Many supporters of Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista party are shocked and disoriented. Three years ago it put itself at the front of Europe’s anti-capitalist movement. It spearheaded massive mobilisations after paramilitary police had attacked the Genoa demonstration against the G8, and then kept the momentum going through to the 1 million-strong finale to the Florence European Social Forum and the three million or more who took the streets against the Iraq war and against the Berlusconi government’s neoliberal policies. But its deputies and senators have now voted to refinance Italian troops in Afghanistan and send Italian troops to Lebanon as a result of choosing to join the centre-left government of Romano Prodi, alongside the social democrats of the Democrat Left and a section of the Christian Democrats.
Rifondazione has justified its participation in a bourgeois government as a necessary next step for the movement, as a natural growing over from protest to a government which it claims can be held to a left course.
The strategy is a flawed and dangerous one for the future of the Italian movement, as can be seen from looking at the situation in Italy and at a historical precedent for the party’s action, the ‘historic compromise’ of the 1970s.
The left, the right and the Prodi government
In April 2006 the Prodi’s Unione coalition beat Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing Casa della Libertà coalition by the slenderest of margins. The Unione government has since been in a position of extreme weakness in parliamentary terms. It has only one more member of the senate than Berlusconi’s supporters, despite having a majority in the Chamber of Deputies—and both houses have equal weight. This weakness has been used by Rifondazione’s leadership as an excuse to prevent any of its parliamentary representatives, even those on the far left, from voting down the sort of measures it used to denounce vociferously.
Rifondazione’s decision to join the Unione coalition goes back to September 2004. Fausto Bertinotti, the party’s national secretary, drew up 15 theses describing the overriding priority as ‘the urgent need to defeat the Berlusconi government’ through ‘programmatic agreement among all the forces that are today in opposition’ to that government.1 Bertinotti was a key figure during the election campaign in presenting the Unione as the logical conclusion of the growth of the movement and its ‘capacity to impact on the sphere of political decisions’.2 His performance contributed in part to the high vote for Rifondazione. The party received 2.5 million votes in the election for the Senate (7.4 percent of the total) and 2.2 million (5.8 percent) for the Chamber of Deputies.3 ‘A government programme’, he wrote in 2004, ‘must have as its defining characteristics a break in the continuity of the politics of the Berlusconi government, the construction of itself as a real alternative and the opening of a way for the independence of the movements and the class struggle to win new spaces for the transformation of society’.4
The reality of the Unione in government in a few short months has differed greatly from this ideal picture. There is already more continuity than break with Berlusconi’s government in domestic and foreign policy alike. An initial statement on withdrawing troops from Iraq has been watered down to a phased withdrawal, which had already been agreed between Bush and Berlusconi, and Italian troops have gone to Afghanistan and Lebanon. The government’s proposed budget offers change only in that it aims at making Italian capitalism more efficient and profitable than Berlusconi was able to.
The economic situation that the Prodi government has inherited is a poor one. The Italian economy has been on the decline since its high point in 1987, when Italy’s GDP surpassed that of Britain. The country’s growth has been the slowest in the European Union for 15 years, averaging below 1.5 percent between 1990 and 2004.5 Under Berlusconi, Italy’s budget surplus fell to 0.6 percent of GDP from 3.4 percent in 2001, and Italy’s public debt rose for the first time since the early 1990s.6
The Economist describes the seriousness of the situation:
Italian companies, especially the small, family-owned firms that have been the backbone of the economy, are under ever-increasing pressure. Costs have risen, but productivity has remained flat or even declined. Membership of the euro, Europe’s single currency, now rules out devaluation, which for many years acted as a safety-valve for Italian business. Italy’s competitiveness is deteriorating fast, and its shares of world exports and foreign direct investment are very low… The economy has also proved highly vulnerable to Asian competition because so many small Italian firms specialise in such areas as textiles, shoes, furniture and white goods, which are taking the brunt of China’s export assault.7
The Italian ruling class desperately wants growth and profits, which Berlusconi—despite appearances—did not deliver. The president of the Confindustria employers’ federation, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, could not be clearer: ‘We want this country to grow, to create affluence, to create wealth. To redistribute wealth we must first create it’.8 The ruling class desires major ‘reform’ involving deep cuts—and there has already been furore at Prodi’s limitations in delivering this—with many of its members preferring a ‘grand coalition’ government involving sections of the right.
