Rifondazione’s U-turn

Issue: 105

Fabio Ruggiero

Should the far left be prepared to take seats in non-revolutionary governments? The revival of the struggle internationally has raised this question.

In Brazil two years ago the election of Lula as president forced the different left groups inside the PT (Workers Party) to take a position on this. The majority of biggest left tendency, the DS (Socialist Democracy) agreed to one of their leading members joining the government, even though it had signed a statement of intent with the IMF. But others on the left maintained a critical attitude, and have broken with the PT to form a new party, PSOL, after the expulsion of three deputies and a senator for voting against its pension law.

Now a similar issue has emerged in Italy.

Easily the biggest grouping on the far left is Rifondazione Comunista, the party formed after the majority of the once powerful Italian Communist Party embraced social democracy and called themselves the Democratic Left in 1992. Rifondazione’s leadership decided 18 months ago that in principle it would be prepared to join in government with the Democratic Left and the former Christian Democrats of the Margherita Party. Its general secretary, Fausto Bertinotti, has now published 15 theses justifying its turn for a forthcoming party congress.

Fabio Ruggiero, a supporter of Comunismo dal Basso and a member of Rifondazione, provides a critical account of the new policy. His article was translated from the Italian by Simon Sobrero.

The first act of the refoundation

In 1996 Rifondazione Comunista gave support to the centre-left govern¬ment of Romano Prodi. It believed the only way to obtain anything was to collaborate with a ‘friendly government’, pulling it to the left. The main argument for this line was the absence of mass movements. One short article in Liberazione went so far as to reply to criticisms that Rifondazione was demanding too much from the government by saying that ‘it had voted for 100,000 billion lire of cuts; temporary employment; tax relief for scrap¬ping cars and motorcycles; financing of private schools; and a conditional amnesty for tax evaders’.1

Rifondazione broke its alliance with the centre-left after two years of government, in 1998. Many comrades saw this break as the first true act of ‘refoundation’.

Participation in the movements—the historic turning point

When Seattle took place, Rifondazione was in opposition to a centre-left government led by D’Alema, leader of the PDS. This government had just participated in the war in Kosovo, transforming Italy into the US’s ‘Airstrip One’, and was continuing with the ‘policies of the right’ of the Prodi gov¬ernment. The frustration among people on the left is symbolised by a scene in the film Aprile by Nanni Moretti. It shows the actor/producer watching a television debate involving D’Alema and praying to the TV screen, ‘D’Alema, I beg you…say something left wing!’

The emergence of the anti-capitalist movement onto the world stage connected with this frustration. It finally opened up the possibility of fighting at a global level against the ‘policies of the right’ that governments of the entire world were saying were necessary and would improve living conditions for all of humanity. The movement shifted Rifondazione’s sphere of action from parliament to the streets. The party actively partici¬pated in all the movement’s events— Prague, Nice, Gothenburg, Naples and then finally Genoa in 2001.

It rejected taking part in an alliance with the centre-left in the 2001 elections, opting instead for an electoral agreement against the right wing parties. It prepared and participated in the anti-G8 protests in Genoa, and played a key role in the success of the final demonstration the day after the killing of Carlo Giuliani. In the days immediately following the raid on the Genoa Social Forum’s press centre hundreds of Rifondazione activists were among the organisers of the countrywide demonstrations that occupied the streets, denouncing the abuses at the hands of the police. Its activists were central to the exceptional success of the European Social Forum in Florence and the million-strong demonstration against the Iraq war. ‘The central objective’, the party declared, ‘is the growth of the movement, ie its capacity for persistence, development and effectiveness that goes beyond one-off dates set by its opponents.’ This turn at the last congress, held between Genoa and Florence, explains the work carried out by party activists inside the movement over these last few years.

There was a powerful movement of trade unionists in 2001-02 in defence of Article 18, which protected workers against unfair dismissal. In March 2002 the CGIL, the biggest union federation, brought 3 million workers out onto the streets. Rifondazione did not just defend existing rights. It also launched a campaign to extend them to those in firms with fewer than 15 employees through a referendum which got 10 million ‘yes’ votes. Some 100,000 people, many of them non-members, took part in the party’s annual demonstration in 2002 at the start of the anti-war movement.

At the end of this cycle of struggles Rifondazione found itself part of a head-on clash with neo-liberalism and of the challenge to the hegemony of the moderate left, despite a certain countertendency to support the centre-left city, provincial and regional governments. Its actions in the movement enhanced its reputation in the eyes of the many thousands of people, not only in Italy but all over Europe, for whom hope had revived that another world is possible. The construction of an alternative left to that of the market was at a more advanced stage than in other countries of Europe.

