In Italy, the left which emerged after 1989 is undergoing a profound restructuring.
For the third time, the party created by the majority of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) is changing its name and symbol, fusing with the centrist “Margherita” party consisting for the most part of members of the ex-Christian Democratic (DC) left. The PCI transformed itself first into the Democratic Left Party (PDS). Then, a few years later, it dropped the word “party”, absorbed some Socialists, Social-democrats and Republicans and called itself the “Left Democrats” (DS). Now it is dropping the word “left” to become the Democratic Party (PD), with a not so hidden allusion to the American Democratic Party.
When the majority of the PCI dissolved its own party to create the PDS, a part of the minority founded the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) which by parthenogenesis, that is through a split, would generate the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI). This time, a minority of DS has split off and established the Democratic Left for European Socialism (SD). At the same time, PRC, together with groups and associations arising out of the social and political movements of recent Xfew years, has constituted the Italian Section of the European Left. The latter, however, is not presenting itself as a new and self-sufficient party, but rather as initiating a broader formation. A parliamentary accord has in fact been reached between the PRC, Greens, PdCI and SD, totalling 150 deputies and senators. Many in this section of the left are pushing for a united left formation. Finally, the Democratic Socialist Party – the least small of the groups of the Italian socialist diaspora after the disappearance of the PSI – which is part of the centre left, and which fused with the Radical Party with disappointing results (2.5 % of votes), has refused to go into the Democratic Party. It has announced the founding of a socialist grouping to which belong those the socialists who went into the centre right (composed, as is known, of Berlusconi’s party, the ex-fascists, the federalist Northern League with racist and separatist shadings, and the more conservative part of the DC).
It is difficult to summarise the actual situation of the Italian left, but what we see is a rather confused reality in a considerable state of motion. Confusion, admittedly, also reigns on the centre right where Berlusconi’s trajectory is reaching its end point, although how it will end is uncertain. The polls say he could be the winner were the Prodi government to fall and if new elections were to be held, but some sectors are pushing, in the event that Prodi does fall, for a “Government of National Unity” on the German model, which would exclude both the left and the League. The immediate cause of Italy’s present political uncertainty is the extremely narrow electoral majority held by the centre left, as well as the continual fall of the government coalition’s popularity as a result of its balancedbudget policies and its rather numerous and bitter internal conflicts.
More fundamentally, however, there is a failure of what was called the “transition” to a presumed second Italian republic, which was to be born, after the disappearance of all the parties involved in creating the Italian constitution (PCI, DC, PSI), from a “grand reform” of the constitutional structures. This transition has been dragging on for twenty years by now without achieving anything. The attempt by the right to transform the system in an authoritarian direction was repudiated by a popular referendum. The republican constitution won but the manoeuvres to weaken its anti-fascist and progressive foundations have not ended.
The material cause of this permanent state of crisis is the difficult challenge of a single European currency and single world capital market for a fragile Italian capitalism. This fragility has been compensated in the past by the relative strength of a mixed public-private system in which many economic activities were in public hands (banks, electricity, hydrocarbons, heavy machinery, shipbuilding, rail freight, etc…). The dismantling of this system, due to the liberal-economic requirements of the European Community, together with the loss of the tool of devaluation used to keep non-competitive companies on their feet, created a condition of relative uncertainty which tends towards a constantly greater pressure on labour. At the same time, the technological revolution necessitated a reorganisation which in turn required investments, and this led to the privatisation of a great part of manufacturing industry and services.
The organisations of the left have, in this situation, the same difficulties experienced by the left in any other advanced capitalist country in revising its own cultural heritage and tradition of projects in response to the changing reality, without losing track of its own raison d’etre. These difficulties have paradoxically increased due to the need to participate in government. Without all the various left organisations a progressive majority is impossible, and in Italy it is not possible to watch from the window while the right is in government. The Italian right groups do not have democratic and anti-fascist liberal origins, as in other European countries. In some ways, the obligation to govern is useful because it prevents the left from collapsing into purely demagogic chatter. At the same time, governing in a coalition with a moderate majority requires a very difficult mediation in relation to even the most modest of popular demands.
Hence the vicissitudes of those who have inherited the structures and the electorate of the PCI (which is very dispersed: from 27 % – the last result of the PCI – to 16 % – the last result of the DS).
