Italy - Rifondazione Comunista: "turn to the left" or shift to the right?

Jul/Aug 2002

Rifondazione Comunista (or PRC - the party which was formed by a faction of the Italian Communist Party when the majority of the latter decided to drop all references to communism) held its fifth conference in Rimini at the beginning of April. Its general secretary, Fausto Bertinotti, described it as marking "a turn to the left" and a decisive step in "the development of a new political project (..) born out of our critique of capitalist globalisation from a class perspective." In his introductory speech, Bertinotti added that the turn made by this conference could only be understood as "a refinement of the category of revolution and revolutionary process" for what is needed is "a left policy which makes it possible to close the defeat of the 20th century and the crisis of the working class movement and to define a new historical task for the movement and for communists (..): the building of a new working class movement."

As formulated by the main leader of Rifondazione, this was an ambitious objective. However, on closer examination, one might ask whether this conference represented a real turn and, if so, whether this was really a turn to the left.

After Berlusconi's victory

This conference was taking place against the backdrop of the return to power of Berlusconi's right-wing coalition last year. The left-wing parties, and more specifically DS (left democracy - the majority of the former communist party), are worn out by five years in government. They are paralysed by their internal quarrels, and without any leaders who could represent a credible alternative. In short, they are having difficulties in working out a new perspective. Nevertheless they are moving towards a recomposition which, they hope, will allow them to offer, at some point, an alternative to the right, once it is discredited.

In this situation it would be essential to formulate a class struggle perspective in front of the working class, without any concession to the leaders of the governmental left. Everyone remembers Berlusconi's first government in Spring 1994, which did not last more than six months. His government's attacks against the pension system triggered a wave of strikes and demonstrations which led to his resignation, due to the divisions within his own majority. However, a few weeks later, the Dini government which had been formed with the left-wing parties' support, managed to get through parliament virtually the same measures on pensions which had cost Berlusconi his job, with the support of the unions.

This scenario could well be repeated. Today the same left-wing leaders are making a big show of how much they understand workers' discontent and the struggles caused by Berlusconi's policies. But in doing so they are only striving to regain enough credit to be able to return to office at some point. If and when they do, however, their policies will be the same as during their years in government - i.e. policies tailored to fit the requirements of the capitalist class.

Bertinotti acknowledged this possibility when he said, in his opening speech, that "the worldwide crisis of the centre left, i.e. of the last reformist attempt (..) proves that it is a waste of time to seek a perspective which is conditional on (..) alliances whose geometry is determined by the prospect of replacing the right in government." He added: "our own choice is completey different (..) It hinges on two elements - a radical left orientation for the PRC and a reassessment of the social and political struggle aimed at transforming capitalist society. And it is primarily based on our relationship with the movement."

The movement of movements

In this case what Bertinotti calls "the movement" and sometimes even, "the movement of movements", is none other than the so-called anti- globalisation movement, as it expressed itself in the Seattle demonstrations in the USA, but above all in the July 2001 Genoa demonstrations. At the conference, the majority position on this movement went as follows: "The emergence of the "people of Seattle" and of the "movement of movements" is the one positive event in the present period. It is the first movement after a long period of defeats and it points to the possible emergence of a new working class movement." The same document describes this "movement of movements" with enthusiasm and hails the "Porto-Alegre Forum" and the "Genoa Social Forum" for their ability to formulate objectives and to build "new forms of coalition"between the various anti-globalisation currents. As to Italy itself, this document hails the participation in the Genoa demonstrations of "sections of the organised working class", including FIOM (the CGIL federation of metalworkers), while regretting that the main problem remains to get "working people more involved in the anti- globalisation movement."

Indeed, Bertinotti spelt out that "one should understand that by the growth of the movement of movements, we mean the class struggle." In other words, according to him, the "movement of movements" (i.e. the anti-globalisation movement) is nothing but the new political expression of the class struggle on a world scale and all components of the working class movement should fit within this framework provided they get "more involved."

Of course, adds Bertinotti, "this movement is not explicitly anti-capitalist. Or rather, it is not yet." But "it can become anti-capitalist and we are working in this direction. Already it contains a virtual, latent anti- capitalism. (..) Its objectives are opposed to the philosophy of globalisation which calls itself neo-liberal. And while it does not identify clearly the causes of globalisation as being part of the capitalist mode of production, it sees them, without any doubt, in the social and political model which is developed by globalisation. This is what Porto-Alegre showed so forcefully."

