Italy|The conference of Rifondazione Communista

From Lutte de Classe #42 (published in Class Struggle #26 - Britain)
April 1999

The Italian "Refounded Communist Party" (the PRC, usually referred to as "Rifondazione") just held its conference from the 18th to the 21st of March in Rimini. It was its first conference since this party left the government parliamentary majority in Autumn 1998.

For two-and-a-half years the PRC supported the "Olive Tree" government coalition, led by the Christian democrat Romano Prodi. But this coalition's anti-working class policies and austerity measures weakened the PRC's credibility and militant capacity to the point where Fausto Bertinotti, its general secretary, chose to return to opposition after a failed attempt to force the withdrawal of the government's draft budget.

The PRC's U-turn caused some losses. A faction of the party organised around Armando Cossutta decided to break away in order to remain part of the government majority. This new party, the PdCI (Party of Italian Communists) is now supporting the government led by Massimo D'Alema, who took over from Prodi. And although this split only involved a small minority of party members, it attracted most of its MPs, senators and local councillors.

It should be recalled that Rifondazione was founded in 1991, when the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Achille Ochetto, proposed to change the party's name to the "Democratic Party of the Left" (PDS). Building on the reaction of the party's rank-and-file activists who wanted to keep the communist label, part of its machinery then created Rifondazione Communista. From this point onwards, the PDS unashamedly supported the various governments which came to power.

Under the leadership of its new general secretary, Massimo D'Alema, the PDS became the real backbone of Prodi's government coalition. He soon dropped even the word "party", so that the PDS became the DS, or "Left Democrats". Eventually, thanks to the withdrawal of Rifondazione from the government coalition and Prodi's subsequent resignation, D'Alema became prime minister with a parliamentary majority spanning as far as the centre-right.

But despite its withdrawal from the government coalition, Rifondazione has nothing but rhetorical ambiguities to oppose to the former faction of the Communist Party, the DS, which has now become the main pillar of the government and the best advocate of the anti-working class policies of the Italian bourgeoisie. Rifondazione's period in the government majority exposed the hollowness of a policy which claims to represent a "communist refoundation", but offers little other than electoralism and parliamentarism and has no revolutionary or class struggle content.

Self-justification to preserve the future

For Bertinotti, Rifondazione's general secretary, this congress was therefore an exercise in tight-rope walking aiming to justify his choices past and present - his past support for Prodi and his present opposition to D'Alema.

In spite of his disastrous balance-sheet, Bertinotti continued to justify his past stand. Thus, in his introductory speech, he argued: "if we had not chosen to help in giving birth to Prodi's government, after the victory against Berlusconi's and Fini's right-wing, that is if we had prevented an attempt at putting together a government, we would have been swept away from Italian politics and reduced to a fringe radical group". He added that within the government coalition "we fought to ensure that the welfare state would not be hit (...) the entire country saw this and nobody can lead anyone to believe that we renounced anything" and that Rifondazione had thus "enabled Italy to join the euro without the social onslaught intended by the conservatives".

Bertinotti distorts the truth. It was under Berlusconi's right-wing government, in Autumn 1994, that the working class staged its strongest fightback over the welfare state - when Berlusconi tried to reform the pension system and had to resign without succeeding. But the subsequent governments, which were all backed by the left-wing parties and the unions, were able to force through the same attacks while enjoying unprecedented social peace. The fact is that the class struggle and the prospect of a working class fightback are not considered by Bertinotti as serious options, but alternatives (to be avoided at all costs) which would reduce the PRC to a "fringe radical group". An when he claims that the PRC "fought", this means within the parliamentary arena and the government majority - the only "fighting ground" that he seems prepared to envisage.

