Italy: The calamitous state of Rifondazione Comunista and the tasks of the Marxists

The ninth congress of Rifondazione Comunista was held in Perugia between December 6 and 8, 2013. It was a congress that expressed the deep crisis that the party finds itself in. They were not even able to reach a decision on how and who to elect as general secretary. The only real decision was to delay taking any decisions!

Introductory note:

In the weeks prior to the congress the branches discussed and voted the documents proposed by the national leadership, and elected the delegates to the provincial and national congresses.

The document presented by the majority (Motion 1), headed by the Party secretary, Paolo Ferrero, received more than 76%. Our document (Motion 2), called “Sinistra classe rivoluzione – Per un nuovo inizio” (The Left, the working class and revolution – For a new beginning) received 1001 votes (8.4%). A third document (Motion 3), called “Per la rifondazione di un partito comunista” (For the refoundation of a communist party), defended by a neo-Stalinist wing together with an opportunist split-off from the majority, received close to 15% of the votes.

The total number of votes cast was less than 12,000, almost five thousand fewer than in the 8th congress, celebrated two years ago in 2011. What is striking, however, is the difference with the 2008 congress, held in Chianciano, when more than 43,000 members voted. In 2012 the party had 31,000 members, compared to 2008 when it had 87,000. After three major electoral defeats (the 2008 and 2013 general elections and the 2009 European elections) and several local setbacks, in every opinion poll the party has remained stuck between 1 and 1.5%. When we go to the factory gates, workplaces, the schools or the universities, the most common response when one mentions Rifondazione is: “Rifondazione comunista? Why, does it still exist?”

This latest congress reflected the serious crisis facing the party. The leadership proposal, to “rebuild the alternative left” is a road that the party has attempted to follow in the last years, with disastrous results [see previous articles]. The slogans put forward by the leadership are imbued with reformism, beginning with the title of the document itself – “for a democratic revolution”. The illusions about the possibility of “another Europe” – on the basis of capitalism - permeate the whole document.

This state of affairs reflects the isolation of the Prc both within society and within the workers' movement. It also reflects the growing demoralisation, not only of the leadership but also of a sizeable layer of the membership. They have a pessimistic view about the situation in Italy and have no confidence that a recovery of the class struggle is possible.

Despite its apparently strong majority of 76%, the leadership is deeply divided. There were a number of amendments presented to Motion 1. They were characterised by the search for a shortcut to overcome the impasse the party is in. One amendment called for unity with the Party of the Italian Communists (PDCI, a right-wing split-off from the Prc back in 1998, over the question of supporting the first Prodi government). It also called for unity with the SEL (Vendola's Left, Ecology and Freedom, party), i.e. advocating a turn to the  right. Another amendment called for an exit from the euro, while at the same time not breaking with the capitalist system. The break with the Euro is presented as a panacea for every disease.

Motion 3 gained the support of a layer of rank and file comrades who honestly think that it is still possible to rebuild the party “on its own feet”. But it is a call that comes too late and it is too little because it does not call for the adoption of a revolutionary programme. This motion does not oppose an alliance with the Democratic Party (“on a local level”) and openly calls for “the defence of the Constitution”, i.e. the Constitution of the Italian capitalist state..

The congress failed to address the real burning issues facing the working class and youth in Italy. It failed to analyse the real causes of the crisis of capitalism and offered no concrete solutions to problems such as low wages and unemployment, not to mention the problems facing workers and youth on an international level.

There was, to say the least, an underestimation of the revolutionary events that are taking place in different parts of the world. Our document was often ridiculed by these “leaders”, who claimed that “a revolution is impossible” and that the Arab revolutions were the result of a conspiracy on the part of western imperialism! Millions of working people rise up across the Arab world and overthrow despotic dictators and these so-called “communist” leaders cannot see what this means.

Such a workers' party – with such leaders – without an ounce of confidence in the working class, is doomed. The collapse of the apparatus – with many full time party workers being laid off and many local headquarters being sold off – and  the lack of resources condemns what is left of the party bureaucracy to a further decline and further sharpened internal struggles.

All this is happening at a moment when the workers in Italy are beginning to move again, as was shown by the unofficial, rank and file, local transport workers in Genoa, that brought the city to a standstill for five days at the end of November. That strike was symptomatic of the real underlying mood of workers in Italy. It took place against the wishes of the trade union leaders and was organised from below and is a taste of what is to come.

