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International Socialism, Winter 1967/68


Roberto Vitale

The Italian Left:
A Report


From International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967/68, pp.33-36.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The real question behind the debate within the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1961-2 was not whether to break with the anti-working class, reformist essence of Stalinism but whether or not it was necessary to abandon the old language and rigid bureaucratic style of politics imposed upon the PCI by Stalinism. Those who described this debate from the perspective of a liberal or Left-liberal position were quite misled in seeing it as about democracy within the Party, and made no attempt at a class analysis of the politics involved, of the actual relationship of the PCI bureaucracy to its own membership, much less to the workers at large. To put it another way: the most important question was not that concerning the abstraction, bourgeois democracy, but rather the real struggle to overthrow capitalism, and the PCI and Stalinism’s failure in general to carry on that struggle.

In practice, of course, the PCI leadership was interested not in internal democracy within the Party, nor workers’ councils (the current fashion), but in a ‘liberalisation’ or ‘democratisation’ of the Party’s public image so as to facilitate the PCI’s entry into an open alliance with liberal welfare capitalism. The debate was really the first clear attempt by the PCI leadership to adopt systematically a Social Democratic ideology and to abandon the old ‘sectarian’ anti-capitalist, pseudo-Marxist rhetoric of an earlier Stalinist period.

What was behind this attempt? The simple fact was that the reformism of the PCI had succeeded in destroying the Party’s capacity to fight the system, even for limited reformist gains. Thus, at the beginning, in the mid-fifties before Hungary, the capitalist class, led by shrewd modern corporate giants like FIAT, began to break the PCI’s hold on the trade-union movement and consequently the Party’s hold on the working class. Between 1954 and 1957, FIAT management broke the hold of the Left trade-union federation (CGIL, jointly PCI and Socialist, PSI, controlled) in their factories. CGIL control at FIAT in 1954 had been 63 per cent (already down from 75 per cent in 1948); in 1957, it was 21 per cent. By 1955, again before the Hungarian revolt, the CGIL had lost majority control over the Italian labour movement. The CGIL, partly because of the organised power and prestige of the PCI apparatus which ran the Federation like some feudal barony, still had more popular backing than the Catholic (ISL) or Social Democrat (UIL) federations. But workers gained decreasingly in terms of real economic gains from their support of PCI and the CGIL. Between 1957 and 1962, partly under the impact of the Hungarian revolution and Krushchev’s revelations, the PCI began to suffer decline. In the mid-fifties, Party membership had been over 2 million. In 1962, it was down to 1.7 million. In this period, the Party closed down 16,192 Party cells and a third of its trade-union cells (37 per cent in Turin, 27 per cent in Genoa, 22 per cent in Milan). In 1962, the working-class composition of the Party was down to 38 per cent, and the downward trend has continued since then.

The PCI, despite its huge bureaucratic apparatus (30,000 functionaries in 1962, 50,000 today), the prestige and sentimental attachments created by the heroic sacrifices of the Party militants during the Resistance, despite their control of the CGIL and the Left of the PSI, could not continue to squeeze enough concessions out of Italian capitalism to keep working-class loyalties. The workers voted with their feet, and walked out of the PCI. By 1960-61, it was clear that the workers, who had themselves paid for Italy’s ‘economic miracle,’ wanted more, and were prepared to create the Centre Left to do it.

The dilemma facing the Party bureaucracy is severe, and it has chosen the way out of becoming a strictly electoral Party, part of the (capitalist) status quo, and seeking a renewed alliance with its friends of old (1944-7), the Christian Democrats, and, of course, the Government socialists (now united in a new Right-wing pro-NATO party, the PSU).

