Refounding further

Issue: 102

Fausto Bertinotti

Tom Behan interviews the national secretary of the Party of Communist Refoundation

I want to begin by asking you about two important political events. The first is late afternoon on Friday 20 July 2001, soon after the death of Carlo Giuliani during the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa. The Genoa Social Forum (GSF) had convened an impromptu mass meeting at the convergence centre, and you were there along with Vittorio Agnoletto and other GSF spokespersons. There were three possible responses: (1) to immediately launch into unplanned protests throughout the city to avenge Carlo Giuliani’s death; (2) to admit defeat and call off the demonstration planned for the following day; (3) to make every effort to ensure the Saturday demonstration was as big as possible. Later that evening, on live television, you called on all Italians to come to Genoa the following day. But how was the decision made?

I don’t remember the details very well. The day before we’d seen a beautiful migrants’ demonstration, which virtually became one big party. It was a real multiracial and multiethnic demo, and very colourful.

Rather than dealing with the apparent merits of the leaders present at this mass meeting, what is far more important is the ‘twin tradition’, ie both long term and short term traditions, which effectively ensured a ‘conditioned reflex’ response. Indeed, I don’t even remember thinking about it twice. I never had any doubts about what had to be done (and neither did anyone else). But with hindsight, a large part of this decision came from the combination of two factors.

The long term one is part of the history of the Italian labour movement. This is a kind of conditioned reflex—when you’re suddenly thrust into an unexpected and worrying situation, you always come up with a mass response. The Italian labour movement has always had this characteristic—it dates back to the post Second World War period, and perhaps also as far back as its very origins. You’re not quite sure how to respond to this new development, so you bring into play a mass force that also represents a long term political response. The 1968-1969 period was a bit like this, although our 1968, compared to other ‘1968s’, had far more of a mass character and therefore lasted longer.

The second factor was what the movement had already built. While it is true that Genoa was the first big demonstration, it was already a consequence of earlier international developments—there’d already been Seattle and Nice—whereas in Italy there had already been repression at a demonstration in Naples in March. The movement was being born, but this wasn’t its first test. It was already abundantly clear that in general terms the movement was new. Yet the underlying characteristics of the movement already heralded a mass non-violent movement, as well as the varied modes of communication used by this movement.

None of the leaders of the movement had any doubts either over what had to be done. What struck me very strongly, however, was the response of the Left Democrats (DS),1 who had been unclear about whether they were going to take part in the following day’s demonstration, and who then announced their withdrawal. Over the next few days we explained their psychology by saying that we could understand the DS not wanting to take part due to a disagreement over how the demo had been built, but at the very moment when a huge question of basic democracy emerges—with the police killing a young demonstrator—there should have been a conditioned reflex reaction to take part in the protest. I’m saying this to stress there was no ambiguity about their response.

What could have made this mass mobilisation problematic (which was expected) was a militaristic response to the killing. Among the leaders and the vast majority of participants it was taken for granted that there would be a demonstration the following day—but it was by no means automatic that there wouldn’t be physical violence, although probably not urban guerrilla warfare, in protest at the death of Carlo.

Bearing all this in mind, I think we made an important decision. Furthermore, this story illustrates a fairly unusual and significant method of operation. Nobody asked me to go to that meeting, and it was quite difficult to actually be there. What could I say? There was no prior agreement among us about what to say. Everyone just simply turned up with their own personal experience of the movement.

While there was a brief formal exchange of views, we chose the most direct approach possible, ie to tell the meeting the hardest thing going, but which the movement needed to hear. What was it? The only useful response was a mass reaction—that we needed to avoid falling into a disastrous spiral of repression, violence, more repression, because this would have torn the movement apart. At that moment the real danger wasn’t the demonstration being called off, but a violent response to the repression. It was a difficult choice to make because there was a lot of pain. There were small groups around which could have detonated a response built on pain. Some people have said that this was the moment when the movement lost its innocence, but I don’t agree because I find it too much of an elliptical argument. But it is true that Carlo’s death revealed the police’s general response to the movement, and that one of the potential reactions to that would have been disastrous.

Another key moment during the last 25 years in which you were personally involved was a mass meeting of FIAT shop stewards at the end of the 35-day strike by FIAT workers in October 1980.2 How do you think the outcome of that dispute, roughly equivalent to the British miners’ strike of 1984-1985, conditioned the labour movement and Italian politics over the next ten to 15 years?

I remember this very well, perhaps because on this occasion I said the wrong thing! Maybe I can recall it so well due to the memory of us old-timers, who tend to have a bit of a ‘telescopic memory’ as regards events further back in time. It was a dramatic moment—it was from this point on that defeats started. Up until then the huge wave of student and workers’ revolt had been continuing since 1968-1969.

Defining the nature of historical periods is something very important, and although it’s a bit rough and ready, I think we can talk about there being two waves. The first lasted from 1968 to 1973—this was a radical wave, often in continuous expansion. The second lasted from 1973 to 1977 and saw many struggles continuing, although the movement had to start to grapple with a significant response from the bourgeoisie, which in turn revealed the strategic weaknesses of the labour movement.

After the 1968-1973 period, when the movement had been totally hegemonic and had been able to pose the question of fundamentally changing things, in the 1973-1977 period the labour movement started to stress modernisation over fundamental change and things got quite complex. From 1977 to 1980, however, some evidence of a decline started to emerge. And in 1980 this whole wave ended in defeat.

