. The day before the release of the daily il manifesto’s first issue, l’Unità “greeted” the newcomer with a short, mocking piece entitled “Who Pays Them?” — a miserable, dark episode of the most classic Comintern style. The newspaper of a party that received substantial financial aid from the Soviet Union insisted that it could only consider a “fairy tale” the idea that il manifesto could self-finance by collecting 50 million lire in subscriptions. The reality, however, was much more prosaic — as the anonymous l'Unità columnist made clear upon mentioning that the five il manifesto MPs were not present for the parliamentary vote on land rents. "They are somewhere talking about the revolution. But they are not there to vote against the landowners".
The early years of the daily il manifesto were certainly complex — marked by the “schizophrenia” of an object that was “half newspaper and half party” as Pintor recalled in 1986. Its aspect as a newspaper was set by its graphic layout, designed by Giuseppe Trevisani, which was reminiscent of Quindici (a magazine published in the 1960s by Feltrinelli), followed by the editing of its articles. The absence of illustrations and advertising, except for books and magazines, and the choice not to sign most of the articles, emphasised that the collective behind the newspaper was acting in common. However, the newspaper's “austere” character also went came along with a particular attention to technological innovations — as Aldo Garzia, a journalist with il manifesto, later recalled:
The history of the daily il manifesto represents a paradox in the news world. It presented itself with unusual graphics, content and price, and then became the first newspaper to take advantage of the possibility of “double printing”, using cable transmission with the Milan editorial office. Initially it was an "artisan" product, but then it outclassed the big newspapers in using new technologies. Once again, the ingenuity of the poor upset the laws of the market.
However, the more directly political aspect — aimed at forming a new organisation — was certainly il manifesto’s main objective in this first phase of the daily’s life. The newspaper’s task was to disseminate the group’s political line, structuring its on-the-ground presence precisely by aggregating supporters around the newspaper. This was a complex operation and ended in failure — leaving the leadership group, and in this phase the newspaper itself, in a sort of middle ground between the PCI and the other new left groups which arose on the wave of the movements of 1968-1969.  
The failure of this attempt can be explained by the considerable political distance — felt first and foremost by the extra-parliamentary Left themselves — between a group internal to the history and tradition of the historical Italian left, i.e. il manifesto, and a series of formations which arose on the wave of student protests and contested the PCI’s political inheritance itself.
These contradictions give a sense of inevitability to the double failure of those years appears: the failed fusion with Potere Operaio and then a tough electoral defeat, as the il manifesto list headed by Pietro Valpreda failed to achieve the threshold for parliamentary representation in the 1972 general election.
These two setbacks brought the first ructions within the leadership group, with the departure of Aldo Natoli and Massimo Caprara. The electoral defeat was a bruising experience — "a downsizing" of the group, Rossana Rossanda later defined it — and it moreover deprived the newspaper of the economic contribution coming from its five MPs. This also came in a phase in which the "competition" among the New Left press was becoming tougher, with the arrival on the newsstands of two other titles: first Lotta continua, on April 11, 1972, and then il Quotidiano dei lavoratori, on November 26, 1974.
The idea of unifying the forces of the Left was itself reduced to a rapprochement (a long process, lasting two years) between il manifesto and the Party of Proletarian Unity (PdUP), a party formed by militants of the now-dissolved PSIUP who did not choose to re-enter the historic parties of the left (the PCI and PSI). At the same time, however, il manifesto’s distance from the PCI grew in a way that would be difficult to bridge, when, in 1973, that party’s leader Enrico Berlinguer wrote a famous series of articles in Rinascita outlining the “historic compromise” strategy in response to the tragedy of the coup d’état against Allende’s socialist government in Chile. The PCI’s decision to seek a "legitimising" alliance with the Christian Democrats, leading over 1976-1979 to the governments of "national solidarity" — in fact, single-party Christian Democratic governments made possible first by the abstention and then the supportive votes of the Communist Party — would add ever more bitterness to the political clash between the PCI and the various groups to its Left. In this context, il manifesto (like the PdUP) would remain “in the middle of the road”, distant from the two sides and essentially lacking real political influence. 
The union between the PdUP and il manifesto was completed in 1974 with the birth of the “PdUP per il Comunismo”. The creation of this new formation sharpened the contrasts in the old il manifesto leadership group between those who wanted to defend the autonomy of the newspaper and those who wanted to transform it ever more into the press organ of the new party. These disputes risked destroying the internal balance within the newspaper: in 1975, Luigi Pintor left the editor-in-chief job, at a time when the paper was undergoing its first crisis period, including the suspension of publication. 
