Italy: After Genoa, a new radicalisation has begun

The 300,000 strong 21 July demonstration and the state repression in Genoa are turning points both in Italy and for the growing worldwide opposition to capitalist globalisation.

For Italy they symbolise the start of a new radicalisation. This is despite May’s election of Berlusconi’s right wing government. Indeed it is already clear that, as during his first government in 1994, for many Italian workers and youth the government of Berlusconi and his "post-fascist" allies is a "whip of counter-revolution" spurring them into action.

The combination of the 1996 to 2001 experience of the centre-left "Olive Tree" government’s attacks on living standards, followed by the right wing election victory, means that many workers now feel they have to take action themselves to gain any improvements. Already five days after the May elections, metalworkers held a half-day strike over wages. On 6 July 300,000 metalworkers struck again and held demonstrations of 60,000 in Milan, 50,000 in Turin and 50,000 in Bologna.

Politically this radicalisation was shown in an opinion poll published before the G8 summit which, reported the Wall Street Journal, showed that while 25% of Italians disagreed with the anti-globalisation movement, 56% agreed with the planned protests but rejected violence, and 16% believed that violence in Genoa would be justified.

In the event it was elements within and sponsored by the Italian state that provoked violence in Genoa. This evoked many memories of previous state repression and terrorism that, in turn, immediately produced more opposition. On the first Tuesday after the Genoa clashes there were protest demonstrations in many Italian cities, in Bologna, Rome and Milan rallies of over 50,000 were reported, 30,000 in Florence and 15,000 in Genoa. Unfortunately no further mass action was organised after this, although there was talk of protests resuming in September.

The Genoa protests themselves were much larger than the organisers planned. On 19 July the immigrant rights march was expected to be around 14,000, it was over 50,000. On 20 July 70,000 took part in uncoordinated protests at the start of the G8 summit.

Finally on Saturday, 21 July the organisers expected 120,000, but 300,000 took part. This protest was at least 90% Italian workers and youth.

Politically the left-reformist Rifondazione Comunista (Prc) dominated the Saturday march and there was a huge contingent from the Fiom-Cgil metalworkers’ union. Even more than on other ’anti-globalisation’ protests, this brought together large numbers on domestic as well as international issues.

Fascist elements attack

Carlo Giuliani’s killing, the first death on an Italian protest for 24 years, made the 21 July demonstration even bigger. Giuliani’s death re-opened a widespread debate in Italy on the state machine’s role in general and those of undercover police, agent provocateurs and fascists in particular.

On evening TV phone-in shows after the protests, for example on Rai 3 and Genoa’s Telecitta station, many callers spoke of seeing people in civilian clothes, sometimes dressed in black, being directed by police to different parts of Genoa and how the police did nothing to prevent attacks on property.

The savage night-time attack, after all the demos were over, on the Genoa Social Forum’s Media Centre, along with mounting evidence of the illegal detention and torture of protesters by clearly fascist members of the security services, brought all these issues to a new fever pitch.

Many Italians remember both the history of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and that in the 25 years up to 1960, 94 workers were killed during strikes or protests. Then, as the workers’ movement gathered strength in the late 1960s and 1970s, the fascists and their police supporters started their terrorist ’strategy of tension’ that led up to the August 1980 fascist bombing of Bologna railway station that killed 85 people.

The ’Mani Pulite’ (Clean Hands) investigations in the early 1990s confirmed the existence of a ’sotogoverno’ (hidden government) comprising reactionary elements within the state machine, armed forces, political parties and big business.

Historically within the Italian state apparatus there have always been fascist and extreme right elements. In 1992, a parliamentary report into Gladio, a NATO-backed secret paramilitary group inside the military, said that this was a ’armed band’ which had helped carry out the fascists’ ’strategy of tension’.

For years the neo-fascist MSI, the party founded by Mussolini supporters after the World War, has had significant support within the police and military. Early in 1995 the MSI transformed itself into the officially "post-fascist" National Alliance (AN), a party that still strongly displays its old name in its propaganda, and is now part of Berlusconi’s ruling "House of Liberty" alliance.

