Italian Communism Remembered
An interview on il manifesto, the PCI, and the road not taken between Stalinism and social democracy.
- Interview by
Luciana Castellina was expelled from the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1969 as part of the dissident il manifesto group, and has since served in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and the European Parliament. In her new memoir, Discovery of the World, Castellina describes her radicalization as a teenage girl in Fascist Italy, and the subsequent downfall of the regime.
On Sunday, April 6, Castellina will appear at Bluestockings Bookstore in conversation with Cinzia Arruzza and Jonah Birch to discuss her early politicization, the founding of Il Manifesto, the causes of the Manifesto group’s break with the PCI, and the spirit of the sixties and seventies Italian Left.
The following was published in the May-June 1985 issue of New Left Review.
May we start by asking you to clarify in broad terms the differences on international and domestic affairs and on internal party organization which led to the emergence of the Manifesto group and its expulsion from the Communist Party in November 1969?
It is not quite right to say that we were expelled, which would suggest our being kicked out and not allowed in principle to rejoin. We were subject to a much milder measure such that we were no longer Party members but ‘without prejudice’. This came at the end of a lengthy debate between left and right in the Party — with Ingrao symbolizing one side and Amendola the other — which had begun in the early sixties and become more open after Togliatti’s death in 1964. Moreover, by 1969 many of the issues at stake in the internal debate had entered into the culture and practice of the mass movement that had grown up in the previous year or so outside the Party.
Putting things very schematically, I would say that there were three broad areas in the debate: international policy, the Party’s attitude to the mass movement, and its internal life. On the first of these Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was of course a major turning point. We felt that although the PCI leadership had taken a firm position against the invasion, it had not drawn the necessary conclusions about the Soviet experience as a whole — the kind of conclusions that Berlinguer was to draw in December 1981 when he said that the Russian Revolution had lost its role as the historical driving force of the movement. At the same time, we were influenced by the Chinese positions in the sense that our approach to the Soviet Union involved a left-wing critique of its interpretation of peaceful coexistence and its behaviour as a world power.
Did you concern yourselves with the problem of characterizing the Soviet Union as a social formation?
Not so much. Most of our discussion centred on its role in world politics: on its relationship to the national liberation movements in the Third World, and its fear of anything that might destabilize the two spheres of influence. However, we never became dogmatically Maoist as other New Left currents did after 1968. At a time when leaders of parties with fifteen members were being received in Peking as if they were heads of state, we had no official relations with the Chinese. Our position was perhaps more akin to that of Monthly Review in the United States.
With regard to the second focus of debate, it should be borne in mind that the situation in Italy was rather different from that in France, for example, since the new mass movement was fundamentally a working-class phenomenon rooted in the factories rather than a university-based revolt of student youth. At any event, whereas the PCI remained tied to an analysis of backward capitalism, these new movements launched a critique of advanced capitalist societies, and of the new contradictions that had typically emerged within them, indicating a clear awareness that a deep systemic crisis was under way. Among the points raised in this qualitative critique were a series of egalitarian demands, and attacks on hierarchical structures and work organization on the shopfloor.
The third issue at stake was the internal party regime, in which no scope was given for the expression of dissentient positions. Still, after we decided to bring out a magazine of our own, there were several months of discussion with the leadership before our Party membership was annulled. In the PCF we would not have lasted more than a couple of days.
How did your relations with the leadership develop during this period?
Well, the two editors of the magazine were Rossana Rossanda and Lucio Magri. Rossana, who had been responsible for cultural policy until the supporters of Ingrao’s theses were marginalized after the 1966 Congress, was still a member of the Central Committee, as were Pintor, Caprara and Aldo Natoli. We also had five MPs, including Milani who joined us a little later. The leadership tried to persuade us not to publish the magazine, and when we refused, Alessandro Natta, who was then chairman of the Control Commission, wrote a critique of the Manifesto positions and had it circulated for discussion in Party branches. However, an unexpectedly large number of people expressed their agreement with us, and the discussion was cut down to a much shorter period than it should have been. When the question then came back to the Central Committee, it was decided with only two votes against and three abstentions that we should be removed from membership of the Party.
In the political atmosphere of that time, not only in Italy, with its hot autumn of 1969, but in Europe and the world as a whole, it must have seemed that you now had the opportunity to develop a quite new type of socialist politics.
