Afghanistan: War polarises Italy

Italy is the European country which has seen the biggest and most widespread protests against the US bombing of Afghanistan. It is also the only country that has seen its prime minister urging the population onto the streets in pro-war demonstrations. There is a deep polarisation as well as a deep radicalisation going on in Italian society. These processes seem to have been accelerated rather than obliterated by the onset of war. With or without it, Italy’s workers and youth have undoubtedly taken up a position in the front ranks of the international struggle against capitalism.

War in Afghanistan

War Polarises Italy

Only weeks after the replacement of the ‘Olive Tree’ government in this May’s general election, by that of the billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, millions of engineering workers were on strike against attempts to undermine their wages and conditions. The burgeoning hatred for the new government undoubtedly lay behind the massive turnout of 300,000 demonstrators in July on the streets of Genoa at the time of the G8 summit.

After the attacks of September 11 th in the USA on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Italian workers and young people were among the first to show they would not be intimidated by attempts to paint as terrorists anyone who opposed capitalist governments. They were on the streets in larger than usual numbers during the annual Communist Re-foundation demonstration in Rome on September 30. 120,000 trade unionists, activists, school and university students demonstrated under red flags and banners with placards saying things like: "Down with the three ‘B’s of the Apocalypse – Bush, Bin Laden and Berlusconi!"

Bombing in Afghanistan

Two days after the first air attacks on Afghanistan, tens of thousands of students and left activists were on the streets of Italy’s cities to say No to War! In the week leading up to the traditional Peace March from Perugia to Assisi on October 14, transport workers had been walking off the job for an hour’s anti war protest, or as much as a day, in pursuit of their own demands against deregulation and privatisation as well as against the attacks on Afghanistan. School students had been walking out of classes to express their hatred of the idea of war. All Rome schools had been out on Friday 12 for example.

The march of 14 October itself was phenomenal – bigger than on any occasion in its 41 year history, and far larger than any during the Gulf War or two years ago when Italy decided to participate directly in the NATO bombardment of Serbia. It was, by many estimates, (except those of the Genovesi!) far larger even than the massive anti G8 demonstration in Genoa. Liberazione, the daily paper of Communist Refoundation, whose banners and flags produce a sea of red on all these occasions, described the event as "An invasion of peace" across 25 kilometres of Umbrian countryside.

The October day was as hot as July 21 had been in Genoa. The assistance from local residents with water hoses and buckets was just as welcome. The spirit of the predominantly young demonstrators was as determined and defiant as in Genoa against a rotten world order. The anger felt over the waging of war by the richest super powers against one of the poorest countries on the earth’s surface was intense. This did not stop whole sections of the march from expressing the sheer joy of being there; they sang, danced and made merry for twelve hours apparently non-stop!

Democratic Left

The only sour note was struck by the appearance on the peace march of the leaders of two parties who had voted in Parliament to support the US war effort. Francesco Rutelli of the Margherita (Christian social democratic) Party and Massimo D’Alema of the one-time ‘communist’, now Democratic Left (DS) claimed they were as entitled as anyone to take their place on the demonstration! Few agreed. They were booed and whistled at in derision until they left the march… well before the end!

These were the main figures in the centre left Olive Tree coalition which was in power for five years until May this year. They had lost power mainly because of the wide range of anti-working class policies they initiated, including more privatisation than any previous government. It had also given been the government that agreed to participate in NATO’s Kosova war. Now, at the first vote in parliament on the war in Afghanistan, it had fractured. The Greens and Cossutta’s Democratic Communist Party of Italy (Pcdi) went against the bombings while the larger Margherita and Democratic Left (DS) parties voted in favour.

The same pattern was followed over the vote for Italy to send 2,700 military personnel, including soldiers and carabinieri, to Afghanistan. But now more DS members have gone into open revolt. There is quite a wide layer of youth in the party, who are still wary of what they see as a Stalinist or over-centralised approach of the leaders of the Rifondazione to politics or organisation and cling to the idea that their party can be taken back to the left.

Many of them, would have marched on the lively 150,000 strong anti-war demonstration in Rome on November 10, arguing that their party should never have voted for Italy’s involvement in this war. Also there was the DS vice president of the Senate upper house, Cesare Salvi. He told La Repubblica he had no qualms about being in the same demonstration as the leader of Rifondazione, Fausto Bertinotti. "On May 13 the left lost (the election) with two million votes lost by the wayside because of the absence of an agreement with Refoundation." This and not running after the centre had given Berlusconi his victory.

At the other extreme of the party stands Luciano Violante, parliamentary leader of the DS in the lower house. On November 1 he was quoted in the Manifesto newspaper, declaring his intention of going on the pro-war demonstration organised by Forza Italia and Berlusconi’s House of Liberty in Rome – also on November 10! Others in his party were said to see no difference between supporting the bombing, from the position taken by the Italian Communist Party two or three decades ago in opposing the terrorism of the ‘Red Brigades’!

