Swans Commentary » swans.com June 28, 2010  



Il Manifesto
On the Wrong Side and Kicking


by Fabio De Propris





"We were accused [by the Communist Party in 1969] of having formed a splinter group. In reality we did no such thing. We'd done nothing underhanded. Nor did we seek any contact with other groups of comrades. We did something worse. The preceding June we'd published a monthly review of political culture that sold more than fifty thousand copies..."

—Rossana Rossanda and Luciana Castellina


(Swans - June 28, 2010)   The Italian newspaper Il Manifesto has been published since 1971. Regularly rocked by staff discord, poverty, and national political crisis, it is nevertheless preparing to celebrate its fortieth birthday. The paper began when some Communist Party members could no longer brook Democratic Centralism. They had learnt in 1968 that no subject was excluded from open discussion. When these intransigents launched a monthly review, the Party expelled Rossana Rossanda, Luigi Pintor, Luciana Castellina, Valentino Parlato, and Lucio Magri.

They turned the review into a daily paper and topped the first page with a defiant reminder that's still there today: A Communist Newspaper. Deprived of membership cards, they felt more communist than ever. They poured their energy into a Marxist analysis of every aspect of society. Not only the working class and capitalism but leftist movements all over the world came under their scrutiny. They took a hard look at their former party as well as Italy's creaking conservative establishment. They worked as a cooperative team, sitting down together each day to decide what would go into the paper.

In 1977, Italian women organized against the violence they suffered, even among comrades of the Left. They demanded their immediate needs be met -- divorce, abortion, equality within the couple and in the workplace -- and they wouldn't be fobbed off with any abstract "greater needs of the working class." Feminism not only split the Italian Communist Party (C.P.I.) but other revolutionary groups. Il Manifesto entered the fray with gusto as they would in all of the polemics of the 1970s. That decade in Italy has been termed the longest ever, convulsed as it was by government-complicit domestic terrorism and made to confront the twilight of manufacturing, post-colonial disarray, politicized psychoanalysis, and the arrival of new media. Il Manifesto was in tune with the tremor of revolution felt across Italy. Its readers knew that the paper's news coverage could be spotty, and often bought it along with a mainstream sheet. But they relished its political hatchet work and the spirited asides about countries off the map or obscure books or movies that would take years to reach the general public.

The 1980s brought Italy Reaganomics and a Saturday Night Fever that put commerce and politics in bed together. Bettino Craxi took over the Socialist Party and dumped Karl Marx. He courted young entrepreneurs, among them Silvio Berlusconi. Il Manifesto kept its critical gaze fixed on the country, but its targets were less clear. Directors of the paper came and went, often after long, stormy assemblies where the staff fought over their fate. The team spirit survived though individuals departed for lucrative posts in TV or the mainstream press.

The end of Communism in Europe in 1989 presented the paper with a new challenge. Marx had become a disgraced uncle for much of the Italian Left. The C.P.I. turned into an identity-seeking chameleon. Gordon Gekko, slick brokers, bumptious soccer players, and American psychos became the icons of the day. The Party that Il Manifesto had devoted so much fervor to keeping up to the mark was no more. The offspring watched their father's funeral with dismay but vowed in some way or another to keep the family going.

Increasingly Il Manifesto articles dealt with finance, developments in the media, and sports. A Saturday cultural supplement, Alias, took on unconventional subjects of the widest interest. Ideology ceased to be the only ticket of entry. Points of view multiplied, especially in the contributions of the new generation.

In 1994, the television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi's party led the national government. It would do so again, except for two years, from 2001 till the present. In the nineties, working-class issues lost their centrality and the hammer and sickle no longer conjured up the world of work. Readers of Il Manifesto could now be described as "the happy few" or even as "highbrows." People on the left kept buying it because they wanted to rub shoulders with others who didn't accept capitalism as the last stage, and the goal, of history. Reading Il Manifesto meant you still felt another world was possible even if you didn't know how to bring it about. That feeling made it worthwhile to pay a little more for Il Manifesto than for another paper. It might be read along with one of the give-away sheets that suddenly flooded city centers.

Whether Il Manifesto will reach its fortieth birthday in 2011 is overshadowed by a much larger question. Will 2011 see Italy celebrating its 150th year as a nation? The Berlusconi government relies heavily on Umberto Bossi of the Northern League as its closest ally. Bossi's party is intent on breaking up the nation into North and South. In this troubled climate Il Manifesto has retreated from its old headquarters in the expensive center of Rome and regrouped for economy's sake in rented premises in an anonymous part of Trastevere. I recently sought out the new offices, trudging between the hulking buildings of Via Bargoni. It was in this area that twenty years ago, just after 1989, Russian refugees sold miscellaneous belongings, teapots, binoculars, medals, military caps. History in Rome takes some strange turns.

Production costs are rising, Internet blogs are poaching readers and competition has come this year from a new left-wing paper, Il Fatto Quotidiano. Worst of all, Italian interest in progressive ideas has sunk to a new low. All the same, Il Manifesto journalists have settled into their new quarters stout of heart. Their proud motto remains, Forty years on the wrong side, and they are determined to maintain the critical viewpoint they hold dear.