Although I believe nothing else could have been done in terms of the dispute, it also needs to be said that the dispute was conducted aggressively by the workers themselves, the regional CGIL, and the FIOM engineering union. Furthermore, it was a struggle led by the trade union left and the factory councils.3 The national union confederations were involved in the dispute, but they were suspicious. The same goes for the PCI [the Italian Communist Party], except for the polemical speech by party leader Enrico Berlinguer outside the factory gates (which didn’t go down well with other party leaders). What he seemed to be saying was that this was a turning point in class struggle.

There was no other form of struggle available than mass picketing at the factory gates. The struggle broke out spontaneously, and in the local unions we supported it. The reason it developed spontaneously was that if you were to allow 24,000 workers (who were selected on a political basis) to be expelled from the factories you would end up creating a division that could never be healed.4 This was because those who were left ‘outside’ were out, and as for those left ‘inside’ [the factory], who had barely avoided being victims in a social massacre themselves, it would be difficult to imagine them fighting for purely altruistic reasons. The only chance we had was to keep these two groups together, and involve them in a ‘participatory democracy’ form of struggle. In terms of the dispute there was no alternative but to give up. As for the goals we set ourselves, we could be accused of ‘realpolitik’, given that the one thing we refused to give up on was struggling within the workplace.

The demand that began to emerge was rotation of those workers who were to be laid off for a given period—nobody could be excluded and separated from the others. And if productive capacity was to be reduced, everybody would suffer the same difficulties through rotating the layoffs. So nobody would be discriminated against—everybody would be ‘on the inside’—so that although weakened, workers’ unity would have been maintained. This was the crux.

We had a very big internal debate—whether to continue with the policy of rotating layoffs, or reducing the working week. Therefore there was also an idea, not so much of a tactical retreat to regroup your forces, but a counter-attack. However, we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have the strength to launch a battle, either from a trade union or a political point of view. Another important consideration was the possibility of demanding that production be shifted from such a strong emphasis on cars. But these two ‘offensives’, which could have been combined, ie reducing the working week and changing production with a view to developing it in a different direction, were not applied. So we decided to remain united around the minimum demand of rotating the layoffs.

Although I said we couldn’t have done things differently, we had been weakened. And what had weakened us were the strategic shortcomings of the Italian trade union movement as a whole. We were engaged in a fight that had no real connection with the overall strategy of the union movement. We were part of a radical struggle aimed at projecting the movement beyond its spontaneous phase—something that was in open contradiction with the strategy of the main unions, who never dealt with these issues in any general sense.

After the EUR conference what dominated us was an ‘exit strategy’, albeit a benevolent one, from the preceding cycle of struggles.5 We fought an important strategic battle within the inadequate boundaries set by the Italian trade union movement.

Our aims were so realistic that we were just an inch away from reaching them, something that has almost been written out of history. There was a moment when we had ‘virtually’ reached an agreement, because the minister of labour, Foschi, issued an arbitration ruling which included the rotation of layoffs. We were waiting for an answer from FIAT—and in the meantime we kept an open mind on the ruling. And FIAT was in a corner when the government announced the ruling. Sackings had been announced, but with the government ruling we had won rotated layoffs—yet sackings were still on the cards because the legal procedure for sacking 14,000 workers was already under way. But the government fell, and with it the ruling. FIAT then made a shrewd move and announced that ‘for reasons of national interest, ie in view of the government’s resignation, we are turning the sackings into [non-rotating] layoffs’.

This would get workers out of the factory before actually sacking them—and we also knew that part of the union movement was prepared to go along with this. But accepting that agreement also meant accepting the definitive end of a whole wave of struggles with a heavy defeat of the most radical section of the working class, who had played a major role from 1968 onwards—so that’s why we turned it down.

Negotiations began towards the end of the 35-day strike. As long as these talks were being held by the FLM6 and regional unions the one thing we would never accept was dropping the demand on rotating the layoffs. In the final days really heavy pressure was applied by the national confederations, and by the PCI, both on FIOM and the regional CGIL (primarily myself and Claudio Sabattini) for us to leave all negotiations up to the national unions. This obviously never happened, and when the deal was announced in a closed meeting there were two votes against it. And this was the basis on which we went to the mass meeting at the Smeraldo cinema—it was a meeting of all shop stewards from the Mirafiori factory, about 800 to 900 people. And during the meeting Luciano Lama asked me to formally defend the agreement.7

This was a mistake—that deal should have been turned down. But after the ‘march of the 40,000’ it was obvious we could no longer sustain the mass pickets.8 So we proposed to turn the deal down, and to continue a work to rule within the factories. This in turn was also rejected. We were defeated. Yet I am still ashamed of not saying openly that this was a defeat.

It was totally obvious it was a defeat. Yet we tried to talk around it, saying that ‘we’re experiencing a strategic withdrawal’. We wanted to defend what was left of that working class and factory council tradition, but by now it was all under the control of the national union. It was a mistake. We needed to admit it was a defeat.

The last thing to be said is that from this point a completely different period began. From then on we witnessed a totally different kind of social history—things were almost turned on their head. There was still resistance, such as the fight over the ‘sliding scale of wages’ in 1984,9 and some others. None of them though could turn the clock back to the previous period of rising class struggle.

