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Socialism and Democracy

ISSN: 0885-4300 (Print) 1745-2635 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/csad20

From Splits to Unification? On the Recent History

of the Italian Radical Left

Eleonora Forenza

To cite this article: Eleonora Forenza (2015) From Splits to Unification? On the Recent
History of the Italian Radical Left, Socialism and Democracy, 29:3, 93-103, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2015.1103954

Published online: 08 Dec 2015.

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Download by: [University of Nebraska, Lincoln] Date: 30 December 2015, At: 01:00
Socialism and Democracy, 2015
Vol. 29, No. 3, 93 103, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2015.1103954

From Splits to Unification? On the Recent

History of the Italian Radical Left

Eleonora Forenza
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Italian Left, European Left

Syriza, Podemos, venceremos: it was January 22, 2015, when, at the
concluding rally of the electoral campaign, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of
SYRIZA who would become Prime Minister of Greece a few days later,
and Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos in Spain, went on stage in
Omonia Square in Athens evoking the wind of change blowing
from the south of Europe. The reference was to the possibility of break-
ing with the paradigm of austerity and constructing a Peoples Europe,
starting with Southern and Mediterranean countries. That extremely
crowded piazza, shortly after, started to sing Bella ciao, an Italian
popular song of the partisan resistance and one of the most popular
songs of the workers movement. Right there, in Athens, a current
photograph of the Italian left could have been taken, significantly
present in that moment: Cosmopolitan, internationalist, or
A few months earlier, the Italian radical left presented a united list
called The Other Europe with Tsipiras (Laltra Europa con Tsipras) on
the occasion of the European Parliament elections of May 25, 2014.
With 4.03 percent of the vote, the list managed to overcome the 4
percent threshold and bring the Italian radical left back into the Euro-
pean Parliament. Five years earlier, the radical left had presented
several lists (the main ones being Federation of the Left [Federazione
della Sinistra] and Left and Freedom [Sinistra e Liberta]), none of
which had been successful. The unified list, spearheaded by the
Party of Communist Refoundation (Partito della rifondazione comunista
[PRC]), and Left Ecology and Freedom (Sinistra ecologia e liberta
[SEL]), had an explicitly European reference, as Tsipras was at that
time running for the presidency of the European Commission. It was
thus through the European channel that the fragmented Italian left
could move toward reunification.

# 2015 The Research Group on Socialism and Democracy

94 Socialism and Democracy

After the dramatic days in Genoa (July 19 21, 2001), where the
global justice movement underwent a heavy repression, in November
2002 in Florence, during the first European Social Forum, a million
people demostrated for the idea that another Europe is possible.
Two years later, on the heels of this "movement of movements and
with the initiative of the PRC, the Party of the European Left (PEL)
was founded in Rome. The PEL consists of political forces of the left
from much of Europe. Shortly afterwards, Fausto Bertinotti, then sec-
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retary of the PRC, pushed for the formation of the Italian Section of
the European left with the aim of innovating the nature of the party
to provide more organic links with the various sectors of Italian acti-
vism (environmentalist, feminist, housing rights movement, etc.).
The Italian lefts Europeanism has much deeper roots, however. It
is enough to mention the Eurocommunist ideas of Enrico Berlinguer
(national secretary of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] until 1984),
who called for a Europe neither anti-Soviet nor anti-American,1 or
even the relationship that the secretary of the PCI built with Altiero
Spinelli (founding father of the idea of a federal Europe), who was
elected to the European Parliament as an independent candidate on
the PCI list.
Despite this longstanding European orientation, however
(expressed even in Gramscis idea of creating a a European political sub-
jectivity), one of the main tasks of the Italian radical left today is to take
on a national-popular dimension. This challenge has been a constant since
the breakup of the PCI, the largest Western communist party, after 1989.
The debates within the Italian radical left take place, however, in a
context of mass depoliticization, which is quite different from what is
happening in other southern European countries.
The Italian scene is thus marked by a strong push toward social
passivity (passivizzazione) that results from a process of Americanization
of the political and media system which is decidedly more pervasive
than in other European countries a process that in many ways has
its roots in the years of the dissolution of the PCI.

