Italy after the general strike - Heading for new explosions

On Friday October 18 over one million workers demonstrated in 120 cities and towns all over Italy against the right wing government. The general strike was called by the Cgil in protest against the suppression of article 18 of the 'Workers' Statute' (see previous articles on this issue) and against the proposed budget presented by the government. This strike marks a new turning point in the class struggles in Italy. Deep changes and further struggles are clearly under way.

The split in the trade unions

After the first general strike (April 16), the Berlusconi government managed to secure support from the second and third trade union federations, Cisl and Uil, which agreed to sign an agreement with the government and the Confindustria (the bosses' union). This agreement, which involves accepting some changes to the 'Workers' Statute', caused a split between the Cgil on the one side, whose leaders refused to sign, and Cisl and Uil which agreed. After that split, the government, the Cisl, the Uil, the bosses and part of the opposition parties launched a massive campaign against the Cgil. They tried to convey the image of the Cgil being an isolated union, unable to connect with the real needs and aspirations of the great majority of the working class.

But this latest general strike and the demonstrations on the day showed that the Cgil is far from being isolated. On the demonstrations there were not only the workers, but also thousands of students, pensioners and, significantly, big sections of immigrant workers.

The so-called trade union "unity" that the Italian working class experienced over the last decade was in reality only the unity of the three bureaucracies [of Cgil, Cisl and Uil] who came together to impose 'social partnership' on the workers against their wishes and needs. The dissolution of that "unity" showed that real unity can and will be reconstructed in the real living struggle for workers' rights, wages and conditions.

Eighteen months of uninterrupted mobilisations

Since July 2001 Italy has witnessed an almost uninterrupted series of strikes, general strikes and massive demonstrations. Unrest is spreading to wider and wider sections. A very clear example was a massive demonstration held in Rome on September 14. This was called by different personalities of the radical intelligentsia against the introduction of a law, the so-called 'Cirami bill', which is clearly aimed at silencing the judges who are investigating the private affairs of Berlusconi and his cronies. This demonstration, organised by "progressive" amateurs, attracted 300,000 people and was transformed into a massive demonstration against the government. It was a demonstration full of red flags where speeches were made not only about the private affairs of the Prime Minister, but also against the war, against the sacking of the Fiat workers and also against those leaders of the left who have been too mild on the government and too distant from the mass movement. The main target of these criticisms is the former Prime Minister, and now president of the Democratic Left (Ds), Massimo D'Alema.

The crisis at Fiat

Italian capitalism is proving to be one of the weak links in the European Union. As we predicted in the past, joining the euro meant Italian industry losing its classical weapon of devaluation. Since 1996, when the exchange rate between the lira and the other European currencies was fixed, the products of Italian industry have steadily lost ground to their foreign competitors.

With the developing world economic crisis, all the weaknesses of Italian capitalism have been cruelly exposed. Fiat, the biggest manufacturer in Italy, is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Fiat's car sector has announced over 8,000 redundancies out of a total workforce in Italy of around 40,000. If we add the inevitable job losses in other industries connected to Fiat, the global figure could be something between 30,000 and 50,000. After the collapse of Olivetti, the destruction of state-owned industries in the new technologies sector (Italtel, Alenia), the privatisation of the steel industry and the almost complete destruction of the chemical industry, the crisis at Fiat is the latest in the more general long term crisis of Italian capitalism. The crisis at Fiat could drag behind it several banks, which are also announcing redundancies.

Against this background it is clear that there is no room for a lasting compromise between the bosses, the government and the Cgil. Attempts have been made, and new attempts will certainly follow, to try to avoid a social conflagration - but this will be in vain.

The underlying crisis of the Berlusconi Government

When Berlusconi was elected to office in May 2001, all the "leaders" and "intellectuals" of the left began weeping and warning of "rising fascism", of the "right wing tidal wave which is spreading across Europe", and so on and so forth. At that time we were almost alone when in explaining that with Berlusconi in office an explosion of the class struggle would be inevitable within a very short space of time. Events have completely vindicated our perspective.

During the last few months the government has been shown to be quite weak, in spite of its huge majority in Parliament. After declaring war against almost everyone, from the students to the immigrants, from the working class and the Cgil in particular, to the judges, they have reaped very few results. Now big business through their press and the Bank of Italy are openly criticising Berlusconi for not being enough firm and speedy in implementing his programme. They are demanding that the government attack the pension system, further reduces taxation for the bosses and acts promptly to reduce the state deficit, which is growing fast. This means throwing petrol on the fire. Thus the government is facing pressure from two opposite sides and this is clearly destabilising it. As a consequence, the different parties that make up the coalition (Forza Italia, Lega Nord, Unione Democratica di Centro and Alleanza Nazionale) have been involved in a continuous series of clashes, polemics and rows.

