Marxism is an ephemeral, partisan knowledge. The obsessiveness with which it has sought to secure its documents against the vicissitudes of struggle is perhaps an ironic statement to the condition of a thought and practice whose apotheosis, like that of the proletariat and of philosophy, would mean its disappearance – or at least a change beyond recognition. The ponderous bound volumes of Kim Il Sung’s or Hoxha’s Collected Works are the grim side of this predicament, the philological minutiae of contemporary Marxology its honourable sublimation.
Revisiting Franco Fortini today demands some explanation. In a memorable passage from A Test of Powers – his central collection of essays, a pivot of the Italian New Left, which I am currently translating for Seagull Books – reflecting on the Chinese writer Lu Xun, Fortini paints an arresting image of a communist relation to tradition: ‘It destroys the tumuli of the ancestors, it scatters their remains, and plants there the cereals on which the survivors will feed’. Fortini was always acutely uncertain about the address of his writings. He strained towards a political and existential ‘we’ the only way he thought honest: by inscribing one’s intractable subjectivity, but also one’s objective location in the gears of production. In the last decades of his work, with the sordid ebb that followed Italy’s ‘red decade’, Fortini would often remark that his work might only find a hearing among generations yet unformed.
The readers of Salvage may not be these addressees (that’s something to be tested, verified, to use one of Fortini’s abiding formulae), but there is much in the conditions of our present that reveals Fortini’s way of embodying communist intellectuality as a vital resource. To begin with, his reflection on the nexus of tradition, organisation, cultural production and the intellectual. Before sketching that dimension of his work, some general coordinates are called for – especially as, save a couple of long-forgotten essays (in the New Reasoner and Screen) and two poetry collections (Poems and Summer is Not All), and all too recently my own edition of his The Dogs of the Sinai, Fortini is a perfect unknown in the English-speaking world (and has long sunk into malign neglect in his home country).
Born, as he liked to recall, on the year of the Russian Revolution, Fortini began his formation as a poet and critic (and, at the time, painter) in the late ’30s in Florence. A voracious reader from early on (he discovers the The Brothers Karamazov at the age of ten), Fortini is involved in literary and intellectual circles that try to maintain their independence from the fascist regime, and in contact with many figures who will then participate in anti-fascist mobilisation. As he wrenchingly recounts in The Dogs of the Sinai his Jewish father (Fortini’s real last name is Lattes, which he will only use again in a letter to Italian Jews on the occasion of the first intifada) is victimised through Mussolini’s racial laws, while Fortini himself, for complex reasons that also involve his formative reading of Karl Barth and Søren Kierkegaard, will convert to Protestantism (the Waldensian church has an important dissident history). With the armistice of ’43, Fortini takes refuge in Switzerland, from where he will participate in the partisan struggle and the short-lived experience of the Partisan Republic of Ossola (his first poetry collection, Foglio di via, from which I have translated here his ‘Chorus of the Deported’, registers that experience). It is in Zürich that Fortini will also join the Italian Socialist Party, which he will leave in ’58.
The postwar period sees Fortini immersed in numerous collective experiments in progressive and socialist cultural production. Though he will frequently break with them, gaining a reputation for polemical intransigence and moralism (which he, mostly rightly, simply regarded as a matter of principled convictions and political evaluations), Fortini participates in almost all the key journals of the Left that try to develop a space for critical reflection and even political prefiguration outside the hegemony of the Italian Communist Party (PCI): Politecnico, Discussioni, Ragionamenti, Officina, Quaderni Rossi, Quaderni Piacentini, il manifesto, etc. In later years, with the ebb of a proletarian-oriented counter-public-sphere he will take his opposition into the very belly of the beast, the editorial pages of the flagship of the Italian bourgeoisie, il Corriere della Sera. Significantly, Fortini will only enter the teaching profession in his late 40s, forced by losing his copywriting work with the enlightened industrialist Olivetti and his editorial position with Einaudi to turn for reasons of material survival first to high-school teaching and then, only in 1971, to university lecturing – experiences that he saw as enriching his own political relations to the levies of ’68.
Though Fortini’s cultural work spans translations (Brecht, Flaubert, Goethe, Simone Weil, Eluard, and many others), short stories, product branding (he christened the Olivetti typewriters Lexicon and Lettera 22), editorial reports, advertising copy, songs (including a new version of the Internationale), innumerable interviews, paintings, film scripts, radio and TV programmes, his towering achievements are in two forms on which he will also produce some of the most sophisticated reflections in twentieth-century Marxism: the essay and the poem (at long last, Fortini’s poems were republished in their entirety last year, thanks to Luca Lenzini, on the 20th anniversary of his death). But to understand Fortini’s unique contribution to reshaping the image of the poet and the critic and intellectual – this last category being the object of his untiring scrutiny – taking into consideration all of his other experiences in cultural work becomes crucial.
This is because, from the more optimistic horizon of the 1950s, when he reflected on forms of cultural production that could prefigure socialism, to his Brechtian interventions in the 1960s on the need for an ‘ecology’ of left literary production, to his unsparing diagnoses of the degradations of Marxist intellectual life, Fortini worked against the commonplace conceptions of intellectual life that permeated the Left – be it the instrumental and populist Gramscianism of much PCI policy or the sloganeering romanticism of much far-left agitation (I have explored these at greater length in a long essay on Fortini’s work, ‘The Non-State Intellectual: Franco Fortini and Communist Criticism’, originally in the journal Occasion, now the afterword to The Dogs of the Sinai). Synthesising in unique ways the contributions of Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno and Lukács (it’s no accident that Fortini, with rare attentiveness to debates across the Atlantic, will preface Jameson’s Marxism and Form in 1975), and fighting what with reference to Foucault he called ‘the funeral of the dialectic’, Fortini will hold fast to the idea that the material and ideal forms of cultural production are laden with strategic content, that politics and syntax – to use a favourite dyad of his – are inextricable, and that the Left’s complacency about the forms of its cultural production (from logos to grammar, sources of funding to circuits of distribution, choice of genres to use of metaphors), not to mention its subalternity to capitalist communication, can prove lethal (as it arguably did for much of the Italian Left from the 1980s onwards).
