This The Comrade from Milan review came via a Verso Book Club subscription, which I recommend if you are into discovering new favourite reads by accident. I might not have gone looking for this book, but I am glad it found me! The ‘Comrade’ is Rossana Rossanda and her memoir covers the Depression and Second World War, when she joined the Resistance and became a communist. If you enjoyed Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, or Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time, The Comrade from Milan is more of a straightforward memoir, but is a similarly frank assessment of what it meant to be a communist and to witness the Party and the ideology’s decline. Rossanda was a cultural commentator and journalist as well as a politician, involved at both the grassroots and with politicians and activists internationally. Her memoir is a lively, detailed look at changing times in Italy, Europe and the world, from the viewpoint of what might be considered something of a relic: the European communist intellectual. Although she counters that early on:
Every so often, someone will stop me and say with great kindness: ‘You were a legend!’ But who wants to be a legend? Legends are the projections of other people and have nothing to do with me. The idea embarrasses me. I am not a name on a memorial plaque to be honoured, who has departed from the world and exists outside of time. I am still struggling with the world and with time. But the question of what it means to be or to have been a communist nags away at me.
Rossana Rossanda was born into privileged circumstances. The golden days lasted until a ‘wave swept over’ her parents in 1929 and 1930 and then first her sister was sent away to live with their aunt and uncle in Venice, before Rossana followed. They would be teenagers before they would live with their parents again. In Venice, they had a lot of freedom and the young Rossana threw herself into books, schoolwork and friendships. She was a bit fazed by the ‘future mothers’ classes the schoolgirls had to attend, but not overly troubled by it. A classmate later reminds her that she joined the Young Fascists because she liked the uniform, but she is able to write that they felt untouched by politics and by the war.
After reuniting with her parents in Milan, she starts studying modern literature at university. She thrives there and remembers 1941 to 1943 as a time when, ‘I have never felt so comfortable in my own skin.’ But as bombings increase, evacuation becomes necessary. The university relocates to Padua and they return to Venice, while precious books and artworks are packed away and sent out of danger. Back in Milan, she begins working with the communists via antifascist student groups, as they were ‘the people who really seemed to know what they were doing.’
The postwar period begins with Italy’s restructuring as a republic and an assembly to form a new constitution means the communists join the parliamentary process, although they are less well supported than the Christian Democrats and socialists. As studies gear up again and artworks and books formerly only seen as copies reemerge, there seems to be hope for the future but Rossanda’s dreams of working in one of Venice’s cultural organisations are not to be. Politics wins and there is a sense of a generation stepping up and putting their shoulders to the wheel.
In 1945, people didn’t make a fuss either. Things were what they were and we were picking ourselves up after a tragedy and there were urgent things to be done. Everything had to be started up again, rebuilt. Italy, and for us Milan, had been turned into a disaster zone. We needed to supply the shortages, get a move on, redraw our personal spaces and reopen the public ones, heat our homes and make up for decades of backwardness. We had lost the esteem of the world, we had been cut adrift; fascism had lasted for two decades and before that we had been Italietta [Little Italy], a figure of fun. We had nothing to be proud of.
The Comrade from Milan is particularly good at showing how dramatically Italy changed from a rural to an urban and industrial economy, with internal migrants moving from South to North – bringing southern food like pizza with them. The communists tried to tackle the resulting employment and social issues while attempting to expand beyond their traditional northern factory strongholds in the face of political and societal opposition. Rossanda’s work focused on local organising and maintaining grassroots networks that she would stay connected to throughout her career. Her recollections of being observed by unimpressed local priests, quietly noting which of their congregation was listening as she gave speeches, are darkly funny. Defeat in the 1948 elections shows the forces ranged against them – not only other parties, but also the secret service and CIA – and brings with it the end of the wartime antifascist progressive alliance.
The Allies, as common sense dictated, had made use of the USSR and the partisans in the fight against the Nazi threat, and then that was it. All we could do was survive and try to build an alternative vision – a different society, different social relations, different everything – and this was our position until the 1980s, when the party was destroyed… We communists in the West were seen as a threat that had to be eliminated.
She maintains links with comrades in other countries and is able to visit the Soviet Union as part of an official delegation in 1949. She questions herself and is questioned by others as to how much this supports Stalin. The Italian party had a great deal more freedom than others, perhaps due to Palmiro Togliatti, the General Secretary of the PCI, who had spent the war in the USSR. In spite of some differences of opinion, he promoted Rossanda and their working relationship after she joined the Central Committee seems to have been distant but rewarding.