However, the PCI may be a sheep that has tried frequently in the past to ape the wolf; Italian capitalism still cannot accept that the PCI is not in fact a wolf trying to play the sheep. The PCI is not an ordinary Social Democratic reformist party. The word ‘Communist’ still frightens many good bourgeois Italians, particularly the small independent capitalists, merchants, small manufacturers and independent ‘artisans.’ Too many middle and upper class conservatives remember all too well that this same Party once stood at the head of an armed socialist working class. More and more isolated from the working class, separated from the PSI which always in the past gave it cover for its manoeuvres, the Party is still not respectable enough for the middle-class company it wants to keep. Thus, for the past five or six years, the PCI has desperately striven to eliminate all memory of its Bolshevik past. But this erodes its political appeal, for the Christian Democrats see that the PCI will do almost anything, make almost any concessions, in order to get into the Government before its trade-union and Party base is completely lost. This impending disaster which holds all kinds of revolutionary implications, is not as far off as it seems.

The PCI has already made major concessions to the Centre-Left on the trade-union front. A series of CGIL-led political strikes in 1962-4 failed to force the Centre Left into including the PCI in its Coalition plans and the Party’s trade-union leadership agreed not to fight the Government’s new five year economic plan. The PCI was afraid that a real fight against the plan (the usual: investments-profits-growth first, consumption and wages later, maybe) would split the CGIL where Nenni’s Government socialists still have a base, so jeopardising even further the prospects of PCI participation in a Coalition. Thus, if the PSI, once in the Government, quietly gave in to the conservative Christian Democrats, the PCI – to preserve CGIL ‘unity’ and its contact with the PSI – gave in to the PSI and the Government.

On a political level, the PCI has tried to embarrass the Government on foreign policy, on its Vietnam and NATO positions. Yet this also backfires on occasions, for workers sometimes feel that the Party ‘plays polities’ on these issues instead of defending working-class interests. The PCI’s attempt to find something, anything, to differentiate itself as Left-wing without this really threatening the bourgeoisie directly carries little conviction, and certainly does not push the Government nor the PSI Leftwards (ie towards inviting the PCI to share the spoils of office). However, the attempt has persuaded many ex-PCI and ex-PSI dissidents. Some of these believe that the PCI’s position on NATO and its attempt to bring the Government down on this issue is proof that the PCI is still a real opposition party, still not beyond hope of salvage. Thus, they are privately critical of the PCI but publicly support the PCI on foreign policy and accept its claim to leadership of the ‘Left.’ Such people thus neutralise their impact and, by omission or commission, serve the purposes of the PCI leadership. Again, even those who are more openly hostile to the PCI have permitted their criticism to be restricted to the least advantageous issues, viz. foreign policy. However, most Italian workers, unfortunately but understandably, care little about NATO or Vietnam, but are prepared to act on the question of trade-union failure to represent their interests and the Government’s domestic programme.

Regardless of all this, between 1962 and 1966, the PCI lost another 200,000 members. More than this, some 90 per cent of its remaining working-class members are over the age of 30. Again, 80 per cent of all its members are over 30. By contrast, half the working class is today under the age of 30.

The PSI has followed roughly the same course as the PCI with the exception that it has always been a Social Democrat party. Once the PSI took a loyalty oath against mixing with bad company like the PCI, its entry into the Centre-Left Coalition in 1964 was assured. Yet Government sinecures cannot save Nenni. In 1963, during the peak of the manoeuvres to form the Centre-Left Coalition, the PSI won 13.8 per cent of the general election vote. But in subsequent local elections in 1964, 65 and 66, the PSI vote dropped steadily until, in 1966, it was around 9-10 per cent. In Italian politics, four or five per cent vote shifts are landslides. Working-class resentment at the failure of the Centre Left to produce more than hot air was one of the main reasons for Nenni’s troubles. The other was the formation in January, 1964, of the PSIUP out of a PCI fragment (the old Vecchietti-led faction) and the Basso group of the PSI, plus other independent Left-wing dissidents (for example, Libertini). The PSIUP took most of the PSPs small youth movement, most of the Party’s young activists in general, and part of the PSI’s trade-union base. In its first year of life, the PSIUP recruited 160,000 members (130,000 right after the split with the PSI), and in its first electoral test, won one per cent of the vote. Since then its vote has risen to about three per cent. It is safe to say that almost all these votes have come out of Nenni’s pocket.

