The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Italy:
Between a Government of the Left and a Neo-Fascist Right

Apr 30, 1994

The local elections last November and December have given a rough outline of Italy's new political arrangement. For many years, the centrist Christian Democratic and Socialist parties formed the backbone of Italian governments. Now they have collapsed. On the left, the so-called "progressive" alliances around the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left), Ochetto's former Communist Party, strongly asserted themselves. And on the right, the neo-fascist MSI (Italian Social Movement) made spectacular gains to add to those that the "Leagues" in the north of the country made in recent years.

This is undoubtedly a milestone in the long political crisis. The ruling bourgeois circles would like to see this process lead to the birth of what they call the "Second Republic." It would like to take advantage of this crisis to implement one of the Italian bourgeoisie's longstanding ambitions: it wants to reform the political system. It wants to create a "stronger" executive, which is more independent of political parties, and quicker to respond to its wishes and serve its interests.

One of the first stages of this operation was approved in the referendum last spring, in which the winner-takes-all electoral system replaced proportional representation. This was supposed to mark the introduction of a more effective and less corrupt political system.

But this change has not been a painless one. It became possible only after a series of campaigns against the "party aristocracy," carried out by broad sections of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus itself. The criminal investigations conducted by the so-called "Mani pulite" ("clean hands") judges revealed the large-scale corruption and systematic bribery linking the parties in power and the business world. These investigations brought about a crisis. Many politicians who had been in power for years were left stranded and discredited. They wound up in prison or with corruption charges hanging over their heads. This fueled the emergence of the League of the North and its separatist tendencies, and the rise of the neo-fascist MSI. As a result, the bourgeoisie is uncertain about how many politicians it will have at its disposal in the future, at least on the right.

A Ragtag Left ... Sliding to the Center

In the short term, this break-up of the traditional political forces has enabled groupings on the left to win the recent local elections. And this could be a prelude to a left coalition government assuming power. But this does not indicate that the electorate is really shifting to the left.

It seems that the traditional parties of the government coalition collapsed mainly because of the public's reaction to scandals which not just stained their reputation, but virtually buried them. Added to this was the new electoral system, which encouraged coalitions both on the left and right and gave little chance to groupings that were too small.

This situation offered an opportunity to the former Communist Party, which was renamed the "Democratic Party of the Left" (Partito Democratico della Sinistra, or PDS). The change of name was also strongly encouraged by broad sections of the bourgeoisie. This climaxed the drift of a Communist Party, which for a long time had been the strongest one in Western Europe, to the social democracy. It was not a painless operation. The party lost that section on its left closest to the working class and most attached to the communist label. This section split off to form the "Communist Refoundation Party" (PRC). Within the PDS itself, there has been considerable opposition to the General Secretary Occhetto, particularly as the move met with little success at first on the electoral level.

But the introduction of the new electoral system, combined with the Socialists' collapse in the face of scandals, saved the PDS and Occhetto. Under the new system, party alliances became a necessity. The PDS, still the main electoral force on the left, became the indispensable central component in all the alliances. Turning away from the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the various other parties affected by the scandals (who frequently in fact did not even run candidates under their own name), the centrist electorate was left with a stark choice between the right (the Leagues or the MSI) and the "left" – if such a term can be used to describe the vague alliances cobbled together around the PDS. For a whole section of the electorate, the PDS and its allies presented a more reassuring and moderate image and a better guarantee of political and social stability, than did the MSI or the Leagues.

So rather than a "shift to the left," it would be more appropriate to speak of the PDS and its alliances shifting to the right. They are now in a position to replace the Socialist Party and even some of the discredited center parties and, at the same time, to gain a section of these parties' electorate. The PDS has drifted so far and become so insipid, that this electorate no longer fears it. The traditional anti-communist arguments are no longer valid against a party which says it does not stand either for communism or Marxism, and which barely claims be on the side of the workers. Moreover, many of the people running for mayor in the name of PDS-backed coalitions were not even members of the PDS. Many were independents or members of parties like the Greens or the "Rete" (an anti-mafia party centering around the former Christian Democrat mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who has just regained his post with nearly 75% of the vote).

The Attitude of the PRC

The attitude of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) deserves particular mention in this context. The creation of this party was based on the militants and voters of the former Italian Communist Party who did not want to abandon the Communist label. This shows that the (albeit confused) desire for genuine radical change and a real class opposition has in no way disappeared, despite what Occhetto and those who advocated the change of name say.

