Sinistra Italiana is not very left

Left splits from Renzi

Toby Abse reports on the formation of a new parliamentary bloc in Italy

Despite the aggressively neoliberal course being pursued by Partito Democratico (PD) leader and prime minister Matteo Renzi, which has caused a lot of grumbling amongst his party’s left wing, until very recently talk of a split in the PD had remained just talk.

Issues as the Jobs Act, school reform, the abolition of the directly elected Senate, the electoral reform known as the Italicum and the recent budget1 had provoked much discontent and the last six months had seen a series of defections from the PD by individual parliamentarians or very small groups - some of which had adopted a provisional label like Pippo Civati’s Possibile.2 But this internally divided diaspora was something that Renzi could usually dismiss, even if a regional breakaway in Liguria - triggered by the defection of Sergio Cofferati, the former secretary of the CGIL union confederation and erstwhile Bologna mayor - may have contributed to the right’s victory in that region in May.3

However, November 7 saw an attempt to bring the dissidents together in a more serious organisation that could present itself as a potential electoral challenge to the PD in the local elections due in May or June 2016. The coming together of a group calling itself Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left - SI4) could be seen as a success on one level - Rome’s Teatro Quirino was completely packed, with every seat taken and an overflow meeting outside. The turnout of around a thousand people was sufficient to gain press coverage for the gathering in both the main centre-left daily La Repubblica and the centre-right Corriere della Sera - in the case of La Repubblica, there was a front-page headline.

Nevertheless, it is not certain that Sinistra Italiana amounts to anything more than an enlarged Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (Left Ecology and Freedom - SEL) or indeed whether it is anything more than a purely parliamentary bloc, since it currently has no membership structure. The soft-left SEL has in fact dissolved itself into Sinistra Italiana, at least at the parliamentary level, providing 25 of SI’s 31 deputies and six of its nine senators. Five of its deputies were elected as members of the PD, however, as was one of its senators. Its other deputy is Claudio Fava, who was elected for SEL, then defected along with Gennaro Migliore and SEL’s right wing - most of whom rapidly joined the PD - and has now in a sense returned to the fold5. The two remaining SI senators were elected as members of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S),6 who fell out with the autocratic comedian some time ago and have been sitting as independents.

Sinistra Italiana doubtless hopes to gain a 10th senator from either the left of the PD or one of the other former M5S parliamentarians who have fallen out with Grillo and either resigned or been expelled from the Movimento, since 10 is the minimum required to form an independent parliamentary group in the Senate - something which brings all sorts of advantages. Given that SEL suffered a large-scale defection to the PD by the right wing of its parliamentary group at an earlier stage in this parliament, it has merely more or less recuperated its original strength under another label.

Whilst Sinistra Italiana is clearly to the left of the PD - the very inclusion of ‘Sinistra’ (left) in its name indicates this - it would probably be rather misleading to characterise it as a party of the radical left rather than a left social democratic party. Stefano Fassina, the former deputy economics minister in Enrico Letta’s government, seems to be its leader, although the absence from the meeting of Nichi Vendola, the leader of SEL, unable to attend because of his mother’s serious illness, may have distorted the picture. Fassina has been on notoriously bad terms with Renzi ever since the moment when Renzi, having just been elected secretary of the PD in 2014, but before he had mounted his coup against Letta’s premiership, insultingly responded to a critical comment of Fassina’s by asking, “Fassina? Who?”7

Fassina’s speech on November 7 emphasised: “We are the alternative to Renzi’s neoliberalism of Happy days”.8 He announced that the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, would be Sinistra Italiana’s economic consultant and frequently cited Keynes.9 The defectors from the PD’s left not only criticised Renzi, but also criticised Pier Luigi Bersani, Renzi’s predecessor as PD secretary and the nominal leader of the PD’s remaining left wing, despite the defection of a fair number of his more opportunistic followers to Renzi over the last year or so. Alfredo D’Attore, sometimes described as the dauphin (delfino)10 of Bersani, said: “Pier Luigi is fooling himself. The things that he talks about are now impossible in the PD, where one cannot remain.” Fassina, angered by Bersani’s condemnation of the split in a statement the previous day, responded more brutally:

Bersani is wrong to accuse us of playing the right’s game. I don’t like Bersani’s words. The right’s game is played by he who acts like the right with the Jobs Act, the Buona Scuola, the Italicum, the reform of the Senate and of the Rai.11


Pippo Civati, the third-placed candidate in the primary contest which gave Renzi the secretaryship of the PD, has not joined Sinistra Italiana. Civati and Fassina are divided over the role played by former Roman mayor Ignazio Marino.12 Fassina clearly stated: “His phase is closed.” But Civati has responded: “We have to talk to Marino.” The following day, Fassina, asked if he was going to stand for mayor of Rome, said: “We shall see … the PD has closed the experience of Marino with a grave wound to democracy.”13

However, the division between Fassina and Civati is probably centred on something a bit more fundamental than who is the best challenger to the PD in the forthcoming Roman mayoral election. In an interview with Corriere della Sera Civati also said about SI: “I don’t like the method - this is a top-down operation.” He added: “Six months ago we proposed a longer but deeper labour. I would have set up committees all around Italy, coming from different experiences.”

When asked why he was so cold towards the new project, he responded:

I am only tired of being criticised by people to whom I proposed first referendums,14 then the Possibile association. They always replied no. And then, excuse me, if I had wanted to join SEL, I could have done so at the beginning of May.

