The inglorious decline of Italian Stalinism

In what to many may seem an amazing transformation, the bulk of the old Italian Communist Party, the biggest Communist Party in the West, has fused with a bourgeois party known as the Margherita, to form the Democratic Party. Here we provide the background to how this came about.

The Italian Democratic Left (DS), formerly the Communist Party, dissolved this year and fused with the bourgeois formation known as the Margherita, to from the Democratic Party. This month "primaries" were held with over 3 million people taking part, to elect the leader of the new party. The DS mayor of Rome, Veltroni got more than 75% of the votes cast. What was once an arch-Stalinist party has become an openly bourgeois party, fusing with leftovers of the old Christian Democracy. To the left of the DS a new left party may be formed from various left splits from the old CP, with a realignment of forces. Here Alessandro Giardiello, a leading member of FalceMartello, the Marxist tendency in the PRC [Party of Communist Refoundation], and member of the National Committee of the PRC analyses this metamorphosis and looks at the prospects for the future.

In few countries has the crisis of capitalism found such a complete political expression as in Italy over the last 15 years. We have seen a proliferation of parties, dissolving and refounding themselves, with splits, unifications and transformations. This has involved the parties of both the labour movement and the bourgeois camp.

This state of agitation and political instability, which is still going on today, has been producing a qualitative change over the last few months with the formation of the so-called Democratic Party, the product of a long political degeneration of the communist leaders and more generally of the Italian left. This situation should be brought to the attention of workers internationally.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which was the strongest communist party in the West (34% of the vote in 1976) decided to dissolve itself, put aside the hammer and sickle and become a party of the Socialist International.

In 1991 this led to the birth of the Left Democrats (DS), while a part broke away on the left to form the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC).

Within a year the economic, political and institutional crisis gripping the country was putting the two new parties to the test. The public debt went over the threshold of 120% of GNP, the lira plummeted (devaluing by 30% against the other European currencies and was forced out of the European Monetary System) and the economy went into recession. Half of parliament was under investigation for corruption and politicians were so discredited that all the parties that had governed Italy for over 40 years were forced to dissolve (Christian Democrats, Socialist Party, Republicans, Liberals, Social Democrats).

If the leadership of the old Communist Party had put forward a class alternative at that moment the possibilities for transforming society would have been enormous. The DS and the PRC were the only mass parties left standing after the crisis of the Italian political system, that went down in history under the name of Tangentopoli (Bribesville).

But the DS bureaucrats, who had been kept out of power by the capitalist class for over 40 years, wanted nothing more than to grasp this opportunity to earn themselves a credential in the eyes of the Confindustria (Italian bosses' Federation) and legitimize themselves definitively as a "responsible government force". "Italy needs to reduce the state deficit and labour costs? No trouble, leave it to us, we'll put things in order..."

This gave rise to a series of caretaker ("technical") governments from 1992 to 1995 (Amato, Ciampi, Dini, with the brief interlude of the first Berlusconi government) which savagely attacked the welfare state, pensions, wages and working conditions with an all-out flood of counter-reforms, with the open and declared support of the DS on the political front and of the CGIL on the trade union front (the CGIL is the main union confederation, dominated by the DS).

The disgraceful "July agreements" (July 1992 and July 1993) signed by the unions brought about a furious reaction from the workers. No union leader could speak to a workers' demonstration without being shouted down, and pelted with tomatoes and bolts.

Workers' demonstrations from 1992 to 1995 were imposing and extremely militant. The PRC, which stayed in the opposition throughout that period organizing mobilizations, won considerable support among workers in a short time, and succeeded in getting 8.6% of the vote at the 1996 general election (and in the 1993 local elections this party got well over 11% in Milan and Turin, two strongly working class cities).

Throughout 1995 thousands of PRC flags could be seen on workers' demonstrations against the Dini reforms. This was a clear sign that in a few years the party had won the support of the most militant activists, the left of the unions and the unofficial strike movement in the factories against the agreements signed by the CGIL, CISL and UIL.

From 1993 to 1995 there was a continuous trickle of worker activists and leaders who decided, in disgust, to pass over from the DS to the PRC. Among these was the left-wing union leader Fausto Bertinotti, who soon left the union to become national secretary of the PRC.

The momentum of the mobilizations, along with the determination of the working class to block the road to Berlusconi and the neo-fascist right, brought the centre-left to power in the 1996 election.

Thus the first Prodi government came into being. It was a government of class collaboration with the participation of the DS and a number of bourgeois parties coming mainly from the break-up of the Christian Democrats. The PRC supported the government from the outside.

As the PRC left wing had explained, a government with these characteristics could only continue, and in certain aspects extend, the anti-working class policies which had been inaugurated by Amato, Ciampi and Dini. And that is what happened.