Politicians and journalists in Italy, like everywhere else, were quick to celebrate what they call the "death of communism" and dismiss such aspirations as "archaic". But things are not as simple as they hoped. In its first successes in June 1993, the PRC actually won more votes than the PDS in local elections in Milan and Turin, surprising even the politicians and journalists.

Unfortunately, the policy of the PRC leaders did not allow a radical class opposition which stood for communism to be clearly expressed, despite the fact that there is a sizable communist, class-based element in the PRC's electorate.

Using as an excuse the new electoral system, under which they had to seek alliances or risk losing seats in town councils, the PRC leaders merged with coalitions based around the PDS. They thus confused their policy with the vague illusion of a "progressive" alternative. Their very political choices have thus contributed to the slide of the whole Italian left toward the center, bringing those who might have wanted to assert their class-based opposition back into the fold of the PDS and its "progressive" block.

The PDS in the Government?

If PDS repeats its local election results in the early general election expected for this spring, it is possible that a left coalition dominated by the PDS could take over the Italian government. Paradoxically, however, this would occur after elections marking more of a shift to the right.

It would be the first time that power would shift from the right to the left. The majority of the left, dominated by the Communist Party, has been kept in opposition since 1947. Coalitions dominated by the Christian Democrats – since the sixties, mostly in association with the Socialist Party – have been in power without interruption since the aftermath of the Second World War. But while for Italy a left government might be a novelty, the government's policy would certainly be nothing new. Such a change of power would mean nothing good for the working class.

We can guess what the policy of this left government would be. The PDS General Secretary Occhetto himself has specified that the present policy of "economic rehabilitation" conducted by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi's government would continue virtually unchanged. In other words, the PDS government would assume full responsibility for the austerity policy required for the management of a capitalist economy in deep crisis, in the bourgeoisie's interests.

Relegated to the opposition, the right would be in a position to exploit the discontent which this policy would inevitably arouse. This is all the more ominous because the right could now be dominated by the Leagues and by a neo-fascist party which has already scored a major success in these recent local elections.

To the Right (and to the North): Bossi's League

Unlike the left-wing parties, the right-wing MSI and the Leagues have had no qualms about presenting themselves as radical opponents of the "party system." They have also shown their ability to win a "protest" vote. And this is quite clearly the most worrisome thing for the future.

Now unified within Umberto Bossi's "League of the North," the rise of the "Leagues" is no longer new. Over the past few years, they have employed an electoral demagogy based on the "feedback policy" common to most fascist or quasi-fascist populist demagogues. This consists in selecting arguments and slogans simply because they get a good response and "hit home."

Bossi has thus built up electoral support based on the old antagonism between the Italian north and the poorer south. "If the industrious, hardworking north did not have to pay taxes to maintain the poor, lazy and Mafia-ridden south, we would be as rich as Switzerland" is the kind of idea which is commonly being peddled. There is similar feeling against an overstaffed and inefficient central administration ("thieving Rome") which rakes in the taxes but gives little back in the way of services, and is said to serve only lazy civil servants and Mafia parasites. Added to this there are plain racist arguments against Italian Southerners who come to the North to "take work away" from the local populations of Lombardy and Piedmont, or against the so-called "non-EEC" African or Arab immigrants. Using the language of Le Pen and the racist demagogues now springing up all over Europe, Bossi says they would have done better to "stay at home."

This demagogy has been successful among the well-off petty bourgeoisie of the North who have turned away from the government parties, and particularly from the scandal-ridden Christian Democrats. Bossi, moreover, has evidently picked up financial support from a whole section of the Northern bourgeoisie, who are pleased enough to use him as a means of applying pressure on the government itself. In addition, it has enjoyed some success among sections of the poorer classes which have been hit by the crisis, that is the most depoliticized sections with the least class consciousness, who might see a vote for Bossi as a means of expressing a protest against the "system" and of upsetting a political game which is increasingly remote from their concerns.

