The basis for the return of Berlusconi was created by the complete failure of the previous government, the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition, composed of the ex-Communist Party, now ‘rechristened’ as the Democrats of the Left (DS), and different capitalist parties. This government, which remained firmly within the framework of capitalism, presided over a worsening of the conditions of the Italian workers. Neo-liberal measures were introduced into the factories and the workplaces, including partial privatisation in the state sector and the massive extension of ‘precarious’, that is temporary and casual, contracts for workers. The consequent disillusion and abstention of significant sections of the youth and of the working class, rather than massive endorsement of Berlusconi and his policies, explains his climb back to power.
Imagine that, following Thatcher’s ignominious repudiation by the British people in 1990, she managed somehow to claw her way back to power. It would be possible then to begin to envisage the horror which confronts the Italian people, particularly the working class, today. The right-wing Berlusconi government was blown out of office by a mass revolt in 1994 after barely nine months. But now he has returned, and with a vengeance, to attack the cherished rights and conditions of the Italian workers. His Forza Italia led government is a coalition whose junior partners are the reactionary nationalist Northern League led by Bossi and the so-called ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance – AN) under Fini.
But the installation of this new government has acted as a crack of thunder to reawaken the working class and popular resistance. This is reflected in a wave of massive strikes, intense discussion within the labour movement and unprecedented ferment in the parties and movements on the left. But the seemingly unassailable majority which the right enjoys in both houses of parliament, 368 of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 177 out of 315 elected seats in the Senate, has compelled the opposition to take to the piazzas (the squares) and the streets. Italy today is like one big debating chamber. Italians do not necessarily see this. Their benchmark is the convulsive movements of the past, particularly of the 1960s and 1970s. But compared to the rest of Europe, a huge ferment in society is under way.
The temper of the Italian working class was reflected in the huge turnout at Genoa last July, with the organised workers, particularly the metalworkers and the Rifondazione Comunista (Party of Reformed Communists – RC), providing the backbone of that demonstration. This was followed by the huge antiwar demonstration from Perugia to Assisi, reported in previous issues of The Socialist.
In Italy it is impossible to open a newspaper without seeing accounts of strikes, demonstrations and intense clashes at public meetings, particularly of the left. On 2 March 500,000 participated in a demonstration in Rome, initiated by the DS, to express anger at Berlusconi’s continued ownership of the three main private television stations and his decision to stuff the board of the state television service RAI with a majority of his own creatures. It is not just the working class but also the intellectuals, artists and significant sections of the middle class who vehemently express opposition to Berlusconi and also come out onto the streets.
Berlusconi does not even hide behind the fig leaf of an ‘independent media’ that exists in other European countries. This even compelled the Financial Times to caustically remark, "None of the countries of Eastern Europe would be allowed to join the European Union if a prime minister held such sway over 90 per cent of national television". Even in Britain politicians who hold public office are compelled, because of a so-called ‘conflict of interest’, to temporarily cede their interests in private companies. However, Berlusconi’s new law means that company managers can be excluded from holding public office but not the owners of these companies! The only position that he has been compelled to resign from is the honorary presidency of AC Milan football club!
Berlusconi actually returned to power while still fighting criminal indictments over corruption stemming from the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) period of ten years ago. The whole of the ‘political class’ of capitalist politicians was discredited at that period. At one point, one third of the nation’s parliamentarians were under scrutiny in the ‘Clean Hands’ investigations begun by Milan magistrates. Half of those indicted eventually got off the charges or are likely to get off because of a Statute of Limitation (time limit) or will be let off on appeal. None of those convicted is still in jail and just one is under house arrest.
