From mass to micro

Disputed heritage

The pathetically weak remnants have been marking the centenary of the Partito Comunista. Toby Abse reports from Livorno

January 21 2021 marked the centenary of the foundation of the Italian Communist Party, or, to be more exact, of the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I: Communist Party of Italy) - it only became known as the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) in 1943, the year in which Stalin wound up the Comintern.

The centenary was given relatively wide coverage in the Italian media, with television documentaries and radio dramatisations, as well as many newspaper and magazine articles. Moreover, a fair number of books were either published or reprinted to mark the occasion. However, the continuing Covid-19 pandemic obviously imposed very severe limits on attempts to celebrate it in physical locations, as opposed to websites, Facebook pages or Zoom meetings.

Admittedly, had they taken place, real-life celebrations of the foundation of a party which once had millions of members, and even topped the Italian poll in the European election of 1984, would have been pitifully small. After all, the PCI was dissolved nearly 30 years ago (at the Rimini Congress in February 1991, at the end of which the majority of delegates voted to set up the Partito Democratico della Sinistra - PDS1) and the principal organisation proudly claiming to be the heir to the PCI tradition - the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) - is pathetically weak by comparison

The PCd’I was founded in the city of Livorno, as a result of a walkout of the communist fraction from the 17th Congress of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI - Italian Socialist Party). The communist walkout at the end of six days of intense debate was a consequence of the crushing defeat of its congress resolution, which had called for the expulsion of Filippo Turati’s reformist faction and a name change from the PSI to the PCd’I. The majority of congress delegates belonged not to Turati’s small reformist current, but to the Maximalist faction, which was verbally committed to socialist revolution and had, until the split, aligned itself with the Comintern, rather than the Second International. Therefore, the communist failure to win over the Maximalists stands in marked contrast to the course of events at the French Socialist (SFIO) Congress at Tours in late 1920, in which the majority of delegates agreed to join the new French Communist Party (PCF).

Today, only the outer wall of the Teatro San Marco, where the PCd’I was founded, survives, along with a plaque to mark the event, so it was in the street outside where those seeking to mark the centenary gathered. Fortunately, on the day in question, Tuscany - the region in which Livorno is situated - was in a ‘yellow zone’ (which has fewer Covid-related restrictions than either the ‘red’ or ‘orange’ zones), so it was possible for people from the region, although not from elsewhere, to join in the celebrations without too much difficulty, should they have chosen to do so - and some did. Equally fortunately, it was not raining (in contrast to January 21 1921, when the communists marched to San Marco singing the Internationale under their umbrellas).

By the time I arrived, shortly after 11am, there were about 200 people with a mass of red banners - mainly members or supporters of the PRC, waiting to hear their national leader, Maurizio Acerbo, make the main speech. However, the PRC was not the only communist organisation present. The heirs of Armando Cossutta (1926-2015) and his Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PdCI), who now call themselves Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), were also there. According to accounts in the Livornese local paper Il Tirreno - which for obvious reasons is generally far more accurate in its reporting of local far-left activities than its national counterparts, such as La Repubblica or Corriere della Sera - they were mounting an all-day picket, which had started earlier and would end later than the PRC rally.

Contrary to some accounts in the national bourgeois press, I heard no shouting match between the latter-day PCI and their former comrades in the PRC,2 even if it is obvious that the two parties are not on the best of terms. Those that did seem to be provoking the PRC were the Stalinists/Maoists of the CARC - or, to give them their full name, the Partito dei Comitati di Appoggio alla Resistanza-per-il-Comunismo - who followed up uncontroversial singing of ‘Bandiera Rossa’ and equally ecumenical shouts of “Viva Marx! Viva Lenin!” with the more offensive “Viva Giuseppe Stalin!” and “Viva Mao Tse Tung!” When they engaged in a second round of this routine after the PRC rally, one PRC member spontaneous responded with a very loud shout of “Luxemburg!”, but this was as heated as it got - at least during the time I was there.


After I had gone, there was a more serious clash between the Partito Comunista (PC), whose national leader is Marco Rizzo, and a small delegation of local Partito Democratico (PD) officials, who had come to lay a wreath by the wall of the Teatro San Marco. The PC members were holding a large banner referring to the European parliament resolution equating communism and Nazism, which PD MEPs had supported, and Livornese secretary Lenny Bottai rather forcefully told the PD members to go away, since they had dissolved the party (by which he meant the original PCI)3. At some stage during the afternoon, some local members of the left social democratic Movimento dei Democratici e Progressisti (MDP), whose national leader is health minister Roberto Speranza, also put in a brief appearance outside the Teatro San Marco, but this seems to have passed off without incident, perhaps because Speranza is one of the most popular political figures in Italy at the moment.