Due to the calamitous state the party finds itself in, in the recent months Falcemartello opened up a discussion on a programme for a revolutionary alternative, launching a political movement under the name of “Sinistra, classe, rivoluzione”. [see article on July national meeting in Bologna] open to members of the party, but also to those many militants who have left the party and to the wider movement of the working class and youth. There is a radical mood developing among the youth in particular, but this is not connecting with Rifondazione because of the bankrupt policies of its leadership.

The battle that we waged in the Prc congress was part of this process. It proved to be fruitful and helped to put our tendency on the map. The tasks facing Marxists in Italy are huge, but we believe we are up to task and we will build on the basis of the future struggles of the Italian proletariat.

Here we publish our analysis of the congress.

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The crisis of Rifondazione Comunista and our struggle for a working-class party

The national congress of Rifondazione Comunista (RC, Communist Refoundation Party) held in Perugia in December ended where it started: in a state of paralysis, where the only decisions they took were not to take any decisions and postpone everything. Since last spring, in fact,  the dominant feature of the party’s internal life has been the manoeuvring for positions on the part of the different factions. Why is the party in such a calamitous state?

The general secretary of the party, Paolo Ferrero, referred to it as “no ordinary extraordinary congress”. And yet, it very quickly sank into the swamp of a series of skirmishes between different groupings on no principled basis. This started in the commission in charge of elaborating a drafting national political document, then it continued in the local branches and finally it also emerged in the national congress itself.

The questions “Will we be able elect a secretary?” and “Is Ferrero going to make it?” permeated the three-day congress, with gossip in the corridors and factional meetings rather than in the  official speeches. The apparently large majority of the first document (76% of the delegates) did not produce a viable proposal for the final draft or for the election of the leading bodies.

We can sum up the final declaration approved by the delegates in Perugia in eight points:

  • Opposition to the grand coalition Letta government.
  • Opposition to constitutional reform and a campaign for proportional representation.
  • Focus on the class struggle and the grassroots work of the party.
  • A more “efficient and co-ordinated” trade union activity of the party members – although no position was adopted about the forthcoming congress of the largest left-wing union, the CGIL. [Our resolution calling on the party to support the opposition document inside the CGIL was rejected, with 81 votes in favour.]
  • For a cultural and ideological struggle.
  • The “jobs campaign” to be the central axis of the party’s activity in the next period.
  • “Disobedience against the European treaties”, with the goal of “breaking this European Union”.
  • For a slate of the “alternative Left” in the European elections, in support of candidate Alexis Tsipras.

Anyone who closely followed the debate in Perugia can easily see that none of these points was seriously touched on, not analytically, nor in the discussions about actual party building. Most of the speeches featured attempts at mobilising one section of the delegates against the others, often with the most trivial of arguments, the purpose of which was to draw lines of demarcation between the different sub-factions within the majority document. There was in fact an open conflict within the supporters of the “majority”, which was not expressed, however, in any clear political differences.

At the congress a lot of fuss was made about whether or not a representative of another left-wing party (the SEL, led by Vendola) should be booed or not when he gave greetings to the delegates, and yet there was hardly any discussion about the eight points listed above, on what they mean, what they are based on, on how to turn them into reality, or which results we can expect. The final draft was not approved as a means of deciding on anything (except, perhaps, on the European elections slate). It was adopted with the purpose of preparing, via the approval of generic statements, the subsequent conflict over the election of the general secretary.

The hopes of the rank and file placed in the new party leadership comprised two elements. On the one hand, there was a conflict within the majority faction [and as we explain below, also among the supporters of the third document as well]. On the other hand, however, there was a genuine expectation by many comrades who hoped at least to see some clear guidelines on the political work that had to be done once the congress was over.

"Essere Comunisti", the right-wing sub-faction that tried to amend the first document by introducing some milder formulations ended up being politically defeated in the congress. Its strength in the National Political Committee was limited to 38 members out of the 125 members who support the first (majority) document, a 1-to-2 ratio compared to the rest of the majority. The final resolution in fact did not adopt any of the proposals put forward in the amendments, to the point that Alberto Burgio, a leader of the “amenders”, in giving an approval vote could only declare that at least the text “does not contradict the demands of the amenders”. It was a diplomatic way of saying that they did not win any concessions.

