Italy - A left opposition inside the Communist Refoundation Party

Jan/Feb 1997

It is now eight months since the so-called "Olive Tree" coalition of the left beat its right wing opponents in the Italian election of April 21, leading to the formation of the Prodi government. These eight months have been a test of how far this government could count on the support of the left-wing section of the former Italian Communist party, which kept the Communist label: the PRC or Communist Refoundation Party. This political support, which was duly given by the PRC, has effectively helped get people to accept the austerity policy which the Italian bourgeoisie expects from the Prodi government.

It is this policy of the PRC which has now been called into question by an opposition text, presented at the December 1996 PRC conference.

"Technical agreement" and political support

It should be remembered that the "Olive Tree" coalition essentially comprises the former Communist Party, now known as the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left), the Greens and the Peoples Party, i.e. the fraction of the former Christian Democratic Party which, along with Prodi, chose to ally itself with the left. The Communist Refoundation Party, meanwhile, is not part of this alliance and stood with its own programme in the April election. It did, however, sign an electoral agreement with the Olive Tree coalition to share out constituencies, therefore calling on people to vote for the Olive Tree candidates in most constituencies, while the Olive Tree called on people to vote for the PRC in those constituencies left to it.

To get their own party members to accept such an electoral agreement, the PRC leaders had at first declared that it was a "technical" agreement, brought about by the first-past-the-post electoral system which is used to select three quarters of the deputies: lining up a PRC candidate against an Olive Tree candidate in these constituencies would in many cases have meant facilitating the election of a right-wing candidate. But once the elections were over and it became apparent that the additional support of the PRC deputies was necessary to give Prodi a parliamentary majority, this support was quickly forthcoming. It has become increasingly clear that the agreement was not technical but political: while remaining outside the Prodi government, and not demanding any ministerial posts, the PRC was prepared to back the government.

It was quite evident right from the beginning, however, that the new Prodi government was seen as a godsend by the Italian bosses. Backed by a left-wing majority and enjoying favour with the union confederations, this government was seen as an opportunity to get the working class to accept, without protest, a whole series of concessions. The fact that this government depended, to its left, on the votes of the Communist Refoundation representatives was not too worrying for the bosses, the Stock Exchange or the financial markets, which saw Prodi's arrival in government as a reason for increasing the exchange rate of the lira. The past eight months have proved them right.

The PRC had, of course, presented a programme aimed at distinguishing itself somewhat from the Olive Tree coalition during the election campaign. It put forward ten points, described as "shock therapy for the first hundred days in power". But these were made up of vague and general promises without any precise commitment. Once the elections were over, even this programme was forgotten and the PRC was careful not to make any demands when it came to lending its support to the Prodi government. The PRC secretary, Fausto Bertinotti, contented himself with making a few gestures aimed at showing his electorate that he had not completely forgotten to defend their interests.

Playing to the gallery but fully supporting the government

Bertinotti thus raised the stakes somewhat in July when he voted against the draft "Economic and financial planning document" presented by the government. This envisaged taking into account an inflation rate of 2.5% for wage reviews in collective contracts, whereas previous contracts had been based on a 3% rate. After negotiations with the PRC, Prodi declared that he was prepared to adjust this rate to 3%... in return for which the PRC deputies would vote for the government's economic programme. This additional 0.5% was enough to make the PRC change its mind, and there was no longer any question of sticking to one of the more specific promises it had made in the election campaign: the reintroduction of a sliding wage scale to protect wages against inflation - an index-linked system which had been abolished in 1993 through an agreement with the union leaderships.

Another chance to judge the attitude of the PRC was provided in early autumn with the debate on the 1997 budget in parliament. Once again the government coalition discussed the terms of the bill with Bertinotti, as a member of the parliamentary majority. The result was an austerity budget including in particular heavy new taxes. One of these, a so-called "Europe Tax", which will be levied on all incomes, is justified, according to the government, by the need to reduce the state deficit to less than 3% of gross domestic product, as required by the Maastricht Treaty, to enable Italy to take part in the introduction of the single currency. The PRC gave the go-ahead to all this although it claims to have avoided much worse: there had initially been talk of reducing expenditure by cutting pensions and increasing the cost of prescriptions to patients, which the PRC opposed. But in fact the new taxes, which they agreed, will be as much of a burden for the poorer classes.

