SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 78 - October 2003

Bertinotti, reformism & the struggle for socialism

The Guardian newspaper recently carried an article (12 August) by Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of Italy’s Refoundation Communist party (RC), reflecting on the prospects for confronting capitalism in the aftermath of the mass movement against the war in Iraq. CLARE DOYLE responds.

THE PARTY OF Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista – RC) was born more than a decade ago out of a split from the old Communist Party of Italy, now known as ‘Democrats of the Left’ (DS). A force of around 100,000 members, it is the main new workers’ party to have emerged in Europe in the period following the collapse of Stalinism.

With its socialist ideals, its red banners, and its championing of the workers’ movement world-wide, the RC has been able to attract the support of considerable layers of workers and young people in Italy. Internationally it has become a reference point for many socialists and Marxists. The way the party develops is of importance for the future – in Italy and elsewhere – given the tumultuous period of class struggle ahead.

The RC has been to the fore in the anti-globalisation movement of recent years – itself an important development and fertile ground for the ideas of genuine socialism to gain support. The party has also played an important role in the numerous mass protests and strikes in Italy over the past two years – against the social and economic counter-reforms of the Berlusconi government and against its support for the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A revolutionary socialist party in Italy during this time should have been constantly raising the need to bring down the Berlusconi government. Especially at the height of the general strike movement of spring 2002, it was important to put forward the idea of an alternative government – one made up of representatives of those millions of workers, young people and even layers of the middle class locked in battle with Berlusconi at the time. (See the article, Italy on the march, in Socialism Today No.64, April 2002).

Unfortunately, however, the RC has failed to live up to widely-held expectations that it would become a clear rallying point and a growing force for socialist change in Italy. Disappointment on the part of people initially attracted to its banner is shown in the high turnover of membership – one third each year, as reported at its last congress. The RC has failed to put on flesh precisely in a period of heightened class struggle – usually the time most favourable to the growth of a left party.

In its analysis and slogans and sometimes in its political positions there is confusion. Worse, in some local councils, its representatives have participated with centre-left parties in implementing the cuts and privatisations demanded by central government.

Now, within the party, sections of the active membership are critical of the turn taken by Bertinotti in seeking programmatic agreement with the ‘Olive Tree’ alliance in preparation for the next elections.

A new ‘Olive Tree’ government (now probably with the returning European Commission president, Romano Prodi, at its head) would undoubtedly be seen as a respite from the onslaught of right-wing policies pursued over the past two years. But the RC leadership must warn that, just as the last time round, such a government of mainly capitalist parties, including the ex-‘communist’ DS, would disappoint its electorate and carry through new attacks on the working class. The RC would have to put itself at the head of a struggle against the ‘centre left’ on the basis of socialist demands.

The RC leader, Fausto Bertinotti, has now begun to call for ‘a new 94’. By this he means a unified movement against attacks on pension rights that could bring down the Berlusconi government. The trade union leaders are already promising action of general strike proportions this autumn. They are forced to reflect the anger and hatred felt by the majority of workers and young people against the ‘Cavalier’ and his clique.

Nevertheless, in pursuing an alliance with the ‘Olive Tree’, Fausto Bertinotti indicates that the RC leadership has given up the aim of winning a majority for the programme of genuine socialism. Not without criticism from within the party, they have toned down the socialist and ‘communist’ aspects of the party’s policies. They have adapted to the vaguer and broader layers of the anti-globalisation movement, to which they have devoted a great deal of attention.

Lack of clarity

ALL THESE WEAKNESSES were confirmed in an article by Bertinotti in The Guardian newspaper of 11 August. They stem from an inadequate understanding of the period which followed the major events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – the events which gave birth to the party itself but which its leaders have never fully explained.

The movement against capitalist globalisation has undoubtedly been an impressive and welcome development in the recent period, involving an important new layer especially of young people. But it is a mistake to see it as "the main resource available" for building a new left alternative, as Bertinotti puts it. There are negative aspects to the approach of the movement’s leaders which he remains silent on. Moreover, Bertinotti is very pessimistic about the working class in Italy and Europe.