Norma Rangeri, who had written about television, was elected editor in May. She aims to make the paper more visible at sales points, to increase presence on the Web and perhaps on TV. In her first article as director on May 8th she wrote, "we, Il Manifesto crew, sail on the open sea in an outmoded vessel with a rusted compass and a diesel engine liable to conk out in the midst of a storm." Still, she has confidence that her mariners will continue to touch down each day in port where a "thinking, cultivated and politically aware" readership waits for the prized cargo.

Ms. Rangeri, a student of mass media, sees the importance of making known your product and its availability. Other Il Manifesto journalists hold that the first concern of Marxist intellectuals shouldn't be visibility. Ida Dominijanni, for one, feels they shouldn't be polished apples in a stylish basket. On the contrary, they should peer into the dark looking for the invisible, which will only be seen by the mainstream a good deal later.

To see, or to be seen? Both intents flourish along with many others in Il Manifesto. There's no question but that you have first to survive in order to speak hard truths. You also need a roof over your head. The building where Il Manifesto was quartered belongs to Marco Tronchetti Provera, chairman of Pirelli & Company, one of the most powerful figures of Italian capitalism. Although this never in any way affected the paper's content, it does demonstrate how complicated it can be to bring out A Communist Newspaper daily in 21st century Italy. Italian capitalism, it shouldn't be forgotten, has always maintained strong (and often murky) links to the state economy. Hybrids are the norm. If there's a place in the world where free competition really exists, it certainly isn't Italy. It's consoling to think that enlightened monarchs have been known to achieve revolutionary goals.

Il Manifesto journalists live "a communist experience" by working side by side in a spirit of mutual criticism and respect. No one is fired by a downsizing expert, and pregnant workers are not asked to resign. At the other end of the production process, Il Manifesto readers are of a diversity equivalent to the various points of view of the editorial staff. To read the Communist Newspaper a university degree isn't required but can be of some help, and at times graduate-school work seems necessary.

These exacting readers pitched in with help and bought Il Manifesto during its "Let-us-survive" campaign for a whopping $63 a copy. It had just shrunk from 18 to 16 pages, but they knew it would contain at least one article that opened new perspectives on politics and society. A national paper like La Repubblica may have almost doubled it pages, adding a rich daily R2 section. L'Unità and Liberazione may have continued the proven formula of political party organs. Il Fatto Quotidiano may be taking a stern look at national politics and Berlusconi's misdemeanors. But Il Manifesto always comes up with what can't be found elsewhere: Maybe a stringent view from the left of Cuban economics, a dissection of California's public debt, a scholarly review of a psychoanalytical congress, or a steady look at an East African country like Somalia or Ethiopia (both colonized by Italy in WWII but now forgotten by the national media). In Alias, the Saturday supplement, readers can find articles on scarcely known musicians who just might break through some day, on out-of-the-way films or obscure books, possibly my own reviews of Turkish novels.

It has to be admitted that all this seems aimed at Stendhal's "happy few," a breed fewer than ever in contemporary Italy. The paper's prime focus isn't on workers, trade unions, industrial production, or new jobs. Labor isn't the central issue of Il Manifesto. The staff remains divided, some seeing the Fordist production model as still vital, others concentrating on the new configurations of labor.

Probably, the tasteful readers of the paper have a white-collar job, have just lost one, or are looking for another. Il Manifesto would have much to say to blue-collar workers but can't lure them away from TV and the give-away press. Their votes go to Berlusconi and Bossi whose line is that immigrants steal jobs from Italians.

Parties of the left in Italy have still not fully reconsidered the dramatic changes in the world of work. Il Manifesto, while successful in remaining independent of the parties, has got no further in understanding what workers, with varied collars or none at all, actually think and do. Their perspective here is hardly Marxist.

Even before Ms. Rangeri took over as director, Il Manifesto had sought to overcome the operational difficulties of the times by attracting more public attention. It took to filling its front page with a huge photograph wittily captioned. This worked to the extent that it made for talking points on the morning TV press review programs. But it's not clear whether the stratagem has proven only a smart trick to gain circulation or a genuine if spectacular version of Marxist critique.

Recently Il Manifesto won a prize for the best newspaper headline of the year. It appeared on November 5th, 2008, to announce the election of Barack Obama and read Indovina chi viene a cena?, which is of course the title of a 1967 movie well-known in Italy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracey, and Katherine Hepburn. The prize, offered by the Ferrari winery, was a thousand bottles of their renowned spumante, a fitting reward for the Caviar Left.

But after glasses are raised to the revolution, the staff of Il Manifesto will have to go back to work. They know that their future depends on the quality of their writing, namely, on offering a sharp and unsparing account of Italy and the world. They also know that they will have to do so even if their work may be more appreciated by those in the parties of the left who dream of one day running the country than by the part-time worker whose factory is going to be closed.


Author's note: Thanks to Roberto Andreotti, Ida Dominijanni, Maurizio Galvani, and Peter Byrne for their cooperation.


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 28, 2010