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International Socialism, Autumn 1999


Tom Behan

The return of Italian Communism?


From International Socialism 2 : 84, Autumn 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Ten years after the collapse of Stalinism there appears to be some degree of resurgence of the old Communist parties. In Spain and France, under different guises, names and faces, the old parties are reappearing. In Italy an organisation that calls itself Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), claiming over 100,000 members, won 8.6 percent of the vote in the 1996 national elections and slightly more in local council elections in 1997. Its small parliamentary group was instrumental in keeping Romano Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition in power through 1997 and 1998. Mike Gonzalez of International Socialism asked Tom Behan to explore the recent history of the left in Italy to find an explanation for this apparent paradox and to try to assess how it will affect the rebuilding of an authentic revolutionary socialist tradition in Italy.

IS: What were the immediate effects of the end of Stalinism in Italy?

TB: After the fall of the Berlin Wall the leadership of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), an organisation which still had around 1 million members, moved quickly to assess the impact, both political and practical, of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Through the 1980s the PCI had moved to the right, endorsing anti-strike laws, and supporting Italy’s decision to remain within NATO in 1986. Its base in the working class was shrinking and it was coming under increasing attack by the Socialist Party. It became more and more reluctant to defend its association with Eastern European Communism. In 1989 the party’s general secretary, Achille Occhetto, immediately announced an emergency conference at which the PCI would dissolve and be replaced by a new formation. What form the new organisation would take was unclear – so it became known as la cosa, ‘the thing’. The thing in question was to rename the party and completely rewrite its underlying programme.

IS: What was the effect of all this confusion on the PCI membership?

TB: Tremendous disorientation. Many people left, though a lot of young people actually joined in this period because they were enthused by the whole debate about communism, appalled by the attacks of the Socialists, and felt some undefined responsibility to defend the heritage of communism. There were others who had become local government officials in quite powerful positions through PCI membership and they were quick to jump ship. It was certainly a time of intense debate. The PCI leadership argued that the problem was that the party had been slow to understand the failures of Stalinism and that now they must be publicly condemned so that the new ‘thing’ could go on to become a party of government. On the other hand, there was an important layer of rank and file members, of activists, who argued against this essentially social democratic line. When the conference convened in February 1991, it split messily in two; the bureaucrats joined the PDS (Party of the Democratic Left) while a significant minority of activists and many from the Stalinist left joined Rifondazione.

IS: This split must have reflected a division that already existed, at least in potential, within the PCI. What are the political origins of this conflict-which presumably was carried into the new organisations emerging from the split?

TB: The first thing that happened after the announcement of the split was a messy and drawn out battle over who owned the traditional symbols of the party – in fact they went to court over it! When the ‘thing’ was finally unveiled on the last day of the conference, it turned out to be the PDS whose banner carried an oak tree at the top, symbolising peace and harmony, but also a much smaller hammer and sickle at the bottom. Rifondazione claimed the hammer and sickle for itself – but as things turned out the PDS soon dropped the symbol and Rifondazione took it back anyway.

You have to go back to 1921 to understand all this. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was born in 1921, in a revolutionary period. It was still the time of the revolutionary upsurge of the working class after the First World War, the biennio rosso (the red two years), when the Russian Revolution still enjoyed a massive political influence. That was reflected in the authentically revolutionary character of the early PCI under Gramsci’s leadership. But in October 1922 Mussolini came to power; for a year or two the PCI managed to maintain some kind of public existence until it was driven completely underground by 1924–1925. It remained a clandestine party for the next 20 years. Its leaders left Italy to escape fascist repression, leaving a courageous but dwindling internal membership behind working in conditions of the most absolute secrecy.

Abroad the PCI leadership toed the Moscow line and adopted Stalinist postures. But that transformation occurred largely without the knowledge of an internal membership which had no access to the PCI’s new publications which praised Stalin and renounced the revolutionary politics of its early years, and therefore probably did not know that the party of Gramsci was dead. But it is these people who became the guiding force of the resistance movement that was beginning to emerge on a national scale in 1943. The PCI’s membership grew to around 5,000 to 6,000 after a series of successful strikes in March 1943. By February 1945 the trickle had grown into a stream and membership reached 90,000.

The PCI leaders clearly saw that, on the one hand, they had no means of controlling this movement from the outside, and on the other that the resistance could be transformed into a new mass Communist party after the war. Under these circumstances they had no alternative but to give the leaders of the mass movement their head – though they tried with limited success to Stalinise them at the same time.

By 1945 the leadership came to define what they called the ‘two track approach’, in which the leadership clearly pursue a parliamentary road while hinting to their own rank and file that this is merely a Trojan horse and that when the day comes they will build the barricades and get rid of all these bastards with whom they are currently sharing the parliamentary benches. The call for all weapons to be handed in to the authorities by April 1945 produced a limited response; it was clear that many workers and resistance fighters were keeping them for the insurrection to come. Luigi Longo, the party’s deputy leader, complained that the membership was suffering from ‘the machine gun disease’, as exemplified by the two day armed occupation of the Milan Prefecture in November 1947 under the leadership of PCI Central Committee member Giancarlo Pajetta.