Berlusconi was at the centre of this web of corruption with two family members convicted of bribing tax inspectors and he still faces serious charges of bribing judges. His recent hostility to the introduction of an EU-wide arrest warrant was probably linked to the fact that he is under criminal investigation in Spain! All of this has outraged the Italian people and has compelled other European capitalist governments to reach for the panic button. On their behalf even the right-wing Economist has made a thinly veiled call for Berlusconi to be ousted by the Italian capitalists. They have called upon the president Ciampi to refuse to sign the government’s ‘conflict of interest’ bill, which would provoke a constitutional crisis and, they probably hope, bring down Berlusconi.
One of their concerns is that this government – a whiff of counter-revolution as Karl Marx described it – is extremely provocative towards the working class and is in the process of igniting a social explosion. This in turn could reverberate throughout Europe. Their concerns are well merited given the strikes and demonstrations which have swept through Italy in the last few months. The day after the demonstration in Rome a strike of all ‘local’ train crews paralysed the country. This merely anticipates what could be one of the biggest demonstrations in recent Italian history on 23 March in Rome as a prelude to a general strike called for 5 April.
The Italian workers have compelled the moderate leaders of the trade union confederation, the CGIL, to threaten this action unless the government backs down over its attacks over Article 18 of the labour law which was only won through bitter struggles in the 1960s and 70s, and which gives some defence at least against ‘unjust’ sackings. For both the bosses and the workers the struggle over this issue is of vital importance. Italy, in common with the rest of the eurozone, faces a drastic reduction in economic growth in the next period, with an inexorable rise in unemployment. La Repubblica on 11 February reported that growth this year in Italy may be 1.1 per cent, just half of what it was last year. The pain will be felt by workers throughout Italy with already almost 10 per cent unemployment nationally. In the South it is much worse. In Palermo in Sicily 120,000 workers, a crushing 29 per cent, are unemployed, three times the national average. This explains why in Gela, a town in Sicily, a near insurrectionary strike with barricades has taken place over the closure threat to a petrochemical plant.
The 5 April general strike, if it goes ahead, will see an outpouring of massive opposition and discontent at the conditions of workers under rotten Italian capitalism and its present instrument for driving down its conditions, the Berlusconi-Bossi-Fini government. The government has made some noises indicating that it is considering backing away from the complete abolition of Article 18. It is therefore not excluded that the CGIL leaders could back away from a strike on this date and even from the mass demonstration on 23 March. In February they cancelled the proposed public sector strike at short notice, claiming a victory, but with most grades of workers unsatisfied, as we reported previously. The mass demonstration was cancelled but COBAS and other ‘unions of the base’ organised a mighty demonstration of 100,000 in Rome.
If the trade union leaders once more back away, the massive discontent with the lack of a clear programme of action to defeat Berlusconi will intensify. This discontent has been directed particularly at d’Alema, the ex-leader of the DS. In a recent debate in Florence with a number of academics including Ginsborg, a noted historian and author of an excellent contemporary history of Italy, he was met with whistles from the crowd when he spoke. In contrast, when Ginsborg called upon d’Alema and the left leaders to "wake up" and lead the struggle against the government it was met with rapturous support. In February the Italian film director Nanni Moretti attacked the ‘centre-left’s leaders’: "The left will never get back into power as long as it is led by these people".
Workers and youth were also previously alienated by the DS leaders who cancelled their party’s participation on the Saturday demonstration in Genoa after the murder of Carlo Giuliani. This was compounded by their support for the war in Afghanistan, which was met with enormous hostility on the demonstration from Perugia to Assisi. All of this is leading to the threat of an exodus of workers and young people from this ‘party’ who, despite the past rightward shift of the DS, held out hopes for its transformation in a left direction. Amongst other things the 2 March Rome demonstration was an attempt by the DS leadership to recapture the lost ground. But it is noticeable that there is no attempt to connect the struggle for democratic rights, an important struggle given the authoritarian tendencies of the government, with the economic and social problems confronting the working class and, in the process, tying this to a programme for the socialist transformation of Italy.
