Communist Refoundation: workers left between a rock and a hard place

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2008 - 9:09 Author: Hugh Edwards

Comrades outside Italy could have been forgiven for thinking, on hearing in January of the fall of the government of Romano Prodi, that finally the forces of the so-called “Radical Left” in his centre-left coalition had said “enough!” to the eighteen-month or so of sustained attacks on the living standards and quality of life of the popular masses of Italy.

Alas, the reality is otherwise or, perhaps, it is nearer the truth to say the “unreality” is otherwise! For the government fell through the resignation of his Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella, ex-Christian Democrat and leader of one of the small centre parties — UDEUR — and the government’s eleven-party coalition.

He had resigned after his wife, also a member of the UDEUR and president of the regional council of Campania, was arrested on charge of extortion. Immediately after his resignation Mastella, too, was named as under investigation for crimes involving millions of euros dispersed by the EU to the poorer regions of Italy and an extensive network of clientelism.

Mastella’s resignation forced Prodi to assume the extra role of Justice Minister and then face a crucial vote of confidence in the Senate (the Italian upper house). Lapping up the deluge of sycophantic effusions about his obvious innocence, integrity, probity, etc., from Prodi and his fellow parlimentarians, Mastella then announced he would be voting against the government along with another small centre party ledby former prime minister Lamberto Dini (Rinnovamento Italiano).

Prodi’s government was defeated, and soon after it was revealed that Dini and Mastella had clandestinely met Silvio Berlusconi before Christmas, agreeing to torpedo the government, in return for certain posts in the new Berlusconi administration. The deed done, Berlusconi announced that Mastella was not welcome in any government of his. La dolce vita politica Italiana!

The decision by the radical left parties and Communist Refoundation of Faust Bertinotti (CR), the smaller Democratic Communist Party of Italy, and the Green Party – to enter Prodi’s L’Unione coalition of small centre parties and the large ex-Stalinist Democrats of the Left who have strong ties to the largest trade union in Italy, CGIL, has been nothing short of a disaster. They believed that their presence would in some significant way divert the determined pro-bourgeois modernising, rationalising, free-market regime from its principal aim of restoring, on the backs of the Italian people, the chronically weak invalid of Italian capitalism to virile global competitiveness. They were wrong.

These “communists” found themselves immediately hoist on the dilemma of their own demagogy. Having argued before millions of their supporters that such a step was imperative to achieve both significant economic and political reforms and to avoid the return of another draconian Berlusconi government, they could find no answers when they were systematically confronted by Messrs Prodi and D’Alema Tassino (Minister of Economics from the world of high finance) with exactly the same choice at every crucial vote on every single measure of the government’s reactionary measures.

From swingeing budget attacks on public spending; on incomes, pensions, trade-union rights; to increased military spending and troops in Afghanistan, crowned by the decision to permit the extension of a US military base in Vicenza in the face of a near-popular revolt; to capitulation to the Catholic Church on civil unions and women’s rights; to racist demagogy and witch hunting — throughout it all they a cut a pathetic sight. Whingeing and wringing their hands at Prodi’s “betrayal” of the “their” program — the predictable electoral mishmash of pious promises, platitudes and bland generalisations that had had offered to Bertinotti and co on the pretext that it gave them the scope to shape government policy from the left — they loyally toed the line at every crucial vote.

The point of true farce was reached when amidst growing protests from their supporters and workers in general, increasingly angry about the deterioration of living standards and the struggle to survive in an Italy where the power of spending of the average Italian wage has fallen 35% since 2001, large demonstrations in which the radical leaders participated condemning the consequences of what they had done in Parliament, while at the same time cynically reassuring the media that the protest was not against the government.

It would be some compensation to report that protests grew in mounting anger and coherence. Alas not! In fact they all but petered out, underlining the profound political cul de sac into which the bankrupt reformist strategy of the radical left had carried the masses. Having to swallow the bitter pill of austerity and sacrifice served as necessity by Prodi’s government, elected in the hope that it promised at a minimum a refuge from the attacks of the last Berlusconi regime and the honeyed illusions of Bertinotti that it offered scope for real social advance, the prospect of another such government induced a deepening and demoralising sense of political paralysis. The hegemony of reformist politics and perspectives in Italian political life could not be more clearly demonstrated.

