Italy’s Past Glories
As Italy’s election approaches this weekend, the decline of its communist tradition still haunts the country’s left.
- Interview by
- David Broder
In the postwar decades, Italy’s PCI was Western Europe’s largest communist party. Its distinctive democratic brand of Marxism, the luster of its anti-fascist heritage, and the militancy of its labor movement all made the PCI something of a beacon for those in other Western countries seeking to build mass radical politics.
With the collapse of the USSR, in 1991 the party turned into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). Racing to assume a new liberal identity, it would in subsequent years abandon its former culture and its working-class base. Yet resisting this turn, around 100,000 of its militants joined with other radical-left currents to form Rifondazione Comunista, a new party which aimed to “refound” Italian communism.
Over the next decade Rifondazione was widely seen as a new hope for the European left. It repeatedly scored millions of votes in national elections and also had a close relationship with the social movements of the new millennium. Yet by the late 2000s it had crumbled, bringing down much of the remaining Italian left with it.
In the run-up to Sunday’s Italian election, the stories of the PCI and Rifondazione remain highly relevant. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Fulvio Lorefice, researcher in contemporary history at Bologna University, on the fate of the PCI’s former cadres and the disappearance of communist politics from Italian public life.
The PCI had many different sensibilities. Long-time leader Palmiro Togliatti referred to it as a “giraffe,” an unusual beast that had both democratic traditions and roots in the Leninist Comintern. Indeed, during Enrico Berlinguer’s reforming leadership in the 1970s and early ‘80s the PCI remained attached to this past, even as it sought to emphasize its autonomy from Moscow. But given that the PCI died together with the USSR in 1991, what legacy did Italian communism actually leave behind?
Walter Benjamin famously prophesied that “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” Italian communism itself fell victim to such a fate. Even if its legacy continues to inform some political cultures of the Italian left, for the most part it is clearly dominated by an “enemy” stamp. This is clearly evident in its so-called “migliorista” [pragmatic-reformist] tradition, the most social-democratic element of the PCI in its final decades and inspiration for its post-1991 turn.
Leader of the party from the mid-1920s until his death in 1964, Palmiro Togliatti was a realist. But his realism was always directed toward the objective of constructing favorable power relations in society as a whole, as part of a political project of emancipation and social progress. After 1989, the “migliorismo” of former communists instead consisted of simply mirroring the existing reality. This was political pragmatism as an end in itself, lacking either a point of reference in society or any strategic horizon.
Since then, the former communists in charge of the PDS and then PD [the PCI’s largest successor parties, over time joining with fragments of Christian-Democracy] have followed as the political center of gravity has moved to the right. They have emptied out the meaning of Togliatti’s vocabulary, using it in purely ornamental fashion in order to legitimize their own drift away from the PCI’s political substance. One of the main legacies of Italian communism in terms of political culture has been what I call “peggiorismo” — the widespread sense that everything is getting worse, which is how we ought to characterize the vision of the old right wing of the PCI since 1989.
The conflict over material life has been sidelined, as if political paradigms linked to civil rights, to “cognitive participation” and values issues had an autonomous life of their own. Not by chance, the dominant political discourse of the Italian left has tamed any possibility of change. It has essentially abandoned the dimension of conflict.
In recent decades the Italian left has lost sight of something that was very much present in Togliatti’s thinking, namely, the essential need for pressure from below by the subaltern classes, with a view to the conquest and establishment of new spaces of democracy and social advance. Without the dimension of conflict, everything is reduced to simply administering what already exists.
Italian communism has little other continuing existence: a few prestigious figures have been culturally mummified, while others have been demonized and accused of all manner of wickedness. But we need only read a few journals that are not directly political in scope — like Riforma Agraria or literary and cultural magazines such as Il Contemporaneo or Cinemasessanta — to get an idea of how rich this inheritance was.
