For International Women’s Day 2012: Margaret Ellingham, An American Marxist in Italy

Margaret Ellingham, an American expatriate who lived for decades in northern Italy, participated in and wrote about many of the profound social struggles that took place in that country from the 1960s through the 1980s. Ellingham contributed her penetrating commentary on Italian events to the pages of News & Letters from 1964 through 1991, the year she passed away. At least 65 pieces, both signed and unsigned, appeared as articles and excerpts from letters in the paper’s readers’ views section. In addition to this journalism and analysis, she published a book in 1979 titled Le Multinazionali e la Crisi, issued by the Collettivo Editoriale Calusca in Milan. This work has yet to be translated into English.

Le Multinazionali e la Crisi, 1979

Ellingham’s topics included the proletarian upsurges, both large and small, that roiled northern Italy during this period as well as the class collaborationism and opportunistic political maneuvers of the influential Communist Party. While she did not identify herself as a feminist, the wide horizons of her humanist Marxism clearly incorporated the struggle of women against male domination—both in the home and in the workplace—into her vision of the depth of social change necessary to transcend capitalist society.

To mark International Women’s Day 2012 and to commemorate the contributions of this important Marxist Humanist and internationalist, Criticism &c. makes available below a selection of her work from the 1970s and 1980s. The first piece below is a memorial article for Ellingham written by Olga Domanski (Crociani was Ellingham’s married name).  The six pieces that follow are by Ellingham. Of special interest is her critique of the autonomia movement in “Italy at the dawn of the 1980s”.

All of the items originally appeared in News & Letters.

• • •

October 1991

In Memoriam: Margaret Ellingham-Crociani

The nearly three-decade-long, rich, revolutionary correspondence, through which we got to know Margaret Crociani as a true comrade and warm friend, began with the letter News & Letters received from Milan in January, 1964. She was then part, Margaret wrote, of a small group of Italian Marxists who, having read both N&L and Marxism and Freedom, felt we had “a good deal in common.”

It was a period of growing wildcat strikes in Italy and she described the anger of the workers at their union leaders and contracts that served only “to integrate them into the capitalist system.” “These new forms of struggle are discouraged by the communist and socialist parties,” she continued, telling us that this small group of Marxists in Milan and Turin wanted to help make known these new forms of struggle through a paper which would print articles by and conversation with workers themselves. In the same letter she describe a group in Rome that would like to publish documents and books on the European and American working-class movement and invited us to send what we could to begin the exchange of ideas.

By return mail we discussed how important we considered it not to separate the “voices from below” from the needed theoretical development and sent copies of all the pamphlets we had published as well as copies of several of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Weekly Political Letters. While Margaret studied and wrote to us about all of them, it was American Civilization on Trial that she considered so important that she worked long and hard, but without success, to have it published in an Italian edition. That interest became clearer when she told us, many years later, that she was an American by birth, who had left her home in Indiana when still in her teens to “find freedom,” wound up briefly in Chicago during the years of McCarthyism and found Marx through reading “to find out what made society so oppressive.” What pulled her was what she called “the totality of Marx’s ideas—political, human, social, economic.”

It was that same kind of totality that pulled her to Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism: “I’ve read many of the articles in Socialist Humanism,” she wrote us in 1969, “and although some of the Eastern European philosophers have much to say, Raya’s article was the only one in which the concept of object and subject—materialism and humanism—was united and not put at two different levels of human consciousness.”

A thorough internationalist, in her very first letter Margaret asked us for addresses of co-thinkers in Japan, in Africa, in Latin America—and, in turn, shared all the materials we were able to send to her with whoever she felt would be interested in an international dialogue. She not only translated reviews and articles about Raya’s work which she found in the Italian press but wrote regular reports making sense out of the often chaotic Italian scene for N&L.

What, above all, characterized Margaret’s long and vigorous relationship with Marxist-Humanism was that she never separated the responsibility she undertook for contributing such a wealth of concrete material for N&L from the serious philosophic dialogue she pursued around Raya’s trilogy of revolution. “I am very glad,” she wrote to Raya in 1983, “that Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (RLWLMPR) has brought out so many questions that really need to be discussed, especially the organizational question. It is incredible that Lenin’s What is to be Done? Has served as a sort of Bible on this for 80 years. That can be worked out only in the historical and dialectical situation in which one is working…”

Later, she wrote to us that reading The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism we had just published had made RLWLMPR even clearer to her, for “the dialectic is continually in action to create a transformation in society…Each person has a role in creating the new society, no matter how ‘humble’ his social position. On the job and in one’s discussion with others, one can influence and direct the path towards a new and human society. The roots of the new society are in the making right now. ‘Internalization’ means that every person should accept personal responsibility…”

Margaret accepted it as a “personal responsibility” to fight for a new, truly human society on the grounds of Marxist-Humanism. We are proud to have had her as a comrade and a friend. We mourn her loss and honor her memory.