I want to turn now to the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC), and the very word ‘refoundation’. Sergio Garavini seemed to make a serious attempt during the early years of the party to really ‘refound’ communism. Although you had no official position in that period, what were the forces and ideologies that stopped this ‘refoundation’?10

It was the make-up of the party itself. Let’s be clear, though—this make-up was the result of a very controversial event, the disbanding of the PCI.

There is a long and very troubled history concerning those who opposed the proposal to abandon the PCI, ie whether it was right to leave it and form another party. When it came down to it, there wasn’t a left-right division against this proposal—instead there was a discussion about where it was best to position yourself following the defeat of a whole wave of struggles, which had also become the defeat of the PCI.

Some of us on the left such as Pietro Ingrao,11 the trade union left, and some left wing Communist intellectuals, decided to stay in the PDS, following Ingrao’s metaphor of a vortex. A vortex is something that is open, and where there is a lot of energy. For us in the trade union left it was a kind of ‘Labour’ choice. In a sociological sense most workers were going to stay linked to the PDS, so that is where we needed to be—where the workers were. At a time of huge disorientation, political crisis and social defeats you’ve got to stick close to the working class.

This led to the creation of the PRC as something different. Instead of being a grouping of people who had fought against the dissolving of the PCI, it was only a part of this story, given that others—including high profile leaders—had decided to join the PDS. All of this conditioned the birth of the PRC, which in essence was a mixture of those who had never been part of the Communist left such as Armando Cossutta, and his faction, which came from a completely different tradition. They had a strong sense of identity, but were quite moderate. On the other hand there was a grouping that had existed outside the PCI, mainly Proletarian Democracy.12

So the PRC was born out of the assembling of different components. And Sergio Garavini and Lucio Magri were two of the small number from the Communist left who joined the PRC at the very start. I think we were wrong to join the PDS—time has shown that the split from the PDS and the founding of the PRC were the right decision to make. This explains why the ambition to ‘refound’ communism had so much difficulty in making headway. Given its own specific make-up, and the internal factions that were created, any proposal to question tradition immediately meant a crisis among the leadership and uncertainty concerning the party’s future. Although subjective errors may have been made, I think it was the objective nature of the PRC that led to the defeat of Garavini’s campaign.

In fact Garavini was forced to admit defeat. Although some people could say that many of those who caused his defeat did in fact believe in a ‘refoundation’—and this is true—in all likelihood the way that campaign was fought probably led to the disintegration of his group of supporters. I think it would be small-minded, however, to develop this line of reasoning further. I prefer to lay the stress on the debilitating character of that [party] culture. Then again, one could ask, ‘Well, how come you lot managed to do something similar then?’ We were successful because the situation within the Italian left changed.

In a recent speech to your national political committee you analysed a demonstration in Rome [4 October 2003] against a summit of EU foreign ministers where there were two separate marches, and said that one of them was made up of casual and temporary workers, a ‘new working class’. Other PRC leaders have spoken about the ‘movement of movements’ as being ‘the new labour movement’. Where does this analysis want to take us? In Marxist terms, what’s all this about?

You always need to take into account the very novel nature of what we’re doing. It is very difficult to place this inside the classic boundaries of the communist tradition. On the other hand, we’ve got a heretical bent that underpins this theoretical development and, for us, there is the centrality of the movement itself. These are the basic starting points that need to be understood in terms of our ‘cultural origins’.

Firstly, for us the centre of gravity is never the links with organised political forces, but with the heart of society and the movement. Secondly, the transformation of capitalist society is always on the agenda. And to achieve this, the fundamental elements of the Marxist tradition in which you analyse the concrete forms of contemporary capitalism are also needed.

These then are our guiding principles, and so when the anti-globalisation movement was born we immediately viewed it as the material and subjective building blocks for a ‘refoundation’. It was as if we said to ourselves, ‘Up to now we have tried to use elements of our own tradition and history for a refoundation,’ even though we knew very well that, to use a messianic phrase, ‘we were still waiting for the prophet’. It was a time of preparation in the expectation that something would happen. That something was the birth of the movement—this is what created the concrete possibility of moving on from the preliminaries of ‘a refoundation’ to ‘the refoundation’ itself. Although this is something which can be debated, we take the view that we’re seeing the birth of a long term movement. This is why we use such strong statements as, ‘This is the first movement of the 21st century.’ The emphatic nature of what we say doesn’t come from a desire to sedate people’s anger, but from a political decision to stress discontinuity.

Drawing up a balance sheet of the 20th century can no longer be delayed. Whereas before you may have been cautious about ‘revisionism’ because you were anxious to maintain an organisation which contained what was left of a necessary resistance against both the attempted demolition of the very word ‘revolution’ and the danger of not sticking out in the crowd, now we are in a situation where we need to speed up the drawing up of this balance sheet to prepare for working with the movement.

The comrades who left us after our break with the Prodi government, the PDCI,13 have, not by chance, stayed outside the movement. They weren’t at Genoa because they viewed the movement as being ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘cross-class’. This was perhaps the most extreme form of approaching new events in the old way. While others had been more flexible, what was always at stake was establishing links with a new movement. On the other extreme our ‘left wing revisionism’, if you will, allowed us to be inside the movement while making other changes at the same time. We rejected concepts such as ‘the leading role of the party’ or ‘the vanguard’.