When Silvio Berlusconi announced that he was “entering the fray” of electoral politics in 1994, he said his aim was to resist the “communists,” even though the PCI had dissolved in 1991. He accused the new Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) of perpetuating the communist influence in the state administration, the media, the courts and so on, under a new name. Was the PDS in fact the continuation of the PCI, or of a section of it? How far did it maintain the old PCI’s voter base and links with social and trade union movements?
The PDS that was born at the Rimini Congress in 1991, forerunner of today’s Democratic Party (PD), immediately showed how fragile it really was. At this founding congress, the final PCI leader Achille Occhetto did not garner sufficient support to be elected the new party’s secretary. The transition from PCI to PDS was a time of political sloppiness and hastily concocted ideas, and this prompted a certain wariness among many leaders, cadres, and militants, even if they did agree that it was necessary to turn the page.
Once the new PDS’s ideal tension had evaporated, its leadership group, linked by a shared experience, found that their new lifeblood was the quest to enter government. Their belief in their own superiority, which had been forged by historical events, was now accompanied by their anxious concern to prove to the existing establishment that they were politically “responsible.”
At least at first, the PDS thus represented a factor that accelerated the general rightward shift in the political center of gravity. The international context following the collapse of the USSR certainly bore real impact. But the Left never reflects enough on the very serious subjective responsibilities this first PDS leadership group had in introducing a new majoritarian electoral system in Italy, aimed at the consolidation of a US-style two-party order.
This was a real disaster, whose consequences left-wing forces in Italy are still playing out today. The attack on the proportional system, which alone could guarantee the equality of all votes and the centrality of Parliament — key to keeping political power socialized and not centralized by the executive — was, not by chance, combined with an unprecedented offensive against social democracy.
The path of moderating wage demands, which the then PCI-linked CGIL union had begun already in 1978, was essentially codified in July 1993. This is not the place to analyze the premises and results of so-called “social partnership.” But without doubt, we cannot understand the involution of the Italian political landscape and the weakening of the Left without considering this aspect.
The political and trade union architects of the dissolution of the PCI and the creation of the PDS sacrificed labor’s leading role on the altar of what economic jargon calls the “external bind”; that is, the need to anchor Italy within the limits of the European Monetary Union, and later the eurozone, even at the cost of reducing its productive apparatus to an mere appendage of Germany’s, while also reducing the sphere of social protections. The capital of intelligence, capacity, and rootedness that had passed over to the PDS was further dissipated as it headed along this path.
Around a third of the PCI membership rejected the party’s dissolution into the PDS, and most of this minority attempted to “refound” the party as Rifondazione Comunista. Given that it featured not only former PCI figures, from a “pro-Soviet” like Armando Cossutta to those associated with il manifesto, but even currents from the extra-parliamentary left and Trotskyism, what actually defined Rifondazione politically?
At least initially, it had to be taken for given that Rifondazione had no shared program, and little cultural cohesion. But if in a first period references from the PCI — which were still the prevalent ones — coexisted with others coming from the so-called “New Left,” over the 1990s it was the culture of the alter-globalization movement that made headway within Rifondazione, and by the turn of the millennium became essentially hegemonic.
Here we get to the heart of the problem. Many from Aldo Tortorella onward have argued that the crisis that Rifondazione ultimately ran into — losing all of its MPs in 2008, and in recent years also losing its newspaper and most of its membership — was already sealed in advance, for it was written into its fragile and heterogeneous strategic and ideological bases.
In this sense, however, it is also worth reflecting on the political and cultural (non-)homogeneity of the PCI’s own first leadership group. In fact there had been deep divisions between Amadeo Bordiga’s “abstentionists,” opposed to taking part in elections, the “maximalists” who rejected intermediate demands, and the Turin group around l’Ordine Nuovo, including Antonio Gramsci. We need only think of the criticisms that other Marxists levelled at Gramsci after an October 1914 article in which he appeared to take an ambiguous attitude toward support for Italian participation in World War I. Notwithstanding the glue provided by the Russian Revolution, and the Communist International’s own methodical work, the PCI leadership entered into crisis not even two years after its foundation.