Recently many people have asked us whether we thought in 1969 that we would ever rejoin thePCI, and we have all confessed that we did. We were never really a group of the New Left and remained part of the PCI in the sense that we thought a new revolutionary party would grow out of its crises and betrayals. The problem was to establish and keep open the channels of communication between the traditional culture of the historical left and the new movements which were emerging. Originally we had seen the magazine as the way of keeping discussion alive on these questions, and it was only as a result of subsequent developments that we began to think of ourselves as an independent political group. We never called on PCI members to leave together with us: indeed, the majority of those who joined Il Manifesto were ‘sixty-eighters’ who had never been in the PCI. They just gathered around the magazine in various towns and, over the next few years, started writing to us that they had ‘constituted themselves’ as Manifesto groups. This forced us to get in touch with them, and in the process we became an organized movement for the first time.
When was the party actually founded?
Il Manifesto itself always regarded the term ‘party’ as rather excessive, and it was only adopted after our fusion with a number of other groups in 1974 to form the new PDUP. The most important of these was a section of the PSIUP — an early-sixties left-wing breakaway from the Socialist Party which, although it had won a million or so votes in the 1972 elections, had failed to cross the threshold for parliamentary representation. Following this setback, the great majority decided to fuse with the PCI and two Central Committee members went back to the Socialist Party. The other minority, which formed the original PDUP (Party of Proletarian Unity) and fused with us in 1974, included a number of prominent trade unionists like Giovannini and Lettieri who were in the national secretariat of the CGIL, and metalworkers’ leaders like Foa and Tagliazucchi. This background in the historical institutions of the Italian left made them a quite different group from Il Manifesto, which did not have any trade unionists except at grassroots level.
What would have been the rough size of your group in 1974?
We were a very militant, very active organization and we never had a proper membership census. Apart from those of us who had come out of the Communist Party, everyone had a new left origin and was very young. In fact, at the last Manifesto congress before the fusion, we were so ashamed to admit our average age that we pushed it up for the public announcement. The PDUP people were naturally much older. As to the size of the membership, there must have been 15,000 to 20,000 of us at that time.
Did you have a proper party structure with offices in the main towns?
Il Manifesto already had local sections in the main towns — we called them collettivi because we were always something between a movement and an organization.
In 1970 New Left Review published a critical article by Lucio Magri on Leninism. He did not reject it totally but argued for a different form of party structure in advanced countries, stressing in particular the need for links with the mass movements. Could you give us some idea of your mode of functioning?
Did you have democratic centralism for example? Presumably you would take votes, with majorities and minorities?
We did. But we always thought that the real problem of democracy was not so much to have the right of tendency within the party as to establish a new relationship with the mass movements, so that the party could take in and give representation to their experiences. The traditional Leninist position was that the party alone had general ideas, while the mass movements came forward with sectoral or economic demands. But the new movements that developed in the sixties and seventies already had their own general way of considering problems and interpreting the world. In our view, then, they had a right to be seen as political in the full sense of the word.
Nevertheless, unlike some of the spontaneist tendencies, you did have regular congresses at which leading members presented theses that were then freely discussed and voted upon.
That is quite true, and it was not only leading members who submitted these. As to the spontaneist movements — and Lotta Continua in particular was very strong at one time — they believed that their function was to express the immediate needs arising from struggles and that they did not need to have a synthesis, a programme or a project. We firmly criticized this approach and insisted that the immediate demands of various movements and struggles had to be synthesized in some kind of general programme. This was never understood in the New Left, and when we put forward the theses of Il Manifesto in 1970 they all regarded us with a good deal of suspicion. We seemed to them to be part of the old communist culture because we wanted to draw things together and develop a rational analysis. In fact, there was more discussion of our theses within the official structures of the Communist Party than among the New Left.
But Livio Maitan, for example, wrote a pamphlet replying to your theses.
Yes, but the Trotskyists were as old as us and from the same culture. Besides, they are very small and have little influence in Italy. The most typical and interesting movement of the New Left was Lotta Continua, which largely originated in the populist radicalization of people coming from Catholic organizations.
When you look back at that period do you have a sense of missed opportunities? Could things have happened differently if Il Manifesto or other left groups had developed a superior politics?
Or were there essentially objective reasons why such a powerful movement arose and then declined again?