The end of the PCI and the two decades of Berlusconi

Between 1989 and 1991, the PCI held its 19th and 20th Congresses,
in which it decreed its own dissolution. On November 12, 1989 Achille

1. E. Berlinguer, Discorsi al Parlamento europeo (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 2014); G. Liguori,

Berlinguer rivoluzionario. Il pensiero politico di un comunista democratico (Rome: Carocci,
2014), 39 45.
Eleonora Forenza 95

Occhetto (then the partys national secretary), announced the need to

avoid continuing on the old paths and, therefore, also the possibility of
changing the name of the party.2
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the triggering argument for this
step. In this way, the fate of the PCI came to be linked with that of
the Soviet Union, thereby erasing one of the peculiarities of Italian com-
munism its distinctiveness in the global political panorama. A con-
tinuous search for a democratic Communism had nourished the
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Gramscian philosophy of praxis, the concepts of hegemony, war

of position, and Western revolution, and also the crucial Togliattian
search for an Italian way to Socialism and progressive democracy,
and the Berlinguerian proposal of an alternative democracy and democ-
racy as a universal value. But most of all, what made this experience so
unique were the millions of people who, through their activism,
formed what Pier Paolo Pasolini called a Country within the
Country,3 and made communist diversity the guiding principle of
their political practice.
Undoubtedly, the core trait of capitalist restructuring the neo-
liberal restoration that would destroy any compromise between capit-
alism and democracy (whether representative or welfare-oriented)
demanded a rethinking of the communist analysis and agenda.
Hence, the debate over the dissolution of the PCI raised two alterna-
tive hypotheses for innovation: one, a post-communist approach
focused on governability and modernization, and the other, the idea
of communist refoundation, stressing the need to transcend capitalism.
In the latter perspective, discussion of the present-day need for com-
munism is linked to analysis of the complex forms of domination in
capitalisms current phase, drawing on the emancipatory perspectives
of feminism, environmentalism, and pacifism. This approach would
constitute the theoretical core of the No vote (against dissolution
of the PCI) and would subsequently shape the PRC, which was
founded in 1991 and has been one of the main protagonists the
radical left since that time.
The progressive injection of the ideology of governability (with
modernization privileged over democratic participation) is one of the
main features of Italian left history from 1989 onwards. A few

2. G. Liguori, La morte del Pci (Rome: manifestolibri, 2009); F. Chiaromonte and

L. Paolozzi, Il taglio. Due femministe raccontano la fine del Pci (Rome: Datanews,
1992); G. Chiarante, La fine del Pci (Rome: Carocci, 2009); L. Magri, Il sarto di Ulm.
Per una possibile storia del Pci (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2009).
3. P.P. Pasolini, Cose questo golpe. Io so, Corriere della Sera, November 14, 1974.
96 Socialism and Democracy

months after the end of the PCI and the birth of the Democratic Party of
the Left (Partito democratico della sinistra [PDS]), Occhetto backed the
proposal to transform the electoral law from proportional represen-
tation to majoritarian. The passage to a majoritatian electoral system
was central to the transition from the first to the so-called second
republic; it would insulate the political-institutional system from
social conflict. Representation of labor and of the subaltern classes
was increasingly marginalized in the political system, in which how
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to maintain the status quo becomes the main point of contention