In saying, "the space for reform has been closed", he seems to be taking one step forward. But then he does not draw the correct conclusion. This should not be that reforms are not possible, but that the struggle for reforms poses the question of a struggle to change society.

Bertinotti quotes Giorgio Ruffolo, a minister in Italy’s former centre-left Olive Tree government, who lays the blame for the defeat of the ‘reform-minded left’ on some ineluctable process of globalisation, through which "capitalism has won a historical battle". Yet Bertinotti does not explain why capitalist globalisation has apparently succeeded in imposing "reckless flexibility, extreme inequalities and the end of safety nets". There is no mention of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism – the ideological offensive against socialism and collective action, and the failure of trade union leaders to break from those at the head of the workers’ parties who went over to market capitalism.

The RC leader closes the door on the possibility of achieving even partial reforms. The only conclusion from Bertinotti’s statement that workers could draw is that the struggle for partial reforms is futile. But Marxists have always linked the fight to defend past gains and to win partial reforms with the need to end capitalist rule. As long as capitalism continues to exist, real reforms can be won through mass action. Indeed, many reforms and reverses in government policies have been the by-product of near revolutionary movements.

This relates also to wars and anti-war movements. In the case of the Vietnam war, for example, it would have taken action of a general strike character to have shaken the US government’s resolve to go to war, and even that could have been insufficient. Such a strike cannot be simply declared; it must be prepared for and linked to the day-to-day issues that face workers.

In relation to the movement to try and stop US imperialism’s attack on Iraq this year, Bertinotti uses the very large figure of 100 million people reportedly on the streets worldwide on 15 February. The Guardian put it at 30 million. Either way, these magnificent protests testified to the earth-shattering character of this movement. "But the war was waged anyway", says Bertinotti, "without any price yet paid by the forces that wanted it". But he gives no explanation as to why the war did go ahead and no mention of the huge problems developing in its wake – not least for Iraq but also for Bush and Blair.

Protests, even of a mass character, are not enough to stop wars on their own. Yet it was subsequently revealed that Blair could have been brought down at the height of the anti-war movement. In April he told The Sun newspaper that, before the parliamentary debate on the war on 18 March, he had instructed government civil servants to ‘prepare for his resignation’. What repercussions would that have had for Bush’s position? Even now, with his poll ratings falling, Bush meets a stony silence at the United Nations Assembly in response to his appeal for help in the ‘reconstruction’ of the occupied country.

Undue pessimism

ONLY WHEN FACED with a direct challenge to their core class interests or their system, will the capitalists make major concessions. Even then, they will seize the first opportunity to try and claw them back.

The reform to Italy’s labour protection laws and the sliding scale of wages (‘scala mobile’) were the product of the mighty class battles of more than 30 years ago. The scala mobile was lost but even now, after more than two years of the Berlusconi government’s attacks on Article 18 of the labour law – giving an element of protection against ‘unjust’ sackings – it remains on the statue books. Yet this is not clear from Bertinotti’s article. Instead, he writes that "there has been a mass mobilisation over unfair dismissal rights. And yet we lost it". He does not explain for the British readers who do not know the reality that the ‘defeat’ relates to an attempt to extend Article 18 to workplaces with less than 15 employees in them, not to the core provisions of the article itself.

He also does not explain the nature of this campaign – a mass signature-collecting enterprise and a referendum – nor examine whether this was the best activity for the party (and some of the trade unions) at the height of the general strike movement, which was beginning to show the capacity of the working class to put its stamp on history. Petitions and referendums are not, anyway, the easiest terrain for workers’ parties and trade unions to fight on, especially when the mass media is controlled by the prime minister himself!

Nor does Bertinotti explain, in the Guardian article at any rate, the role in the referendum’s defeat played by the centre-left politicians and, in particular, the former trade union leader Sergio Cofferati. The man seen to be at the head of last year’s mass campaign – including the three million strong protest march in Rome and the massive twelve million-strong general strike – came out, like almost all of the centre-left leaders, for abstention!

