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International Socialism, September 1976


Tim Potter

The Italian Election


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, pp.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Tim Potter writes: The results of the Italian elections came as a surprise not only to the international bourgeois press and Italian public opinion pollsters but also to the Italian revolutionary left.

All had expected the Communist Party (PCI) to put an end to the 30 year old, corrupt and inefficient Christian Democrat regime. The Christian Democrats (DC), racked by, scandal and on a straigntlorward anti-communist platform, were expected to be overtaken by the PCI as the single largest party in Parliament. Further, the three major Italian revolutionary groups, standing for the first time as a single slate, expected to translate their undoubted support in the factories and localities onto the national level by polling up to one million votes. Neither of these two things happened. It is true there was a major shift to the left: the votes of the PCI jumped 7 per cent from the last national elections to win over 34 per cent of the votes. What surprised everyone was the stability of the DC’s vote; it remained exactly the same at 38.7 per cent to remain the single biggest party.

Further, the swing to the left missed out both the socialists and the revolutionary left. The vote of the first did not increase at all, which caused an immediate crisis in the party with the whole of the national directorate resigning. For the revolutionary left the elections were very disappointing, even though they still indicate some of the power of the left in Italy. They received 550,000 votes and had six MPs elected.

The major result of the elections was a polarisation of Italian political life, the small centre parties were squeezed, for instance the right wing liberal party lost 15 out of its 20 seats, and the DC took votes from the fascist MSI which lost nearly 40 per cent of its votes. Faced with the threat of the rapidly advancing PCI, the most important sectors within the ruling class, the state and church bureaucracy, the landowners of the south, the bourgeoisie in the great northern industrialised cities, all dropped their disagreements and voted for the protection of another DC government. For instance, the Fiat company had traditionally given its support to the small Republican Party. In these elections one of the key men at Fiat, Umberto Agnelli, stood as a DC candidate. However, this increased identification between the DC and the bourgeoisie will mean that Italian capitalism will be increasingly involved in the corruption, clericalism and inefficiency of the DC.

The polarisation of politics will mean a period of increased political instability. Again the major problem lies with the DC. The PCI has shown that it is prepared to make compromise after compromise to gain a degree, however small, of political power. They are backed in this by the socialists who in effect forced the elections on the basis that the PCI must have some role in government. But the whole campaign of the DC was precisely against allowing the PCI any role whatsoever in government. The relative victory of the DC has strengthened the right within the party considerably, and foreign capitalistic pressure is backing this strategy by laying down as a condition for economic aid the continued exclusion of the PC from power. But without socialist aid or abstention the DC majority will be perilously small. Some compromise will be worked out between the 3 major parties but it will always be weak and inherently unstable.

It is no surprise that the leading capitalist paper on the day after the elections stated that the results made for the ‘most difficult parliament since the war’. The instability of the political regime will be revealed rapidly given the massive economic and social crisis in Italy. Although Italy’s economy is at last beginning to revive from the depths of slump, the revival is underlining the intrinsic weakness of Italian capitalism. The inflation rate is running at 30 per cent per year (in the months of March to May) whilst in the same period wages only increased by 6 per cent. The situation of political instability, economic crisis and a militant working class would seem to open up massive opportunities to the revolutionary left in Italy. However, the election results threw them into a major crisis. The basic cause was the results themselves. Although the revolutionary left polled over half a million votes and won six seats, they were expecting up to double that number. In June 1975, two of the three most important groups, Avanguardia Operaia and PdUP, standing in only about half of the constituencies won 420,000 votes in the regional elections. In June 1976, after a year of great social struggles, and with the support of the other major group on the revolutionary left, Lotta Continua, and standing in almost all constituencies, their vote increased by only 130,000. In many constituencies their share of the vote shrank quite considerably. For instance, in the PCI stronghold of Bologna and Ravenna, their vote declined by 9,000 votes from 1.5 per cent to only 0.9 per cent. Even in the revolutionary left’s strongest base, Milan, their vote declined from 3.4 per cent to 3.2 per cent.

Essentially the revolutionary left could not offer a national political alternative to the PC, thus it was unable to transfer its influence and power on the local level into a large vote for a revolutionary answer to Italian capitalism’s problems. Two aspects of the electoral campaign point out the political problems facing the left which they were unable to overcome.