between an increasingly indistinguishable center-right and center-left.
In its role as a governing left, the PDS underwent a continu-
ous genetic mutation, not only surrendering its original class-base,
but also fully absorbing neoliberal ideology (in the form of such
key concept as competitiveness, privatization, and balanced
budget). It also went through several name-changes: first Demo-
crats of the Left (Democratici di sinistra [DS]) in 1998, and then
Democratic Party (Partito democratico [PD]) in 2007, thus renouncing
any reference to the word left altogether. Finally, the PD was
renamed by its current leader, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as
the Party of the Nation (Partito della nazione), with a further right-
ward shift.
Certainly, this is a common trend shared with other forces of the
European Socialist Party, which leads the EU parliament in a grand
coalition with the center-right European Peoples Party (EPP), and is
one of the pillars of this Europe founded on monetarism and austerity.
At this point, the entire European Socialist Party is given over to the
logic of neoliberalism and has abandoned any reference to the need
to transcend capitalism. Renzis PD is one of the most obvious
examples in this regard, as the main force in the dismantling of the
Republican Constitution, of working-class gains from the 1970s, and
of the public education system.
The question of whether to participate in government (by allying
with or supporting the center-left) became one of the principal lines
of division within the radical left. The PRC suffered its two main
splits over this issue. One took place in 1998, giving rise to the
Party of Italian Communists (Partito dei comunisti italiani [PdCI]), at
the time of the Prodi government. Another split happened in 2009,
after the electoral defeat in 2008 of the Rainbow Left (Sinistra arcoba-
leno, a left-wing federation that united the PRC, PdCI, Green party
[Verdi], and a splitoff from the DS), which led to the exclusion of
Eleonora Forenza 97

the radical and communist left from the Italian Parliament for the first
The years of the majoritarian voting system are the years of Berlus-
conism, of a political confrontation that did not question neoliberal
recipes whether from the center-right or the center-left, and reduced
itself to a clash between pro- and anti-Berlusconi forces, marginalizing
social issues, while conflicts of interest and corruption took center
stage. Berlusconism caused a profound change in the political, mass
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media, and cultural systems, and even in common sense. Politics, sub-
sumed by the private Berlusconian media empire,5 was transformed
into spectacle and theatre, with Berlusconi as the sole man in
command, with his ideology of competitiveness and simplistic logic
of winners versus losers. This transformation, which laid the foun-
dation for the Americanization of Italian society, represents the
triumph of the ideology of post-ideology (that is, the neoliberal con-
ception of the world) and ties Berlusconism to Renzism.

Italy during the crisis

The transition from Berlusconi to Renzi coincided with the years of
the crisis. For Italy (and Europe), the crisis sets the context for capitalis-
tic restructuring called austerity. In May 2008, after the electoral
victory, Berlusconi became Prime Minister again, remaining in
charge until November 2011. His budget and his reforms of all levels
of education were highly contested. Furthermore, the Berlusconi
years witnessed a succession of scandals, judicial incidents, conflicts
of interest, and a rotten relationship between sex, power, and
money (highlighted by numerous assemblies and demonstrations
by women and feminists).
After a Memorandum sent by the European Central Bank (ECB)
and European Commmission to the Italian government, Berlusconi
was forced to resign. Without new elections, Mario Monti, the so-
called technocrat and former European commissioner who was
strongly favored by the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano
(former leader of the moderate wing of the PCI), suceeded Berlusconi.
Under Montis government, harsh austerity measures were launched:

4. Even during that division which happened after the result of the troubled PRC con-
gress in Chianciano in 2008 the topic of government was resolved and interlaced
with different interpretations of the topic of innovation: on one hand, the refounda-
tion of the left and on the other the communist refoundation.
5. Berlusconi is the owner of three private television channels.
98 Socialism and Democracy