We’re not just cheerleaders in all of this. Our reading of the movement is that it has an anti-capitalist potential. We don’t simply say, ‘Oh, they must be good because they’re very active.’ This is the first movement that has created a mass critique of globalisation, and we define it very precisely. From Seattle to Genoa, from Florence to Paris, the movement has set out a mass critique of the present phase of capitalism, which is neo-liberal globalisation. The concrete evidence we’ve got to back this up is that when the government of crisis and globalisation takes on a physical form, eg George Bush’s ‘preventive war’, this movement becomes a thorn in its side. This led to one journalist’s very significant remark that the peace movement has become the second world superpower.

Ours is a strategic orientation. The new characteristics of the movement emerge in terms of how it grows—why does it grow in the way it does? The ‘self-reflexive’ nature of the movement, as defined by some people, is, on the contrary, closely linked to the idea of building a force which organises itself differently, and which is able to oppose the ademocratic or anti-democratic nature of capitalist reorganisation in its globalised phase; the idea of mass participation as a founding element of this culture. This is a critique of the system which seems to have been handed down, in some way, from the Zapatistas. What we’re talking about here is the bringing together of new elements of political analysis.

The second issue is that of the new working class, and here everyone comes with their own ideological baggage. Maybe our notion of working class comes from a specific reading of Marx, a less economistic one, of reading Marx through Walter Benjamin if you like. In this the notion of what the working class is cannot be gleaned from economic analysis alone, in the sense that people are workers only if they receive a wage. The working class is a social category in progress—it is constantly in construction.

Here we owe a debt to Gramsci—the idea that the formation of ‘the working class’ is due to the material element of exploitation and alienation, and a response to those facets of capitalism by an increase in self-awareness. This is why our analysis isn’t sociological, and we’ve always been against those who argued that, since there has been a reduction in the number of workers in capitalistically mature countries, the concept of class conflict is redundant. Not only have we rejected these theories by arguing that the working class, even if one uses a narrow definition, is increasing in many countries of the world, but that the number of workers itself is increasing.

The necessary preconditions for the reconstruction of the working class have to come from: (a) an analysis of contemporary capitalist society; (b) the birth of the movement; (c) what has been inherited from the preceding period of class struggle during capitalism’s Fordist epoch.

This is why we debate so much how to build a new working class movement. But if a new working class movement doesn’t exist, can we create one? Yes we can. Today the prerequisites exist to build one. And in my opinion these prerequisites are: (a) the movement, which is the biggest organised democratic force, and possesses the material and subjective bases inherent in this process; (b) what has been extracted from 20th century working class culture, in terms of contemporary relevance and its ability to make an impact in the future—such as the critique of wage labour.

Then there are concepts from the past that need to be rejected, such as the notion of ‘power’, ie the idea that for the working class seizing power is something that happens before a process of transformation. There’s a line of thinking which says that the seizure of power needs to happen in order for the process of transformation to begin—without understanding that if by seizing power you don’t change its nature, then it will be ‘power’14 that eats up the revolution and that the revolution itself will not carry through a process of transformation.

Of course here the tragedy of Stalinism needs to be considered, the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ that contributed to this defeat. Apart from this, there is also the view that power is somehow neutral, ie you can get in this car and drive it wherever you want. I think we have to leave behind us any notion of the ineluctability of history, that we must pass through a phase of the collapse of capitalism, or alternatively not. Similarly, there is the idea of the development of productive forces that creates a contradiction within capitalist growth that would determine an exit strategy from capitalism. I think the formulation ‘socialism or barbarism’ is far more appropriate—in other words Marx’s warning of the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ was correct.15

Therefore power exists, but you need to anticipate its moves and not let yourself be conditioned by old fashioned concepts?

Power is always ranged against you. Therefore problems of transformation, the building of a ‘counterpower’ and the transformation of existing power are all aspects of the same process. But what does all this lead to? It obviously leads to an emphasis on any aspect of ‘self-management’. It’s true that in some respects this takes us back to those arguments at the beginning of the 19th century, ie between the French ‘self-management’ line and the German one best represented by Lassalle, ie organisation of organised forces—which were also connected to the national state.

So there’s a return to Marx: there will either be a world revolution or no revolution at all—and here our return is total. At the same time there is the very strong message coming from the movement, that another world is possible, and this is something you build by winning back from the system pieces of civil society within which you can conduct activities that are partially outside the primacy of the market.

All of this is connected to the form of struggle we call ‘disobedience’, which is a bit of an elliptical term, yet is connected to the traditional battlegrounds of class struggle, strikes and disputes between bosses and workers, that are obviously essential in themselves. This creates the conditions for making links between the ‘two working classes’.

When I was talking about that demonstration [4 October 2003] I was using impressionistic tones to describe this issue. If that demo hadn’t taken place, we would have had to invent it—if not for the moderate trend within the unions which stopped the movement from holding a joint demonstration with them. The CES [the European TUC] had put forward ambiguous slogans about the future of the EU—they were critical, but from inside the existing framework. On the other hand we, along with the movement, thought that the EU constitution needed to be rejected if we are seriously thinking about ‘another Europe’.

This is why there had to be two demonstrations—even though there was a lot of common ground between them. Then what you clearly saw was the traditional working class assembled up in one square (manual and white collar workers, pensioners) and in another there was, let’s say, the ‘new working class’ (young people in temporary jobs, the thousand forms of self-employed work, elements of the traditional working class, even though they were mainly young and strongly influenced by the movement, contingents of students, a category I now believe has to be classified within the modern urban working class)—all of this was highly visible.