The failure of the Centre Left to push through its reforms, and the success of the Christian Democrat centre in pushing through a thoroughly capitalist economic plan (the Pieraccini Plan) has hurt Nenni badly, in terms of his rank-and-file support. Also, because of Nenni’s inevitable collapse on foreign policy – now complete, and including a defence of NATO, pro-Israel in the Middle East, a Fulbright line on Vietnam – new Left-wing splits are developing inside Nenni’s old ‘autonomist’ caucus and the Lombardi group. All of these factors have led to Nenni becoming more and more dependent on the Social Democrat Party (PSDI) right-wingers and less and less on his old Party associates. Thus the merger of the PSDI and the PSI, although it immensely helped Nenni’s power against his own followers, cannot stop the rot in the wider political context.

The PSDI has sought to capture the lion’s share at the PSI’s expense. Already in 1963, the PSDI won six per cent of the vote, a better performance than for many years. This spring, the new united PSDI-PSI Party (called the PSU) ran candidates for the first time. They won about 11 per cent of the vote, so that, if we assume the PSDI would have won six per cent again, the PSI, instead of bringing the united Party another 10 per cent of the votes (roughly what it achieved in 1966), lost half its already reduced share. It remains to be seen whether this trend continues in the general elections next year.

Naturally, the PCI and the PSIUP (operating now as a united front) will attempt to nibble away at Nenni’s Left-wing, partly with the hope of undermining the Centre Left’s electoral base. The issue they have chosen at the juncture is NATO. Both hope that the PSIUP will be able to ‘liberate’ the Lombardi Left-wingers from the PSU, or at least from supporting the Centre Left in Parliament on the NATO issue long enough to force the Christian Democrats to accept a ‘broadened Left-wing’ Government. Yet, in fact, neither the PCI nor the PSIUP have a real alternative to offer the workers in place of the politics of the Centre-Left coalition. What they propose is a Centre Left with the accent on the ‘Left,’ rather than the ‘Centre’ as it is now (despite Nenni’s protestations to the contrary). Without a militant and threatening working-class movement – that is, a mass movement in open struggle against the system – every and any Left party which enters the Government will become the prisoner of the conservatives. My personal view is that the PSIUP will grow a little next year, at the expense of both the PCI and the old PSI, and then the PSI’s ‘Opening to the Left’ charade will be repeated, except now with open PCI approval: that is, the PSIUP will unwittingly give the PCI and Italian capitalism the means they need to achieve a reform-capitalist government with Communist support, the same system but now dressed in the terminology of the PCI.

This means that the PSIUP will be destroyed except as a bureaucratic shell or nameplate to be used by the PCI in its united-front manoeuvres.

The PSIUP was formed a month or so after Nenni entered the Moro Centre-Left Government in December 1963. From the beginning it has tried to present itself as the most militant opponent (after the PCI, that is) the workers have in fighting the evils of the Centre Left. The image the PSIUP has sought to create is of a new, fresh, Left-whig socialist party in search of new ideas and strategies to defeat and overthrow Italian capitalism. In this sense, the PCI (which, of course, has its own interest in damning the PSIUP) is not too far from the truth when it accuses the PSIUP of ‘maximalist’ and sectarian tendencies. Maximalism in Italy at the time of the first World War was the equivalent of Kautskyism in Germany – revolutionary and Marxist in words, but very short and reformist in deeds. The PSIUP has tried to take advantage of both Nenni’s open capitulation to capitalism and the PCI’s covert capitulation.