Togliatti himself recounted this history. The party formed around a well-defined program, the International’s “twenty-one conditions” of membership; a unique contingency, the offspring of the October Revolution. We could hardly find a comparison in the case of Rifondazione: it was not born of a well-defined program, and it was above all the offspring of what we could call the regressive thrust that followed from 1989. This was a likewise historical contingency, which forced the communists of the time to sort out a makeshift organization; a lifeboat to survive, amidst the liquidationist storm that had struck. This organization was also joined by leaders, cadres, and militants of other small left-wing formations of the time who were similarly caught up in the storm.
But also key in distinguishing the two crises was the subjective element: what Gramsci called the “Bolshevization” of the party. 1924 was the beginning of a process that would constitute a new leadership group. What was collectively achieved, as Togliatti wrote, was “real qualitative progress in the capacity both to understand the objective national and international situations, and to find the propaganda, the agitation, and the real political action appropriate to them.”
What Rifondazione Comunista certainly lacked was such a political cohesion, based not on a one-sided reading of recent history but a political program in step with the times. When Fausto Bertinotti was elected as Rifondazione’s secretary in 1994, the heterodox and pluralist structuring of the party, which had initially represented an extraordinary source of strength, instead crystallized as a similarly powerful limit. Indeed, it was probably Rifondazione’s greatest limit. To be clear, my argument is not that different political cultures and sensibilities have to be eliminated if one common political trajectory is to be possible. Rather, it is that it is decisively important that in the medium to long term we are able to conjugate and synthesize them at a more advanced level. We do not get such an impression, in Rifondazione’s case. From the time Bertinotti became secretary, it proceeded by way of “splitting the difference” and a constant negotiation between the exponents of political cultures that had different starting points and would remain just as separate in the long term. So even more than twenty years letter, we would be hard-pressed to say that there exists a somehow organic corpus of Rifondazione’s own political thought. Simplifying things rather, we might say that what was missing was the subjective element of a collective intellect, the “political maturity” that Gramsci wrote about.
What happened instead was a search for new reference points to replace the PCI’s ideas, to be drawn from indigenous politics, pacifism, post-operaismo, psychoanalysis, libertarianism, utopian socialism, and so on. The result was a mere worship of difference for its own sake, further aggravating Rifondazione’s theoretical fragility. Along this road to a magical syncretism, fundamental notions of strategy, tactics, class, and organization were completely forgotten. The mediation of experience, the fulcrum of Marxist thought, was effectively sidelined. Rifondazione essentially never expressed a political line on trade union matters: this was less a “rarity” among communist parties than an idiosyncrasy.
Its critical reflection on the PCI’s history, and likewise its own international reference points, were thus contradictory. Across a long period, the party was only held together by its leader Bertinotti, the architect of an unprecedented personalization of the organization, and the residual territorial roots of the old PCI and New Left.
One first split in Rifondazione’s ranks came in 1995–6. After the end of Berlusconi’s first term in office, there came a new technocratic government under independent Lamberto Dini, which enforced sharp budget cuts. Rifondazione as a whole refused to support his economic policy, but this prompted the departure of former Il Manifesto editors Luciana Castellina and Lucio Magri, who voted for Dini on the basis that the priority was to block Berlusconi’s return. While another Rifondazione MP like Nichi Vendola stayed in the party, he also voted for Dini, explaining that “the defeat of the budget would have opened up an irreparable abyss in our country’s democratic history.” In what sense did this kind of anti-Berlusconism, or Rifondazione’s concern to defend republican institutions from him, influence its trajectory?
Faced with the Dini government there was, indeed, a sharp internal conflict in Rifondazione, and this did produce some divisions. However, in that period the party also represented a fundamental bulwark in defense of workers’ and pensioners’ rights. The wider context was turning for the worse.
Il manifesto expressed its own support for the Dini government with its famous headline “Kissing the Toad.” This contained, in a nutshell, the whole strategy that the liberal left and social Catholicism would follow over the next two decades. They sought to form a modern “National Liberal Committee” [like the body uniting the different currents of the anti-Nazi Resistance in World War II] with which to drive out Berlusconi and the Right.