At the beginning of that year [1975] il manifesto was in crisis, not appearing on newsstands for at least thirty days after a trade union dispute that set the workers of the printshop where it was printed against the owner Lanzara. Eventually, the situation was unblocked: the newspaper took over the printshop, bought new rotary presses and other printing equipment, and purchased premises for the cooperative which the ex-Lanzara employees founded that same year.
Finally, in 1978, a large part of il manifesto’s historic leadership group left the PdUP and the newspaper regained its complete autonomy.
This “abandonment” of the party marked the end of the newspaper's “schizophrenic” period. “A newspaper is a newspaper,” Pintor insisted; and, from the late 1970s, il manifesto took on an increasingly important role as a daily. This period also brought profound changes in its graphic design, in the subjects it dealt with — in a word, in its essence as a newspaper, henceforth less bound to the complicated and unfortunate pages in the life of the various New Left groups.  
The late 1970s also saw a profound transformation in the panorama of the Italian Left. The period of “national solidarity” government — with the aim of “defeating” both inflation, which had peaked in the double digits, and “terrorism” — brought the rise of the first movement of social protest that frontally clashed with the Communist Party, known as the '77 movement. The historical core of il manifesto would remain distant from this movement, and often deeply opposed to it. But in the 1980s, the arrival in its editorial staff of young journalists who had been involved in this movement gave rise to a rich intellectual exchange that led to a revision — notably by Rossanda, within the historic group — of some of the positions taken by il manifesto during 1977 which had closed it off from the movement. Significant in this regard was the severe judgement that Rossanda passed on the Communist Party’s political line, in an insert published to mark the tenth anniversary of the movement.
... there can be no doubt that in the second half of the 1970s, with Berlinguer's strategy the Communist Party lost the positive ambiguity of its postwar position. It was no longer a party that pursued a form of transformation of society and the state, through democracy: the threat of recession was enough for it to restore legitimacy to the enterprise, and the threat of terrorism enough for it to restore legitimacy to the state.
In the hardest years of the armed struggle — those that saw the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro — we can perhaps identify the irreparable cutting of the umbilical cord that still bound the historic group behind the newspaper to the Communist Party. The leading figure in this break was Rossana Rossanda: she did this first with a famous article "on the family album of the Left", in which she analysed the unequivocal left-wing origins of the Red Brigades, something denied by a Communist Party making its own desperate bid for "democratic legitimacy". Then she did so in an even more radical way, with her absolute defence of garantismo [a staunch defence of terrorism suspects’ rights from overweening state power] at a time when the PCI, upon the onset of the judicial operation against Autonomia Operaia in 1979, began to take up the position which would lead it to become "the party of the judges". As Rossanda wrote:
Anyone who was a communist in the 1950s will immediately recognize the BR’s [Red Brigades’] new language. It seems as if we are leafing through a family album: here are all the ingredients that were shoved down our throats in our fondly remembered courses of Stalin and Zhdanov. The world, we learned back then, is divided in two. On one side is imperialism, on the other socialism. Imperialism acts as the unitary headquarters of international monopoly capital (we didn't say “multinationals” back then). States were the local “company boards” for international imperialism. The party of confidence [partito di fiducia] in Italy — the expression is Togliatti's — was the DC [Christian Democrats]. The Communist militarism of the 1950s grew up with this framework, even if it was slightly less crude and fortunately balanced by the [party’s strategic] "duplicity", i.e. by the intuition of the partito nuovo [Togliatti’s new mass party, as distinct from a cadre party], the reading of Gramsci, and a different mass practice. Whether he is young or old, the schema of the man handling the famous IBM [typewriter used for BR communiqués] is pure veterocommunism. But onto this he grafts a conclusion — guerrilla struggle — which is not veterocommunist.
This analysis of the Red Brigades was decisively important. For it signalled an approach to the phenomenon of the armed struggle Left which would distinguish il manifesto’s editorial line for many years to come. This was a refusal of those conspiracy theories that read the story of the armed struggle through a prism that combined massacres, political terrorism and the mafia in a single political design which sought to prevent the PCI from entering government. Rather, it read the drama of the armed struggle as a phenomenon internal to the radical Left and indeed the conflict in the factories. Even in the 1980s, this approach made il manifesto one of the privileged sites both for reflection on these dramatic events and for the dissemination of the positions of those ex-"combatants" who pushed for "dissociation" and an end to the “years of lead.”
