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International Socialism, May 1976


Paul Ginsborg

Italy: The PDUP Congress


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.88, May 1976, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Paul Ginsborg writes: PDUP per il comunismo, literally ‘the party of the united proletariat for communism’, one of the three major revolutionary groups in Italy (the others being Avanguardia Operaia and Lotta Continua), recently held its founding congress at Bologna. Bologna is the citadel of Communist Party power in Italy’s central ‘red belt’ of Emilia-Romagna, their showpiece of efficient and reforming government. PDUP’s congress was held in the luxurious ‘palazzo dei congressi’ off via Stalingrado. The Communist mayor Renato Zangheri opened the proceedings, and free bus passes for the duration of the congress were issued to all the delegates. This welcome served to highlight the dominant theme of the congress – the relationship of the revolutionary left to the Communist Party at a time of growing Communist power. The Italian CP polled over 32 per cent of the votes in the 1975 local elections while the ruling party, the Christian Democrats, gained only 34 per cent. With the Christian Democrat-Socialist government coalition of the ‘60s dead and buried, the question of Communist participation in government and the strategy of the revolutionary left in relation to this, is very much on the order of the day.

PDUP per il comunismo, which at present numbers some 15,000 members, came into being through the fusion of three distinct elements: the PDUP, a group of socialists who originally split from the PSI (Italian socialist party) when it joined the Christian Democrats in government; the Manifesto group, who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1969; and a smaller element of radical and Marxist Catholics (see Ian Birchall, The revolutionary left in Europe, IS 85, for further details). The PDUP element was undoubtedly the most working class in its composition, and contained a number of leading trade unionists, but it would be a mistake to assume that the Manifesto group were only students and intellectuals. The division was perhaps more on regional lines, with Manifesto being strong in Rome and Emilia-Romagna, and the PDUP in the major cities of Milan, Turin and Naples. No overall details of the new party’s social composition were available at the Bologna congress, but the Milanese federation issued its own figures. In Milan at the end of 1975 the party had 1,354 members; of these 29 per cent were women, the average age was 30, 21 per cent were manual workers, 29 per cent white collar workers, 25 per cent students, 11 per cent teachers, 4 per cent full time trade unionists, and 10 per cent others.

From the beginning of the congress (and indeed in the months preceding it), it became clear that profound political differences divided the two major elements of the new party, and that no real fusion had taken place between the PDUP and Manifesto groups. Both did agree on the necessity of raising the slogan of a government of the left to counter the Communist call for a ‘historical compromise’ with the Christian Democrats. The Communist Party, as is well known, is seeking to come to power on the basis of a broad governmental alliance with ‘all democratic forces’, of whom the Christian Democrats and the socialists are the main elements. They see this as essential if the Italians are to avoid the mistakes committed in Chile. According to the CP, the Chilean left found itself isolated from many elements in Chilean society which had to be won over, and in particular the mass base of the Chilean Christian Democrats. Their failure to make the correct alliances and create the necessary consensus was a recipe for disaster which the Italian party has to avoid.

PDUP, and the rest of the Italian revolutionary left, rightly point out that in Italy, a ‘historical compromise’ is objectively impossible with the Christian Democrats, a party which has accurately represented the class enemy of the Italian workers since 1945. Even within reformist terms the policy seems doomed to failure, for the Christian Democrats and their American big brothers are firmly opposed to it. A governmental coalition in which the Christian Democrats accepted Communist Party hegemony is unthinkable; any such alliance could only be made on the basis of jettisoning the social-democratic programme of the CP. As a tactic for splitting the Christian Democrats the ‘historical compromise’ has had little success; as a strategy for government it is unrealisable.

So the alternative, already operating at a local level in many cities and regions of Italy, is a government of the left. While the historical compromise would only hold back the working class and force it to abandon its objectives, a government of the left, says PDUP, would open up vast possibilities for the development of working-class power and the transition to socialism in Italy. But it is at this point that the differences between the two elements in the party emerge clearly. For the Manifesto group, headed by Lucio Magri and Rossana Rossanda, the possibility exists for changing the Communist Party onto a revolutionary path. By taking a place in the government, working alongside the Communists at every level and carrying on fraternal debate with them, the Manifesto group believe that the Communists can be won over. But they stress that the process must at all times avoid the possibility of destroying the unity of the left. Magri sees PDUP acting as the motor which will ‘set in motion the 25 million communist legs’ along a revolutionary path.

