A balance sheet of the recent national congress of the PRC in Italy

Recently we received this report of the 2002 national congress of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC, Party of Communist Refoundation). It is written by a comrade who was in the thick of the battle for ideas that took place at the congress, which came at an extremely interesting moment. The Italian workers have come out in force in opposition to the present Berlusconi government, with 3 million demonstrating in Rome, and a general strike of over 13 million workers. The next period will put to the test all tendencies within the labour movement, and we are confident that the genuine ideas of Marxism will, in the end, win the day.

Introduction by Fernando D'Alessandro

Recently we received this report of the 2002 national congress of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC, Party of Communist Refoundation). It is written by a comrade who was in the thick of the battle for ideas that took place at the congress. The congress came at an extremely interesting moment.

The Italian workers have come out clearly in opposition to the present Berlusconi government, which has launched a serious offensive against the labour movement. In particular his attack on Article 18 of the Workers' Statute has provoked a movement of unprecedented dimensions - 3 million on a demonstration in Rome, followed by a massive general strike involving 13 million workers in April.

These events have severely put to the test all tendencies on the left. The movement of the workers in Italy has clearly shown who had the correct perspectives and understanding of the way the labour movement develops when it moves into action.

Bertinotti had shifted all emphasis away from the traditional labour movement organisations and was placing all his hopes on the anti-globalisation movement. Although this is a very important phenomenon, it cannot replace the central role of the working class. Recent developments in Italy confirm this.

Furthermore the developments inside the CGIL are also extremely significant. The CGIL is one of the three main trade union federations. The other two being the CISL and the UIL. The general secretary of the CGIL, Cofferati, had cooperated loyally with the previous Olive Tree ("centre-left") coalition in all its various attacks on the conquests of the working class.

The leaders of the left wing, or the "Minority", of the PRC had a perspective that Cofferati and the CGIL would continue along the road of collaboration, this time with the Berlusconi government.

The supporters of the Marxist journal FalceMartello had the correct understanding, that faced with an attack from the right-wing government now in power, the leaders of the CGIL would be forced to mobilise the workers.

To raise this perspective last year was not easy. The left, and even the supporters of Bertinotti, demagogically pointed the finger at the comrades of FalceMartello saying that they had illusions in the reformist leaders of the CGIL (and the PDS if it comes to that). What this actually revealed was their own lack of understanding about the labour movement and the working class as a whole. To raise the perspective of a movement being led by the CGIL and by Cofferati in particular, was not to have illusions. It was simply stating the most likely development of events, based on a firm understanding of the history of the labour movement.

The lessons of the recent period in Italy are that events and experience itself is the best test of any idea or perspective. The next period will put to the test all tendencies within the labour movement. And we are confident that the genuine ideas of Marxism will, in the end, win the day.

This is a preliminary analysis of the PRC's 5th congress. It is clear that within the space of a few short months, the majority's positions have revealed themselves to be utterly wanting. The political line defended by Bertinotti has been completely contradicted by the actual turn of recent events.

Most importantly, the leadership has made a clear mistake in perspectives with regard to the development of various movements in Italy. Bertinotti based his entire line on the importance of the "Social Forums" and the "noglobal" anti-globalisation movement and turned the whole party towards these organisations.

That Cofferati and the CGIL would have been inevitably pushed to the forefront of the recent mass demonstrations. That this would have triggered a crisis not in "the movement" (which is obviously growing) but inside the very organisational structures of the "Social Forum", robbing them of the importance that they still had a year ago. That the CGIL's turn to the left would also trigger a crisis in the non-affiliated unions, the various COBAS and others (which were actually divided on whether to participate in the March 23 demo in Rome and who actually gathered only a small number of supporters in the general strike demonstrations on April 16, despite the highly exaggerated claims published in the PRC's party newspaper Liberazione). That Cofferati would only have to lift his little finger to win the "left" of the CGIL to his line. None of these possibilities were taken into consideration in the majority's perspectives.

This complete inability to anticipate events has resulted in all manner of contradictions and has blunted the party's initiative over the last few months. The leadership has shifted from making fiery, radical speeches (sometimes even tainted with sectarianism) to periods of backtracking, as seen during the CGIL conference or more clearly with the much heralded opening made to the centre-left "Olive Tree" coalition (l'Ulivo, the Olive Tree). This opening was announced just one week before the national party congress in an interview in the l'Unità newspaper. The PRC leadership not only declared itself prepared to join with the centre-left in its action against the government but also suggested that it was ready to sign electoral agreements with the centre-left in the municipal and provincial elections in May.