The “victory” of Ferrero is in fact a very weak one with only a narrow majority (77 out of 150) in the new National Political Committee, not enough to guarantee his re-election as party secretary, nor to provide for the election of a new secretary. That explains the paralysis and delay in taking any decisions.

The splits within the majority faction were mirrored in a split also among the supporters of the third document, who tried until the very last minute to reach an agreement on the content of the final resolution, but ended up being divided in the meeting of their faction, with 29 of their delegates in favour of presenting a separate alternative resolution opposed to that of the majority, and 21 in favour of abstaining. There is a section in this faction that is clearly seeking some kind of compromise with Ferrero. They are the same people who expressed disappointment at the postponement of the election of the general secretary. The unity they finally patched together in the final vote was achieved on a false basis. An open conflict within this faction itself was delayed only because the election of a secretary was postponed.

With all the respect for those comrades who voted for the third document as a (long overdue) revolt against their own factionalised leadership, we say that they should stop for a moment and reflect the on the reasons why a document that claimed to call for a “clean up of the party”, at its first test saw a split emerge within its supporters, and not on important questions of principle but precisely on factional and sub-factional manoeuvrings – the very same conduct they had been criticising until the day before. They were supposed to break the factional straitjacket in the former majority, and instead they ended up being sucked into that same maelstrom.

The final resolution approved in Perugia included a decision to convene a national organisational conference to come up with organisational changes in the party. Another session of the national congress would then translate such proposals into new rules of the party statutes. Where did this proposal come from? It was never mentioned in any of the debates prior to Perugia. The point is that several organisational proposals included in the first document, particularly on the composition of the leading bodies and the introduction of compulsory referenda among the members, were rejected in the session on the party statutes. So what is their solution? Very easy! Have a replay in a few months and see whether the result is any different… Likewise, we remember how the solemn commitment, announced in February, to discuss the party programme, was gradually retracted until it was reduced to a fictitious conference (half-day, no written documents, no proposals, no results) postponed once again to a programmatic conference to be held in the future, sometime after the congress.

This was the congress of postponed decisions, and the leadership that emerged from it is bound to be the leadership of further postponements. This is the only realistic synthesis of this three-day meeting in Perugia. It does not matter much whether the conflict over the election of the general secretary finds a solution within the first document or through a coalition between Ferrero and a section of the third document, whether the candidate is Ferrero himself or another of the 77 members of the National Political Committee majority. The paralysis will continue because none of those involved in this conflict has any other way out. There are no “safe harbours” today outside the PRC, neither to its right (in the even smaller “Party of the Italian Communists” or in the SEL), nor to its left (in the more radical and heterogeneous loose coalition called Ross@), that could win for them more than the small morsels of bureaucratic influence that Rifondazione already currently has. Therefore, the only things these groupings have to base themselves on are the positions they won within the congress, which will serve only as starting points to further the bitter infighting.

We will not repeat here the arguments we developed in our speeches at the congress and in our final resolution. We believe that the forces that have gathered around our document should not get bogged down in debates that are becoming more and more sterile and which as each day passes are becoming less and less a source of stimulation of genuine political intervention, of real party building and of Marxist education. “Sinistra Classe Rivoluzione” (The Left, Class and Revolution), our faction within the party, must direct its efforts towards more fruitful fields of activity. It aims to become a real political movement involved not only, and not mainly, in the internal polemics of Rifondazione, but must turn to the workplaces in a co-ordinated and organic manner, to the youth, and to all the opportunities of class struggle that open up. It must be a movement that is open not only to Rifondazione members, but to anybody who wants to support our struggle, irrespective of their party affiliation. It must be a movement that acts in an organised manner, elaborating its own programme and platform of demands (whose key points were already drafted at our national meeting in Bologna last July), striving through its political intervention, the education of its activists, its own means of propaganda and agitation, for the advancement of our main demand: the need to build a working-class party.

We turn away from this sterile debate, but we do not turn away from all those comrades and party members who were hoping to find a solution to the crisis of the party in the other two documents presented at the congress (one and three) only to find themselves once again left empty-handed.