I think that we did miss great opportunities, as a result of our own mistakes and those of the Communist Party. The famous channel of communication that we wanted to open was never really established. On the one hand, the Communist Party refused to take up and discuss the new experiences of the movement; and on the other hand the operaio massa or assembly-line worker — whom we thought of as the key protagonist in the new era — never abandoned its historical organizations. Even in places like FIAT where a significant shift did take place, this only affected a minority of the workforce. The basic cadres used the pressure of the New Left to open a dialectic within the unions, and this led to the creation of the workers’ councils. But although there was considerable interaction on the fringe of the two sectors of the left, they never overcame their separation. The Communist Party leadership paid some attention to new developments, but it remained essentially closed and incapable of seizing the opportunity to renew its strategic thinking. For our part, we tended in practice to oversimplify our policy orientations, to fall into extremist errors, and to underestimate the question of alliances. In our critique of delegate democracy we did not attach due weight to problems of consensus and intermediate objectives. At the same time, I think we had the merit of being the first in Italy to discuss openly the dimensions and qualitative novelty of the growing crisis of the system, and to fight within this context for a critical re-evaluation of the entire ideological basis of reformist perspectives.
Nonetheless, in the early and mid seventies the Italian social movements did have a number of big successes or at least inflicted serious defeats on the ruling class and the Christian Democrat government. The referendum on the legalization of divorce, which the Communist Party was eventually pulled into supporting, won a surprising popular majority that represented a major setback for the clericalist Christian Democrat Party.
Secondly there were powerful class mobilizations to secure the indexation of wages to retail prices — the famous scala mobile which in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, for example, is regarded as a transitional demand, as an intermediate objective for the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. This undoubtedly unbalanced the ruling class in Italy.
Finally, a great deal of pressure was placed on the state to democratize access to the media: Il Manifesto itself was distributed by law at every newsvendor’s, and radios were later established by shop stewards’ movements and so forth. All these things seem quite extraordinary in comparison with other West European countries.
It is true that the period after 1968 was very different in Italy and, say, France. Whereas the extremely strong French movement ran out of steam soon after the reverse of the June ’68 elections, there was a tremendous impact at mass level in Italy: in the minds of ordinary men and women, shop stewards, rank-and-file workers, technicians, intellectuals, professional workers, and also of the middle classes. Their culture changed in a quite dramatic way, and the trade unions were forced to respond to this. If the unions proved far more open than the Communist Party, it was largely because the newly established workers’ councils achieved a high degree of working-class autonomy while never cutting their links with the unions. The CGIL operated in a very astute manner, trying to incorporate the workers’ councils instead of simply opposing them. Yet it was a dialectical process, and these very attempts helped the councils to spread from their initial strongholds at FIAT or Pirelli to the rest of the country. At the wages level, the achievement was not so much indexation to retail prices — which had already existed since the 1950s — as a levelling of index-linked rises for high and low earners. This reduced differentials enormously and, in conjunction with attacks on narrow skill definitions, set up an egalitarian dynamic at the workplace. Workers acquired real political power inside the factories: the right to have open political assemblies at which everything from shopfloor conditions to the Vietnam War could be discussed. The bosses were really threatened.
Even workers who were laid off had the right to a very large proportion of their old wage.
Yes. These were the years of the statuto dei lavoratori, which gave enormous rights to workers. You had to kill the boss before you could be fired. This naturally cushioned workers against unemployment, which became a phenomenon affecting above all young people.
Did this not tend to open a divide between workers with legal job security and those who were not covered by the new legislation? The latter would seem to have been the main base for the autonomisti.
There was certainly a very big difference between workers with and without these legal guarantees. At the same time, the trade union movement was greatly strengthened by the close collaboration — one could almost say unity — of the three federations at this time: the CISL, CGILand UIL. The Catholic unions moved so far and so fast that sections of them were sometimes to the left of the Communist and Socialist unions.
You have mentioned these obviously crucial developments in the workers’ movement. But is it not true that the really major political defeat for the established order was the outcome of the divorce referendum?
One can see this as both a positive and a negative thing. The powerful social movements I have been talking about retained their momentum until 1973–74, but then the economic crisis ensued in 1975–76. (As a matter of fact, we were the first on the Italian Left to realize the nature of the crisis, and it was over this question that we had our first serious dispute with the leaders of the original PDUP, who saw it all as an invention of the bosses to drive back the workers’ movement.) Anyway the trade unions suddenly found themselves facing new problems of economic policy and development, and the struggle for higher wages and shopfloor control began to fade in importance. As the unions grew increasingly paralysed, all the radical pressure shifted from the anti-capitalist perspectives of the previous movements to the new ground of divorce, abortion and civil liberties represented by essentially democratic movements. Their struggles proved to be highly effective, but they no longer had that cutting edge which had been eroding capitalist power at a much more fundamental level.
On the other hand, when Christian Democracy, the established bourgeois party, was defeated on the divorce referendum, it lost its majority on a very important issue.
