Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Italy's past weighs on the present

The polarisation in politics is nowhere stronger than in Italy where the fascists won 5 million votes in the elections and the right wing coalition is poised to govern. Dave Beecham argues that the left can defeat this unstable coalition, but it has to get organised

More than a quarter of a million marched against the fascists in Milan last month: workers' power has to be mobilised to stop the right
More than a quarter of a million marched against the fascists in Milan last month: workers' power has to be mobilised to stop the right

The stark outcome of the Italian elections is that fascists are in government for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Yet reading the reactions of most of the press you would not believe this had happened.

In Italy the main right wing papers have protested furiously about foreign 'distortions' of the right wing victory. In Britain liberal journalists such as Patricia Clough in the Independent and Martin Kettle in the Guardian have sought to show that the new government is simply about the modernisation of an archaic system dominated by graft and political patronage. And in a determined effort to rewrite history the Economist has argued that Mussolini's fascism was not really so bad after all--a few broken heads and a dose of castor oil--and quite different from the Nazis.

This reaction reflects how desperate Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia movement won most votes in the election, is to convey the impression that he is in control. His propaganda machine is working overtime to convince foreign investors, especially the Americans, that Italy can be stabilised and cleaned up. But in reality there are huge divisions between the three partners in the new right wing coalition--Forza Italia, the federalist Northern League and the fascists of the MSI.

An outright split can only be prevented by a political fix: a referendum simultaneously devolving power to regions and centralising power in the hands of a new federal president. The new regime hopes to use this to divide and isolate the left, while at the same time forcing through a Thatcherite programme to save the state from bankruptcy and make workers pay the price.

Proposals include massive privatisation, tax cuts for the rich, increases in indirect taxes, abolition of the state employment subsidy, a future state pension reduced to only £25 a week and an end to guaranteed health care. It's a familiar catalogue to those who've lived through the last 15 years in Britain. Yet the new government faces a worse crisis and is talking of a programme far more savage than Thatcher's over a much shorter time.

Italy's leading business magazine, Il Mondo, voiced the fears of a large section of the Italian ruling class when it warned that a 'rigid and aggressive government of the right would open up a really worrying scenario.' The new government is far from assured of the support of the major capitalists: neither the Confindustria, Italy's CBI, nor Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, has supported Berlusconi. Their position reflects their fears of the consequences of polarisation.

But, although the election results were by no means a complete disaster, in key cities the left wing parties did not win working class support.

In Milan and the cities of the Lombardy region, the Leagues and Forza Italia won every seat but one. In Turin the left narrowly held on to four out of eight seats. Areas known for left wing traditions, such as Mirafiori in Turin and Sesto San Giovanni in Milan, went to the right.

In Rome the fascists became the largest single party, with 26 percent of the vote. Throughout the south the fascists scored between 17 percent and 27 percent of the vote, compared with the national average of 13.5 percent. In towns and cities along the Adriatic coast the fascists got between 24 percent and 33 percent.

By contrast, the left did relatively well where its traditional organisation has remained intact, in cities such as Genoa and La Spezia and the central regions of Reggio-Emilia and Tuscany. And the left wing vote was also strong in towns where workers have fought back over the past year, for example Crotone in Calabria where chemical workers took over the town to stop the closure of a factory.

It is important to set the election in context, and in particular the size of the vote for the fascist MSI (running under the name of National Alliance).

The centre-left vote--Christian Democrat and Socialist Party--largely collapsed. On the left, the PDS (former Communist Party) got fewer votes than for many years. On the other hand, the vote for the 'hard left', around 6.5 percent and 2.5 million votes, was higher than its previous peak (4.4 percent in 1968). On the right, Forza Italia and the League combined to take nearly all the votes of the previous centre parties in the north. In the south the fascists captured the votes which had previously gone to the Christian Democrats. At 13.5 percent the vote for the MSI was much higher than previously but this was the first election since the war where the fascists could benefit from the respectability (and television coverage) given them by their alliance with Berlusconi.