Does the anti-globalisation movement deserve to be called the "movement of movements" and should the working class movement, in Italy or elsewhere, seek to fit in this movement? At the very least, this is disputable. This movement may have generated significant demonstrations in Nice, Genoa and, more recently, in Barcelona and Seville. It may have allowed a section of the youth to demonstrate its opposition to many aspects of today's society (unemployment, starvation, wars, etc..). But it can also bring together very diverse movements - Christian pacifists, Third-Worldists, various kinds of ecologists, currents within the trade union bureaucracy seeking to vent their sectionalism or their support for protectionist policies, and sometimes even, far-right currents. And this is no coincidence - it only shows that the concept of anti-globalisation is vague enough to allow all these currents to identify with it without giving up their ideas.

One may well see in this movement a "latent anti- capitalism." But capitalism generates a wide range of ills and under capitalism any movement of opposition involves some level of "latent anti-capitalism." The real problem is to assess what sort of movement it is and what policy would allow the transformation of this "latent anti-capitalism" into an explicit anti-capitalism.

But at this point, as Bertinotti outlined the "new political project" that he wanted the conference to endorse, his mountain of radical rhetoric about the "movement of movements" gave birth to.. a tiny reformist mouse.

The "new political project"

According to Bertinotti, Rifondazione's contribution to providing the "movement of movements" with a political perspective should consist in "a proposal of convergence between the various oppositions in order to offer, on an autonomous basis, a political edge to social struggles, so as to take the confrontation into the institutions" by means of "a form of radical struggle in the parliamentary sphere - namely obstructionism - and a strong, forward-looking initiative within society, in the form of a host of strongly-worded referendums."

Of course such a policy, says Bertinotti, has "nothing in common with governmental politics, does not raise the issue of an alliance with the centre left and follows a different logic." However when it comes to putting this policy into practice, Bertinotti defines the next objectives as follows: in the local elections, Rifondazione will need to "seek the unity of democratic forces, (..) not only to prevent the right from broadening the political spectrum in the present liberal government (..) but mainly to ensure that the movements which are active in the country are also present in the institutions."

But what is meant by seeking "the unity of democratic forces" in local elections? What "democratic forces"? In past elections, Rifondazione has made alliances with the same center-left parties which implemented some of the worst pro-business policies during their five years in government. Calling these parties "democratic forces" cannot change their nature. This kind of alliance has been so unpopular among many Rifondazione activists that Bertinotti has chosen to bring it back through the window rather than the front door, and even then covered with thick smoke. However, because Rifondazione conceive politics only within the framework of institutions, it is this same policy of alliance with the centre-left that Bertinotti is proposing once again - a policy which had turned his party into the left-flank of centre-left coalitions at every level, if not a hostage of these coalitions, as it has often been the case.

At a time when the center-left parties, now in opposition, are seeking to revamp their image among the popular electorate, Bertinotti's orientation probably means that Rifondazione will do even less to distance itself from these parties, and particularly from DS, than it did in DS's last period in office. And this is how an alleged "turn to the left" is in fact a device designed to conceal a genuine shift to the right.

Rifondazione and "article 18"

As to the reference made by Bertinotti to referendums, it is part of a logic which has been used and abused by Italian left-wing parties over the years. In Italy anyone can force a referendum on whatever issue provided 500,000 people sign a petition in favour of holding it. So many political organisations have used this possibility on a wide range of issues. In this respect Rifondazione has just taken steps which are quite revealing about its approach.

It should be recalled that on 23 March this year, a few days before Rifondazione's conference, the CGIL confederation mobilised millions of workers in Rome to protest against Berlusconi's plan to repeal article 18 of the employment law - an article which gives workers some protection against unfair dismissal. Since then, on 16 April, the three trade-union confederations called a general strike over the same issue, which was very well supported.

These two shows of strength on the part of the working class raise the question of what intervention communist activists should have in order to offer a perspective to the working class in this fight, including if the trade union leaders decide not to call further protests. Surely this should call for a commitment on the part of Bertinotti at least as determined as his commitment to the "movement of movements."

But what is Rifondazione's proposal on this issue? To start a campaign to collect signatures in favour of a referendum over the extension of article 18 to all those who are not yet covered by it - casual workers, workers in companies with fewer than 15 employees, etc..

True, it is certainly correct to propose this extension as an objective in the present circumstances. But to claim that holding a referendum is the way to achieve it, is not only sowing illusions in the possibility of making real gains for the working class by acting within the capitalists' institutions, it is also taking the risk of putting in place a machinery which could backfire on the working class. Indeed, from an electoral point of view, the working class is a minority and such a referendum could very well mobilise a majority against the extension of article 18.

