Panzieri and the Limits of Left Renovation

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 6, 2011

To commentators outside the PSI, the growing fissures within that party seemed to reduce its internal life during the late 1950s to little more than factional manoeuvring (Barnes 1967: 64-71). Yet if the collapse of the Soviet Union as a model and guide served ultimately to consolidate the Socialist Party’s slide towards social democracy, it also opened up space for a brief time to more critical enquiry within the party’s left. To a new levy of Italian Marxists seeking, a decade later, to escape the political hegemony of the PCI, the names of that period – Gianni Bosio, Vittorio Foa, Franco Fortini – would become important reference points (Bermani and Cuzzaniti 1977; Bonini 1978; Forgacs 1984). The most exceptional of these militant Socialists of the 1950s, however, was Raniero Panzieri, whose response to the uncertainties of the period was to grapple with the fundamental relation between class and organisation. Panzieri, of course, was not alone in this endeavour: amongst his contemporaries on the left, Danilo Montaldi (1994) in particular had similar concerns – even, at times, a clearer vision. But Montaldi, the son of a Bordighist, operated both by circumstance and choice on the margins of theofficial labour movement: what made Panzieri’s line of development so novel, and ultimately influential, was that it struck out from the heart of the historic left itself. An anonymous tribute in Classe Operaia would later express Panzieri’s uniqueness well: ‘among the countless “leaders” of the organised movement’, it said, ‘only one had consciously chosen the path of his Own defeat, because this led towards the working class’ (Classe Operaia 1964g: 23).

Born in Rome in 1921, Panzieri’s early intellectual formation was unusual for his generation in that it encompassed neither idealism nor historicism (Merli 1979: 91, 77). His writings of the 1940s committed to the advancement of an authentically Marxist culture in Italy, were sometimes marred by a certain intolerance towards thinkers deemed renegades by Stalinism. But they were also concerned less with orthodoxy than the critique elaborated by Marx himself, characterised by the young Panzieri – in a pointed reference to the Crocean sensibilities of many Communists – as a rupture first and foremost with bourgeois thought (Rieser 1982: 47). After a period of involvement in party cultural affairs, Panzieri moved to Sicily in the late 1940s. There he became active in struggles over land redistribution, and worked with Ernesto De Martino and Galvano Della Volpe, amongst other prominent left intellectuals. 1953 saw Panzieri enter the PSI Central Committee; the following year, aged 33, he assumed the post of Cultural Secretary (Lanzardo 1975: 8-9). In time Panzieri established himself as one of the morandians most open to critical self-reflection, turning that ‘other’, libertarian Morandi against the intellectual conformism which had come to grip the PSI left. His initial sallies, not surprisingly, were in the field of culture, where he argued that the poverty of postwar Italian Marxism was largely a consequence of the widely held equation between truth, party and class. The fundamental task, he stated in early 1957, was ‘to restore Marxism to its natural terrain, which is that of permanent critique’, something which could only be accomplished by freeing it ‘from the control of party leaderships and party directions’:

Only in this way,- that is, only through the refusal of party-specificity [partitarieta] , and the affirmation of its unity above and beyond political alignments – can Marxist culture rediscover its true function. (Panzieri 1973: 47, 50)

Although he did not state it in such terms, Panzieri already glimpsed that the much vaunted ‘organic intellectuals’ of Gramscian memory were now in practice organic only to the party machine. This did not mean, however, that he understood the ‘cultural autonomy’ of left intellectuals as either the abandonment of revolutionary commitment or a theoreticist return to ‘origins or texts’. What was needed, instead, was an examination of ‘the reality of the political and organisational movement of the popular classes’: an undertaking, he predicted, which would prove richer culturally than either intellectuals or party leaders could imagine (quoted in Rieser 1982: 49).

In Panzieri’s view, the theoretical reinvigoration of Marxism went hand-in-hand with the political renovation of the labour movement, and it was only natural that here he should take as his initial reference point Morandi’s themes of direct democracy and the goal of Communist-Socialist unity. His earliest discussions of left renewal were quite moderate in tone, arguing that the ‘natural terrain’ of proletarian struggle lay within the framework of the postwar Constitution (Panzieri 1973: 36). Like most PSI members, Panzieri then still accepted the legitimacy of an ‘Italian road’; what concerned him was to indicate within it ‘the exceptional historic experience of unitary politics’, which he characterised as its

vision of mass action based on the presupposition of the necessary and concrete coincidence of mass struggles and the objectives of a critical, constructive, democratic vision of national problems. (ibid.)