But a problem emerges from all of this. Either these two groups come together and just make bigger numbers, or they build a new social, political and cultural reality—which we can call ‘a new working class’. Otherwise the ‘classic’ working class will be destined for great struggles of resistance, and the ‘new’ working class will be destined to lead big battles, but which have little structural impact. They might possess a very strong critique of casual work but can’t organise effectively against it. These limits among the ‘young working class’ aren’t just subjective—they’re due to the limits of their organisations and those of the movement. Above all they’re the product of a failed grafting operation.

You could look at things differently, from the perspective of what has to be strictly taken as a metaphor: during the Fordist industrial revolution there were divisions between unskilled factory workers and skilled workers. The history of the European labour movement, and particularly of the Italian one, is the history of these two social categories. The working class wins when a fusion is created and loses when it is divided. For example during the Italian Hot Autumn in 1969 there was a fusion of unskilled factory workers and skilled workers, with the emphasis shifting towards the former and therefore towards egalitarian demands that had been anathema to skilled workers.

Although the Italian labour movement is very strong and sophisticated, capable of leading huge struggles, from 1945 to the mid-1960s the prevailing culture within the Italian union movement can only be described as that of skilled workers. When I became a union official there were occasional demands for equal pay rises, but they were viewed as being crude and unsophisticated demands, a kind of working class populism. The sophisticated demand was to ask for proportional increases according to the various qualifications that determined career structures. You needed the revolution of 1968 to put that model under discussion: ‘equal pay rises for everyone’. I believe that in today’s very different circumstances—the fall of the Eastern Bloc, capitalist globalisation—for capitalism the same kinds of problems are emerging, but on a far larger scale.

This is only part of a project to build something, which then has to deal with the subjective aspects of organised politics. When I say we need to aim at building a ‘new labour movement’ it’s a far more complicated issue than that of the ‘new working class’. When we talk about the working class we’re talking about the social subject of the transformation, but when we speak of a ‘new labour movement’ we’re talking about the social subject that changes forms of political organisation.

Bearing in mind your strategic orientation within the ‘movement of movements’, for a party that has inherited certain traditions, how can the ‘classic’ form of a party be maintained?

I don’t really know what the ‘classic’ form of a party is. What is it: the PCI or the French Communist Party? There’s a massive gap between the two. Or the German SPD, the French Socialist Party? The Bolshevik Party? What does ‘classic’ really mean? What’s left of the Bolshevik Party within post-war organisations? Very little, apart from a few features. The best way to explain this is by using a concrete historical example of what you call a ‘classic’ party. For obvious historical reasons, I’ll choose the PCI.

What was the PCI when Togliatti called for a ‘new party’?16 Although I’m not particularly fond of Togliatti, there’s no coincidence behind this—he had to have a reason. Why did he arrive back in Naples in 1944 and propose neither the model of the CPSU, nor the preceding model of the Bolshevik Party? It is here we can see Togliatti’s great strength—he’s thinking about Italian society. Although there are limits to this, there are also strengths, especially considering the period.

Italian society has a certain density—here you can see a Gramscian influence—the famous division between civil society in the East and the West. To some extent Togliatti is extremely indebted to Gramsci and his idea of revolution in the West. So the party is a huge mass organisation that makes use of reformist traditions, which are particularly strong in some regions, even though they are culturally weak and impotent—all of this due to his thinking about Italian society. We’re talking here about co-operatives, trade union structures, the case del popolo.17

What does the PCI do? It carries out a grafting operation. If you look at some of the party’s leading figures you’ll see they were eclectic: the party was a graft of communist and reformist traditions, filtered through the dense nature of Italian society.

Let’s look more closely at what this whole mishmash was. It was a party which, taken on its own, had inherited a lot from the Bolshevik Party—in terms of the latter’s evolution rather than its birth. It was an organisation with a strong hierarchical structure, led by a heavyweight democratic centralism, with a leader who was able to embody party unity. Some of Togliatti’s charisma was due to historical reasons, but some of it came from his role, which to some extent was like the pope and the church: the head interprets the wishes of this pyramid-like structure, which has at its roots continuous commitment and dedication.

This party was rooted in every corner of society: ‘A party branch for every church bell tower,’ they used to say. Communists were also running cities such as Bologna, Florence and Turin, the main towns in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, and were part of local coalitions in Milan and Naples. But all of this would be totally incomprehensible if you didn’t take into account: (a) the building of a mass trade union movement, whose branches were the largest ever repositories of working class activities, which in turn were the highest expression of political life. The union movement developed a huge range of campaigns, both radical and moderate—from the occupation of landed estates to ‘upside down’ strikes,18 from the occupation of the factories to general strikes; (b) the creation of a network of co-operatives, which often organised the feeding of significant numbers of poor working class people; (c) the existence of clubs and associations, which were largely the invention of the PCI. For example Luigi Longo, the PCI leader who had taken a major role in the Spanish Civil War, took a stab at building bowls clubs.

What’s all this about—bowls, cyclists, card players? All state organisations were mirrored within the PCI’s structures. You had the Ministry of Sport, a Communist sporting organisation, etc. Much of this later became ARCI.19 It wasn’t just Communists who were involved—there were trade unionists, co-operatives, republicans, Catholics, and so on.

