Resistance to war fever
Amidst the suffocating establishment consensus, Toby Abse welcomes the relatively principled position taken by much of the Italian left
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has precipitated a militarist turn in Italian mainstream politics over the last month.
Before the war started, the Italian government appeared supportive of French and German efforts to mediate between the two sides. Prime minister Mario Draghi’s initial stance was doubtless more the product of a desire not to jeopardise Italy’s economic recovery from the 9% slump induced by the Covid pandemic in 2020 than any particular interest in eastern European political disputes.1 Arguably, Draghi’s embrace of a warlike stance was more a response to the massive rearmament programme of the German ‘traffic lights’ coalition than to any signal from Washington, as his time at Frankfurt as European Central Bank president (2011-19) meant he was particularly sensitive to Germany’s political climate.
The sudden shift to war fever has been most clearly shown by the massive parliamentary majorities - including the main, neo-fascist, opposition party, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), as well as the six parties of the National Unity government - firstly in favour of sending arms to the Ukrainians, and secondly for colossal increases in Italian arms expenditure in order to reach the target of 2% of gross national product that Washington has set for European Nato members. It needs to be emphasised that the most Atlanticist and bellicose party in the coalition has been the social democratic Partito Democratico (PD), which clearly regards matters such as health, education, the cost of living, job insecurity and the ecological transition as secondary to the overwhelming urgency of rapidly and massively increasing ‘defence’ spending.
As I will show, this means that the bridge between Enrico Letta’s PD and the most leftwing of the major trade union confederations, the CGIL, is now as gapingly wide as it was during Matteo Renzi’s premiership in 2014-16, and all the efforts made by Letta’s immediate predecessor as PD leader, Nicola Zingaretti, to reach out to CGIL general secretary Maurizio Landini have been nullified.
The bellicose hysteria of the dominant parliamentary parties has been reflected in Italian media coverage of the war itself (eg, an almost universal failure to mention the Ukrainian rocket attack on Donetsk, which killed at least 25 civilians, and the ludicrous description of the Azov battalion on Italian TV news as either ‘ultra-nationalist’ or ‘controversial’, rather than neo-Nazi; and, for example, the complete failure to even mention the 30,000-strong March 26 anti-war demonstration in Florence in TV news bulletins.
The most extreme example of this shameless partisanship has been in the daily paper traditionally associated with the ‘centre-left’, La Repubblica, whose editorialists (and sometimes even political or parliamentary reporters) seek to label anybody who expresses any criticism of Nato or shows a lack of enthusiasm for Volodymyr Zelensky as a stooge of Vladimir Putin. Whilst it is the case that some leading figures on the Italian right have in the past been great fans of Putin (Lega leader Matteo Salvini was once photographed wearing a Putin T-shirt, and one of Silvio Berlusconi’s more notorious sexual encounters allegedly occurred in a bed he had been given by his friend, Vladimir) Repubblica’s primary target has been Draghi’s left critics - especially the CGIL’s Landini.
Genuine peace demonstrations, like that of 50,000 people in Rome on March 5, at which Landini was the most prominent speaker, have been the object of intense scorn, whilst the ‘Cities stand with Ukraine’ rally in Florence on March 12 was described as a ‘peace demonstration’, when it was obviously the opposite. The majority of the 20,000 participants waved blue and yellow flags, rapturously received Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for a ‘no-fly zone’ (ie, a third world war) and were ardent supporters of a Ukrainian military victory. Many would probably not be content until the last Russian tank driver died in agony.
By March 22, establishment enthusiasm for the Ukrainian war effort had reached its climax with the invitation to Zelensky to address via video link a joint session of both chambers of the Italian parliament. He was only the third foreign head of state ever to do this; Italy differs from the UK, where such addresses by foreign dignitaries seem to have become almost routine. Zelensky’s speech was broadcast live on Italy’s main state television channel as part of a half-hour programme which also featured the laudatory introductions from the speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, as well as the subsequent eulogy from Draghi.
The Ukrainian actor was far more restrained than he had been in previous episodes of his worldwide virtual tour2 - no call was made for a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, which even Nato has rejected so far. Nor did he make the misleading comparison with the Italian resistance in World War II that many had expected. Instead, he made some flattering references to the Italian people’s hospitable and welcoming character, and to his happy visits to Italy in times of peace. Understandably, he failed to mention the huge villa in the upmarket seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi that he has purchased with his ill-gotten gains from money laundering in offshore tax havens like the Virgin Islands, which surfaced in the rarely mentioned Pandora Papers.3
Of course, Zelensky’s red carpet treatment was a logical consequence of the second parliamentary vote in favour of sending arms to Ukraine on March 17. This confirmed the overwhelming vote earlier in March supporting Draghi’s initial belligerent statement to parliament, in which he had stressed that mere economic and humanitarian aid was insufficient, and that the Ukrainians needed more arms. The small minority of opponents were more or less the same people who on the previous day had voted against the rapid increase of Italian military spending from 1.5% to 2% of GNP by 2024. Despite the overwhelming majority, it is worth noting that there were 231 absences, only 78 of which had what Italian parliamentary rules regard as ‘a justification’. Whether this indicates pangs of conscience (either about inflaming the conflict or, in the case of the Lega, of appearing disloyal to their generous patron, Vladimir Putin) is open to question.
