L’Unita: The venerable organ of Italian communism breathes its last

It's passing will be seen as the end of an era

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The epitaph, splashed across the front page of a newspaper consisting (as a protest) of only three printed pages, was appropriately self-pitying: “End of the line. After three months of battles, they’ve managed it. They have killed l’Unita.”

So bit the dust a paper which had served for decades as the loyal house organ of the Italian Communist Party, standing by it stolidly through the inconveniences of Hungary and Czechoslavakia, celebrating the false dawn of Euro-communism, till finally orphaned when the party changed its name. It survived, like other little-read daily titles, because the Italian state has long been in the habit of subsidising loss-making daily papers, and even Berlusconi’s governments were too squeamish to cut it off completely. L’Unita received more than £5m per year from the state from 2003 to 2009. Even in 2012 it received more than £2m in public money. It now has debts of more than £20m.

If l’Unita is really dead its passing will be seen as the end of an era.

The paper was founded by the towering communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Born at a most unpromising juncture, one year after Mussolini came to power, l’Unita survived throughout the Fascist years as an underground paper, then came into its own with the rebirth of Italy after the war as a republic.

The Italian Communist Party became the biggest, most cultured and most robust such party in western Europe. For decades pressure from the US ensured that it was on the margins of national politics, barred from playing any role in coalition governments, but given their appalling corruption, this was arguably a blessing in disguise.

The heirs of Antonio Gramsci used their decades in the political wilderness to conquer other citadels of public life, including much of the mass media, the universities and the judiciary. Where they managed to get voted into power, notably in Tuscany, they offered a textbook demonstration of how polite communists can provide socialist government of a high standard without resorting to anything so rough as a revolution.

This strategy of quietly commandeering the heights of the national culture fitted in with Gramsci’s famous theory of hegemony. As he wrote, “The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways: as ‘dominion’ and as ‘intellectual and moral direction’. Hegemony is achieved by direction, that is by the capacity to develop efficacious solutions to society’s problems and the political capacity to do so.”

This formula was interpreted by Italian communists to mean that they could transform society softly softly, by stealthily blanketing the country and its conversation with their ideas, practices and people.

And this is where they fell under the fatal delusion of grandeur that brought them to this sad pass, in which the house organ of communist hegemony is on the point of expiring with a Democratic Party government – direct heirs to the Communist Party – in power.  

Italy’s communists were so grand, so self-regarding, so immured in their private citadels of status, that they failed to engage in the battles taking place all around them – in particular the battle that brought Berlusconi to power, but also the surge of subversive anger that led to the populist triumph of Beppe Grillo. They became merely irrelevant. L’Unita, which never forged an independent identity, went the same way.

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