Unfortunately for Bossi, the regionalist demagogy that he initially chose simply on the basis of the reactions he heard in his home region, Lombardy, handicapped his chances of giving his party nationwide scope. Of course, the Lombard League has now become the "League of the North." Bossi is now attempting to repair the damage by declaring that he in no way advocates secession from Italy. Instead he says he wants a "federal Italy." divided into three. And he says that he has nothing against people in the South, provided that everyone stays in their own region. He is also attempting to create local "Leagues" in the South and the center, even giving names to the regions he wishes to create. According to Bossi's latest version, Italy should become a federation with "Padana" in the north, "Etruria" in the center, and a third region deserving no name other than the generic term "the South." But each of these attempts has led to reactions from Bossi's "Northern" supporters, causing him to make abrupt about-turns.

Of course, someone like Bossi is not bothered by the contradiction in his policy. What does bother him is that all these U-turns have done nothing to win him votes in the South and the Center. And it is obvious that whatever contortions it goes through, a "League of the North" which declares that the South costs too much money, and talks about "thieving Rome," will have difficulty attracting support in those regions!

Bossi was able to win control of the Milan town council in June, and he regularly gains 30 to 40% of the vote in the North. But nationally, he has been limited to 7 or 8%. And he is tangled up in contradictory declarations on "secession" or "federation," depending on the people he is speaking to. In any case, the rise of the League of the North left a political vacuum in the center and south of Italy, which has just been occupied by the neo-fascist MSI.

The Success of the MSI

Since World War II, the MSI has been the focal point for people who are nostalgic for Mussolini's fascism. It has always picked up somewhere between 4 to 6 per cent of the vote, with peaks of 8 to 10 per cent in Naples and in the South. But until recently it has been confined to a political ghetto by the other political forces, including those of the right, which did not wish to be seen associated with it. The only exception to this was a short-lived attempt to include it in a right-wing government majority under Tambroni in 1960. This provoked violent demonstrations in July 1960, forcing the abandonment of such ventures. Thus began what was called the "opening to the left," i.e. the switch from center-right majorities to center-left majorities.

But the situation has gradually changed over the last few years. And this has offered the neo-fascists a way out of their ghetto. The change has been apparent in attitudes like that of Cossiga, who was president of Italy until 1992. By way of a few dramatic gestures, he asserted that he now considered the MSI a party like any other. This has been accompanied by a more subtle and discreet rehabilitation of the Fascist period in articles in the press, and in declarations by celebrities nostalgically evoking, for example, their youth in Mussolini's time.

The rehabilitation of the most reactionary ideas and values is obviously happening in Italy, as it is elsewhere. But the bourgeois politicians and sectors of the state apparatus are also making a more calculated move. Some, like the police and the secret services, have always had a reputation for being filled with far right elements who are able to carry out their plots under state protection. For politicians like Cossiga, or the Christian Democratic right in general, the MSI came to be seen as something to turn to, a possible refuge at a time when the collapse of their own party seemed more and more likely. And it has been used as a threat to speed up changes in the regime, including the introduction of "strong government" measures.

This is the situation which has enabled the MSI to reap some political benefits from the scandals and the worsening economic crisis. They have given particular prominence to Il Duce's granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, a former fashion and nude model, who has been "promoted" (if that is the right word) to the role of a figurehead for the neo-fascist party. Her job is to make references to Mussolini more common in Italian politics and to show Mussolini in a more attractive light.

In the recent local elections, MSI candidates, particularly in Naples and Rome, picked up as much as 40 per cent of the vote. No doubt, some of these votes come from the most right-wing section of the former Christian Democratic electorate, for whom voting fascist is no longer taboo. But some also come from a popular electorate of the lumpen proletariat and unemployed in the poorer districts of Naples and Rome, who may have seen a vote for the MSI as a means of "protesting" against the system.

Of course, in the recent elections, neither the MSI, nor Bossi's League of the North, won the office of mayor in any of the big towns. In the second round, which was only the direct election for mayor, the new electoral system left the choice between two candidates. In Rome and Naples, where voters had a choice only between candidates supported by the left coalition and the MSI, the swing to the MSI was not sufficiently strong to give them the necessary 50 per cent. Not surprisingly, a section of the centrist electorate preferred the extremely moderate candidates of the PDS-based coalitions to those of the MSI.

