Italian working class takes a breather after the last mammoth struggle

After two years of uninterrupted mass mobilisations, the political landscape in Italy is now changing. Since 2001 we have witnessed a whole series of struggles, including two 24hour general strikes and two multi-million demonstrations in Rome. The main point on the agenda now is not the next demonstration, but the necessary evaluation of the recent events, of the experience the masses have been through. After two years of uninterrupted mass mobilisations, the political landscape in Italy is now changing. Since 2001 we have witnessed a whole series of struggles (see our previous article), including two 24hour general strikes, two multi-million demonstrations in Rome and dozens of national and local demonstrations numbering tens or hundreds of thousands of participants.

It is now clear that this process has been interrupted. April 12 saw the last national demonstration against the war in Iraq. After that day no important mobilizations have taken place. There is clearly a change of mood amongst the masses. The main point on the agenda now is not the next demonstration, but the necessary evaluation of the recent events, of the experience the masses have been through, and of the role of the different parties and organisations throughout this period. The main question which needs to be answered is why the mass mobilisations did not change in a decisive way the balance of power between the classes.

Let us recall a few facts. The government offensive against article 18 of the Labour Code has not been stopped, despite two general strikes. A massive attack involving casualisation and flexibility of labour is now under way. In December the Fiat workers suffered a defeat. The rapid advance of the US army into Iraq with the occupation of Baghdad had an important effect on the antiwar movement. During the war there were clear elements of radicalisation and differentiation inside the mass antiwar movement between the purely pacifist-Catholic trends and other layers that were beginning to move towards an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist position. This process has been cut across, at least for the time being, by the “end” of the war.

The metal workers are now engaged in a very difficult struggle. The leadership of Fiom-Cgil (the main TU federation in the metal industry) is clearly facing difficulties, as we underlined in a recent article.

Lastly, there is the result of the referendum held on June 15 over the proposal to extend the labour code to three and a half million workers employed in small companies with fewer than 15 employees. The Labour Code, a conquest of the movement of the late 1960s, only covered workers in companies with 15 or more employees. The tactic of the government (backed by part of the left) was to play down the meaning of the referendum. The plan was to make people think it was an unimportant issue. If the government had seriously campaigned on the issue it may well have lost. It did in fact lose technically, but the turnout was so low that it was inquorate. Only 25,7% of the electorate bothered to vote, the lowest in the Italian history. So in spite of 87.3% voting to extend the code, the referendum was not valid. This was clearly a defeat. This is certainly due to the false position of the PRC leadership (main proponent of the referendum), but it is also linked to a change of mood in society as outlined above.

The local elections held in May-June confirmed this picture. The government has clearly been weakened. There are growing divisions inside the right wing coalition which lost several city and provincial councils to the centre-left coalition, including the capital Rome. But Berlusconi managed one way or another to survive the biggest mass mobilizations (though not the most militant, both in demands and methods of struggle) in Italian history.

There are other signs of a temporary stabilisation, which are directly linked to the retreat of the mass mobilisations. Inside the centre-left coalition the contradictions are no longer as sharp as they were just a few months ago. In the DS party in particular, which just one year ago was in the whirlwind and appeared to be on the verge of a split, the leadership is now back in control. Cofferati, leader of the left wing, has retreated and come to an agreement with the rightwing majority, thus depriving the left of its most popular leader. The left wing in the DS, which at the 2001 conference managed to get about 30% of the vote, is now divided and on the defensive.

This process is not simply an Italian peculiarity. Events in France (where the Raffarin government managed to push through most of its counter-reform of the pension system) and in Germany (where the metal workers’ union IG Metall decided to stop the struggle for the 35hour week in the Eastern Länder) indicate that workers’ struggles in different parts of Europe are coming up against a more rigid and tougher stance of the bosses and their governments. While for instance in Italy 1994, or in France 1995, the ruling class made at least some partial concessions and accepted to dilute the counter-reforms that they were trying to apply, this time they are not even prepared to make those kinds of verbal concessions which in the past allowed the trade union leaders to “save their face” before the masses. This reaction of the bosses has caught the trade union and reformist bureaucracies off balance and has highlighted all their faults in leading (or rather misleading) the working class movement.

A correct evaluation of the meanings of these events is vital from our point of view as Marxists. We must underline the pointy that a temporary lull in the mass mobilisations is not necessarily a negative development. This is not a general retreat in the class struggle, but rather a necessary stage in the development of the working class. The loss of authority by leaders such as Cofferati - who until yesterday was regarded as the “saviour” and the untouchable leader of the masses - creates a certain lull, as the masses have lost a point of reference, but at the same time it opens up big possibilities for us to reach the best workers and youth with our perspectives, our analysis, and our methods of struggle and organisation.

This lull is just a temporary stage. None of the contradictions have been solved and the position of Italian capitalism remains extremely fragile and volatile. The bosses and the government are now on the offensive, but rather sooner than later their attacks will cause an explosive backlash on the part the working class and the youth and at that point the conflict will inevitably take on a sharper and more militant character. Up until now, most of the strikes (with the exception of the FIAT workers’ struggle) have taken the form of demonstrations rather than aiming at causing serious damage to the bosses. The workers and trade union activists were mainly relegated to the position of passive supporters of the calls of the leadership and had no influence on the struggle itself. All this is going to change in the next wave, which is now being prepared beneath the surface. The workers will realize that the nature of the struggle requires different methods, different programmes, different leaders and a firm control of the rank and file over their organisations.

The process is not and will not develop in a straight line. Given the stalemate of the mass mobilisations and the partial defeat of the government in the local elections, the electoral field could also raise some expectations. The masses will test all the different possibilities, methods, and political tendencies. If we are capable of understanding the whole process and we follow closely the development in the consciousness of the class, great possibilities will open for an important growth in the influence of the ideas of Marxism in this country.