The precipitous fall of the government and consequent early elections (April 13 -14) caught the Italian left’s unification process in midstream. The process, officially launched at the convention of the Estates-General of the Left and Ecologists on December 8th and 9th, 2007, is still far from having the features of a real political project, and farther still from completion.
As a result, the construction of a unified left (called the Rainbow Left) now faces a decisive test: the early – too early – political elections.
The immaturity of the process also makes its prospects uncertain and its character ambiguous, as reflected in the ways in which the leaders of the parties and movements involved, and the left in general, perceive it.
The two extremes that give the process this uncertain character are on the one hand the reduction to a mere electoral alliance of political forces that would be unable on their own to win enough votes to elect members of Parliament, and on the other the ambition of the political project, which is running in the elections today but intends to continue beyond this and build a new entity of the left. Both these elements are present in the ensemble of political forces that are working toward aggregation, and within each one of them. Their combination creates an underlying ambiguity that only the course of social conflicts and the reorganisation of the Italian political system can dissipate.
I might conclude this brief introduction by remarking that the Rainbow Left is facing the voters from the worst possible position. It would be hard to contest this assertion, not only because the character of the unification process is still not clear, but also because of the political context of the campaign: the forthcoming verdict on the two-year record of the Prodi government, where all the forces of the Rainbow Left shared responsibility, and the circumstance that the left is running alone, competing instead of being allied with the Democratic Party, the main force that supported Prodi’s centre-left government. This is due to an apparent paradox: the Prodi government was felled by the right, when some moderate-centrist groups within the forces that created the Democratic Party withdrew, but in the election campaign the split-off against which the Democratic Party is running is on the left, by the Democratic Party’s own choice.
Why is this paradox merely “apparent”? For the simple reason that in the Democrats’ choice one can read their intention to recreate a situation of compatibility that had been shattered by the crisis of the Italian political system in the early 1990s.
The crisis of the Prodi government was actually less contingent and sudden than appears at first sight. It was not only the fall of a government; it was the end of a whole political cycle. A new phase has begun, and the result, or at least the result intended by some people, will be to relegate the left to the sidelines and create a weak alternation between two centre-leaning formations, the neo-centrist wager which is the real objective of the powers that have operated over the long period of the crisis. In short, to put an end to the Italian anomaly.
These trends and the lengthy coagulation of crisis factors do not make the rush – the leap – any less traumatic. The goal is precisely to cause a splash-down.
For the Italian left, this campaign is thus an important test that comes at what may be the worst possible time, partly because of the immaturity of the unification process and partly because of the political context.
Two contradictory critical elements are in play: on the one hand, widespread protest in the most advanced movements and in left public opinion against the government’s record, hence against the left’s part in it; on the other, the siren song that urges voters to cast a “useful vote,” meaning the alleged need to vote for the largest party in order to prevent the victory of the right.
These two elements have contrary motivations. The first claims that the left was too yielding, too subordinate to the Democratic Party (in sum, that the left had to face the crisis after it had acquiesced in choices to which it ought to have reacted in a very different way). The second objects to the isolation in which the left is facing the election (it matters little that the decision to isolate the left came from the Democratic Party); because the electoral system assigns the majority of seats to whomever wins the relative majority of votes, people are supposedly forced to vote for the party with the best (albeit minimum) chances of beating the right.
In a less superficial analysis, the contradiction between these two elements may turn out to be merely apparent. The dichotomy between unity and autonomy is the same contradiction with which the various forces of the left have wrestled in recent years, making different choices that have sometimes led to violent divisions.
It seems impossible to have a sensible discussion about what to do next without discussing openly, in a truth-seeking spirit, the record of the two years of the Prodi government and the left’s part in it. This was no small experiment. For the first time ever, all the parties of the left – from the two Communist parties to the Greens to the new socialist left (born as a split-off from the Democrats of the Left, the party which, together with other moderate-centre groups, formed the Democratic Party) – took part and held a decisive position in the nation’s government. What was supposed to guarantee this coalition was a pact among the political forces that had formed the Union, among them the labour movements and forces that had taken the lead in the extraordinary struggles waged during the previous five years, the years of Berlusconi’s government.