It paid very heavily in electoral terms and entered into its long period of crisis. But it should be remembered that the beneficiary was the Communist Party, not the PDUP or any other new left group, nor even the Radicals. We too made a certain advance in 1975 and 1976, but we still received only 2 per cent in the 1976 parliamentary elections. Even in Milan, where we had a joint slate with Avanguardia Operaia, we only won 3 per cent — less than the PDUP total in the 1975 regional elections. Our position in the movements and struggles of society was never accurately reflected in electoral terms. People would say: we would like to support you, but we are going to vote for the PCI.
The initiative on democratic issues, especially the divorce referendum but also the prison system or the media, often seems to have come not from the Socialist or Communist Party, nor even from the PDUP, but from the middle-class Radicals. Is this because you did not consider these issues to be very important?
No, that’s not correct. Take the feminist movement, for example, in which the first groups actually developed within I1 Manifesto. We also played a significant role on the question of divorce, which we regarded not just as an isolated bourgeois right but as something to be related to a new way of thinking about the family. In this respect, too, we were quite distinct from Lotta Continua or Avanguardia Operaia, who considered our concern with feminist or ecological issues to be bourgeois; and even in our own party we had an open quarrel with Foa about divorce. But our starting point was not simply that Italy should bring itself into line with Britain or the United States, but that the whole issue should be taken up in its much broader cultural dimensions.
After divorce legislation was passed in Parliament, with the Left and the secular bourgeois parties voting against Christian Democracy, the right took the initiative of calling a referendum. The Communist Party wanted to downplay the issue, fearing that a popular majority could not be won and that it would suffer a serious defeat, but this only proved how out of touch it was with real trends in society. As to abortion, the question was even more complicated. There was a parliamentary debate in 1975 and the Christian Democrats split when a vote was taken the next year. A general election was then held, and the new Parliament passed a very advanced piece of legislation. When the right then demanded a referendum, the Radicals also opposed the act on the grounds that it was not sufficiently progressive. We ourselves had some detailed criticisms of the legislation, but it compared quite favourably with that prevailing in many other European countries. The real problem is that there is a serious shortage of hospital beds in Italy.
Would it be right to say that the divorce referendum and the new interpretation of the scala mobile happened independently of and before the historic compromise?
Berlinguer started talking about the historic compromise after the Chilean coup in autumn 1973, but for some time it remained a theoretical discussion about the need to avoid a dangerous left-right confrontation and to achieve a broader consensus for change that would include the Catholic world. That was, of course, a very ambiguous formulation: at one level one could hardly disagree, but for Berlinguer the Catholic world tended to become reduced to the Christian Democratic Party, which is a very different matter.
From what you were saying earlier, Lotta Continua could be seen as in a sense part of the Catholic world.
Yes. Even in the PDUP there were a lot of Catholics: indeed, one of the in-jokes among Christian Democrats was that the PDUP was the second Catholic party in the country.
Are there members of a Marxist party who actually go to confession?
Oh, yes. The same is true of the Communist Party. But the most militant Catholics were in the New Left, and even in the Red Brigades. The first terrorist group came from the Catholic stronghold of Trento. After all, it is understandable that once Catholics started moving left they kept the same kind of fundamentalism and sought to draw the most far-reaching conclusions. If there is evil loose in society, then it has to be fought with all one’s strength, including weapons.
What was the PDUP’s reaction to the strategy of the historic compromise?
We tried not to oversimplify our judgement or to interpret it as just a matter of betrayal. What we criticized was the way in which it was implemented: the point was not to reach an agreement with the Christian Democrats but to deepen the crisis within their party. For the PCI, on the other hand, it was the old question of going furthest in the development of bourgeois democracy — which now meant an agreement with Christian Democracy to democratize and modernize Italian society.
There would presumably be a difference between yourselves and the PCI on the question of the state . . .
Yes: on whether the state can be democratized or whether it has to be transformed; on the concept of continuity against that of a radical break. In reality, however, it was only after 1975 that the discussion of the historic compromise developed in PCI thinking into the concretized or banalized notion of a national unity agreement with the Christian Democrats. 1976–79 was one of the worst periods in Italian history from which all the tragedies have stemmed. At that time ninety-five per cent of political forces were lined up behind the government: the only opposition was from the far left on one side and the far right on the other. Can you imagine what society was like in those conditions?
You yourself were a member of parliament at that time?