Anyone who doubts the true nature of the MSI merely has to open their eyes and unblock their ears. Before the election the MSI leader Gianfranco Fini made a 'pilgrimage' to the graves of murdered partisans to demonstrate his repudiation of the past. Directly the results were announced, Fini appeared in Rome surrounded by 1,000 goose stepping thugs. He then gave an interview to the newspaper La Stampa in which he declared that Mussolini was 'the greatest statesman of the 20th century' and that Berlusconi would have great difficulty in living up to him.

The left is still very strong but its 'official' representatives are completely wedded to constitutional haggling while much of the far left completely ignores the need to build a united front. There are the ingredients of a very dangerous situation, in which the fascists can pose as the people committed to the defence of workers' interests.

The left mobilised for a demonstration on 25 April, the anniversary of the uprising which led to the downfall of fascism, which is a symbolic day of remembrance celebrated by all the political forces of the left and right which opposed the dictatorship.

The initiative (launched by the daily left wing newspaper, Il Manifesto) was an opportunity for a show of strength to go on the offensive against the MSI. The demonstration received massive support. The PDS, however, immediately weakened its impact by inviting Berlusconi to take part. The socialists active in the 'autonomous' unions, the Cobas, also issued a statement supporting the demonstration--but mainly used the occasion to denounce the PDS. Luckily, many marchers jostled and heckled Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League.

The PDS strategy is to rely on forming a bloc with the defeated and discredited centre parties (the former Christian Democrats) to defend the constitution. This is a dangerous game, which rests almost exclusively on parliamentary manoeuvres. It invites the right to use a referendum to get its way. And the constitution is a two edged weapon.

The struggle over trade union representation is at the heart of the battle between the left and right. Last year the government concluded an agreement with the three 'recognised' trade union federations--CGIL, CISL and UIL--which guaranteed them one third of the places in the new works councils which are being elected this year. This deal has been opposed by the Cobas, by the other autonomous unions which have been seeking to cuddle up to Berlusconi--and by the fascists. The MSI has always had its own trade union centre, known as CISNAL, which for years was an empty shell. As a result of the general election, however, there are now 14 CISNAL representatives in parliament, and it claims a membership of 1.6 million 'active workers' (excluding pensioners).

If this figure were true it would make CISNAL the third largest grouping in the country after the CGIL and the CISL. CISNAL certainly lies about its membership--for example it claims thousands of members in the public sector who just don't exist. However, it does have a base in the south, above all among construction workers and among rural workers, who are often told which union to join by the boss.

CISNAL's revival is an ominous sign of what could happen. Yet the far left inside the Cobas continues to play with fire. Last autumn, when the main union confederations called a four hour general strike, sections of the left went their own way, organised separate demonstrations or alternative strike days. For years the far left has promoted the idea of 'autonomy' as if this were an end in itself, instead of waging a determined fight inside the existing working class organisations. This has let the right wing and reformist leaders off the hook, and it has lent support to those who now want to divide and fragment genuine workers' organisation.

The MSI and CISNAL are quite capable of profiting from this situation. CISNAL has already launched a demagogic campaign for the restoration of the cost of living protection given up by CGIL, CISL and UIL in an austerity pact with the government last year. It is now putting forward 'left' demands on pay and hours in the engineering industry. CISNAL now claims to have 'no direct links' with the MSI and states that its aim will be to protect workers' interests and the 'social state' against the effects of the free market policies of the new government.

These are critical days for Italian socialists. The legacy of right wing reformism from the Communist Party and now the PDS represents a real brake on the movement. At the same time the infantile behaviour of the far left over many years has helped create a situation where division and fragmentation is accepted as normal. So far CISNAL has not made great inroads into the working class. It would be stupid to be complacent. In Vercelli, a city midway between Milan and Turin, the works council elections for the transport workers resulted in CISNAL winning half the 14 seats, the same as CGIL, CISL and UIL combined.

Unless socialists consistently fight to win unity in action and put pressure on the official leadership to fight for working class interests there is a real danger that anger and frustration will turn inwards and begin to undermine union organisation itself.

But socialists do have the forces to resist--and to turn the tide. The new government is riddled with contradictions. Berlusconi is attempting to ride three horses moving in different directions. There are clear signs that many of those who voted for the League want nothing to do with the MSI. Many of those who voted for Berlusconi will find themselves the victims of his policies--not in a matter of years, but in months. These people can be won to fight back and build the socialist organisation that is now desperately needed.

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