Rarely do elections outside the imperial centres have much international reverberation.footnote1 More peripheral cultures, marginal to the grander schemes of accumulation or geopolitical design, are usually denied the honour of global attention: ‘world-historic’ events happen elsewhere. Exceptions to this rule tend to prove it. Fittingly, then, it was with an exception that the ‘Italian anomaly’ came to an end, with Berlusconi’s third victory in the spring of 2008. It was not so much the incumbent and newly ‘democratic’ centre-left’s crushing defeat at the hands of a motley crew, united by little more than a collective decision to pursue particularist interests, that attracted attention. Rather, it was the fact that, for the first time in the history of the Republic, there were to be no parties in the Italian parliament making explicit reference to the Communist and Marxist traditions. Crowning the victory for the right, or adding insult to injury for the left, was the fact that the ostensible ‘refounders’ of these traditions had themselves contributed in no small measure to their ostracism, votes for imperialist occupation by a self-declared party of ‘non-violence’ playing the role of the scratchings on the pottery of old.

In itself, it may not have been an important failure; but its likely long-term significance for both the European and international left becomes clearer when we recall the history that had preceded it. In many other cultures, ‘Marxism’ constituted a polemical point of reference defined by the distance it proposed to take from—or which was imposed upon it by—national intellectual life. Postwar Italy, in contrast, witnessed the emergence of a galaxy of Marxisms, each contesting for the hegemonic position on a left that exerted at least a ‘weak’ cultural hegemony in the society at large.

In its turn, this rich field of dissent provided inspiration for oppositional forces around the world, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. Such prestige derived not only from the slow discovery of the scope of Gramsci’s legacy, but also from the sense of a living tradition that was moving forward; unlike its minoritarian and academic variants in other postwar cultures, Marxism in Italy seemed to maintain something closer to a classical unity of theory and practice. The extent to which the international left’s debates in recent years have been refracted through the lenses of renewed francophilia in the anglosphere can lead one to forget that in the immediate postwar period this Italian politico-intellectual formation enjoyed a much more pre-eminent role, even in France itself. As late as 1965, in For Marx, Althusser could bemoan ‘our “French misery”: the stubborn, profound absence of any real theoretical culture in the history of the French workers’ movement’ comparable to the sophistication and radical thought that he found in the ambit of the pcf’s sister party beyond the Alps. With the debacle of the 2008 elections, a thirty-year long squandering of this patrimony seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.

First published in 2005 as the second Berlusconi government was nearing its end, Cristina Corradi’s History of Marxisms in Italy aims to reconstruct the story of this singular culture and to urge its inheritance by a contemporary generation. There already exist a number of significant studies of phases in the development of this intellectual tradition, of individual thinkers or specific theoretical currents. In particular, what might legitimately be regarded, from a theoretical point of view, as the ‘golden age’ of Marxist theoretical debate in Italy around 1900 has received ample attention over the years from Italian scholars. The life and thought of Gramsci continue to be mined both abroad and, in a new season of studies, in Italy itself; more recently, the tradition of operaismo has prompted a number of valuable historical and theoretical investigations; and André Tosel has produced a tentative ‘road map’ of noteworthy theoretical projects over the last 30 years. Corradi’s work is the first study that attempts to provide a totalizing overview of the development of these various Italian Marxisms, both in their theoretical distinctions and in their relative unity as a national tradition, from their origins in the late nineteenth century up to the present day.

A member of Rifondazione comunista, and contributor to such Italian theoretical journals as Critica marxista, Corradi performs the admirable task of synthesizing an enormous mass of material in her attempt to provide a coherent narrative of the theoretical reflections inspired by Marx on the Apennine Peninsula. The plural subject announced in the title—Marxisms rather than Marxism—provides a good sense of the approach of this work, which is less concerned to identify a purity of genealogical continuity than to explore the richness and diversity of thought that has developed in Italy within, in relation to, and sometimes against the Marxist tradition broadly conceived.

Formally, the work is distinguished by its bibliographical comprehensiveness and principle of ‘hospitable’ exposition and assessment. Corradi not only assembles all the primary sources of the many protagonists in the drama, but also provides the reader with an overview of the most significant interpretations and secondary studies, largely domestic. Her account thus reveals very different currents and undercurrents of Marxist thought in Italy from those more immediately recognizable by a contemporary anglophone audience. The sheer range of authors discussed, many of whom remain unavailable in English translation, or only in deforming selections, hints at a richness elaborated in the intense political cultures of the Italian anomaly—in stark contrast to the paucity its current normalization rewards and promotes. Similarly, Corradi proceeds with a generous respect for the positions of the various writers, allowing them to come forward in their own words with liberal quotation, and taking pains to ensure a fair presentation of their thought on its own terms in a refreshingly non-dogmatic spirit—even, and perhaps especially, when she dissents from their politico-theoretical proposals. For these reasons alone, Corradi’s work will undoubtedly become a benchmark for all serious studies of the subject.

The primary thesis of Storia dei marxismi in Italia, as Corradi forcefully states in her introduction, is that in Italy during the last thirty years, ‘despite the diffusion of an acritical and vulgar Marxophobia, a theoretical Marxism has continued to live, little noted but quite lively’—and quite contrary to traditional interpretations. The promise of hitherto unnoticed renewals tantalizes the reader’s curiosity; but before coming to a discussion of some of these novel elements and their historical background, it is worth noting the precise politico-theoretical target of this intervention. The declension of recent ‘post-Marxisms’—in the sense of ‘non’ or ‘anti’—has differed in different cultures, sometimes more aggressive and polemical, sometimes more scholastic and theoretical. The Italian variant has the distinction of combining both: Machiavelli’s lion and fox fused in a sophisticated cynicism, when not boiling over into an uncouth sarcasm.