Yes. In the Democrazia Proletaria list PDUP had three deputies, Avanguardia Operaia two and Lotta Continua one. It was an incredible parliament in which everything was decided through compromise. We had a Christian Democrat government, with a majority that included Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Social Democrats and Liberals. The Communist Party thought that it would be able to influence government decisions and introduce some changes, but the actual result was complete paralysis at official level. The social forces represented by these parties were so much in contradiction with one another that the government lacked any resolve. The bills passed by 95 per cent of parliament were so noxious not because they were reactionary but because they decided nothing. Underneath, the right-wing state machine followed its course quite freely. Thus a parliamentary committee, in which the PCI was represented, was set up to exercise control over the secret services, the army, and so forth. But then, with the help of P-2, the secret services simply organized underground and established links with people who were afraid of the growing role of the Communist Party.
The story took a new turn in 1977 when the tiny terrorist groups expanded into something much larger. The first reaction of the PCI was to say that it was the work of the CIA and the secret services — an attempt to undermine national unity and to keep the Communists out of government. Of course there may well have been some police infiltration, as there always is in such cases, but it is necessary to go back to the original discussions of terrorism at the beginning of the 1970s. The key group then was Potere Operaio, which though very small was probably the most sophisticated politically. Unlike the Marxist-Leninist terrorists, who thought in terms of a strong group taking over the state and then establishing a new society, the Potere Operaio spontaneists believed that capitalism had exhausted all its possibilities and that communism had already matured within existing society. All that was necessary was to lop off the state-capitalist head and communism would be ensured.
In point of fact, it was a small, isolated Marxist-Leninist group with a Catholic background which initiated terrorist activity in the early 1970s: it got together with some old partisans and set itself up as the Gruppidi Azione Partigiana, the name of a wartime resistance organization. In the same years, Potere Operaio started a major debate at a theoretical level which reverberated in many groups. In the event, the New Left chose a completely different strategy, involving mass action, trade union work and participation in elections, and the terrorist perspective was roundly defeated. But when the Communists turned towards National Unity in 1975 and 1976 and the trade unions found themselves paralysed in the face of the growing capitalist crisis, there was a tremendous disillusionment on the left. It was the old story which repeats itself in every country whenever the political parties linked to the trade unions are in government. For many urban youth left out in the cold — the ‘urban Indians’, as they were sometimes called — Christian Democrats and Communists, trade unions and employers’ associations, bosses and workers with job security all formed part of a single enemy. The terrifying new wave of violence, which really picked up speed in 1977, was quite unlike the creative movement of 1968 and had none of its broader appeal.
Perhaps there was a common emphasis on subjectivity and personal expression, which in a situation of great frustration can lead to religious fanaticism or terrorism.
Well, there was a creative aspect or even wing of the 1977 movement — the people who have been described as ‘creative Indians’. But it was the new terrorists who held centre-stage: they started by throwing stones at Lama, the trade union leader, in a famous incident at Rome University. Although the majority of armed attacks were directed at judges and members of the state apparatus, it was the PCI and the unions who were regarded as the main political enemy, precisely because they were felt to be closer.
The terrorist movement culminated in the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, who was a symbolic figure of the historic compromise. Would it be right to say that this was destroyed by the Moro affair?
In a way, yes. In the new civil war atmosphere hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands put in jail. A series of emergency laws, which could plainly be termed fascist, were passed with the approval of the Communist Party, and with only ourselves and the Radicals voting against.
But however strong the terrorists were, we are still only talking of a few thousand people with very primitive weapons, whereas the Italian state is a very powerful body. It seems remarkable that you were unable to make any Communist or Christian Democrat unhappy with what you call fascist laws.
What kind of opposition did you put up in Parliament?
The opposition was very strong, and many deputies in the majority were uneasy about these laws. They told us so, but they still voted for them.
It was the same with the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain, which nearly all Labour MPs voted for in the end.
There were demonstrations and other protest actions, but you should not underestimate the extent of terrorism at that time. There were tens of thousands of active participants and an even broader circle of sympathizers who would not denounce them to the police. There was a good film which gives some idea of the dilemmas involved. It is about a university lecturer from the ’68 generation who, though not a terrorist himself, has a number of friends who are. One day his thirteen-year-old son finds out that a terrorist who has just been killed was a friend of his father’s and he goes straight to the police to report the fact. The father is then taken in and interrogated for hours on end. When he is eventually released, he says to his child: ‘For God’s sake why did you tell them?’ And the son replies: ‘Didn’t you tell me that terrorism is such a negative thing?’ We were all saying that! ‘Of course I said it,’ the father continues. ‘But what does that have to do with going to the police?’ ‘Well,’ the son comes back, ‘if you want to defeat them, why not go to the police?’ And the father can only retort: ‘Because I would never go to the police.’ He is unable to give an answer. The film ends when the wife of the terrorist comes and asks the father for money. He gives and thus becomes involved himself. I know that there are many real-life stories along similar lines.