This was a formulation to which few in the historic left would then have objected. In Panzieri’s hands, however, the notion of ‘mass action’ quickly came to assume connotations quite different to those shared by the majority of Communists and Socialists. Appointed co-director of the PSI theoretical review Mondo Operaio in early 1957 after leaving the party’s Central Committee, Panzieri soon found the journal to be the perfect vehicle for critical self-reflection. Working alongside him was Lucio Libertini, late of a small organisation of dissident Communists and Socialists opposed to the pro-Soviet stance of the major left parties (Benzoni 1980: 64-5). Over the following 18 months, Mondo Operaio established itself as a lively forum for debate, examining both current events and the work of Marxists – Lukacs, Luxemburg, Trotsky – long passed over by the Socialist left (Della Mea 1967: 98). The most noteworthy aspect of Mondo Operaio’s new regime, however, was to be Panzieri’s insistence that the final arbiter of the forms and goals of the struggle against capitalism must be the working class itself. Once again his starting point – that the Italian road to socialism (’democratic and peaceful’) could not be confined to parliament – seemed modest enough; indeed, it was not dissimilar to the publicly stated position of Nenni himself (Vallauri 1978: 95-7). But Panzieri’s argument went much further than that of the Socialist leader. While it was important, he held, for the left parties to make use of the constitutional arena, the struggle for socialism required that the labour movement be renovated ‘from below and in forms of total democracy’ (Panzieri 1973: 102). For this to occur new institutions were needed, ones which must find their roots in the economic sphere, ‘the real source of power’. Then the ‘democratic road’ would not become ‘either a belated adherence to reformism, or simply a cover for a dogmatic conception of socialism’ (ibid.: 110, 142).

Examining the experience of the historic left, Panzieri was particularly scathing in his criticism of the ‘absurd identity between working class and party’ consolidated by the experience of Stalinism. Against this, he argued, the collapse of Communist dogma made possible the reaffirmation - ‘in all its vigour’ - of ‘the principle of class action as the autonomy of the exploited and oppressed classes in struggle for their liberation’ (Panzieri 1973: 61, 62). In this vein he reprinted an article from the Ordine Nuovo period, in which Gramsci insisted that new proletarian bodies were needed to replace not only the capitalist state, but also the traditional organisations of the labour movement, since these had proved themselves ‘incapable of containing such a flowering of revolutionary activity’ (Hoare 1977: 77). At the same time, the Panzieri of the late 1950s was far from being an opponent of the party-form as such. Whilst he acknowledged that the PSI’s surrender to social democracy was a genuine risk, he did not believe that the party should simply be left to fall into revisionist hands. Together with Libertini, Panzieri sought to show instead that, ‘Of the party one can affirm with Marx: it is an educator which must be educated’ (Panzieri 1973: 202). The recent experience of the historic left had seen the collapse of that ‘necessary dialectical relation’ between class and political vanguard and its replacement by ‘the conception of the leading party, of the party which is the unique depository of revolutionary truth, of the party-state’ (ibid.: 194). Still, both Panzieri and Libertini were confident that the questioning provoked by the events of 1956 would return the historic left to the correct path. This they identified with Morandi’s original, anti-Stalinist vision of the relation between party and class, wherein

the revolutionary autonomy of the proletariat becomes realised in the creation from below, before and after the conquest of power, of institutions of socialist democracy, and in the party’s return to its function as the instrument of the class movement’s political formation. (ibid.: 113)

Thus, without ever registering an explicit break in his thinking, Panzieri’s pursuit of workers’ controlled him further and further away from the historic left’s prevalent themes of class alliance and the constitutional road to socialism. As such, Panzieri’s work of the period represents one of ’the first clear, if unspoken, ruptures with Togliatti’s perspectives from within the labour movement itself. Not surprisingly, these views met increasingly mixed reactions from those within the mainstream of the Italian historic left (Negri 1979a: 41-2). To the Communist historian Paolo Spriano, such opinions smacked of ‘left revisionism’; for the Socialist Lelio Basso, any talk about workers’ control was of no practical relevance, since only the attainment of bourgeois democracy was currently on the agenda in Italy (Panzieri 1973: 118, 153).