Then, in 1948, the party leader and exemplary Stalinist Palmiro Togliatti was shot and almost killed outside parliament. Within 24 hours, with no instructions from the leadership, the guns that had been kept oiled and ready for three years came out and most of the northern cities found themselves under the control of the PCI. This insurrectionary atmosphere within the PCI led to considerable anxiety in the deepening Cold War atmosphere and the CIA organised a ‘Gladio’ or ‘stay behind’ army that would act in the event of a Communist rising. In response the PCI itself maintained a clandestine organisation and safe houses and escape routes. But the PCI leaders had already embarked on the ‘long march’ along the parliamentary road, and no voice was raised against them within the Party. The PCI’s 2 million members fell in behind the leadership; the ‘class of the Resistance’ provided the loyal backbone of the party through the 1950s and 1960s. The newer supporters were wedded to a parliamentary perspective and had little sympathy for direct struggle. In Turin, for example, sales of the PCI daily L’Unità fell consistently through the 1960s, even though party membership in the city stood at around 20,000 and electoral support ran at about 40 percent.

There were still arms held in factories by the older generation; arms dumps were still being found when they knocked old factories down to build flats – they’d come across 30 mortars and 500 machine guns in working order in the basement. But the bulk of arms had been surrendered after the events of 1948.

IS: A new generation of young worker and student activists emerged in Italy, as it did elsewhere in Europe, in 1968. Did they turn to the PCI?

TB: No, the PCI began to suffer in 1968 with the growth of an alternative movement and the new organisations of the revolutionary left like Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia and the rest. These organisations exploded between 1968 and 1972. But they entered a long crisis with an industrial downturn in 1972–1973 and by 1976 they were all effectively dead. We are talking here about organisations with tens of thousands of activists, six MPs, six radio stations and about three national newspapers. Yet by 1976 the radio stations were closed down, there were no MPs left and the great mass demonstrations were winding down in the face of state repression. From the late 1970s a new organisation, Democrazia Proletaria, tried to gather together the fragments into what amounted to a new centrist organisation. It embraced peace campaigners, environmentalists and Left Catholics in a kind of ‘container party’ which disintegrated under the weight of its own contradictions in 1989. At that point nearly half the organisation left to join the Greens, including their parliamentary representatives who took with them the state subsidy which had made up 95 percent of the organisation’s finances. Those who were left eventually joined Rifondazione.

IS: How did the PCI react to the political crisis of the early 1970s?

TB: The real turning point was 1973 when the PCI declared the ‘historic compromise’. Its reasons were economic and political. The rise in the price of oil had a dramatic impact on Italy, and in the face of the crisis the Christian Democrats turned to the PCI for support in exchange for a promise that if they behaved as a responsible national party they might one day become part of government. It was what the leadership had been waiting for. They seized the opportunity, arguing that workers would have to accept cuts in their living standards as the price for becoming a party of government – an argument they seemed to win with some of their own rank and file.

At the same time a vicious argument broke out within the party over the implications of the overthrow of Allende in Chile in September 1973. For the left of the party, the ‘two track approach’ that the PCI had pursued since the end of the war was no longer tenable in the face of what happened in Chile. The party’s general secretary, Enrico Berlinguer, replied in a series of articles in November, arguing (a) that Allende had tried to go too quickly and alienated the right wing, and (b) that 51 percent of the vote would not be enough to govern – you could only do that with the support of the right. That was the historic compromise.

The timing of the debate was also affected by the rise of left wing terrorism through 1973. The emergence of the left wing terrorist groups was a symptom of the failure of the 1968 movement. At first, workers did not look unfavourably at the kidnapping or even kneecapping of factory managers and the wall posters in which the hostages confessed their involvement in an exploitative system. By the mid-1970s you still had mass demonstrations of 200,000 to 300,000 – but they often ended up in shootouts, when the armed groups would suddenly leap out of the crowd and start firing at the police, who would fire back. By the end of the decade the demonstrations had virtually stopped and the state seized the opportunity to criminalise left wing activity under the guise of anti-terrorist laws. The effect was to drive the PCI further to the right. They did not oppose new laws which allowed preventative custody of up to 11 years simply on the basis of an unproven accusation.

IS: That’s the background to the rise of Rifondazione. Can we look at how it developed after 1991?