Asked if he felt a bit isolated, he added:

Also the idea that they are the only thing in existence isn’t true. Next week we will present a new component in the chamber that has a certain dignity and is the union between Possibile and Alternativa Libera.15

Civati’s claim that “SEL has not even convinced the Greens, Rifondazione or L’Altra Europa con Tsipras” seems to be borne out by events. It is not clear whether a suggestion made the day before the meeting that some wider regroupment of SEL, Civati’s Possibile, Fassina’s Futuro a Sinistra, Rifondazione Comunista and Marco Revelli’s L’Altra Europa con Tsipras is in the offing has any truth.16

There seems to be a consensus that the Greens have rejected any such overtures, just as they refused to join L’Altra Europa con Tsipras for the 2014 European elections. Marco Rizzo’s Partito Comunista - a very hard-line group of Stalinist nostalgics that emerged out of a split in the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani - has also been unequivocal in its rejectionist stance. Maurizio Landini, the leader of the metal workers’ union, FIOM, who has intermittently organised a rather ambiguous combination of civil society groups - the so-called Social Coalition, which may or may not have been intended as a step towards a new radical left political party - has also disassociated himself from both Sinistra Italiana and the wider regroupment project. Finally, it is not entirely clear whether the appeal for a new left launched by various intellectuals, including the philosopher, Remo Bodei, and the political theorist, Nadia Urbinati, is in any way linked to SI.

Whatever the limits of SI, both in terms of gathering the diaspora to the left of the PD into one organisation and in terms of its politics (which are clearly to the right of the Partito della Rifondazione in its heyday between 1991 and 2008), it is seen as an electoral threat by the PD. Inevitably, the former PD element within SI is the more hostile to the PD than the SEL (which even after the defection of its own right wing has wavered over the question of whether or not to form alliances with the PD for local elections in particular areas), and Fassina has made it clear that it will run mayoral candidates against the PD in the major cities in 2016. This seems a principled line in the light of the PD’s rapid rightward drift and Fassina has rightly drawn attention to the way the likely PD mayoral candidate in Turin has imposed cuts.

However, Fassina has even gone so far as to say that SI will support M5S in any second-round run-off between the PD and M5S. The relative weakness of the new organisation and the hatred of the defectors for Renzi’s wholesale conversion of the PD to neoliberalism means that they see Renzi as the main enemy and regard anything which will bring him down as a legitimate tactic - including handing Rome or other major cities to M5S.17 Whilst this is not unparalleled - the radical left in Livorno helped ensure M5S’s victory in the second round run-off ballot there18 - it marks a departure at the national level. Moreover in view of Grillo’s racist response to both recent refugees and earlier waves of immigrants and his rabid Europhobia, hostility to trade unions and contempt for democracy, parliamentary or otherwise, it has a certain Third Period flavour.


1. The current version of the budget appears to adopt

the right’s traditional policies, actually proposing to carry through Berlusconi’s old socially regressive promise of a complete abolition of the property tax on all households, regardless of the size and value of the dwelling, depriving the state of a major source of revenue and necessitating a further round of cuts in public services.

2. This is presumably meant to echo the name of the Spanish Podemos.

3. See my article, ‘Who will fill the vacuum?’ (Weekly Worker June 4 2015) for more detail on this episode.

4. Some in the bourgeois press have suggested that this name was chosen because its initials, SI, mean ‘yes’ in Italian - something which was intended to refute Renzi’s constant reference to the negative attitude of the left. Others suggest it is deliberately patriotic, stressing the Italian nature of this left. Given Stefano Fassina’s involvement in the November 14-15 ‘international summit for a plan B’ in Paris, whose appeal is also signed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Parti de Gauche) and Oscar Lafontaine (Die Linke), it seems more probable that it is an attempt to present Sinistra Italiana as the Italian counterpart to these French and German parties.

5. There are limits to his repentance. At Saturday’s gathering Fava began his speech, “Friends” - deliberately abandoning the traditional leftwing manner of address. He was subjected to large-scale heckling with a substantial section of the audience shouting, “Comrades!”

6. Given the very confused politics of M5S and the extreme rapidity with which it made a parliamentary breakthrough in February 2013, it did attract some parliamentary candidates of a broadly leftish persuasion. They did not share Grillo’s racist attitude towards immigrants and refugees and probably overrated the seriousness of his alleged concerns about environmental issues - quite apart from failing to grasp the degree to which M5S’s online democracy was in reality manipulated by Grillo and his internet guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio.

7. Fassina? Chi? This phrase has appeared in the Italian press with unceasing regularity almost every time Fassina is mentioned, rubbing salt in the wound.

8. This is a reference to the American sit com Happy days that was televised between 1974 and 1984 and whose lead character, Fonzie, is frequently identified with Matteo Renzi in the Italian media.

9. The presence at the meeting of Giorgio La Malfa, former leader of the now defunct Republican Party and former minister in one of Berlusconi’s governments, was a result of his agreement with Fassina’s Keynesian economics, not an indication of a sudden turn to the left. At the other end of the spectrum, former Il Manifesto editor Valentino Parlato and former leader of the Disobbedienti Luca Casarini were also present, as were the veteran of the old PCI, Aldo Torterella, and leading Green Paolo Cento - in short mere attendance at this event does not seem to be a clear indication of political allegiance to Sinistra Italiana.

10. ‘Dolphin’ has no such second meaning in English.

11. See La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera November 8 2015. The unnamed man is, of course, Renzi.

12. See my ‘Scandals in the capital’ (Weekly Worker November 5 2015) for more background about Marino.

13. Corriere della Sera November 9 2015.

14. He meant referendums against Renzi’s counter-reforms.

15. A group of 10 former M5S deputies founded in February 2015. Civati quotations taken from Corriere della Sera November 8 2015.

16. Corriere della Sera November 7 2015.

17. La Repubblica November 10 2015.

18. See my ‘M5S takes ex-communist stronghold’ (Weekly Worker June 12 2014) for an account of the M5S takeover of Livorno.