Upon leaving the parliamentary majority, Bertinotti and Rifondazione's leaders have not fundamentally changed their political outlook. They are simply trying to rebuild the PRC's credit and support through a spell of opposition. In particular they have in mind the forthcoming elections - the European election in June and, on the same day, the election of part of the country's regional, provincial and town councils. The leaders of Rifondazione need to use these elections to show that they remain an electoral force and if possible to consolidate their influence by appearing to be the only opposition party on the left. This is necessary if they want to be able to use their influence as a bargaining chip again at some point in the future.

As Bertinotti himself even declared, his opposition to the present government is a "constructive opposition". In the longer term, this policy is aimed at retaining the possibility for Rifondazione to join a future government coalition - or even to join a future government - which could be portrayed as "more left-wing". For the time being, it is aimed at keeping afloat the various past agreements made by Rifondazione with other parties - in elections, local government bodies and state institutions. In any case, Bertinotti wants to retain the possibility of forming alliances and to show that Rifondazione is willing to co-operate with other parties within bourgeois institutions. This is why, for instance, he has hinted at the possibility that, in the next presidential election, Rifondazione might support a candidate who shares its "democratic values" - which is leaving the door wide open to approaches from would-be bourgeois candidates.

An illusory "social alternative"

But while waiting for opportunities for new ventures within the institutions to emerge, Rifondazione's leaders have to provide their activists and electorate with some kind of justification for their manoeuvres. Bertinotti summed this up by saying that this congress was aimed at defining nothing less than a "social alternative". In fact, this was the title of the conference document presented by the majority of Rifondazione's leadership, while its Trotskyist minority presented a document entitled "for a communist project".

So what is the "social alternative" proposed by Bertinotti? He made it clear in his opening statement at the conference that "it is not an alternative to the capitalist system itself" for which, according to him, more "research" has still to be done. Rather it is "an alternative to this society based on neo-liberalism (...) by means of a policy involving social reforms, new developments and a new input from the population in the areas of environment, social reproduction and the production of goods and services".

One also learns from the majority's text that this "social alternative" is related to "the experience of movements, political forces and also governments which, internationally and within Europe, conduct a criticism and a struggle against liberalism in the present stage of globalisation". The same text refers to "a neo-keynesian type of public spending policy" which could provide an "alternative" answer to the economic crisis.

But where did Bertinotti find governments which conduct a criticism of what he calls "liberalism"? The majority's text explains that there exists a "neo-social-democratic position represented by the French socialists in particular and even more so by the French left-wing government itself which, while acting from within the social relationships based on capitalist production, wants to inject today's society with a dose of reforms to avoid the social consequences of liberal policies, market logic and the liquidation of the welfare state."

So Bertinotti's model is not on another planet after all. It is Jospin's French government which would be, if not an example of a government proposing a "social alternative", at least one which is searching in this direction. Likewise, in his introductory speech, Bertinotti mentions the name of Oskar Lafontaine (who has just resigned from the German social- democrat government) as evidence that there is such a tendency towards a "social alternative" in other parts of the world.

We know that a chain of mountains - the Alps - and even the highest peak in Europe stands between Italy and France. However, we cannot believe that this is enough to obscure Bertinotti's vision so badly that he fails to see what Jospin's government has been doing since it came into office just after Blair - that is, like Blair and all other European governments, to force austerity measures down the throat of the working class in order to channel more state funds towards the capitalists. If the term "neo-liberalism" has any meaning at all, it certainly applies to Jospin's policies and one wonders just what "neo-keynesian public spending policy" Bertinotti has been able to detect in France. Certainly the French working class has not!

In fact the policies that Bertinotti criticises when they are carried out by Prodi or D'Alema in Italy are identical to those that he presents as progressive when carried out in France by Jospin's government. And if he indulges in such a contradiction, it is simply because he has to try to give some credibility to his perspective of a "social alternative" by leading people to believe that this is already beginning to be implemented somewhere. But the mere fact that he dares to use such a "model" should be enough to discredit his "perspective".