The sequence of collective commitments and disappointments that mark Fortini’s trajectory through the century, from the retrenchment and compromises of the Left in the aftermath of World War 2 to the false euphorias of the autonomist surge (here remembered in a touching and tormented poem, Italy 1977–1993) is consistently accompanied by a questioning of political and cultural organisation. A text for il manifesto about the movement of ’77, tellingly entitled ‘Notes for a False Civil War’, cautions those who see that ‘organisation is a trap. They have seen all the new formations fall into it. They don’t want to identify themselves with a programme, a committee, headquarters. They want to coincide with the “movement”: as though life were formless.’ A typically lacerating aphorism follows: ‘You want to act the angel, you’ll only be a beast. He who doesn’t want to be a part, will be all: that is, nothing.’ Constantly driven by his stringent views of organisation to sever ties (often in letters manifesting a kind of unsparing solidarity in division), Fortini will never abandon the conviction that partisanship needs a collective body, cultural instruments, a discipline capacious enough to foster dissent. In his reflections on the failure of the New Left, a failure whose afterlives he will scrutinise until his death in 1994, Fortini writes:
The real problem is not that of restoring a Marxist or Leninist or Maoist truth, nor that of remaking an organisation with the same methods and therefore the same errors as the one that failed in too many parts of the world. The half century that has passed since the death of Lenin obliges us, on pain of death, to rethink reality, not texts; society, not formulae; to produce truth, not to contend over hereditary protocols. It is a difficult task that for a number of years has demanded fierce study and pitiless rigour. Nor is it just a task of consciousness. It is a vital task, in which to invent a different relationship between our present, the site of our pain and our joy, and the exalted or terrifying images of the future and the past.
The ephemerality and partisanship I mentioned at the outset mean that reading (not to mention translating) Fortini today is an arduous task. In his own lifetime he sometimes lamented how the conditions of his own formation were now illegible to new generations, and the virulence of the debates he carried out with the likes of Italo Calvino or Pier Paolo Pasolini – for whom he played the role of a kind of ‘best fiend’ – might perplex us today, shorn of the references, the background culture, the organs to discern how cultural and literary form could be experienced as matters of life and death. Yet there is something painfully timely about many of his texts. In part this is because of an aphoristic, epigrammatic ability that combines the Marxian chiasmus and the Biblical parable, poetic incision with the skills of what he once called a ‘revolutionary copywriter’. But it also stems from the manner in which Fortini inscribes himself in the contradictions of his present, and how he projects his own intimate contradictions into the political field, always maintaining the tension between an irreplaceable I and a necessary (even if sometimes absent) we, or even a tenuous you – in a letter to Pasolini he even suggests that the brutality of some of his criticisms (‘a voice clamouring in the desert can’t use a microphone’, he acidly notes) could be seen as a kind of prefiguration of communist solidarity.
Perhaps no greater testament to this entanglement, politically living the wounds of the present, while never abandoning the resources of the critique of political economy, is to be found in that astounding document that is The Dogs of the Sinai, a truly dialectical memoir and pamphlet, which combines a piercing reflection on imperialism and Zionism (echoing the contemporaneous arguments of Isaac Deutscher), with the rawest of personal recollections, to build a position which combines the highest pitch of ethical intensity with a political horizon that is anything but narrow. It is crucial here to recall that against the provincialism that often beset the Italian Left, especially when it was wedded, as many of his operaista colleagues (and to an extent Fortini himself) were, to the notion that the revolution could only occur at the strongest link, Fortini had an unparalleled attention to the socialism of the Third World, especially to the Chinese revolution, of which he was an attentive and sympathetic observer, never trapped by the kitsch of a certain Western Maoism (his travelogue of the 1950s Asia Maggiore is a great document of this encounter). In his collection Questioni di frontiera (‘Border Questions’: Fortini once described himself as a kind of contraband thinker at the mercy of crossfire from those set on policing political and cultural boundaries), Fortini would speak eloquently of the ‘allegorical countries’ of the Left, and we can certainly see an allegory of solidarity in the lines from his poem ‘Complicity’, translated here:
For every one of us who gives up
a miner in Asturias will be obliged to believe
in silks of violet and silver
and a woman in Algiers will dream
of cowardice and contentment.
Against a Eurocentric Marxist progressivism that would see the communist movement raise the flags of Enlightenment liberalism that the bourgeoise fecklessly deposited in the mud of history, Fortini always affirmed the fact that Marxism had to be a politics of unevenness, of a difference, an otherness, an antagonism that couldn’t be happily resolved, of ineliminable ‘anthropological’ dimensions of human suffering, of the tragic. This critique of a Marxism of continuity, which sees itself as the sublation of liberalism and Enlightenment, is a red thread in Fortini’s work, which joins his acute ear for Pascal and Kierkegaard with his capacity to dislocate the securities of Western Marxism in the face of the writings of Fanon or Lu Xun. In Fortini’s writings we learn that the Marxist tradition can only be a tradition of discontinuity, of wagers and unevennesses – where our greatest allies may turn out not to be on ‘our’ side – and that communism can only perdure if it is a communism without guarantees.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.