The leadership's line has been nothing but a series of zigzags and vacillations, coated with a thick layer of the eclecticism that pervades the political outlook of Bertinotti and his supporters. On top of this, tragedy recently turned into farce, when some members of the majority actually began to debate whether they should treat the strikes of the last few weeks as a "new movement of the workers" or "the swansong of the old workers' movement". Incredibly, this sort of speculation has been consuming an enormous amount of time in party branches and congresses up and down the country in the recent period and quite often it has brought the debate inside the party down to an incredibly low level.

The Workers' Statute

The position on the Berlusconi government is also ambiguous. The leadership has refused to support the demand for its overthrow. However, in his concluding remarks to the Milan provincial party congress, Bertinotti said that "although the conditions are not ripe for overthrowing Berlusconi, we can still give him a 'bloody nose' over Article 18". Yet, at the national congress in Rimini, his call to "defeat the government" was more ambiguous as it could be interpreted in any number of ways.

The debate over the workers' statute has shown quite clearly the effects of the party's political and ideological decay on its organisational structures. The various factions that make up the "majority" are finding it increasingly difficult to get along with each other. This is reflected in the growing trend to set up politically and even socially "homogenous" party branches (i.e. branches which belong totally to one faction or other). Whilst party membership remains stagnant, the number of branches is actually increasing. However, this is not being done in order to strengthen the party's roots in society. It is being done so that the various factions that make up the "majority" can go to party meetings that are filled with people that agree with them. The most worrying aspect of this is that the leadership, instead of dealing with the situation, has actually poured more petrol onto the fire by proposing so-called "thematic" party branches (i.e. branches that are dedicated to one particular problem or field of activity), which, in this context, actually risks making the situation even worse.

The debate over women's "quotas"

The congress also passed a motion that set an obligatory 40% quota for women in all the party's leading bodies. This vote was one of the closest out of all those covering the party's statutes (there were only around 40 votes separating those "for" and those "against" out of a total of 500 delegates). Interestingly, after having fought fiercely to get the 40% quota passed, the comrades in the "Women's Forum" of the party made no mention of the fact that this very same quota is far from being respected in the National Political Committee (the Central Committee) by the Bertinotti faction. In fact the proportion of women on the National Committee is nowhere near 40%. All these women comrades also happen to be fervent supporters of Bertinotti!

These women comrades remained initially in utter silence on this matter. And Elettra Deiana (a prominent female leader of the party belonging to Bertinotti's faction) added to their embarrassment when she spoke in favour of the list of candidates for the National Committee! The fact that she made an appeal not to exploit the women's question on this issue added to their embarrassment. If we really want to avoid using this question for factional purposes, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the remedy (the 40% quota for women) has proved to be even worse than the problem it was supposed to cure, i.e. the lack of women on the leading bodies of the PRC.

Internal balance of forces

The numerical strength of the various factions within the new National Committee is roughly as follows. Formally speaking the committee is divided between the supporters of Bertinotti, the "Majority", and the supporters of Ferrando, the "Minority". In reality there are greater divisions. In the Bertinotti camp the factions are divided thus: Bertinotti 79, supporters of the Grassi-Sorini-Pegolo amendments to the majority document 32, supporters of the Confalonieri-Ferrari, or "Lombard" amendments in favour of a strategic alliance with the l'Ulivo 3. The 15 supporters of the Minority document are divided in half, those who supported the Ferrando document fully, 13, and those that presented amendments, 2. (The author of this article is one of the these two.) To the total we need to add a number of comrades such as Alessandro Curzi and Giovanni Pesce, who were not regarded as belonging to any particular faction.

The supporters of Bertinotti therefore appear to have a fairly solid majority. In reality, they are divided into at least three sub-factions. On the surface there appear to be no serious political differences between them. Below the surface there is a fierce battle going on between them for control of the party's leading bodies. And this despite the so-called "self-reform" of the party and "transparency" in the internal debate. These rifts are bound to come to the surface during the "second phase" of the congress procedure (i.e. the provincial congresses, which are to take place over the next few weeks), in which many federations are likely to find it very difficult to elect local party secretaries and leaderships, given the lack of a clear majority.