—Olga Domanski

• • •

Journalism by Margaret Ellingham

July 1974

Italy vote rejects Christian Democrats

Milan, Italy—The first time that the Italian people were called upon to vote in a referendum (and on a divorce law that had already been passed three years ago), has shown not only the social, but the political maturity of the people. The Christian Democrats hoped to use the vote to show that Italy was a truly free but Catholic county, but it was clear that the question was, above all, political.

The Christian Democrats were in a type of Watergate. It was discovered that many oil companies in Italy had a large quantity of oil stored up and were waiting for a price increase before they let it out on the market. The mostly state-owned ENI was the principal one accused. Shell had the good sense to sell out before the scandal occurred, but Esso did not have the same success. It was discovered that this was possible only due to the corruption of certain high government officials, and, to make things more spectacular, they were also shown to have been paying fascist groups to create political disorder.

The government simply dismissed itself, got rid the most well-known criminals and, after a week, put itself back in power again with the addition of a democratic referendum.

What the Christian Democrats (with the support of the fascists) wanted the referendum to show was that Italians believe in family order, which also means political order, and thus the acceptance of economic austerity. All of the other parties, including those in the coalition government, were for divorce. The Christian Democrats did everything in their power to make sure the Italians voted against divorce, showing at the same time their contempt for the people’s ability to understand anything at all.

We had to vote on this incomprehensible language: “Do you approve of the abrogation of the Law of Dec. 1, 1970 concerning the discipline of the cases of dissolved marriages?” That meant that if you voted “yes” you were against divorce, and if you voted “no” you were for divorce. The London Economist advised people to stand on their heads while voting. Despite all this, the Italians showed that they were not ignorant, superstitious peasants, but people who understood what they were voting for or against. They voted to keep the divorce law, by a three to two margin.

The result is that the Christian Democratic Party is in a crisis while the unions are insisting on social reforms—a stop to price inflation, full employment, housing programs, economic development of the South. The government is not giving in for the moment, and in fact, if things do not change radically, there is not even the money for these reforms.

• • •

May 1975

 Strikes at all levels of Italian society

Strikes on the Italian scene continue to be continuous. It is not only the workers that go on strike because of the layoffs, but you never know when those that sell meat, bread, milk, etc. might be on strike. Super markets simply close down completely on these occasions.

Now a new group here has been striking—the judges. They’re striking because they say that 1) old fascist laws in direct conflict with the constitution make it impossible to make decisions, and 2) the pressure put on judges from “important leaders” makes it impossible to carry out “justice.” In an indirect way the “feminist” movement has importance in this.

In the last couple of years centers have been put up by the Radical Party in which women could go to be visited by gynecologists for modest sums regarding birth control and abortions were done for $50 to $100 as long as they were considered secure. The government, encouraged by the fascists, arrested around 40 women at one center at Florence, as well as some doctors, and in Rome they arrested the leader of the Radical Party. It created a real scandal since Catholic France has legalized abortions. The judges in Florence are clearly embarrassed. They released the women in less than 24 hours, but the male doctors and party leaders are still in jail for this infraction of the law.

• • •

June 1975

Order, Italian Style

The failure of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, the possibility of a Russian takeover in the Middle East, the fear of the Russians taking over Europe through Portugal, and the absolute need of Europe to get along with the Arabs has created a total mass-mess in Europe.

Things will become clearer after the Italian city and regional elections on June 15. There are only two real contenders: the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats refuse to make compromises with the CP because of Portugal, but the CP has a certain “ace of spades” because of the U.S. failure. In short, these elections will have an international content.

Right now, it seems to be open season for the fascists and police to murder students on the streets, but I think this violence is sort of smoke-screen. Fascism, or state-capitalism, or McCarthyism, or Stalinism (perhaps a combination of all of these things) is quickly taking over in Italy.

