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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 March 2007

Italy: What future for Prc?

ON A recent visit to Italy, PETER TAAFFE, together with other CWI members, discussed perspectives with workers and activists in the Italian labour movement for the future of Rifondazione Comunista (Prc). The following article deals with this important issue.

FROM ITS foundation in 1991, Rifondazione Comunista (Prc) has been a point of reference and an expression of hope for the future, not just for the Italian working class but for workers throughout Europe. It initially represented a mass left response of Italian workers against the shift to the right of the leaders of the ex-Communist Party, which changed its name to 'Democratic Left' (DS).

The Prc swung left, defended socialism and 'communism', and Fausto Bertinotti, its leader since 1994, deployed very radical, socialist and Marxist phraseology. The party displayed at times what Marxists called 'centrist' tendencies - the use of radical and even revolutionary words and ideas but not backed up with revolutionary deeds.

Traditional parties

The collapse of the old workers' organisations throughout Europe into capitalist formations (both the social-democratic and former communist parties, in most cases), was typified by Blair's New Labour party in Britain. But the prospect of new mass parties of the working class in Europe and elsewhere was encouraged by the establishment of the Prc and its initial success.

However, as the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) pointed out at the time and since, a 'halfway-house' political position, whether of a reformist or 'centrist' character, is not possible over an extended historical period. It either develops towards a left, Marxist party or it will retreat in a rightward direction. This is even more the case in this era of globalised world capitalism and its savage neo-liberal policies.

Reformism

Because of the radical combative traditions of the Italian workers' movement, the Prc was able to maintain itself and even gain substantially in elections in the 1990s and since, as a left electoral alternative. Yet, despite the enormous sympathy and support in key sections of the trade unions in particular, it remained a relatively small mass party.

It never gained more than 8.6% in national elections before the split of Armando Cossutta and the formation of the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI) in 1998. There was great potential for growth in influence and membership. But the membership, it seems, never exceeded more than 120,000 with between 10,000 and 20,000 active members.

Yet by working out a clear Marxist and revolutionary programme, backed up by action, the Prc could have acted as a magnet to workers, young people and, above all, to the trade union base which the DS still maintained after the split. However, the Prc leadership of Bertinotti evolved not in a left and Marxist direction but towards social democratic and reformist positions.

Even this is now under threat as the expulsion of the Prc senator Franco Turigliatto indicates (see the socialist, 1 March 2007). As with the expulsions of Militant (now the Socialist Party) from the Labour Party in Britain in the 1980s, this is intrinsically bound up with a political shift towards the right - symbolised by the presence of the Prc in the capitalist coalition government of Romano Prodi.

After the recent crisis and the temporary resignation of Prodi, the Prc leadership has swallowed the 12-point cuts programme which Prodi has insisted is the price of remaining in his government.

In spite of the differences with Turigliatto and his organisation, Sinistra Critica (Critical Left, the Italian supporters of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International), all the important trends on the left of the Prc correctly voted against his expulsion.

Rightward shift

There was one significant exception, however. The small Italian group Falce Martello, connected to the Committee for a Marxist International led by Alan Woods, initially abstained on the issue of Turigliatto's expulsion thereby, in effect, ratifying it. However, faced with pressure from the rest of the left, they subsequently switched and voted against.

Their initial position is just one example of the rigid, dogmatic fetishism of this organisation which defends membership of and orientation towards the so-called 'traditional organisations of the working class' at any cost to socialist principles.

They maintain this even when these organisations have collapsed as distinct organisations of the working class or are in the process of doing so. This, unfortunately, could now be the case with the Prc. They have indicated that they will remain within the new formation which the Prc intends to set up, even if it is liberal-capitalist in character!

The direction in which the Prc is heading is clearly indicated by the interview with Franco Giordano, the general secretary of the Prc, in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero (The Messenger) on 19 March, where he clearly states: "To the left of the Democratic Party, a new formation can be born."

The 'Democratic Party' is the new capitalist formation which the leaders of the DS hope to put together in a fusion with the remnants of the Christian Democracy in Italy, such as the Margherita party. This, in turn, is clearly perceived as the basis for a new capitalist electoral bloc.

The 'centre-left', with the 'new' Democratic Party as the main force within it, it is hoped, will become a capitalist alternative to Berlusconi's 'centre-right' Forza Italia. This could then create a more 'stable' situation similar to Britain's with two reliable capitalist forces like the 'centre-left' New Labour and the 'centre-right' Tories. This, it is hoped, will be achieved by a new electoral law to be pushed through by the present or a future government.

Ending PR

The present system of proportional representation in Italy, with the scope for small parties like the Prc to gain a parliamentary presence, is now opposed by the dominant strategists of Italian capitalism. These 'small parties', you see, 'can hold to ransom' governments and prevent the carrying through of the required policies of the capitalists.

True, in its first nine months, the Prodi government displayed somewhat schizophrenic features. The right within the government pushed energetically for massive deregulation, privatisation and support for a second US military base in Vicenza, five kilometres from the first one, as well as the refinancing of the Italian intervention in Afghanistan. The Prc seemed to face both ways.