On ‘Usaday’, as November 10 was dubbed, when the ‘antis’ outnumbered the ‘pros’ by at least three to one, Rutelli and the newly-elected leader of the DS, Piero Fassino, this time against being at either event, flew off to the coast to visit the troops embarking for Afghanistan.

On the week-end of 17 – 18 November, the Democratic Left was holding what promised to be a tense and possibly explosive national congress in the town of Pesaro. Reports have appeared of local DS assemblies voting by a majority for their party not to support the war. Right wingers who defend participation in the war, see themselves becoming a fully-fledged Social Democratic party and lining up with Blair, Bush and Jospin. Although the DS is already thoroughly bourgeoisified, there are those within it who are set to put up a fight in the other direction – to renew the party’s left credentials by breaking with neo-liberal and imperialist policies of any kind. If they find an inadequate response to their campaign, they could well conclude the time has come to leave the party. Others may draw the same conclusion and the party begin to break up and dissolve.

Contradictions in the ruling camp

The issue of Italy’s involvement in what has, from the beginning, been seen as the USA’s war, has naturally put all political forces to the test. The behaviour of Berlusconi himself during the war has aroused the anger of millions of workers and students, but also of the far right in his own coalition. Members of the ‘post-fascist’ National Alliance were unwilling to march with him on the streets of their fatherland under the banner of the United States.

There is an irony, if not a large measure of hypocrisy, in the prime minister trying to be accepted into Bush’s team in the crusade against terrorism when sitting in his cabinet are representatives of the party – the National Alliance – which was responsible for planting a bomb in Bologna railway station in 1980 that killed 85 people. His attempts were not helped by the infamous comments he made about the inferiority of Muslim civilisation which threatened to undermine all the diplomatic efforts of his allies to get a number of important Muslim countries to tolerate, if not support, the US bombings. Berlusconi used the same occasion to ‘reveal’ the threat of a terror attack on the G8 Summit and use it as an excuse for the notoriously brutal police attack on the Diaz school on the night of 21 July.

Under cover of the war, too, the business tycoon prime minister has been busy getting laws changed to keep him out of the fraud and corruption courts. (One of the measures has been to make more difficult the exchange of incriminating evidence across borders, at a time when his allies in the war effort have been calling for an easing of cross-border exchanges!).

The Italian prime minister has been displaying a marked preference for being seen as a friend of Bush and the wealthiest nation in the world rather than as a poor relation in the European family. His reluctance to go into the European Airbus venture, while backed by the Defence Minister, Martino, has irritated some of his other ministers, including Rugiero the Foreign Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, Fini.

Harsh Budget

Recent material has actually confirmed that, strictly speaking, Italy should not even be part of the Euro project within the European Union. It was the previous ‘Olive Tree’ administration who managed to halve the size of Italy’s more than 6% budget deficit by a blatant fiddle using the derivatives market to produce figures in Italian currency that allowed them to qualify! But it is the present government which is pursuing a harsh austerity budget to stay within the criteria.

It can only do this by making enormous cut-backs on its public spending and trying to undermine the power of the historically militant working class of Italy.

Figures for growth have been revised downwards to less than 2% even before the world downturn began to make itself felt. Alitalia workers have already entered a struggle over retrenchment and the textile, clothing and fashion industry is said to be in grave peril. The struggles in the car industry arise from the large fall-off in sales due to a classical crisis of over-capacity on the word market. The major employers like the super rich Agnelli family which owns the Fiat Empire will always seek to put the onus on their workforce rather than take any cut-backs themselves.

It is a testament to the strength and combativity of the Italian workers that only now are the bosses and their henchmen in government moving to attack long-held rights in relation to employment that their other European counter-parts lost years or even decades ago.

Berlusconi’s ministers are now trying to impose all manner of anti-working class policies. Union leaders like Sergio Cofferati of the Cgil, Luigi Angeletti of the Uil and Savino Pezzotta of the Cisl are still prepared to sit round tables in talks with the government but the ‘white book’ of Labour and Welfare Minister Maroni is arousing the anger of millions of workers. The metalworkers are spearheading a battle against its provisions for regional rather than national labour contracts, for the lifting of restrictions on making workers redundant and diminishing their right to compensation. A whole list of other measures aims at easing the way for deregulation, privatisation and casualisation.

Maroni is also campaigning hard for the government’s notorious pension ‘reforms’. A small promised increase in the basic pension with a plan to raise the retirement age and gradually whittle away pensioners’ entitlements is being fiercely resisted by Italy’s (aging) workforce.