Furthermore, the majority document is cautious enough not to be too precise about the so-called "reforms" it advocates. At most there are proposals to "regulate socially useful jobs" (the "lavori socialmente utili", a kind of New Deal scheme invented under Prodi's government, the future of which now appears uncertain) or to create "a large public agency for the Mezzogiorno" - in other words, just electoral promises should Rifondazione join a future government. These proposals are extremely modest, if not illusory. For instance, why should the funds of this "public agency for the Mezzogiorno" be more effective at developing Southern Italy than those spent by the state up to now, for the same reason? What will prevent these funds from being siphoned off by big business and the Mafia itself? But above all, these proposals contain nothing which could provide the working class with objectives for which to fight.

For instance, the document does talk about "the defence of the welfare state" and even about "putting forward again the use of the welfare state as a means to redistribute social wealth, which is no longer done since the liquidation of the sliding-scale of wages". Wages used to be linked to the price index. The liquidation of this system was an important step in the offensive against the working class over the past few years. It is therefore significant that in the sentence quoted above, the reinstatement of the sliding-scale of wages is hinted at (if one reads between the lines) but not clearly spelt out. Rifondazione's leaders do not want to make any commitment on this, let alone to propose it as an objective for the struggles of the masses.

The majority document presented by Bertinotti may well state that, for Rifondazione, "the paradigm of the central role played by class contradictions and wage labour" remains "fundamental". But this only reflects Rifondazione's reformist hot air and pretentious language, which is falsely intellectual and deliberately obscure. This, in order to conceal its lack of perspectives - or rather the fact that its only perspective is to return to a situation and a level of electoral support which would allow Rifondazione to rejoin a government coalition or even to participate in government.

From the opposition of 1996 to that of 1999

During a previous conference in 1996, at a time when Rifondazione was still supporting the Prodi government, an opposition group had already made itself known by presenting a resolution opposing the majority document presented by Bertinotti. At the time, this opposition resolution had won 16% of the vote in the local assemblies organised to prepare the national conference. Behind this were several groups. One was the IVth International Association, a grouping linked to the United Secretariat of the IVth International (USec), which publishes the magazine "Bandiera Rossa" (Red Banner) and whose best known figure is Livio Maitan. Another group was the "Revolutionary Marxist Association Proposta" a Trotskyist group not related to the USec, which publishes the magazine "Proposta" and whose spokesman is Marco Ferrando. There was also Giovanni Bacciardi and his mostly Tuscany-based group, which was closer to Stalinism and left Rifondazione shortly after the 1996 conference to set up a "Confederation of Self-Organised Communists".

Livio Maitan's group, although remaining in Rifondazione, is no longer part of the opposition since they joined Bertinotti's majority for the 1999 conference. Last December, 23 members of the party's national political committee (including Livio Maitan himself) signed a statement which explained the position of this group. The 23 said that, according to their assessment of the party's policies, it was necessary to start from the fact that it "had narrowly escaped the attraction (..) of the centre-left, thereby ending an ambiguous position". And noting that "today the party is in opposition, thus providing a political reference for social ferment and mass movements", Maitan's group was choosing to vote for the majority document presented by Bertinotti.

Apparently, this group would have liked to distance itself in some ways from the majority resolution by making amendments to it. But the rules adopted by the majority banned amendments being presented on a national scale. Therefore, even if the statement issued by Maitan's group showed some nuances, the group appeared to be totally in agreement with Bertinotti's position. In some towns, the members of Maitan's group were even chosen to present the majority document at the party's local assemblies. But this also reflected the fact that Cossuta's split, in the Autumn, gave activists of the "Fourth International Association" an opportunity to take on responsibilities at various levels within the party. In any case, by allying themselves with the Bertinotti majority and publicly proclaiming that they have no fundamental difference with it, Maitan's group is also openly abandoning the perspective of the struggle for a workers' revolutionary party independent of the reformist organisations.