By contrast the old PDUP group, which centres around the veteran socialist and trade unionist Vittorio Foa, has preferred to stress the necessity of reformists and revolutionaries working together from the base upwards, seeking unity wherever possible within the struggle. Although equally insistent that there should not be a clear division of ‘the reformists in the government, the revolutionaries in the movement’, they have tried to stress that any facile conversion of the CP or its base is out of the question, and that a hard and often bitter struggle, perhaps leading to open confrontation, will have to take place at the shop floor level, in the factory and zone councils, everywhere where the mass struggle is going on.

The two wings of the party were equally divided over relations with the rest of the revolutionary left (many Manifesto comrades have preferred to call it the ‘so-called new left’). At the last local elections PDUP and Avanguardia Operaia had come together on a joint platform of ‘Democrazia Proletaria’ (’Proletarian Democracy’), and obtained some 400,000 votes in the areas where they stood candidates. Lotta Continua had refused any alliance, telling its militants to vote for the CP. At the congress in Bologna, the leaders of the old Manifesto group, while saying that electoral alliances with AO should continue, were scathing about the possibility of any greater unity. Rossanda emphasised in her opening speech how ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ positions were obsolete in present day Italy, and how any dialogue with Lotta Continua was out of the question. However, the Foa wing was at pains to stress the positive nature of the electoral alliance with AO and the prospect of further joint action between AO and PDUP leading to unity in the not distant future. They also, while clearly critical of Lotta Continua, were prepared to adopt a more open position towards them. Lotta Continua, abandoning its position of eight months ago, has recently proposed a united slate of the revolutionary left in the next national elections. The Foa wing was not prepared to give a categorical ‘no’ to this proposal.

The last day of the congress confirmed the deep split in the new party, and the lack of any organic unity between the two major groups that compose it. The two wings presented separate motions on which the delegates were invited to vote. The result was a pyrrhic victory for the Manifesto wing, which had staked everything on outright victory. While polling slightly more votes than the PDUP wing, they failed to win an absolute majority. The balance of power on the new central committee is held by a small group of supporters of Luigi Pintor, who refused to support either motion and in the final vote urged his followers to abstain in the name of unity.

PDUP’s founding congress thus ended without resolving the critical questions that divide the party, and the prospects for the future cannot be that bright. In particular, it is difficult to see how long those elements in the party close to AO will accept the ever more apparent centrism of the Manifesto group. The comrades from Manifesto have always seen themselves to some extent as the revolutionary conscience of the Communist Party, and the Communist electoral successes have pushed them back closer to the fold than at any time since they left it. Indeed the representative of the Spanish Communist Party at the congress, who was ex-Bandiera Rioja (a group which has rejoined the Spanish CP), was at pains to point out that he had been through a somewhat similar experience and knew where it ended.

By contrast, the PDUP element seems to have moved steadily leftwards as the years have passed. Clearly there are areas where we find ourselves in disagreement with them. One of these is their attitude to the left leadership in the trade union movement (although it must be stressed that the British and Italian situations are far from identical). Another is their attitude to entering a left government. Here it is difficult to estimate how feasible they really consider their entry to be, or how much they are ‘floating a balloon’ as a tactic to stress their unitarian sentiments in contrast to the Communist Party’s rigidity. But it does seem that any such entry could only lead to two possible outcomes, and in a relatively short period of time: either an open clash with the reformist leadership if they were to stick to their transitional programme outlined at congress; or the acceptance of a subaltern role in a government that found its principle unity in agreement on a reformist strategy.

As the Communists move towards power, the need for a viable revolutionary alternative to them becomes more critical every month. It is this imperative, the need for a strong revolutionary party to oppose the might of the Communist apparatus, that has been clearly in the minds of Italian revolutionaries since the hot autumn of 1969. And yet, as everyone will tell you, this unity cannot be achieved on an unprincipled basis, for it could only lead to disaster. There has been distinct progress since the hot autumn, with its myriad of groups and high sectarianism. But the road to unity is long, tortuous and difficult. The PDUP founding congress, while it may have clarified some positions, can hardly be counted as a step in the right direction.

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