The party, to use one of Gramsci’s expressions, was built using strong fortresses,20 freed up and organised as forms of popular participation in which party membership was never demanded. This was an area in which the effort to create autonomy was real, so much so that a system of autonomy was created. Obviously this was taking place within an official culture of democratic centralism and a ‘transmission belt’ within the unions,21 which in fact broke down very quickly. There was a real dialectic within the leadership, as well as within and between unions and co-operatives. This is what was happening on the inside. If we then look at links on a broader scale we are not talking about a big network, but a gigantic one. Some of the biggest publishing companies, such as Einaudi and later Feltrinelli, had close links with the PCI and the labour movement. And it almost goes without saying that the PCI had a mass daily, l’Unità, which sold, let’s say, 400,000 copies—but on a Sunday a million copies could be sold.22 Apart from its weekly, Rinascita, the party also had its own publishing house, Editori Riuniti, which published all the Marxist classics—albeit on the basis of a specific kind of choice.

Can we really call this is a ‘classic’ party? I’m not sure. Where can you find a similar party? What other Communist party can be compared to it? This is a great history, as the writer Pierpaolo Pasolini once said: ‘The PCI was a nation within the nation.’

The great strength of the PCI was that you didn’t have to agree with everything. I was in it for 25 years and I don’t ever remember being enthusiastic about what it did or being in full agreement with it—and there were many members like me. You stayed in the PCI because it was a huge political community and not because it had a good party line. Perhaps the majority of the membership didn’t agree with its line—either from the left or the right, or from above or below. The PCI needs to be studied for what it was—a massive phenomenon. Is the experience repeatable? Obviously not, because that party could only be so big and independent since the world was divided into two opposing camps, with one of them calling itself ‘socialist’—even though we thought it was either scarcely socialist, or not socialist at all, or that it was a post-revolutionary regime with powerful bureaucratic and authoritarian tendencies organising forms of oppression that contradicted its founding principles. Even though this is what I thought, what can’t be altered is the fact that without choosing to identify with that camp the PCI would never have had the history it had.

Those who say that in this period the PCI was already starting to resemble a social democratic party have no evidence whatsoever. Such an opinion just demonstrates absorption by today’s reformist fashion. For example the Communist right, which can be viewed as being the most reformist due to its social and economic ideas, was strongly pro-Moscow. Whereas the Communist left—critical of the Soviet Union—had radical ideas. The moderate line of Giorgio Amendola was a political tactic aimed at building a socialist society, whose bulwark was the Soviet Union.

Even though such a stance was completely mistaken in my opinion, what can’t be changed is the fact we’re talking about one of the most influential leaders of the PCI, so much so that this line of thinking still survives in fragments among Communists today. This is what explains the notion that Communists can do anything: from the worst union agreements with bosses to the most revolting social and economic compromises, and so on.

Because Togliatti’s starting point was Italian society, changing it radically meant developing links between the working class (and skilled workers in particular) and intellectuals. Apart from choosing one specific camp, developing these links was an idea inherited from the relationship that had been created between intellectuals and skilled workers. This model existed up to the 1960s, but the movement of 1968-1969 and the subsequent factory councils put it under pressure from the left, attacking its hierarchical structure, its hiving off of political work, its lack of interest in new social movements, the arrogant idea of ‘the leading role of the party’, etc.

The experience of the factory councils is one of a fractious relationship with the PCI, yet overall the 1968-1969 movement enabled the PCI to grow electorally, while at the same time weakening its foundations. And when the ‘double whammy’ comes—the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the beginnings of globalisation—the PCI no longer has a model for growth.

Therefore we’re in a situation of discontinuity—so what does ‘building the party’ mean? We’re obviously in a difficult situation because we haven’t got a model to follow. So we’re obliged to enact a process of party self-reform, of a party that although much smaller than the PCI has inherited an awful lot from it but without the same roots in society.

The PRC is paradoxical. Although it is a child of the PCI model, it hasn’t inherited the same strengths, the same strong fortresses. The CGIL is a big union, but in its 12-person secretariat there isn’t a single member of the PRC. The League of Co-operatives (which isn’t very co-operative), a very powerful economic force, doesn’t have a single PRC member within its leadership. ARCI has become a big cultural association, closely linked to the movement, and with which we are very ‘good neighbours’—but once again there’s no PRC member on its governing body.

Therefore the PRC rests solely upon the consensus it manages to create within Italian society hic et nunc [here and now]. It is like a meteor that is forever measuring its level of visibility, or in other words its power of attraction. It has a lightweight structure but the culture of a heavyweight party.

In my view resolving this paradox doesn’t involve trying to create the same things that made the PCI strong, but driving forward a constant process of internal self-reform whose watchword has to be one of being rooted in civil society. Obviously being rooted in civil society is something different from trade union work, the strong fortresses, co-operatives, associations, etc. But nevertheless it is about being rooted in civil society, such as setting up ‘social centres’,23 building stronger links with immigrant groups, party education—activities that help movements to grow, and so on. In fact the only real tradition we’ve kept from the PCI is the feste di Liberazione.24

However, this self-reform will prove impossible if it is not integrated with the movement’s new experiences: ie party reform and the building of new political participation has to come through links with the movement and not just through a process of internal self-reform.

Throughout Europe—and this is true in Britain as well—we will all face an electoral hurdle over the next two or three years. There will be increasing pressure concerning electoral politics, which will also produce tension within the movement. How do you think tension can be reduced, both within the party and the movement?