During this period there was an eruption of indiscriminate terrorism from the right — for example, the explosion at Bologna railway station — which was against ordinary citizens, not against people in authority. What was the logic of that?
Destabilization, and a large, proven element of police or secret-service provocation designed to bring about a strengthening of the state machine.
Would it be right to say that the position on terrorism played a major role in the split between yourselves and the other PDUP forces?
Yes. We were against the special laws, but we were also against any agreement with the terrorists for the release of Moro. If such a compromise had been made, it would have been a way of legalizing terrorism and laid the ground for the declaration of a state of emergency. We did not identify ourselves with the state, but in a sense we did defend it at that moment. Democracy, though imperfect and incomplete, seemed to us preferable and worth keeping, when the alternative would have been something much worse. The other position, prevalent among those in the New Left who had rejected terrorism, was that they should remain neutral between the Red Brigades and the state. This difference also implied distinct judgements of the ’77 movement as a whole.
Do you think that anything positive came out of the movement?
Not really. Part of it went into drugs, which started to become a mass phenomenon. And there was a powerful wave of disillusion, fed in part by the influence of the nouveaux philosophes. In a sense it was the best elements who went into armed struggle, basing themselves on an analysis that fascism had already triumphed. In our view that was clearly not the case — and perhaps I exaggerated a moment ago when I referred to the special laws as fascist. Nor were the Communists the same as the Christian Democrats, however wrong their policy may have been. That was another issue in the split with the comrades who continue to publish I1 Manifesto.
Have the various positions evolved since the split?
Yes. Things have changed a great deal. Il Manifesto is now just a newspaper: it does not believe that the New Left should express itself through political parties.
The long period outside the Communist Party must have changed all of you in the PDUP. Did you establish new relationships with the mass movements? Did your actual membership change significantly?
Those fifteen years have helped to reshape both us and the Communist Party. It would be hard to say that a piece of the Communist Party has simply gone back to the organization it left. The two forces which have come together in the recent fusion are quite different from the two that split apart in 1969. For our part, I would say that we have come to realize the processes of division and sectoral differentiation which tend to operate within the social movements in a period of capitalist crisis. We now have a much less simplistic view of things, and we appreciate more fully than before the need for a mass political party to confront the crisis at a global level. As to the Communist Party, it has become aware of the value of the needs, cultures and analyses which have emerged from the mass movements, so that the channel which we did not succeed in opening in the early 1970s is now there, although in much more difficult conditions. If it had been open at the beginning of the seventies, when the movement was strong and on the rise, the recent history of Italy might have been very different.
Do you feel that the situation inside the PCI is such that you will be able to develop the ideas you have been advocating outside? If you have differences over a major issue like NATO, will you be able to raise your ideas freely and present them to the mass of party militants?
We are no longer in a situation in which there are our ideas and experiences on the one hand, and those of long-standing party member son the other. There are now a large number of people in the PCI with whom we have a great deal in common. In fact, this has been true for at least the last four years. We have been working together, and our positions are very much those which are discussed within the PCI. We certainly did not feel like an alien body when we went back in.
Since the split with Il Manifesto, you have only had a membership bulletin, Compagne e Compagni, which will presumably not be maintained. But what possibilities do you have for publishing in the PCI press?
There is no problem in publishing in Rinascita and debating whatever we want. For example, when the PCI Central Committee debated the convergence with PDUP, and some members argued against it on the grounds that we were opposed to NATO, the discussion was printed in the party press. Something like that could not have happened fifteen years ago. The real problem we face is rather different: namely, how to achieve a synthesis in what is after all a rather eclectic body — a party in which there are a number of fragments from different cultural traditions with relatively distinct identities. So we have a fragment of the feminist movement as such, a fragment of the ecological movement as such, and neither they nor the great bulk of the Communist Party have changed much as a result of their recruitment.
That must be particularly true of the leading apparatus. But at the same time that the Communist Party has changed its internal regime, becoming less bureaucratic-centralist if perhaps not less bureaucratic, it seems to have made a left turn since the break-up of National Unity, especially in the last two years or so.
It did campaign against the revision of the scala mobile, for example; whereas if it had still been supporting National Unity, the PDUP would not have felt able to join.