Through the Fifties and Sixties, she is involved with cultural works and I made quite a long list of books and films she highlights! Gramsci’s works are published and in Milan, a Casa della Cultura established that brings assorted left-leaning people together. There is a visit to Cuba with partner K. S. Karol, Jorge Semprún and his wife Colette, Marguerite Dumas and Stokely Carmichael, among others. She also later meets Ralph Miliband. As a young woman with her base in Milan and having been to university, holding opinions and not being afraid to air them, there is a sense that the leadership in Rome did not know what to make of her entirely. While she was happy to be the Comrade from Milan, once she has to move to the capital and fit in more, cracks inevitably start to appear.
Rossanda is frank about her perceptions of the Party’s responses to the changing social trends of the Sixties. 1968 blindsided the leadership and they were slow to pick up on what the student protests in Italy and then France could mean. The Verso website features a great extract which covers the 1968 protests. Migrating workers were also often more radical than the Party, while decisions were taken at the top and not communicated widely.
It’s a stupid gamble against time, thinking that somehow there’ll be a way to solve our difficulties before our followers find out about them and get discouraged. We should have faced the harsh truth, stopped dismissing it as a simple mistake, and still have kept our goals firmly in sight – but we were not able to do this, not even those of us who had some idea of how things really stood.
As someone who had been sidelined by the Party, she was able to participate in the protests, giving her the insight to predict the missteps that would follow that inability to grasp reality. She sees how the students idolise Gramsci, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara but counsels caution. Although described as an intellectual, I found her to be endlessly practical and in this tribute, her comrade Luciana Castellina describes her as being ‘militant to her core.’ The prevailing disillusionment is considered and assessed, showing how the collapse in the Nineties is seeded by earlier decisions like the silence over Budapest or Prague or Khrushchev’s speech.
Half a century on, I can scarcely comprehend how the communists in Europe could have been feared so much when we were in such a poor state: in Spain, Portugal and Greece the extreme right would continue in power for another twenty years, while communists and the unions remained illegal. In Germany too, they were outlaws, any anyway there was just a tail end of the party left – Hitler had seen to that. In Great Britain and the Netherlands, there were only a few scattered members, and in 1953 in Denmark the head of an enormous cooperative once politely introduced me as if I were a panda in a zoo. Our numbers in France and Italy seemed huge by comparison, yet even there we represented little more than 20 per cent of the vote.
That she would have to leave the Party eventually is a given, this being the kind of honest feedback that is perceived as straying too close to disloyalty. Starting the journal il manifesto with others as a response to feeling sidelined is the beginning of the end, as early Seventies labour disputes and factory occupations kick off the ‘years which explain our present.’
As well as the politics, Rossana Rossanda writes so perceptively about her personal relations, with her parents, sister and other family members, her partner and comrades. The death of her mother, the ending of her first marriage and her thoughts on feminism and the roles women are expected to play are especially sensitively covered. Her lifetime is a fundamentally interesting part of Italian and European political history, showing Italy’s journey from a fascist monarchy to a republic with a parliament and how Europe rebuilt destroyed infrastructure and institutions. She writes lucidly about the discussions and disputes and her own place in them, honestly appraising the gains and the failures.
The shining good faith of communists is frightening and not without its comic side. I wouldn’t want not to have known it. To feel like an intelligent piece of a moving mosaic, immersed in the lives and needs of others, with no vested interests and convinced that you are using your own little crumb of power for the common good, is a powerful experience.
That experience has its own ambiguities. I don’t know how conscious of this I was, but I wasn’t totally unaware of it. I was disagreeable, the eternal big sister who knows best, who tries to get others to do this, that or the other thing, who gets upset if it’s not done… She raged in good faith. She gave instructions, not orders. She thought she was fair.
The left in Europe has been on the ropes for such a long time, failing to make inroads despite attacks on working and living conditions. It is useful to see how earlier generations dealt with similar situations, while trying to avoid the same pitfalls. They had to reimagine and rebuild, as we will have to post-pandemic and to face climate change.
People say now, ‘You lived in a time of certainties.’ What rubbish. We lived in a time of questioning, in a world that was constantly being reconfigured in a conflict that was far more complex than the one between fascism and antifascism. I don’t remember having any illusions about a radiant future: we were suffering one defeat after another.
I read The Comrade from Milan, from Verso Books and with translation by Romy Giuliani Clark, for Women in Translation Month. If you are looking for #WITMonth recommendations, there are more available here. What works in translation by women have you been reading this August? Let me know below…