The majority of the investments made in industry come from the government. The agricultural sector presents a different problem. It seems that the funds to re-develop the South have been mostly eaten up by the bureaucracy, while the wealthier areas have their hands tied by agreements made with the EEC. Now the government is planning to make heavy investments to save the “free press” because of the increase in the price of paper.

Yesterday they passed a law on Public Order that is really frightening. Only the CP voted against it. One of the clauses is that everyone that belongs to a “subversive group” can be condemned for from two to ten years of imprisonment.

Then, for the first time, I read an editorial in a bourgeois newspaper stating that the only political error made in Italy was accepting the CP in the government immediately after WW II—otherwise the country would be peaceful and happy. Another article tried to explain why some people might be put under house arrest. It said we have to give up part of our freedom and give our lives again to a semi-police state in order to “free” ourselves from outlaws and vandalism, from the terror of fanatics.

There is still the possibility that the CP could get the majority of the votes on June 15, but it seems improbable. To many, the idea of Russian tanks rumbling through the streets is as frightful as the law on Public Order.

P.S. A note to feminists: I now must have a new ID card with a different color from those of “normal” people because I’m legally separated from my husband. There’s no end to “Public Order.”

• • •

July 1981

Italy at the dawn of the 1980s [excerpts]

The anti-Communist Marxist Left in Italy is on the defensive. The state’s authoritarian and oppressive measures, as well as the inability of the Left to cope with the economic and social reality that the 1970s was bringing into being, has brought the Left to a sort of stop for the moment. With many of its leaders in jail (officially there are 3,000 political prisoners in Italy), the most pressing problem in the last years has been prison conditions and the attempt to free those prisoners that have often been falsely accused. As we have already seen, the government has almost ceased to exist, but the magistrature with its judges and police force have increased their power enormously using the means they have at had—mass arrests and police state terror.

By 1970 the Left in Italy had divided itself into two different currents. One supported the spontaneous self-activity of the masses, never denying the need for armed struggle in a final revolutionary contest. It became know as autonomia operaia. The other current was made up of Marxist-Leninist groups that accepted Maoism and “third-worldism” as their ideological base, and also the theory that Eastern Europe was dominated by real socialism instead of state-capitalism.

This lead to a political line of chauvinist reformism that sought to unite the proletarians in the West in order to “aid” the “third world” in its revolutionary struggles and at the same time to form an avantguarde to lead the masses. (The masses are evidently considered a retroguarde) in the struggle that was taking place in Italy and in the “first world.” Both currents contained within themselves many theoretical and practical contradictions that it is worth the trouble to criticize in order to avoid a recurrence of similar errors and to decide on new solution in the future.

The spontaneity of the autonomous groups—which grew like mushrooms in the forest during the 1970s and which represented the spontaneous revolts of the workers in factory (wildcats, sabotage on the assembly line, etc.), of the youth, of many feminist movements, and all of the social groups that protested against the inhuman conditions of the capitalism system—was not capable of creating the fundamental political structures essential to the construction of new forces that could take the place of the social and economic decadence of capitalist society.

The form of the autonomous struggles was very similar to that of the actual “disaffected movement” in Germany and Switzerland. The difference between the two movements is that it is only now that the Italian youth and Left are beginning to understand what “police state terror” and the social-psychological control of the mass-media means in an advanced industrialized country. It is only during the ‘70s that the Italian capitalist class began to use these means of semi-McCarthyism, semi-Stalinism, semi-German Social Democracy to control the thought and action of the masses.

The theoreticians of autonomia operaia (there has been no lack of first class and Marxist theoreticians and intellectuals in the movement) have for the most part ignored the question of the internationalism of the class struggle. They tended to base their analysis on the social and economic struggles that were taking place in northern, industrialized Italy while the rest of the world, and even unindustrialized, Mafia-controlled southern Italy, were left to make their own struggles with the hope that one day or another all of the people of the world would meet together in a new harmonious land.

The Marxist-Leninist groups proposed strongly organized, avant-guardism, presuming that only a small elite should and could lead the proletarian revolution. Generally, Lenin’s theory of democratic centralism was accepted as the basis for political organization, and Mao’s “cultural revolution” was adopted as the ideal for social struggles. Stalinist and Maoist nationalism has also had a strong effect on the line of the Marxist-Leninists.