No. Since 1980, when the PCI Central Committee met in Salerno after the earthquake and announced the ‘second Salerno turn’, it has completely changed its policy to one of consistent opposition to the Christian Democrats. This does not mean, however, that the whole culture and practice of the Party has been transformed.
Did Berlinguer himself, whose death was a major political event in Italy, draw far-reaching conclusions from the failure of the historic compromise?
There is no evidence that he did, and anyway the whole question was never really discussed in an open manner. If you are asking whether we went back because of changes in PCI policy, I would say no more than that these made our decision easier. A more general consideration was that, although the PCI had made several big mistakes and taken several wrong turns over the previous fifteen years, it had avoided the two greatest pitfalls. It had not isolated itself completely by trying to construct a PCF type of ultra-sectarian identity; nor had its line involved a basic social-democratization of the party, with entry into government at the end of the road. The PCI leadership could see the huge turmoil within European social democracy, and it realized that its crisis-ridden culture did not offer a way out. This created a basis, but only a basis, for the party to evolve in a healthier direction.
One factor implicit in what you have been saying — which must weigh heavily for any political party with some experience of representation in Parliament and of presenting a general strategy for the working class — is that there seemed to be a limit of three per cent or so to your electoral strength.
This meant that you had to have some strategy for a united front or even closer collaboration with the Communist Party. But on its side the PCI leadership has been willing to make a number of compromises and to run certain risks by letting you back into the Party. I believe that some PCI leaders even attended your last conference.
Yes. Berlinguer came himself. That was a very significant development, because it involved a recognition of what we had been saying as a legitimate point of view. I should add that another thing which made our decision easier was the fact that since 1982 the PCI had actively supported the peace movement and the opposition to cruise missiles and US nuclear bases. Its official pro-NATO position has never changed, but it has weakened considerably since the US-NATO arms drive and the sea change in the international situation.
Clearly you do not see re-entry into the PCI as in any sense a liquidation of your experience since 1969. But don’t you finally come back to the question of formal rights? The way in which decisions are made may have been modified, but it has not been fundamentally transformed in the period since the exclusion of Il Manifesto.
The power structure is still essentially the same, and you cannot rule out that at some time in the future, perhaps with a new secretary-general, the PCI will revert to something like the National Unity strategy. Even if you take its present attitude to nato — which you don’t agree with — the formal right to articulate opposition is surely very important.
It is quite true that there are still many problems to be resolved in terms of rights, internal democracy and debate, and so forth. But we felt that many of the things we stood for had been acquired in the Communist Party: the real issue today was how it could overcome the contradiction between its enormous strength in society and its lack of effective power, how it could put together the different and very eclectic fragments of social experience that exist within and around it. It would have been much easier for us to remain outside, without having to face the problems and responsibilities of a mass party, but we would have been bound to become just a group of intellectuals, possibly effective in introducing new themes but nevertheless deserters from the key political (and theoretical) arena of party activity. Our greater freedom would have been a kind of personal solution.
Could you say something about how the process of unification was prepared in the PDUP?
The congress which took the final decision was preceded by three months of discussion that was open to others on the New Left. It was a very interesting experience, because it proved how much common ground there was in the PCI, the PDUP and a large part of the unorganized New Left.
Did Communist Party members also take part in discussion meetings?
Yes. They were very intensively involved at a purely informal level, including former members of I1 Manifesto and the PDUP who had joined the PCI over the previous fifteen years and often won key positions. Our meetings were rather like feminist consciousness-raising sessions, in the sense that everyone talked about their personal experiences and brought the whole discussion alive. One working-class PCI member, from the small town of Massa Cararra, expressed a typical view when he said: ‘I never thought of you as the enemy when you were kicked out. I thought of you as a kind of expeditionary force. Now you have come back and you will bring what you found outside.’ Clearly this reflected an awareness on his part that the Communist Party had been too closed in the past.
How many such meetings were there? What was their structure and composition?
I think there were about ninety meetings in all, and their size varied from a hundred to five hundred according to where they were held. There would be three or four hours of discussion during which many people spoke. In part their success was due to our tradition of holding very frequent public meetings at which there would be speakers from PDUP, the PCI, Democrazia Proletaria, the Socialist Party and even the Christian Democrats. It should also be remembered that in the 1983 and 1984 elections we had stood on a common list with PCI candidates, with quite impressive results. So there was a great deal of interest in the press and elsewhere about the prospect of the PDUP merging with the PCI.
Does this also demonstrate a powerful desire for unity in the working class and the other oppressed social layers?
Yes. Many people who felt psychologically unable to vote for us as independent candidates were overjoyed when we put ourselves forward on a joint list.