Such a situation graphically underlined the complete failure of the project of Fausto Bertinotti to “rebuild a Communist movement”, as he put it in 1991 at the foundation conference of Communist Refoundation, “to cleanse Communism of all the poisonous, totalitarian, bureaucratic, antidemocratic impurities [...] in the fight to build a mass party of struggle against the corrupt oligarchies of Italian capitalism”. Bertinotti had taken up the challenge in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism globally and the decision by the Italian Communist Party CPI in 1991 to ditch its name and much of the insignia associated with it.

Bertinotti’s however, failed to mention the content of Stalin’s counter-revolutionary politics against classical Bolshevism and the acceptance of “reformism” as the defining path to socialism, especially for the proletarian struggle in developed industrial countries, where bourgeois democracy was solidly in place.

Under the heady rhetoric, the genuine, serious commitment and mobilisation of its militants, the obvious appeal for thousands of the most class-conscious political activists in Italy, Bertinotti and the leadership around him remained completely wedded to such a reformist Parliamentary road. It was, is, and remains in essence a reformist party.

It did not preclude, of course, manoeuvres and opportunist zigzags to court whatever new political or ideological radical current might emerge — the no-global movement, the anti-capitalist movement, the anti-war movement, the Zapatistas and what have you — but it did avoid any serious analysis and accounting of what the party really stood for and where it was going.

In 1996 Bertinotti had opted to become a part of Prodi’s first government, whose major political task was to prune severely the chaotic public finances of the Italian state so that the parameters of Maastricht be observed and the fiscal and monetary road cleared for the arrival of the euro. Naturally, as always, on the skins of the masses! Notwithstanding growing internal dissent, loss of hundreds of members across the country, loss of electoral support and protests on the streets, the party sustained the government until its major task was completed. Only under the pressure of a possible implosion of the party, heightened by events in Kosova, the party left the government.

Fortunately for Bertinotti, the emergence of the no-global movement offered him the opportunity to create and build the organisation again, skilfully aligning it within the fast-growing social forums that had been fuelled by the Bush was in Iraq. Equally skilfully he set out to exploit the diffuse spirit of pacifism that, as a whole, characterised the movement. Especially after Genoa, where the Berlusconi regime had literally declared a state of war against the half million or so protesters ain a brutal display of co-ordinated police thuggery that successfully drew the line against any further threat to bourgeois social order from that particular direction.

Without a blush, Bertinotti declared solemnly that now was the moment to consider no longer relevant the experience and legacy of the nineteenth-twentieth century class struggle — centrality of the workers’ movement, the class struggle and the struggle for state power, and the inherent violence within all this — the presuppositions of classical communism. Better the example and non-violent principles of Subcomandante Marcos!

Bertinotti was once more astutely positioning himself for a place in any post- Berlusconi government of the centre-left. The opportunity came. Bertinotti was completely aware of what the Prodi government was about, and prepared himself accordingly for a very rough ride. He privately demanded of Prodi, on pain of refusing to join the coalition, the role of speaker of the Parliament. At least for once he would not have to defend the indefensible before the Italian masses in the role of the “neutral” speaker

The lesson of the CR experience is crystal clear. There isn’t room in Italy for two bourgeois reformist parties! Though the ex-stalinists (Democrats of the Left, DS) are more and more becoming an explicitly bourgeois movement in terms of programme, through its historic links with the largest and most powerful trade union, CGIL, maintained their traditional electoral position as the representative of the majority of the working masses. As the largest block in the last two Prodi administrations they offered the bureaucrats of CGIL a direct political input, further adding to the strategic importance it had assumed, after the collapse of the old political order in 1992, as a major plank in the maintenance of social peace.

Bertinotti repeatedly finds himself forced to “make up the numbers”, to keep the “right” from assuming office. In fact, the recent emergence of the “new” party of Walter Veltroni, ex-stalinist, ex-DS, ex-lord mayor of Rome, carries this logic to the point of reductio ad absurdum of his situation.

Veltroni’s Democratic Party, a merger of the DS and the ex Christian Democrat Margherita (Daisy) party, is explicitly modelled on the American prototype. “Social classes don’t exist, everybody is a worker, and therefore nobody is exploited”, he says, and already the party boasts of industrialists, bankers, actors, popstars and a host of trade unionists for the CGIL bureaucracy, and of course the DS.

The novelty is that he is running in the election as the candidate of a single party rather than a coalition, as is Silvio Berlusconi with his People of Liberty Party.

