Pisapia’s deadly embrace

How productive will Italy’s latest ‘left unity’ project turn out to be? Toby Abse investigates

Public: Maria Elena Boschi and Giuliano Pisapia

The recent attempt to unify the groups to the left of Matteo Renzi’sPartito Democratico (PD), which started with the gathering of around 5,000 people in Rome’s Piazza Santi Apostoli on July 1, seems to have ended in failure - allegedly because of a falling-out over the public embrace between Giuliano Pisapia, the former Rifondazione Comunista deputy and then mayor of Milan (2011-16), and the ultra-Renzian Maria Elena Boschi1 at the Milanese Festa de l’Unità on July 21.

Although it is likely that this ostentatious public display of affection, which made the evening news headlines on the principal state television channel, will be remembered for decades by many with no great knowledge of, or indeed any interest in, Pisapia’s politics, its political significance is more debatable. In reality, the apparent failure of the unity project was probably inevitable, given the extremely vague nature of the proposed organisation and its reliance, not on a clear political programme, but on what was in effect a leadership cult around Giuliano Pisapia.

The provisional name devised by Pisapia for what seemed to be intended as a new electoral combination rather than a genuine political party - Insieme (Together) - always appeared meaningless and absurd. Indeed, it was as lacking in political content as George Galloway’s chosen designation for his electoral vehicle, Respect. Pisapia's political modus operandi is all too reminiscent of Galloway: the same lack of any belief in internal democracy or collective decision-making; the same abrupt, opportunist zigzags; the same reliance on an inner circle of sycophants with no real political or social weight of their own, who derive their authority by responding to their master’s every whim.

It may well be that some of those who gravitated towards Pisapia on July 1 were looking for an Italian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, but he does not seem to be a consistent leftwing social democrat or somebody capable of galvanising a youthful mass movement of the kind we have seen in the UK or US. Nor is he even a charismatic left populist like Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France or Pablo Iglesias in Spain, both of whom are capable of challenging all the neoliberal mainstream parties from a distinctly radical, if ideologically incoherent, position.

The launch in March of Pisapia’sCampo Progressista did nothing to clarify the already confused situation amongst the fragmented forces to the left of the PD. Indeed, Campo Progressista - as lacking in any clear programme as Insiemewas to be a few months later - might even have been intended as a wrecking operation aimed at weakening the strongest left challenge to Renzi (in electoral terms at least) - the social democratic Articolo 1- Movimento Democratico e Progressista(MDP).

Left split

The MDP was the product of a significant left split from the PD in February, when Renzi provoked figures such as Pierluigi Bersani, his predecessor as PD secretary, into leaving the PD rather than continuing their losing battle to reverse Renzi’s neoliberal policies inside an organisation in which the space for serious political debate, as distinct from popularity contests, seemed to be disappearing. The MDP has a substantial parliamentary presence - 42 deputies and 16 senators. Whilst it has remained part of the parliamentary majority sustaining Paolo Gentiloni, the current PD prime minister, the MDP could wipe out Gentiloni’s narrow majority in the senate this autumn, should he and his finance minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, put forward the kind of neoliberal austerity budget that is widely expected.

The MDP’s less widely used alternative title - Articolo 1 - is an explicit reference to article 1 of the Italian constitution of 1948, which states: “This republic is based on labour”. The MDP has repeatedly emphasised that it wants to overturn Renzi’s Jobs Act and restore workers’ rights of the kind embodied in the now repealed article 18 of the 1970 Workers’ Statute; that it supports a more progressive taxation system in terms of both income and property; and that it wants more public investment to kick-start the economy - in short, the MDP has a clear left social democratic programme roughly equivalent to Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 election manifesto, as opposed to the programmatic vacuum of Pisapia’s Campo Progressista. Renzi’s Berlusconian emphasis on cutting taxes, reiterated in a speech in late July, is utterly incompatible with this.