Strategic choices

There was an explosion of trade union, social and environmental struggles in Italy after Genoa. The biggest anti-war movement in Europe has seen millions of people taking to the streets. These movements have con¬tributed to the creation of an anti-Berlusconi climate all over the country. His Forza Italia party lost 9 to 10 percent of its votes in the European elec¬tions. Rifondazione, on the other hand, did very well, with 1,971,700 votes, equivalent to 6.1 percent. There has been a rebirth of working class militancy—wildcat strikes by Milan tram drivers, pickets outside factories, the revolt of Fiat workers in the town of Melfi. However, the right wing still governs the country, ever more ferocious and determined to stay in control.

The growth of a broad movement has put the moderate left into great difficulty. But the movement has a strategic choice to make if it is to win some victories in the face of ever increasing resistance and stronger attacks by this right wing. There are two prevailing tendencies in the move¬ment. One is to chase after the moderate left by looking for agreements on the only level they can accept, the institutional level. The other is for a section to search for greater radicality by detaching itself from the majority of people.

On the one hand, there are those who imagine that a future centre-left government may be shifted leftwards if Rifondazione participates in it. On the other hand, there are those who believe the shift to the left can only be achieved through struggles, but that it does not matter how many are involved in them providing they are radical enough. Unfortunately the great divisions inside the movement between these two prevailing tenden¬cies are undermining its ability to act effectively.

But the possibility still remains of continuing with the construction of a broad movement that unites the struggles against the government and does not delegate the task of opposition to parliament. You only have to look back to the 20 March anti-war demonstrations, the hard strikes of the past year, and the number of street protests against the policies of the government in the autumn.

‘Change in the government’

For a year now the leadership of Rifondazione has favoured the first of the two tendencies. Bertinotti has accelerated the process decidedly over the past few months, without consulting the base of the party, through a series of interviews with the biggest national newspapers. And, in the absence of an organised faction to defend the broad construction of the movement, the majority of members tend to follow ‘common sense’ and to agree.

He has chosen to pursue the moderate left by increasingly contem¬plating a programmatic agreement with the present ‘centre-left’ opposition for a future government. The two central pillars of his analysis are: we can get victories from above that we have not been able to obtain through struggle; and we need unity in order to be able to send Berlusconi packing.

According to Bertinotti the movements have gained sufficient force not to return to the neo-liberal politics of the centre-left, and this opens up a new phase for the movement. To avoid the social and economic crisis of neo-liberalism leading to right wing solutions it is necessary to identify ‘a route, that of the opening up of a new cycle, through action from below and from above, and by connecting these two elements’.2 There is the pos¬sibility of a ‘light government and a heavy movement’, of ‘a change in the government that is a function of the growth of the movements and of their capacity to impact on the sphere of political decisions’. He sees this route as being in the direction of the unity needed to rid Italy of Berlusconi, a need that is urgently felt by millions of people who cannot make it to the end of the month and by all those who have been involved in the movements of struggle of the last few years.

The contradictions

The party’s shift in emphasis is from the struggles to the government, a shift that sees the idea of governing with the pro-market left as a necessary passage, ‘as a function of the growth of the movements’. The shift holds back both the struggle against the government and the ability to pull the movement upwards.

From a party capable of developing the movement and giving a clear direction within it, leading to its numerical and political growth, Rifondazione has moved towards the search for public approval, with Bertinotti aligning himself with ‘average opinion’. It was the drive towards the idea that a party serves exclusively to send someone to parliament that made the prospect of a programmatic agreement with the neo-liberal left possible. The result has been the attenuation of Rifondazione’s positions on all the central issues in the movement, especially the war. Rifondazione’s slogan today is no longer ‘No ifs and no buts, no to war’, but ‘Against war and terrorism’. In an interview Bertinotti even went on to say that Rifondazione would have accepted UN intervention in Iraq if this position was won during any consultation with the broader left wing electorate. At the time of the kidnapping of Italian volunteers in Iraq he maintained that ‘the first thing is the safety of the volunteers’, and that ‘we will talk about the withdrawal of the troops afterwards’. He went on to say there is ter¬rorism, which we must oppose, and a resistance, beyond terrorism, ‘that may be legitimate under an occupation, but does not in itself contain the solution to the problem’.3 This has played into the hands of the right—if the problem in Iraq is as much terrorism as war, won’t the withdrawal of the troops encourage terrorism?

