PRC - origins, problems and prospects

The combativity of the working class in Italy is in part connected to the leadership offered by Rifondazione Comunista, argues Toby Abse, a supporter of Resistance. This monthly publication groups together the International Socialist Group - affiliated to the so-called 'Fourth International' - and an eclectic range of independents who in general inhabit the right wing of the Socialist Alliance

Italy has seen the most sustained mass mobilisations of any European country over the last two years - even if one might argue that some episodes in the French class struggle, such as the series of public sector strikes over pensions, have been more intense or more prolonged. Italy, with its social forums and militant class struggle, should be at the very centre of our attention. We need to apply the lessons learned to creating a more pluralist and more democratic framework for the British left.

Italy is unique in western Europe in having a mass party of the radical anti-capitalist left in the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), with its 100,000 members and deep roots in society. In France the absence of a viable mass party of the radical left, which could act as a permanent organisational reference point, explains why the class struggle in that country has been more subject to ebbs and flows over the past couple of years, with more spontaneous mass movements expanding and contracting. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvrière are not mass organisations (Lutte Ouvrière does not even want to be one). The declining Parti Communiste Français remains a much more traditional communist party, closer to the ‘official’ Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PDCI) than to Rifondazione.

The bulk of the British left only started taking much interest in Italy as a result of the demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001. There is therefore a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Genoa, particularly in Socialist Workers Party circles, where the mass anti-capitalist demonstrations are credited with suddenly transforming Rifondazione from some rather dreary left reformist or semi-Stalinist outfit into a party, which, even if it has not understood the whole of the gospel according to Alex Callinicos, can be treated as some sort of fraternal organisation.

Nevertheless it is true that Genoa did genuinely mark a shift in Italian politics and not just a shift in the British perception. Rifondazione’s response to the Genoa events provoked a change in the party’s attitude to mass movements, with PRC leader Fausto Bertinotti increasingly taking up the notion of the ‘movement of movements’, and formally downplaying the party’s leading role in favour of participating in social forums.

On the other hand the size of the Genoa demonstrations cannot be understood without reference to the earlier history of the Italian working class movement. And Rifondazione’s reaction to them cannot be understood without some reference to the earlier history of Rifondazione as an organisation. In other words the story cannot begin with Genoa, even if my emphasis will be on the period between July 2001 and the present.

There is no space to go into great detail about the history of the Italian working class movement, from its birth in the 1860s and 1870s, with an anarchist section of the First International emerging out of the pre-existing republican movement. Nevertheless, a thumbnail sketch is needed. The workers’ movement preceded the formation of a substantial industrial proletariat, and owed a lot to the political culture of urban artisans, landless labourers, share croppers and so forth. However, the Italian Socialist Party, founded at Genoa in 1892, was led by the Milanese intellectual, Filippo Turati, and other reformists, who were particularly influential in its parliamentary group. Its mass base was often, although not always, further to the left, with the distinction between anarchists and socialists often blurring at the local level. The majority of its members were anti-militarists, as became very apparent during the Libyan war of 1911, and again during World War I, which Italy entered in May 1915.

Unlike the vast majority of Second International socialist parties, the Italian Socialist Party never endorsed its own ruling class during World War I, even if it remained neutralist rather than revolutionary defeatist. The period after the armistice saw the 1919-20 revolutionary upsurge, culminating in the occupation of the factories in September 1920. Fascism rose in response to this, gaining power in 1922.

The pre-fascist traditions were kept alive in the major industrial centres, despite 20 years of dictatorship, and the spring of 1943 saw mass strikes against Mussolini. In 1944 there were the biggest strikes in Nazi-occupied Europe, and in 1945 the Italian partisans liberated the northern cities and executed Mussolini.

From March 1944, ‘official’ communist leader Palmiero Togliatti did his best to keep this very militant movement within the straitjacket of an essentially reformist, ‘peaceful road’ ideology, which eventually became the so-called Italian road to socialism. However, the leaders of the Communist Party (PCI) were never totally successful in this project. From time to time the base’s inclination surfaced, for example in the semi-insurrectionary general strike of July 1948, which was particularly strong in Genoa, following the assassination attempt against Togliatti; and again in the July 1960 anti-fascist riots in Genoa. The student movement of 1967-68 contributed to the working class ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, which unleashed a period of industrial militancy that did not really end until the defeat at Fiat in 1980.