These kinds of decisions are based on specific political dynamics—you can’t synthesise electoral trends. We’ve changed a lot in this field, also because these matters are always linked to the current political and social trends—so it’s always a difficult one to call. Things can depend a lot on whether you’ve got a proportional or first past the post system, or what kind of government you’ve got. It’s one thing to stand in elections when there’s a centre-left coalition government (where we chose to run independently), opposing and criticising the government—for which we paid a price. It’s a completely different thing if you’ve got a government like Berlusconi’s, where the mood to kick him out is so intense and widespread.

Decisions about elections are very dependent on circumstances, and they shouldn’t become a barrier to an ongoing political process. I think you can develop a common ground, which is that of an alternative left, in such a way that even at election time the process of building an alternative left is still taking place.

What should the ‘guiding light’ of an alternative be though? It has to progressively but rapidly take on a European dimension—without this I don’t think it will have any real chance of seriously challenging the hegemony of the moderate left. When I say ‘alternative left’ I mean an anti-capitalist left, that has two underlying principles on which it builds:

(1) the general rejection of war, particularly imperialist war. This deep rejection of war should also be the building block of a new politics: ‘What must the central political issue of the current period be?’ The rejection of war;

(2) opposition to, and an exit strategy from, neo-liberal politics.

These are the two policies, the two axles, upon which the definition of an alternative left must rest. ‘Who can and should be part of this?’ All those who share these two underlying principles—communists, non-communists, socialists, non-socialists. I think this alternative left can take many different forms, in line with the diverse experiences of different countries.

In Italy an alternative left should involve the PRC and other forces, not necessarily communist. Above all it should involve different kinds of organisations, not just parties but segments of movements as well—sections of trade unions, areas of social conflict, etc. A form of political participation should be built that doesn’t involve rejecting the party, which is still necessary, but one which situates itself in a closer relationship with other organisations. In this fashion unity and radical politics are proposed at the same time: a stress on radical politics, its ideas, struggles and manifesto; and unity in the sense of rejecting the tendency of movements to split. The movement becomes the basic reference point—you create a kind of political participation that has a dialectical relationship with the movement, but which at the same time plays a part in increasing the strength of radical and anti-capitalist politics.

These are the essential points—which can then be developed in line with hundreds of tactical considerations, that may or may not include increasing convergence with the moderate left. This has to be dealt with on a case by case basis, according to the policies of a specific moderate left. For example, it’s obvious that if a moderate left was supporting a war, or demolishing the welfare state, such an alliance would be impossible. But if a movement becomes very influential, to the extent of being able to establish a dialogue with government (although it would be very unlikely for it to be able to win its objectives), which also favoured the growth of the movement, this would also have to be taken into account. But, I’ll repeat, these are choices which must be made on a case by case basis.

The $64,000 question: what do you think ‘another world’ would look like?

The answer to this depends on your own political culture. Among some of the more debatable statements made by Frederick Engels there is one I view as embodying a fantastic amount of intuition, when he said that ‘the [communist] programme is a flag raised in people’s consciousness’. This wasn’t just a nice turn of phrase—it was a very precise formulation.

And then in a preface to an edition of the Communist Manifesto25 prepared for a worldwide general strike for the eight-hour day he referred to two things—the eight-hour day and the general strike. Now, such a formulation is still valid today, in the sense that a socialist society has to be imagined bearing this process in mind, ie with a general strike the relationship between labour and life in general is still relevant. What is contained in the latter sections of the Manifesto, or in other words what was considered to be a programme, is no longer relevant today. In fact what is there within the Manifesto in terms of a comprehensive programme? Nobody knows, because it has very little influence today. On the contrary, the general strike and the eight-hour day—or the equivalent of the eight-hour day—have remained. This seems to be an absolutely fundamental way of looking at things.

But to answer the question, ‘What kind of society do we want in the future?’ the starting point can’t be an idealistic vision of what this society might be like, and even less the construction of a model. Instead it has to be a ‘programme [as] a flag raised in people’s consciousness’ and the identification, on the basis of the movement’s experience, of some underlying traits of the new society. Today we can be aware of what we don’t want this future society to look like, whereas what it will actually be will be determined by the development of the movement.

Obviously what it shouldn’t be is a very important issue, because it ranges from a society that continues with exploitation and alienation, to the innumerable ‘noes’ which have emerged in the working class’s history of struggle aimed at freeing itself from exploitation. Today examples of this include questions such as gender relations, issues relating to the environment, the relations between adults and children. Equally important is the relationship between society and the state, which we have inherited from a national perspective, and in part from bourgeois tradition.

What it shouldn’t be isn’t a banal question—it means digging very deep in terms of a critique of capitalist society. It’s the same thing as a critique of political economy—what kind of political economy defines the left? Something that starts from a concrete critique of capitalist economics, and then outlines a process of rupture and future advances. Although it’s obvious this is a methodological standpoint, nevertheless it’s absolutely essential. Otherwise we’ll end up falling into one of two traps: (1) sitting around a table and drawing up plans for a socialist society, abandoning Marx and adopting the utopian socialists—from Thomas More onwards there have been people who have rejected capitalist society and moved towards an atemporal dimension, in which an ideal society was created by design; (2) alternatively, you engage in the kind of operation that seemed to take shape after the October 1917 revolution, which is that of building a model.

Given that at that point it had to be an ‘earthly’ model and not an idealistic one, the model essentially became the Soviet Union. And if it wasn’t the Soviet Union it was something similar. Even on this terrain the movement has a lot to teach us: it starts from the goal of ‘Another world is possible’ but then moves on to concrete issues such as the fight against world poverty, attacks on privatisation, a critique of how institutional politics is organised, criticisms of the increase in job insecurity.