Even tougher was the break with the PCI over the subject of garantismo. The initial casus belli was the “7 April” operation of 1979, when large-scale raids were conducted all over Italy, leading to the imprisonment of a considerable part of the leadership group of the Milan and Venice Autonomia Operaia. The investigation, led by the judge Pietro Calogero and strongly supported by the Communist Party, theorized a substantial unity between the Autonomia groups and the Red Brigades — even going so far, in the initial accusations, as to hypothesize that an Autonomia leader like Toni Negri was the “chief of the Red Brigades.”  Notwithstanding il manifesto’s absolute distance from the political positions of Negri and the other defendants, from the outset it refused to join in the chorus of press outlets (particularly those close to the PCI) which revelled in the final defeat of terrorism and applauded the inquiry. For over ten years, the paper would closely follow the judicial process surrounding this case.
On 13 June 1984, il manifesto’s front-page headline read “Fascist sentence for 7 April”, as it responded to the first-grade ruling which condemned fifty-five defendants "to centuries in jail on the word of a hired murderer". The piece on the sentence handed down by the court was flanked on the front page by Rossanda’s no-holds-barred editorial:
The First Assize Court in Rome passes on the message (and we can only imagine with how much jubilation, among those who preach and practice a run from the law) that in Italy, it is better to evade justice. For once the investigating judge has decided to nail you, the trial has become a mere formality... Through a magistracy which has perhaps never in its history been so supine and obsequious, state-of-emergency Italy has liquidated not "the violent ones", but the various thrusts of Autonomy. On this score, the accord between government and opposition parties, between bosses and trade unions, has been silent, effective and total.
The newspaper’s attention toward this affair continued up to the final ruling, in 1987, which essentially demolished the “Calogero theorem”:
The Rome Appeal Court has torn down the house of cards of accusations regarding 7 April, through which the state, parties and powers-that-be rid themselves of Autonomia Operaia in 1979 and sent a threatening signal to the movements — pinned between the armed organizations’ assault on the one side and the Communist Party’s on the other. The great supporters of the delirium of the Paduan prosecutor Calogero; of the first pentito [“repentant” terrorist turned informant] Fioroni, even though he is a common murderer; and of the special laws; were, in fact, a clutch of magistrates, lawyers, journalists and communist leaders, with l’Unità and la Repubblica obsequiously trailing along behind. 
Nothing from the accusatory hypothesis, which was supposed to tell the story of the decade from 1969 to 1979, has been left standing.
Not the charge of attempted armed insurrection; the judge Verrone quietly said what everyone knew, namely that "the deed does not exist".
Nor the celebrated "O" — the organization par excellence which, under one acronym and then another, was supposed to have covertly directed the armed subversion under the guidance of a pernicious intellectual, Antonio Negri, all the way from Potere Operaio to the BR [Red Brigades]. Potere Operaio was not an armed gang. From the memoirs of Carlo Fioroni, written under direction, all that the Court took — as, indeed, did the judge Palombarini and then the Court in Padua — is that there were some people who acted illegally, each to be examined case by case.
So, everything turned out fine? Well, a breath of relief, with the shower of acquittals, of prescriptions, the normal use of extenuating circumstances, the sense of distance, of balance, of good sense which took over the Court. But the defendants acquitted after years in jail were not weeping only tears of joy. Heavy is the acknowledgment that almost a decade of the lives of sixty people has been weighed down with enormous, shaming accusations, and that some of them have pointlessly served up to five years of jail time. The judiciary provided its services in punishing an uncomfortable far left, with a crudeness reminiscent of the fascist tribunals...
Someone told us yesterday: this is also your victory. It is a meagre victory to see a more presentable image of justice restored, eight years on. Because the sentence had already been inflicted — it was served before the trial — revenge was carried out. What happened yesterday is a belated, partial reparation of much that is irreparable.

But il manifesto’s clear garantista position was not limited to the 7 April trial alone. A continued focus on prison affairs led the newspaper to support the creation of the magazine Antigone in March 1985, initially as a supplement to the newspaper and then in total autonomy. And then — yet more surprising and scandalous even for many left-wing readers — were the doubts il manifesto raised first about the possibility of reading the August 1980 Bologna train station massacre as the latest episode in the strategy of tension, and then about the fascist NAR’s (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari) guilt for this atrocity. 
But the 1980s were a decade of profound transformation for il manifesto, especially from an editorial point of view. There was a new graphic design from 1982, an increase in the number of pages, and then new cultural pages “which constituted the freest and most unprejudiced laboratory in the Italian press”, with the inserts “Thursday Mole”, “Books Mole” and “Sunday Supplement.”
As already mentioned, the "liberation" of the newspaper from its role as a party organ also facilitated both the widening of its circle of contributors and the powerful emergence of themes that had previously been "stifled" by the demands of having a political line. For instance, the reflection on feminist issues and the theory of difference, which now extended beyond contingent considerations linked to the great political battles waged by the feminist movement. Or indeed, the opening to ecological issues, with the publication of the environmentalist monthly Arancia Blu as a supplement to the newspaper in 1990.