This produced the spectacle of demonstrations against the government, sometimes led by Prc leaders and MPs acting outside the government, while Prc ministers and Bertinotti went along with the attacks on the working class and democratic rights.

This, however, came to a head with the vote on foreign policy including Afghanistan in which Prodi, by resigning, put a gun to the head of Prc leaders. They chose to opt in favour of the programme of brutal attacks on the Italian working class.

Liquidation of Prc

In the light of this, the Prc is quite clearly looking towards a fusion with the 'left' of the DS, part of the Greens and the PdCI in a party which will be, in effect, a liberal capitalist party. The elements of social democracy which remain in the Prc will thereby be liquidated.

This will not, however, be accepted with equanimity by the Italian working class nor by their organisations, particularly important layers inside the trade unions. An intense debate has been unleashed in the Italian left as to the best way forward.

Following the magnificent demonstration in Vicenza of hundreds of thousands, principled socialists or Marxists would have to vote against funds for the Italian intervention in Afghanistan. Turigliatto was therefore quite correct to use his vote against this measure.

But as important as this issue is, there are even more pressing measures being proposed which directly attack the living standards of the Italian workers, particularly the attack on pensions. For this reason, it is necessary to employ the strategy and tactics which can best maximise the opposition, both within the Prc and outside.

We do not agree with those who either explicitly or tacitly look on the shift to the right and possible collapse of the Prc as a distinct workers' party as a 'progressive' development. It will remove a block, albeit limited, on the Italian capitalists' ability to attack the working class.

The existence of mass workers' organisations, even those of a social democratic character, can, under some circumstances, act as a partial check on the actions of the capitalists. Moreover, it poses the possibility, through the entry of the working class into their ranks, of transforming such parties into fighting socialist and even revolutionary organisations as the history of the Italian working class has shown.

The Socialist Party of Italy split in 1921, which led to the formation of a mass Communist Party. However, this is unlikely to be repeated in the present political context. Substantial forces can come from the Prc for a new left formation but this is unlikely to be of a mass character in the first instance. Therefore, the struggle within the Prc against its rightward shift must be continued for the time being.

It is true that there is little space within the Prc but there is some which can be exploited by a skilful and determined left. The organisation Controcorrente is trying to convince, with some success, other left currents and leading trade unionists to resist the rightward process in the Prc through a united left policy, in the first instance at the upcoming Prc conference (we will carry a report of this conference in a future issue).

There is room for a campaign in the Prc and linking this outside, particularly in the unions, between now and the scheduled next congress of the party next year. In any case, the cup must be drained to the last drop. All possibilities for the left must be exploited in the Prc before a minus sign is placed over its future as a workers' party.

Government cuts

Despite the small growth in Italy's gross domestic product this year, the underlying crisis is clear. Remorseless pressure has been exerted on Prodi to savagely cut public expenditure because of the massive public debt. Yet the government does not have the support of even its own voters. 62% of Italians, (73% of government supporters), want to withdraw all Italian troops from Afghanistan.

If the Prc was to base itself upon this and, instead of acting as a brake within Prodi's coalition, was to mobilise outside the party for an independent working-class policy, it could grow by leaps and bounds. It should also skilfully choose the time to break from Prodi's capitalist coalition, probably on the pensions issue, with workers clearly opposing the proposed cuts.

As important as Afghanistan is, pensions, like other 'bread and butter' issues, touch the lives of workers more directly. A stand on this issue would therefore get widespread support.

Stress and uncertainty

Yet, while proclaiming their faith in socialism and communism the Prc leaders are prepared to preside over cuts. This is producing trauma amongst big sections of the population already driven into long working hours, forced to work in two or three 'precarious' jobs, and an increasingly desperate struggle to maintain themselves.

A recent letter in the Financial Times from a professor of economics quoted data which showed that "in Italy, only 11% of randomly sampled people say they are very satisfied with their lives. This contrasts with Danes at 66%, the Dutch at 52%, the Swedes at 38%."

Even the British, with a massive subterranean revolt against Blair, are ahead of Italians in the 'satisfaction' department; 37% are so inclined.

The 11% rating is undoubtedly a product of the stress and uncertainty of broad sections of Italian society, particularly the working class, which will be enormously aggravated by the policies of the Italian capitalists and all their political formations.

Turin meeting

To prevent the Prc from becoming just another instrument of capitalism, a determined struggle must be waged now. Prc members are not all with the leadership in their attacks on the left, as was shown by the successful revolt of Turin members.

At a recent meeting, they opposed the expulsion and supported the unity of the left and the struggle against the pension reform, at the prompting of Controcorrente. Significantly, a section of the 'majority' leadership supporters were won over.

Even if, after a determined struggle, Bertinotti managed to transform the Prc into a liberal, capitalist party, a determined resistance from the left could itself help to build the forces that could create a new left alternative which, as with all the countries of Europe, would lay the basis for a new mass party of the working class.

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In The Socialist 29 March 2007:

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