The criticisms of the RC against the DS are correct. But the RC itself has not come forward with a clear programme to answer the needs of the Italian workers. The formation and continued existence of the RC is a conquest for the Italian workers and to some extent for the European working class as a whole. It represents a continuation of a left, radical workers’ party and the hope that, with the correct policies, it could become a significant mass socialist force, conquering majority support amongst the Italian working class. This contrasts with Britain where the shift of Labour towards a capitalist party, a version of the US Democratic Party, has meant, for the time being, that most of the British working class has been disenfranchised. However, the RC has not yet developed into a clear socialist and revolutionary alternative.
It had an ambiguous position towards the Olive Tree government, of ‘critical support’ for a long period but it did not spell out on all occasions a clear alternative. There is now much talk by the leadership of the RC, as evidenced in comments by Bertinotti dealt with in the report on this page, that there is "no possibility of reforming capitalism". This is to be welcomed. But it is not sufficient just to assert this butit is necessary to outline a programme which indissoluably connects the day-to-day demands in education and industry, on Article 18, with a new socialist society. Worked-out proposals to take into public ownership the media resources currently controlled by Berlusconi on a democratic basis, as well as the monopolies, and many other proposals, should be spelt out together with the idea of the democratic, socialist transformation of Italy.
This should be linked to a clear programme for struggle, particularly on key issues such as the general strike. The RC should, as the CWI has suggested, campaign for the formation of elected committees in all workplaces, colleges and schools, with mass assemblies, in preparation for the strike. It should be used as a day for hammering home the incapacity of capitalism to solve the problems of the Italian workers and a programme for further action, along the lines of that suggested by the CWI, to force Berlusconi’s capitulation and drive him from power.
The alternative government is not a new version of the Olive Tree, which would inevitably disappoint the Italian workers, if it remains, as it inevitably would, within the framework of capitalism. Only a real workers’ government would be capable of transforming society. This would involve the building of a mass socialist revolutionary force with the RC at its core. But unfortunately the RC has not yet faced up to this task. It has been in existence now for 11 years and has yet to formulate a rounded out Marxist, revolutionary programme.
This has contributed to a mood amongst workers and particularly the youth of seeking other avenues in which to channel their struggle. We have seen in Italy the growth of the Social Forums, which represent the searching for an alternative to capitalism, along with an intense debate on the issue of ‘movement or party’ amongst radical and socialist layers in Italy. The turning away of a section of young people and workers from the idea of a party is itself a reflection of the rejection of top-down Stalinist methods which exercised a big influence, and to some extent still do, on the Italian labour movement. It is also a reaction to the right-wing shift of the official leaders of the labour movement, both of the traditional, ‘reformist’ right and those who were formerly on the left.
An element of Argentina, of a rejection of all ‘parties’, affects Italy as it does most countries of Europe at the present time. However, when it is pointed out to the new generation of fighters in the anti-capitalist movement that the bosses are very well organised, both through their state and in their parties, and that the working class must be similarly organised, they are receptive to this. Spontaneous struggle can play a big part in overthrowing governments as the example of Argentina has shown. But history attests to the fact that unless working people are organised to construct an alternative government and a democratic state, controlled and managed by the mass of the people at every level, in an alternative socialist society, capitalism can make a comeback even when it appears to be on its knees, as it was in Portugal in 1974-75.
Therefore, suspicion towards right-wing leaders of ‘socialist’ and even ‘communist’ ‘parties’ is entirely understandable. It represents a rejection of bureaucratic, reformist and Stalinist perceptions of a party. However, the working class needs an open, broad, democratic and fighting party of a new type, one that has a clear socialist and Marxist programme and fights to change society. This party should be controlled at every level, including controlling the leadership, with election and right of recall as an integral part of the party structure. This is what the CWI is fighting for everywhere, but which is a particularly burning issue in Italy at the present time. A stormy period is under way in Italy. In the course of the tumultuous experiences that impend, the best of the Italian working class and youth will find a road to the ideas of Marxism and socialism.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Socialist on 22 March 2002