The resolution "for a communist project"

Once Maitan had joined Bertinotti, the only remaining group opposing the majority was "Proposta", led by Marco Ferrando, who once again put forward a minority resolution entitled "for a communist project". And although many aspects of this long document are questionable, one can only welcome the fact that there remain some activists who are determined to carry on defending a communist perspective in front of the party membership - and with some success too.

Indeed, despite Maitan's defection, the minority resolution won 16% of the votes in the party local assemblies, just as in 1996 - except of course that, in the meantime, the party membership has shrunk significantly. This means that the minority resolution won 5,400 votes out of 34,800 (and a total 75,000 card membership). One should note also that, in some federations, the minority vote was much larger - for instance, 57.75% in the province of Savone, 31.77% in the Liguria region, 20.52% in the Piemont region, 19.85% in Turino, etc..

Given the size of the small group of activists who put forward the minority resolution and argued for it within Rifondazione, this result is far from negligible. Indeed this group proved that a significant section of the membership is dissatisfied with Bertinotti's policy, his justification of the party's past support for Prodi and the fact that he still goes on proposing a reformist policy. Besides this group of activists proved that this dissatisfied section of the membership identifies with an orientation which is clearly communist.

But is the aim of the "Proposta" group only to allow the party activists who are in favour of a real "communist project" to stand up and be counted at each party conference? Given their Trotskyist background one can assume that their aim is to build a genuine revolutionary workers' party. But in that case one has to ask whether one's objective should be to transform Rifondazione into such a party. This seems an unrealistic task. Indeed the party machinery and the section of its activists who are only involved in institutional and electoral activities outweigh by far those of its activists who see themselves as revolutionaries and are involved in the class struggle. And this balance of forces prevents the latter current from developing, if only by discouraging those who would seriously want to take this direction.

So is the aim of the "Proposta" group to turn the section of the party which voted for the minority resolution into a faction which would orientate itself, in an organised and consistent fashion, towards the building of such a revolutionary workers' party? In that case this faction would need to set itself the objective of building roots in the working class across the country, intervening in the class struggle and training activists on the basis of a genuinely communist practice. Yet the minority document does not hint at such an orientation. Rather, the only organisational objectives it contains are for the leading bodies of the party to implement, rather than objectives that rank-and-file activists could start implementing in their day-to-day activity. Besides, on this account the minority document contains a significant ambiguity which needs to be discussed.

Thus, when it comes to organisational matters, the promoters of the minority resolution argue that the party should "reappropriate and bring up to date Gramsci's conception of the party as an intellectual collective which is fighting for hegemony among the masses". But there is no reference to Bolshevism and the Third International in this document, although the October Revolution is referred to once.

Of course Gramsci was a supporter of the Third International in Italy. His writings and his references to the party as an "intellectual collective" reflected his attempts at translating the experience and programme of the Third International into the Italian context. Gramsci had his own way of doing this translation, and it also involved some ambiguities. At best it reflected an understanding of the Bolshevik tradition which was far from comprehensive. Whether Gramsci would have eventually fully assimilated this tradition remains an open question, due to the fact that he was jailed and died during the fascist period. But the fact remains that Gramsci's successors in the leadership of the Italian Communist Party used the ambiguities he had left behind to justify their reformist practice, in the name of an "Italian road to socialism" which, for them, was primarily a means to distance themselves from communism and Bolshevism.

In the context of the Italian working class movement, therefore, to claim Gramsci's tradition, but not that of Bolshevism, is a potentially damaging concession to those cadres who came out of the Communist Party and might be more willing to return to their political roots in a party which places itself under the banner of Gramsci rather than under the banner of Lenin. Because, in so far as Gramsci's "banner" was never very precisely defined, it is much less demanding than that of Lenin and leaves open a number of possible options.

