Marginalised and divided

Little cause for optimism in Italy

The left is fragmented, directionless and in total disarray, writes Toby Abse

The state of the Italian left over the last nine months has been singularly depressing. Not only has the centre-left Partito Democratico(PD) so far failed to break with the neoliberal legacy of Matteo Renzi to any significant extent, but forces to the left of the PD are also in complete disarray.

I will start with Liberi ed Uguali (LeU), the left social democratic cartel, which seemed to offer some hope of serious opposition to the country’s rightward drift. LeU, instead of moving towards a cohesive mass movement party, has now split into three principal components. These are essentially the three original groupings that appeared to be moving towards fusion during the 2018 general election campaign: namely the MDP (Movimento dei Democratici e Progressisti), Sinistra Italiana and Possibile.

The first of these, the MDP, led by Roberto Speranza and Pier Luigi Bersani, originating from the left of the PD, had split from it just before the 2017 primary contest, culminating in Matteo Renzi’s re-election as PD secretary. It is therefore no surprise that the MDP sees the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, to which the PD now adheres, as its reference point.

The other major grouping is Sinistra Italiana, led by Nicola Fratoianni, largely composed of the left wing of the old Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (SEL). This organisation looks towards the United European Left in the European parliament, the most leftwing of the transnational alliances in that body. Stefano Fassina - who broke with the PD some time before the MDP group - has now quit Sinistra Italiana and set up a ‘left sovereigntist’ (ie, nationalist) grouping, Patria e Costituzione (Fatherland and Constitution). This alignment roughly corresponds to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise and the increasingly nationalist and anti-migrant right wing of Die Linke. Before the recent split between the MDP and Sinistra Italiana, LeU had already been weakened by the exit of Possibile, now led by Beatrice Brignone rather than by its founder, Pippo Civati.

Whilst Pietro Grasso - the speaker of the Senate in the 2013-18 legislature and the nominal leader of LeU as a whole for the purpose of the 2018 general election - has done his best to slow down the disintegration of his electoral cartel, setting up local rank-and-file comitati di base to increase pressure for unity on quarrelsome factional leaders, this now seems a doomed project. Although Grasso has made forlorn efforts to maintain the unity of LeU, the same cannot be said of Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies in the 2013-18 parliament. She has joined yet another grouping, called Futura.

The MDP is hoping that Nicola Zingaretti, the most leftwing of the three main candidates in the latest PD primary, will be elected secretary, opening the way for the MDP to either re-enter the PD or form a close electoral alliance with it. In complete contrast, Sinistra Italiana is hoping to reach a deal with Luigi De Magistris, the left-populist mayor of Naples, who is detested by the Campagna regional PD. He called a national assembly of his supporters in Rome on December 1, with the idea of forming a new list for the European elections in May 2019.

Smaller groups

If relative electoral success (eg, overcoming the 3% threshold for parliamentary elections with a score of 3.4% and achieving representation in both houses) failed to turn LeU into a viable party, the fate of Potere al Popolo, the more radical left electoral cartel - which with a mere 1.1% failed to gain any parliamentary representation - has been equally dismal. The largest force within it - Rifondazione Comunista - has abandoned it after falling out with its nominal leader, Viola Carofalo, her Neapolitan Social Centre, Ex OPG, and her allies in a group called Eurostop, which includes part of the small, but militant, semi-syndicalist, trade union, the USB. The soft Trotskyist Sinistra Anti-Capitalista, led by Franco Turigliatto,1 and the soft Stalinist Partito Comunista Italiano (the main heir of Armando Cossuta’s Comunisti Italiani, who split from Rifondazione20 years ago) have also abandoned the attempt to work with Carofalo and groups with a syndicalist and/or autonomist background.

The remaining supporters of Potere al Popolo have approved an online statute for the organisation (about 4,000 votes were cast), but whether such disparate elements will cohere is another matter. Rifondazione, like Sinistra Italiana, seems attracted by De Magistris’s project of a broad radical left cartel for the European elections next May. Given Potere al Popolo’s largely Neapolitan following, it is still possible that the two factions may regroup within such a broader cartel by the time of the European elections.

It is worth noting thatRifondazione, Sinistra Italiana and the Partito Comunista Italiano appear to have agreed to field a joint list for the Sardinian regional elections in February - perhaps a small sign of a renewed willingness to set aside minor differences.

Angelo Bonelli’s Federazione dei Verdi (Federation of Greens), enthused by the success of its German sister party in recent regional elections, has abandoned its alliance with the Partito Socialista and Area Civica - an opportunist, centre-left lash-up, whose other components had little interest in environmental issues. It gained a mere 0.58% in the March general election and the Greens now hope to contest the European elections in their own right. Veteran Alfonso Pecorario Scanio tried to persuade them to join up with the Five Star Movement (M5S) in return for a place for himself high up on the M5S list,2 but a national gathering during the weekend of December 1-2 decisively rejected a motion to that effect.

The smaller far-left groupings that refuse to ally with either LeU or Potere al Popolo, but were stubbornly determined to stand in the March 2018 general election under their own colours, did even worse. Marco Rizzo’s hard-line Stalinists of the Partito Comunista3 clocked up 0.33% - probably gaining most of these votes because of their name rather than their bizarre politics.4 The list, Per una Sinistra Revolutionaria, consisting of Marco Ferrando’s hard Trotskyist Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori5 and the group formerly known as Falce e Martello (Grantite Trotskyists who remained in Rifondazione for some time after the other Trotskyist factions had left) scraped the barrel with 0.09%.