This did not stop the MSI's General Secretary, Gianfranco Fini, the party's candidate in Rome, from declaring that the elections had constituted a victory for him. And first round scores of 36.2% in Rome (compared to 9.7% in the previous general election of 1992) and 31.1% in Naples (compared to 9.5% in 1992) should indeed be considered a victory for a hitherto marginal and isolated far-right party. But what counts at least as much is that the MSI can now consider itself to be politically rehabilitated. In the course of the election campaign we saw a man as influential as the TV magnate Berlusconi making the sensational declaration that, if he were a voter in Rome, he would not hesitate to vote for Fini in the second round. According to Berlusconi, facing the "left" candidate – who happened to be the particularly anti-communist "Green," Rutelli – Fini was simply a representative of the "moderate wing which can guarantee the country's unity" and of values such as "the market, free enterprise, tolerance, propriety and good sense!"

The MSI, now armed with such endorsements of its moral virtue, obviously has every reason to redouble its efforts to seem "presentable." Fini declares that he is now not a fascist but a "post-fascist" ... because he was born in 1952. However, such verbal contortions were not enough to make people forget that only a year ago he had taken part in ceremonies to commemorate the 1922 fascist March on Rome, complete with goose-stepping and fascist salutes. So Fini has since made a "private visit" to the Ardeatine Graves in Rome, the scene of an infamous massacre of hostages by Nazi troops during World War II, a visit obviously designed to give substance to the idea that he had broken with his fascist past. Finally, using a comparison to French politics, Fini declared that a year ago he was Le Pen, but now he is Chirac!

The question now is how the MSI can be completely integrated into the political system. This integration was made essential by the new electoral system, which is based on an alliance between right-wing forces; on the political success Fini's party has just achieved; and also on the need to find a political counterweight to the success of the League of the North. The possible drift towards regionalism, or even separatism, which the League embodies, is no doubt a more immediate cause of concern for certain sections of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus.

The Painful Transformation of the Center

The general election this spring is being held on a winner-take-all basis for the first time, with only one round and only slight proportional adjustment. The so-called "progressive" left around the PDS is concentrating all its efforts on winning over centrist voters. Similar maneuvers are obviously taking place on the right. After the rout of the Christian Democratic Party, a number of politicians, particularly former Christian Democrats, are trying to prevent a victory by the PDS-based coalition.

In so doing, they are attempting to reconstitute a center-right political force, in order to prevent the votes of this section of opinion from being lost. But at the same time they may reach agreements with the League of the North and with the MSI. The previously mentioned TV magnate Berlusconi, who is also chairman of the AC Milan soccer club, has made just such a move. He has just launched his own party under the name "Forza Italia" ("Come on Italy"), the kind of battle cry more generally heard in soccer stadiums. "Forza Italia" will obviously benefit from Berlusconi's financial backing and the support of the media he owns. He has already begun trying to reach electoral agreements with the League of the North and the MSI, who are blowing hot and cold over whether to accept.

A "party" launched like a soccer club would be laughable, if it did not testify to the new depths reached by what now passes as "political debate." But it's not the only thing which marks the situation: there is a great deal more wrangling taking place. In particular, the various tendencies in the Christian Democratic Party – both those still in the party and those now outside it – are wondering which way to turn. They are looking for anyone with whom they can come to an agreement, if only to maintain a foothold in a parliament whose new electoral system is likely to cut a lot of people out. This system leaves little room on the right for forces other than the League of the North and the MSI.

"Transformism" at Work

For the moment, the most conscious elements of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus no doubt prefer this so-called "left." The PDS and the forces grouping around it are probably the bourgeoisie's safest bet at the moment. At a time when Italy's usual governing parties have crumbled, the PDS offers a replacement social democratic force which is all the more useful because the Italian bourgeoisie needs to continue a drastic austerity program at the expense of the poorer classes; to do so it needs the backing and collaboration of unions and political organizations with influence among the working class. The PDS is ready to offer its backing – and more – to this policy. Without its support and close collaboration, this whole operation to transform the political system would probably have failed.

The PDS is thus perhaps about to reap the benefits from the efforts of several generations of Italian Communist Party leaders to make the CP a fully-fledged government party. These efforts can be traced back over fifty years to 1943, when CP leader Togliatti returned to Italy and declared that revolution was no longer on the agenda; the aim became the "building of a new type of party." It is now clear what the word "new" referred to: a social democratic party, ready to exercise power in the interests of the bourgeoisie and support its anti-working class policy, and on top of this, to lend its support to the facelift of a worm-eaten state and government apparatus and to the creation of a stronger executive power. If the PDS gets its long-awaited success, the new social democratic government will come to power at a time of such crisis that there will be no benefit left to be reaped.

