Italy: The rise and fall of Rifondazione Comunista

Great potential squandered

This article appears in the June 2008 edition of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)

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The rise and fall of Rifondazione Comunista

When Rifondazione Comunista was set up at the end of 1991, many hoped it was the start of a new wave of workers’ representation. And in the radicalisation of the mid-1990s it gained the support of thousands of workers and youth for an alternative to establishment politics. In April’s general election, however, it lost all of its MPs, the party discredited by participation in capitalist government. It now faces total collapse.

The PRC (PARTITO della Rifondazione Comunista) was annihilated in the Italian general election in April – all of its 66 MPs and senators were wiped out. The party stood as the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Left rainbow) with three smaller left parties. Together they won just 3% of the vote, less than the 5.8% the PRC achieved on its own in the last election in 2006. Altogether, the Sinistra Arcobaleno lost nearly three million votes.

Turin, an industrial city in the north west of Italy and home to the huge Fiat car company at Mirafiori, is emblematic of the PRC’s ignominious collapse. Not long after its formation, the PRC achieved more votes in this city in local elections than the giant PDS (Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the former ‘Communist’ Party). In 2006, the PRC was still able to win 14% of the vote there. This time the Sinistra Arcobaleno scraped just 4%, less than the right-wing populist Lega Nord which won 6.5%. According to Il Manifesto, an independent left-wing newspaper, of Mirafiori’s 15,000 workers only nine were card-carrying members of the PRC prior to the election.

The disaster which has befallen the PRC, the first post-Stalinist new workers’ party, graphically reveals how the survival of new workers’ formations is not guaranteed. They can arise and even develop mass support but if their leadership pursues an incorrect policy they can also rapidly collapse, lose their social base and face extinction. The PRC’s fate should be a salutary lesson to other formations internationally such as P-SOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) in Brazil, Die Linke (The Left party) in Germany, the Socialistische Partij in the Netherlands and, more recently, SYRIZA in Greece.

The consequences of the PRC’s collapse will, in fact, reverberate well beyond the confines of Italy. The party was born 17 years ago when, at its 20th congress, the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), once the largest ‘Communist’ Party in western Europe with two million members, voted in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union to formally ditch its communist past and, symbolically, change its name to the PDS. Though the PCI had long ago adopted a pro-capitalist, reformist approach, this marked an important qualitative step in its transition towards a capitalist party. The PRC emerged as a left split of about a quarter of the PCI in opposition to the abandonment of ‘communism’. Within months, 150,000 members rallied to its banner including many workers and youth from outside the PCI.

The PRC’s birth as a party that could become a class struggle, anti-Stalinist, communist party had enormous international significance. Here was a sizeable workers’ party prepared to openly defend the ideas of communism/socialism when those ideas were under ferocious ideological attack from the bourgeoisie internationally following the fall of Stalinism. All over western Europe, former workers’ parties were abandoning socialism, accepting the capitalist market and becoming ‘bourgeoisified’. The PRC, however, stood out as an uncompromising anti-capitalist party and, consequently, became a pole of attraction and reference point for thousands of workers and youth both inside and outside of Italy.

Great potential squandered

THE PRC’S SUBSEQUENT collapse was not inevitable. On the contrary, comprising many of the best class fighters, it had the potential to develop into a mass revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading the working class to a socialist transformation of society. In the early 1990s, the Italian political and state system was in turmoil. Magistrates had lifted the lid on an endemic corruption scandal permeating the state apparatus and involving thousands of politicians and businessmen. The fallout from the Tangentopoli (kickback) scandal, as it was known, was so great that it shattered the main capitalist party, Democrazia Christiana (DC). The PSI (Partito Socialista Italiano) also disintegrated along with many smaller parties. Not one political party emerged unscathed from this crisis.