The pressures of increased costs and competition on family firms is a major cause of middle class bitterness, and is exacerbated by rising housing costs and the increased cost of living since Italy joined the euro. Many middle and working class Italians are having to cut back on holidays and household consumption in an increasing struggle to make ends meet. In 2005, 40 percent of adults between 30 and 34 still lived with their parents, unable to afford a place of their own thanks to rising house prices, low wages, unemployment—especially high among young people and in the south—or an inefficient, bureaucratic education system that often results in students not getting degrees until they are well into their thirties.9 The lack of opportunities for graduates simply increases the frustration.
Such a cocktail of pressures is expressed politically, as elsewhere in Europe, in a degeneration of social democracy, producing increased polarisation—a process reflected in the relatively high vote for Rifondazione in the election, but also in the high votes for the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
This is the situation in which the Prodi government submitted its budget in September—a serious attack on living standards masquerading as redistribution. All the signs at the time of writing are that Rifondazione deputies will not obstruct its parliamentary approval. The budget includes 20 billion worth of spending cuts: €3 billion worth of cuts in healthcare, €4.6 billion in local authority provision and €9.5 billion from pensions.10
Early budget proposals were to raise €13 billion by increasing taxes for those earning over €70,000 and lower them for those on less than €40,000. These caused an uproar. Employers and the European financial press attacked the measures. Berlusconi and the right, far from being cowed by Prodi’s victory, went on the offensive and organised a demonstration of tens of thousands in Rome in October in response to what they regard as a left wing attack on the middle class. Forza Italia vice-chairman Paolo Romani said, ‘The communist parties have Prodi in a stranglehold. Rifondazione is intent on revenge. The middle class is being asked to pick up the tab, because the old communists are outraged by the fact of wealthy citizens’.11
Matteo Colannino, head of the young businessmen’s section at Confindustria, concurred: ‘The government’s reformist wing is submitting to the influence of the extreme left. Italy doesn’t need new taxes, but to create an atmosphere more favourable to business’.12 As a result of this pressure, Prodi made concessions to small businesses over the most contentious issue—they will not have to transfer severance pay funds into the state pension scheme, although big businesses and banks have agreed to, in return for compensation.
This may all be to Prodi’s advantage. As the Economist pointed out, the outcry ‘helps to comfort the powerful left of Mr Prodi’s heterogeneous administration, and may even give him enough leeway to pass other liberalising reforms’.13 In other words, the tax-raising proposals in the budget may well get whittled away in order to win the parliamentary vote. This can be blamed on the resistance of the right—while the left concedes the budget cuts affecting those who voted for it.
The budget signals Prodi’s intention to continue the privatisation of public industries, and attacks on wages and conditions of public sector workers, like those at the national airline Alitalia and on the railways, and to revive Berlusconi’s attacks on pension rights, including raising the retirement age. These moves, described by finance minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa as merely ‘an hors d’oeuvre’, provide ‘a welcome whiff of liberalism’, according to the Economist, which the right and the employers have interpreted as a signal to push hard at the open door. Their protests are aimed at forcing the government to drop any concessions to its coalition partners and follow a full-blooded neoliberal course. For workers it means a continuation of falling living standards, price rises and increasing unemployment and job insecurity. Yet the main CGIL union federation has so far fallen in line with the government; it has, for example, called off proposed national action over job cuts at Alitalia.
Confindustria, which opposed Berlusconi’s re-election but preferred a ‘grand coalition’ of the centre-right to Prodi, complained that the cuts were not sufficient. ‘We expected courageous cuts, more courage,’ said Cordero di Montezemolo recently.14 In this, Italy’s bosses are not alone. In October, two credit rating agencies downgraded Italian government debt to the same level as that of Botswana, concerned that Prodi is just ‘muddling through’, and not taking strong enough action to cut public spending and raise productivity.15 The IMF has stated that Italy should commit itself to a ‘credible path’ of debt and deficit reductions, and a staff mission was planned in November to examine the budget.16
Unsurprisingly, government popularity has plummeted: a poll in La Repubblica newspaper in October found that 45 percent trusted the government, down from 57 percent the previous month.17 Rifondazione is part of a coalition that has so far had very little to do with delivering reforms for the improvement of workers’ lives or with constructing a real alternative to neoliberalism.