In addition to these legislative measures, there have been other measures as a result of negotiations between employers and unions with the approval of the government. Thus an "employment pact" signed in September allows for both the starting of public works and for work deregulation measures: renewed apprenticeships, temporary work and above all "area contracts" allowing bosses to hire workers at lower wages than is the norm elsewhere, under the pretext of encouraging recruitment in areas of high unemployment. There have also been measures to exempt bosses who create jobs in the southern regions from social contributions. This "employment pact" means, among other things, that the state will pay billions into the bosses' coffers. The PRC could afford to object because their vote was not needed to get it agreed. But who can ignore the fact that it has been introduced by a government to which Bertinotti has given a vote of confidence?

It is apparently through this kind of phoney opposition that the PRC aims to allay the suspicions of its activists and the working class, and to try to demonstrate to workers that it is still their representative within the parliamentary majority. There is no certainty that it will be able to maintain this illusion for long, particularly when the working class really begins to feel the effects of the Prodi government's measures on its living and working conditions. There is certainly considerable social discontent, as illustrated on 27 September by the success of the one-day strike by steel workers for the renewal of their collective contract... and the fact that despite their collaborationist policy the steel industry confederations felt obliged to call for such a day of action, and to plan further agitation.

Finally, it should be added that there is no shortage of opposition on the part of the right-wing parties - to try to take advantage of the support given by the entire left for an anti-working class policy which cannot fail to generate deep discontent. This was apparent when Umberto Bossi's League of the North organised demonstrations in favour of the "secession" of Northern Italy in mid-September. Discontent over the taxes levied by the central government has long been one of Bossi's main demagogic themes, which he tries to channel to his own benefit. At the same time, however, there was also a large counter-demonstration in Milan initiated by Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance, i.e. the former neo-fascist party, protesting against Bossi's secessionism in the name of Italian nationalism. The most striking thing, at a time when these right-wing forces were thus openly competing to exploit the situation, was the absence of the left, which was too busy playing at government to respond in the streets.

The opposition to Bertinotti's line

In preparation for the 1996 conference of the PRC, a text was presented - it was entitled "against the Prodi government and for the return of Communist Refoundation to opposition" - against the majority text presented by the two main leaders of the party, Bertinotti and Cossutta. It is signed by a minority of the National Political Committee (the leading body of the party), made up essentially of activists linked to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International like Livio Maitan and other Trotskyists opposed to him, like those of the Proposta group, Franco Grisolia and Marco Ferrando, but also a non-Trotskyist opponent, Giovanni Bacciardi. At the conference, this opposition text won 16% of the vote, thereby showing that it expresses the views of a significant current of opinion within the PRC.

We will not discuss fully the reasons why the PRC now includes many activists from the former far left organisations, including those from the Italian section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. But this testifies to the almost total collapse of these organisations, a collapse so severe that these activists saw no other solution than to join this reincarnation of the former Communist Party, the PRC, in the name of a more or less explicitly formulated "entryist" policy. It would of course be worth analysing and assessing the political weaknesses which led to this organisational breakup of the Italian far left, in spite of the fact that it had managed to reach a significant size.

Having said this, at a time when a party whose leadership they belong to, is engaged in increasingly open support for a bourgeois government, the very least that these comrades can do is take a stance against this party line. It is indeed essential to provide the PRC activists who are ill at ease with it, the possibility of expressing this. And it is in any case essential, in the face of the class collaborationist policy followed by the PRC leadership, to indicate that there are activists who propose a different policy, based on class struggle and seeking to open up revolutionary perspectives. This policy would need to be proposed not only to PRC activists, but to the whole of the working class.

Unfortunately, the perspective offered by these comrades, as reflected by this opposition text, does not meet this need, or at any rate meets it very inadequately.

It is not enough to declare that the PRC must cease to support the Prodi government. This is an option which Bertinotti himself might end up taking, for, with the passage of time, the austerity policy will hit the poorer classes harder and harder, and it will become more and more difficult for PRC activists to justify this policy to workers. In France, the French CP, after taking part in government for three years under Mitterrand, chose to withdraw its ministers in the summer of 1984. But for the French CP the aim was only to try to safeguard its electoral interests by returning to at least nominal opposition, and its aim was not in any way, of course, to break with its basically reformist policy in order to offer the perspective of class struggle.

Just as with the French CP, it is impossible to imagine that the PRC leadership, even if it chose to go back into opposition, would adopt a revolutionary perspective, given that this leadership is fundamentally reformist and electoralist. But this would be one more reason for revolutionary activists inside this party not only to declare themselves opposed to the current choices of the PRC leadership but to clearly put forward the policy which it would be essential to conduct today, not only from the point of view of the party but also from the point of view of the working class as a whole.