In Genoa, some of these fascist elements clearly took the opportunity of the new right-wing government to attack the demonstrations and in particular, break-up the 300,000 strong 21 July march.

During the G8 summit Fini, the "post-fascist" AN (National Alliance) leader and now the Deputy Prime Minister, suddenly went to Genoa to take command of security operations. That was not accidental. Neither was the fact that some of those illegally arrested in the Media Centre raid were forced to salute pictures of Mussolini and sing the fascist song Facetta Nera.

Defence against Provocateurs

The clearly seen role of the Italian state in fomenting clashes in Genoa has brought again to the fore the question of how the can the anti-capitalist and workers’ movements defend themselves against provocateurs.

Firstly of all there has to be a complete rejection of the G8 leaders’ hypocrisy. They denounce violence only when it suits them. How else can they explain that happily sitting amongst them in Genoa was Putin, personally responsible for ordering the final destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital?

But what should be the workers’ movement’s attitude? The statement that the CWI issued after the Gothenburg (No Criminalisation of anti-capitalists!) pointed out that the Swedish police’s "provocations succeeded in goading a small section of the protesters to react by attacking buildings etc in central Gothenburg. While fully understanding the anger felt, smashing shops, cafes and restaurants is not the method of Socialists. It hands propaganda weapons to the ruling class, helping it to attack activists and introduction new repressive measures. Already there is talk of limiting the freedom of movement for protesters between European countries.

"Socialists work to build an organised mass movement which can take from the capitalists their ownership and control of property to enable it to be collectively owned and used to meet humanity’s needs, instead of the ruling classes’ profits. This is our aim, not the destruction of property."

In Genoa the provocation reached a whole new level. From the beginning the Italian state acted both to intimidate the protesters and seek to cower the Italian workers’ movement.

From the very start of the Immigrant rights march the police were provocative, loading shells into their tear gas guns as soon as the demonstration took its first steps.

But over and beyond that it is clear that the state’s direct and indirect agents acted to ensure that clashes would develop on the subsequent two days.

In Genoa a combination of police provocateurs and fascists were able to entice some of the most angry and oppressed strata into nihilistic destruction of property, clashes with the police and, more significantly, clashes with other demonstrators, particularly with the Cobas (the militant rank and file union confederation) contingent on the Friday.

On the Saturday demonstration there were many instances of workers expelling from the march those who started throwing stones, smashing shop windows etc. But many sections of the march were not organised to defend themselves from either the police attack or the actions of provocateurs.

The political reasons why the state’s tactics had some success were mainly because the demonstrations, particularly on the Friday, did not take a clear objective both in regard to what was happening in Genoa itself and what should be the next steps after the G8 summit.

The fact that neither the march organisers nor the Prc leaders presented a strategy for what to do after the Saturday demonstration undoubtedly meant that for a layer of angry youth, seeking revenge for Carlo Giuliani’s death, the main objective became fighting the police and wrecking property.

This has provoked a crisis within the anti-globalisation movement. For weeks after Genoa ATTAC internationally issued no statements at all and its weekly international bulletin, Sand in the Wheels, was not produced. Even more so than after Gothenburg, the violence in Genoa has been seized upon by more "moderate" and pro-capitalist elements within the anti-globalisation movement in an attempt to steer it towards a strategy of negotiation and co-operation with sections of big business and governments.

Berlusconi’s evasions

From the outset the Italian state acted to intimidate both the protesters and the Italian workers’ movement. On top of this, the Italian state’s direct and indirect agents acted to ensure that clashes would take place in Genoa. But this did not have exactly the result that the state expected. The Genoa clashes have further polarised Italian society and deepened distrust of the government.

At first the Berlusconi government brushed aside complaints about illegal detentions and conditions of prisoners and imposed five-year entry bans on individuals who have not even been in court.

This was clearly seen in regard to the Saturday night attack on the GSF Media Centre and the illegal detentions and conditions under which prisoners were being held in Genoa illustrated the character of the Berlusconi government. Berlusconi himself tried to sidestep the issue and still defended the raid by saying that "there was no distinction between the two groups".

But faced with mounting evidence of police brutality and illegal arrests the government transferred three police commanders, while still continuing their campaign to criminalise and intimidate opposition and to blame foreigners for the violence.

