Lucio Magri, one of the founder’s of the Italian Marxist daily, Il Manifesto, has died at the age of 79. Chris Bambery looks at his life and legacy.

Lucio Magri

One of the founder’s of the Italian Marxist daily, ‘Il Manifesto,’ Lucio Magri, has died at the age of 79. Magri chose an assisted death in a Swiss clinic.

Together with Rossana Rossanda, Luigi Pintor and Valentino Parlato he founded the paper in 1969 and was consequently expelled from the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The group had urged the party to connect to the growing student rebellion which would quickly translate into workplaces with the mass strikes of late 1969, the ‘Hot Autumn.’

Already, in 1968, Rossando had published an essay, L’anno degli studenti (“The Year of the students”), in which she declared her support for the youth rebellion. She was a link to the wartime generation of the party having joined it and the resistance to fascism and going on to become an MP and a member of the party’s central leadership.

Magri came from a younger generation as he explained in an article in New Left Review three years ago.

‘For my own part, I became a Communist a decade after the turbulence of Fascism and the Resistance had ended, after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and events in Hungary, and after reading not only Marx, Lenin and Gramsci, but also Trotsky and heterodox Western Marxism. I therefore cannot say that I joined in order to further the fight against Fascism, or that I knew nothing about Stalinism and the ‘purges’. I joined because I believed, as I have continued to do, in a project of radical social change whose costs had to be borne. I was active in that party—in modest roles but by chance, and perhaps some merit, in direct contact with the leadership group—over the course of fifteen years of lively debate and important experiences. I took part in these from minority positions, but with a degree of influence and with a full awareness of what was happening. These were decisive years, about which still too little is known or too much repressed. I was expelled from the party in 1970, along with other comrades, because we had created a journal, Il Manifesto, which was seen as unacceptable: first, because its very existence was a breach of democratic centralism; second, because it explicitly urged a sharper critique of the Soviet model and policies; and lastly because it called for the PCI’s strategy to be rethought, accepting suggestions from the new workers’ and student movements.’

In 1968 Magri wrote an article, ‘The May Events and Revolution in the West,’ following the May events in France. Towards the end he turned to the question of revolution and revolutionary party clearly saying the French Communist Party (PCF) had failed this test:

‘…in our opinion, the May movement has provided further stimulation in the same direction as Gramsci, moving the problem of party democracy away from the sterile questions of differing types of delegated democracy (monolithism or factionalism) to the very fruitful question of the relationship between the masses and the party; in fact, between the party and its social practice… we think it is time to abandon once and for all the concept of the party as a professional body which is the custodian and guarantor of a ”science” the principles of which it carries into the working class from outside. We must move on and arrive at the point where the party is seen as the channel of communication between the day to day conditions of the working class and its theoretical tradition- an element of constant stimulus to and synthesis of the actual social experience of the class…. In respect to this varied experience the party cannot but be a point of synthesis, of fermentation, where the universal is extracted from the particular and the strategy is elaborated-a strategy, moreover, always open to question and always being challenged. It is not the movement which serves the party, but the party which serves the movement; it is not the party which will hold state power, but the masses which use the party to prevent political power from ossifying into the traditional state form. In other words, we must say good-bye to Jacobinism and go back to the Marxian concept of the socialist revolution as a social, not a political one. On these contradictions Lenin’s concept of soviets is again viable organs of class democracy, with no delegation of power and no “specialists”’.

Il Manifesto became a daily in 1970 and remains so today, no mean achievement.

It was one of several far left currents which grew in the wake of the Hot Autumn, including Lotta Continua (The Fight Goes On) and Avanguardia Operaia (Workers Vanguard), with Italy boasting the biggest revolutionary left in Europe.

Despite their growth they were unable to challenge the dominance of the PCI, the largest Communist Party in the world outside the Stalinist states. Its leadership overcame their initial suspicion of the new movements to ride with the unrest of the early 1970s seeking to channel it into the party and the established unions.

In the 1972 national, Il Manifesto obtained only 0.8% of the votes. It therefore merged with the Proletarian Unity Party, forming the Proletarian Unity Party for Communism (PdUP). Magri was a founder of the new party and its secretary.

By 1976, as the high peak of struggle passed, the various far left organizations hoped that a left wing government made up of the PCI and themselves could be elected. Their hopes were dashed when the PCI polled 34.4%, its highest ever score but still short of the ruling Christian Democrats’ score. Magri was one of 9 far left deputies elected, far short of what was predicted.

The far left were thrown into crisis with Lotta Continua dissolving and Avanguardia Operaia fracturing. The PCI under Enrico Berlinguer moved towards the ‘Historic Compromise’ with the Christian Democrats arguing that too radical a policy threatened the sort of right wing coup which had overthrown Salvador Allende’s left wing government in Chile in 1973 and that the growing terrorist campaign of the Red Brigades (a reflection of the frustration of the far left) threatened the Italian Republic.

Under the terms of a pact with the Christian Democrats, the PCI agreed to support the imposition of austerity measures and repressive laws while remaining outside government but voting to support its measures. By 1980 the Christian Democrats dumped this accord and the PCI were forced back onto the streets. A year later Berlinguer personally led support for a five week strike by FIAT car workers, who, however were defeated in a battle as decisive as the 1984-85 British miners strike. In 1984 Magri led PdUP back into the PCI citing Berlinguer’s dropping of the ‘Historic Compromise’ and his distancing of the party still further from the Soviet Union:

‘Together with a number of comrades, I returned to the PCI at the start of the 1980s, aware of the limits of an extremism about which we had deluded ourselves, but not penitent: Berlinguer’s turn seemed to have settled many of the differences that had divided us. As part of the PCI’s leadership this time, I had direct knowledge of the processes that first constrained and then hollowed out this turn, demonstrating at the same time its belatedness and its limitations. It is a period about which there is still great reticence, and with regard to which the most rabid criticism goes unopposed.’

In 1991 following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union the PCI leadership won the vote to dissolve the party on the basis that the communist project was finished. Magri was one of those who opposed the dissolution:

‘In the early 90s I took part, this time in the front line, in the battle against the decision to dissolve the PCI: not because this was too innovative, but because it innovated in the wrong manner and direction—senselessly liquidating a rich identity, and opening the path not just towards a social-democratic model, itself already in crisis, but to a fully fledged liberal-democratic politics. The leadership disbanded an army that had not yet scattered, compensating for a conceptual vacuum with a fanciful ‘newism’. I remain one of the few to believe this operation to have been completely groundless—but am all the more compelled to ask myself why it carried the day.’

In this he was proved correct. The Democratic Socialists and the Democrats, as they are called today, failed to provide an effective opposition to the new right wing figurehead, Silvio Berlusconi, and moved to ever greater fidelity to neoliberalism.

Magri would take part in the creation of the minority Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), which aimed to maintain communist organization and had between 80,000 and 100,000 members. Magri broke from the party in 1995, believing it was not innovative enough and concentrated on writing for Il Manifesto and editing the magazine ‘La Rivista del manifesto’ (Il Manifesto’s Review), between 1999-2004. In that year he announced his decision to end its publication after Rifondazione and its allies suddenly moved towards an electoral alliance with the Democrats. His article, Parting Words, announcing the decision is available at NLR.

“Addio compagni”, was how Il Manifesto greeted Magri’s decision to die.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.