Over the 1980s il manifesto observed the crumbling of the Soviet political system, without no signs of bewilderment at what was now happening. If in September 1969 its monthly had published the famous article "Prague is alone", it now daily tracked that system’s latest convulsions, some as dramatic as General Jaruzelski’s coup d'état in Poland in 1981. Il manifesto did this without the embarrassment shown by the press outlets in the orbit of the PCI, but also without the arrogance, and often ignorance, of those who would soon theorise the “end of history” and the final triumph of capitalism.
If, for il manifesto, the late 1970s had marked the cutting of the umbilical cord with the Communist Party, the turn of the 1990s saw the great crisis between the historic leadership group and the "youth". In 1990 Sandro Medici was named editor-in-chief. This also meant the victory of a line that sought a renewal of il manifesto’s editorial enterprise, as against the position of the founders who wanted to commit the paper to Ingrao’s side in opposing the dissolution of the PCI. Rossanda and Pintor left the editorial board, while Parlato “stepped back” to direct the paper’s economic page. In 1994, there was further major change for the paper, prepared by a long and ingenious advertising campaign with the image of a sleeping child and the slogan “La rivoluzione non russa” (the Italian pun means both “the non-Russian revolution” and “the revolution doesn’t snore”). The paper took on a tabloid format, with the front page dominated by a photo and a large headline. The relaunch attempt was also a product of economic necessity. With the newspaper in crisis, the cooperative opened up to reader share-ownership; il manifesto also arrived on the web, one of the first Italian dailies to do so.
However, the success of this campaign selling shares in the cooperative was not sufficient. Il manifesto’s economic situation remained extremely perilous, and after the turn of the century this pushed it into the process for forced administrative liquidation. The paper risked closing altogether in 2012, though this was averted when, the following year, the "Il Nuovo Manifesto" cooperative took over its publication, paying a monthly lease. The birth of the new cooperative was far from trouble-free, and the collective of il manifesto journalists experienced a further painful fracture with the departure of many of the paper’s "historic" contributors, including its two last remaining founders, Rossana Rossanda and Valentino Parlato. But tenacity paid off and, in 2016, the cooperative regained ownership of the newspaper. For il manifesto this was "Our War of Independence", the frontpage headline proclaimed on 29 September 2016, as it greeted the "reconquering" of the paper’s ownership and a new graphic design.
To conclude this essay, which has attempted — with inevitable gaps — to retread the most important stages in half a century in a newspaper's life, we can return to the question we mentioned at the start. How come a newspaper without any major financial means behind it managed to withstand a period that saw the disappearance of so many other titles — including much more important and historic ones?
In this writer’s view, the answer to this question is closely linked to this newspaper’s especially high quality as a “product”. Il manifesto avoided being overwhelmed by the collapse of the New Left because it managed, even amidst myriad contradictions, to avoid becoming narrowly bound to the affairs of a specific organisation. From the early 1980s, thanks to the excellent journalists in its editorial staff, this allowed it to significantly improve the newspaper as a “product” and to attract as collaborators much of the best of the culture created by the long season of movements in Italy — even those who had in the 1970s taken positions very distant from those of this newspaper and the political group behind it. This quality has been matched with profound transformations in its graphic appearance, which have allowed it to raise its head above the suffocating panorama of Italian print media. Il manifesto’s front pages and headlines stand out from the crowd — starting with the press reviews on TV — in a context in which the frontpage headlines chosen by the major national dailies are mere copies of each other. 
Another important element was the decision to form a cooperative and thus confirm the paper in its role as a “pure publisher” — differentiating it from much of the national press owned by a few large corporations. 
Of course, not everything is a bed of roses. Il manifesto is still poor in economic terms, with a limited circulation (the figures for November 2020 speak of a little over 12,000 copies sold per day), and it is constantly at risk of closure. Its journalists accept working for salaries indexed to union minimums and there have been no few periods in which wages were paid with several months’ delay. This accelerates its human turnover of journalists, as they migrate to newspapers that can offer higher salaries (ones paid regularly, too); sometimes, quality loses out as a result. Il manifesto is a collective animated by political ideals, indeed one which does a great deal of sharing (even at a personal level), and its history is marked by the deep wounds left by fractures, disputed decisions, and departures. Painful transitional moments like 2012 linger, leaving their mark on those who stayed as well as on those who left.
Yet ultimately, there is a newspaper that continues to come out every day. Il manifesto is still offering its readers a perspective different from the rest of the national press — and a necessary one.

Translated by David Broder

Originally published in French at: