The central paradox of Italian Marxism since the war has been the intellectual dominance of a school whose philosophical inspiration was directly opposed to that of Gramsci. Galvano Della Volpe and his pupils, in particular Lucio Colletti, were to develop an original and radical anti-Hegelian oeuvre, characterized by an unflinching hostility to the influence of Croce (see nlr 59). The success of the Della Volpean school owed much to its intrinsic coherence and trenchancy. But it must also be understood in the context of the fate of Gramsci’s own thought within the Italian Communist Party. By the mid-’fifties, the pci had canonized Gramsci into an official icon of the party, whose function was largely to legitimate day-to-day tactical manoeuvres on the ideological front, by providing them with nominal revolutionary credentials. Togliatti’s organizational succession to Gramsci in the leadership of the party was equated with theoretical continuation of his thought, and mediated it as an orthodoxy to party members. The result was a suffocating cult of Gramsci within the pci, combined with very little serious study or development of his work (a situation symbolized by the absence even today of a scholarly edition of his writings, 25 years after the Liberation). This institutional embrace of Gramsci thus had the ironic effect of considerably neutralizing his intellectual influence; today many younger Italian militants outside the pci evince an emotional reaction ‘against’ Gramsci comparable to that of young Czechs or Russians ‘against’ Lenin. The source of the confusion in both cases is the bureaucratic appropriation of their name. In this atmosphere of official and uncritical celebration, the ideas of Della Volpe—deriving from an altogether other horizon—had a refreshing astringency and independence of spirit.

It is against the background that the work of Lucio Magri, a young pci militant from Bergamo, struck a novel and unwonted note in the early sixties. Perhaps alone in Italy at the time, Magri started to use Gramsci’s ideas in genuine theoretical work on politics. The results were startlingly different from the usual functionaries’ litany. Magri’s first major essay in 1963 was a study of the Marxist theory of the revolutionary party.footnote1 He was then virtually unknown inside or outside the the Italian Communist Party. Two years later, an article in Rinascita by the ranking leader of the pci Right, Giorgio Amendola, triggered great controversy in the party. Amendola argued that in the advanced capitalist countries, both the social-democratic and the communist traditions had proved to be failures, unable to achieve socialism; the time had therefore arrived for a unification of the two movements into a new party in Italy. This proposal gave rise to a stormy debate in Rinascita, before eventually being censured by the pci leadership itself. The most vigorous reply to Amendola from the Left was an article by Magri,footnote2 which was promptly denounced as ‘Trotskyist’ by Amendola’s veteran colleague from Naples, Emilio Sereni (also a leading member of the Right).footnote3 At this point, the debate shifted into a discussion of the nature and consequences of the Popular Front strategy in Europe, which Amendola and Sereni claimed had—rightly—remained the permanent inspiration of pci policy down to the present. In an essay in mid-1965, Magri retorted by subjecting the whole historical experience and conception of Frontism to a thorough and damaging critique—by implication condemning contemporary pci policies in the same judgment.footnote4 The XI Party Congress of the pci in 1966 duly purged the small revolutionary left from the press and cultural sections of the party, and Magri along with others ceased to be published in its theoretical journal, which was henceforward entrusted to the control of Sereni.

In the following year, Magri contributed to a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Lenin’s State and Revolution, in the independent Problemi del Socialismo, which had organized a debate on the actuality of Lenin’s theory of the State today. In a lengthy essay which succeeded a remarkable contribution by Lucio Colletti (published in nlr 56), Magri surveyed the metamorphoses of the modern capitalist State in the West, and the implications of the post-Khruschevite impasse of the régimes in Russia and Eastern Europe.footnote5 Within a few months, both questions were raised with maximum acuteness by the May Revolt in France and the August invasion of Czechoslovakia. Magri’s response was to write a book on the May events which remains two years later one of the very few systematic Marxist analyses of the entire course and consequences of the French crisis—perhaps, indeed, the only one.footnote6 The tone of the book is deliberately cold and dispassionate, and in some passages negatively conditioned by tactical considerations, but the substance of it is a damning indictment of the political record of the pcf. Shortly afterwards, Amendola vociferously demanded complete solidarity with the pcf in a Rinascita article, and a ‘struggle on two fronts’—against both the bourgeoisie and the student movement. Magri’s attack on this article was to be his last contribution to the party press.footnote7

In June 1969, a small nucleus of the revolutionary left within the pci launched an independent journal, Il Manifesto. Its most prominent political participants were Rossana Rossanda (pci Deputy from Milan, formerly chief of the party’s cultural department), Aldo Natoli (pci Deputy from Rome), Massimo Caprara (pci Deputy from Naples) and Luigi Pintor (formerly vice-editor of Unita, from Cagliari). Together with Rossanda, Magri assumed editorial functions in the journal. In a sequence of articles on trade-union strategy, the political crisis in Italy, and the structure of the pci, he has developed a distinctive and coherent critique of the contemporary theory and practice of Italian Communism.footnote8 In December 1969, all the participants in Il Manifesto were expelled from the pci by the party leadership, as an intolerable threat to its present organization and strategy. In a subsequent polemic on workers’ councils, Magri has recently demolished the justifications with which Ingrao—symbolic antagonist and complement of Amendola in the Political Bureau of the pci—motivated his approval of these expulsions, showing the similarity between many of Kautsky’s conceptions and those of Ingrao.footnote9

What are the main themes that emerge from this theoretical and political evolution? Magri’s work has been centred on the conviction that advanced capitalism has produced societies of a unique complexity in the West, with a dense and differentiated array of classes rather than a straightforward polarization and pauperization, which therefore demands a sui generis path to the socialist revolution. This Gramscian concern has been combined with an aptitude for concrete conjunctural analyses of the class blocs and political régimes in Italy and France, that was virtually extinct in latter-day Communism: Magri’s discussion of Gaullism has been particularly notable in this respect.footnote10 Emphasis on the historical specificity of Western European experience, and the need for an original Marxist strategy to deal with it, led naturally to an assessment of the traditional formula adopted by the Western cp’s in the ‘thirties, and revived by the French, Finnish and Italian Parties in the ‘sixties—the Popular Front. For Magri, the Popular Fronts represented par excellence the false solution to these problems: a defensive mobilization of the masses for minimal demands, and a parliamentarist fixation on alliance with social-democratic and bourgeois parties, which has repeatedly led to miserable failure. Magri has underlined that the modern capitalist State is a highly integrated mechanism whose very nature repels and cancels partial reforms of the sort that Popular Front strategies have always advocated: the debacle of the Blum government in the ‘thirties being the paradigm example of this.

Magri’s attack on the rachitic reformism of Popular Front conceptions has simultaneously been accompanied by a criticism of the ‘Jacobinism’ which has in his view historically been its obverse within the Third International and afterwards. Lenin’s theory of the Bolshevik party and the Soviet State, perfectly adapted to the Russian society of its time, precisely because of this reflected an objective limitation: that of the combination of a small, enlightened vanguard with a vast, backward mass of the population. For Magri, this Jacobinism is evident both in What is to be Done? and State and Revolution, in opposite guises. In the first, it takes the ‘pessimistic’ form of the necessity of the importation of revolutionary consciousness into the proletariat from the outside; in the second, it takes the ‘optimistic’ form of the assumption that the future proletarian State will be so simple that it can be managed by any cook. The very radicalism of this idea, he comments, short-circuits the problem of the division of labour in the transition to socialism, and the imperative need for institutionalization of dissent and plurality; it can thereby paradoxically capsize into its extreme opposite—an undiluted monopoly of bureaucratic power.footnote11

If Popular Frontism is a reformist reponse to the problem of the Western Revolution, wholesale imitation of the insuperable Jacobin elements in the October Revolution does not represent an adequate Marxist solution either. Historically, the Communist Parties in the West have oscillated between the two since the ‘thirties, eventually combining them in the peculiar synthesis of a stalinized internal structure (bureaucratic centralism) and a constitutionalist external strategy (‘anti-monopoly struggle’ for an ‘advanced democracy’). Hence their impasse. Against both of these traditions, Magri has insisted on the need for a strategy that acknowledges both the maturity and complexity of Western social structures—which excludes any possibility of a Jacobin schema of a vanguard detached from the masses—and the rigidity and unity of the capitalist State—which excludes any possibility of parliamentary gradualism. Gramsci’s theory of the complexity of Western social structures should here be interpreted in two directions. It refers on the one hand to the cultural and ideological heritage of the European past, often permeated with pre-bourgeois values which can be mobilized in the struggle against capitalism (Magri’s early work dwells mainly on this aspect). On the other hand, it also refers to the increasing diversification and sophistication of the forces of production in an advanced capitalist economy, and the concomitant amplification of the relations of production. The main single force of production is the working class itself, which is simultaneously enlarged and differentiated by the growth of the modern industrial economy. It would be incorrect, however, to rely merely on an inevitable rupture of this growing force of production with capitalist relations of production. Such a perspective would be a regression to a new version of Kautskyism. Magri has stressed that the forces of production are themselves always conditioned in their inmost nature by the relations of production: the revolutionary potential of the new needs and aspirations constantly generated within workers, students and employees by developed capitalist societies in the West are equally constantly confiscated and repressed by the workings of the system.footnote12