This pact had taken the form of a highly detailed and structured platform that the leaders of the coalition had very emphatically presented and signed in public. There was a great deal of ironic comment on the length of the Union’s 2006 platform, more than 270 pages. The length was said to be due to the vague, or, rather, the contradictory nature of conflicting proposals. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. The Union’s platform was a true compromise among different approaches along a line that could be called “European reformism.” It called for a foreign policy more independent from the United States, with withdrawal from Iraq as the first step; modification of the worst aspects of precarious labour, a policy for redistributing wealth and penalising earnings from speculation, the introduction of civil rights, starting with those of unmarried couples, and new legislation on citizenship rights, starting with immigrants.
Aside from withdrawal from Iraq, none of the other issues were resolved by concrete government action. The idea of the government’s sensitivity to the movements was contradicted by the facts. The largest demonstrations during these two years not only did not succeed in influencing the government; they came up against a stone wall. There were three major events: the demonstration in Vicenza against expansion of the U.S. military base, where the whole population turned out against that choice; Gay Pride, the largest demonstration demanding recognition of fundamental rights, including recognition of different forms of cohabitation; and the demonstration by over a million people against precarious labour and for new legislation that would eliminate its most hateful aspects. The parties of the left not only participated in these demonstrations; they were among the promoters. Yet the results were disappointing, if not totally nil. A wall went up and the government proved undoubtedly to be far more sensitive to the influence of the powers that be: the employers association (Confindustria), on labour and social security issues; the Vatican, on civil rights and the secular state; the U.S. government, on the new military base. The parties of the left did not yield on the principles involved, but each time – in one instance under the threat of the government’s losing a vote of confidence – they swallowed the bitter pill and re-introduced the challenge on a different terrain. Eventually, after the idea of a comprehensive review of the government’s achievements had been announced, the crisis arrived, created by the right explicitly to undo the political situation created by the 2006 election results.
In analysing these two years, we must also take account of the country’s overall situation, characterised by a latent economic crisis that was amplified by events related to the financial troubles in the U.S; and its social condition, which has not improved since the five very hard years when the right was in power. This unhealthy state of affairs erodes people’s confidence in the very possibility of change.
Without a critical judgment of this experience, the process of unifying the left has no future. What is needed is a deeper reflection that – in this case too – uses contingent events to evaluate structural tendencies.
The result would be an evaluation that sees the birth of the Italian Democratic Party and the consequent split-off of the left as strategic events in a phase – the phase of an attempt at eliminating the possibility of compromise with the left and its demand to put an end to compatibility with neoliberal policies.
In this sense, the parties of the left should consider their autonomy – including running alone in the election campaign – as a strength rather than a punishment, a choice of phase rather than a passing episode. But the left as a whole and the individual parties have not gotten over their grief. They still bewail a past (even the recent past of the Union) that is no longer, and they have a hard time propelling themselves into the new phase. They do not understand that autonomy is now the challenge they must win to survive. From this standpoint too, the unification process involves differing if not actually contradictory issues that need to be resolved.
To better understand the underlying rationale of the unification process, we need to analyse the different political cultures involved and the paths taken in that direction in recent years by the political forces that are now the leading players in the Rainbow Left: Communist Refoundation (PRC), the Greens, the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI) and Democratic Left (SD).
Let us consider three elements: the alliance formed by the PdCI and the Greens for the 2006 general election; the birth of SD, formed by the left wing of the Democrats of the Left on the birth of the Democratic Party, as an experience connected with European socialism; and the experience of the European Left, promoted by the PRC.
In the general election of 2006, the PdCI and the Greens ran on a joint slate. This slate achieved a fairly satisfying result, about the same as the sum of the two parties’ votes for the Chamber of Deputies, but it was clearly marked by a state of necessity: how to win the percentage of votes required to elect senators. This goal was so evident and explicit that it never crossed anybody’s mind to consider the experimental alliance as a common base. The two parties continued to exist independently, with no reference to that experience. Frankly, we can consider this reduction to a mere electoral alliance as a possible extreme outcome of the ongoing unification process. In other words, the failure of the unification process as a political project. The fact that no political force on the left is proposing such a mere electoral alliance today as a model is a sign of people’s awareness that more surely has to be done.