In conclusion, I think the only way we can map out a future society is on the basis of freeing it from capitalism. The concrete form this takes will develop from a critique of the capitalism of our epoch, ie of globalisation.


Interview conducted on 27 October 2003. Translated and annotated by Tom Behan.

  1. The Democratici di Sinistra (Left Democrats, or DS), are the rough equivalent of New Labour, and essentially the continuation of the PDS.
  2. In 1980 Bertinotti was a full time official of the CGIL union federation for the Piedmont region, and therefore Turin.
  3. There are three different union confederations, essentially TUCs, in Italy—CGIL, CISL and UIL. CGIL is by far the biggest and the most militant, having been strongly influenced by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) for many decades. Over the last decade the party which wields most influence within its leadership is the DS. Factory councils were originally set up by the CGIL in 1970-1971 as a response to the ‘Hot Autumn’ of working class struggle, particularly within northern factories. Delegates, who were subject to immediate recall, were elected by the entire workforce, whether union members or not.
  4. The initial position of FIAT management was that it needed to lay off 24,000 workers for over a year, and that 14,000 of those would end up sacked. At that time workers being laid off for specific periods would receive 75 to 80 percent of their salaries, out of a government fund.
  5. At a conference held in the Roman suburb of EUR in February 1978, the CGIL agreed a new ‘line’: wage restraint, increased productivity, workers’ mobility and the discouraging of strikes. Although government and employers made promises in return, which were not kept, this conference represented a turning point in the policy of the largest and most militant union confederation.
  6. Workers generally choose their union on the basis of political affiliation. In engineering most workers choose FIOM, which is affiliated to CGIL, but a substantial minority choose unions affiliated to CISL and UIL, a structure that tends to encourage inter-union rivalry. The FLM, now disbanded, was an anomaly—it was a federation uniting all engineering workers, regardless of which of the three big confederations they were members of.
  7. Lama was head of the CGIL.
  8. In the final days of the dispute FIAT organised a ‘back to work march’ (which was actually far smaller than 40,000, the figure the media has now fixed in popular memory) by junior managers and white collar workers, a totally unprecedented development in Italian labour history, which panicked union officialdom into signing a deal immediately.
  9. The scala mobile was a mechanism or automatic pay rises linked to the rate of inflation, which made up a substantial proportion of pay packets up until the late 1970s.
  10. Communist Refoundation emerged in the early months of 1991 following the disbanding of the PCI and the creation of the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left), and was officially created at a conference in December 1991. Sergio Garavini was its first national secretary, who, among other things, embarked on an explicit but essentially unsuccessful campaign to rid the party of its Stalinist heritage. Bertinotti replaced him in January 1994.
  11. Now in his late eighties and still active, Pietro Ingrao joined the anti-fascist resistance movement and the PCI during the Second World War. With the disbanding of the PCI he initially joined the PDS, leaving a few years later. For many decades he was the best known leader of the PCI left, and could roughly be compared to Tony Benn.
  12. Cossutta had been a PCI apparatchik for decades, and deputy leader to Enrico Berlinguer during the 1970s. In the last 15 years of the party’s life he was universally acknowledged as the leader with the closest ties to Moscow. Proletarian Democracy arose from the remnants of the revolutionary left in 1977, and existed until 1991 when it dissolved itself and joined the PRC.
  13. In October 1998 the majority of PRC MPs voted against the party line and supported the Prodi government in a vote of confidence. Despite this the first centre-left government for 50 years lost the vote and resigned. Armando Cossutta and his followers immediately split from the PRC, forming the Party of Italian Communists, and taking up three ministries in the new government led by PDS leader Massimo D’Alema.
  14. A perfect translation is impossible with this concept. Instead of ‘power’ the word ‘system’ or perhaps even ‘ruling class’ could be used, even though Bertinotti uses the Italian word potere.
  15. Bertinotti is quoting from the second paragraph of The Communist Manifesto.
  16. When PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti returned to Italy in 1944 after 20 years in exile, he called for ‘a new type of party’. By the end of 1946 the PCI had nearly 2 million members. Togliatti was to remain leader until his death in 1964.
  17. Literally ‘houses of the people’, these were first set up in Tuscany and Emilia in 1899, and functioned as workers’ labour exchanges, clubs, educational centres and organisational headquarters. In the post-war period they also became entertainment centres. They have now largely disappeared, apart from some areas of central Italy.
  18. These mainly occurred in the countryside in the period after the Second World War, and consisted of peasants occupying uncultivated land, planting seeds and later reaping the harvest.
  19. A mass left wing cultural association influenced by the DS, which has been closely involved in the ‘movement of movements’ from the very beginning.
  20. See A Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971), p238.
  21. An internal codeword within the PCI was that the unions, particularly the CGIL, should be a ‘transmission belt’ for party policies.
  22. Up until the 1970s it was a tradition that local branches would do a mass Sunday sale in working class areas.
  23. Most big towns and centres now have ‘social centres’, generally closed down factories that are initially squatted and then turned into entertainment centres for young people. Each centre has its own political life and core of activists, who can almost exclusively be defined as autonomists, or nowadays ‘disobedients’.
  24. These are open-air festivals which virtually every branch or city federation organises over several days during the summer. They function to both make the party visible and to raise funds.
  25. This is in the penultimate paragraph of the Preface to the German edition of 1890.