anti-popular pension reforms (the so-called Fornero Law), greater job

insecurity, cuts to public expenditures, and a constitutional amend-
ment to require a balanced budget (approved by both the center-
right and the PD).
The elections of February 2013 created a very unclear political
context: a great affirmation of the anti-establishment Five Star Move-
ment (Movimento Cinque Stelle), the breakup of the Italy Common
Good (Italia bene comune) coalition between Sinistra Ecologia e
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Liberta (SEL) and the PD, and the failure of the PD to form a govern-
ment. For a few hours, Italy found itself simultaneously without a
Prime Minister and the President of the Republic, without a Chief of
Police, and without a Pope (following Ratzingers resignation).6 After
Enrico Lettas brief period in power, Matteo Renzis government of
action began. It pushed for greater job insecurity (the Jobs Act), a
business-oriented reform of education, cuts to public administration,
and a project to reform the Constitution and the electoral system. In
short, cuts to democracy and social rights.
What were the social consequences of these measures? Useful data
for comparing the situation in Italy before 2008 with the current scen-
ario can be found in the OECD Employment Outlook 2015. 7 The unem-
ployment rate went up from 6 percent in 2007 to 12.4 percent in May
2015 (1.3 points above average in the Eurozone). Even more dramatic
is youth unemployment: from 19.6 percent in 2007 to 41.9 percent in
2015. According to the SVIMEZ 2015 report,8 this maintains or even
aggravates inequality between the North and South of Italy, in terms
of GDP, investments, and employment. According to the Italian
National Institute of Statistics (Istat), gender inequality in employment
has also grown.9
In sum, the crisis and austerity measures in Italy, together with the
rest of Europe, have led to increasing the gap between rich and poor,
redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top. In Italy, this hap-
pened with more severity and slower recovery, in the context of
growing depoliticization, almost complete absence of mass social con-
flict, and widespread anti-political movements. And so, as the crisis
went on, with the increase of inequality and absence of social mobiliz-
ation, the protest vote grew enormously more against the rotten

6. The Vaticans influence over Italian politics has always been very strong. This has
been a structural feature of the political system since the founding of the Italian State.
7. http://www.oecd.org/els/oecd-employment-outlook-19991266.htm
8. http://www.svimez.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=335&
9. http://www.istat.it/en/files/2014/10/07-lavoro.pdf
Eleonora Forenza 99

political classes than against the austerity policies themseves. The Five
Star Movement, launched in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo,
defined itself as neither right-wing nor left-wing (even though in
the European Parliament, it is part of the ultra-conservative English
group Farage) and polemicized principally against corruption of the
caste. In the 2013 elections, the Five Star Movement was the first
party with more than 25 percent of the votes, thanks to a combination
of Grillos leadership and populism, and the role of the internet in orga-
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nizing the movement. Also gaining, given a strong political presence,

was Matteo Salvinis Northern League (Lega Nord),10 riding on xeno-
phobic sentiments against immigrants. But in an important departure
from Italian tradition, abstention has grown the most. In the 2008 elec-
tions, voter participation was 78 percent, and in 2013 around 72
percent. But in the 2015 regional elections, it dropped to 52 percent.
The Americanization of the political system thus goes on.

Rainbow, downpour, wave, and water: fluxes of the radical left

during (its) crisis
In reality, the anti-globalization movement or movement of
movements, born out of the protests in Seattle in 1999, deeply influ-
enced the Italian radical left. The powerful days against the G8 in
Genoa in July 2001 (even in its dramatic aspects, the killing of Carlo
Giuliani, the police repression, and the Mexican slaughterhouse in
the Diaz school) will forever mark an entire political generation: the
generation of disobedience (for example, trainstopping11 to block mili-
tary trains). The movement of movements is above all multifaceted:
multitudinous end excessive (to use Toni Negris words). Young
communists (the youth organization of the PRC) and the PRC, the Fed-
erazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (Union of Metalworkers [FIOM]),
the White Overalls movement (Tute Bianche), pacifist organizations,
Christians organizations, squats (centri sociali), and many other realities
animated the Social Forum in almost all Italian cities. The strength of
the movement of movements lies in its mythopoetic capacity and ideo-
logical strength (the view that another world is possible capable of
widening the horizon of what is possible12) which has enabled it to

10. Lega Nord is an extreme right and xenophobic party which, in the European Parlia-
ment, is in the same politcal group as the Front National of France.
11. [In English in the original]
12. Rosi Braidotti, In metamorfosi. Verso una toeria materialistica del divenire (Milan: Feltri-
nelli, 2003).
100 Socialism and Democracy