In the earlier 1970s Italy had the largest revolutionary left in western Europe, probably about 50,000-strong. All of this meant that the attempt by the Togliatti in 1989-91 to liquidate the PCI into some sort of broadly social democratic organisation met with far more opposition than he imagined he would face. Obviously the majority of the party, particularly the leadership, had been social democratic in all but name for decades. But around one third of the party continued to oppose the name change to Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) despite 15 months of debate and indeed two party congresses.

Therefore, despite the attempt by Achille Occhetto to keep the rank and file inside the newly formed PDS by opposing the 1991 Gulf War - much to the disgust of the more consistent right-winger, Giorgio Napolitano, who wanted to align with the US military - there was a substantial split to the left, which formalised itself as the PRC in the course of 1991.

Rifondazione never was the monolithic group of Stalinist nostalgics that its opponents try to brand it as. Its absorption in June 1991 of Democrazia Proletaria, the last surviving far-left organisation of any size in Italy, meant that it accepted the presence in its ranks of former Maoists, most of whom had never been in the PCI, as well as the Trotskyist current around Bandiera Rossa, which had joined Democrazia Proletaria a couple of years before.

It is true that the most prominent figure in Rifondazione’s early years, Armando Cossutta, had been the leader of a small, pro-Soviet current during the latter years of the PCI, and that Cossutta personally was a nostalgic who showed his feelings during the botched 1991 coup against Gorbachev. However, the bulk of the membership, even at the beginning of 1991, were not supporters of Cossutta (‘Cossuttiani’), but followers of Pietro Ingrao, the PCI leader most identified with the post-1968 social movements. Ingrao himself, who had been the leading opponent of the name change, nevertheless stayed in the PDS, until 1993, and he never joined Rifondazione.

This meant that an army without a general met a general without much of an army - Cossutta found himself at the head of a Communist Party whose ideal of communism was very different from his own. For example, the leading gay activist, Nichi Vendola, was recruited to Rifondazione, along with a number of women comrades who took feminist principles on issues like abortion more seriously than the PDS women, who were primarily concerned with internal party quotas.

Cossutta was initially aware that he was not the best public face for the organisation, and he promoted Sergio Garavini, a man with a very different political background, to act as the leading spokesperson of the party. The two eventually fell out in circumstances that have never really been fully clarified. Bertinotti was not a founder member of the PRC, only leaving the PDS to join Rifondazione in 1993. He owed his original rise within Rifondazione to Cossutta, who realised that he needed a replacement for Garavini with some credibility in the wider labour movement. Bertinotti had that credibility: he had a proud record of trade union activism and militancy, particularly in 1992-93. Neither of this duo, Cossutta and Bertinotti, have any desire to recall any of this, given the way they subsequently fell out in 1998, but it is better to provide a historical, rather than a mythological, account of the organisation’s past.

The main point to be borne in mind is that the original party has gone through two splits, in each of which it lost the majority of its parliamentarians. The first split occurred in 1995, when the group led by Lucio Magri and Luciana Castellina voted in favour of austerity budget of Lamberto Dini to prevent an early general election, which they believed would let Berlusconi back in. They took hardly any of the membership with them and their Comunisti Unitari were eventually quietly absorbed into the PDS (which by now had undergone a second name change to just DS, dropping the word ‘party’).

The more spectacular split occurred in October 1998, when Cossutta opposed Bertinotti and the majority of the party’s leading committees, who had decided to withdraw external support from the government of Romano Prodi. This led to the creation of the ‘official’ communist PDCI under Cossutta’s leadership, which has a small but real organisational presence in the country, and which subsequently held office in the centre-left governments of Massimo D’Alema and Giuliano Arnato.

Whilst the split meant that Rifondazione’s vote in May 2001 was, at five percent, considerably down on the 8.6% of 1986, it also meant that Rifondazione had already embarked on an anti-institutional trajectory, and could only really regain support by moving leftwards, as it did after Genoa. In my view, Rifondazione’s line over the past couple of years has been a very intelligent one.