Bertinotti declared in an interview in this journal in spring 2004 that the twin principles on which an alternative left capable of challenging the ‘moderate left’ and the right could be built in Italy were ‘the general rejection of war, especially imperialist war’ and ‘opposition to, and an exit strategy from, neoliberal politics’.18 Yet when Prodi called two confidence votes over the refinancing of Italy’s mission in Afghanistan, where it has 1,300 soldiers as part of the NATO force, Rifondazione deputies and senators—including one from the left inside Rifondazione, Sinistra Critica (Critical Left), which said it was against the mission—nevertheless backed the funding by refusing to oppose the confidence vote.
Another, more symbolic, example of the speed with which the Rifondazione leadership has shifted rightward was the newspaper photograph of Bertinotti embracing Gianfranco Fini of the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale while sharing a platform with him at the annual conference of that party’s youth wing at which the Rifondazione leader spoke of the need to ‘build bridges between the different traditions’.
This dramatic shift to the right has confused and disoriented many activists politicised by the movement since Seattle, especially Rifondazione’s own members. The early impact on the movement in Italy has been nothing short of disastrous. Two years ago 1 million marched in Rome against the Iraq war but a recent anti-war demonstration in Rome mustered only a thousand people.
Rifondazione’s political itinerary
For many, Rifondazione’s behaviour is history repeating itself. It held the balance of power as part of the Olive Tree coalition that governed between 1996 and 1998, also led by Prodi, after receiving over 3 million votes. On that occasion it refused government positions but was under great pressure not to bring down the first centre-left government in 50 years and was understandably desperate not to risk the return of Berlusconi. The party faced a contradictory situation two years later when it did eventually leave the coalition, causing the government to fall. It had been electorally damaged by its association with Prodi’s cuts (its vote fell in local elections in 1997 and it has never regained 1996 levels nationally). But it was also attacked by the rest of the coalition parties and lost a lot of members to a split to the right.
There is, however, a major difference between Italy in 1996 and 2006. The intervening decade witnessed the birth and development of the anti-capitalist movement, at its strongest and most dynamic in Italy, and the international movement against the Iraq war. Rifondazione has played an important role in that movement and has been seen as a powerful force within it. As Fabio Ruggiero has described it, Rifondazione’s ‘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’.19 There was a deeply held conviction among the Rifondazione leadership that the movement ‘had anti-capitalist potential’ necessitating a fundamental shift in the party. For Bertinotti, it was the birth of the movement that laid the ‘material and subjective building blocks for a “refoundation” [of a new communist party]’.20
Unfortunately, a genuine identification and engagement with the movement as it was on the rise also disguised contradictions in the party’s approach that have not been resolved, predisposing it to lurches to the left and to the right. It had never developed a theoretical tradition within its ranks capable of analysing the trajectories of international neoliberalism and imperialism. It had not acknowledged and learnt the lessons from the behaviour of its forerunner, the Italian Communist Party (PCI). And in ‘making the turn to the movement, it absorbed many of the autonomist ideas’.21
There was a failure to challenge the notion within anti-capitalism that the movement should be ‘non-ideological’. This had a negative impact on the Italian movement. It meant, for example, that there was no systematic discussion of imperialism and the importance of a coherent, nationally coordinated anti-war movement. The lack of theoretical clarity over such issues as the UN has made it easier for deputies and senators to justify their actions in voting for Italian involvement in Lebanon under the UN flag and to support the government over Afghanistan. The disparate nature of anti-war activity has made it more difficult for the movement to hold them to account. The anti-war movement is much weaker as a result.22
Resistance within Rifondazione to theoretical discussion of parts of the old Italian Communist Party’s past goes back to the time of its formation in 1991. It emerged out of the minority in that party who opposed its transformation into the social democratic Democratic Left (DS) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were early internal struggles within Rifondazione between those like Bertinotti’s predecessor, Sergio Garavini, who criticised Stalinism, seeing the need to learn the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need for a new form of communist party, and those representing the Stalinist right, led by Armando Cossutta (who eventually split in 1998). Garavini’s resignation in 1993 led to discussion in the party becoming ‘focused entirely on institutional issues…specifically on the issue of the party’s involvement in electoral pacts, and subsequently, membership of an actual government’.23
An emphasis on electoralism and a close relationship with the Democratic Left led to a major split in the party leadership in 1995 when Rifondazione deputies voted, against party policy, for the caretaker Dini government, which was continuing the attacks of the first Berlusconi government after a general strike had forced him from office. Then came the experience of the first Prodi government in 1996, the subsequent break in 1998, and Berlusconi’s re-election in 2001.
