European HerStory: Rossana Rossanda

, by Dylan Marshall

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

European HerStory: Rossana Rossanda
Image in public domain; with thanks to Rafael Silva for the design

History is not merely a question of fact but of how it is recorded and how we interpret it. What is remembered, and how we remember it, is shaped by our socially constructed understandings of the world as it was at the time and as we know it today.

With the feminine history of our continent often sold short under the weight of enduring patriarchal structures, women’s contributions to science, art, politics and beyond are often at best overshadowed or at worst forgotten.

The following article is part of our fortnight-long feature, “European HerStory”, during which we are presenting inspiring stories of women who have contributed to Europe. With this feature, we hope to help rectify the imbalance stemming from our collective prism of history, and inform ourselves and our readers about female achievements and innovations.

You can read the full presentation of the feature here.

Born into a bourgeois family in the Istrian city of Pula in 1924, Rossana Rossanda would go on to play an immense role in the cultural, intellectual, and political life of post-war Italy. In the wake of her family’s ruin during the Great Depression, she pursued philosophical studies at the University of Milan and became a proponent of Marxism. Still a teenager, she became involved in the partisan resistance against Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI). She quickly advanced within the party to become head of the PCI’s Cultural Department and a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

As the director the House of Culture in Milan and the head of the PCI’s Cultural Department, Rossanda opened Italians up to European cultural life from which they had long been cut off from by the fascist dictatorship. Rossanda was, at least in part, responsible for bringing cultural and intellectual giants such as Bertolt Brecht, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir to the forefront of the Italian public consciousness. Conversely, she also aided with the spread and popularisation of 20th century Italian culture across the rest of Europe.

Never to be one to stand in line, Rossanda and a group of militants within the PCI became increasingly critical of actually existing socialism as practised in the Eastern Bloc and wanted to open the Party to new ideas drawn from the emerging student and anti-parliamentary left movements. Upon the eruption of the May ’68 events in Paris, Rossanda went to the epicentre of the burgeoning revolt and met with the student leaders in Nanterre and the Sorbonne, bringing these new discourses back to Italy. These heterodox leftist ideas, together with the continued divergence with the Party’s leadership and Soviet policy – particularly in the wake of the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – meant that a breaking point was appearing on the horizon.

At the 1969 Congress of the PCI, the group of dissenters, led by Lucio Magri, Valentino Parlato, Luigi Pintor, and Rossana Rossanda, were expelled from the Party. In the face of the mounting pressure of the largest communist party in the West, Rossanda and her comrades stuck to their principles, garnering enormous respect and praise amongst non-Soviet aligned leftist around the globe in the process. During a meeting in Rossanda’s house, this group of political exiles founded the newspaper il manifesto, which openly criticised Soviet-style socialism and published columns by non-orthodox leftists and leaders of the ’68 student protests.

As the years progressed, Rossanda retreated from full-time activity in politics – choosing to focus on editing il manifesto and writing on topics ranging from feminist and Marxist theory to film history to the history of social movements and beyond. This is not to say that she gave up trying to make Italy, Europe, and the world a more equal and just place. She continued to periodically be involved in politics and, at 95 years of age, campaigned for The Left during the 2019 European elections. Rossana Rossanda died in Rome on 20 September 2020 and her funeral was watched by over 70,000 people. Her legacy continues to live on through her writings and il manifesto, which continues to be published today – outliving both the Soviet Union and the PCI which condemned it.

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