The second element I shall consider here is the birth of SD. One might object that what we have in this case is not a process of aggregation but the exact opposite: part of the Democrats of the Left split off when faced with the choice of joining forces with the major centre party, the Margherita, in the new Democratic Party. But this is not actually true, mainly because SD decided not to form a real party but to remain within a more general political movement. A rather odd act, according to its promoters: a “biodegradable” movement that would be willing to dissolve itself in the construction of a new leftist party. From the standpoint of political culture, SD clearly wants to be part of European socialism and inherit the government culture of the Italian left and its strong ties with large trade-union organisations.
Lastly, the PRC – the party which more than any other has operated in the framework of the relationship between politics and movements – initiated the most innovative unification process, within the trajectory of the Party of the European Left. Though the European Left still has evident shortcomings and limitations, it is a novelty in Europe. It is aggregating multiple forces – alternative leftists, communists, left socialists, critical environmentalists – that have chosen a common path as an alternative to neoliberalism and war, with no fixed ideology but within a concrete politics of close cooperation with the movements.
The PRC was among the political forces giving birth to this new force of the alternative European Left. As noted above, this project proceeds along a more complex path of political-cultural innovation aimed at building a new left in Europe that would be an interlocutor with a reborn left throughout the world (e.g.the so-called Latin-American laboratory), within a longer trajectory of the movement of movements.
In Italy, the aim was to give shape to this process through an original experience of building a unitary path intended to bridge the gap between politics and movements, and thus build a new public space for politics, in part by undermining the prevalence of the party form of organisation. In the singular Italian experience, the European Left represented the possibility of creating a relationship among the political groupings of the alternative left, in this case the PRC, the movements, and various associations that have formed national and territorial networks: the feminist network. the network of social centres and antagonist groups, the environmentalist network, groups that operate for the construction of a movement and are grouped in the Forum for 21st-Century Socialism, left socialist experiences aggregated around United on the Left, other experiences similarly in the area of the new experiences of emerging cultures, and so on.
It is perfectly clear that these three paths differ in their nature and are in some ways opposed to each other. The experience of the European Left is the opposite of an electoral alliance, but it expresses a political culture advocating the left’s autonomy from government, and an idea of relations with the movements that is quite different from the government culture which the SD movement essentially takes to be the identity of the left.
The transitional moment in which the Italian unification process now finds itself is that of enabling the cohabitation of differences within a new project that does not try to cancel them out, but gradually reaches a synthesis among them.
The starting point should be precisely the multiplicity of experiences and political cultures, but with no thought of either merely juxtaposing them or (the opposite error) yielding to the illusion that they can be cancelled out in the alchemy of hardly credible and likely ineffectual fusion processes.
The decisive issue is back on the table, and requires each and everyone of us to question ourselves in a participatory process. The real key in implementing the unification process is to be open to participation, to cease feeling like owners of political parties that summon associations and individuals to engage in the process but do not make them equally empowered protagonists. In this sense, the opening of the European Left, beyond the limits of this particular experiment, is a fruitful innovational stimulus because it considers the form of political action to be an essential part of the content of the reform of politics.
To conclude more optimistically than I began: the Italian left is indeed facing the elections at the worst moment, but for this reason it should actually consider the election as simply a moment of transition. Whatever the outcome, the elections should not call the unification process into question. We are, however, called upon to relate to the process without engaging in tactical manoeuvres, in petty calculations of advantage, but rather to be oriented toward the long road of the construction of a new left. An innovation that rejects the shortcuts of a unification process that would merely annex or dissolve different cultures instead of truly altering both the contents and the form of politics.
This is a decisive transitional moment. There is, moreover, great need of the left in Italian society, and a great desire among the powers that be to obliterate it; in other words, to prevent the political representation of social conflict (which cannot be eliminated). We are still in time, even considering the current conflict and the challenge of the early general election, to frustrate that desire.
The project that the Italian left is presenting at election time – the Rainbow Left – is the necessary one, but it is not yet sufficient. This is the real test facing the whole left – the political left, the social left and the movements.