TB: In a sense Rifondazione carries within it the same contradictions as its predecessor. It contains on the one hand the parliamentarians who are conducting a bourgeois battle, and on the other hand local branches that have weekly meetings on Che Guevara or the environment, who invite local stewards to speak, who confront the police, throw petrol bombs and support radical struggles around the world. The 100,000 who joined Rifondazione during its first year were the activists on the one hand, and the more unreconstructed Stalinists on the other, as well as the minority of activists from Democrazia Proletaria. The vast majority of inactive PCI members joined the PDS.

IS: Italian politics through most of the 1990s seem highly volatile – yet they also brought the masses back onto the streets, particularly during the Berlusconi presidency. How did that affect the refounding of Communism?

TB: One of the constants of Italian electoral politics is electoral instability with sometimes up to five parties involved in national government. In 1992 the so called ‘Tangentopoli’ bribery scandals began to break. In less than two years five ministers were forced to resign for corruption, the Socialist Party fell apart and the Christian Democrats split. Into this atmosphere of extreme instability stepped the unpredictable right wing multi-millionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. He won the 1994 elections and immediately brought the neo-fascist MSI (Italian Social Movement) into the government. Meanwhile the country seemed obsessed by an unprecedented series of scandals acted out nightly on television, as minister after minister was subjected to televised interrogations by examining magistrates.

At the same time there was an enormous fear of this new government which in a sense served to rejuvenate the left, and particularly Rifondazione. Up till this moment neither the PDS nor Rifondazione seemed capable of organising themselves or of leading anything. Symptomatic was the fact that neither had prepared for the national demonstration of 25th April, held annually to commemorate the liberation from fascism. In previous years it had attracted around 5,000 people, but it took on a different significance when Berlusconi invited the fascists into government. It was left to Il Manifesto, a socialist paper selling some 30,000 copies daily, to call for a mass demonstration. Some 300,000 turned up to march through Milan in the pouring rain.

It was a key moment in the rebuilding of the left. Berlusconi ignored it and contrived to get his friends, who had been involved in bribery, out of jail. But as they left they were met with angry demonstrations and pelted with coins. And when Berlusconi then turned his attack against Italy’s state pension scheme, one of the most progressive in Europe in 1994, the unions were forced to call a month long series of protest demonstrations in defence of pensions and the welfare state. But whenever the union bureaucrats tried to speak from behind huge plate glass screens, they were pelted with bottles, tomatoes, nuts and bolts. This response recalled the activities of the autonomisti in the late 1970s. The crowd was there to support the pensions scheme and the welfare system against Berlusconi, but they were also there to protest against the shoddy deals their leaders had been making through the previous years. Not everyone was throwing missiles of course-but around 30 percent of the crowd were usually involved and the rest weren’t protesting. Realizing this, Rifondazione began to try to build on that mood and move with it.

Rifondazione presented candidates for the 1996 elections with a thoroughgoing ten point reformist programme. It held a series of mass rallies and public meetings and the sales of its newspaper Liberazione almost doubled. It seemed that Rifondazione was rediscovering the so called ‘two track’ approach of the past, presenting itself as a party of government on the one hand and as the leadership of the rank and file struggles on the other. The 1990s had seen a rapid growth of rank and file workplace organisation, building on the cobas, or base committees, that had first grown up in the public sector in the 1980s. The old PCI transmission belt was no longer functioning and the influence of the national trade union federations slowly fragmenting. In the spring of 1999 these organisations could call local strikes against the war in Kosovo in many Italian cities.

By 1997 Rifondazione was increasing its trade union vote; on the other hand, while it could hardly lay claim to being a party of government with just over 8 percent of the vote, it did hold the balance of power in parliament. Its support kept in power an Olive Tree centre-left coalition committed to cuts and privatisation. Increasingly the refounded Communists were splitting along familiar lines. Their leader Cossutta, an old hardline Stalinist who joined Rifondazione because the PDS didn’t make him a good enough offer, began to press for ‘programmatic agreements’ with the PDS and a ‘dented shield’ policy, familiar to British socialists, in relation to Prodi and his Olive Tree government. On the other hand, a wing of the party led by Bertinotti held to a more contradictory position of various factions seeking to work with the mass movement. Eventually Rifondazione split in October 1998 and Cossutta joined the government.

There’s no doubt that today it is the most significant organisation within the mass struggle. But it hasn’t yet resolved its relationship with its own origins. It has not analysed Russia or Cuba, because it would mean more splits and have electoral repercussions. So it constantly sidesteps the need to rediscover the authentic revolutionary socialist tradition. It can’t decide whether it wants to be married to capitalism or divorced from it – or occupy separate rooms in the same house. There are now no models of ‘actually existing socialism’ for it to hide behind other than Cuba. While there has been a continuity of organisation in Italy, it remains fragmented and disorganised. The combination of a political vacuum and a militant and increasingly active working class is an exciting prospect for socialists. But it can only develop a political direction when its leadership breaks decisively with a past in which it has always been wedded to parliamentary democracy and the promise of reform, while the rank and file struggled to deliver a blow against capitalism itself.

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