The resulting backlash against the corruption of the political system led to the victory of Silvio Berlusconi in the 1994 general election. With his newly created Forza Italia (Come on, Italy) party he presented himself as a fresh face, a ‘self-made’ businessman (then the richest in Italy) coming from outside the political establishment and capable of making Italy as successful as himself. His government lasted just nine months. In the ‘hot autumn’ of 1994 millions of workers went on strike and millions of workers, pensioners and youth took to the piazzas against Berlusconi’s proposed pension reform.

The PRC had already established itself as a combative party in the struggles against the attacks of previous governments. With clear revolutionary policies and tactics the PRC could have emerged from this huge movement as a mass workers’ party capable of challenging for power. The party’s constitution declared that the PRC was inspired by the values of Marxism and stood for the overthrow of capitalism and the transformation of society. However, although on paper the PRC programme appeared revolutionary, its leadership had no concept of how to win mass working-class support for it.

For the majority of the PRC leadership, the mass strike movement was viewed merely as an opposition to pension reform and budget attacks and not a struggle to win over the mass of workers to the idea of revolutionary change. The PRC called for Berlusconi to go but did not put forward a concrete programme for the development of the strike movement, linked to the demand for a workers’ government. Instead, it acted as cheerleaders for the strike, uncritically supporting the trade union leadership, including when it called off a planned second general strike.

Fundamentally, the problem was that the PRC leaders had not really broken from the ‘stages’ approach of working with ‘progressive’ capitalist parties that the PCI adopted after the 1944 svolta di Salerno (the Salerno turn). This meant that the PRC did not advocate a consistent socialist programme but maintained a division between ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ demands, and continually approached a ‘lesser evil’ position, especially in supporting many policies of L’Ulivo (The Olive Tree) coalition governments of the late 1990s and then being part of Prodi’s government. Nevertheless, the PRC did benefit electorally from its opposition to the first Berlusconi government with its vote in 1996 rising to 8.4% nationally and climbing much higher in some areas – from 8.8% to 24.7% in Florence, for example. Nevertheless, a crucial opportunity to build the party into a mass force was squandered.

Balance of power

THE PRC’S RECENT electoral collapse can be mainly attributed to the previous two years (2006-08) during which it was part of Romano Prodi’s capitalist government. The process towards participation in bourgeois governments, however, began much earlier. Before the victory of Berlusconi in 1994 the leadership majority of the PRC had endorsed a policy of a ‘progressive’ political alliance with the PDS in the name of ‘unity of the left’, to prevent ‘isolation’ and to ‘stop the right’.

The PDS itself was moving rapidly in a rightward direction, openly espousing privatisation and the neo-liberal agenda of the capitalist class. Nevertheless, many workers still supported the party and the aim of the PRC should have been to win over those workers through unity of action and struggle around concrete issues such as the pension reform. Temporary, tactical electoral alliances, while preserving the PRC’s political independence and autonomy, could have formed a legitimate part of this process of breaking workers from the PDS. However, this was not the aim of the PRC leadership majority which, while still using revolutionary phraseology about the ‘overthrow of capitalism’, wanted to substitute mass action with alliances from above with ‘progressive’ capitalist parties.

In the 1996 general election the PRC stood independently but had an electoral agreement with Prodi’s Ulivo coalition which included capitalist parties. When the Ulivo won the election, the PRC did not join the coalition government, declaring that it would oppose any anti-working class measures which the government put forward while not voting to bring the government down. With 35 MPs the PRC effectively held the balance of power.

At the beginning of the Prodi government this was not necessarily an incorrect approach. Berlusconi had only just been got rid of and the mass of workers were not yet conscious of the anti-working class character of the Ulivo, thinking it could be pressurised into acting in their interests. If the PRC had immediately caused the collapse of the government and the return of Berlusconi this would not have been understood, and would have damaged the party’s standing among workers and youth. However, the PRC leadership did not sufficiently warn in advance of the capitalist nature of the government and the neo-liberal policies it was preparing to implement, thus sowing illusions in the government and undermining its own support.