Berlusconi’s false promises

But this "anti-violence" propaganda campaign will not be able to save the Berlusconi government from being caught by the widening contradiction between its election promises and the developing economic slowdown.

Berlusconi’s "House of Liberty" coalition won the May election on the basis of demagogic populist pledges of cutting taxes, 1.5 million new jobs within five years, higher pensions and new infrastructure projects. But almost immediately it has had to start dampening down popular expectations, although it did rush through tax cuts for companies.

Both tax cuts for most people and higher pensions have been postponed until 2003 at the earliest, and the pensions rise may only go to those over 75. Very quickly it will become clear to more and more that the "House of Liberty" will be unable to fulfil its lavish election promises.

Already, before the developing US recession really hits Europe, Italy’s economy is entering crisis. In this year’s second quarter Italian GDP fell by 0.1%, while in the year to June, industrial production fell 3.1%. Furthermore for much of the recent period real wages have been falling – one reason for the new mood developing among workers.

Implicit in the situation are future tensions with rest of European Union (EU), particularly over euro and economic policy. During the boom now ending Italy had a low growth rate. This resulted from both the Olive Tree government’s austerity measures to get Italy into the euro currency and the fact that joining the euro has meant that Italian capitalism can no longer devalue its currency in order to remain competitive.

The EU is now demanding spending cuts as this the new government is admitting that this year’s budget deficit could amount to 1.9% of GDP, double the 0.8% maximum allowed under the euro currency’s stabilisation pact. However Bank of Italy governor Tazio is saying that the deficit is more likely to be 2.4% of GDP, something that would intensify the pressure from the EU for cuts.

Against this background there is the future possibility of Berlusconi launching a nationalist, "Italy first", campaign against the rest of the EU. It was significant that during the G8 Summit Berlusconi clearly worked to establish his government as Bush’s main ally within the EU’s inner core. Reflecting this, US citizens detained during the Genoa protests were visited within hours by US Embassy officials, a legal right denied to prisoners of all other nationalities. It cannot be ruled out that, in the future, Berlusconi will seek support from the US in any clashes with other EU states.

Most sections of Italian capitalists have, at least for now, rallied behind Berlusconi’s attempt to attack living standards. But still many do not trust him and fear he will use his office for his own personal interests. This has already started. At the beginning of August the Chamber of Deputies has passed a law on the decriminalisation of false accounting which, if agreed by the Senate, would effectively remove two of the three criminal charges which Berlusconi still faces. It is quite possible that a combination of new scandals and rising opposition will bring down Berlusconi’s government.

Which way forward for the left?

Now in Italy a debate has opened up in the left and working class movement on the way forward after the defeat of the Olive Tree and after Genoa.

The Democratic Left (DS), the bulk of the old communist party that dominated the Olive Tree government, suffered a huge setback in May. It is now increasingly divided in the run up to a Congress scheduled for later this year. It has three main trends: Nuova Sinistra (New Left) led by former Olive Tree prime minister D’Alema which wants to continue the "social democratisation" of the party; Nuovo Riformismo (New Reformism) led by Veltroni, the newly elected Rome mayor, that looks to the US Democrats as a model; and Socialismo 2000, the remaining left within the DS led by the former Olive Tree labour minister Salvi and which is still influential within the Cgil, the largest trade union confederation.

Within the trade unions there are also divisions opening up. The leaders of the two smaller trade union conferences, the Cisl and Uil, are indicating that they are prepared to do deal with the Berlusconi government on the implementation of fixed term work contracts, while the Cgil remains, so far, opposed.

The key question for many workers is what is the alternative to Berlusconi? It was Italian workers’ five-year experience of the centre-left Olive Tree government, with wage restraint and Europe’s largest privatisation programme, which was the main reason for the May election result. It is not enough simply to call for the defeat of Berlusconi because the Olive Tree is not an alternative.

The Olive tree’s five years in office have shown the need to build a new movement and the Prc is in a key position to do that.