The poor PD results in the June local elections have led to further defections to the MDP amongst local and regional councillors in a number of localities, ranging from the ‘red regions’ of Tuscany and Emilia to Puglia in the south. Although the PD has a far higher paper membership than the MDP, the MDP is recruiting key activists - what the oldPartito Comunista Italiano(PCI) would have called ‘cadres’. The MDP has quite deliberately aimed to build up a proper membership structure with local branches in as many localities as it can. This is in marked contrast to Pisapia’s Campo Progressista, which combines vague movementist rhetoric with a very opaque top-down structure. It is worth noting that the MDP even organised rival festivals in competition with the PD’s Feste de l’Unità2 in quite a number of places in the red regions this summer.

Although justice minister Andrea Orlando, Renzi’s principal challenger in this year’s PD primary (leadership contest), has emphasised the need to stay in the PD to fight to change Renzi’s neoliberal policies, he is well aware that many of his own followers - including some key figures in his home city of La Spezia, who defected to the MDP in July - have thrown in the towel and there has been intermittent press speculation about a further split in the PD at some point soon.

Since I have provided quite a lengthy exposition of the MDP’s strengths, something needs to be said about its principal weakness - its association with Massimo D’Alema. The 68-year-old D’Alema has been a professional politician for his entire adult life, starting off as an official in the PCI’s youth movement, before playing a leading role in the liquidation of the party in 1989-91. He subsequently played a major role in all the PCI’s successor organisations - Partito Demcratico della Sinistra (PDS), Democratici di Sinistra (DS) and ultimately the PD, at one stage as party leader and another as prime minister (1998-2000).

The one thing he has never been, up until this year at least, is a figure identified with the left wing of any of these post-communist parties. He was far more inclined to compromise with Berlusconi than any of his major colleagues in the PDS or DS. His recent vociferous opposition to Renzi’s authoritarian attempt at constitutional reform in 2016 was, as many observers pointed out, in marked contrast to his enthusiastic cooperation with Berlusconi over a similar proposal in 1996-98.

His unscrupulous scheming is notorious - he definitely played a role in toppling Romano Prodi from the premiership in 1998, and is widely suspected of being the organiser behind the treachery of the 101 PD parliamentarians, whose failure to vote for Prodi as president of the republic in 2013 paved the way for Giorgio Napolitano’s re-election for an unprecedented second term. Nonetheless, D’Alema’s suitability as a candidate in next year’s parliamentary election is really a matter for the MDP (or for the voters in any potential primary of the united left) - and Pisapia’s attempt to impose a pre-emptive veto against D’Alema, to which I will return later in this article, was bound to be regarded as unacceptable by the MDP leadership.

Sinistra Italiana

The MDP is not the only left opposition to Renzi’s PD with representation in parliament. The other substantial grouping is Sinistra Italiana(SI). The original SI was the product of an earlier and much smaller split from the PD - its first incarnation was a purely parliamentary group that united a handful of former PD leftwingers with Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL). However, SEL dissolved itself at its congress earlier this year, and Vendola’s supporters became the leading group of the current SI, which is now both a parliamentary group and a proper political party with branches and formal membership.

However, the fusion of the remnants of SEL with the former PD left has not resulted in the creation of a force larger than the original SEL at the time of the February 2013 general election, when it entered parliament via an electoral pact with the PD. The problem, as so often happens in Italy, is that a large number of the parliamentarians elected on SEL’s 2013 list had split to the right in response to Vendola’s left turn, after SEL’s electoral pact with the PD in 2013 failed to produce a left government, and the PD formed a coalition with forces to its right instead. Some shameless opportunists have defected to the PD - most notoriously Gennaro Migliore, once a close associate of Fausto Bertinotti in the heyday ofRifondazione Comunista(PRC), who has become an ultra-Renzian. Others have preferred the slightly more moderate version of social democracy offered by the MDP to the more intransigent and oppositional version offered by SI.

SI, unlike the MDP, is not part of Gentiloni’s majority, even if it sometimes votes with him if it regards a measure as supportable. It is certainly open in principle to an electoral pact with groups to its left - such as the PRC - for the 2018 general election, just as it was to joining the Lista Tsipras for the 2014 European election. Whilst SI does not rule out joint work with the MDP, it is far more wary of Giuliano Pisapia - indeed many rank-and-file members, who feel he has travelled a long way to the right since the days of his involvement with them in first the PRC and then SEL, detest him.

