Italian left: the end of an era

Submitted by Anon on 20 May, 2007 - 6:53

By Cath Fletcher

The Rifondazione project has failed, and the Italian left now needs to rebuild. More than a year on from the narrow victory of Romano Prodi’s coalition L’Unione, which includes the Rifondazione majority, both major left currents in the party are looking to alternatives. The trade unions, meanwhile, have announced public sector strikes for early June as negotiations over a new national contract falter.

The Rifondazione majority have enthusiastically embraced joint government with Prodi’s motley collection of Catholic social-democrats and Blairite ex-CPers. Former party leader Fausto Bertinotti has become speaker of the lower house of Parliament, and the party has a minister in the government, responsible for “social solidarity”. They are, in practice, indistinguishable from the rest of the coalition.

The left of the party has had to decide how to respond. In May 2006 the Progetto Comunista group, whose leading members had already been excluded by the Rifondazione leadership from standing as party candidates, resigned from the PRC. They have now set up the “Movement for a Communist Workers’ Party” (movimento costituivo per il Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori: PCL). In contrast, the Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) current, Italy’s Fourth International grouping, stayed in Rifondazione. They had members in both the Senate and House of Deputies having, presumably, given the PRC majority sufficient promises of loyalty in advance of the elections.

In February, however, Franco Turigliatto, a Sinistra Critica senator, abstained on a vote to back Prodi’s foreign policy — including the maintenance of Italian troops in Afghanistan and permission for a US base at Vicenza in northern Italy. Prodi lost by two votes and resigned. His government was saved by a new deal between the parties – to which the Rifondazione leadership signed up – including an agreement that they would vote for Italian troops in Afghanistan. Turigliatto was suspended from Rifondazione for two years, and said he regarded that as expulsion. There was not universal agreement in the party about the decision: on the national committee responsible, the vote was 14 to 6 with 5 abstentions.

Having initially offered his resignation as a senator, Turigliatto then took it back, on the basis that he had had so much encouragement to stay on in politics and represent the anti-capitalist alternative that he felt it was his duty to do so. He now sits as a Sinistra Critica senator, although non-expelled Sinistra Critica deputy Salvatore Cannavò is still listed as a member of the Rifondazione Comunista parliamentary group. The Sinistra Critica says it will maintain an policy of “technical loyalty” to the Prodi government; in practice it seems that will mean voting against bits of legislation (like the troops for Afghanistan) that they object to, but voting confidence in the government where necessary to avoid the greater evil of a comeback for Berlusconi.

This recognition on the part of the Rifondazione left of the problems with the party’s approach is welcome. The PCL is already gaining significant votes (around 7%) in some local elections and demonstrating that there is potential support for an alternative to Rifondazione’s capitulation. Whether the Sinistra Critica decision to keep Prodi in power is really compatible with building a left alternative is, however, very dubious. With Italian workers facing a massive squeeze in terms of pay, conditions and pension rights, it is hard to see how an honest left can maintain in power the government which is forcing through an austerity budget.

The next few weeks in Italy will be important. A huge dispute is brewing over public service pay and conditions. The trade union federations are threatening strikes in the civil service and schools if negotiations over the next few days do not come up with an acceptable deal. It has already set strike dates.

A national strike of school workers (teachers, administrators and facilities staff) is due on 4 June. They have not had a new contract for 17 months: teachers’ salaries have not risen since 2005 and are currently less than ¤1300 (£900) a month, despite soaring inflation. Cuts in the education budget mean that schools cannot afford supply teachers and some have had to shorten the school day, while parents are asked to pay ever-increasing contributions to the cost of textbooks and materials.

Civil servants are also due to strike over their contract, on 1 June. Plans to raise the state pension age from 57 to 62, possibly by 2014, are also a point of contention, and the union leaderships are now in new negotiations with ministers. The union leaderships, closely linked to the governing parties, will not want to bring down the Prodi government, but the extent to which they can hold back their membership is yet to be seen.

In a recent article in International Viewpoint, Turigliatto and Cannavò describe the “end of the Rifondazione era” and say that as Prodi builds his new “Democratic Party” and the Rifondazione mainstream aim for a new “Left Party”, effectively a reconstitution of the old CP:

We… will devote ourselves to the rebuilding of an Alternative Left: alternative to the right, but also to the governmental centre-left, which is moderate and pledged to social compromise.

The alternative left is above all an alternative to what exists at the moment, therefore to the war and to neo-liberalism. This means voting against the war. And against the pensions “counter-reforms” or against the large scale projects that will wreck the environment; and likewise it means not sinking to the level of making compromises with the blackmailing tactics used by the Vatican gerontocracy. The alternative left will operate without “ifs and buts”. This is how we have tried to act as representatives in Parliament during the last few months, by trying to stimulate a huge debate, and being subjected to disciplinary measures like the expulsion of Franco from Rifondazione, and doing our best to stimulate a clarifying discussion within Rifondazione.

The Alternative Left will only be an alternative left insofar as it starts from the class struggle and the social movements and on this basis plans to restart a project of social recomposition and even of political recomposition.

In the immediate future, to talk about an alternative left means to build the “social opposition” to the Prodi government. The decision to remain “technically loyal” to the government as implemented in the Senate (while in the Second Chamber we did not vote) does not diminish but in fact reinforces this position. The Italian left lives in a state of paranoia about the return of the right and another victory by Berlusconi, but a consistent left cannot turn into the lightning conductor for this situation, and is entitled to choose when to oppose the government without having to make concessions. This is the guideline which led to the announcement of “external support” for the government, while making clear that the government will be judged on the basis of every single one of its measures and plans, starting with the vote against more money for the war in Afghanistan.

So today a new phase is opening which we will try to approach constructively, starting with the consolidation of the Associazone Sinistra Critica (Critical Left Association) as an instrument for launching a process of recomposition and rebuilding an alternative anti-capitalist left and one to the left of the present organisations.