From International Socialism, No.83, November 1975, pp.16-18.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
translated by Mike Balfour
This article is taken from the recording of a speech made by a member of the political secretariat of the Italian revolutionary organisation Avanguardia Operaia at a meeting of IS and AO representatives this summer.
Though it would be more useful to focus on the present aspects of the crisis of the Italian capitalist system, we must recall some of its structural characteristics and contradictions.
According to us, it should be considered an imperialist type system (of course of a second or third rank) largely dependent both on American imperialism and on the imperialism of the more developed European capitalist nations. Particularly IB Western Europe, Italian imperialism is the weakest link in the imperialist chain in that it is extremely backward in its productive and financial base compared to other European powers. AS for the contradictions that characterise all the more developed capitalist countries. Italian capitalism has faced a series of specific contradictions which have created special difficulties and made it particularly exposed to the effects of the world crisis. For example, as capitalism grows, a series of contradictions and obstructions develop, consisting in the gap in the development of the North and the South of the country; more generally in the existence in the country of areas of intensive economic and industrial growth and other areas of accentuated social and economic underdevelopment. It should be said at once that this kind of contradiction instead of diminishing has grown during the development of capitalism since the Second World War, leading to situations of real economic and social disintegration in the underdeveloped areas. Another contradiction which is typical of the other capitalist systems but which take a particularly serious form in Italy is the agricultural crisis. It has led on the one hand to a mass flight from the countryside, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and forcing people to migrate abroad or internally, and on the other to overcrowding in the centres of industrial development, especially in the North.
Another particularly important phenomenon in Italy is the high level of unemployment among intellectuals which is linked to the weakness of the productive and financial base of the country. Now each of these things obviously carries social implications of enormous consequence from the point of view of the structure of social classes and the relations between them. Another characteristic which needs to be mentioned is the existence of a very strong state capitalist sector which, however, has a very low level of productivity as a result of being used by the power bloc dominated by the Christian Democrats to create a system of patronage and sottagoverno.  This sector which was conceived as the motor of the whole Italian capitalist system, as the fundamental basis of a reformist policy of rationalisation of the whole system, has become to a large extent a huge parasitical body.
Another factor should be added to these weaknesses of Italian capitalism compared to the more developed capitalist countries. The Italian working class and in general the popular movement in Italy is traditionally one of the most militant movements that exist in Europe; this, despite the leadership of the working class movement, which is extremely powerful politically and economically and which still has a clearly reformist orientation. What has happened in Italy is that the traditional working class movement has succeeded in maintaining a general political control on the level of public electoral opinion, a general political influence over the popular masses, but it has not managed to control the actions of the movement in struggles. Since 1968 in particular there has been almost uninterrupted struggle which in different ways has not given the employers and the ruling class in general a moment’s breathing space. This is particularly important because it has prevented Italian capitalism from carrying through a strategy of capitalist reforms because it has weakened their political control over the working class; it became impossible to rely on the working class in such a way as to guarantee the political stability needed to carry through this strategy.
At the same time, all the aspects of the world capitalist crisis, from inflation to economic depression, have severely hit Italian capitalism precisely because of its structural weakness. This is why there has been no material basis for a reformist policy.
There is also a crisis in the political stability of the system. The dominant bloc of the ruling class in the Italian political system has always been represented basically by one party, the Christian Democrats, which has very special characteristics. It has always retained a vast electoral consensus since the end of the World War, including significant layers of popular masses. This has been because of the powerful ideological conditioning of Catholicism. Hence the importance for the balance of political forces in Italy of a new superstructural crisis, a crisis of political unity among the Catholics which has grown especially in the last few years. This crisis takes many forms; the first concerns the Trade Union movement.
The trade union movement, which had one unified organisation immediately after the Second World War underwent a split in 1945-1950 engineered by the CIA, that is the USA, which produced two further unions, one of Catholic inspiration, and the other social democratic. For the following ten years, these two unions played a divisive role in the working class movement, often as scab unions. Nevertheless it was in the Catholic trade union itself, during the big struggles around 1962 and onwards where working class tendencies grew which were no longer prepared to give up the struggle against their own exploitation for the sake of an ideology or the political unity of the Catholics. In a sense the most radical positions within the Italian trade union movement grew in some sections of the Catholic trade union, namely the metalworkers, from 1968 onwards. The result is that the majority of this originally Catholic trade union, the CISL, has broken its ties of political dependence on the Christian Democrats.