PD primary

The PD has finally begun the ‘primary’ process that will eventually lead it to elect a new secretary (ie, party leader) some time in early March. The initial phase involves voting in the PD’s circoli (local branches) and the top three candidates in this vote by members then go forward into the next - public - round, the ‘primary’, when anybody claiming to be a PD sympathiser can vote. There are currently seven declared candidates - six men and a woman. However, given that all commentators seem certain about which three are likely to be in the final round, there seems little point in discussing the minor candidates.

As one might expect, the three main candidates represent the right, left and centre of the PD spectrum. The first to declare himself, some months ago, was Nicola Zingaretti, the president of the Lazio region, who is regarded as the ‘left’ candidate. Zingaretti succeeded in being re-elected in his region on March 4 - the very same day as the PD did so disastrously in the general election nationally. His regional coalition was broader than the PD’s national one, and included some figures a little further to the left. Although some dispute exists as to precisely when Zingaretti started to distance himself from Matteo Renzi, he is being regarded - and regards himself - as the anti-Renzi candidate, and is the most aware of the major candidates of the need to move away from Blairite neoliberalism and back to a more traditional social democratic position if working class voters are to be won back to the PD.

Whilst some might suggest that support from former premier Paolo Gentiloni and former PD leader Dario Franceschini - both former Christian Democrats rather than ex-communists, and both complicit in all Renzi’s neoliberal measures - show Zingaretti is not as ‘left’ as all that, it is also an indication of how unpopular the insufferably arrogant and self-centred Renzi has become among his own former allies, who now see the urgent need to ‘de-Renzify’ the PD if it is to survive.

The ‘centre’ candidate is Maurizio Martina, who has been acting leader since Renzi very reluctantly stepped down in the wake of the March 4 defeat. Martina had been minister of agriculture in the PD-led government, and was Renzi’s seemingly obedient and pliable vice-secretary before March. However, inevitably, Renzi’s refusal to genuinely take a step back after leading the party to total disaster brought him into conflict with Martina, who sought to keep the deeply divided party from disintegrating (eg, by organising a 70,000-strong national demonstration in Rome on September 30 against the policies of the right-populist coalition - something which raised PD members’ morale, even if it did not get much external support). Martina had no interest in Renzi’s recurring fantasies of emulating Emanuel Macron’s En Marche.

Predictably, the hitherto obscure Martina enjoyed being acting leader rather more than he was at first willing to admit, and after much hesitation and equivocation belatedly threw himself into the ring as the ‘unity candidate’, who will allegedly prevent the primary from becoming a divisive fight to the death between Renzians and anti-Renzians. Conversely, some might see the intervention of a third serious candidate as increasing division by making a clear winner (with over 50% of the vote in the primary) less probable, and thus reducing the chances of members uniting behind the winner after the ‘congress’.6

Renzi had some difficulty in finding anybody willing to stand as his puppet, and in the end the party’s right wing rallied around Marco Minniti, the former interior minister, whose racist attitude towards migrants and protective stance towards fascist marches paved the way for Matteo Salvini, the current Lega deputy prime minister. Minniti has publicly distanced himself from Renzi. (Ironically, the man Renzi had desperately wanted to be his candidate against Zingaretti, former infrastructure minister Graziano Delrio, has come out in favour of Martina.) Needless to say, Minniti has emphasised the need to address the concerns of working class voters about immigration and crime, rather than showing any willingness to change the PD’s policies on economic issues.

Whilst Renzi will presumably fall in behind Minniti, it is far from certain that he will remain in the PD if Zingaretti wins; Renzi’s formation of a network of comitati civici (civic committees) - a name last used by the Christian Democrats for anti-communist purposes in the crucial 1948 general election - suggests otherwise. The committees are a structure outside the PD, not a current within it, and might well be conceived as the embryo of an Italian En Marche.

A PD without Renzi might have more chance of survival, and perhaps revival, but the overall state of both the centre-left and far left in Salvini’s Italy provides little cause for optimism in the short term.


1. Sinistra Anti-Capitalista emerged from a split in Sinistra Critica and, as far as I am aware, is now the official Italian section of the Mandelite Fourth International, represented in Britain by Socialist Resistance.

2. Interestingly, M5S did originally stress its interest in environmental issues, but its record in both local and, more recently, national government casts a great deal of doubt on its ecological commitments - most notably in relation to the Taranto steelworks and the trans-Adriatic pipeline, which will bring gas from Azerbaijan into Italy.

3. This grouping split from the Comunisti Italiani some years ago and has links with various eastern European Stalinist-nostalgic parties.

4. Its rivals in the Partito Comunista Italiano were standing as part of Potere al Popolo, so Rizzo’s organisation was the only ‘communist’ one listed on the ballot papers.

5. This group split from Rifondazione Comunista over a decade ago.

6. The PD’s ‘congresses’ are only a culmination of the primary to anoint the winner and are not forums for serious policy discussions in the way the PCI ones were - at least