Of course, for the minority resolution to claim allegiance to the Bolshevik, Leninist and Trotskyist traditions would have been one thing. Implementing this would have been quite another, whether for Rifondazione as a whole, or even just for the faction which identified with this resolution. But at least such a claim, in and of itself, would have provided a whole set of political objectives based on these traditions. Whereas the choice to limit the resolution to ambiguous references to Gramsci may reflect an absence of clear objectives - in terms of organisation, intervention and genuine revolutionary and class-based practice.

Those activists who really want to undertake the building of a revolutionary workers' party may be pleased to see that the defining of a "communist project" strikes a chord within a party such as Rifondazione, in opposition to Bertinotti's policy. But they should also be aware of the fact that this success can only be a stepping stone on the way to really developing such a project and that it leaves many questions unanswered.

Today's stakes

In a country like Italy today, the tasks of revolutionary activists cannot be formulated only in terms of the internal life of Rifondazione Communista. D'Alema's government marks a significant stage in the political evolution of the Italian CP, a party which used to be the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. This Stalinist party came to the rescue of the Italian state when it was threatened with collapse after the fall of fascism. After 1945, it helped with the economic and political reconstruction of the bourgeoisie. It always contributed to the country's political stability, particularly when the bourgeoisie called upon its sense of responsibility. Such was the case for the "historical compromise", at the end of the seventies and throughout the eighties, when the CP gave a degree of support to various governments, getting hardly anything in return, but thereby helping the Italian bourgeoisie to overcome the weaknesses of its own political personnel.

On the other hand the Italian CP has benefited for years from the fact that it appeared as the only political opposition, whereas the Italian Socialist Party was discrediting itself through its participation in government from the 60s onwards. During these years the Italian CP formally continued to retain the communist label despite its social-democratic policies. And while this label no longer had any significance to the party leaders, it did for its rank- and-file activists. They still identified, even if it was in a confused manner, with the political tradition of the struggle of the working class for its social and political emancipation, through the overthrow of capitalism and the revolutionary transformation of society.

Therefore, despite the CP's deep-rooted reformist practice, its leaders waited until 1991 before openly discarding the communist tradition and label. The party which came out of this, the DS, is nowadays a governmental party of vital importance for the Italian bourgeoisie, which plays more or less the same role as the Labour Party in Britain or the social-democratic parties in other European countries. The DS leaders in office, leaning on the trade union leaders' co-operation, turn out to be most effective in facilitating the bourgeoisie's attacks against the working class. The result of this is deep-rooted demoralisation and confusion amongst the working class and its activists.

It is of course a good thing that a split from the former CP should have carried on using the communist label. However, under the leadership of people like Bertinotti, this has in fact meant continuing the same collaborationist policies as the former Italian CP, reproducing its reformism and electoralism without really having stopped emulating the CP's past consistent drift to the right. Even today, after his return to opposition, Bertinotti's "social alternative" is nothing more than a shameful reflection of the fact that Rifondazione's leaders, despite their communist label, only aim at taking part in running the affairs of the bourgeoisie, under the devious pretext of trying to reform bourgeois society.

It is therefore essential to carry on proclaiming the validity of the perspective offered by the class struggle and the communist transformation of society. So much the better if 16% of a party such as "Rifondazione" identifies with this approach. But what is at stake today requires much more than such a statement, and even more so, when this statement remains within the limited confines of a party such as Rifondazione.

What is at stake is the possibility of seeing the rebirth of a genuine communist party and a true revolutionary leadership of the working class within the next years. This does not just require supporting a programme at conferences. It requires the practical training of activists competent enough to intervene in the small and large struggles of the working class - that is, capable of winning the respect and trust of workers, of leading successful struggles and of helping workers to free themselves of their demoralisation and regain confidence in their own strength. To carry out these tasks, one cannot wait until the majority of a party like Rifondazione is won over to this programme - this would be impossible anyway. It is today that revolutionaries need to start implementing this programme, not just verbally during Rifondazione's conferences, but in deeds, by finding the means of doing so in the view of the working class as a whole.