For a Third Republic

Italy is facing great upheavals. On March 14 up to three million people took to the streets of Rome against the Berlusconi government. On Tuesday April 16 there will be a general strike. Both events are aimed at stopping Berlusconi's attempt to revoke article 18 of the labour code, which covers unfair dismissal. But the crisis in Italian society goes much deeper than defence of a single aspect of labour law. Berlusconi is heading for a strategic confrontation with the working class in Italy. The future of the left - not only in Italy, but across Europe - is at stake. Fausto Bertinotti, general secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, said at the party's 5th Congress in Rimini last weekend: "Berlusconi is attempting to do what Reagan did to the air traffic controllers and what Thatcher did to the miners. Perhaps in Italy we can stop him." Yet comrade Bertinotti also pointed out that Berlusconi's choice of confronting the working class movement head on was not an inevitability. Many of the large capitalist firms (such as Fiat) are hesitant about this approach. Berlusconi could have chosen the model of Aznar in Spain to further entrench the unions in a tripartite corporatism. Instead he has chosen confrontation. Hence the general strike. Underlying these momentous events is the growing anti-capitalist movement, witnessed in the Genoa demonstrations of July 2001, the anti-war movement and - above all - a crisis of the Second Republic. Born out of the collapse of the First Republic in the early 1990s, the new order carried with it widespread expectation that it would do away with the deep corruption throughout society that effectively ended the political compromise in Italy between Christian Democracy and the Socialist Party. This compromise was reached after the collapse of fascism and the monarchy at the end of World War II. In 1945, after the execution of Mussolini by communist partisans, King Vittorio Emmanule III abdicated in favour of his son, Umberto II, in an attempt to save the monarchy. Emmanule had been king since 1900 and was used by Mussolini as a figurehead for the fascist regime. Umberto left the country in 1946 after a referendum to end the monarchy was successful. The First Republic was born from below under the pressure of anti-fascist republicanism and the communist partisans. But the revolutionary movement was stopped short with the active connivance of the Stalinist CPI leadership. The constitution of the First Republic was deliberately designed to exclude western Europe's largest Communist Party from any share of power. The subsequent continuous shifts in the parliamentary alliances of the bourgeois parties created a legacy of corruption throughout Italy - organised crime, bribes and judicial impropriety brought the First Republic crashing down just over 10 years ago. Christian Democracy and the Socialist Party disappeared. The PCI majority turned itself into the social-democratised Party of the Democratic Left (PDS), and Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) was born. Alongside this, rightwing regional parties of the north and south came into being. And then there was billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, perhaps the first political party initially run and created as a corporate entity. This was the political mosaic attending the birth of the Second Republic. The crisis of political corruption which brought down the First Republic was dubbed 'Tangentopoli' (Bribesville). It is something of an irony that the dominant political figure to rise within the Second Republic is Berlusconi - a man who built his fortune in the interstices of Tangentopoli. The Second Republic has met none of the expectations posed by the demise of its predecessor. It has neither rid the country of corruption nor established a viable two-party system. Moreover the judiciary and bureaucracy remain Kafkaesque. The centre-left around D'Alema's PDS must take prime responsibility for this half reform. The PDS had no clear constitutional programme and was overwhelmingly driven by the simple desire to get its feet under ministerial tables. To achieve that goal it rounded on the past. In this sense, the PDS helped create Forza Italia as a stable entity. Both parties joined to push through a referendum on electoral reform in the mid-1990s. The PDS and Berlusconi successfully linked the corruption scandals around former presidents Craxi and Andreotti with the proportional system of the First Republic. They easily won a referendum for first-past-the-post elections. PDS manoeuvres in the bicameral constitutional convention thus underlined the rehabilitation of Berlusconi, who was driven from power in 1994 under his own cloud of scandal and corruption. Yet the PDS-led government of Prodi, the banker, and D'Alema, the former communist, was discredited. D'Alema shunted Prodi off to the presidency of the European Commission. Constitutional reform was halted. There were no limits put on ownership of the media. Judges and prosecutors remained essentially in the same career path. The fight of the 'Milan pool' of prosecutors against Mafia corruption had been partially successful, but was not seen to go all the way. Andreotti was eventually acquitted of the most extreme charges of corruption. Now back in power, Berlusconi is attempting to change the law to cover his financial dealings. D'Alema had come to power in 1995 promising the 'normalisation' of Italian politics. Indeed, that was the name given to the PDS manifesto Un paese normale - a normal country. One plank of this 'normalisation' was adherence to the Maastricht criteria for monetary union which D'Alema and Prodi achieved, much to the surprise of European central bankers. Of course Italian society is a 'normal' bourgeois democracy in the sense that it is far from being fully democratic. Not only has proportional representation been overthrown but the legal system is a mix of a fascist-derived legal code and arbitrary powers. There is no habeus corpus. Anyone can be imprisoned without charge for over three years, under 'preventative detention' - a category which accounts for more than half the prison population in the country. Another aspect of 'normalisation' was the open support of the PDS government for the imperialist adventure in the Balkans. Italy became Nato's runway for the bombing of Serbia. Within 'normalisation' came an ever-growing confusion amongst the PDS's traditional proletarian base. This benefited the left. It also benefited Berlusconi. He gathered his forces and transformed Forza Italia from a company logo into an effective party capable of sinking social roots. Unfortunately, Rifondazione did not maintain a clear class demarcation from the debacle of the centre-left PDS in power. While never joining the government, Rifondazione did