When the Soviet Union began to collapse and the Third-International movement showed itself to be organically incapable of renewal (consider the rapid collapse of Euro-communism), the PCI, still strong with more than a quarter of the electorate, found itself alone. The premature death of Enrico Berlinguer, then party secretary, put an end to his attempt to change the culture of Italian communists, always distinct and later in opposition to Soviet political culture, but certainly lagging behind in relation to the evolution of capitalism. The “historic compromise” was the final consequence of Togliatti’s policy of democratic and national unity, broken by the Cold War. The failure of this compromise (in 1979, Berlinguer himself broke the national unity majority which became unfeasible after the murder of Aldo Moro) made necessary a change not just of political strategy but of project and programme. That is why at the end of his life Berlinguer not only broke definitively with the Soviets but approached pacifism, ecological culture, and the feminism that came to discover difference and to unveil the so-called “universals” as values marked by sexist domination – all this underlining the “moral question” of breaking with a second-hand machiavellism that had come to transform politics into business, even on the left. It was hard to continue in this direction, since even Berlinguer was clearly in a minority within the leading circles of his party. But it would not have been impossible. Instead the majority persuaded itself that outside of liberal democratic principles all is empty, or worse demagogic. And since advanced capitalist countries are governed from the centre, they chose to orient themselves toward a neocentrist collaboration (as in Schroeder’s “Neue Mitte” and Blair’s “New Labour”). In contrast, however, to the evolution of European socialdemocracy, it is not only the end of a symbolic reference to words like “socialism” that is involved, a reference which as we know is of fundamental importance, but also an essential repudiation of a predominant anchoring in dependent labour. What is more, the very notion of secularism of the state, now that all is moving toward the PD, tends to dissolve and fade, given the constraints imposed by the ex-DC left. The latter is certainly made up of secular Catholics but under considerable pressure due to the integralist path the Church is presently pursuing. Aldo Moro was certainly the most secular Christian-Democratic leader of all, but in conceiving the historic compromise Berlinguer never thought of a fusion of the two parties (as some today would have us believe), giving up an independent left.
The reality for the PD is thus the embarking on a neo-centrist course which even abandons the idea of the Socialist International and the European Socialist Party, which the PDS/DS would have joined. In a certain way, this reality clarifies the state of things. It is now up to those who still want to be on the left – socialists, communists, greens, or others – to give again a sense, a perspective, a concrete content to the word “left” and to socialist aspirations. Certainly, the contradictions created by the victory of the capitalist model, through its capacity to produce goods and services, requires profound changes. It is widely understood that infinite development is impossible in a finite world and that the western consumer model cannot be transferred to the whole world, if there is not to be an inexorable increase of extreme poverty and wealth. But how it would be possible even credibly to suggest an exit route remains unclear after hope placed in “social ownership of the means of production and exchange” were transformed first into the reality of state capitalism and then into savage capitalism.
Still less clear is how to go from the just criticism of the victorious and dominant model to a politics of government founded on consent.
From this comes the retreat to moderatism, but also, one has to say, the kind of behaviour in government of the “alternative” left, which can appear to involve mere – somewhat subaltern – demands for something more.
Certainly, a left has to do more than just be active in government, but if it participates in government it ought to have a clear line potentially capable of pointing to a different comprehensive solution (an attempt to win hegemony in the Gramscian sense).
Thus, current efforts are being directed at developing at least unity of action on immediate problems that confront the centre left government (labour policies, taxation, immigration, wars, etc.). At the same time, however, a new construction is being proposed, a new political subject that is not a collection of leadership bodies of still extant left parties, but one which includes associations and groups of the broad left. Naturally, this is an arduous though necessary task. The right’s breakthrough has occurred above all on cultural terrain and on major issues that are not merely economic: liberty, the individual, the meaning of life. One cannot respond to this by merely exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy of others, or by counterposing equality to liberty, collectivity to the individual, unsatisfied material needs to the need for meaning. There is much work to be done in revising the commonplaces of the left, for a new conception of liberty that is not synonymous with the dominance of the other, of the individual who is able to emerge out of social relations, on the idea of equality as the recognition of differences starting with that of gender, and on differences that do not imply giving up human community.
We need to construct an idea of an economic mechanism that makes possible a kind of civilizing that does not destroy nature which is the environment of human beings themselves and of all other living things. It is a task that is not only Italian, but at the very least European. Very difficult, but there is no other way.