The Italian political crisis is often described as an episode in the history of "transformism," the government process invented in Italy in the last century (although it has obviously not remained limited to Italy) whereby opposition parties are transformed layer by layer into government parties. But the question at the moment is not so much whether the "transformist" operation on the left has been a success. Unfortunately, the integration of the PDS – and even a party like the "Communist Refoundation Party," which increasingly seems to be a mere appendage of the PDS – is simply the crowning of a long evolution. The question is under what conditions could a similar "transformism" complete the operation on the right; what exactly might this operation be; and will a system based on alternating governments of a conservative right and a barely less conservative left guarantee the Italian bourgeoisie its stability?

The League of the North and the MSI: What Threat Do They Represent?

The crisis has thrown up forces on the right, namely the League of the North and the MSI, that could upset the political game. There is no guarantee that these forces can be kept properly under control, especially since they are in competition with each other. Just because the leader of the MSI declares that he is now "Chirac" does not mean that he really is.

In the short term, no doubt, the MSI leaders' aims go no further than to be integrated into the political system, which would enable them to become a force capable of coming to power in face of a discredited left or center-left coalition in an Italian republic "modernized" in Gaullist fashion. The most serious thing would then not be the fact, in itself, that the Italian parliament was full of deputies from Fini's party. It would be the regression this would represent in the Italian population, and in its consciousness of what fascism was. The success of the MSI, alongside that of the League of the North, of Le Pen in France, and of their counterparts in other countries, is just one more indication of this regression, and of the progress made by reactionary ideas of every description.

But the question is also whether political forces of this type, which for the moment are staying within the parliamentary and electoral framework, may at some point decide to go beyond it. Mussolini's fascism, even before it became a parliamentary force, was an extra-parliamentary force of armed bands which the bourgeoisie employed to settle its scores with the workers' movement and destroy it physically, both in the streets and on the premises of the labor organizations themselves.

The MSI and the League of the North seem to have no shortage of support from the bourgeoisie, but for the moment at least they are not being asked to carry out such a violent task. The union organizations and so-called workers' parties have up to now proved fully effective in muzzling the Italian working class, binding it hand and foot and limiting its reactions to the attacks it has suffered. But if the need were to arise, the Italian bourgeoisie could recruit the anti-working-class shock troops it needs from the League of the North or the MSI. This could be carried out all the more easily because the present situation has encouraged many reactionary ideas and morally reinforced partisans of such methods.

All of this largely depends, of course, on how the world economic crisis develops. This crisis has already played a part in the political disintegration. The bourgeoisie has of course taken advantage of it to change its political system in the way it wanted, but this change may have come too late for it to be able to get genuinely more stable governments and a genuinely more stable regime. And if the economic crisis were to get worse, the few reforms it has succeeded in making at such pains to its methods of government are likely to be of little assistance in the end. The Italian bourgeoisie, with its precarious economic situation, decrepit state apparatus and unstable governments, would probably once again reveal itself to be one of the weakest of the imperialist bourgeoisies. And for this reason it is all the more likely to be tempted to resort to non-parliamentary means to solve its crises. The same reasons which led it to become the initiator of fascism after World War I would resurface with new force.

Sooner or later, therefore, the Italian working class is likely to be left with no choice. The only thing the PDS – and even finally the PRC – has to offer is that the working class should lend its help to the "economic rehabilitation" operations which are being carried out at workers' expense, on the grounds that things would be worse if other political forces carried out the task. The only result of this is, as we have already seen, to weaken the working class, to undermine its capacity to react and to sap its confidence in its own strength and in the class struggle. At the same time, it has strengthened reactionary movements which the working class will in any case have to confront.

It is right now that the working class needs to fight on the ground where it is strongest, that of the class struggle. It should make no concession to the maneuvers of political and union leaders who can do nothing better than compete with bourgeois leaders in the art of political scheming, and whose only dream is to win posts in the state apparatus. In the face of this state apparatus, and in the face of the reactionary political forces which are currently gaining strength, workers must be able to count on organizations which are genuinely their own, organizations prepared to fight a real class war. More than anything else, the working class needs a genuine communist party, a proletarian revolutionary party.