It is unfortunately difficult to find an answer to this question in this opposition text. It proposes "relaunching struggles and mass movements" or "constructing a movement to fight privatisation", and proposes "a general fight by working people which unites the themes of wages and reduction of working hours". There is also the idea of "proposing to guarantee a wage for unemployed job-seekers as a unifying area of mobilisation and struggle", all of this leading to the perspective of "the reconstruction of an anti-capitalist social bloc". But this list of proposals does not in fact indicate what should be the response of the working class to the crisis and to the constant offensive of the bourgeoisie against its working and living conditions. Still less does it contain the formulation of a revolutionary perspective today for the communist transformation of society, despite the fact that the PRC has retained the word "communist" in its name. At the very most, it contains the idea that the PRC should "define a project for overthrowing capitalism"", and "propose again in all their theoretical and practical density the themes of the revolutionary break in the developed West and of communism as a current historical perspective". Even disregarding the verbiage contained in such phrases, the fact remains that the text demands that the PRC should define this "historical perspective"... but does not do so itself.

The problem is not the text in itself, and we do not aim to engage in polemics over all the terms put into writing by comrades campaigning in a country and in a party which they obviously know better than we do. But such a text expresses, with varying degrees of faithfulness of course, the perspective behind the political activity of those defending it. It is obvious in particular that many things are not included in it, quite simply because it is a compromise text. For example, while it proposes that the PRC should leave the government majority, it does not in any way call into question the electoral pact agreed between the PRC and the PDS, of which its support for the Prodi government was only the logical continuation. The reason for this is no doubt that activists like Livio Maitan or Giovanni Bacciardi, who are signatories to the text, were in fact in agreement with this pact aimed at "defeating the right", and that the activists who criticised it - Franco Grisolia and Marco Ferrando - were therefore obliged not to mention this in order to arrive at a common text.

Seeking to build a revolutionary leadership... or to be advisers to the PRC?

This omission is significant. Along with others, it reveals a more fundamental fact, which is that many of the signatories to the text, in reality, do not in any way propose to build a revolutionary leadership, and seem to see their futures, for an indefinite period, as being within the PRC, where they would play the part of left-wing critics or advisers.

Of course, it is right to address the activists of a party like the PRC, who joined this party in 1991 because it was opposed to the abandoning of the communist label by the majority of the former CP. Many of these are working class activists, who demonstrated by joining that they still considered themselves in favour of communism, albeit in a confused way. It so happens that the Trotskyist activists who are now members of the PRC leadership, whatever we may think of their previous record, now have an opportunity to address the whole of this party, and they must do so. It is also understandable that if they address this party, they do so in the form imposed by the fact of belonging to such a party. But this does not mean they have to make concessions concerning ideas, and drown the occasional references to a policy of class struggle in the kind of verbiage more acceptable to a few crypto-Stalinist party cadres or intellectuals.

Through the working class activists of the PRC, it is the working class as a whole they need to address, to try to draw up a revolutionary perspective in the clearest and most concrete way possible for all workers. The absence of this perspective betrays the fact that the signatories to the text were probably more concerned with reaching compromises with each other, and carving out a future for themselves within the PRC, than with really drawing up a political perspective for the working class.

No doubt, doing so would not necessarily imply leaving the PRC, but it would imply at least being prepared to do so if and when it becomes impossible to defend such a policy within this party. There is reason to doubt that the signatories to the text are really prepared to do this, when we see that this text in fact expresses concern about positions in the apparatus, more than a desire to address workers as a whole. This attitude, which is not at all surprising when it comes from certain opposition figures who might be seen more as left-wing Stalinists, is not the attitude one should be entitled to expect from Trotskyist activists.

Being in a position to propose an alternative to Bertinotti's class collaboration policy, and to turn the opposition to the austerity policy into class opposition, in workplaces and in the streets, and open up a revolutionary perspective in the long term - this is the task which should be the aim in the coming period, for all those in the Italian working class, whether or not they are members of the PRC, who genuinely wish to express their class interests and aspirations. It is a task which cannot be separated from the perspective of building a revolutionary workers' party fighting under its own flag before the working class as a whole.

Many activists in the current internal opposition of the PRC would certainly sincerely like to do so. But judging from the text it has presented, it has to be said that as such this opposition is hardly preparing itself for such a task, either organisationally or politically.