Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Italy on the March 2002

A massive confrontation between the classes in Italy is under way. The barrage of arch-reactionary policies issuing from the Berlusconi government has been met by an ‘equal and opposite’ barrage of strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations, with all the union organisations heading united for a one-day national stoppage in April. CLARE DOYLE writes.

IN BARCELONA FOR the EU summit meeting, Silvio Berlusconi posed as a determined champion of deregulation, flexibility, privatisation and neoliberal ‘reforms’, along with Tony Blair and Spanish premier, José María Aznar, in the so-called BAB axis. Their despicable project, on behalf of Europe’s capitalists, is to drive down the living standards and working conditions of workers, and make them pay the price for a recovery of European capitalism’s ‘competitiveness’.

But at home, Berlusconi’s programme of cuts, privatisation and attacks on basic democratic rights has provoked a mighty confrontation with the Italian working class that he is by no means sure of winning. Already layers of his ‘natural allies’, in the ruling and middle classes, have been peeling away from him like the outer leaves of an artichoke being removed.

First this year was the resignation of the acceptable face of the government, foreign minister Renato Ruggiero, in protest at the ultra nationalism of the prime minister in relation to Europe. Some of the big bosses like Agnelli – head of Fiat – had already expressed anxiety at Berlusconi’s extremism, fearful of isolation within Europe and also of avoidable breaches in labour relations that could cost the (profits of) industry dear.

At his heels, on the other side, bay the dogs of the Liga Nord and National Alliance, led respectively by Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini. In parliament they have pushed forward a vicious piece of racist immigration legislation (which in January brought 200,000 protesters onto the streets of Rome), while mass deportations have already begun. On 18 March, the arrival in Sicily of over 1,000 refugees on one boat prompted a state of emergency and will undoubtedly give the far-right a chance to frighten Italian workers about the consequences of being ‘swamped’.

As is well known in the country, the Italian prime minister was heavily involved in large-scale fraud and deception long before he came to power for the first time in 1994. Now he is so blatantly manipulating the law to save his own skin that Milan magistrates in their ‘togas’, and then hundreds of thousands of ‘concerned’ citizens around the country, have been on the streets repeating the chant: ‘Resist! Resist! Resist!’

The anger of the middle classes has been further inflamed by the effective privatisation, or ‘appropriation’ by Berlusconi and his cronies, of the state-controlled RAI television and radio channels. Even the president of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has felt compelled to warn his government of the dangers of overstepping the mark.

The tens and now hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the squares of all the major cities on these issues, have pushed the previously docile parliamentary opposition parties in the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition to begin to make a noise and call their own demonstrations to defend basic democratic rights. The ex-‘communist’ Democratico della Sinistra (DS – Left Democrats) have been particularly stung into action by a recent much publicised debate in Florence.

Up to 4,000 people tried to get into a hall made for 1,000 to hear how DS president, Massimo D’Alema fielded critical contributions like that of the Florence-based historian, Alan Ginsborg. Those unable to get in crowded round transistor and car radios to hear the party leader greeted by whistles and cat-calls like those he had heard on the Perugia peace march in October. They also heard Ginsborg’s taunt: ‘The leading group of the centre-left must wake-up… The politicians must learn to listen!’

A few days after this debate, on 2 March, the Olive Tree scored a considerable success in bringing up to half-a-million protesters to Rome to voice their objections to the takeover of RAI. The leaders of Rifondazione Comunista (RC) dismissed it as a predominantly middle-class affair. But the ferment in this layer of society has enormous significance for future developments towards a new wave of revolution that could sweep across Italy in the very near future.

It is true that on the big social issues affecting the working class, the ‘centre left’ remains luke-warm in its support for a struggle. Within the DS itself, the new general secretary, Piero Fassino, was the candidate of the right in the party (and favoured by D’Alema). He won in spite of considerable dissatisfaction, often outright anger, in the ranks of the party over the odious positions taken by the leadership in the past year. These include the decision to stay away from the anti-G8 protest on the day after Carlo Giuliani’s murder by the carabinieri in Genoa last summer and, most controversially, the decision to support in parliament the participation of Italian troops in the US war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, at its congress in October, no grouping succeeded in galvanising a left (let alone a genuinely socialist) alternative.

Within Italy’s largest union confederation, the Cgil, at its conference in Rimini in February, not even the forces of the RC or the Cambio Rotta (Change Course) grouping, maintained their opposition to the moderate (right-wing) national leadership. One lone voice, that of a RC member from the Genoa area, stood out against the final conference document which talked more in terms of ‘concertazione’ and co-operation (with the bosses) than of a struggle to defend the rights of a beleaguered working class.

Nevertheless, since the decision of the Cgil conference to go for a general strike, with or without the other union federations’ support, some illusions have developed in Sergio Cofferati, the leader of Cgil for just another three months until he has to step down. The Wall Street Journal’s European edition maintained that the Cgil risks ending up like the miners’ union in Britain, which was defeated after a long strike against Margaret Thatcher’s pit closure plans in 1984-85. This is the way Berlusconi wants to see things go. But the power of the working class in Italy and of the Cgil itself, with the metalworkers of Fiom as its driving force, is still intact. They are not doomed to repeat the history of defeats in other countries. Like all workers, they can learn from each other. Precisely because of the disaster that was Thatcherism, Italian workers are even more resolved to resist.

