Italy: Mass demonstration in Rome

Crisis and confusion remain

"It’s right to demonstrate, otherwise the left will disappear," said Franco Giordano, general secretary of the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) on 20 October. His party claims that one million people responded to the call to demonstrate in Rome on that day.

A figure of 100,000 would probably be more accurate, but even this would still represent a success for the organisers. As is clear from Giordano’s words, the main reason for the demonstration was to show that the Prc and the ‘radical left’ still exist and are still capable of mobilising forces on the streets, even if they were mostly their own members and those of the Pdci (Party of Italian Communists).

The Prc in particular had to try and claw back some credibility after disastrous results in local elections in May and the fiasco of 9 June, when just a handful of people turned up to their ’protest’ on the day George Bush visited Rome. Tens of thousands chose instead to attend an alternative demonstration held at the same time against Bush and against the Italian government’s war-mongering foreign policy.

The 20 October demonstration was also a springboard for the formation of what has become known as the ‘Cosa Rossa’ (Red Thing). This is a proposed federation of the ‘radical left’ parties who are in the governing coalition – Prc, Pdci, Sd and the Greens. The Sd is a new formation that broke away from the DS when it and the largely ex-Catholic Margherita party – the two main capitalist parties in Prodi’s coalition – merged to form the Democratic Party. However ‘Cosa Rossa’ is not a step towards a new mass workers’ party, rather it is a desperate attempt by the tops of these parties to come together to prevent electoral annihilation. One recent opinion poll gave the Prc just 3% and the combined ’radical left’ only 8%. In last year’s election the Prc won 5.8%. Their desperation is fuelled by the recent formation of the Democratic Party and the likelihood of a change in the electoral law to the detriment of smaller parties.

Capitalist policies

Giordano has called for the ‘Cosa Rossa’ to have membership cards by the end of the year but the parties are divided over just about everything. The Sd and the Greens did not even support the 20 October demonstration because they were opposed to demonstrating against the policies of a government which they are members of. At least that is a consistent policy!

The Prc, on the other hand, have got themselves into one big mess. They insisted that the demonstration was not against the Prodi government but to ’persuade’ it to change its policies, in particular on the question of ’precarious’ working. However, they organised it over a week after workers had voted in a referendum on an agreement on pensions and precarious working which had been signed by the government, the main trade union federations and the bosses’ union Confindustria. (See previous article)

While supposedly opposing many points in the agreement, the Prc leaders made no attempt to organise the leafleting of workplaces before the referendum took place. There might now be some small modifications to the agreement in Parliament but nothing fundamental. The pension age will still be increased and millions of workers will still be without full-time contracts and basic rights.

For 18 months now the Prodi government has clearly represented the interests of big business. Yet the Prc has remained wedded to the governing coalition, consistently voting for a steady stream of anti-working class policies. One demonstration, even if a million strong, is not going to halt the erosion of support that the Prc has suffered because of its involvement in a capitalist government. Only by clearly breaking with the government and mobilising in the workplaces and communities against its neo-liberal policies would it be possible for a credible mass party to be built.

The Prc leadership have no intention of doing this, whether as the Prc or the ‘Cosa Rossa’. They have lost all confidence in the ability of the working class to struggle to transform society, preferring instead to concentrate on Parliamentary persuasion, with the occasional set piece mobilisation like that of 20 October.

It is not clear at this stage how exactly the ‘Cosa Rossa’ will develop, whether it will remain as a federation of the constituent parties, presenting a united list in elections, or move towards a more unified formation. The former seems more likely in the short term, especially given the huge divisions between the parties concerned. Whatever structure it takes, however, its main purpose will be to emerge with sufficient votes from a future election to provide a viable coalition partner for the capitalist Democratic Party. Any federation involving the Sd and the Greens will be even further removed from the interests of the working class and the social movements than the Prc currently is.

Government crisis

What happens to the Prodi government will have an influence on how the ’Cosa Rossa’ evolves. The Italian political situation continues to be one of crisis and flux. Defections to the right have already left Prodi with just a one seat majority in the Senate (excluding the seven ’non-party’ senators for life) and Berlusconi is boasting that his centre-right coalition has poached several more government senators. The government could collapse at any time, or on the other hand it could continue to stagger on for a bit longer in a state of permanent crisis as it has done for the last 18 months. There are certainly elements on the right of the coalition who have seriously considered bringing the government down.

If there were to be new elections all the opinion polls point to a victory for the centre-right. However, the centre-right coalition is itself divided and the more sober sections of the capitalist class do not want the instability that a Berlusconi government would bring.