The debâcle of Prodi’s “panthomime horse” coalition has, for a short time at least, knocked the heads together of the Italian bourgeoisie. They are keenly aware that in a rapidly deteriorating economic climate and widespread cynicism, disenchantment among millions, especially the young, a stable political regime is the highest priority in the event of social disorder.

Unfortunately for them they are saddled with the electoral legislation created in the last days of Berlusconi’s government and, like so much of his legislation, left untouched by Prodi. Once more the Italian Senate may provide the slippery slope to another coalition, whoever wins — the opinion polls favour Berlusconi — but it is not out of the question that Bertinotti’s Rainbow Coalition (an alliance of Rifondazione with other groups) can reach the threshold of 8% and Veltroni can pull it off.

Some weeks ago Bertinotti ruled out in principle any coalition with Veltroni. He may be forced to eat his words. The fact that the Rainbow Coalition is in alliance with the Democratic Party’s candidate Francesco Rutell in the simultaneous administrative elections for the mayor of Rome is a sure bet that it won’t be an indigestible choice, and the membership of the party should prepare themselves for more rhetorical displays of verbal acrobatics to justify another shameful episode of reformism in action.

The three main currents of Italian Trotskyists had entered CR in 1991. They were the FalceMartello group, affiliated to the late Ted Grant’s group in the British Labour Party; Critical Left, the Italian section of the Fourth International (linked to the LCR in France); and the current around Proposta Comunista of Franco Grisolia and Marco Ferrando.

FalceMartello, after sixteen years, remains within the party, in another exercise faithful to Grant’s notion of “deep entry”. FalceMartello constitutes another reformist party within a reformist party, congenitally ducking every serious opportunity of critical confrontation with the nature of CR, with the reality of the organisation and as such their presence within the party constitutes a shameless apology for the leadership. They are like dead parrots, yet they continue to squawk.

Like FalceMartello, the Critical Left were up until the second year of the Prodi government loyal footsoldiers of the organisation, having voted consistently at every critical moment for the line of Bertinotti. Again like FalceMartello, they sought to make a virtue out of the Bertinotti decision to join the bourgeois coalition of Prodi, posing as the principal element that would hold Bertinotti to the promises he made to his own members.

In fact, as was entirely predictable, their members in government joined the ranks of the loyalists, turning themselves inside out to justify their prostration. The point of intransigence arrived a year into the government, when one of their members in the Senate abstained on the issue of more troops to Afghanistan (certain that the numbers of pro-Prodi votes were there!), and found that he had inadvertently brought down the government. The government survived, and the individual concerned was witch-hunted, with the result that the Critical Left pulled out of CR, but continued to support the government from outside.

They are standing in the election on the need to build an anticapitalist current, but there is little likelihood of significant advance for them, now that they are exposed to the realities of small-group politics.

Proposta Comunista, affiliated to the International Trotskyist Organisation, ITO, represented by far the most combative current of Trotskyism in the party. It seemed initially to be in a position to challenge what it clearly recognised as the limitations of the Bertinotti leadership. However, its alternative anti-capitalist programme, while explicitly offering a radical direction of widening class struggle and mass mobilisation on all fronts, failed to point to the inescapable implications of a revolutionary clash with the bourgeois state. That is, the need to smash and replace institutions and apparatus of the capitalist social order in the process of creating mass democratic organs in and through the working mass’s struggle for political power. To challenge the reformist perspectives and methods it was vitally necessary for the Ferrando group to state this.

At the level of tactics, in relationship to confronting reformist illusions in a bourgeois government — especially in a country like Italy, where the masses continually face the choice of one or other bourgeois administration — it was absolutely imperative to have in one’s programme the demand for a fight for a workers’ government, both as a general demand of one’s programmatic perspective and, in the actual situation of an election, a tactical demand of the sharpest and most focused character.

All this remained absent from Proposta and, like FalceMartello and Critical Left, the organisation remained for fifty years effectively swallowed up by the routine opposition of what was little more than abstract propaganda. The organisation in fact split just before the entry of CR into the coalition, around issues that neither of the new organisations respectively founded, Communist Party of Workers (Ferrando Grisolia) and Party of Alternative Communists, have satisfactorily explained in the foundational documents of the new organisations.

The Communist Party of Workers has candidates in the elections, and is calling for critical votes for the Rainbow Left candidates, whereas the Party of Alternative Communists has called for abstention.

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