A post-Genoa document to the Rifondazione conference of that year suggested that lessons had been learned from this cycle. It linked the necessity of a break from the party’s Stalinist past with a break from the centre-left in electoral terms, regarding both as key to the ‘refoundation’ of communism: ‘The rupture with the centre-left and the exit of the majority who supported the Prodi government was one of these acts of refoundation, a rupture also with the prevalent culture of the leaders of the Italian Communist Party’.24
However, even in the aftermath of Genoa, when the party was making a serious turn to the movement, there was no discussion of the period of ‘historic compromise’ in the 1970s and the impact of the actions of the Italian Communist Party on the trajectory of a previous mass movement. A proposed conference on the subject under Garavini was dropped and never resurfaced.25
That absence of a serious theoretical consideration of its history has made easier the resurrection of electoralism within the party, now that the breach with the ‘centre-left’ (the DS) has been papered over. One result of under-theorising the past (and the present) is that the divisions in the movement are being replicated within Rifondazione’s membership, which is increasingly influenced by a mixture of reformist faith in Rifondazione in government, and autonomism. It is therefore ill equipped to challenge the compromises of its leadership.
Clearly, Rifondazione is not the same as the pre-1991 Italian Communist Party. Most of its members joined in the 1990s or after Genoa. There is, nonetheless, continuity. Many among the leadership were members of the old party and Rifondazione claims to stand in its tradition, especially regarding its role in the liberation of Italy from fascism. Going over the history of the Communist Party’s role in the last mass movement in Italian history, that of the 1970s, remains relevant.
The historic compromise
The period from 1967 to 1976 was one of tremendous struggle and turmoil in Italian society as massive student protests burst out, radicalising a generation and igniting an explosion of workers’ struggle.
Italian society at the beginning of that period was dominated by the political influence of the Christian Democrat Party, which had governed since the end of the war. Its successive governments were increasingly unstable because of deep corruption and infighting between interest groups within the party. In the mid-1960s the Socialist Party had entered government and also been sucked into the clientilist political machine.
The Italian Communist Party was the largest communist party in the West. It had 1.5 million members in 1968, a loyal membership and deep roots in Italian society through the trade unions, cooperatives and cultural associations attached to it. It was, however, excluded from government.
Protests among university students in Pisa, Trento and Venice in 1967 quickly spread to affect most of Italy’s universities by the beginning of 1968. Radicalisation also spread fast. The protests were initially non-violent, but turned to active resistance following police attacks. Students’ political ideas were influenced by the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the US, the Maoism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the May events in France, but not by the Italian Communist Party, which declared itself opposed to ‘extremist and anarchist positions that have appeared in the student movement’.26
The Italian student movement sparked a ‘massive rebellion amongst the factory workers of Northern Italy in 1968-69 which shook the power of the bosses for at least a decade’.27 These strikes were largely spontaneous and involved young workers, often semi-skilled emigrants from the South, fighting against speed-ups, repression and the discriminatory conditions in the factories.