Prodi’s main aim was to prepare Italian capitalism for entry into the euro. In order to meet the Maastricht criteria the government slashed social spending, introduced a euro tax and carried out some of the biggest privatisations in Europe. It also implemented the ‘Treu package’ which established ‘precarious’ working (low-paid jobs on short-term contracts with few rights). The PRC leadership not only failed to prepare the working class for this onslaught but supported these policies in parliament, despite verbal opposition.

As the real nature of the government became clear, growing discontent at the Prodi government spilled over into a loss of electoral support for the PRC and unrest inside the party. It was against this background that the PRC eventually stopped supporting the government in 1998 and the Prodi administration fell. But the PRC did not prepare the ground for this break. In 1997, for example, it initially withdrew support from a cuts budget but then a week later did an about turn and voted it through when Prodi offered a few small concessions. This created enormous confusion amongst PRC members and supporters. When it eventually did withdraw support from the government the following year, it was over a budget much less severe than the ‘blood and tears’ budget it had supported in 1996.

Because of its failure to anticipate events and to prepare and mobilise the working class, because of its inconsistency and, above all, because of its backing for capitalist policies, the PRC suffered an erosion in support amongst those who associated the party with Prodi’s attacks. At the same time, the party laid itself open to accusations of paving the way for a return of Berlusconi. The PRC majority leadership clearly learnt nothing from this experience as, in 2006, the party actually went on to enter a capitalist government, again led by Prodi, compounding its previous mistakes and putting its very existence at stake.

Heightened class struggle

THE PRC’S DEVELOPMENT was not, however, one of a constant downward trajectory. As a result of its support for the Ulivo government the party was facing declining electoral support and membership. It had also suffered a split to the right, led by chairman Armando Cossuta, over continuing support for the Prodi government. The newly formed PdCI (Partito dei Comunisti Italiani) took around 10% of the membership and 65% of the MP’s.

In this situation, the majority leadership around Fausto Bertinotti looked to shore up the PRC’s social base with a ‘left turn’. Bertinotti himself was a respected, charismatic leader with a reputation as an honest class fighter. His powerful oratory included frequent references to Marxism and revolution but in practice he was becoming more reformist. Increasingly in the early 2000s, Bertinotti borrowed phrases from Leon Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union as he simultaneously moved the PRC rightwards in its day-to-day policies in Italy. Staying in the tradition of the post-war PCI leaders, Bertinotti did not reject electoral alliances with capitalist parties. On the contrary, the party entered into coalitions at a local level with the PDS in councils that were implementing cuts.

At a national level, however, the party was in opposition as the objective situation began to change dramatically. Berlusconi was re-elected in 2001 (as a consequence of disillusion with the Ulivo government) unleashing a series of general strikes over defence of Article 18 of the labour law, which provided protection to workers against unfair dismissal, and in opposition to attacks on pensions. In 2002, twelve million workers were involved in a general strike and three million marched in Rome. The anti-globalisation movement and the movements against war in Afghanistan and Iraq also mobilised hundreds of thousands of young people and workers. In this situation of heightened class and social struggle, it would have been possible for the PRC to develop into a mass force capable of challenging for power. However, this was never the aim of the majority leadership. For Bertinotti and Co the ‘no-global’, anti-war and workers’ movements were merely a means of replenishing their ranks and boosting their electoral support so that they would be in a position of strength to govern in alliance with ‘progressive’ capitalist parties in the future

The PRC threw itself into the ‘movement of movements’ but without addressing any of its deficiencies and weaknesses. Understandably, many of the youth involved in the ‘no-global’ movement were against political parties. But, instead of patiently explaining why an independent party of workers and youth was necessary to fight collectively for reforms and to build ‘another world’, the PRC effectively became apologists for the movement, completely failing to raise the consciousness and understanding of the thousands of youth and workers it came in contact with. Once again, it put forward no strategy to develop and broaden the workers’ struggles. In fact, for the majority of the leadership the central role of the working class and the idea of class struggle were becoming superseded by vague references to ‘non violence’ and the ‘movements’.