If Prodi falls, he is most likely to be replaced with a non-party ’technocratic’ government whose main task would be to pass a new electoral law before fresh elections were called. Then, Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome who has just been elected leader of the Democratic Party, would have a chance of winning an election and forming a new coalition without the ’radical left’. The fact that Sergio Cofferati, the former trade union leader elected mayor of Bologna on a centre-left ticket, has recently signed a right-wing populist ’security pact’ with the former fascist Alleanza Nazionale, gives an indication of the kind of coalition Veltroni might consider.

Cofferati’s actions have been a step too far even for the Prc who have left the majority coalition on Bologna council in protest. It is extremely unlikely, however, that the Prc leadership will do the same on a national level. Yet, in more and more cities Democratic Party mayors are resorting to right-wing populist policies on ’law and order’, evicting Roma, ’cracking down’ on graffiti artists, beggars, ‘squeegee merchants’, prostitutes and anyone else they think will help them regain a social base which has been rapidly undermined because of their economic policies.

Veltroni is already trying to distance himself from Prodi talking about "discontinuity", "change" and a "new stage". It is possible that there could be an electoral ’Veltroni bounce’ on the basis that he is not Prodi and appears to represent something new. In the primaries in which he was elected leader of the Democratic Party, where anybody who paid a euro could participate, 3 million people turned out to vote. However, the voters themselves were not exactly new or geographically representative, with more than half aged over 50 and 76% from the South.

In reality, Veltroni’s programme echoes that of Montezemolo, the leader of the bosses’ union – lower taxes, less public spending and more privatisation. It is a recipe for a collision course with the working class, especially if economic growth, which is already one of the lowest in the eurozone and falling, turns into recession at a later stage.

Political vacuum

There is deep alienation amongst large sections of Italians towards established political parties and politicians – "the Caste” – who appear to be concerned only with lining their own pockets and do nothing for ordinary people. When popular comedian Beppe Grillo organised a “Vaffanculo (fuck off) Day” via his blog hundreds of thousands of people came on to the streets, with 50,000 protesting in Bologna alone. They queued for hours to sign a petition against corruption in politics and deafening cheers went up as he vowed to “destroy” political parties. Grillo has now raised the possibility of standing "civic lists” in elections and in a recent opinion poll 17% said they would definitely vote for the "grillinis” and 33% would consider doing so.

V-Day was just one reflection of an enormous political vacuum which a combatative, anti-capitalist, mass workers’ party could begin to fill. In its absence, populist movements and parties, including those of the right can step into the void. The task of building a mass party of the workers and social movements in Italy is now a crucial one. Just how such a party will develop, and in particular what role forces within the Prc could play in that process, is not clear in the fluid political situation which exists in Italy at the present time.

In March, the Prc will be holding a National Congress where the key issue will be the ‘Cosa Rossa’. On the left of the party the ‘Controcorrente’ group are taking the initiative in pushing for a united document in opposition to the ‘Cosa Rossa’ and the majority around Giordano and former leader Fausto Bertinotti. They are calling for the Prc to break their alliance with the Democratic Party and build an autonomous anti-capitalist left alternative, rooted in the workplaces and social struggles.

If agreement can be reached with other forces on the left, which is not guaranteed, the aim would be to take the opposition document to the rank-and-file of the Prc in the pre-Congress discussion and tap into the unrest and discontent which clearly exists, even amongst supporters of the majority. If the left is defeated, the pre-Congress campaign could play a role in welding together opposition forces which, together with forces outside of the Prc, could form a constituent part of a new anti-capitalist workers’ party.

Those forces could emerge from industrial struggles such as the strikes of the Fincantieri shipyard workers against privatisation, from amongst million who voted ‘no’ in the pension and precarious working referendum, especially amongst the metal workers, from amongst public sector workers who are currently taking strike action and those workers who will be taking part in the general strike on 9 November called by the ‘unions of the base’ against the pension and work agreement. However such a new formation would need to learn not to repeat the mistakes made by the Prc.

There are also the continuing social movements such as those against the construction of a US base in Vincenza and the high speed rail link in Val di Susa, and the tens of thousands of school students who went on strike all over Italy against the government’s attempt to reintroduce a ’catch up’ exam, against the marketisation of education and for better school facilities.

Despite the confusion and complications of the present situation, these struggles are a precursor of much bigger battles from which a new mass workers’ party and the forces of revolutionary Marxism can be forged in Italy.

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October 2007