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Unorthodox communism in Italy and the experience of the Il Manifesto group (I): an Interview with Luciana Castellina

Note from the LeftEast editors: this is the first in the series of two interviews, carried out by Daniela Chironi and George Souvlis on the history of the circle around the newspaper Il Manifesto and Italian unorthodox communism. It has been translated from the Italian by Chiara Bonfiglioli. The interview was conducted via email in January 2014.

You are among the founders of the Il Manifesto, generally considered the first group of dissident intellectuals who could produce not only an intellectual reflection but also political results. Do you think there are any elements of that political experience that could inspire the European radical left today?

Every epoch has its specificity and it would be unfair to think that what the group il Manifesto-PDUP could do in the 1970s might be repeated in the second decade of the 21st century. We had the chance of operating in a context characterized by a number of crucial elements, which are worth remembering: first of all, the balance of power for the left, in Italy and in the rest of the world, was particularly favorable. Secondly, we were operating after a decade – the 1960s – that had witnessed an extraordinary accumulation of cultural experiences of struggle, as well as thriving theoretical debates, finally opened to the non-orthodox and non-ossified currents of Marxism. The Italian 1968 – of which we have been part (even if an anomalous one, compared to other New Left groups, as our leadership came from a long militancy in the PCI) – was a well-read movement, not a spontaneous and primitive one, as some claimed. Thirdly, an important party like the PCI was present, and while being critical towards it, we were at the same time aware of its decisive role. For this reason, we always felt somehow like a temporary organization: our objective wasn’t to foster a new communist party, but instead to stimulate a new foundation for the left. This goal wasn’t achieved, partly because of our mistakes but also, to a greater extent, because the most important force to which we referred, the PCI, after the death of Berlinguer underwent a process of deterioration, and until its very dissolution, was unable to interpret the new contradictions of our time (the ecological collapse, the issue of gender, etc.) Nonetheless, I believe that our working hypothesis was correct, and helped us to avoid any sectarian or self-referential behavior.

Testatina_2bis_copia_400x400Differently than the forces born in the 1968 moment, today’s left-wing parties and movements are operating in Europe after a serious defeat of the left, in a context in which the balance of power has shifted against us. They are operating after the erasure of any communist thought or experience, due to the left’s intrinsic weakness, but also due to its deliberate assassination. For leftists who have not lived through it, it looks as if the 20th century was only a stack of errors and horrors, and not also an epoch of great achievements and revolutions. Such revolutions – even if they ended badly, as in the Soviet case – were worth it. The people who made them dared to think the unthinkable rather than drown in the pond of the present. There has never been such a profound generational break like the one we are witnessing today, and this is very damaging, since the past must be critically revisited, not ignored. Erasing the past is only serving the purpose of those who are interested in saying that there is only the present. Killing the past is equivalent to killing the same idea of a different future. “Only by understanding what happened and trying to figure out how it could happen, it will be possible, maybe, to achieve liberation. Archeology, not futurology, is the only way of access to the present”, wrote Giorgio Agamben, and rightly so.

Today, anyhow, we are witnessing not only the generalized crisis of mass parties that characterized the 20th century but also a profound crisis of democracy, which was by large based on the existence of such parties. With all their shortcomings, they guaranteed something essential: the politicization of the masses, which is much more important than some electoral rule. That model cannot be proposed any longer, so that we have to completely rethink the issue of democratic representation. And that must be done while knowing that advanced capitalism does not unify different social strata – unless during a brief protest – but instead disarticulates them, manipulating consciousness in a way that has never been so oppressive. In immediate terms, a fragmented multitude cannot win, but can only produce a riot.

That’s why we cannot elude the problem of constructing an organization that would allow territorial rootedness and would avoid the intermittent tempo of social movements. An organization which would guarantee internal democracy, without denying the need to engage in leadership construction, in shared knowledge, in a common vision of the world, in a project which can provide meaning, and not just consensus, as for TV audience polls. To sum up the famous problem of the relation between movements and parties – and of renewal, now turned into the idea of “rottamazione” [demolition, most often of cars, term frequently associated with current PM Matteo Renzi’s attitude towards the old Democratic Party leadership, NdT], – I continue to believe that the best indication is the one we took from Mao Tse Tung in 1968: “to bomb the headquarters”. As Mao said, the parties have the tendency to stand still, to bureaucratize, and must be periodically questioned. But to re-found them, not to abolish them. In China, of course, this debureaucratization did not go very well.

The historian Perry Anderson in 2009 described Lucio Magri as one of the European politicians who best embodied the Marxist ideal of the unity between theory and practice. Do you agree? What else would you add to describe the figure of Magri?

I believe that Perry Anderson was right. The most important aspect of Magri’s political action was his constant effort to single out, in relation to each proposal or strategy, the social subject that could carry it out. He also constantly recommended us to think ourselves as a great force, bearing the responsibility of the consequences of each action – even if we were a small party whose choices, in the end, were irrelevant. This recommendation came in order to get out of minoritarianism, propagandism and ideological abstraction.

Syriza’s success in Greece (27 % in the 2012 national elections) and the electoral rise of radical leftist parties in other European countries seem to announce an imminent strengthening of the parliamentary left in Europe. Do you believe that these organizations can contrast the neoliberal model in some way, at the national and European level? And under what conditions would this be possible?

I believe that the success of Syriza is unique, and even if I know well the old Greek left, I know very little of the new one, and I am very sorry about that. I would be less optimistic, however, on the other European parties. Even Die Linke in Germany appeared as a miracle, and then was quickly affected by draining internal crises. Even in the Netherlands victories are very unstable and fluctuating. I believe that reformulating a new way of being a left-wing party would be a long-term endeavor.