Of course, there are other groupings to the left of the PD, apart from the MDP and SI. Pippo Civati, who split from the PD more or less contemporaneously with the original SI, after an unsuccessful challenge to Renzi for the PD leadership in 2013, has a small group known as Possibile, which works under the SI umbrella in parliament, but is not an organic part of that party. The PRC still exists, but it is a shadow of its former self. It lost all of its parliamentarians in the 2008 general election, and most of its local councillors in subsequent contests. Moreover, it no longer has a national daily paper, and gets very little mainstream media publicity.

For what it is worth, Corriere della Sera’s opinion polls, which group the PRC along with the left populist Italia dei Valori, the Verdi (Greens) andRivoluzione Civile (a group which started off as an electoral cartel in the 2013 general election), have in recent months consistently given the four groups a combined total of 1%.

The more sectarian left groups like the hard-line, orthodox TrotskyistPartito Comunista dei Lavoratori, and the Stalinist Partito Comunista, both of which sometimes contest elections, would have absolutely no interest in any left unity project, regardless of its programmatic basis. However, one group that may be involved in such a process, but is very wary of Pisapia, is the Coalizione Civica, led by Anna Falcone. This was set up in June, and plans to hold local meetings in a large number of cities over the weekend of September 30-October 1. Given the instrumental use of the rhetoric of movementism, horizontalism and civismo (public spirit) by Pisapia’s clique, it is interesting that the one group that is sincere about such notions rejects Pisapia and his personality cult: according to Falcone, “Personalism is a grave political error. It is a way to degrade and mortify politics and drive people away.” Falcone also pointed out that “Today the PD is not a party of the left. It embraced Blairism when it had already failed”.3

Conditions

Whilst Pisapia’s abrupt cancellation of a planned meeting on July 25 with the MDP’s Roberto Speranza to discuss further steps to turn the Insieme project into something more concrete may have owed something to his intense annoyance at any criticism of his very public embrace of Boschi, there are deeper divisions between the two sides. Pisapia’s narrow clique seems to be demanding that the MDP dissolve itself in September; that the new organisation should not have anything as ‘old-fashioned’ as formal membership; that there should be no primaries to choose its candidates; that D’Alema must not be a candidate under any circumstances; and that SI, Coalizione Civica and other organisations to the left of MDP should be automatically excluded from the project, whilst obscure Christian Democratic fragments, which had fallen out with Renzi, should be welcomed into the new ‘centre-left’.

Pisapia’s bag-carriers may say they do not want to be “a party of 20,000” (presumably a fairly accurate estimate of the MDP’s strength), but one suspects Pisapia’s personal following in the absence of the organised cadres of the MDP would be insufficient to get the Campo Progressista through any likely electoral threshold. Renzi may ultimately find it very useful to incorporate Pisapia and some of his fan club into a joint list as left cover for the PD, provided he does not have to make any genuine concessions on his neoliberal programme of lower taxes and reduced employment rights, and perhaps the self-important and slippery former mayor intends to follow this course.

In any event, the MDP would be very foolish to accept Pisapia’s intolerable conditions - so far it has emphasised that SI should be included in any unity project. An MDP-SI fusion without Pisapia, and ideally open in principle to forces further to the left, would provide us with far better opportunities.

Notes

1. Boschi was the minister in Renzi’s government most publicly associated with his unsuccessful attempt to undermine Italy’s 1948 constitution. She has also been widely accused of a conflict of interest, being involved in bailing out the Banca Etruria, a bank on whose board of directors her father served, at one point as vice-president.

2. L’Unità is now definitely defunct as a daily paper, so the PD”s continuing use of the phrase Feste de l’Unità, inherited from the PCI, has been the object of widespread mockery. Renzi’s contempt for anything connected with the old PCI tradition - so alien to his own Christian Democratic background - was well illustrated by the Unità saga over the last couple of years. After allowing the old paper to go into liquidation, presumably because it still gave space to minority views, he revived it with a reduced staff and a dogmatic editorial line full of vicious swipes against his opponents. However, even this did not satisfy him, and the paper was allowed to go bankrupt a second time. Renzi has now created an online paper for the PD, significantly called Democratica, wiping out the last taint of Antonio Gramsci.

3. Il Manifesto August 20.