At the last congress of Rifondazione Comunista (2005) the Italian Marxists of FalceMartello presented their own national document. A comrade sent a letter questioning the kind of transitional demands presented. Here we publish the letter with a reply from the Italian Marxists, an interesting debate on what kind of demands should be raised at each turn of events.
Letter from a New Zealand comrade
True, the document calls for "the nationalisation under workers' control, without compensation except for small shareholders, of all industries privatised over the last few years". This is very good, but of course not decisive. Also, "For the heavy taxation of the large financial institutions as the first step towards the complete expropriation of large financial estates." I have never seen a demand like that one coming from the Marxists. If the Italian Marxists are calling foe the nationalisation of the financial institutions, a classic demand in other transitional programs, why not just say so? Instead, we have a somewhat ambiguous formulation: what is being proposed here? Nationalisation? Or taxation "till the pips squeak", as the British right-reformist Labour politician Denis Healy once said? These are two different things and I do not understand why a transition from one to the other is being proposed here.
Elsewhere in the document, the comrades rightly criticise the Lula government in Brazil for trying to be "half capitalist half socialist". But the program presented in the Italian document appears to have the same flaw, even though it is a thousand times bolder than Lula's program. If the financial institutions were nationalised and serious attempts were made to fulfil the other demands presented, the decisive power of the capitalists would not be broken and yet the actions taken would be totally unacceptable to the Italian capitalists. Unless the program were to be ramped up to include the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy with enough time to spare, there would be a danger of counter-revolution. As the Marxists have often pointed out, a revolution cannot just be improvised at the last moment.
Of course, even if the PRC were to adopt the program being proposed by the Marxists at the conference, they are not going to form a government straight away. So there is no immediate danger of the program proposed in the document being put to the test. Consequently, there is no foreseeable danger of counter-revolution, unlike in Venezuela. Plenty of time to beef up the program. But workers will never be won over to socialism unless the case for it is "patiently explained" to them. With the recent militancy shown by Italian workers in strikes and demos, if now is not a good time to argue the case for socialism, and within the PRC no less, when will be? I am all for posing the ideas in a non-sectarian manner that can reach workers. Flexibility of tactics, intransigence of program. That is a byword or the Marxists. But there appears to be a substantive change of program here.
Now, maybe there are sound tactical reasons why a full transitional program is not being presented to the PRC congress this year. Perhaps the aim of the document is to minimise the possibility that the PRC will enter a coalition with Prodi. People might be put off voting for it if it is "too extreme". Perhaps it might never have got enough votes around the country to even be allowed to be presented at the conference.
I would have thought a better aim for the document would have been to build the Marxist tendency in the PRC. The comrades had a good opportunity to put their case in presenting the documents to many PRC branches around the country. Have the comrades at the same time been explaining the necessity for the nationalisation of the commanding heights? Maybe they have been. If not, their audiences could be forgiven for not understanding what Marxism is about. Why should Italian Communists bother to join the Marxists if the Marxists are not prepared to argue the case for socialism? Well actually I would be surprised if in reality they are not. But then why not in the conference document?
Clearly I do not know all the facts. I have been really impressed in the past with the standard of writing coming from the Italian Marxists. It suggested a very high political level. So it is highly likely that there is a good explanation.
Rupert O'Shea, New Zealand
Reply: On our programme
First of all I want to thank you for your letter and for the remarkable interest you have shown in reading our material. The points you raise are truly of the greatest interest and deserve an in-depth reply. The problem of transitional demands has always been a key issue for Marxists and is one of the keys to educating our cadres and developing a perspective for our organisation, if we really want our organisation in the future to have a chance of conquering a leading role in relation to the masses.
The Transitional Programme we inherited from our political tradition represents a sound point of reference, on condition that we understand the method and the approach behind it. We should not just simply limit ourselves to repeating its developed list of demands.
First we should ask: transition from what and towards what? We can answer this question on three levels: 1) The transition from capitalism to socialism, 2) The transition from the actual consciousness of the masses (and the activists) to the necessary understanding of their revolutionary tasks, 3) The transition from a small Marxist propaganda organisation to a Revolutionary party. From the inter-relationship of these three levels we have to develop our framework of demands. For these reasons it should not be fixed once for all, but it should be worked out in relation to the above factors.
