Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Comrade from Milan
By Rossana Rossanda
Pubs Verso
Hdbck £29.99
400 pages

Rossana Rossanda, now in her eighties, was a leading Italian communist for over half a century. She was expelled from the party in 1969 because of her opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She went on to found the renowned Italian left newspaper Il Manifesto and has been a regular contributor to New Left Review.
Born into an impoverished lower middle class family in the 1920s on the Italian-Yugoslav border, she grew up in a protective and apolitical family and politics only entered her life during her university studies and, in 1943, she joined the underground Italian resistance to fascism. After the war she worked in many positions in the party, and rose to become a member of its central committee.

Her autobiography is a history of those turbulent times in Italy, a vivid portrayal; of the communist movement and at the same time, but more importantly, an interrogation of her own past in the context of that wider historical tapestry. However she doesn’t use a broad brush but filters this process through her own personal experience. As a convinced communist she is understandably more concerned with the mistakes and weaknesses of the movement than dealing with the machinations and political tactics of the movement’s opponents. Thus many sentences are questions, rather than answers.

The Italian party tried to steer its own course. As the largest western communist party it was on the threshold of power for over 40 years; only the machinations of the Catholic Church and USA prevented the party forming a government. The party’s powereful position and strength made it almost part of the establishment and this, in the end, led to a certain complacency and accommodation with the status quo. The party also refused to submit to Moscow’s centralised control and hegemony, albeit behind the scenes. She underlines how the Italian Communist Party was undoubtedly a strong democratising force in post-war Italy, and was also instrumental in drawing up the new post-fascist constitution.

Rossana addresses issues that every politically-engaged person has to face: how far am I responsible for what happens in my lifetime? ‘The dividing line between what we are and what we are made into,’ she writes, ‘is very thin.’
She asks herself how she could have been ignorant of or ignored what was happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the Czech show trials and the Hungarian uprising.

During the fascist period and throughout the whole latter half of the twentieth century, life was messy, not black and white, there were few genuine heroes – factors undoubtedly true for any historical period. But, she writes, at that time the communists stood out: ‘Being a communist meant belonging to the most resolute party’.

She says, of her decision to join and stay with the communists: ‘They were the only ones who rejected the inevitability of inhuman behaviour’. Her own humanity and genuine identifiaction with working people shimmers through this honest account. It is an informative, provocative and fascinating read, as well as a valuabel contribution to the hsitory of the communist movement. The translation, too, is excellent, although there are instances of mis-translation and sloppy editing which can sometimes lead to confusion.

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