In fact this has happened before. In 1984, in the run-up to a planned general strike against a decision by Craxi's government to reduce the legal link between wage levels and the cost of living, the trade union leaders came up with the proposal to transform the strike into a referendum over this issue. So the general strike was shelved and a referendum took place, which resulted in a majority in Craxi's favour. As a result not only were workers prevented from defending their rights through a general strike, but Craxi's attack was given a "democratic" content by this referendum.

The working class has every right to want to restrain its exploitation even if 51% of the electorate vote "democratically" that the other 49% should accept this exploitation and keep their heads down. But for the working class to be successful, it needs to use its own class weapons and the collective strength it has due to its role in producing all wealth in society - without being stopped by spurrious "democratic" devices.

The protest march over article 18, on 23 March, and the general strike on 16 April, were impressive demonstrations of the strength of the working class movement. But after that, the bargaining game between the trade-union machineries and the government resumed, taking centre stage. The union leaders refrained from proposing any follow-up. The last thing they want is a real mobilisation of the working class around fundamental demands. Of course, Rifondazione is not strong enough to play the role that union leaders would be in a position to play. But it is strong enough to argue for a policy and to spread it among large layers of the working class. It could try to convince working class activists that in order to create a relationship of forces which is favourable to workers, what is needed is a programme of action designed to form the basis of a growing mobilisation of workers, instead of staging one or two demonstrations of strength which are soon forgotten because nothing comes afterwards.

Instead, Rifondazione's contribution is to push its own activists into a campaign for a referendum - that is for a dead end. By the same token it condones the trade union leaders' present passivity and demobilising attitude and their future manoeuvres to channel workers' militancy away from the class struggle.

To sum up, as soon as the question comes to concrete issues rather than abstract speeches, the policy proposed by the majority in Rifondazione turns out to be just old electoralism and reformism. And it is precisely because it has nothing else to offer that the majority uses vague formulae such as the "movement of movements", "new political project", "new working class movement", so profusely.

Going over past errors

In passing, Bertinotti's orientation at this conference allows him to deal with some problems inherited from the past.

It is now 11 years since the majority of the Italian Communist Party decided to drop the communist label in order to become the PDS (Party of Left Democrats), before becoming the DS. However a section of CP activists were determined to stick to the communist label and some party leaders decided to build on this determination. Rifondazione was born, first as a "movement" and then as a "party". Of course, at the time, revolutionaries could only feel in solidarity with those who wanted to keep calling themselves communists.

The name Rifondazione implied that the new organisation considered that the communist movement needed to be rebuilt on new foundations (a refoundation). Given the sad record of the CP, which had shifted from Stalinism to becoming the most openly reformist Communist Party in Western Europe, it was indeed a necessity. However what Rifondazione meant by this refoundation remained ambiguous, in particular because it did not spell out whether it was aiming to go back to the sources of the communist movement - before the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union - or whether it intended to reinvent communist ideas on the basis of its own liking. This ambiguity may have been understandable in the early days, but it is much less so more than a decade later.

In fact it has been very useful for the leading group of Rifondazione to retain this ambiguity while stopping short of developing an analysis of the Stalinist and social-democratic degeneration of the Italian CP. For it has allowed Rifondazione both to ensure that its various currents would remain within its ranks and to accommodate activists coming from very different backgrounds and traditions, while the leadership was able to navigate between all these tendencies.

As early as 1994, however, Rifondazione joined the so-called "progressist" coalition, which brought together left- wing and centre-left parties in the run-up to the elections, and decided that it would agree to join the government if this coalition won the elections. In fact it was the right who won these elections but the same problem came back in 1996 after the centre-left won new elections. This time Rifondazione joined the Prodi government coalition, next to the PDS. Eventually, in response to the discredit generated by Prodi's anti-working class policies and the uneasiness of its own activists, Rifondazione decide to end its support for Prodi in 1998, thereby causing his downfall. In fact this decision caused a split within Rifondazione, when a number of its MPs and senators chose to carry on supporting the government and formed the small PdCI (Party of Italian Communists), led by the former leader of the CP's pro-soviet tendency, Armando Cossutta.