The electoral slate itself was extremely confused, straddling two different ideas. The slate, Democrazia Proletaria – Workers’ Democracy – was composed of the three major groups on the revolutionary left. A year ago only AO and PdUP had presented candidates as a part of their move towards unification. This year, however, Lotta Continua were admitted into the slate. Some sections of the left saw it as a mere tactical alliance existing only for the elections.As such it did not appear credible since there were a series of administrative measures taken to ensure that Lotta Continua could not play a leading role in the campaign. On the other hand the slate could not appear as an integral part in the move to unity between AO and PdUP; firstly because of the admission of Lotta Continua and secondly because of the many differences that existed between these two groups and were highlighted during the election campaign. These differences are bound to occur given the nature of PdUP. The PdUP is not a unified party. There exist within it various different wings and political lines, ranging from those who want unity with AO as the first step towards a mass, revolutionary Leninist party to those who see their role as being a force of change, both intellectually and within the unions, on the PCI.

The difficulties of unity on this basis were highlighted in the programme of the slate drawn up by AO and PdUP (Lotta Continua presented its own programme.) The programme called for the overthrow of the DC regime, an absolutely essential and correct demand given that both the PCI and the Socialists were committed to preserving the DC in power in some form. However, it was when it came to the alternatives that the confusion within the programme started. It called for a ‘government of the left’ but it did not define who would make up that government. In part, such a result could have been expected. At a time of polarisation, with all eyes fixed on the performance of the PCI, many militants must have decided not to vote for the revolutionary slate in order to vote for their much more powerful Communist rivals as the only" way to get rid of the DC regime. However, this can only be a partial explanation. The relative success of the Radical Party, a petty bourgeois civil rights grouping also standing for the first time and gaining 350,000 votes without any real party structure shows that certain groups which at one time had been influenced by the revolutionary left were prepared to vote against both the DC and the PCI yet were not won to revolutionary politics. More fundamentally, the question that must be asked is why after a year of struggle involving wide layers of the population over issues such as unemployment, inflation, abortion and using the most advanced forms of struggle the revolutionary left could not only not win substantial sections of the PCI’s base to them but in fact lost ground to the PC’s advance?

Above all, it did not say whether the revolutionaries would join that government or not, though it did say it would support it. Now this advance support of a government operating within capitalism, and with both major parties having explicitly pro-capitalist programmes is not only confused, but dangerous in that it subordinates the revolutionary left to that government which in a period of crisis is bound to attempt to disarm and divert the working class movement. By not stating clearly how the revolutionary left related to such a government, that is support only if the government aided the working class movement against capitalism, the left were creating illusions in their alternative.

These illusions were strengthened by the programme when it came to deal with the role that the government of the left would play in the transition to socialism. The programme did not say that a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state was necessary. In fact it read uncannily like The British Road to Socialism, i.e. a reformist programme. It stated that there was a necessity ‘for a constant mass pressure on the government to make it refuse any role of ... stabilising the capitalist system; only so will it be possible to have popular control over the centres of decision which will open the road to power to the working class.’ Later on the programme states that the government of the left is ‘an active instrument in a general process of the transformation of society’. The role of revolutionaries is ‘to support this government and at the same time to push it through struggle to ever more advanced objectives.’ The impression put across is quite clear; that the government of the left if pushed and supported by the working class can be forced to open the way to socialism. The programme at heart had a left reformist strategy for the road to socialism and thus did not offer a real perspective to the Italian working class or challenge fundamentally the PCI’s reformism.

In addition, the demands made on this left government further illustrated the confusion within the electoral alliance. The demands were a hotch-potch of minimal (and often very dangerous) demands like the call for ‘elements of import controls’, yet at the same time it demands ‘a new international division of labour’. It appears that since there was so much confusion over what a left government could do, the programme attempted to cover every possibility.

The final criticism that must be made of the programme is that it was in no way a programme of working class struggle. To take just one example, the problem of unemployment. Instead of starting from the actual working class struggle to defend jobs and thus calling on the government to implement the 35 hour week, for the nationalisation under workers’ control of all firms declaring redundancies, for work sharing with no loss of pay and so on. the programme calls for the control and direction of investment to enlarge the productive sector, a government end to sackings and the intervention of the state to prevent the breakup of industry. The difference is that the programme makes demands on the government in the abstract; it does not start from the real struggles of the workers’ movement and they are thus not called on to take the lead in the defence of their jobs. Instead they should accept the benefits of increased investment. The programme against unemployment thus does not differ fundamentally from the PCI’s who also call for more investment but with the intention of saving capitalism not overthrowing it.