The Prc, founded in 1991, previously enjoyed its biggest growth so far during and after Berlusconi’s first government in 1994. But then, when the Olive Tree came into office in 1996, the Prc leaders supported for 18 months this government’s attacks on living standards. As the Prc paper, Liberazione, pointed out at the time: "We have voted for cuts amounting to 100,000 billion lira (about $60 billion)", and this was a key factor in its lower vote in May’s election.

Now the Prc has another opportunity to build support, but it leaders seem to be reluctant to try to build a fighting socialist opposition.

Currently the Prc has a campaign, called "Another left is possible", which takes up many issues like restoring the link between wages and prices, a 35 hour week with no loss in pay, a social wage for the unemployed, higher pensions, improved education and health, defending the environment and "against capitalist globalisation". But despite the campaign’s title and its attack on "capitalist globalisation", this campaigning is not done in the context of arguing for a socialist alternative.

Indeed in Genoa the Prc’s special anti-globalisation material did not even mention capitalism, let alone argue for a socialist alternative. Actually the Prc simply adopted the slogan of the Genoa Social Forum (GSF) that "Another world is possible" without also asking the key questions of what type of "another world" do we want and how can we get it?

Now the Prc leaders seem to be aiming to try to build throughout Italy structures modelled both on the World Social Forum held in Port Alegre (Brazil) last January and the GSF. In Genoa the Prc leader Bertinotti called for "new thinking" in politics and "new party structures", without really indicating in which political direction he thinks the party should go.

Building broad support is necessary, but if this is accompanied by dropping socialist policies the result will be that these new movements will not be able to create the "another world" they desire.

The old Communist Parties in Italy and elsewhere failed to change society because they first of all divided their programmes into a set of immediate demands and the long-term goal of socialism; something which the old social democratic parties had done previously. Then, for their leaders, the objective of socialism became more and more distant and they increasingly sought to work within capitalism. This meant that in times of crisis these parties were not able to solve the problems facing the working class. Eventually most of these parties were completely taken over by pro-capitalist politicians, as was the case in Italy with the transformation of the old Pci to today’s DS.

The Prc must learn the lesson from this. Today the Prc is enjoying increasing support, but it must not fall into the same trap as the old CPs. There is a danger that the Social Forums which are being set up in different Italian towns, will be the mechanism whereby the Prc is drawn towards participating in opposition coalitions which, at the bottom, do not challenge capitalism.

The Prc needs to link its demands with the question of overthrowing capitalism, explaining that without this any improvements won today can only be temporary. This is not a rejection of campaigning to defend against attacks form the Berlusconi government or not fighting for higher living standards now. Neither is it a rejection of temporary, fighting alliances with different forces on specific issues.

This strategy is the real way of showing that the Prc is "another left", a left which is serious about creating "another world". This requires building a mass anti-capitalist movement that has as the main item on its agenda establishing a government which will break the power of the capitalists and starts to lay the basis for socialism.

Today in Italy the combination of a new radicalisation, the Berlusconi government and, above all, the developing economic crisis gives the Prc a big opportunity to take a qualitative step forward. But if it is to seize this then both a clear socialist programme and a bold plan of action are required.

CWI Activity in Genoa after Carlo Giuliani’s death

Immediately after Carlo Giuliani’s shooting the CWI group in Genoa advanced the following four slogans both in specially made placards and to a mass assembly held that night in the GSF "Convergence Point":

  • Expose police provocations and attacks – for an independent workers’ enquiry.
  • Killings will not save the G8 leaders.
  • Mass action to defend the right to demonstrate.
  • A general strike of at least 24 hours next week as the next step in building the movement.

The call for a general strike generally received a very good response, but the organisers of the Genoa protests did not take this up.

While calling for demonstrations the following Tuesday evening they did not want to go any further and after the Tuesday left any further action until September.

This failure to take an initiative meant that an opportunity to immediately take the anti-Berlusconi movement further was lost. This mistake was not only on the part of the GSF, but also of the Prc leaders, including some of those on the Prc "left". Some PRC left leaders told us, on the Friday night, that while the question of a general strike was an "interesting idea" they saw as their main task as trying to keep the following day’s demo peaceful. They did not address the question of what should the demonstrators be urged to do once they went back to their homes and workplaces

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August 2001