While it is true that, after a series of twists, Bertinotti himself arrived at such a formula in 2006, [joining the government led by former Christian-Democrat Romano Prodi], it is worth again emphasizing how this was negatively conditioned by the electoral system, handing an absolute majority of seats to whichever coalition was largest, and, combined with this, the mystique of “governability” — i.e., the institutional policy directed at eliminating any social structure that was incompatible with the untrammeled free market.
The influence that this culture and its assumptions came to have within the historic left-wing electorate, promoted by the PDS with its endless rhetoric about its “responsibility to the nation,” time and again backed Rifondazione into a political corner. At every opportunity it was accused of “maximalism” and “irresponsibility.”
In the early 2000s many on the European left saw Rifondazione as a model. This was particularly notable in the period of the Social Forums, the protests against the G8 in Genoa in 2001, and the mobilization against the war in Iraq, which was bigger in Italy than in any other country. In this period Rifondazione seemed able to combine effective parliamentary activity with a certain openness to social movements — much more so than parties like Die Linke in Germany or the French Communist Party. Can you explain why the party turned in this direction, and what results that had for Rifondazione and indeed the movements themselves? What kind of political leadership did it offer?
The final years of the twentieth century saw Rifondazione debate its relationship with both the parliamentary center-left and the social movements. In Bertinotti’s understanding, advancing Rifondazione’s relationship with the movements would help change the national political landscape, and the party thus keenly devoted itself to the anti-globalization movements.
In theoretical terms, its leadership group was very much marked by the indications in Negri and Hardt’s Empire, while the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the PCI in 2001 also served as a moment in which to accept the criticisms of the Stalinism in Rifondazione’s DNA. As has also been observed elsewhere, the demand to mount a break with the party’s previous history and to “refound” its identity soon looked rather old hat. Talk of making a “left-wing exit from the crisis of the workers’ movement” remained as vacuous as ever.
It took just a few weeks, between the July 2001 G8 summit in Genoa and the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, for history to destroy the arguments that the nation-state had declined in favor of the supranational power of “Empire.” And it was soon clear enough that the discussion of Stalinism was nothing but a tool for attacking Rifondazione’s internal minority.
In fact, the question of how to relate to these movements produced two attitudes within Rifondazione and the left-wing cultural space in Italy more generally. A minority interpreted the movements as an expression of the social demand that had to be satisfied, whereas the majority proposed a tabula rasa of all the analytical framework that had come from the twentieth century, in the name of a “fresh start.”
In the youth circles of Rifondazione there thus emerged calls to dissolve the organization into the movement. The effects of this development would become apparent in the medium to longer term, as the party lost its authority and its propulsive function. In the last analysis, this served to weaken organization overall.
In 1996–8 Rifondazione gave only external backing to Romano Prodi’s first center-left cabinet, and indeed eventually split with those members who wanted a fuller participation in that government. Yet in 2006 Rifondazione did join Prodi’s administration. How would you evaluate its experience in office? Did it ever offer anything different to the rest of the center-left alliance? And what can we say about its failure to win any seats in the 2008 elections? Did this reflect its decisions in government, or a more general process of decline and demobilization among social movements and the Left?
Giving an articulated judgment on such a contemporary phenomenon is a very complex task. But overall, we can say that the general balance sheet of these experiences was negative, for the entire Left. Such an outcome was not written in advance; rather, I think that its political praxis was weighed down by a lack of understanding of some of the structural phenomena that were taking place in these years in Europe and — in consequence — in Italy.
In the plans of Prodi, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi [prime minister 1993–4, Prodi’s treasury minister, later president] and the leadership of the center-left, the euro would serve the task of driving a reform process able to insert Italy and thus Europe among the main protagonists of world politics and the global economy. In substance, the European treaties (articles 119-20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) proclaimed the absolute sovereignty of the market, and moreover armed it with forms and structures adequate to exercising this sovereignty. Hence the claims of articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty on European Union, alluding to social rights, are reduced to mere words, for their applicability is strictly subordinated to limits on budget deficits.