The crisis in the PCI has created a milieu of ex-PCI members who are considerably Left of the Party leadership on all questions. It is to this wing of the Left (very loosely, this is the ‘New Left’) and to the PCI rank-and-file Left-wingers that the PSIUP makes its appeal. At the same time, at the leadership level, the PSIUP bureaucracy attempts to pull towards itself and the PCI the Lombardi faction of the old PSI (this group occupied the old centre of the PSI, now the Left of the PSU, and is Left on foreign policy and right on domestic issues). The PSIUP attacks Nenni for breaking the ‘unity of the workers’ movement’ by breaking with the PCI, and calls for a return to a socialist-PCI united-front opposition which would, if the price were right, not be averse to becoming the Government. As far as capturing Nenni’s base, the PSIUP has not been so successful but has drawn blood. The PSIUP’s 3-3.5 per cent share of the poll this spring was very respectable for a two year-old party. But as far as the PCI’s Left-wing is concerned, the PSIUP seem to be unable to hold many of the young, radical and brighter activists. The Party’s implication in the PCI’s phantom struggle with the Centre-Left, their fear of really attacking the PCI except in dulcet terms, has turned the PSIUP opposition to the PCI into a game. Furthermore, the PSIUP parliamentarians and trade-union leaders like Vittorio Foa support the PCI completely. When in 1965, the PCI tacitly supported the Centre Left’s economic plan, Foa at the 1965 CGIL Congress went along with the PCI. The PSIUP fraction voted for the PCI’s limited support formula without a murmur. Simultaneously, the PSIUP paper, Mondo Nuovo, unblushingly attacked the plan as a ‘capitalist plan,’ ‘made to order for Confindustria’ (Italy’s CBI) etc. The double game has so far only earned the PSIUP the dubious reputation of being considered ‘sectarian’ by the PCI, ‘extremist’ by the bourgeois press, and dishonest and opportunist by anti-PCI youth militants.

The posture of the PSIUP in relationship to the PCI suggests that it will not unify and lead any New Left built in Italy. Within the PSI, it is not merely Vecchietti, notoriously a pro-PCI man from time immemorial, but all the well-known Left-leaders of the former PSI that accept the PCI’s position. Basso and Libertini – and of course, Foa (Secretary-General of the CGIL) – maintain a public line of uncritical unity with the PCI – ‘to strengthen the workers’ opposition to the Centre-Left.’ The PSIUP would not have been created without the pressure of the Left rank-and-file in the PSI on Vecchietti-Basso-Libertini to leave the PSI at just the moment when the PCI was pressuring them to stay in the PSI and fight Nenni from the inside. There is strong evidence that the PCI did not favour the PSIUP split from the PSI. In any case, once achieved, the PSIUP leadership shows no sign of formulating any line which is independent of the PCI.

The New Left in Italy, as elsewhere, is not an organised movement but rather a mood, a milieu and an agitational slogan. It is naturally composed almost entirely of youth and young adults in their twenties. Many are ex-members of the PCI, the PSI and, already, of the PSIUP. Some have joined the four or five tiny pro-Chinese sects or the two or three Trotskyist groups that have grown, like mushrooms, around the dying roots of the PCI. But many, probably the majority, have not joined anything. Numerous magazines are one by-product of this. The one element which unites all these groups is militant support for the revolution in the Third World (the Vietcong, Castro and Guevara are the chief heroes), and violent hostility towards the PCI leadership who they consider Social Democrats and natural capitulationists to capitalism. The anti-capitalism of the New Left is emotional, moralistic, but no less real. It is not based upon ideological abstraction alone but an instinctive personal reaction against the rottenness of life for the majority under modern capitalism. It is not, however, oriented towards the working class except in words and general good intentions. The key political questions are Vietnam and capitalist alienation and brutality. On domestic political questions, aside from a clear rejection of the PCI and the PSI in emotional terms, the New Left does not seem to have any real programme or strategy. At most, it might be said somewhat rashly, their politics is militant anti-capitalist reformism. Sometimes, attempts are made to reach factory workers, but the agitational line is fairly crude – fight the Centre Left because it is a capitalist government; oppose the PCI and CGIL leadership because it sells out; struggle, don’t accept the status quo! How is this to be done? By supporting the anti-imperialist struggle in Vietnam and South America against US capitalist imperialism.