become the motor for social mobilization and for the transformation of
common sense. In 2002, massive mobilization to defend the statute of
workers rights (passed in 1970) drew 3 million demonstrators in
Rome. At the beginning of 2003, there was an almost equally large
protest against the impending war in Iraq.
Whereas in 1998 the PRC had chosen to break with the Prodi
government and practice building a social alternative, in 2006, it
chose once again to be an alternative in government, in alliance
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with the PD, on the basis of the idea that the power of the move-
ments could influence the action of the government. The results
were disastrous. After two years of failed governing experience
and a consensual divorce with the PD (which was at this point
explicitly a party with a majoritarian vocation), the catastrophe
of the 2008 elections arrived: the Rainbow Left got only 3.08
percent of the vote, not reaching the 4 percent electoral threshold.
Various factors contributed to this outcome: the failure of attempts
to influence government action (due to the limited political weight
not only of the PRC, but also of the movements, which by then
were wearing thin); recourse to the lesser-evil argument to beat Ber-
lusconi, despite the wide electoral advantage of the center-right over
the radical left; disappearance of the hammer and the sickle
(symbol of the PRC) from the electoral ballot; and the general fragi-
lity of the alliance constituting the Rainbow Left. In summary, after
the rainbow, there began the downpour: a dramatic debate was
created in the PRC and the entire radical left that would produce
lacerations and fragmentations a disaster from which the Italian
left has not yet recovered.
In 2008, the PRC held an extraordinary congress at Chianciano,
spurred in part by recognition that the Rainbow Left project had
been a step toward dissolution of the party. Once again in the history
of the Italian left, the rhetorical call for innovation is used to overcome
references to Marxism and to the communist horizon. The Chianciano
congress saw a sharp conflict between, on one hand, the PRC thesis of a
social alternative (building up the lefts social base) and, on the other,
the idea of a governing left, which was favored by most of the out-
going leadership. The analogies to the 1989 debate are many, but this
time, contrary to predictions, the congress decided by a slight margin
not to dissolve the party, to continue with the project of communist
refoundation, and to present a radical alternative to the PD. Paolo
Ferrero was elected as party secretary to lead in implementing these
Eleonora Forenza 101

The project of the PRC, therefore, persists in an obstinate and con-

trary direction.13 Despite its electoral failures, it is the only Italian
party born before the majoritary system to survive the entire duration
of the Second Republic, from 1991 until today. The PRC is rooted in the
history of Italian communism (not only of the PCI, but also of the so-
called New left), but projected into the future. The thesis of a greater
relevance to the present and of the need for communist refoundation
in a neoliberal society, together with the roots the PRC has spread
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throughout the country, account for its 20-year survival, despite the
reduced number of its members and supporters.14
Subsequent to the 2008 defeat, Nichi Vendola, then President of the
regional Government of Puglia, charged the PRC with having a minor-
itarian political culture linked to the past and unable to meet the chal-
lenge of governing. In 2009, he led the split from PRC of what would
become Sinistra Ecologia e Liberta (SEL), which would bring together
exponents of the PdCI, Green party, and a few others coming from the
left Democrats. Strategically allied with the PD, the SEL applied to join
the Party of European Socialists, but soon afterward suspended its
application following a congress on the eve of the 2014 European
elections because of its negative coalition experience with the PD
in Italia Bene Comune. After a phase of oscillations and contradictions,
the SEL switched its European link from the Socialists to the European
United Left (GUE/NGL).
After a poor performance in the years between 2009 and 2011, the
left attempted to do good, a common good. A widespread mobiliz-
ation of common-goods movements highlighted the need to defend
the the commons and public services from privatization, commodi-
fication, and the dismantling of welfare. The mass mobilizations
began with the defense of public education, against cuts and the priva-
tization of schools and universities, for which Berlusconis Minister of
Education proposed a devastating reform that was approved in 2010.
University researchers joined book blocks15 by students in the
Onda (the student movement of those years), occupying the univer-
sities (even the roofs of university buildings) for weeks. On December
14 2010, when Berlusconi obtained gained approval of his program
through a confidence-vote tinged with corruption, a student

