Italian comrades play host

In September, Rifondazione Comunista held its annual Liberazione festival, named after its daily newspaper. For over a month, the comrades booked the pavement zone around the San Angelo castle in Rome. Every night, the illuminated castle formed an impressive backdrop for 100 or so stalls, cafes, stages and even a cinema. In true southern European fashion, thousands of visitors wandered amongst the stalls, sipping cappuccinos and cold beer. Now and then, they stopped to listen to a debate on gay and lesbian rights or the Palestinian liberation struggle. Licking an ice cream, they might flick through the works of Lenin and Marx in the huge book tent, before moving on to buy fair-trade coffee and Rifondazione merchandise. If the planned festival of the Socialist Alliance in 2003 is only half as ambitious and inspiring, we would have reason to be very proud of ourselves. The Italian comrades invited a number of foreign delegations to attend the last day of the festival, September 27, in order to take part in two debates on 'European left unity'. There was one representative each from the communist parties of Portugal, France, Greece and Germany, Left Party (Sweden), Izquierda Unida (Portugal), the Greek Left Party and a comrade from Cyprus. With two delegates from the CPGB, Rob Hoveman and Liz Davies from the Socialist Alliance and Chris Harman from the Socialist Workers Party, the British left was somewhat over-represented. Even the RMT was present: Alex Gordon and Patrick Sikorski were indeed the only trade union representatives amongst the foreign delegations. The Scottish Socialist Party was invited, but did not attend - without giving its apologies, it seems. The German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) had sent greetings: after its failure to keep its official party status in the German parliament. Down to two MPs and with talk from its right of merger with the SPD, it understandably had other things on its collective mind. The morning session discussed the European Social Forum, and the evening session was titled 'The challenge of European left unity'. Unfortunately, neither was a debate. It was more of an opportunity to deliver your organisation's prepared statement. Both meetings ended after each delegation had spoken once. There was very little real interaction, few suggestions about how to move forward. It looks to me like Rifondazione is keen to establish a certain hegemony over the rest of the European left - without saying where it wants to lead it. The morning session was strangely organised in a chamber in the high-security Italian parliament, which was surrounded by dozens of policemen. Surely, a less 'prestigious' room would have helped to create a friendlier atmosphere, maybe even something of a real discussion on a highly important subject. In the huge, cold room with oil paintings of Italian kings staring down on us, two speakers from Rifondazione addressed the delegates. Alfio Nicotra, the organisation's official delegate to the ESF, told us about the struggle with the Italian rightwing bureaucracy which is still trying to prevent the ESF from happening. Apparently the Italian government has raised the idea that the ESF would have to be cancelled if an attack against Iraq started. "They want to use 'security reasons' as a way to shut down the ESF," said comrade Nicotra. "But the region of Tuscany was a former stronghold of the Communist Party and is now firmly in the hands of the centre left, so Berlusconi cannot prevent us from meeting." Salvatore Cannavo, vice-editor of Liberazione and a member of the ESF commission that deals with its programme, updated us on the progress of the forum, which will be launched in November in Florence. He informed us that the European Trade Union Congress has now become an official participant. There are now over 250 organisations which will take part in the first ESF. Also, a number of groups have expressed an interest in setting up networks around certain issues - anti-war, anti-racism and anti-privatisation were the ones mentioned by comrade Salvatore. In my contribution I welcomed the setting up of such networks, but I stressed that in the face of a strong, increasingly integrated EU, we need to unite our forces on a higher level than just networks. My suggestion of working towards a Socialist Alliance of the European Union and, eventually, a Communist Party of the EU, was greeted by muffled laughter from the SWP comrades. Other European comrades treated the suggestion more seriously, however. Only two people spoke after me, but both picked up on the proposal. The comrade from the Left Party in Sweden called the suggestion "very interesting indeed", but feared it had "still a long way to go". The problem, he said, was that "we all disagree on lots of important questions and it is crucial to allow differences". He obviously believes that a party-type organisation would require the application of the bureaucratic centralist line of 'one organisation, one voice'. As the reality of the SA in England proves, groups with very different political ideas can work closely together. In fact, with a modicum of effort we could work together a lot closer than we do at the moment. Democracy, transparency and the right to publish minority viewpoints are crucial for this. This is something that the CPGB has successfully fought for - and won - in the Socialist Alliance. Crucially, we must recognise that coordinating our campaigns and activities is not just a nice idea, but vital. The bourgeoisie have united in the European Union and are turning it into a super-state. The next speaker, the representative from Izquierda Unida Portugal, criticised the Swedish comrade for being too hesitant. He made a useful practical suggestion towards left unity: "We need to work out a joint programme for the left in Europe - for the European elections, but also for our everyday work. The bourgeois leaders of Europe can unite and work out their programme and are now starting to work on their own constitution. What about us? Working out a joint programme could help to unite our forces," he suggested. "It does not mean that we cannot have differences." It is of course this experience of uniting different political trends that makes the SA's presence at the ESF so unique. The comrades from Rifondazione recognised this and made Liz Davies the first speaker in the evening session. This was even stranger than the morning session. It took place around an open air stage and by the time it started the temperature had sunk to a shivering 10 degrees. Every foreign organisation was asked to speak from the platform - apart from the CPGB and SWP, because we are part of the SA. This turned out to be a good thing: by 11pm only three of the 10 comrades listed had spoken and I retired to bed before I heard even half of the speakers. However, I do not think I missed much: The little I heard in the evening, combined with comrades' contributions in the morning, painted a rather disheartening picture. Most of the representatives of mainstream 'official communism' have little to offer in the face of the challenges presented by the EU. They typically bored the audience with contributions about the level of exploitation in their own country and how brilliant their national mobilisation to the ESF will be. Nobody offered any vision for the future of the ESF or the left in Europe. It looks like Rifondazione will have to make up its mind about its own vision for the European left. At present no other organisation has the influence, cadre and political strength to lead the process of uniting the left. However, Rifondazione's role is still not clear. For example, the organisation initiated Alternative Left in Europe, with the aim of a joint challenge in the 2004 European elections. But its meetings only take place every six months and have so far been little more than talking shops. It has been instrumental in organising the ESF and moving it to the left, but it joins in the pretence that political parties will not be there. At the moment, it seems there will be no speaker from Rifondazione, no RC workshop - in fact no official RC presence at all. The comrades prefer to claim that their organisation is simply part of the Italian anti-capitalist movement. But nothing is set in stone. Things can change. I was told by a full-timer that Rifondazione is "still discussing if we will take part in the ESF under the name of our organisation". He said that there will definitely be a workshop on left unity in Florence - "but we might want to organise it outside the framework of the ESF". If the ESF and the project of European left unity are to succeed, Rifondazione must start to take a bold lead. The European left must set up structures that allow us to debate how we can challenge the EU of capital and the bureaucrats, as well as our own national bourgeoisies. We must begin to debate a joint programme for the EU parliamentary elections. We must move towards a democratically elected and accountable leadership of the ESF that can take decisions and move things forward. The European left is facing a huge test - but if we are not ambitious enough we could very easily fail. Tina Becker * Rifondazione leads Rome anti-war demonstration