Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Italy: on the edge of a volcanoe

Italian politics have split down the middle with the former Communist Party emerging as the strongest national force. David Beecham examines the history of the left and the prospects now

Thousands of metalworkers protest against the government in 1977
Thousands of metalworkers protest against the government in 1977

For 45 years the right wing Christian Democrats and their allies have controlled the Italian political system. Now the web of corruption and patronage which gave them that control has been exposed, discrediting virtually the entire establishment. Support for the centre-right has collapsed. As a result, first the right wing populists of the Northern League and now the fascists of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) have pulled in the votes by posing as 'outsiders' who would clean up the system.

Nowhere was the polarisation sharper than in Naples. The collapse of the old system of Christian Democrat patronage and vote buying let in Mussolini's granddaughter as the standard bearer of the right. Standing against her in the election run-off for mayor was Antonio Bassolino, ex-docker and union official, a leading member of the left wing of the former Communist Party, the PDS. The victory of the left was unprecedented. Across most of southern Italy and Sicily, the elections symbolised a break with the corruption and right wing domination of the past.

This dramatic change, coupled with the solid working class vote across the northern half of the country, suggests that the coming general election could result in a victory for the left, dominated by the PDS. The prospect of a national PDS victory has already led a minority of the ruling class to call for an electoral alliance with the fascists. Leading industrialists are hurriedly trying to assemble a coalition to block the left. Why should the prospect of a PDS victory cause such alarm? Its policies are much like those of John Smith's Labour Party. It has agreed to support the current austerity budget in parliament. Even the symbols of its past have been jettisoned.

The answer lies in its history and its roots and the exclusion of the Communist Party (PCI) from government, which has been a central element in Italian politics since 1948.

The PCI was the largest workers' party in Europe, if not the world. Its great strength was rooted in its resistance to fascism. At the end of 1945 the PCI had 1,760,000 members.

But the party's politics were wedded to policies promoted by Stalin through his loyal Italian lieutenant, Togliatti. The PCI was convinced that the Christian Democrats (DC) could be a progressive force and made concession after concession to keep its alliance intact. The class struggle was suppressed in favour of electoral pacts.

As a result the DC was able to construct deep roots, bolstered by the power of the Catholic hierarchy and by funds from the United States. From 1948 on, a network of state and semi public bodies was set up to channel aid to its supporters. Jobs, land, pensions, grants--everything carried a political price. The DC did not govern only by graft: it carried through partial reforms under pressure from below. But it kept control in the hands of its own organisations, and any genuine attempt at land reform was met with military repression.

The DC was, however, never able to govern on its own. It dominated the government but it depended on a motley collection of small parties and factions, one reason behind the system of kickbacks and illegal funding which took off in the 1960s.

The PCI was rigorously excluded from power. In the first part of the 1950s, there was a huge employers' offensive. Tens of thousands were sacked. Mass unemployment was used to keep union members cowed. Workplace union organisation was repressed. The union movement was split along political lines. But the PCI had more than 2 million members in 1956. Throughout central Italy the PCI dominated both political and social life in many towns and villages. It became an institution at local level, even though abused and excluded by the bosses' parties nationally.

The revelation of Stalin's crimes and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by Russian troops in 1956 cost the PCI thousands of supporters. The PCI began to distance itself gradually from Russia--a process which culminated in the formal break from Moscow in 1981. In the ten years after 1956 the PCI lost a quarter of its members. The boom years of the 'Italian miracle' were transforming society. In 15 years more than 9 million people were involved in internal migration. Cities such as Rome, Turin and Milan grew enormously, their industries grabbing cheap labour from the south. These new workers faced appalling conditions: bad housing, short term contracts, racism, 12 hour shifts. The workers, men and women, had no tradition of union organisation, but it was their anger and militancy which fuelled the great explosion of 1969.

The 1969 strike movements originated in pay demands: for rises irrespective of productivity, automatic promotion for semi-skilled workers, parity across the country. The demands not only overcame the sectionalism of different factories and industries, but also brought workers in the north and south out on strike together. There was a huge shift in workers' organisation and activity: mass pickets, factory occupations and internal pickets, joint assemblies of students and workers.

Above all the rank and file began to organise independently of the trade union officials. Rank and file committees took up the slogans of the unions and made them reality. The rent is too high? Don't pay it. The bus fares have increased? Agnelli (the Fiat boss) will pay. When the unions organised a one day strike against rent rises in July 1969, the demonstration which left the giant Fiat Mirafiori works replaced the official slogan 'no more rent rises' with one of its own: 'What do we want? Everything!'