Strikers battled with police in the Veneto in April 1968, and at Montedison near Venice in June the first assemblies of workers were set up, bypassing the union apparatus. More spontaneous strikes broke out at Pirelli in Milan. It was ‘symptomatic of the earthquake in Italian society that the workers, like the students of the previous year, did not look to the PCI for leadership’.28 The leaders were often to join the revolutionary left groups, Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia and Potere Operaia.29 In March 1969 workers at Italy’s largest factory, Fiat’s Mirafiori plant in Turin, struck for 50 days. City-wide workers’ and students’ assemblies were established in June, and by September Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ of strikes had spread across the country: ‘Five and a half million Italian workers, more than a quarter of the entire labour force, were involved in strikes that autumn… On 19 November 1969, 20 million Italians joined a general strike that forced the government to reform the pensions system’.30
Union membership rose dramatically with the strikes—from 4.5 million in 1968 to 6 million in 1973—and the PCI, through its influence in the largest union federation, the CGIL, encouraged the development of factory councils to run the strikes. The party argued it was extending democratic organisation, expanding and institutionalising the system of spontaneous organisation that had developed in the course of the movement. But over time the union bureaucracy came to dominate the councils, allowing the PCI to exercise restraint over the strikes.
Social upheaval increased the polarisation in Italian society. The fascist MSI nearly doubled their vote from 5.8 percent in 1968 to 10.7 in 1970. The Christian Democrats moved further right in turn in an attempt to preserve their base and the Socialist Party was pushed aside in the 1972 election. The outcome was a reactionary Christian Democrat government under Fanfani that went on the offensive against the workers’ movement—and was met by resistance.31 The movement had fractured the Christian Democrat domination of national institutions, while the migration of rural workers to the cities weakened the hold of its allies in the Catholic Church on millions of people. Then at the end of 1973 soaring oil price rises triggered severe economic recession and made the situation immeasurably worse for Italy’s rulers.
Against this background of a right wing government losing control in the face of economic crisis and profound social rebellion, the Communist Party stepped in to prop up Italian capitalism. Its leader, Enrico Berlinguer, used the recent military coup against Salvador Allende to justify a party bid to share power with the Christian Democrats in the autumn of 1973. ‘Chile, Berlinguer argued, showed that a country polarised between right and left was in danger of civil wars and military coups. The answer was a “historic compromise” between the parties which would guarantee stability while the reforms desired by most advanced sections of capital were pushed through’.32 He talked of ‘connecting and uniting the more radical tendencies to the movement of the broad masses, creating a fusion of revolutionaries, progressives and democrats’. What this meant in practice was a ‘strategy of class alliances derived from the legacy of the Popular Front of the 1930s’.33
Increasingly, another justification for a concord between the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party was the ‘strategy of tension’. Sections of the Italian police and military were alarmed by the strength and militancy of the workers’ movement, the breakdown of ideas of ‘order’ and declining obedience to church and state. They harked back to the fascist era and conspired with right wing terrorist groups. ‘Black’ terrorist bombings killed 16 people in Milan in 1969, 12 on the Florence-Bologna train in 1974, and a further 84 at Bologna station in 1980. The terrorists were rarely arrested. Instead the outrages were blamed on the left, and police persecuted revolutionaries, militant workers and anarchists.
The Communist Party fell in line with the strategy of tension. Desperate to keep pace with the Christian Democrats and the possibility of shared government alive, it argued hard with its supporters that there was no alternative to the historic compromise in order to stop the right. ‘An organic entente with Christian Democracy, reassuring the propertied and middle classes, was supposed to isolate and neutralise the neo-fascist fanatics in the wings of the political scene, by denying them the climate of social fear in which they might thrive’.34 This was disingenuous and dangerous in the extreme. As Toby Abse explains, ‘Neo-fascism has never been a force clearly separable from the structures of the Italian state that emerged…after the Second World War.’ Christian Democrat politicians who had presided over the state ever since, ‘honeycombing it with their party’s appointees’, could not be unaware of right wing conspiracies even if they were not directly implicated.35 Collusion with the party that was implicated in the conspiracies could in no way combat the growth of the right. The Communists’ move to the right to forge a great coalition for stability did nothing to resolve the tensions in Italian society. In 1975 the government was forced to concede the scala mobile (increasing wages along with inflation) and the ‘crisis of the institutions’ deepened.