The best thing for the ruling class would be another government, under close control and scrutiny of the Confindustria and the Bank of Italy. But this is easier said than done. Berlusconi would not easily accept leaving office as he runs the risk not only of losing power, but also of facing serious charges of corruption. This could bring to an end his economic empire and it is easy to foresee that he will to everything in his power to cling on to the premiership.

The ruling class finds itself in an uneasy position. It is facing a mass movement with a divided government which is not able to manoeuvre and to face up to the challenge.

The opposition is divided

Things are not any better in the opposition either. The "Olive Tree" coalition is literally falling to pieces as a result of the mass movement. The uneasy alliance between the bourgeois parties (led by Rutelli) and the Ds is clearly breaking up. On the general strike they took different and opposite positions. Rutelli came out openly against the general strike. Again on the war against Iraq, the two wings of the coalition took opposite positions in Parliament, Rutelli voting in favour of sending more troops to Afghanistan and the Ds voting against.

The Ds are in the centre of a whirlwind. The party is divided in two opposite camps and the confrontation between the two wings is approaching a critical point. D'Alema and Fassino (the majority faction) have definitely sided with the liberal right wing and are trying to impose their discipline on the left wing, which is connected to the Cgil apparatus. Their proposal is that if there is a disagreement within the coalition, the MPs should vote and then they should all abide by the majority decision. This proposal was sharply rejected by Cofferati, former general secretary of the Cgil and de facto leader of the left wing of the Ds. This has provoked further polemic which clearly involves the possibility of a split in the future, and maybe not so distant future at that.

At every turning point in the next period the Ds MPs run the risk of taking different positions in Parliament. For instance, in the case of an open war against Iraq, the majority would support it if it gets UN backing, while one of the main leaders of the left wing of the Ds, Salvi, has publicly declared that the war should be opposed with or without UN backing. On the general strike the same divisions have emerged. The same contradictions will open up in different fields, ranging from what position to take towards the European Social Forum (Florence, November 6 to 9), which will end with a massive demonstration against the war, to what attitude should be taken towards the Cgil.

The clash inside the Ds will inevitably spill over into the Cgil, as D'Alema will try to organise a right wing in the union to counter the influence of Cofferati.

It is true that the left wing is a minority within the Ds, numbering about 32% at the last congress, but it can base itself on the mass movement to face up the party majority. The alternative facing Cofferati, Salvi and co., would be to bend under the pressure of the majority, but this would mean breaking with the mass movement and thus preparing the way for a rapid disintegration of their faction.

It is not surprising that now the main leaders of the Ds are accusing each other of being responsible for splitting the party. As a matter of fact, a split in the Ds is not at all ruled out over the next period.

Agenda of future struggles

After the general strike, inevitably a phase of discussion and evaluation of what has been achieved will open among the workers and the left wing activists. Programmes, demands, methods of struggle will be subjected to analysis and criticism, as it is clear that so far the mobilisations have developed mainly as mass demonstrations but they still have not found a way of breaking the will of the government and the bosses. After this phase (which in any case will most likely not last very long, maybe only a few weeks) the workers will inevitably go back to struggle. And the struggle will assume a more militant, more determined and even more bitter character. This is already the case in some of the Fiat plants, particularly in the south.

After the demonstration in Florence (November 9), where 150,000 people are expected to take part, new strikes and mobilisations can be expected. 1.7 million engineering [metal] workers are preparing to go on strike over their national contract. The split between the Cgil and the other unions nationally will be repeated in this industry as the Fiom-Cgil is demanding an 8% wage increase but the other unions have refused to support. Significantly, the Fiom-Cgil is now demanding that the decision-making process over which demands to put forward be put under the democratic control of the workers. By "democracy" the Fiom officials merely mean a referendum. But it is clear that the conflicts within the trade union bureaucracies are inevitably opening up the way for a more active and critical participation from below. This is something which up to now has been missing from the mobilisations, but which could take the movement to a qualitative step forward.

The tradition of the Italian working class is a tradition of spontaneous struggle, of self-organisation (factory councils). This tradition must and will be taken up again by the new generation of workers. This is a necessary step towards the workers taking firm control over the present struggles and for creating the framework and the conditions for winning the battle.

But the struggle does not end with the metal workers. Three millions public sector workers are also coming up for a renewal of their national contract. General unrest is spreading to the school and university students, who are also facing a heavy attack with huge increases in fees and a general counter-reform of the education system. This counter-reform is aimed at reducing the number of students from working class families who can attend university and finance private schools at the expense of the state education system.

The struggle at Fiat

But the most crucial battlefield will be at Fiat. There is no way out of the crisis at Fiat. The sole aim of the Agnelli family is to sell it off as soon as possible and at the best possible price to General Motors which already controls 20% of Fiat shares. General Motors' plan is to take over Fiat's market, to keep just some of the "jewels" and to continue production at only a small number of the plants. If this plan is implemented, most of Fiat's factories would face closure within a few years, starting with the huge Mirafiori plant in Turin. That is why a "soft" reorganisation of the company is impossible.

