Italian lessons

Issue: 119

The victory for the coalition around Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is much more serious than the Tory gains in Britain’s local elections. It has produced a government in which the hard right have been making the running. The leader of the “post-fascist” National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, now ensconced as speaker of parliament (replacing Fausto Bertinotti of Rifondazione Comunista), has called a murder committed by Nazi skinheads in Verona less serious than the burning of the Israeli flag by anti-Zionists. Still more seriously, the Northern League, in control of the ministry of the interior after picking up 20 to 30 percent of the votes in parts of the north, has launched a pogrom against immigrants.

The scale of the defeat suffered by the left is such that there is no Communist or socialist representation in parliament for the first time since the Second World War. Umberto Bossi, the Northern League’s leader, claims his is “the new party of the workers”. By any measure this is a disaster. It does not mean the left cannot fight back. The political defeat is by no means a defeat for the workers’ movement as a whole. But the fightback is on more difficult terrain than it needed to be.

The direct responsibility for what has happened lies with the outgoing government of Romano Prodi. It was elected in the aftermath of the great waves of popular protests at the policies of Berlusconi’s previous government which began with the Genoa protest against the G8 summit in 2001, and continued with one-day general strikes and huge marches against the Iraq war. Yet in power Prodi’s government followed the same economic policies as Berlusconi’s, while sending the troops Berlusconi had already begun withdrawing from Iraq to Afghanistan and Lebanon. At the core of the Prodi government was the Sinistra Democratica (Democratic Left), founded by the majority of what was once the biggest Communist Party outside the Eastern Bloc as a logical follow through to its late 1970s “historic compromise” with the country’s Tory Christian Democrats (see below).

By the time April’s election took place it had dropped the sinistra (“left”) to merge with some of the Christian Democrats as the Democratic Party, which now seeks to emulate the US Democrats. In the election campaign it responded to the xenophobia of the Northern League and claims that immigrants were responsible for “insecurity” by insisting it too placed “security” and control of immigration at the top of its agenda. The evening the election result came out it made an offer to Berlusconi “to carry through some of the reforms together”.

Unfortunately, however, responsibility for the Italian debacle does not simply lie at the door of this Italian version of Blairism. The mistakes of the biggest organisation of the far left have also played a role.

Learning the lessons the hard way

The electoral defeat of 13-14 April has historical dimensions. The left is not represented in parliament for the first time since Italy became a republic. The populist right of Berlusconi won a big popular majority, and a xenophobic force within it, the Northern League, doubled its support. This changes the Italian political panorama. We cannot fail to see the negative effects of the inability of our presence in the government to provide an answer to the principal social problems of the country. The victory of 2006 was not about defeating Berlusconi only, but about defeating Berlusconi’s policies.

The concrete actions of the government did not respond to this need. On the contrary, they fulfilled the requirements of the powers that be on the principal social questions: the redistribution of income, the fight against precarity, taxation, the laicity [secularism] of the state, just to take some examples. Our political action was ineffectual and the left did not make its presence felt on these issues. That produced a crisis, the depth of which we did not recognise, in our relations with the mass of people and, in particular, with the struggles. It proved impossible to overturn the policies of the last 15 years from within the government and remaining there became as big a problem for us as for the movement.

So run the first few paragraphs of the resolution adopted by the national political committee of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy on 19-20 April. Supported by Paolo Ferrero, who had been the minister of social solidarity in Prodi’s government, it was narrowly carried (90 votes to 70) in the face of opposition from Bertinotti’s supporters, who will try to reverse the position at the party’s congress in late July.

We are tempted to say, “We told you so”—or rather, “Rosa Luxemburg told you so”, since the process described in the resolution, of the far left joining a capitalist government and then finding that the movement as a whole suffers as a result, is not something new. It is an experience that goes right back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Rosa Luxemburg polemicised against the French socialist Jean Jaurès’ support for entry into a centre-left government. As she put it:

The government of the modern state is essentially an organisation of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister… The entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government is not, as is thought, a partial conquest of the bourgeois state by the socialists, but a partial conquest of the socialist party by the bourgeois state.1

The impact of the far left joining a bourgeois government then, just as now, could only be to remove a pole of opposition to the policies such a government was bound to follow, since the forces at the disposal of capital are much more powerful than the voices of left parliamentarians so long as they are confined to ministerial gatherings. Instead of leading workers in struggles over their conditions or against imperialist intervention, the left end up trying to cool down struggles and curtail movements against imperialism. That was exactly what happened with the government the French socialists entered a century ago. Luxemburg insisted, “The radical cabinet…in a series of equivocal manoeuvres in the course of 19 months…accomplished nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Exactly the same can be said of the centre-left government led by former European Union president Prodi and containing Rifondazione members. While Bertinotti presided over the parliamentary chamber, Rifondazione deputies voted for the budget and to send troops to Lebanon and Afghanistan, with the party expelling the one senator who voted against the Afghanistan war. Now not only the party is paying the price. As the resolution tells:

We lost votes in all directions—there were those who did not vote because they felt “they are all the same”; there were those who voted for the Democratic Party because they wanted to cast a “useful vote” against Berlusconi; and a section of the proletariat who felt they were not being defended by the left went to the Northern League.