The Communist Party benefited electorally from the expectations born from eight years of tremendous struggles and, paradoxically, from its failure to enter the government—despite its refusal to side with the movement to unseat it. In the 1976 election it won 32.4 percent of the vote as the only party untainted by public office. The Christian Democrats were still the strongest party but were unable to form a government without Communist support, making the realisation of the historic compromise appear inevitable. However, much of the ruling class and the United States would not countenance communists in government .The party agreed, instead, to support the DC government of ‘National Solidarity’ led by Giulio Andreotti without holding any seats in it and did so from August 1976 to the beginning of 1979. The aim of National Solidarity was to solve the ‘emergency’ of economic crisis and restore the viability and stability of Italian capitalism.
The PCI was crucial to winning workers’ acceptance of an austerity package of deflationary measures proposed by the IMF. Berlinguer argued for ‘austerity’ as a moral virtue intrinsic to the labour movement. The workers’ movement had forced government to pass a statute of workers’ rights in 1970 and the scala mobile five years later. In contrast, not a single significant reform was granted under the National Solidarity government. ‘The political consequences for the country were disastrous. For inevitably not all the forces set in motion by the earthquake of the late 1960s would suffer and be still. Ultimately the price of a blocked political system was a spiralling dialectic of violence and repression that ended in the lunacy of terrorism’.36
One year into National Solidarity a new student movement broke out in 1977. It was born into economic depression, expressing the despair and frustration of young people at their predicament and at the seeming impossibility of change. This time the movement remained isolated from the organised working class. The ideas of autonomism quickly gained hold in the absence of the revolutionary left, which had largely collapsed as the movement of 1968-9 gave way to historic compromise, and in the face of PCI hostility.
Autonomia Operaia, a group around Toni Negri, had reversed their ‘workerist’ emphasis on factory workers in the early 1960s for a rejection of the ‘privileged’ organised working class. It now regarded students, the unemployed and marginalised members of society as ‘social workers’, the key forces for change in society, and believed street violence was central to the victory of the movement through ‘autonomous’ struggle. Ultimately this stress on violence against police resulted in increased repression and, catastrophically, gave oxygen to ‘left’ terrorists like the Red Brigades, notorious for the kidnapping and murder of Christian Democrat politician Aldo Moro in 1978.37 Such ‘red’ terrorism attracted many who were disillusioned by the collapse of the revolutionary left and embittered by the Communist Party’s betrayal and police repression, while leading the party to support increased police repression and the arrest of many revolutionaries.
The party left the National Solidarity government in 1979 to bargain for seats that it still did not get—and lost votes in the subsequent election. Nevertheless it continued to support the principle of the historic compromise. The smashing of the movement of 1977 had been one outcome; the breaking of the workers’ movement was the other. In 1979 Fiat bosses launched a counter-offensive after a decade of being on the defensive and sacked 61 workers. The Communist Party refused to support the victimised militants, claiming they were ‘red’ terrorists. Then in 1980 a key strike to oppose massive job cuts was supported by the party and the unions but resulted in a decisive defeat for the Italian working class, with a political impact similar to that of the miners’ defeat in Britain in 1985.
The party’s announcement in 1979 that it was turning its back on the strategy of National Solidarity and returning to opposition ‘was accompanied by no self-criticism of the political errors of the Historic Compromise, or its costs’.38 As Lucio Magri of the left wing Il Manifesto group warned at the time, faced with a mass movement the right turn of the PCI served to ‘complicate and delay the construction of an anti-capitalist alternative’.39
Confusions and possibilities
There are obvious parallels between the 1970s and today but there are also significant differences. Most importantly, the attitude of Rifondazione to the movement has not been one of hostility and suspicion, but of active support and involvement. However, with the decline of the movement from its 2001-03 highpoint, the party’s largely uncritical acceptance of the language of autonomism and its ideological confusion have allowed Bertinotti to present the Prodi government as the political expression of the movement. This strategy has been largely accepted among activists because of the failure of the movement to dislodge Berlusconi. Also important is the fact that the party has not abandoned support for all extra-parliamentary action. It was central to the recent 200,000-strong demonstration against ‘precarious’ jobs and for workers’ rights, using the success to argue that there is no contradiction between government and the movement:
As for the chorus which holds forth…on the impossibility of our being a party of struggle and a party of government, we say to all of them…did you see the streets of Rome yesterday? It was full of politics, of the desire for a new politics. Whoever cares, as we do, about the quality of the Prodi government knows that it is here, among these people, this youth, among this strong symbolic representation of a new workers’ movement, that the key to future success lies.40
The protest was unquestionably significant in demonstrating that the movement has not disappeared in Italy and that the potential to pose a real alternative to Prodi’s government is there. But Rifondazione—despite the fine words—insisted the demonstration was not opposed to the government, and refused to connect the feeling against job insecurity with action against the budget. As with the votes supporting funds for Afghanistan, the central danger of Rifondazione’s strategy is that its presence in government causes it to blunt the militancy of forces opposed to cuts, insecurity and war.