13. This is the title of Paolo Favillis history of the PRC: In direzione ostinata e contraria.
Per una storia di Rifondazione comunista (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2011); see also Raul
Mordenti, Non e che linizio. Ventanni di Rifondazione comunista (Milan: Edizioni
Punto Rosso, 2011); Su la testa, November 2011.
14. PRC membership data: 71,203 in 2008; 23,529 in 2013; 19,712 in 2014.
15. [In English in the original]
102 Socialism and Democracy

demonstration in Romes Piazza del Popolo became a riot. One of the

student movements slogans, we will not pay for the crisis, went
viral, spreading to the numerous factory struggles that were being
waged in those months. A few months later, in June 2011, the
common goods movement obtained a historic victory in the referen-
dum against privatization of water. More than 27 million Italians
voted to defend water as a common good. In those same days in
Rome, the Teatro Valle was occupied and became the epicenter for
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mobilizing workers in show business.

Large trade union confederations were not structurally linked to
these mobilizations. They were practically silent during the hardest
years of the crisis and austerity. The two important exceptions were
the schoolteachers (Federazione dei Lavoratori della Conoscenza [FLC])
and FIOM, which, amidst a harsh conflict with Fiat, sought to ally
with the movements.
Unionization efforts did not extend to precarious workers, the self-
employed, and the unemployed. Precarious workers progressively
organized themselves using a tactic of social strikes. The precarious
generations that never knew the right to strike, and for whom precar-
iousness is not only work-related but existential, demand a guaranteed
minimum income.

Practicing left-wing politics: socially useful?

Today, the Italian radical left finds itself again faced with the need
to overcome its own fragmentation a desire shared not only by the
PRC, SEL, and the Other Europe with Tsipras, but also by those
coming from Renzis PD. The shared desire is to build a unitary
process and an alternative political force that could keep up with
other experiences of Southern Europe, like Podemos, Izquierda
Unida, and SYRIZA.
In relation to the question of Europe, the blackmail and imposition
of the Memorandum on Alexis Tsipras have opened an ever-larger
debate, in the Italian radical left, as to whether or not the Eurozone
can be reformed. The idea of the reformability of Eurozone seems to
prevail, but there is great awareness that the defense of the Italian Con-
stitution is hard to reconcile with an EU governance founded on
The European dimension also implies a choice: the relationship
between the Italian radical left, the PEL (of which the PRC is a
member), and participation in the GUE/NGL group in the European
Parliament. The chronic ambiguity in the relationship with the
Eleonora Forenza 103

European Socialist Party, which governs at the European level in a

grand coalition, is not sustainable. Another issue, therefore, is to find
a consensus no longer involving accommodation with neoliberalism
(which had made the radical left lose credibility), but based instead
on a radical alternative not only to Renzism but also the European
Socialist Party. The issue, in other words, is to break with the Socialists
and to construct an alternative left rooted in social movements, as was
done by the Greek and Spanish radical left that is, build a governing
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left based not on the logic of governability but on its opposite, on the
capacity to promote widespread participation, conflict, self-govern-
ment, and social solidarity.
Of course, it is difficult to build a unified process in the absence of
social conflict and mass politicization. Precisely for this reason, the uni-
fication process should begin by reconnecting the social and the politi-
cal, recomposing the social bloc, and becoming a social, political, and
cultural coalition. It is therefore fundamental that practicing left-wing
politics depends on doing socially useful work, being able to construct
forms of mutualism and social solidarity: building society as a form of
practicing politics. Promoting a unifying process will in fact require
combining the various ways of practicing politics (militancy, social
activism, and cultural associationism) in a form of democratic partici-
pation. It will also require the use of the internet to connect people,
while not replacing real struggle with virtual consensus.
The challenge is to understand the formation of a political force as
the building of widespread political strength, to see the taking of power
neither as a seizure of the Winter Palace nor within the neo-author-
itarian logic of governance, but as construction of power shared by
everyone, and connecting emancipatory practices and theories of per-
sonal and political transformation, as feminism teaches. The construc-
tion of the radical left in Italy requires the formation of a new common
sense. It must be simultaneously a process of individuation and of col-
lective political subjectivization: a molecular revolution that becomes,
at the same time, a revolution in the West.

Translated by Arianna Sanelli