Another important example of the crisis of political unity among Catholics is the ACLI, the Catholic Association of Italian Workers. It is a political but not a party movement with an enormous strength because it grouped together workers from factories or areas under the strict control of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The ACLI’s were an instrument of penetration among workers of Christian Democrat politics based on the parishes, the grassroots of the Church hierarchy. But even this powerful organisation (it had over two million members) broke its ties of direct political dependence on the Christian Democrats from 1968 onwards and has taken an independent left-wing political stance.
There is a third element in the crisis, on the level of political and ideological opinion; a strong oppositionist movement has grown in Italy among Catholics who do not agree with the conservative policies of the Church, and who often adopt an advanced reformist or even revolutionary line.
The whole ideology of Catholicism as an instrument of the domination of the ruling class has entered into a crisis of such depth that the political strength of the Christian Democrats themselves and, their capacity to continue to play the sort of mystifying inter class role based on Catholic ideology, which they had played previously, has been shaken.
This crisis in the ideology of Catholicism, together with the inability of the reformist forces completely to absorb and control the militant struggles of the working class movement and the political and economic crisis in Italy and internationally, are the three factors which have plunged the system of ruling class domination in Italy into an ever increasing crisis. The result is the state of prolonged political instability in which the Italian ruling class has found itself for at least three years; a political instability which has robbed it of the strategic goals which it had sought since the 1960s; above all the Centre Left formula, a government alliance between the Christian Democrats, the Socialist Party, and the smaller Republican and Social-Democrat parties, has come to a definitive crisis.
At this point, in a situation of growing political and economic crisis, Italian capitalism has two possible alternatives; the first is that proposed by the Communist Party, the ‘Historic Compromise’, a complete overthrow of the old system of alliances and a shift to the left of the entire political axis based on a compromise between the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats. But this road is not practicable for the Christian Democrats because of the balance of forces inside the party and because during all this crisis the Christian Democrats has moved rightwards. If now it accepted the theory of the Historic Compromise it would be deeply split inside and this would severely damage its electoral support. The other reason why the Christian Democrats cannot accept the Historic Compromise is international; at a time when imperialism is going through an acute crisis, when the US (who continue to control the international policies of the Christian Democrats) have been weakened, when tension between the USSR and the US continues to grow, neither the Christian Democrats nor the US can afford to accept the entry of the Communist Party into the government This was explicitly stated by the US on various occasions; in particular the purpose of Ford’s last trip to Italy was to say ‘No Communists in the government!’ So for the Christian Democrats this is not the way out of the political and economic crisis which is afflicting the country. Since a centre-left government is even less likely for reasons already mentioned, all that remains is an authoritarian type solution, whatever form that might take. This solution, however, runs up against the growing militancy and politicisation of the working class movement which was clearly revealed in the last political elections. The conclusion is that the Italian ruling class seems to have no answer, no strategic solution to the increasing instability of the system.
Let us now look at the position of the working class movement in Italy. The characteristic of the Italian working class movement is that it has developed, over the last few years, in a period of almost uninterrupted and ever-intensifying struggles of an economic, social and political nature. In these struggles, the movement has grown, not only in quantity but in quality. It has expressed a level of militancy, a desire for radical change, an ever increasing anti-capitalist spirit. But it must be said that up to now, at the same time as the anti-capitalist movement has grown, the traditional organisations of the working class movement, the Communist Party and the reformist-led trade unions have been able to maintain their weight and political influence within the movement as a whole. The Communist Party and the trade unions have not been able to prevent (even if they had wanted to, as was often the case) the growth of the struggles which are aggravating the crisis of the capitalist system, but they have been able to maintain a general political control over the most important sections of the working class and popular movement. Essentially it can be said that today the Italian working class movement has a formidable defensive capacity, which is strong enough to prevent its ruling class opponent from imposing its own coherent solution to the crisis. But even here new elements are emerging: it is true that in a general political sense the reformists have maintained political control over the working class movement but contradictions are increasingly emerging between the anti-capitalist drive of the movement and the incapacity of the reformists to give it a political revolutionary expression. A very clear example was provided by the last elections in which the Communist Party together with the Socialist Party and the sections of the revolutionary left which took part in the elections won almost the majority of votes, 47½ per cent. But the Communist Party is not using this new strength to build an alternative to the Christian Democrats regime because it remains bound to its theory of the Historic Compromise, of a strategic alliance with the Christian Democrats.