Rifondazione formed an electoral coalition—the Rainbow Left—with the smaller Party of the Italian Communists, and the Greens. Their combined vote in the European elections of four years ago was 11 percent. This time they got only 3.1 percent: “Most of the lost votes went to the centre-left, but about one in five went to Berlusconi’s centre-right.”

This is not just a disaster for Rifondazione. Seven years ago it was able, with its 80,000 members and its daily paper Liberazione, to rally workers and activists across the country to take to the streets in response of the attempt of Berlusconi’s newly elected government to brutally crush the movement against capitalist globalisation. Those mobilisations were a check on further moves by the government. Now, much debilitated, discredited by two years of justifying centre-left capitulations and split down the middle, it is unlikely to be able to play a similar positive role in drawing together the many acts of resistance to what the new Berlusconi government and its nefarious allies are setting out to do.

First time tragedy, second time tragedy

For those with a little knowledge of Italian history, there must be a feeling of deja vu. The approach that led the Italian far left to disaster was a repeat performance of that undertaken by the old Italian Communist Party in the mid-1970s. After a huge wave of popular mobilisations, strikes and factory occupations from 1969 to 1975, which derailed all the plans of the Tory Christian Democrat Party and provided the Communists with their biggest vote for 30 years, the Communist leadership opted for a “historic compromise” with that party, entering “the government sphere” (although debarred from the government itself by US opposition) and consciously setting out to bring the popular mobilisation to an end. By the 1980s the Christian Democrats felt strong enough to turn on the Communists and to oversee an attack on union strength at the key Fiat factory in Turin.

The lesson drawn by the main Communist leaders of the time was, effectively, that they had not gone far enough along the road to conciliation with capitalism. Hence their decision in the early 1990s to dissolve their party into the Democratic Left—an explicitly social democratic formation—and join a succession of governments with the remnants of Christian Democracy.

Rifondazione Comunista (the “Refounded Communist” party) was created by those who rejected the trajectory of the majority of the leadership, and won a considerable proportion of the old Communist Party’s activists. But its leaders never carried through an analysis of what had happened in the 1970s, or of the “Eurocommunist” approach to fighting for socialism underlying it. Instead their speeches and writings were an eclectic mish-mash of “Eurocommunist” notions and the autonomist ideas popular in movements based outside the working class.

What was lacking was any real analysis of Italian capitalism and of the continuing key position of the employed working class within it. This in turn meant there was never any clear understanding of the centrality of workers’ struggles to achieving the goals of the movements. So long as the other movements were rising, with the big anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations, Rifondazione could swing to the left. Once they declined not only the leaders but many of the activists fell for the delusion that joining a centre-left government was the only way to achieve their goals. The way was open to a disaster for the left.

It is not a final catastrophe. The defeat of the left is not the defeat of the workers’ movement. This is not Italy in 1922 or Germany in 1933. Italian capitalism is very weakly placed as it faces the backwash of the developing US recession and the impact of soaring global food prices. The bosses’ organisation, Confindustria, is pressurising Berlusconi to push through more counter-reforms. And the workers still have enormous potential strength, as was shown at the end of last year when a truck and tanker drivers’ strike briefly paralysed the country. Bossi can ignite horrifying witch-hunts against migrants, but he will risk losing his new found votes from some workers if it is his party, rather than Rifondazione, which is part of a government imposing unpopular measures.

There will be workers’ fightbacks, as there were with the two previous Berlusconi governments of 1995-6 and 2001-6. The left can only rebuild itself by relating to these struggles, as well as to the defence of migrants’, women’s and gay rights. There is no alternative to being part of the wider resistance. But there also has to be the ingredient that has been missing before—a serious Marxist analysis of the mistakes of the past, of the nature of present day capitalism and of the capacity of workers to fight back. The weakness of the forces trying to convey such analyses at the height of the far left’s influence in 2001-2 is the reason it capitulated so rapidly to the Bertinotti version of the parliamentary road.


1: See Chris Harman, “The History of an Argument”, International Socialism 105,