In direct contradiction to the Italian constitution, the EU treaties in fact place price stability and the fight against inflation above the right to work and the right to a salary. The second concerns the democracy and popular sovereignty that are debased by the prevalent European order. There has not been any adequate understanding of these two points — and we could cite others — on the Left.
In this sense, the Italian debate is still by far the hollowest, most backward, and most confusionist anywhere in Europe. For a large part of the Italian left, the EU is a taboo — what prevails on this, as on so many other questions, is blind faith and magical reasoning. The Italian left tends to criticize neoliberalism in terms of its political-ideological superstructure and not its economic base.
A lack of understanding of these economic transformations and the political combinations that expressed them long made it difficult to draw the necessary tactical conclusions. For instance, in 2007–9, at the very moment that Beppe Grillo was taking his first steps toward founding the Five Star Movement, there was still no proper understanding of the qualitative leap represented by the birth of the Democratic Party and the nature of the interests of which it had become the safeguard.
Not by chance, in that period Rifondazione and the Left as a whole were still thinking in terms of a “National Liberation Committee” to kick out Berlusconi. This inability to face up to the demands of the historical present left the way open to the exquisitely Italian phenomenon which is Grillo and his Five Star Movement, who became the champions of “que se vayan todos!” [“Out with all of them!”]. We could advance similar considerations with regard to the Party of the European Left, which has always lacked a strategy that would be able to bring together activities within individual nation-states on the basis of any general plan. For this reason, we cannot underestimate the reflection that some figures on the left of European social democracy like Oskar Lafontaine and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have offered on the role of the euro and the political position to be adopted. This is a dialectic to which the Italian left ought to attach itself.
According to the surveys around 40 percent of blue-collar workers intend to vote for the Five Star Movement on March 4, along with 30 percent of the young and of the unemployed. Why is the Italian left no longer getting a hearing among these same layers? Is it no longer able to recruit young people?
The rise in support for the Five Star Movement (M5S) among workers and youth found a fertile terrain in the retreat of political and class consciousness, which took place on a mass scale on account of the genetic mutation from PCI to PDS.
Having lost a worldview based on class, and even the awareness that she belongs to a social class at all, over the last three decades the Italian worker has ended up prey to an ideological narrative that intends her to be just one citizen among others.
If, as M5S say, we are each for ourselves, then it is natural enough that the worker will be drawn in by the sirens of social competition, the individualistic ethic, and the so-called meritocracy, and turn her political attentions to a force like the Five Star Movement which promises individual liberation and short-term solutions, rather than whoever proposes a path of struggle to achieve and satisfy a collective interest that today seems too indistinct and impalpable.
The main organizations of the Italian left who have tried to turn around the historical tendency we have mentioned today enjoy little credibility or authority. This itself also owes to their contradictory political positioning with respect to the establishment over these last twenty years, as well as the very modest levels of social conflict in Italy.
Conversely, having maintained its absolute “otherness” from the status quo, the Five Star Movement still enjoys great credit. Attacking the cost and criminality of politics, this movement has succeeded in building a mass base in Italy, and also made a lot of impression among the popular layers, even though it is really the expression of the lower and middle bourgeoisie opposed to the European Union.
As many young people, workers, and unemployed people see things, the economic difficulties and uncertainty over the future that they face, as well as their constantly falling living standards — themes inescapably connected to the economic crisis and the political solutions adopted thus far — almost uniquely originate in the problem of the so-called “caste.”
This political construct has thus represented a political and ideological “answer” to the crisis — a response coming from the ruling classes themselves — and at the same time a tool with which to mold the political order. As with the “System of 1896” in the United States, the result is that the economic oligarchies are entrenched in a much more solid position of control than is the national public sphere.
