SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

Rifondazione Comunista congress rejects former leadership

AFTER A hard period of internal debate and discussion and in the face of turmoil to come in the Italian economy, Rifondazione Comunista appears to have come back from the brink of dissolution. Delegates at the seventh national congress of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) have voted for a new ‘left turn’ which could potentially lay the basis for the launching of a fighting anti-capitalist workers’ party in Italy. In what was probably the most bitter and polarised congress in the party’s 17-year history, Paolo Ferrero became national secretary, narrowly beating Nichi Vendola, designated heir of former leader Fausto Bertinotti and leader of the right wing of the party.

The congress took place in the wake of the PRC’s electoral annihilation in the general election of April this year. Standing as the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Left Rainbow) together with three smaller parties, it received just 3% of the vote and was completely wiped out in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies. This was the bitter fruit of two years of participation in a capitalist government led by Romano Prodi and the Democratic Party (PD) which carried out neo-liberal policies and disillusioned millions of workers and young people.

At stake at the congress was the very existence of the party itself. A victory for Vendola would have meant the end of the PRC as a communist party and a continuation of the previous failed policy of the Sinistra Arcobaleno and government alliances with the capitalist PD.

Vendola’s congress document (document two) supported the dissolution of Rifondazione into a ‘left constituent’ – the name for a ‘Sinistra Arcobaleno’ Mark Two. Within it, in the words of Bertinotti, communism would be just one ‘cultural tendency’ amongst many. In the local and regional congresses of the party held in the run-up to the national congress, none of the five strategic documents presented gained an overall majority. Document two received the highest percentage of votes – 47% compared to 40% for Ferrero’s (document one). However, this was against the background of contested congresses and dubious voting practices. In one area in the south, for example, where Vendola won, more people voted in the local PRC congress than had voted for the whole of the Sinistra Arcobaleno in the general election!

Having received the most votes (and therefore the most delegates), the right were expecting a narrow majority at the congress and a victory for Vendola as leader. Their strategy was to split the supporters of document one in order to win an overall majority but they failed, despite a rousing and apparently conciliatory speech by Bertinotti. The final outcome was on a knife edge until the very last moment when supporters of documents one, three, four and five united around a common document which gained a majority – 342 to 304.

Delegates celebrated the defeat of the right and the survival of Rifondazione as a communist party by singing the Internationale, Bandiera Rossa and Bella Ciao, while Vendola and his supporters walked out of the hall angry, bitter and demoralised. Bertinotti even described the singing and raised fists which erupted after Ferrero’s speech as a "horrible scene" never before witnessed in the history of the party’s congresses.

Vendola says that there will not be a split in the party but this is clearly the direction in which he is heading. He has formed his own group ‘Rifondazione per la sinistra’ which is calling its own national demonstration in September. He has described the congress as "the end of the history of Rifondazione comunista" and his supporters are refusing to participate in the national bodies of the party. A definitive split is likely around the time of the European elections next year, if not before.

The final congress document states that the period of collaboration with the PD in government at a national level is now over. It totally rejects the idea of dissolving the PRC into a ‘left constituent’ and calls for a relaunch of Rifondazione on the basis of industrial and social struggles against the Berlusconi government. It states that the PRC should stand under its own symbol of the hammer and sickle in the European elections next year while attempting to find agreement with other anti-capitalist, communist and left forces.

This potentially represents a platform for relaunching the PRC and a springboard for involving other forces – communists, trade unionists, social and community movements, youth etc – in forging an anti-capitalist party with roots in the workplaces and communities and a fighting programme for the revolutionary transformation of society. With an economic crisis that is worsening daily and brutal attacks on the conditions of workers and immigrants and democratic rights in general by the Berlusconi government, industrial and social movements are inevitable. Already the press are talking about a ‘hot autumn’ with public sector workers at the forefront. Against this background, a fighting anti-capitalist party with a correct programme could potentially develop a mass base and grow rapidly.

However, such an outcome is far from certain. Rifondazione has squandered much of its credibility and destroyed most of its links with workers and the more radicalised sections of society. Recovering from its current position of demoralisation and defeat will not be an easy task. If the right split away, which is the most likely perspective, this will be used by the ruling class and the media to try and further discredit the party and declare it dead. If on the other hand the right decide to stay and fight, the situation inside the party could be extremely bitter and difficult, potentially leading to increased demoralisation and a further erosion of members and support.

Ferrero himself was part of the majority leadership which supported participating in the Prodi government and was minister of welfare. While he is critical of that experience he is ambiguous on the question of the party’s relationship with the PD. He talks of the impossibility of aligning the PRC with ‘this’ PD, implying that a future alliance might be possible. Following the congress the position of the party on local government coalitions with the PD is vague, with the resolution stating that each case will be looked at individually in line with the general policy adopted at the congress. A party that continues to participate in local council administrations which are cutting and privatising education, health and other services will have difficulty recovering support. To lay the basis for a mass workers’ party, a clean break with the past is necessary and a campaign of visits to all major workplaces to involve workers in the building of a fighting force against capitalism that can win a majority in society independent of all non-working class parties. Direct involvement in the struggles to come can fill out a revived PRC.

The current majority is fragile and weak with major differences not just between the groups which supported the five original congress documents but within many of the groups themselves. A serious political battle will have to be waged within and outside the party to ensure that a fighting anti-capitalist party is built, with a revolutionary socialist programme that does not just exist on paper but is fought for amongst the working class. With our as yet small forces, CWI members in Italy will be participating alongside others in that battle. The result of the congress underlines the mistaken tactics of groups like Sinistra Critica and the PCL (Communist Workers Party, formerly Progetto Comunista) who prematurely broke with Rifondazione instead of staying to see the battle through to its conclusion.

Of course there is no guarantee that the battle will eventually be successful. But this congress could mark an important turning point. A victory for the right would have represented a further set back in the building of a genuine mass workers’ party in Italy. The defeat of the right, however, opens up at least the possibility of the PRC becoming the catalyst or the embryo for creating such a party in the future.

Christine Thomas


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