Despite the argument that Rifondazione has to be ‘in it to win it’ as part of a government fighting for reform, the reality of the 1970s was that significant structural reform eluded the Italian Communist Party. All the major gains for workers, from improved contracts to the scala mobile, were a direct result of the rebellion in the factories.
Building expectations of Prodi can also strengthen the right. The imperative to stop the right was a central argument for joining the government, and the continued justification for pacifying resistance to Prodi’s policies is that the right could win the next election if the government falls. Rifondazione argues that the ruling class wants a grand coalition of the centre-right and that the only way to prevent the Prodi wing moving in this direction is to exercise a pull from the left. The reality is that the tacit agreement of the left to neoliberal policies can only strengthen the right, just as the support of Berlinguer for the Christian Democrat National Solidarity government of the late 1970s did. Another lesson from the 1970s is that leaving a space to the left can result in the increased influence of autonomist ideas, as those wanting to register a protest against policies of privatisation and war and frustrated with Rifondazione’s compromises can turn to autonomism’s rejection of political parties and the organised working class.
At the moment the effect of the main political party associated with the movement taking a right turn has been to pull many autonomists, like the disobbedienti, behind Rifondazione, as the electoral strategy seems to have worked in ousting Berlusconi. At the same time within the party the concession to autonomist ideas and language has increased its influence, especially in the youth section—some of whom have reacted to entry into government by arguing against the need for a party! If, however, as things unfold, Rifondazione is complicit in continued attacks on its supporters, this ‘unity’ can unravel and autonomism can appear more radical to many who will be on the sharp end.
Joining the Prodi government was not the logical extension of a strong movement. Rifondazione could have focused on building a movement outside parliament that posed a genuine alternative to Berlusconi—and on fighting within it for political clarity. It could have been part of a united electoral list to oppose the right but refused to enter the government. Paradoxically, if had not thrown its all into the election, it could have generated more enthusiasm for evicting Berlusconi and creating a meaningful alternative to Prodi. It would have reinvigorated the anti-war movement if its deputies had refused to bow to imperialism.
Rather than ‘opening a path for the movement to create an alternative world’, the Prodi government shuts the door on the movement’s goals and Rifondazione support for it can only damage the movement. It is a strategy that risks disillusioning those who thought they were members of a new kind of party and can lead to passivity and acceptance of the reformist agenda.
It is, of course, far from inevitable that Prodi will succeed in his attacks, regardless of the complexion of the government. November’s demonstration proves that the anger, imagination and combativity of the movement have not disappeared. The mass presence of FIOM on the demonstration raises the possibility of union resistance to the proposed budget onslaught. The election results showed that a great many Italians wanted an alternative to Berlusconi, but that there was a significant lack of enthusiasm for Prodi. A large part of support for the Unione was clearly for the left within it.