The party did, however, became a pole of attraction in the period 2001-03, especially for young people but its growth fell well below the potential inherent in the situation. And it failed to retain many of those it did recruit, with tens of thousands leaving every year in a constant membership turnover averaging 30% annually.

Pressure on new formations

AT THE VENEZIA congress in 2005, delegates voted by 60% to 40% in favour of a resolution which endorsed the PRC’s participation in a future capitalist government. This decision provoked enormous unrest, with many members remembering the detrimental affect that support for the Ulivo had on the party. By now many of the arguments in favour were familiar. It was necessary to unite to ‘defeat Berlusconi and the right’, and to prevent the ‘isolation’ or even ‘collapse’ of the PRC.

Similar arguments have been used, and will be used in the future, to put intense pressure on new workers’ formations to enter into coalitions with capitalist parties elsewhere. In Germany, for example, the PDS (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus), now part of Die Linke (The Left), has already governed two states with the capitalist SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and carried out anti-working class wage and social cuts. The party will come under increasing pressure to unite with the SPD in a national government. In the Netherlands, the Socialistische Partij was prepared to ally itself with the Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party) after the last election. In the end this did not happen, but only because the Labour Party found an alternative coalition partner in the capitalist Christen-Democratisch Appel and the ChristenUnie (Christian Union). In Greece, opinion polls put support for the new left formation, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), at one stage as high as 18%. It too will face demands to enter into a coalition government with the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK – formerly social democratic). The negative experience of the PRC should be a powerful argument against entry into capitalist governments.

There is no doubt that in the 2006 election there was a strong desire among workers for unity to defeat Berlusconi. This could have been met through a temporary electoral alliance. But, at the same time, it would have been necessary for the PRC to maintain its own independent political programme, to remain outside of Prodi’s capitalist government, to warn workers of the anti-working class attacks which that government would unleash, and to organise workers and youth to fight in defence of their interests and in opposition to those attacks. None of this happened.

After the victory of Prodi’s ‘Unione’ in April 2006, Bertinotti became speaker of the lower house and Paulo Ferrero became minister of welfare and social solidarity. The PRC majority argued that by being inside the government it would be possible to have more influence over it and to ‘push it to the left’. It rapidly became clear, however, that the major influence over the Prodi government was not the PRC but the bosses’ organisation Confindustria. By entering into the government the PRC was seen by workers and youth to be taking political responsibility for higher taxes, attacks on pensions and welfare, precarious working, low wages, rising prices and a pro-US imperialism foreign policy.

The leadership continued to argue that PRC was at one and the same time a party of government and a party of struggle. But remaining in the government took complete precedence. In reply to those who called for the PRC to leave the government, the leadership argued that it would mean the end of the PRC as it would no longer have any influence. The idea that the party and its influence could be built through mass struggle was now a complete anathema. Of course, PRC representatives did verbally oppose Prodi’s anti-working class measures and, occasionally, even went on demonstrations, but in the eyes of workers and youth they were responsible for voting them through parliament.

In the May 2007 local elections, the party lost two-thirds of its vote, a clear sign of how participation in government was seriously undermining its electoral support. On 9 June, two rival national anti-war protests were held in Rome to coincide with a visit to Italy by George Bush. While 150,000 took part in the protest organised by the anti-war movement, No Dal Molin (No US base at Dal Molin), and the unions of the base, particularly Cobas (Confederazione del Comitati di Base), the simultaneous event organised by the PRC and other ‘left’ parties in Prodi’s government was a complete flop with only a handful of people turning up. The PRC was losing all credibility with the layers that had once looked to it as an uncompromising, fighting, anti-capitalist party.

Finally, the catastrophic results of this year’s general election exposed the total bankruptcy of the majority leadership’s policy. A tactic which was supposed to defeat the right, instead paved the way for a third Berlusconi victory, a doubling in support for the extreme-right Lega Nord, which attracted votes from the PRC itself, and the election of a ‘post-fascist’ as mayor of Rome. A tactic which, it was argued, would prevent the collapse of the PRC ended up hastening its decline as it became tainted with the anti-working class attacks of the Prodi government.