From this point of view we can see that the Marxists have put forward in different historical moments different programmes of immediate demands. These programmes stressed this or that demand and provided some specific ones, for the good reason that the simple repetition of a general truth is not sufficient to build the necessary dialogue with the workers we want to influence and win over to our ideas.
To go back to the Italian political situation, what is the meaning of the demands we drafted in our document for the PRC Congress? The main issues we have to deal with are in my opinion the following: 1) How to link our general programme to the concrete experience that the workers in our country have been passing through in the last 15-20 years; 2) How to apply the United Front tactic and how this affects the role of the different parties of the Italian left, and specifically that of the Democratic Left (DS).
This second point is very important because the focus of the discussion during the congress was actually whether or not the PRC should join the centre-left coalition, which would lead to a class coalition government where the DS were going to be the mainstay of the government. Unlike in the past, the DS have been organically part of this coalition for about 15 years, to the extent that there are even open discussions about dissolving the party into a new bourgeois party that should be founded with the merger of the DS and the Margherita Party (the party of Prodi and Rutelli).
Whether these plans will become reality is a different question, but the very fact that a process in this direction has already started shows how deeply the DS are embedded in this alliance. This situation makes it very difficult for the activists, and in particular for the PRC militants, to understand our demand for a united front, that is to say that the left wing parties should break with the bourgeois parties and form a government with a programme in defence of the workers' interests.
Therefore we should take into account this situation when we draft the demands we put forward, especially considering the debate within the PRC that was focussing on tactics, on the government and on the question of alliances. If we had put forward the idea that the "PRC, DS and PDCI (the "Italian Communists") should join together in an alliance to struggle for a government that defends the nationalisation of the big monopolies as a central policy", the reaction we would have had would have been one of total indifference and incredulity, precisely because of the experience of the last 15 years. The very idea that it could be possible to address the DS activists in this way would not even have been taken into consideration.
The demands we raised in the congress document do not claim to reply to the general question of what concrete steps we need to take in order to begin the transformation of society. They reply to a different question: which demands should we raise to challenge the CGIL (the main trade union confederation, controlled by the DS) and the DS leaderships? On which key points and fields of intervention do we base ourselves to put forward our alternative to their proposal to join an alliance with the bourgeoisie?
The demands we chose to draft were drawn from the experience of the last 15 years (that is not only relating to the Berlusconi government, but also to the previous centre-left governments and the struggles of the last 5 years) to explain that it is not enough to defeat Berlusconi in the elections, but that it is necessary for the left to change course and make a 180-degree turn away from the policies it has carried out in the last few years.
Let us now examine what the concrete meaning is of the demands we raised in the discussion.
The demand for the nationalisation of those companies in a state of crisis did not affect - particularly at the time the congress was held - only some isolated sectors of the economy. It is not an accident that we were able to present in the national congress debate a motion calling for the nationalisation of the FIAT car company, which still remains the main manufacturing company in Italy.
The renationalisation of what has been privatised would affect: the main iron and steel industrial groups, including the biggest steel factory in Europe, partial renationalisation of the monopoly companies in the electricity supply and distribution industry, natural gas and oil, telecommunications, the 5 major banks and hundreds of municipal service companies (transport, water, etc.), the main part of the electronic industry and a big slice of real estate property.
But the main point is that in the concrete experience of millions of workers it has become increasingly clear what privatisation has meant. This was not true 10 years ago. This way of posing the demands meets the living experience of those whom we address.
The same thing should be said about the demand to expropriate the big real estate companies:
"For a right to decent housing: Expropriation of the big real estate companies that keep thousands of houses empty in order to make house prices soar. For an end to the selling off of council housing. For a general council house building programme with rent not more than 10% of wages."
Just a short comment on capital gains and rent. Within the Italian left there has been a lot of talk and complaints about the fact that rentier income (revenues from treasury bonds, real estate income, capital gains, etc.) is almost tax free and that, according to the reformist leaders, huge resources are available in this field which could solve the crisis of the capitalist system in Italy without threatening the very base of the system.