The whole question of the dramatic increase in Italian military spending cannot be detached from the general international trend within Nato and the European Union. Between 2015 and the present, Nato has spent 14 times as much on ‘defence’ as the Russian Federation ($5,892 billion, against $414 billion). Even if one looks at EU countries alone over the same period (and excludes what the particularly militarist UK spent after 2019), the total is more than 3.5 times that spent by Putin ($1,510 billion for the EU, as against $414 billion for Russia). These figures may cast a little doubt on the notion that Nato and the EU are totally unprepared for the alleged Russian threat to ‘western civilisation’.
Furthermore, Lorenzo Guerini, the PD minister of defence, a particularly virulent Atlanticist hawk, has already pushed Italy’s military spending up every year - from €21.5 billion in 2019 to €25.8 billion in 2022. As Maurizio Acerbo, the leader of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), said at a rally on March 19,
The vote in favour of the increase in military spending demonstrates that there is a single party of Nato and war in parliament - to bring military spending up from €25 to €38 billion annually is a blow against millions of Italians, who for years have suffered the consequences of cuts in health and social spending. It is a choice that flows from the servility towards Nato and the USA of our government and the political forces that sustain it.
On March 26, the very same square in Florence, the Piazza Santa Croce, that had hosted the ‘Cities Stand with Ukraine’ rally two weeks earlier was filled by a crowd of 30,000 people with a very different message - “Insorgiamo” (‘Let’s rise up’) - organised not by the PD and the city’s establishment, but by the Factory Collective of the former GKN workers of the motor component plant at Campi Bisenzio, near Florence.
These skilled engineering workers, who were sacked by email overnight back in July 2021, have waged an epic struggle to save their factory from permanent closure, and are still hoping that it will be converted into a plant producing some more ecologically sustainable goods. They have consistently gone out of their way to send delegations to support others in many similar disputes all over Italy and were also able to make connections with Fridays For Future - the predominantly youthful ecological movement associated with Greta Thunberg, which had mounted demonstrations in many Italian cities the day before.
The result of this energetic nationwide activity by the Factory Collective was that they were able to attract far larger numbers than any of Italy’s fragmented far-left groupings could have done - particularly in a location other than Rome or Milan. Their leading spokesman, Dario Salvetti, at the start of what proved a long march, stressed:
Don’t get lost in the bars. Stay united. In the square they will count us, because here a fortnight ago the no-fly zone that would take us into a third world war was invoked. We are going to take this square; we are going to make them see what Santa Croce is.
A variety of student organisations were present, as were the whole spectrum of semi-syndicalist rank-and-file unions. Given the link between the Factory Collective and the left current within the CGIL, the mainstream left union confederation was also in evidence, including its Tuscan regional secretary, Maurizio Brotini. “Ne con la Nato, ne con Putin’ (‘No to Nato, no to Putin’) was the most frequently heard chant.
There was a large contingent from the PRC, including its current leader, Maurizio Acerbo, in addition to Simona Suriano, the deputy from the feminist party, ‘ManifestA’. The left-green Sinistra Italiana was also well represented, as were the youthful and very lively supporters of the Potere al Popolo (‘Power to the People’) coalition.
Although reports in the local press made no mention of Sinistra Anticapitalista (Anti-capitalist Left’ - the Italian section of the Fourth International) the photograph in Il Manifesto clearly showed its banner. In view of the pro-Zelensky and implicitly pro-Nato line which the Fourth International seems to be taking, one would like to hope that its Italian comrades may perhaps have remembered Karl Liebknecht’s point in 1914: “The main enemy is at home”.
Given his long career as a banker, Draghi would have been far more concerned with Italy importing roughly 40% of its gas from Russia and its need for grain, maize and sunflower oil from both Russia and Ukraine than with any military clashes in the Donbas. By early February, the rising prices of both gas and oil were already eroding Italy’s chance of maintaining anything like the 6.5% growth of 2021 in the coming year, which in reality meant it had not even got back to 2019 levels of production.↩︎
So far, Zelensky has addressed the UK parliament, the US Congress, the European parliament, the German Bundestag, the Israeli Knesset and the French parliament.↩︎
Despite Zelensky’s appeal as an anti-corruption campaigner to a gullible Ukrainian electorate, who gave him over 70% support when he stood for the presidency in 2019, he owes his career both as an actor and as a politician to one of Ukraine’s most corrupt oligarchs.↩︎