Despite references by a Repubblica journalist to attempts to sell the Lotta Comunista newspaper to both PC and PD members, I am inclined to doubt that supporters of Lotta Comunista actually turned up to celebrate Amadeo Bordiga’s key role in founding the PCd’I in 1921.4 There was absolutely no sign of any Trotskyist group - whether the Fourth International’s Sinistra Anticapitalista, which Socialist Resistance members fondly imagine still has some weight in Italy, or the harder Trotskyists of Marco Ferrando’s Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori. Finally, it seems worth pointing out that somebody, or some group, had on the night of January 20-21 covered both the giant flowerpots at the start of Livorno’s smartest shopping street, the Via Ricasoli, with red paint and the Hammer and Sickle symbol.

Acerbo’s speech at the rally was in large measure a defence of the overall record of the PCI against the attacks made on it in the bourgeois media in the run-up to the centenary. He emphasised that the vast majority of the political prisoners during the fascist regime were communists, as were the majority of those killed during the Italian resistance, and that communists - Umberto Terrancini in particular - had played a key role in drawing up the 1948 Italian constitution. This declared that “the republic is founded on labour”, and that there was a universal right to healthcare and education, as well as prohibiting Italy from engaging in offensive wars.5

Acerbo also made an appeal for communist unity, stressing that when Rifondazione was set up in 1991, it had attracted all those who refused to accept the liquidation of the PCI, as well as communists in ‘new left’ groups, such as Democrazia Proletaria. He rightly pointed out that all those who had split from the PRC over the last 20 years, claiming that they could set up better, purer communist parties with a mass following, have failed utterly, and all they have done was to seriously weaken the communist movement as a whole. Furthermore, he was very honest in admitting that the PRC was now a very small party, refraining from the kind of boastful self-promotion so typical of many far-left groups in both Italy and the UK.

He emphasised there was no point in making a fetish of minor ideological differences, and that the most important task was to work together in practice to defend the working class and all the oppressed against the main enemy, neoliberal capitalism. Another of his key points was that the term ‘reformist’ had been consistently misused in bourgeois polemics around the centenary. Those who now used that label were not believers in achieving socialism via a series of reforms, like Filippo Turati had been in 1921 - or indeed believers in any reforms that improved the position of the working class - but were instead mere apologists for globalised neoliberal capitalism.

On the evening of January 21, the PRC organised an online conference via its Facebook page. This involved a large array of speakers, many of whom were not full-timers and some of whom were not in the PRC at all. There was no attempt to impose any sort of official party line on historical questions, and quite a number of criticisms of the record of the PCI - particularly in relation to its treatment of women and women’s issues - were made. Given that the conference started at 6pm and ended around 12.30am, space does not permit any detailed description - suffice it to say that the penultimate speaker, before Acerbo’s summing-up, was the 90-year-old Luciana Castellina. She was one of the leaders of the group expelled from the PCI in 1969, who still continues to write quite regularly for the self-styled “communist daily” Il Manifesto, and, although she was a member of the PRC between 1991 and 1996, has never rejoined it. Such a willingness to allow a plurality of views to be expressed indicates that the PRC’s advocacy of communist unity is not mere rhetoric.

The Cossutian PCI and Rizzo’s PC both held rival Facebook events on the same evening, but as far as I am aware their speakers were all leading officials of their respective organisations, propounding the classic sectarian line that they were the only true heirs to the original PCI of 1921-91.

  1. The PDS subsequently became the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) and in 2007 fused with the remnants of the Christian Democrats’ left wing to form the Partito Democratico (PD), whose deliberately American title marked a conscious break with the European workers’ movement - even if the party eventually aligned itself with the socialist and social democratic parties in the European parliament.↩︎

  2. The traditionally pro-Soviet Cossutta was one of the main founders of the PRC in 1991, and he and his supporters remained in the party until 1998. It is worth noting that their split was objectively a rightward one, since they immediately joined a government led by Massimo D’Alema, who had played a key role in the liquidation of the original PCI - a government which participated in Nato’s bombing of Serbia.↩︎

  3. The PC split from the Cossutian party now known as the PCI more than six years ago. In 2014 it made an unsuccessful attempt to circumvent the rules about any party with no parliamentary representation standing in European parliament elections needing to collect a massive number of signatures by stressing their fraternal links with a number of eastern European, hard-Stalinist outfits. The PC and PCI stood rival lists in the Tuscan regional elections in September 2020. Whilst the PCI outpolled the PC in Tuscany as a whole, in Livorno, where Bottai has a large personal following in the outlying working class quarters of Shangay and Corea, the harder Stalinists of the PC beat the more Togliattian PCI.↩︎

  4. During the time that I was outside the Teatro San Marco, the only group engaging in paper selling was the CARC, whose paper Resistenza I ended up buying after my attempts to put their comrade off by pointing out that I was neither a Stalinist nor a Maoist failed to have the effect that similar assertions used to have on Harpal Brar’s followers on London demos.↩︎

  5. Obviously in practice some of its more progressive features have either not been implemented at all or have been ignored in recent years, but its very existence has been a source of extreme annoyance to the more reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie and their hired politicians, as can be seen from many of the attempts at constitutional ‘reform’, including Matteo Renzi’s proposal, defeated in the 2016 referendum.↩︎