What of the future?

IS THE PRC now finished as a workers’ party or could it recover as it has in the past? The outcome of the next congress, which is due to take place in July, will have a bearing on its future. The election disaster has had the effect of a bomb going off inside the party. At the post-election national political committee meeting, the old leadership was kicked out and the majority split to become a minority. Their ‘project’ had been to dissolve the PRC into the Sinistra Arcobaleno – a kind of social-liberal ally of the PD (Partito Democratico) in which, according to Bertinotti, communism would be just a “cultural tendency”. This was a logical progression of their reformist substitution of mass class struggle with class collaboration.

There is a battle to be waged by those opposition groups which still remain in the PRC. But even if they manage to prevent a further mass exodus from the party – which is not certain – and to unite their forces, it is unlikely that they will succeed in ‘reclaiming’ the party at the conference. The ‘new’ majority is led by Paulo Ferrero, who was part of the old Bertinotti majority and a minister in the Prodi government. He is in favour of going ahead with the Sinistra Arcobaleno, but as a ‘federation’. It is possible that he could come to an agreement with the former majority which, in the wake of the election debacle, is now saying that it never really wanted to dissolve the PRC!

Ferrero talks about ‘social opposition’, of turning to the workplaces and the communities and rebuilding the PRC from below. In a situation of economic crisis, with industrial and social struggles in opposition to Berlusconi, it is possible that a PRC headed by Ferrero could temporarily increase its electoral support. But Ferrero is still in favour of participation in capitalist governments which would destroy any credibility that the party might be able to salvage among workers and youth. If the ‘new’ majority triumphs then it will most likely mean the death of the PRC as a workers’ party – but more prolonged and agonised than under the ‘old’ one.

The PRC’s collapse is a blow to the working class in Italy and internationally. Italian workers are without a mass class-struggle party at a time of developing economic and social crisis. The failure of the PRC will be used to discredit communism/socialism and the possibility of building new workers’ parties. But even defeats can have a positive side if the reasons for them are understood and not repeated.

In Italy, as in many other European countries, the working class is now faced with the task of building a new workers’ party capable of securing mass support. The country is already experiencing a serious economic crisis, with the lowest growth in Europe. A recession in the US and a worsening world economic situation will intensify this crisis. Despite winning a clear majority in the elections in April, Berlusconi’s honeymoon is likely to be short as his government proves incapable of improving the living standards of ordinary Italians. The ruling class itself fears that, without political representation in parliament, the anger of workers will explode onto the streets and in the workplaces.

Economic and social struggles will lay the basis for a real ‘communist refoundation’ – the building of a mass combative, anti-capitalist workers’ party, a party which rejects class collaboration and is armed with a socialist programme which is able to link the day-to-day struggles of the working class with the task of a revolutionary transformation of society.

There are undoubtedly some activists who are tired, who after the defeat of the PRC do not have the confidence that a new alternative can be built. But there are many others who are prepared to struggle. The first immediate step should be to gather together all those who want to fight and rebuild a revolutionary communist alternative in Italy and then to turn those forces outwards to the workers and youth and the fresh layers who will move into struggle. It will not be easy or straightforward but learning the lessons of the PRC’s rise and fall will be a vital part of that process.

The opposition inside the PRC

THE ROLE that opposition groups have played within the PRC throughout its rise and decline is very instructive. When it first came into being the PRC was a very democratic party in which political tendencies were free to put forward their own ideas internally and publicly. Programmatic ‘areas’ received funds from the party nationally and, until the late 1990s, seats on national bodies were allocated through a form of proportional representation.