Today Rifondazione is part of the ‘Great Democratic Alliance’ which includes the traditionally centre right Margherita Party and supports Romano Prodi as the leader of the centre-left and candidate to the govern¬ment. How can you draw up an agreement with the protagonist of a ‘Europe based on free competition’ and claim to be drawing him into action with the movement from below?

All these positions have concrete effects on the movement.

First, they weaken it. The confusion created over the withdrawal of the troops, the UN, etc, undermines people’s confidence and the need to get out onto the streets. Rifondazione thus gives free rein to the tendency to rely on delegates to win some victories, to the idea that to chase Berlusconi away you have to wait until the next elections, that if he falls it will be thanks to the parliamentary opposition, and that there is no point taking to the streets because in any case things are decided at the level of institutions.

Secondly, the Rifondazione position accentuates the tendencies towards division. It tends to open the way to those, like part of the ‘dis¬obbedienti’, who simply denounce the moderates in the movement (the large unions and the parties), seeing the only compass as the radicalism of political positions, and who end up pushing for ever more isolated, minority ‘radical’ actions in counterposition to the large demonstrations.

A dramatic example of these divisions occurred recently. Two demonstrations were organised within a fortnight of each other. The first, on 30 October, for the withdrawal of the troops and against the European constitution, was called by the largest organisations of the movement (parties and trade unions). The other, on 6 November, for basic income and against the finance act, was called by the ‘disobbedienti’, the social centre movements and some immigrant organisations. The first took place the day after the signing of the European Treaty. There were 70,000 people on the streets, a world away from the million-strong demonstrations that the Italian anti-war movement is used to calling. The second one brought together all the autonomous groups and the rank and file trade unions, who had deserted ‘the main march of the movement’ a week earlier since it was too moderate. Numbering little over 20,000, these demonstrators demanded the minimum wage for all workers in casual employment.

Significantly, one of the most common slogans was ‘Bertinotti, if you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem.’

The Rifondazione centre backed both demonstrations, but without seriously building either—and without a clear position on the need for unity in the movement. On 6 November a few hundred ‘disobbedienti’ and youths attacked a supermarket, demanding to pay half price or nothing, and walked out with trolleys full of food, video cameras and computers. The right and part of the left went wild over these events, shrieking about the return of red terrorism. Now more than 80 people have been charged and risk up to ten years in prison for robbery. But yet again Rifondazione has not had a clear position in relation to the defendants, so providing even more grist to the mill of those who say parties cannot remain for very long on the side of the movements.

Debate within the party

The same tendencies are developing within Rifondazione as within the movement because of the need to develop a strategy for the movement and of the orientation adopted by the leadership. Different positions are emerging and the debate is polarising as the party prepares for a congress early in 2005, even though the confusion caused by the orientation adopted has encouraged many to remain passive. Members of a party tend to feel greater responsibility than other participants in the movement and so do not regard the question as one of simply expressing a personal opinion. Contradictory forces are emerging.

At present most of the members seem to agree with the leadership. One element is loyalty to the party. Regardless of what they may think deep down, an important part of the membership tend to want to preserve the unity of the party and to support the leadership in order to maintain its cohesion. This, however, contradicts the same activists’ experience of recent struggles and of the force of the movement since Genoa. No change of tack by the leadership can wipe out these experiences and the way they have transformed every activist.

Even those who accept the orientation towards governmental posi¬tions feel frustrated by Bertinotti’s distorting of the positions of the centre-left. In every debate within the party one can feel the push to demand more.

The main conclusion to draw is that the debate will not stop, whichever direction things take—even if Rifondazione effectively gets into government with the centre-left. These contradictions will remain even for those who want to try out the experience of government, and we cannot say whether they will continue to hold on to their present positions.

The future depends on those who try to sustain a clear line on the need to build the movement and to keep the true ‘refoundation’ alive. A ‘critical left’ with these intentions has been created in the preparation of the congress. Even if it is only the beginning, it is the clearest and most organ¬ised response to Bertinotti; 400 members of Rifondazione throughout Italy have already signed its document. The responsibility of those who carry this battle forward is great. The importance of Rifondazione means that the decisions it takes are not a marginal fact for the movement. It spells out the whole future of the alternative left.


1: According to Livio Maitan, the Fourth International member who was one of the founders of Rifondazione, see L Maitan La strada percorsa (The Road Taken), (Massari Editore, 2002).

2: Opening document of the National Political Committee of Rifondazione of November 2004.

3: Interview with daily newspaper La Repubblica, 10 September 2004.