By 1998 the failure of the Prodi government was evident and the PRC withdrew its support. The government fell, but was able to re-form under D'Alema [leader of the DS] as prime minister, thanks to the support of a group of PRC MPs, led by Cossutta, who split away and set up the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI). This party continued to support the centre-left, which stayed in power until 2001, first under D'Alema and then with the return of Amato.

The wavering of the PRC in those years contributed to frustrating the hopes that hundreds of thousands of activists had placed in the party, seriously weakening its roots in the working class. In spite of this, the continuing rightward shift of the DS enabled the PRC to maintain a certain following among the workers (although less and less convinced and active).

This involvement of the left in the government contributed to an increasingly rightward shift of the axis of the DS's policies. One section, led by Veltroni, started proposing to dissolve the DS into a Democratic Party which would take in all those bourgeois formations that supported the centre-left. These, through a long process of mergers, had joined together to form Romano Prodi's "Democracy and Freedom" party, better known as the "Margherita" from its symbol (the daisy).

This attempt was held back for a whole period by a series of factors: the victory of Berlusconi in 2001 and the resulting return of the DS to the opposition, the upturn of the workers' movement between 2001 and 2003 and the opposition of the CGIL leadership and its general secretary Cofferati, who for a couple of years gave a left turn to trade union policy.

All this contributed to strengthening the resistance of the DS apparatus to the pressures of the all-out bourgeois wing of the party. Between 2001 and 2003 there were at least twelve demonstrations of over 200,000 people in Rome against the policies of the right and one in particular of 2 million people (the biggest in the history of Italy). This was called by the CGIL against Berlusconi's plan to abolish article 18 (defending workers from unjustified dismissal). For a short time Cofferati stood at the head of the left current of the DS and thanks to his contribution this current won 34% of the votes at the Pesaro congress.

But Cofferati was frightened by the enormous amount of support he was gaining in the movement and at a certain point decided to stand aside. His CGIL mandate had expired and he abandoned the DS left, moving to Bologna where he became mayor in June 2004, ruling with an authoritarian approach which has nothing to envy in comparison with Giuliani's administration in New York.

In spite of Cofferati's about-face and the evident downturn of mobilizations (which was entirely to be expected after so many struggles which had produced so little, through the fault of the leadership), the centre-left won the 2006 election, although with a very small majority.

The second Prodi government has taken the same road as the first. In just 18 months it has managed to send troops to Afghanistan increasing military spending, give billions of euros to the bosses, and at the same time cut the welfare state and attack workers' conditions.

Finally on 23 July this year a new social contract was signed between the government and the unions, which further raised the retirement age, reduced the parameters for calculating pensions and redesigned industrial relations by introducing a large number of rules worsening the situation on the casualisation of labour and workers' rights.

The difference between the 1990s and the present is that today the whole left is taking part in the government and contributing to producing this fiasco; for the first time the PRC has a minister, a deputy minister and eight undersecretaries.

The disillusionment building up among the workers is enormous and it is on this basis that the pendulum, which swung left for a whole period, has now started to move back towards the right. In this context Veltroni has finally put into practice what he has been planning for over a decade: a Clinton-style Democratic Party with the DS and the Margherita dissolving into it. At the DS congress in April this year he succeeded in getting this plan through with a 70% majority.

The two groupings on the left of that congress, who rejected the merger, have given rise to a new political formation, the Democratic Left (SD), which together with the PRC, the PdCI and the Green Party is expected to lead to the creation of a new political grouping in the Italian Left.

On 14 October the primaries were held, with the election of Veltroni as the new secretary of the Democratic Party, an all-out bourgeois party, risen from the ashes of that same Communist Party which still had over ten million votes and a million and a half members at the end of the 1980s.

Thus the ex-Stalinists, in a definitive genetic mutation, have taken a step that even Tony Blair had failed to take. No social democracy in Europe has succeeded in doing so much for the bourgeoisie as the ex-Stalinists have been able to do in Italy, to the point of placing their leaders and their class roots at the disposal of the Italian bourgeoisie to create that mass liberal party that it has always wanted and never really possessed.

But this will not be the end of the story. The Democratic Party, as can be seen clearly from its first steps, will not be a stable party, nor will it represent a factor of stability in the crisis which has rocked all levels of Italian society for over 15 years.

After a short pause the Italian labour movement will come back into play with that strength that it has proved to have on many occasions, cutting the ground from under the feet of these degenerate bureaucrats who have casually passed from the "great party of Gramsci, Togliatto, Longo, Berlinguer" to arrive in the court of Montezemolo (head of the Confindustria) and big business.

Already on 11 September, for the first time in the history of the CGIL, the most important category, the engineering workers, rejected the line of the social contract. The central committee of the FIOM (engineering workers' union of the CGIL) voted overwhelmingly against the July agreement. They rejected the position of the CGIL general secretary Epifani, who spoke at that meeting to defend the agreement and came out defeated.

As the French say, "Ce n'est que un debut", it's just the beginning. The struggle will continue.