Article 18, while not extended, is also not abolished. The fact that the bosses will continue to find every way possible to get round this legislation and will continue to get parliamentary support for measures aimed at undermining the power of the working class, only brings home the need for an incisive campaign against the ‘reformist’ leaders who block the road to reform!

The RC leader sees defeat everywhere he turns. In France, he says, "after major struggles, the Raffarin government is carrying on its attack on the pension system. In Germany, for the first time in 50 years, IG Metall ended a strike… without achieving any result whatsoever". Yet this autumn could see a renewed strike movement in France on the scale of the 1995-96 movement that compelled the Juppé government to retreat. And in Germany, he does not recognise the huge head of steam building up amongst German workers against the government’s Agenda 2010 programme of labour market and welfare ‘reforms’. Yet the capitalist governments of those countries do. Why else would they be defying the European Commission and breaching the budget deficit limits of the Economic and Monetary Union’s ‘growth and stability pact’ at the present time?

But Bertinotti’s article continues, "the right has won all over the world because it has strategic hegemony". As if there is no chance of a revival of the workers’ movement. But also, how strong is this right? Hostility towards the capitalist ‘establishment’ is widespread. It was vividly expressed even in the way Swedish workers and young people voted in the recent euro referendum campaign (see article on page seven). The victorious ‘no’ vote was far from being a right-wing, pro-business or nationalistic vote – as was recognised in The Guardian by Larry Elliot who wrote that "in Sweden, opposition to the euro came primarily from the left, not the right" (22 September). The welfare state in Sweden, constructed by Social Democratic governments of the past, is now under attack. Those who voted against the euro were opposing the present-day Social Democratic government because of its attempts to dismantle the very welfare state set up by past Social Democratic governments! The idea that neo-liberalism or the capitalist establishment cannot be seriously challenged, and on occasions defeated, is totally wrong.

Workers’ decisive role

ITALIAN WORKERS AND youth have shown time and again, in the past two years in particular, that they are prepared to fight. They have sensed that they can win, but their ‘leaders’ have failed to channel their anger and energy into a direct challenge to the rule of the bosses’ government of Berlusconi. The trade union tops have been dragged along by the movement, protesting profusely that they are not interested in changing a democratically elected government. When such a government is acting against the majority in society, it is not only right but vital to link the workers’ struggle to preparing the conditions for changing the government. This can take electoral or other forms.

Even in Britain with its long tradition of trade union organisation and slow development, the trade union leaders found themselves in the early 1970s heading big industrial battles that prepared the way for the downfall of a right-wing Tory government. The prime minister at the time, Edward Heath, called an election on the theme, ‘who runs the country – the trade unions or the government?’ and lost!

Neither the collapse of Stalinism nor the apparent triumph of capitalist globalisation has destroyed the working class or its decisive role in society. It is the main vehicle in society for carrying through real reforms, ending wars and indeed defeating capitalism itself. In Italy it has been clear in the past two years that the ‘heavy battalions’ of the working class, while depleted in numbers, still maintain a decisive weight. The metal mechanics appear in the vanguard of almost every protest and lend a tangible sense of power to participants, young and old.

In spite of this, in his article, Bertinotti appears to be denying the centrality of the working class. Instead he talks of, "starting from the main resource available, which is the movement against capitalist globalisation". While it is correct to welcome the development of the anti-globalisation movement, it is wrong to allow it to obscure the vital role of the working class. Bertinotti talks of the need for a "reconstruction of the agency of change: a re-definition of the working class". But what does this mean if not down-playing its ‘traditional’ role as the agent for the socialist transformation of society? He seems also to downplay the importance of revolutionary or socialist parties and programmes and still prefers not to mention socialism, even as an aim. He talks of the need, "in the face of right-wing extremism, to provide an alternative: of peace against war and of a new model of society against neo-liberalism. This does not mean either a detailed programme or unity among existing political forces".