Two of the main opposition groups are now outside of the party: the ‘Trotskyist’ PCL (Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori) which was originally called Proposta, then became Progetto; and Sinistra Critica (Critical Left, formerly known as Bandiera Rossa – Red Flag), the Italian section of the United Secretariat for a Fourth International. If these organisations had pursued a correct policy and tactics when they were inside the PRC they would now be in a strong position to influence the building of a genuine, class-struggle, anti-capitalist workers’ party. Unfortunately, because of their mistakes, the opposition struggle within the PRC has been weakened and they do not have the forces, programme or tactics which would allow them to play a key role in building a new mass workers’ party. They exited the PRC without any real influence or roots in the working class. When they stood (separately) in the election in April they received just 1% of the vote between them.

The way in which they left the PRC was indicative of their mistaken approach. Sinistra Critica came out in 2007 after its senator, Franco Turigliatto, was expelled from the party for voting against the government’s foreign policy, including the financing of troops in Afghanistan. Sinistra Critica’s decision to leave was motivated entirely by the subjective concerns of its own organisation with no relation to the objective situation, the consciousness of workers and the class struggle. Its senator had been expelled so they were all ‘Turigliatti’ and had to leave in solidarity. It meant that Sinistra Critica abandoned the PRC without waging a real struggle against the expulsion and at a time when a bitter and important battle was taking place over the future of the party.

Why it left the PRC was not fully understood. The financing of troops in Afghanistan is an important question but was not seen as a priority by the majority of workers. In a poll at the time, just 6% of people considered it a major issue. Far more important were economic concerns around wages, jobs and pensions.

Inside the PRC, Sinistra Critica/Bandiera Rossa veered from opposition to opportunist support for the leadership majority and then back to opposition again. At the fourth congress (March 1999), after the PRC withdrew support from the first Prodi government, it became an uncritical part of the Bertinotti majority. During the anti-globalisation movement it published entire speeches of Bertinotti with no political criticism. Unsurprisingly, Sinistra Critica failed to build much at rank-and-file level and left the party with no more than a few hundred members. It now vaguely calls for a new ‘anti-capitalist’ constituent and rejects the need for a revolutionary party.

Unlike Sinistra Critica, Proposta/Progetto consistently opposed the leadership majority – over virtually everything. But it was a criticism which was not accompanied by a concrete alternative programme which took account of the consciousness of the working class. During the first Berlusconi government, for example, it called for an all-out strike but did not answer the question that workers were obviously asking: if Berlusconi is kicked out what will replace him? They did not raise the alternative of a workers’ government.

They made a similar mistake at the 1998 congress with an opposition motion calling for an end to support for the Prodi government. The motion did not take account of the mood of the majority of workers who, at that time, feared a return of the right and did not want the government to be brought down. This could have been addressed by a call for the PRC to continue to vote to keep the government in power at that stage but to criticise its anti-working class measures and to mobilise the working class in opposition. By not taking into account how workers were thinking, Progetto handed Bertinotti a powerful argument with which to beat the opposition. The Progetto motion received 16% of the vote but could have gained much more with a correct approach.

This inability to relate its programme and tactics to the consciousness of the working class was confirmed yet again by the manner of its exit from the party. The main Progetto group (it had already split previously) decided to quit the party in 2006 just as the Prodi government was elected. It had not prepared politically for withdrawal by explaining its case in advance to workers. What is more, the timing was such that its exit would not have been understood. Although there were not massive illusions in the Prodi government, most workers were not, at that stage, aware of its anti-working class character. That awareness changed quite rapidly as the government introduced its neo-liberal policies but Progetto had already made the mistake of basing its tactics on its own consciousness rather than that of the working class. Now Progetto has become the PCL and, with around 1,000 members, has declared itself in sectarian fashion to be ‘the new workers’ party’.

Neither Sinistra Critica/Bandiera Rossa or Proposta/Progetto functioned as cohesive, organised revolutionary opposition groups with a clear programme and tactics, capable of winning over the ranks of the PRC and turning outwards to build a mass base among the working class and youth. Their failure has contributed to weakening the Italian working class as it seeks to rebuild its own independent political representation.

Socialism Today

This article is from Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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