The mainstream media in Greece attempted to equate Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party, and Syriza, describing them as equally “extremists” and dangerous for democracy. However, as Tariq Ali highlighted, the real danger in Europe is the “dictatorship of the extreme center,” that is, the collaboration between social democratic parties and centrist parties. Don’t you think that the Italian case – with the Monti government first, and the Letta government afterwards – shows a full realization of this vision of extreme center?

I don’t believe that in Italy the real danger is the “extreme center”. The danger is by far greater: it is the end of democracy as we knew it, even if it was imperfect, without us finding a better model. The post-democratic setting has been theorized, particularly within European institutions, by evoking the sheer complexity of today’s global processes that cannot be left to national parliaments. “We need technicians”, they say. The democratic debate, at best, can only serve to administer local communities. The greatest damage produced by the Monti government is the one of having fostered this assumption among a considerable size of the public opinion. An assumption that was supported by the democratic establishment, certainly not the pro-Fascist one, through its newspapers: “Finally someone who is not stuck in parliamentary balances, in the dialectic between parties, someone who is immune from the pressures of public opinion”. Saying something like this wouldn’t have been legitimate a short while ago, but today it is commonplace. And there is no left-wing response to such stances – as we can clearly see from discomforting electoral results and from the sharp growth of those who abstain from voting, – but instead there are phenomena like the one of Beppe Grillo.

More and more people and even a great part of those who used to vote for the left, react by saying: “Why do I need democracy? It’s too costly and I get nothing of it. Why shall I pay so much for those gentlemen to chat with each other in a parliament? If someone steps on my foot, I will protest and react on my own.” And in Italy, in fact, we can see many of these “do-it-yourself” protests: truck drivers, taxi drivers, blue collar workers climbing smokestacks, and so on. We are back to a century ago, when protest was about setting the town hall on fire, an isolated, exemplary act. When it comes to parties, trade unions and democratic institutions, political mediation and collective action are over. This is much more dangerous than Berlusconi or any Neo-Fascist group.

And what are the causes of this situation, in your opinion?

If this happens, it is clearly because we allowed the impoverishment and the drying-out of democracy, which has become an abstract and spectacular consultation that happens every few years, like going to the Mass. Much of the the responsibility lies on old left-wing parties. But I believe that new “indignant” movements should also pay more attention, not so much when they say “no one represents us”, which is well justified, but rather when they add “we want no one to represent us”, and invoke an improbable direct democracy with neo-Anarchist inspiration. I think that they do not fully understand that in this phase it is decisive to reconstruct stable forms of representation and participation, which would give rise to new powers.

In this situation, I believe that Antonio Gramsci can still be a useful inspiration. When he exalted the primacy of politics, and observed that the proletariat needs politics much more than the bourgeoisie, at the same time he was well aware of the risk of turning politics into a new coercive system, into a separate power, into a bureaucracy, in which the state will be used as a possession by political elites. That’s why he thought about “councils” not as temporary tools of insurrection created by the spontaneity of the movement (like the Soviets) but rather as instruments of the gradual withering away of the State, a form of permanent organization that gradually conquers the real spaces of government, of social administration. Such an organization would have to exercise this very difficult function by operating a reform of politics and of parties themselves, so that they are no longer an “avant garde” focused on the issue of centralized power nor an electoral party, but rather a “collective intellectual.” In this vision of the party as a collective intellectual, the internal distance between those who govern and those who are governed should be reduced, eliminating the gap that always separated, and separates today, those who know (the famous “technicians”) and those who don’t. In this way, it would be possible to turn Lenin’s theory into practice, namely the idea that “the [female] cooks would have the ability to direct the State”.

Such operation should happen within the party because the only way to make it better is precisely the reduction of the distance between the leaders and the base, which today has become wider than in any other epoch. This is how we should re-appropriate the common goods that have been confiscated. If there is a critique that can be waged, in Italy, towards the extraordinary movement that led towards one of the few victories of these years – the referendum against the privatization of water and of local public services – and, more generally, towards the battle for “the commons”, is that there has been too little reflection on the need to establish similar “councils”, which would be able to manage such achievements, which otherwise are destined to be eaten up by greedy bureaucracies and strong corporate interests.

Castellina-Luciana_DRLuciana Castellina (Rome, 1929) is a politician, journalist and writer. She joined the PCI in 1947, when she also took part in the World Youth Festival in Prague, and in volunteer work in Yugoslavia. In 1969, together with a collective of left-wing Italian communist journalists such as Luigi Pintor, Valentino Parlato, Lucio Magri, and Rossana Rossandra, she founded the magazine Il Manifesto, which to this day remains one of the most active platforms of leftist thought in Italy. For the independent and critical editorial line they maintained, the Il Manifesto group was expelled from the PCI. Castellina re-entered the party in 1984, together with the left-wing PdUP [Party of Proletarian Unity for Communism], and opposed PCI’s dissolution in 1991. She held several posts in local and regional politics and was a member of the European parliament between 1992 and 1999. Castellina was recently part of the left-wing alliance The Other Europe with Tsipras, which obtained 4 % in the EP elections in 2014. In 2011 she published an autobiography titled La scoperta del mondo, based on her teenage diary from the 1940s (translated into English by Verso with the title Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, 2014).

daniela_cDaniela Chironi is a PhD Candidate in Political Sociology at the European University Institute in Florence. Her research interests concern social movements, political parties and the relation between these two subjects. A recent publication is ‘Movement in Parties: OccupyPD’ (with D. della Porta, Partecipazione e Conflitto, 2015).

SouvlisGeorge Souvlis, a PhD Candidate in History at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer of various progressive blogs and magazines (Jacobin, ROAR, Enthemata Avgis)