The Guardian article extols the virtues of the anti-capitalist movement and the "embryonic new democratic institutions" it has thrown up, of social forums, self-government experiments, etc. In doing so, however, Bertinotti appears to be turning his back on the democratic forms thrown up by the workers’ movement itself in its centuries-long history of struggle. There was the Paris commune of 1871, the workers’ councils (or soviets) in the Russian revolution, and the basic democracy of elected factory and strike committees. Demanding the election of all workers’ representatives, subject to recall and living on no more than the average skilled worker’s wage, is an important task of Marxist parties – in relation to parliamentary, trade union, workplace and local government democracy.

In the recent struggles of workers and young people against Berlusconi, the RC should have been campaigning for the setting up of councils or committees to prepare for general strike action and to discuss all the issues at stake. The representative committees would need to be elected by assemblies in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods and link up regionally and nationally.

Bertinotti, coming from a trade union background but with ‘communist’ credentials, should understand that, as Lenin explained, committees like these are perhaps the most democratic of all bodies. They are vital not only for conducting struggles against individual bosses and governments but also in equipping the workers, youth and poor people involved with the experience needed for implementing workers’ control and democratic workers’ management in a future socialist society.

Networks and parties

BERTINOTTI IS CRITICAL of Italy’s trade union leaders but does not explain their actions (or inaction) and their attempts to tire out the movement – with long drawn out campaigns of two-hour, or four-hour, as well as eight-hour strikes, sometimes ‘articulated’ around different regions, and often spaced out over months at a time. The RC, still with a base of support in the workplaces, did not spell out a strategy for victory or a vigorous campaign to prepare general strikes of a longer duration and a more determined nature that could have defeated the Berlusconi government.

Where also is the RC’s programme for fighting against cuts and privatisation? Does it stand for the public ownership of the banks, major industries and land, and the democratic planning of all resources? If so, why does it not shout about it?

Bertinotti claims the ‘movement of movements’ has "challenged the model of a party… proposing instead the notion of networks and links among groups, associations, parties and newspapers". Marxists are not opposed to new methods of organisation and coordination. Amongst the new generation of fighters there is a healthy rejection of top-down, bureaucratic Stalinist methods. Many of them are also opposed to the concept of a party or parties. But while that is understandable, it is wrong to give any credence to the idea that a revolution – the total transformation of society along socialist lines – can be carried out without a revolutionary party capable of thorough discussion but also decisive and united action. Networks and forums are useful. But they can provide no substitute for a revolutionary socialist party with a clear set of ideas, with a capacity to forecast the main line of events, and with a programme of socialist demands for taking the workers’ movement forward.

"The European trade unions decided not to call a general strike against the war", writes Bertinotti, as if they could, after decades of inaction, turn on the tap of mass revolt. Such action requires energetic preparation and mobilisation. The trade union leaders, who have largely come to an accommodation with capitalism, have had neither the conviction nor the will to organise this.

But he is not critical of the anti-globalisation movement. He explains nowhere the very mixed class composition of it and the fact that many of the leaders can end up defending capitalism rather than opposing it. He himself makes the point, however, that within the anti-globalisation movement there could develop "a temptation to flee from politics". How can this be countered without stressing the need for the revolutionary party? The capitalists are well organised to head off the challenges of the working class, even to the extent of holding many trade unionists in their thrall. Vague talk about "an alternative European left (which) can find its strategy only within the anti-globalisation movement" will not be adequate for the task.

Now that major reforms are out of the question, Bertinotti warns that, as if he has just discovered it, "the forces of the European left cannot depend on social democracy". As the Swedish example demonstrates, social democracy in Europe no longer represents a force for reform. They have become parties of open counter-reform. But his solution – that "they must break away with a radical, united initiative" – still makes no mention of socialism or communism.

Bertinotti ends his article by warning that, "not only the prospects for the left and the anti-globalisation movement, but even the existence of Europe as an autonomous entity, is at stake". Does this mean that he wants to defend not only Italian but also European capitalism from the encroachments of US imperialism? We hope not, but the leader of the Refoundation Communist Party in Italy, respected in Europe and world wide, must counter-pose to reformism the clearest of socialist/communist policies and practice, in order to take full advantage of a more favourable situation for building a revolutionary party.


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