By the early 1970s there were perhaps 50,000 people involved in revolutionary groups, mostly students and young workers. The combined membership of the two main union federations rose from around 4 million in 1968 to 5.4 million in 1972 and 6.7 million in 1975. Entirely new groups of workers were involved: in seven years the number of teachers enrolled in the CGIL rose from 4,000 to 90,000.

Italian politics changed fundamentally. Sections of the ruling class panicked, others began to organise clandestinely. In December 1969 a bomb exploded in Milan, killing 12 people. An anarchist was framed and then conveniently 'leaped to his death' from the window of the police station. It was the first of many incidents which conspirators inside the secret state staged as part of the 'strategy of tension'--designed to provoke a crackdown, to divide the workers' movement and to confine the PCI to a role of permanent opposition.

The struggles of the early 1970s brought the PCI and DC neck and neck. In the 1976 general election the PCI polled 34.4 percent to the DC's 38.7 percent. The PCI gained dramatically from the upturn in the struggle. But the activities of the conspirators, together with the shock of recession and economic crisis, succeeded in shifting the PCI to the right. The coup in Chile in September 1973 was taken as a direct warning of what could happen in Italy if the workers' movement did not behave itself. A month later Enrico Berlinguer, the PCI's new general secretary, committed the party to the 'historic compromise'.

This was a rehash of the old idea of collaboration with the Christian Democrats. Communists and Catholics would develop a joint moral and ethical code to save Italy. The PCI was not in power but it would not act to cause the government's downfall. On this basis, Berlinguer declared, the government would carry out necessary reforms. Of course, it did nothing of the sort.

The PCI's collaboration with the DC resulted in huge disorientation on the left. There was a major contradiction in the PCI's role. At national level it sustained a corrupt, right wing government. But after the mid-1970s, the party held office in almost every city across the north and centre of the country, usually as the dominant partner in a left wing coalition. The PCI sought to create models of local administration to prove it was fit to govern. Bologna was the most famous example. But as the crisis of the Italian state grew worse, the PCI was increasingly forced to turn on its own supporters. And its collaboration with the system meant that party and union officials became involved in graft and corruption.

By the end of the 1970s the PCI had lost 1.5 million votes: its support among workers and the young was significantly eroded. The historic compromise was abandoned in favour of the 'democratic alternative'--an electoral alliance of the PCI and the Socialist Party.

But just as the Social Contract in Britain disarmed workers in the 1970s, so did the historic compromise in Italy. In October 1980 Fiat provoked a strike, split the workforce and organised a back to work movement. It was the signal for a much more generalised attack. Since then, wages have been held down, shopfloor organisation attacked, and the employers have pushed through a huge productivity offensive.

The stage is now set for a new confrontation. The Italian ruling class is deeply divided in the run up to the general election. On one side are those like Luigi Lecchini, former steel industry boss and ex-president of the Italian CBI, who argues:

At the same time Silvio Berlusconi (Italy's Rupert Murdoch) has called for a vote for the fascists to keep the left out, and other bosses say the PCI is 'inexperienced, and not sufficiently rooted in civil society'.

These divisions partly reflect the peculiarities of Italian capitalism and the state machine. The system is so deeply rotten that any attempt at reform threatens the wealth and even the lives of a large section of the ruling class and its hangers-on, who will not hesitate at voting for a fascist organisation, especially as the MSI is busy trying to construct a 'national alliance' and bury its past. A sanitised MSI is a more attractive proposition for the bosses than the federalist Northern League. The MSI is in favour of a strong state, and Yugoslavia is not a strong advert for the break up of Italy.

Despite the fact that the PCI and now the PDS has bent over backwards to become a force for moderation, it represents a threat. A government dominated by the PDS, now the largest party at national level, would raise expectations and act as a focus for the enormous anger which now exists inside the working class. But without the PDS in government, the coming assault on public spending and welfare risks causing a massive explosion. The Italian working class movement, with its long and heroic history of combat, is an enormous force.

Both the right wing and the PDS are now urgently seeking to claim the middle ground. The PDS strategy of 'progressive alliances' is well suited to council elections: but it is much more uncertain when it comes to a general election, which is now on a first past the post basis. Those Christian Democrat politicians untainted by the corruption scandals are now seeking to construct their own centre-right alliance. So the elections may well be contested by three alliances, with the dominant forces hiding behind a coalition.

Whatever government emerges is sure to be extremely fragile. And a volcano is waiting to blow.

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