Rifondazione’s history and its continued connection to the movement suggest the possibility that the party can break with Prodi—it is quite capable of lurching back to the left at some point. However, it is essential for there to be a strong left opposition to the current right turn within Rifondazione’s ranks if the movement and the party are not to succumb to autonomism, reformism or a combination of the two. Sadly, the revolutionary left within Rifondazione has made serious mistakes, which make this task increasingly difficult. Most damagingly, a Sinistra Critica member was among those Rifondazione deputies and senators who voted to support the government over Afghanistan. The problem for the left is that it did not build a strong pole of attraction within Rifondazione and its recent collapse over the confidence votes stems in part from the resulting isolation, with the fear of marginalisation if it refuses to fall into line at crucial moments. The pressures that Rifondazione faces within the Unione coalition are reproduced for the left within Rifondazione.
The task of building a genuine alternative to Prodi necessitates taking a clear line against his budget and against continued support for imperialism, together with resistance to the notion that ‘practical politics’ means supporting the neoliberal agenda and attacks on workers. For the revolutionary left to weld together a genuine opposition within Rifondazione entails a continued political critique of the party’s entry into a bourgeois government—and a commitment to act accordingly.
I am grateful to Chris Bambery, Tom Behan and Chris Harman for comments on an earlier draft.
1: Fausto Bertinotti, ‘15 Tesi per il Congresso di Rifondazione Comunista’, September 2004, quoted in International Socialism 105 (Winter 2005), p132.
2: Quoted in Fabio Ruggiero, ‘Rifondazione’s U-turn’, International Socialism 105 (Winter 2005), p128.
4: Fausto Bertinotti, ‘15 Tesi per il congresso di Rifondazione Comunista’, no 12, September 2004. Available at www.rifondazione.it
5: Economist online, www.economist.com, 24 November 2005.
6: Financial Times, 20 October, 2006.
7: Economist online, 24 November 2005, as above.
8: Business Week, 23 October 2006.
9: Economist online, 24 November 2005, as above.
10: Steve Scherer and Alessandra Migliaccio, ‘Prodi Budget Raises Tax on High Income, Trims Deficit’, 30 September 2006, www.bloomberg.com.
11: Quoted in Marianne Arens, ‘Prodi Government Submits Austerity Budget’, 7 October 2006, www.wsws.org.
12: Financial Times, 26 October 2006.
13: Economist, 19 October 2006.
14: Quoted in Marianne Arens, as above.
15: Financial Times, 23 October 2006.
16: Reuters news agency, 19 October, 2006. www.reuters.com.
17: La Repubblica, 18 October 2006.
18: Fausto Bertinotti interviewed by Tom Behan, ‘Refounding Further’, International Socialism 102 (Spring 2004), p104.
19: Fabio Ruggiero, ‘Rifondazione’s U-turn’, International Socialism 105 (Winter 2005), p126.
20: Fausto Bertinotti interviewed by Tom Behan, as above, pp94-95.
21: Chris Harman, ‘Anti-capitalism Five Years After Seattle’, International Socialism 104 (Autumn 2004), p18. See also Tom Behan, ‘The Return of Italian Communism’, International Socialism 85, Winter 1999, and Chris Bambery, ‘How Long Can the Party Last?’, Socialist Review, May 2006.
22: I am grateful to Chris Bambery for this point.
23: R Mordenti, La Rivoluzione. La Nuova via al Comunismo Italiano (Milan, 2003), quoted in Tom Behan, unpublished manuscript.
24: Draft resolution to PRC conference, 2001. Available in English on www.internationalviewpoint.org
25: An unpublished manuscript by Tom Behan has contributed greatly to my understanding of Rifondazione’s early development.
26: Tobias Abse, ‘Judging the PCI’, New Left Review 153, September-October 1985, p15.
27: As above, pp10-11.
28: As above, p11.
29: For more discussion of the revolutionary left in this period, see Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London 1988), pp202, 205.
30: Tobias Abse, ‘Judging the PCI’, as above, p12.
31: Chris Harman, as above, p198.
32: As above, p200.
33: Tobias Abse, ‘Judging the PCI’, as above, p16.
34: As above, p18.
35: As above, p19.
36: As above, p28.
37: As above, p31.
38: As above, p36.
39: Lucio Magri, ‘Italian Communism in the Sixties’, New Left Review 66, March-April, 1971, p52.
40: Rina Gagliardi, ‘Avete Capito Cosa Vuol Dire Fare Politica?’, Liberazione, 6 November, 2006.