These u-turns pushed quite a few activists out of the party. After Rifondazione's initial success, the party experienced a permanent outflow of activists and in fact a high turnover, according to Bertinotti's own admission. Many people tended to join the party for a short while before leaving to go somewhere else, while those activists who had inherited the past tradition of communist and working class organisation were increasingly sparse.

To some extent the new orientation proposed by Bertinotti this year allows him to turn over a new leaf after the first decade of the party's existence. Indeed it means that the party will no longer appear as aiming to return to the old communist tradition. Rifondazione can now appear openly as a kind of ill-defined left movement. In the end, the party's refoundation of communism will have mainly consisted in making its references to communism and to the working class increasingly vague.

The oppositions

Despite this, Livio Maitan, a leading member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, made an enthusiastic assessment of the party's last conference, endorsed the claim that it marked a "turn to the left" and celebrated the "special, if not unique character" of the party in the history of the Italian working class movement. Meanwhile the journal of the United Secretariat, Inprecor, hailed "the Party of Communist Refoundation 100% to the left."

This should not come as a surprise, since the Italian supporters of the United Secretariat are active within Rifondazione, where they form part of Bertinotti's supporters. They also write columns in the party's journal, Liberazione, which develop Bertinotti's ideas. The United Secretariat's lining up behind Bertinotti dates back to 1998, when the party ended its support for Prodi. This gesture proved enough to satisfy the supporters of the United Secretariat even though Bertinotti never described his 2- year long support for Prodi's anti-working class policies as a mistake.

One can only regret that activists who claim to belong to the Trotskyist tradition can find nothing better to do than to celebrate and assist, through their writings in particular, a policy whose aim is to turn the party into the left-flank of the next social-democratic replacement of Berlusconi's government.

However there still exists an opposition to Bertinotti's leadership within the party which is centred around other Trotskyist activists. At the last conference - like at the previous one, in 1999 - this opposition defended a "second motion" against the majority document, entitled "a revolutionary communist project for the new historical phase", which won 12.72% of the votes at the party's local assemblies against Bertinotti's 87.28%. This motion includes a series of programmatic documents, covering, among other things, the relevance of socialism today, the balance sheet of the October revolution, the degeneracy of the Soviet Union, the "strategic central role of the working class", the need for a transitional programme, the problem of rebuilding a communist International, the Southern question in Italy, etc.. It also criticises Bertinotti's policy of alliance. It insists on the need for an "autonomous class-based pole". To Bertinotti's uncritical alignment on the anti-globalisation movement, it counterposes "the fight for class hegemony in the anti-globalisation movement."

This is not the place to discuss this platform in detail. It should be noted, however, that the last point mentioned reveals an assessment of anti-globalisation which is just as incorrect as that of the majority. Indeed the anti-globalisation movement, assuming it can be considered as a movement, is not a class movement, or rather it originates from certain layers of the petty-bourgeoisie much more than from the working class. What does "the fight for class hegemony" mean, therefore? That the working class should be encouraged to take part in this movement? But if so, around what programme and what objectives, in order to fight against what and against whom? Because surely proletarian revolutionaries cannot adopt the pacifist and ecologist demands which permeate the anti-globalisation movement.

But this is not even the most important point. There have been several second motions put forward by the same activists already. But what is their purpose and what are the objectives of these activists? One could understand the choice made by some far-left activists, ten years ago, when Rifondazione was still a new party, to join it in order to try to defend a communist orientation within its ranks. But over the years, the political choices of the party leaders have become increasingly clear and this makes the entrist policy of these far-left activists increasingly incomprehensible. The "second motion" could have been a flag around which to regroup activists on a proletarian and communist basis - but only provided this orientation was translated into reality through an intervention in the working class. But this did not happen. The "second motion" has remained internal to the party and only visible at conference time. And there is no visible difference between its supporters and those of the majority in terms of their militant practice. As to the working class at large, it has virtually never heard of this tendency.

Moreover, for the many communist and working class activists who left Rifondazione out of disappointment, voting for a revolutionary "second motion" once a year could not constitute a militant perspective. And they were right: it is obvious that a party whose recruitment is primarily done on a reformist basis will never have a majority supporting a class-based revolutionary orientation.

The "second motion" is therefore doomed to remain in a minority, a kind of ritual revolutionary opposition in a deeply reformist party. And the activists who are behind it are only demonstrating their absence of perspective in terms of how to build an independent tendency.

Yet, there is no choice for revolutionary activists, and even more so for activists basing themselves on Trotskyism, other than to try to build a genuine communist organisation within the ranks of the working class itself.

26 June 2002