There are two main minority currents within the party - the hard-line Trotskyists  around  Marco Ferrando  and  the paper  Proposta  Comunista  on  the  one hand; and the so-called Area dell’Ern-esto, named after Ernesto Che Guevara on the other (basically Cossuttiani who were too shrewd to follow Cossutta out of the party - who believe that Bertinotti has overestimated the role of movements, and excessively downgraded the role of the party. I realise that the CPGB might well tend to agree with these criticisms, and at a formal level Ferrando may be a better Marxist than Bertinotti. Even I have moments of doubt when Bertinotti uses words like ‘multitude’, and believe that there are dangers in not combating the autonomist ideology that seems prevalent amongst Rifondazione youth and some of the breakaway unions like Cobas and Sincobas, that have in some measure aligned themselves with Rifondazione.

Having said all this, though, I still think that the political choice made in the wake of Carlo Giuliano’s killing in Genoa was fundamentally correct. The lessons of 1967-68 are very clear. A division between a radicalised and potentially violent youth movement based on the unemployed and the marginally employed, on the one hand, and the ranks of organised labour, on the other, could have been fatal. If the autonomist and semi-autonomist elements had been left to face the state alone, the white overalls of the anarchist Tute Bianche could have been abandoned in favour of a reversion to the balaclava and the Molotov (which was the starting point of Tute Bianche leader Luca Casarini anyway, when he was involved in the autonomous collectives). The degree of state oppression that could have been unleashed in the wake of September 11 - against not just the anti-globalisation movement but the radical left as a whole - does not bear thinking about.

Instead, Bertinotti had the wisdom on the Friday night to issue a call for the biggest possible demonstration on the Saturday. He called on people to abandon all their plans and come to Genoa. Rifondazione had the organisation to sort out trains and coaches, and the Italian workers’ movement had enough of an anti-statist and anti-fascist tradition, even after all these years, to respond to that call. From then on, despite the state attacks on the Saturday march and subsequent events, the movement has never been broken.

The impetus of that decision enabled the movement to go through September 11 in much better shape than the Socialist Alliance and Globalise Resistance in Britain. Does anyone remember that forlorn march through the rain in Brighton? Italy has had a much bigger movement against the Afghan war than we had, just as it had a bigger and more effective movement against World War II. Anyone who was in Florence for the European Social Forum in November 2002 and saw the sea of red banners will realise that the Italian movement against the war was far more rooted in the labour movement than the Stop the War Coalition has ever been, regardless of the number of general secretaries who have graced our platform.

The impact of Genoa on the more radical sections of the trade union movement - not just on the breakaway Cobas and Sincobas (unions which are, for want of a better word, syndicalist or semi-syndicalist), but on the mainstream metalworkers’ union attached to the largest trade union confederation, the CGIL - forced previously moderate trade union bureaucrats to lead the CGIL into confrontation with the employers and with the state in defence of article 18 of the workers’ statute, which prevents arbitrary sackings. The other major trade union confederations were bought off by Berlusconi and his ‘Pact for Italy’, whose promises have, predictably, never been honoured.

The general strikes over article 18 in turn paved the way for trade union participation in the anti-war movement, in March 2003. Trains carrying arms were stopped; dockers refused to load American warships. The outbreak of war was greeted with a general strike, even if it was a token four-hour one. None of this happened in Britain. A couple of train drivers in Scotland, and a few thousand brave school students, however praiseworthy, were not remotely equivalent.

None of this led Bertinotti or Rifondazione to make any concession to islamic fundamentalism. Maybe you were present on  November 30 2001, when Bertinotti spoke at the Camden Centre, and an embarrassed translator consciously or unconsciously censored a few Italian phrases in which Bertinotti coupled his denunciations of imperialism and war with a condemnation of fundamentalism and terrorism.

Rifondazione has played a leading role in organising marches in defence of immigrants and asylum-seekers against racist laws, chanting slogans like ‘We are all illegal immigrants’, but it has never made any formal alliance with muslim religious organisations.

One final point I would like to make in favour of Bertinotti’s ‘movementist’ line is that the students and white collar workers would never have mobilised on issues like justice or media ownership against Berlusconi, had Rifondazione not prevented the Genoa protests from being ghettoised and shown the possibility of a serious opposition. The feeble leaders of the centre-left would not have been subjected to a challenge by their own base if the Rifondazione-inspired ‘movement of movements’ had not existed. The left opposition inside the DS was at least temporarily boosted, and for a time resisted neoliberalism in a way that Labour’s feeble ‘reclaim the party’ movement never will.