Obviously this opens up a growing contradiction which is extremely favourable to the growth of the political influence and mass basis of the revolutionary left. There have been some very significant examples: campaigns launched by the revolutionary left on the question of abortion, against the fascists, for civil rights, have been condemned by the Communist Party but supported instead by a large part of the Communist rank and file, in some cases by middle-ranking leaders. This gives an idea of the capacity of the revolutionary line to penetrate into the very ranks of reformism. At the same time the revolutionary left has become a political reality in the working class movement This is certainly the greatest achievement won in Italy perhaps as in no other country. The revolutionary left has emerged from primitive fringe politics and now constitutes an active political component within the working class and popular movement The revolutionary left now has a growing influence in the trade union structure; the Base Committee Movement  has a growing influence even among the left union cadres. The situation is extremely favourable for the growth of an independent revolutionary line in the heart of the working class movement and for the possibility of exploiting those contradictions which have emerged in the reformist camp to which we have already referred. The political influence won by the revolutionary left was boosted by the result of the recent elections because now a number of revolutionary militants hold positions in local government, acting as an extension of the struggles which are growing in the country. Of course we are not following a parliamentary road and we know very well that it is not the way the revolutionary movement will win the leadership of the working class and popular masses but it opens up new political possibilities of great importance. It also has to be remembered that while the last elections were administrative elections they had a predominantly generalised political character.
Let us turn now to the question of AO. As well as the process of increasing political maturity and mass base, the Italian revolutionary left became polarised around three organisations, ourselves, the Partito Democratico di Unita Proletaria per il Comunismo, and Lotta Continua; three forces who are fairly equivalent in terms of public opinion.
But this parity is no longer true in terms of political influence in that AO’s political initiatives now often condition the conduct of the other two organisations and influence .their internal discussion, not by supporting one fraction as against another, but through the impact of our political initiatives. In this sense, the definition of the criteria for the building of a revolutionary party which we have been elaborating and which we spelled out in our last congress has been very important; in particular, the defining of what we call the ‘area’ of the revolution around which the party can be built This area’, according to us, is made up not only of the main forces of the revolutionary left but also of a whole number of local revolutionary groupings who do not yet adhere to any national organisation. But these revolutionary groups represent only a small percentage. In reality, the largest section of the potential revolutionary party is made up of the vast sectors of the proletarian and popular masses who, while not politically conditioned by the revolutionary forces, show a militancy and a growing level of political consciousness. This group consists above all of young workers whose first experience of trade union and political struggle was 1968.
Another very important component is made up of the vast masses still influenced on a general level by the reformist parties, but who are increasingly going through a crisis because of the inability of the reformists to give a political expression to their militancy.
Finally, there is the phenomenon of the oppositionist Catholics, which is very important given the nature of the country and who, on a vast scale, are moving towards revolutionary positions.
We have a non-sectarian notion of the building of the party and maintain that our task is to try to win hegemony in terms of our strategy and politics.
Thus our notion of the building of the Party around this huge area is not a mere extension of AO but the development of AO as the determining element in the fusion of forces very much wider than those directly under our influence. We attach great importance as part of this process to the unification of the main organisations of the revolutionary left because clearly it would multiply the impact of the revolutionary left on this wider revolutionary area. In this sense we are carrying out a policy based on proposals to the other two organisations for unity of action around concrete objectives and fields of struggle – from the antifascist struggle to the struggle over abortion, from the defence of jobs to trade union struggles and in general around all the struggles against the ruling class and its state which are developing at this moment. The most important thing is that on many of these questions we have been able to impose unity because often the other organisations were not very ready to involve themselves fully. At the same time we are trying to force and encourage a political debate with these organisations in order to fight against the opportunistic, sometimes primitive, positions which still exist in them. But since there are a whole series of obstacles to be overcome before political unity is achieved, we are not renouncing the independent growth of our organisation, of its strength and political influence. We believe that the growth of our organisation and of its political weight in terms of size and quality will help to achieve the goal of political unity.
1. Literally, the ‘underground’, the vast network of interest created and controlled by the Christian Democrats which unofficially administers Italy.
2. The CUBs (United Base Committees) are rank and file groups active in most of the big factories and workplaces and largely under the influence of AO.
Last updated on 21.2.2008