The amendments to the majority's document

Undoubtedly, many comrades who voted for the Grassi-Sorini amendments did so in order to try to stop the party's tail-ending of the "anti-globalisation" and "anti-capitalist" movements. However, events at the congress showed that this attempt was insufficient, not only due to numerical and organisational weaknesses, but above all due to major political weaknesses too. This faction's attempt to defend the party and the Communist tradition was defeated firstly because of the enormous ambiguity that stems from its being a part of the majority that has "led" the PRC up until now. And secondly because of its formalistic and - excuse the term - its mummified so-called "Leninism". Their interpretation of "Leninism" is able to reconcile totally irreconcilable concepts: (1) making alliances with the Olive Tree "centre-left" coalition together with the defence of the October Revolution; (2) the defence of Lenin's theory of imperialism together with calls for UN intervention around the world based on some hypothetical "anti-imperialist camp"; and finally (3) the occasional very harsh verbal criticism of the actions of the Bertinotti faction together with a systematic cover up of most of the latter's mistakes.

We have to add that the PRC is currently going through a period of major change and the same can be said for each one of its internal factions. Instead of bringing this process to an end, the congress has only served to give it a further push.

We therefore believe that the congress has fully borne out our recent perspectives, i.e. that the PRC, despite benefiting from increasing popularity and support among a layer of workers and youth (if the opinion polls of the last few weeks are true) the party has not been able to use this to boost the level of political activity of its members and to dig deeper roots in society as a whole. The leadership tries to "paper over" these difficulties by making organisational and political proposals that in reality actually make the problems the worse. There is a clear inability to link the party up with the expectations and raised political consciousness of those millions of workers who in the last few weeks have brought about a sea change in the political and trade union situation. The party leadership is content to operate within the sphere of influence that it has carved out for itself, instead of throwing its entire weight into the battle between the government and the unions. It appears to find greater satisfaction in debating with more or less eminent and so-called "critical" minds. This, rather than taking up the admittedly more complex and difficult challenge in the struggle to break down the hegemony of the reformists inside the labour movement, a labour movement that is currently close to boiling point.

Why is the left in retreat?

We would like to make specific mention of the role played by the alternative document (Mozione 2) proposed by Ferrando (the "minority") and the results that it obtained. We supported this document but presented various amendments to it.

The votes obtained by the Minority show a marked decline in Ferrando's support. We give some of the figures below and have compared them with the number of votes won in the previous congress held in 1999. The overall, absolute, number of votes fell from 5,400 to 4,330 (-20%); the left vote went down in 80 federations, remained stable in 7 and increased in 34. The results taken province by province are even more worrying as they show that the left is in retreat both in the main centres of the country and where the PRC has its main bases. It also lost support in those federations where previously it had picked up many more votes. It suffered sharp declines in 8 out of the 11 federations where it had previously received more than 100 votes (taking into account both the 1999 and the 2002 figures): Cosenza, Naples, Bologna, Genoa, Savona (which used to be controlled by the minority), Milan, Turin and Florence, whilst it only managed to increase its support in three federations (Imperia, Reggio Calabria and Vibo Valentia).

Support for the left fell in all the other regional capitals except Campobasso and totally collapsed in Palermo (from 81 votes to 14) and in Perugia (from 98 to 49 votes).

It has to be clearly explained that the drop in support for the minority is due to two factors. On the one hand, there was a sharper decline in support for Ferrando's faction and, on the other - a more positive development - there was an increase in support for the positions put forward by ourselves. We have gone from being 8% within the minority in 1999 to 12.5% at this last congress. There are two reasons for this. The first is political. Most of the perspectives that we have put forward (the possibility of a turn to the left in the CGIL, perspectives for the workers' movement, the process of partial decay within the party) are now more apparent and tangible than they were two years ago. The second one is both political and organisational. The action of the comrades in Progetto comunista (the journal of the left) and especially its national leaders, from Ferrando downwards, over the past few years has been politically inconsistent - they have neglected the systematic tasks of building the left, of political education and political intervention in the party and in the various movements. The results of this are clear to call. Many comrades have already drawn their own conclusions and many more will do so on the basis of future events.

In the current rapidly changing social and political climate, all the political positions expressed in this latest congress will be subjected to the harshest of tests. From this point of view, the fact that the various tendencies of the PRC - both within the majority and within the minority - were forced to make their own organisational and political positions much clearer to party members during the various debates is a positive development. We have now entered a new phase, and the battle of ideas and the debates that we all took part in during the congress will inevitably be translated into political and organisational confrontation inside the labour movement itself. And, as we all know, whilst words always come easily, the verdict of the labour movement is always final and without appeal!

This has been translated from the original Italian version.