Why then was the programme so confused’.’To a small extent it was the result of a lack of time in the confusion of the pre-electoral campaign. But far more importantly, it was the result of underlying political weaknesses within the Italian revolutionary left. The programme was left reformist yet the majority of members in the two organisations that drew it up are revolutionaries. The contradictions can only be explained in the traditions and pressures on the revolutionary groups.

None of the three organisations were in existence before 1968, yet since that time they have grown enormously to their present total size of around 50,000 members. They achieved this because of the fantastic militancy and confidence of the workers’ movement. Yet this growth in very favourable conditions concealed serious political weaknesses. The traditions of the different groups emerging either as left splits from the Socialist or Communist parties or heavily influenced by the Cultural Revolution in 1968 did not offer a real strategy for the building of a revolutionary party. The stagist and centrist conceptions of the programme are an outcome of the Maoist and reformist origins of the groups. Whilst the revolutionary groups could offer a strategy to working class struggle over a whole number of particular struggles and deservedly gain a real influence in the class, when questions of a national strategy were raised the left was cruelly exposed. This had already happened before the elections. The most important single political issue in the past year, that of abortion, was started and in large part led, not by the revolutionary left but by the petty bourgeois Radical Party or the feminist movement. The other major single factor in revolutionary politics in Italy is the dominating influence of the PCI within the working class movement. Its strength and power is tremendous, and without a clear orientation to the PCI the revolutionary left is under the constant danger of being sucked into the perspectives of the reformists.

These two factors are the basis for an explanation of the political weaknesses of the Italian revolutionary left and specifically of the programme. The programme can only be explained if it is seen as a subordination of AO and the left wing of PdUP to the reformist elements inside PdUP. The right wing inside that party is politically very strong. They are the most sophisticated theoretically, not in the sense of being correct but in the sense of having the most politically developed line. Thus they act as a point of reference for much of the rest of the left. In addition, they have a very clear and very close relationship to the PCI. In the conference of PdUP held last February, they described themselves as being ‘the motor to 25 million Communist legs’. In a situation where the PCI was advancing rapidly the accommodation to it by the right wing of PdUP led the rest of the left to a similar accommodation because of the lack of a clear alternative strategy.

However, although the elections were a disappointment for the revolutionary left, this has had its good results. It has opened a major discussion within the revolutionary left and has opened up the possibility of a major re-groupment within the left. The discussion is being carried on at all levels within and between the groups and is centering on the relationship of the revolutionary left to the mass organisations of the working class. At the same time the collectives of Democrazia Proletaria, the groups of militants who carried out the election campaign, are still in existence and provide the major forum for the debate between the groups at all levels.

Chief amongst the problems are a re-evaluation of the relationship of the left to the PCI and of the form and nature of the revolutionary party.

Also, the revolutionary left needs to re-examine who they regard as a component part of the revolutionary movement. In a situation where the strength of reformism in the shape of the PCI is such a powerful force in the workers’ movement it is essential that the nucleus of the revolutionary party does not contain within it any organised centrist current. If it does, the pressures exerted by the PC could well act on them to distort the whole development of the revolutionary party. The only way to win centrist currents to a revolutionary perspective is to set up a strong revolutionary alternative to act as a pole of attraction to win them away from the semi-reformist politics.

In the Italian situation, this would appear to mean a clear break from the politics of the right wing currents inside PdUP, and the rapid development of a credible, revolutionary alternative to them. Only when confronted by a group with a revolutionary line will they be forced to choose between that or the reformism of the PCI. And only when the Italian revolutionaries debate and work together as a party outside of their influence will the left be able to form a real alternative to them.

However, the debate is beginning to touch on fundamental political problems and the collectives of Democrazia Proletaria are beginning to attract groups of militants, not previously involved in the work of the two groups. As long as this continues there is a real chance that the next few years will see the development of a mass Italian revolutionary party, which given the instability of Italian politics and the economy, would have open before it immense opportunities.

29 July 1976



1. Programme used is that printed in Il Quotidiano dei Lavoratori, 8 June 1976.

2. I.otta Continua is not treated in this discussion as they present different problems of analysis, coming from different traditions and with very different politics from the rest of the left.

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