Our tendency has consistently argued that this idea is utopian from beginning to end, for reasons that now I cannot enter into in detail. Nevertheless it is clear that we do not oppose the idea of "flushing out big capital" and to subject it to heavy taxation (this was also raised, if I do not remember wrongly, in the Communist Manifesto...). On this issue we want to "take seriously" what the reformists say, even if we know and we warn that this would never be sufficient and in the long run it would create new contradictions, such as the flight of capital, the increase of the interest rates on the public debt, etc. It is not an accident that the demand is formulated in the following way: "For the heavy taxation of the large financial institutions as the first step towards the complete expropriation of large financial estates."
This idea is reaffirmed in more general terms in other points of the document. For example:
"If there is not sufficient room for manoeuvre for reformism in Europe, this is all the more true in Italy. This is why a consistent struggle for social reforms will crash against the rocks of such rigid capitalist constraints; therefore these struggles could potentially develop into anti-capitalist struggles."
"All of this does not mean that Communists should abandon the struggle for reforms altogether because they are â€˜unviable'. On the contrary, the worsening of economic conditions compels millions of people to fight for such basic rights as healthcare, education, jobs, social security and so on. Our task is to stand at the forefront of all these struggles, supporting every progressive demand. We must consistently tie all of those demands to the necessity of a radical transformation of the economic system and the necessity of breaking the shackles of capitalism as the only way to achieve a genuine improvement of living conditions."
Just a short reference to an historical example amongst many we could make is that of the political debate within the German Communist Party in the early 1920s. After the birth of the Unified Communist Party, the Communists used their influence in the union movement and won the support of the metal workers' union in Stuttgart for a programme built around 5 essential demands. Not one of the demands was by itself revolutionary. The programme stood for a struggle to reduce the prices of foodstuffs, for an inventory of what is produced, for the raising of unemployment benefit, the taxation of big property, workers' control of the supply of raw materials, of provisions and their distribution, the disarming of the reactionary militias (the Kapp putsch had only just been defeated at the time), and the arming of the proletariat.
This programme provoked a bitter discussion within the CP and within the Communist International. A section of the leadership argued that this programme should be used as a general proposal, but the left wing of the party was bitterly opposed to this idea with the argument that this would have strengthened illusions in the reformists. In the end the first position prevailed and the German CP issued its famous "Open Letter" that advanced the proposal for all the workers' organisations to join in a united front with mainly a defensive programme.
As a first reaction Zinoviev and Bukharin convinced the reduced bureau of the Executive Committee of the International to censure the decision to issue the "Open letter". Only Lenin's direct intervention reopened the debate that was finally developed in the Third Congress of the International, where the main discussion was around the United Front question.
I have referred briefly to this particular example because I believe that it helps us to understand how some partial or transitional demands could assume one or other character in relation to the concrete situation and particularly in relation to the consciousness of the masses.
I hope that these short notes may be of some help for a further study of this question.
Please pass on my thanks to Claudio for his thorough response. This all makes sense to me now. I had not thought of this in terms of a united front tactic. I'm used to seeing united front tactics applied to make alliances beyond the bounds of a political party. The case of the German Unified Communist Party and the metal workers' union in Stuttgart is a classic example which I understand well.
Of course what is essential to a united front is not that it transcends political parties but that it has a limited objective or set of objectives: "march separately but strike together". The FalceMartello document for the PRC congress does qualify in that respect. The objective was to find sufficient common ground within the PRC to stop the PRC from entering a coalition with Prodi. I think I did not appreciate this when I made my original comments because, as I said at the time, I did not know much about the political context within the PRC. In this regard I found Claudio's response on the question of the taxation of big capital particularly illuminating.
Rupert O'Shea, New Zealand
- Italy: The Marxists in the congress of Rifondazione Comunista (Wednesday, 02 March 2005)
- Break With Prodi: Prepare a Workers' Alternative - Part Two (Wednesday, 02 March 2005)
- Break With Prodi: Prepare a Workers' Alternative - Part Three (Wednesday, 02 March 2005)