Education minister Moratti, is trying to push through a whole shopping list of measures to smash full-time jobs of tens of thousands of teachers and to pour resources into private rather than state education. Hence the nickname for her ministry as ‘the ministry for the 6%’ (of private schools) and the wave of strikes called by the radical union Cobas and the other unions in Education. Il Manifesto comments on 10 November that the unions are giving the government a little longer but "The rope is tight. Thus the idea is beginning to circulate of an open social confrontation, leading up to a possible general strike (a word not yet uttered)".

Towards a general strike?

In fact, the party of Communist Refoundation has begun to pose this as the only way to bring together and generalise the wave of protests taking place almost daily in Italy at the present time. Piero Bernocchi, leader of Cobas spoke at a rally of 30,000 in Rome on 31 October, the day of education strikes throughout the country. "We are against a war budget that cuts resources for education and diverts them into military spending – L3,000 milliard (£1 billion) is destined from the government to the Ministry of Defence – and against a war that adds deaths to deaths without succeeding in dealing with the basis of terror."

The term ‘hot autumn’ is back on people’s lips, reviving memories of the gigantic strike struggles of 1979. As yet, the struggles are by no means on the same scale. Nor is there as widespread an awareness that the bosses system needs to be totally replaced. But there is perhaps an even wider understanding of the evils of capitalism in Italy and on a world scale.

The radical stance of such a large part of Italy’s working class and its youth is to a certain extent ‘traditional’, but the existence of a sizeable party that explains the role of capitalism world-wide and campaigns against it is undoubtedly an important factor that does not exist today in other European countries. The Communist Refoundation has an active campaigning membership of 100,000 or so 10,000 youth with a wide support that was increasing even at the time of the May elections and will be far bigger today as a result of the events that have taken place even within the first 100 days of Berlusconi’s government. It has a daily paper – Liberazione – and agitates for full support to strikes and demonstrations organised by Cobas, Rdb, Cub, Fiom and any other trade unions when they move into action.

Fausto Bertinotti, the Rc leader warns constantly now of "a profound crisis in society". The double evil of war and terrorism are "an organic component" of the second (phase of) globalisation, he says (Il Manifesto 1 November). (The first ended with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York).

‘No Global’

The anti-globalisation movement in all countries (in Italy known as ‘no global’) is extremely diverse and proud of it. But some of its leaders make a virtue of having no one ideology, no one solution and no central organisation. This can reflect a healthy reaction against the old Stalinist way of running ‘left’ organisations or even societies – in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but it leaves the movement amorphous and without clear purpose and direction. The movement of Social Centres that has been initiated and built up in recent years by Italy’s young and discontented are often led by extremely radical figures. Casarini, their recognised spokesperson is linked with the ‘Tutte Bianchi’ civil disobedience movement, and is even the subject of popular songs sung by the youth on their marches.

It seems as if the Social Forums, the more moderate federal structures that represent the no-global movement locally are already facing problems arising from their very broad make-up. Obviously the Christian pacifists involved, and the environmentalists are going to have a different outlook on life and on struggle from the ‘disobedients’. Their outlook is also far more on the individual and ‘moral’ plane than on the idea of collective action and organisation of the students, workers and activists who base themselves on the ideas of Marx and Engels and on the experience of the Russian Revolution.

It is clear that the organisations which have come out most forcefully against the war and against the policies of the Berlusconi government – those with a policy of defiance, of occupations and of strikes – have been boosted in the course of the anti-war protests – the Party of Communist Refoundation, the Cobas and Cub trade unions and the militant Metalworkers’ union (FIOM). There is even a substantial left inside the largest trade union federation – the Cgil. This reflects the pressure building up from below in Italian society and also the struggle taking place in other parts of the anti-capitalist movement between those who think capitalism can be reformed and those who are convinced it needs to be replaced with genuine socialism.

A party as strongly socialist as the Refoundation, needs to emphasise its distinctly socialist/communist nature if it is to pick up the most radicalised youth. It would be a mistake for it to lose its identity in the Social Forum movement. It is important to participate and to help harness the still growing anti-globalisation anger into effective protests. But that, in itself, will not be enough to provide the kind of lead that the energetic and defiant working class of Italy needs in order to conduct a struggle to get rid of capitalism.

A programme taking up the demands to stop privatisations, closures and job losses, for big injections of public finance into schools, health, housing and transport must explain that capitalism itself is not able to provide the basic necessities for all. It must explain the need to take Refoundation further on the road towards a mass workers’ party with a programme of public ownership of the big banks, industrial companies and land under democratic control and management by the working class.

The case for a planned economy has not been keenly advocated since the days of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It has not been sufficiently related to modern conditions or explained in terms of genuine participatory socialist planning. That is the task which the CWI sees as most urgent for the active and youthful layers in Refoundation, in the colleges and schools and in the workplaces to set themselves. The renewed combativity of workers and students at this time makes the prospect of convincing them of the ideas of socialism so much more likely to succeed.

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November 2001