Perhaps a process of unification of working-class and progressive forces would have set up a strong popular dynamic in the mid-seventies.
The times were not ripe then, although a different policy would certainly have helped. There is also the very big problem of the Socialist Party — a whole discussion remains to be had about whether it can still be considered a party of the left.
How many people from the PDUP are on the PCI Central Committee?
Five, including Lucio Magri, who is also on the Party Directorate. This was decided quite independently of parliamentary representation — in fact we have six deputies and a senator — and a similar process has taken place at local level. Members of the PDUP have the same rights as other members of the PCI.
Although one may presume that if they had a different experience in the PDUP, they may want to have more rights.
That remains to be seen. It is a very strange experience for PDUP members: not many of them — and only Lucio and myself on the CC — have ever been in the Communist Party before. There is a certain anxiety that the PCI is a big structure, with a large bureaucracy that takes days and days to reach a decision. In the PDUP one could decide anything quite easily, because the consequences were not so great, but now there are major responsibilities involved in every new step. PDUP members may often feel oppressed by this, but at the same time they have a positive feeling that they are now operating in the marrow of a big movement.
Could we finally turn to your relationship with the German Greens, with whom you worked in an independent group in the European Parliament. Now, of course, you will be working within the Communist group, although you did attend the Greens’ conference as a representative of the PCI.
What was your impression of the Greens, who in a way are much more of a post-’68 phenomenon than the PDUP ever was? What is the PCI evaluation of their significance?
The PCI knows little about the Greens and the Greens know very little about the PCI. I believe that they are a new expression of the left, representing a similar Communist-New Left experience of cross-fertilization to the one we have had in Italy. The ground is there for a very deep relation, and I have been asked by PCI leaders to invite the Greens to meetings in Italy organized by the PCI. For their part they are very happy to come
In many respects the PDUP has become identified with Green politics while remaining communist and anti-capitalist. From your experience of the Greens’ conference, do class issues have any meaning for them?
They are a clearly anti-capitalist movement, even if they are not always subjectively aware of this. It would be a grave mistake to think that they represent a revival of German nationalism and that this is the explanation for their peace activity. On the contrary, an internationalist class stand is very central to their thinking: the conference I attended took speeches from the national liberation movements, from Nicaragua, El Salvador and so on; there was a long discussion of the British miners’ strike; and although for some reason a delegation was unable to come from theNUM, it sent a message which was applauded at length. The Greens had also vigorously supported the strike for a thirty-five hour week in West Germany, and there was nothing in their theses which could not have been discussed in the PDUP or the Italian Communist Party.
Many of their positions are in fact more radical than those of the Communist Party.
The Green Party is divided into two wings, between which a very serious debate is in progress. One is somewhat reminiscent of the right of the PCI, while the other has many points of similarity to the old sectarian German Communists. For example, the question still comes up in debate: do you want to make an agreement with the people who murdered Rosa Luxemburg? As if that happened yesterday!
The Greens’ debate on an alliance with the Social Democrats sounds a little like yours on the question of rejoining the Communist Party.
Nobody thinks that the Greens should actually join the SPD, but the point is that they are now central to the formation of any government of the left. If they do not agree to participate in government, they will allow the Christian Democrats to stay in power and face accusations that they are worse than useless. But if they do take that fateful step, they will be completely submerged by the Social Democrats, who are much more powerful and know machine politics inside out. It is a real dilemma for the Greens.
The classical solution would be to establish very clear bases for supporting a minority SPD government, but without actually joining it.
That is what happened in Hessen, and the right of the SPD seems quite prepared to accept it. But leaders of the SPD left — like Oskar Lafontaine in Saarbrücken, where there will be elections in March — turn round and say: Sorry, my friends, I’m not going to get my hands dirty in government while you stand aside and keep yourselves clean. Either we form a government together or we both stay in opposition. And one cannot deny that that is a quite understandable position.
The question is whether it is possible in a bourgeois democracy to have a radical anti-capitalist, pro-peace government which aims at a fundamental transformation of social relations.
We have already touched on this a few times, but may I ask you directly what is the PDUP’s strategic conception of the transition to socialism in Italy?
I would have to be honest and say that we have no definite answers. In our theses we tried to raise the idea of a stage in which a compromise could be reached with other forces to implement something short of one’s own program. But you can only do that if you hold firmly to your basic strategy and keep your own identity very clear. The problem with previous compromises is that they were identified with the strategic goal. Any attempt to work out the conditions for compromise in Italy must take great care to avoid that confusion.