allow its votes in the lower house to be used in support of the Ulvio (Olive Tree) coalition in government. This crippled its ability to fight for an independent class position. Since then, the PRC leadership has criticised this period. However, it maintains an ambivalent orientation to the centre-left and the PDS. In this sense Communist Refoundation and its leadership is almost classically centrist, albeit moving to the left under the pressure of the mass movement of anti-capitalism and the reawakening giant of the Italian working class. This constitutional crisis is the backdrop to the impending confrontation between classes in the current political situation. It is what Bertinotti called in his final address to congress an "extraordinary novelty of events". Centred around a fight for workers' rights against unfair dismissal, a decisive battle between the trade unions and the government is set to happen. As comrade Bertinotti said, "There is no compromise possible in this fight. We either win or lose." Comrade Bertinotti said there are two possible ways to lose. Either in an all-out confrontation à  la "Scargill and the British miners", or you get lost in ever more confusing circles of manoeuvre. In this he cited the unsuccessful 1984 struggle against the Socialist Party government of Craxi to defend the sliding scale of wages (scala mobile). The Rifondazione leadership has correctly identified the struggle to defend article 18 not only as a strategic class confrontation but also as part of broader international developments. Comrade Bertinotti identifies Berlusconi's attack on the working class as part of the neoliberal authoritarianism of the globalised world order. Hence he is offering a political solution and linking the struggle of the working class with the burgeoning anti-capitalist movement. It is this link which the Trotskyist left opposition around Marco Ferrando fails to grasp. Disarmed by economism, they can only make formally correct yet abstract criticisms of Bertinotti's relationship with the centre-left, his ambiguous orientation to the new social movement and his centrism. At least Bertinotti has understood the role of democracy. In his opening address to the PRC congress, he proclaimed: "Stalinism is incompatible with communism." He paused and went on: "This is worth repeating: Stalinism is incompatible with communism." He emphasised that Berlusconi was not fascism reborn, but an authoritarian and xenophobic defender of neoliberalism. He quoted Lelio Basso from 1958, who wrote: "Democracy is not a spontaneous tendency of the evolution of capitalism. On the contrary, it only results from the pressure of the internal and subaltern class forces within capitalism. Capitalism, particularly in the period of monopoly, has a spontaneous tendency against democracy." Bertinotti claimed this quote for its relevance today and added: "Under modern capitalism, democracy is an empty shell. It is mere formulas and rituals in a secular mass." Underlining this, he went on: "Our opponents will always try to destroy our democratic achievements or will attempt to empty them of their content." Thus armed with the banner of democracy, Bertinotti has skilfully positioned himself against both his Stalinite right wing and the economistic Trotskyist 'left'. Yet, as a centrist, he does not follow the logic of revolutionary democracy to its necessary conclusion. Many oppositionists during congress criticised comrade Bertinotti's approach to the general strike and the reborn workers' movement. How do we defeat Berlusconi? And when we do, what is to replace his government? These questions remain unanswered. Comrade Bertinotti has an admirable understanding of alienation under capitalism - inspired by the Italian autonomist tradition - and a supreme orator's skill. His description of the coming battle is inspiring: "A general strike of all the new labour movement "¦ part of globalisation and an answer to it"; "The general strike will overcome workers' 'loneliness' and isolation "¦ For one day, we will create a community of labour not directly exploited by capital"; "It will be a day of revenge and our way of occupying the future. It will build a living criticism of the capitalist economy"; "There will be a touch of creativity of self-government from below." Inspiring words, but what next? His speech emphasised the need to place social conflict at the centre of the communist programme. Yet the party remains in local coalitions with the PDS - indeed, the congress was opened by Paolo Gambutti - responsible for labour policy in the local Rimini, PDS-led administration. Comrade Bertinotti has no answer to the question: 'What next after the general strike?' Closing congress in a rhetorical flourish, he answered this with "Another general strike!" Although he grasps the strategic nature of the coming confrontation, he is unable to map out the way ahead. For parliament the proposal is "to move beyond good manners to political substance". Concretely, the PRC will aim to filibuster and upset Forza Italia's legislative programme. Second, Rifondazione is proposing a series of referenda - the constitution allows for these upon the submission of 500,000 signatures. If these are collected, the referenda will be on the extension of article 18 to include all workplaces (not just those of more than 15 employees, as at present); on the rule of law; on the rights of workers; and on environmental protection. These campaigns will be useful in turning the party out to the masses, but they are not the final word. Bertinotti identifies the electoral system as undemocratic, and wants to change it, but does not link it into a generalised alternative. The Rifondazione majority has no clear political alternative for the crisis of the Second Republic. Yet it is groping towards it. It is centrism moving left. 'One more general strike' will not see the birth of a revolution. Rifondazione Comunista needs to fight for a Third Republic under the hegemony of the working class. Instead, Bertinotti hides behind statements of "social and political contradictions" and "modes of oppression". He says: "Revolution is not just about taking power here and now like the storming of the Winter Palace." And he beats off the 'left' opposition, who rightly criticise his ambivalent relationship with the centre-left. "Don't ask me about the CGIL [the main trade union confederation] and the PDS. In a few a months time the entire political situation will be different." The Second Republic is in crisis. The main classes of Italy are set for a strategic confrontation. Italy - and the Italian working class - occupies a vitally important position in the European political arena. Rifondazione Comunista needs to fight for a Third Republic and take the lead of reshaping the European left . Marcus Ström * http://www.rifondazione.it