For its part, the Left has taken an awful long time to free itself from the parties who served as austerity’s best defenders. A certain version of the discussion of the “caste” in fact strengthened a common sense that contains many elements of truth, and the Left is guilty of having underestimated this possibility. The weakness and contradictory nature of the political initiatives that it has taken in this regard, faced with a massive cultural offensive, has produced a further sharp retreat.
Rifondazione is participating in the Potere al Popolo list for the March 4 general election. Launched by the ex-OPG social center in Naples, Potere al Popolo wants to unite social movements with the various small communist parties, but does not define itself as communist. In your view, what possibilities exist today for recomposing communist identity and a communist movement?
The fact that the material conditions of the subaltern are worsening also owes to the limits of the political organizations that seek to represent them. At the same time, the conditions in which such organizations operate are themselves worsening because of their distance from any concrete social dynamic. Ultimately, this is the factor that drives the Left’s tendency toward self-referentialism. Resolving this dilemma is no simple matter. In Spain the situation of the Left had been disastrous for decades, but this was resolved by Podemos, who politicized what was in many aspects a civil-society mobilization. In Italy there were some opportunities that were left untaken, for instance the mobilization for the successful June 2011 referendum against water privatization, and — in very different terms — the powerful “indignati” demonstration in Rome on October 15 that same year. In both cases, there lacked any political subject that could have provided some conscious leadership for these processes, and a political program adequate to the presented moment.
In this landscape, the elections are less able to represent a solution as to indicate how far or close we are from our objective. For Potere al Popolo, the most important thing is to offer a program of mobilization and struggle for tomorrow, giving some continuity to this process. The debate on the unity of the Left, the unity of communists, or both, makes sense within a real movement, not outside of one.
In a society like Italy’s which has been made ever more passive, focusing our attention on those segments of society or political combinations that do express some form of consciousness risks turning out to be a politically inadequate response. The political support for a change in the social reality must be sought among those who are not today participating.
The question of abstentionism is in fact increasingly important to the Italian electoral dynamic: while in the postwar decades turnout often topped 90 percent, this weekend’s election is expected to see historically low levels of participation. To take the 2014 European election, in Italy there was 42.8 percent abstention and 5.3 percent blank and invalid votes. This amounts to 23 million Italian citizens who did not vote, a more than 5 million increase in ten years. And for the reasons I have described, this abstentionism also expresses a particular class connotation. It is, indeed, the popular layers who are gradually slipping toward disengagement and not voting.
In the past, the PCI and even Rifondazione were seen in other countries as model organizations. But now it seems that a certain cultural subalternity has taken over the Italian left, whereby various groups rush to imitate the latest “example” from abroad, considered as a solution to Italy’s own problems. Where might the Italian left find the means to break out of this vicious circle, and in what sense is its own history useful to doing so?
The Italian left’s interest in Syriza and Podemos in recent years has been highly superficial. Attention has focused less on the political and social dynamics from which they emerged, as their leaderships’ external and media-focused expressions. The political lesson that has widely been drawn from both Syriza and Podemos has been the celebration of monocratic authority and, tied to this, the search for the new leader who will save us.
Such a loose reading of two complex phenomena is part of a profound cultural and intellectual involution. Italian left-wing organizations’ ability to show leadership and bear political influence is weaker, and their troubles are more anguished. This psychological condition has multiple repercussions, which can be condensed in the general tendency to conceive of politics as an irrational activity governed by unfathomable logics of its own.
But things do not have to be like this. A politics becomes a matter of science, Togliatti wrote, when it is “the result of in-depth research into the conditions in which human societies, their component groups and individuals move.” That is, when movements’ and organizations’ organized activity is based on a deep knowledge of social reality.
This demands the capacity to precede — to accompany — struggle and mobilization with study, investigation, a knowledge of social structures, and class dynamics. Such a capacity allows us to “understand” and thus “historically explain advances as well as retreats or stoppages, and victories as well as defeats.”
Togliatti spoke of politics as science. Marxism itself contributed to establishing this principle, and it seems that today, as it falls prey to the irrational drives of political primitivism, the Italian left is well in need of this scientific approach.