This position, if it can be called that, is a start, and certainly better than nothing. But as some of the New Left activists recently said, the propaganda (which stressed Vietnam and not Italian capitalism or shop-floor conditions) made few recruits. The reasons for this substitution of foreign policy for domestic issues are two. First, foreign policy is the general historical point of departure for the Italian New Left – the political break with the PCI was precipitated by the issues of Vietnam and the Sino-Soviet dispute. Russian collaboration with the US, and the PCI’s wholehearted defence of this collaboration, disgusted thousands of PCI members. The Maoist attack, opportunistic as it is, is no less accurate in attacking the Russians as defenders of capitalism domestically as well as abroad, and the attack has broken the back of the Stalinist mystique in Italy. Some Left-wing PSIUP members have gingerly begun to toy with the idea that Russia just may be a new class society and therefore, that class has to be overthrown. The driving force for this Left-wards shift is the revolution in the third world. The PCI and the Russians, by falling short on this question, have lost the politically active youth and many adult militants as well.

The second reason is that, coming out of the experience of the PCI and PSI and never having seen an independent mass movement – much less a revolutionary working class in struggle – the New Left socialists tend to be elitist and, in some cases, openly hostile to the Italian working class. This fact gives some idea of the distance that has to be travelled in Italy before an anti-capitalist mass movement is conceivable. The most radical, potentially revolutionary, elements of the New Left do not see the possibility, and in some sadder cases, the real need, for a working-class revolution. What they propose instead to Italian workers is an abstract proletarian solidarity with the international revolution against American imperialism, without any real discussion of a revolution against Italian capitalism which is, naturally, the central question for Italian workers. This is partly sectarianism but also a deep lack of faith in the masses’ capacity to act.

The New Left is more influential than its amorphous, fluid and changing character suggests. Thus, the Left-wing caucus in the PCI youth federation, at least in Milan, is naturally part of the New Left milieu, as also the PSIUP youth. There are no sharp lines of demarcation between the organised groups. In the 2 June anti-Vietnam war demonstration, all the groups marched together in the same contingent – Maoists, FGCI (young Communists), PSIUP youth, and unaffiliated subversives, including the picturesque simpatico provos a la italiania.

Of course, odd individuals in all these parties and groups are open to a properly revolutionary perspective. No Left-wing takeover is feasible however, given that the parties are so bureaucratically controlled and the militants so confused. The PSIUP militants are still tied to some of the old reformist formulae of Social Democracy, and the PCI militants to those of Stalinism. They are no match politically, much less organisationally, for the PCI leadership. The sole way Left militants have found to fight the PCI’s reformism is to raise as much dust as possible, taking out of the Party with them as many militants as they can. The PCI itself remains untouched in terms of its repressive internal control, despite the new ‘democratic’ rhetoric.

The key to building an anti-capitalist revolutionary movement in Italy is to break the PCI’s ideological and organisational power over the New Left and the working class. Despite the PCI’s decline and obvious growing crisis, it continues to infect the thinking of all too many militants with its reformism and its bureaucratic methods and attitudes. But when all this is said, the basic task will remain: how to reach the Italian working class again, how to organise all sections of Italian society which capitalism oppresses to resist and destroy the oppressors. To do this, the New Left has to break with the reformist politics of the PCI, the PSIUP and many among the New Left itself by acting and not talking revolution, by destroying these parties. And this perspective can only be started by organising the most oppressed workers: the Southern migrants and the unemployed youth. This is not as remote as it sounds, and the 1962 street battles in Turin during the metal-workers’ strike and the violent clashes in Trieste and Genoa last October were just mild warnings of what is possible. The PCI played policeman in both those struggles and will do so again until its influence is destroyed once and for all.

A concluding anecdote. When the PCI-PSIUP delegation to North Vietnam asked Ho Chi-minh what they could do to help the Vietnamese fight American imperialism, old Ho, bureaucrat though he may be, had enough revolutionary presence of mind to answer: ‘Fate la rivoluzione in casa vostra!’: make the revolution in your own country. Until the New Left, not only in Italy, but throughout the advanced West learns this lesson, the world socialist revolution will remain stuck where it was when Lenin died in 1924.

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