The Italian working class was supposed to have as its duty, that of supporting the poor of the “third world,” since industrialized Italy, along with the working class, was earning its bread exploiting the poor of the underdeveloped countries. As the economic crisis became an ever more pressing problem within the country, the Marxist-Leninists were forced to support the demands of the Italian working class and the social struggles—forming their own feminist and youth movements.

Other than theoretical errors, there were serious defects in the organizational strategy of the currents. The autonomous movement offered a great deal of theory but very few practical ideas or structures for a revolutionary contest. In the Marxist-Leninist groups theory was almost ignored, while the detachment of the leadership from the masses and the personalism in organizational practice led to an excess of control by a small elite. This brought many to believe that only clandestine terrorism, that is semi-military organizations, could defeat the capitalist system.

• • •

Despite the depressing picture painted above, the struggles that the Left has realized in the last few years have not been fought in vain. The recent referendum on the abortion law is an example of this, and it is also an example of how these struggles have entered into the consciousness of the people. The Radical Party proposed the referendum in order to make some mild reforms in the actual abortion law. The Catholic Church and the Christian Democratic Party counter-attacked by proposing a “right-to-life” referendum which would make abortion illegal. The results of the vote surprised even the most optimistic of those fighting to keep the law.

In the so-called “backward South” more than 60 percent voted for abortion. In the industrialized cities of the North more than 70 percent of the population showed that the right to live in freedom was believed to be more important that the right to a life quite possibly destined to misery and social decadence. In all of the regions of Italy the vote of the people was more than 50 percent for abortion. Considering that Italy is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, one couldn’t hope for better results. If this can happen in Italy, once can presume that the people of the U.S. will also reject Reagan’s proposal for a “right-to-life.”

• • •

November 1983

Italy’s Political Prisons

Milan, Italy—People came from all over Italy this past summer to demonstrate against the conditions in the Female Special Prison in Voghera, but many did not get there. The highways leading to the city were blocked by the police, and those who came on buses were not permitted to enter Voghera.

In some cases whole train wagons were detached at the station of Voghera and sent back to their city of origin before the passengers could get out. At least 600 people managed to get to the town and begin the demonstration, but the police began beating the demonstrators and shooting over their heads. There were from 50 to 100 taken to police headquarters and numerous wounded.

Political prisons have become an only-too-common phenomena throughout the world and, in Western Europe, Italy is in the forefront with its “special prisons” for some 4,000 political prisoners. It seems to me that this is the beginning of a sort of neo-fascism in Western Europe and, just like before the Second World War, this phenomena is developing in the less industrialized countries: Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

The special prisons are located on off-shore islands or in small towns, usually hundreds of miles from the prisoner’s home, and the most tragic aspect is that the majority of these prisoners are under 25 years of age. Recent laws make it possible to detain a person arrested for political reasons in prison for ten years without trial.

In the special prisons one lives in almost total isolation, only in the hours of “air” (walking in the courtyard) can one talk and be with others. Prisoners can be transferred from one prison to another in the space of a few hours, and this is usually done for disciplinary reasons. At the same time they can be put in total isolation for a period of ten days without the possibility of sending letters, receiving newspapers, letters or the visits of their relatives.

It is only through letters from the inmates and discussion with those relatives and friends who try to keep in contact with the prisoners that one can understand the real drama of the situation.

• • •

February 27, 1987

The Present and the Future

My interest has always been in mass movements and their ideological formations, but such movements do not exist in Italy today. Anyone who tries to form a group or organize a demonstration that is not connected with a recognized political party risks ending up in jail. When some Communist youth and Democrazia Proleria organized a demonstration of a few hundred against a nuclear reactor center not fare from Rome this winter there were more policemen than demonstrators. The presence of “Autonomous” protesters was used as a pretext by the police to use tear-gas and beat people on the head—and when the demonstrators tried to escape into the buses in which they had come, the police threw tear gas into the buses. Some ten or so ”autonomous” people were arrested.

The same is true for strikes in which Italian workers have traditionally engaged in massive demonstrations. Now they are settled by union leaders, mangers and government arbitrators who sit around a table and decide on contracts. I have not given up all hope, but certainly it is a difficult situation.

3 thoughts on “For International Women’s Day 2012: Margaret Ellingham, An American Marxist in Italy

  1. Pingback: Remembering Margaret Ellingham on International Women’s Day | Work of the Negative: A Marxist-Humanist blog

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