If such glib judgements were unworthy of either critic, they none the less drew attention to the risk of excessive schematism that threatened all talk of autonomy in the abstract. Panzieri himself was acutely conscious of this. The demand for workers’ control, he stated in 1958, could not be ‘a literary motivation for historical re-exhumations, much less a miracle cure’, but ‘must emerge and make itself concrete within the reality of the working class, expressing its revolutionary autonomy’ (quoted in Della Mea 1967: 100). As that year passed, Panzieri became more and more convinced that such an encounter could not long be avoided. Yet, as Sandro Mancini has rightly argued, such an aspiration was unattainable so long as the institutions of the labour movement remained Panzieri’s only concrete point of reference – some sort of rupture was reqUired (Lanzardo and Pirelli 1973: 14; Mancini 1975: 205).

As it turned out, Panzieri was soon to have just such a break thrust upon him. With the 33rd Congress of the PSI in 1959, the ascendance of Nenni’s ‘autonomist’ faction became complete, and the goal of a joint Socialist-Christian Democrat government was brought one step nearer. One of the minor casualties of the new line was Panzieri, who was removed from Mondo Operaio’s helm. Summing up the workers’ control debate in March of that year, he and Libertini held that it had run its course: what mattered now were practical measures, and in that sense th~ ball lay firmly in the court of the left parties and the CGIL. Notwithstanding the current course of the PSI, they concluded, ‘We are increasingly convinced that the central theme of the Italian labour movement remains that of renovation’ (Panzieri 1973: 239). There was little in Panzieri’s personal experience, however, to justify such optimism. Despite reelection to the Central Committee, his isolation within the PSI continued to grow. In particular, his calls for greater rank-and-file involvement in policy and the reassertion of the left’s ‘revolutionary autonomy’ sounded increasingly out of place in a party leadership maddened by the scent of a centre-left coalition (ibid.: 247-9). No prominent Socialist, he was forced to admit to Montaldi in October, had proved immune from its allure; all of the PSI’s various factions were now united in a ‘common vocation to government at any cost ... Even Libertini has been completely assimilated’ (ibid.: 250, 251).

Towards the end of the year, an embittered Panzieri left Rome to work for the publishing house Einaudi in Turin. Here, in a strange city dominated by ‘cold, smog and monopoly’ (Panzieri 1973: 252), excluded once and for all from the inner councils of the Socialist left, his political career seemed finished. Having finally removed himself from the world of party intrigue, however, Panzieri was to discover the existence of small pockets of kindred spirits. Most were members of a younger political generation: in Milan, a group of left Socialists around Luciano Della Mea; in Rome, a circle led by Mario Tronti, many of them members of the PCI’s long-troublesome cell at the university (Aiello 1979: 371, 395, 403-6). In Turin itself, he was to find a more eclectic group of political activists. Some, like Vittorio Rieser, had been members of Libertini’s Unione Socialisti Independenti and associates of Danilo Dolci before passing to the PSI; others -like Romano Alquati, soon to arrive from Cremona and a period of political work with Montaldi – could lay claim to even less conventional backgrounds. More than a few also came from dissenting religious families, part of the local Valdese or Baptist communities (Panzieri 1973: 261; Merli 1977: 48; Piccone Stella 1993: 186-96). Whatever their origins, however, Panzieri’s new associates all agreed that the growing moderation of the left parties and unions sprang first and foremost from their indifference to the changes wrought upon the Italian working class by postwar economic development. Deeply critical of the labour movement’s present course, their disquiet was not in any way eased by the failure of its leadership to respond positively to the moderate revival of industrial unrest seen in 1959. In a letter written a fortnight before the close of that year, Panzieri indicated both the problem as he saw it, and the means to its resolution:

If the crisis of the organisations – parties and union – lies in the growing difference between them and the real movement of the class, between the objective conditions of struggle and the ideology and policy of the parties, then the problem can be confronted only by starting from the conditions, structures and movement of the rank-and-file. Here analysis becomes complete only through participation in struggles. (Panzieri 1973: 254)

It was here, Panzieri believed, in ‘full and direct political action’, that a new, revolutionary role for intellectuals could finally be realised . ‘Naturally’, he added, ‘none of this is new’ (ibid.). On that point, at least, he was to be quite mistaken: with the aid of his new collaborators and their journal Quademi Rossi, Panzieri now stood poised before an experiment which was to have enormous repercussions for the development of the Italian new left.