Over the last twenty years or so Fiat moved most of its production to Southern Italy. It opened up new plants or expanded the old ones and most of this was done with state funds. It was able to exploit a young workforce with little or no trade union experience and force them to accept worse conditions. This was presented as the only way of avoiding the perspective of unemployment or emigration from these less developed areas of Italy.

But Fiat's plans went wrong and over the past few years this new young workforce was gaining confidence and becoming more militant. The present crisis therefore means that an explosive situation is being prepared. Towns like Cassino, Termini Imerese, Melfi, depend mainly on the Fiat plants. Closures or sackings in these plants will spell catastrophe and there is no doubt that not only the workers, but the whole population including the unemployed, the shopkeepers, and so on will rally to the struggle to defend these jobs.

The PRC is now putting forward an important demand, that Fiat should be nationalised. That is the key question: nationalisation with no compensation and workers' control and management over the whole company is the only way to win the battle and to avert the risk of a north/south divide within the Fiat workforce itself.

But nationalisation can only be achieved as a consequence of the most resolute struggle. It is not enough to go on strike, especially in factories where production is already slowing down. The occupation of the factories and their take over by the workforce, together with the active support and involvement of all the other sections of the working class and the local communities, is the only way of forcing this government (or any government) to accept such a demand. Any other more "moderate" and "realistic" course of action would lead to an inevitable defeat, as was the case back in 1980.

The role of the PRC

From whichever angle we look at it, it is clear that the position in Italy is clearly one where we are heading towards new struggles and a general confrontation between the classes. This is part of a general process developing on an international scale. Recent events in Greece, Spain, France, Britain show that the European working class is reawakening after two decades of retreats and defeats. Moreover, the process is not limited to Europe alone as the position in Latin America clearly demonstrates.

It is not surprising, therefore, that as the class struggle intensifies, this brings with it divisions and splits in the trade unions and in the left wing parties. This is a logical consequence of that prolonged turn to the right which all these organisations experienced for many years and which deeply affected the general thinking of the leading strata and also of a big part of their activists and members.

The Italian experience shows that the consequences of this shift to the right are still being felt today inside the traditional mass organisations. Suffice it to say that after 18 months of almost uninterrupted mass mobilisations the majority of the Ds are still clinging to their old strategy of 'social partnership' and Blairite policies. From this point of view, we must view positively the fissures and splits now opening within the trade union apparatus and within the left wing parties. This is an inevitable, necessary and positive part of a more general process. And it creates more favourable conditions for the intervention of the Marxists. It helps us in our task of building a new leadership and of gathering the best and most militant fighters of the new generation in carrying out this task.

The PRC could play a key role in this process. But paradoxically the party has been completely taken by surprise by these recent events. As we have explained in previous articles, the leadership of the party has been caught off guard by the workers' mobilisation. During the last 18 months Bertinotti has been busily running after events. A clear example is the Fiat question. When we raised this issue a few months ago, we were attacked and ridiculed by everyone, starting from Bertinotti himself. Just a few weeks ago, one of the leaders of the PRC in charge of the party's economic and trade union answered one of our comrades saying that, "Fiat is the last company we should nationalise in Italy today". Now, faced with the reality of events, Bertinotti has made a partial turn raising this slogan of nationalisation. Although his proposal is in reality much closer to the idea of the state becoming a partial shareholder to "save" the company. He doesn't explain how nationalisation is to be achieved, nor does he draw all the necessary conclusions. In spite of this, immediately all the other "leaders" have suddenly discovered how marvellous this idea is! From this anecdote it is clear that at the present time the PRC leadership is incapable of organising a serious intervention in the working class movement. Their tactics are limited to simply gaining some room for themselves and some visibility in order not to be completely overshadowed by Cofferati and the Cgil. That explains why most of the activity of the PRC was not, and is not, concentrated on the factories and on the general strikes. They prefer to concentrate on the antiglobalisation movement, on proposing referendums, and so on.

All this is the result of an incorrect approach which is heavily influenced by the petty bourgeois "theoreticians" of the 'antiglobal' movement.

In this context our intervention as Marxists of the left wing of the PRC is becoming more and more crucial. Over the last 12-18 months we have achieved some modest but significant successes for our positions, both in the internal debate within the PRC and in the wider arena of the trade union movement and of the student and youth movement. We can clearly detect an increasing radicalisation taking place among the new generation, a decisive question we must be able to face up to over the next few years.

All of our main perspectives elaborated over the past few years have now been confirmed by the events themselves, and this makes us look with confidence to the future tasks and struggles that lie ahead of us.