There are some remaining members of the DS, dissatisfied with their party’s continued rightward trajectory, who are now looking to Cofferati to take on a leadership position in the DS and push it back to the left. It is extremely unlikely that there is any basis for a left turn in the DS now and Cofferati, given his track record, is no Fausto Bertinotti (leader of the RC)! If anything, at the moment it is Coferatti who is being pushed by his own rank and file to take a radical position. In February, he was party to the midnight signing of an inadequate deal with the government on the eve of a national strike in the public sector. Many Cgil members expressed their anger at the time by proceeding to strike and to demonstrate along with 100,000 other workers in Rome on 15 February. Goaded by the militancy of the Cobas and other ‘unions of the base’, which organised that demonstration, Cofferati is now ‘101% in favour’ of mobilising for a mass turnout on the 23 March demonstration in Rome and for a total stoppage of work across Italy for eight hours on 5 April.

At the behest of the Cgil, well over a million – predominantly working and young people – are expected to join the six processions on 23 March that will converge on the centre of the capital. The recent national congress of Italy’s social forums in Bologna came out for a maximum mobilisation for this day and for the general strike, too. The leaders of the ‘disobedients’ and the social centres, along with the left cultural organisation, Arci, Attac Italia and other organisations are giving full backing to this double call to arms. At present, some of the leaders of the Cobas are expressing reluctance to participate in the Cgil-organised activities. But they will undoubtedly be swept into supporting the action by the overwhelming desire of their own members to be part of this one big, determined push to get rid of Berlusconi.

Berlusconi can be defeated

THE STRENGTH OF feeling over Article 18 of Italy’s labour code is because its amendment would mark a watershed for either side of the battle. Workers see that they must fight to keep what they have or end up going down the Thatcher, Anglo-Saxon road of neo-liberalism and lose everything they have fought for over the years. Article 18, like so many other real reforms for workers and their families, was established as a direct result of the pre-revolutionary crisis which existed in Italian society in 1970. It gives an element of protection to workers against ‘unjust’ sacking.

Today, with a world recession and a halving of the growth figures for Italian industry, this ‘article’ has assumed both a very real and a symbolic importance for the struggle between the two major classes – the employers and the employed. The bosses demand the right to sack without hindrance while the workers demand the right to keep their jobs.

In the run-up to a battle that could prove to be his downfall, Berlusconi has been trying to play-off one part of the working class against another. He has dubbed the current strike movement as ‘a strike by fathers against sons’. The younger generation, not prepared to be turned against the veterans of the great battles of the 1970s and after, have come onto the streets to declare that, ‘the fight over Article 18 is a fight for the right of all of us, young and old, to work!’

The cabinet in mid-March decided to ‘offer’ the revision of Article 18 in relation to employers in the South (the Mezzogiorno), on the phoney pretext that this will enable them to create jobs in an area of catastrophic and persistent unemployment. This blatant attempt to mollify the powerful organised workers of the North at the expense of their brothers and sisters in the South, however, has not got past first base. The generally conciliatory leaders of Uil and Cisl, the second-largest union confederation, along with Cofferati and the Cgil, have totally rejected it.

The most militant workers of Fiom (engineers in the car factories) and Cobas, plus RC leaders and others, have gone onto the offensive. They are demanding that Article 18 should be extended to cover all workers, not just where there are more than 15 employees! It is a testament to the traditions of struggle in Italy, that workers in call centres and other ‘service’ industries have been organising and taking strike action.

In an incident of great symptomatic significance for the future, thousands of workers and their families in Gela, Sicily, organised a blockade of their town against the closure of the petrochemical plant there. The livelihoods of nearly all 80,000 inhabitants of the town depend on its continued operation. The workers threw up barricades across all the entrance roads to the town, organised food supplies to be brought in, and pushed the trade union federations into calling a solidarity general strike in defence of their jobs.

Mindful of the dire effects of burning pet-coke in their boilers, the pickets explained, ‘we do not want to die – either of hunger or of tumours’. A report in Liberazione, the daily paper of the RC, described the mood even amongst the police where, "the young bobbies looked on without displaying any ‘offensive weapons’ and with an air of wanting to fraternise". They were chatting and sharing bottles of water with the workers (the tap water being yellow and undrinkable). The authorities quite rapidly climbed down over the use of pet-coke and allowed the processes to be resumed, though at a reduced rate.

The main demand should be that the multinational, Agip, which has already made its millions from this site, should be forced to clean it up and to introduce methods which would allow the production of the chemicals with no damage to the environment or to the health of workers in the industry. If this is not possible, then a plan should be drawn up in conjunction with the workers’ representatives from the site and the town for the provision of alternative useful work for all those whose jobs are threatened.

The powerful workers’ action at Gela was of particular note given the mistaken ideas circulating in Italy’s ‘movement of movements’ about the weakening, even disappearance, of the traditional working class and, therefore, of ‘traditional’ methods of struggle. Many on the left in Italy also still insist that Berlusconi is ‘too strong to defeat’. He has a big majority in parliament for his ‘Polo’ coalition but, if it is properly mobilised, a powerful movement of the working class outside parliament could split the already divided ruling class and even break up the coalition. Many have forgotten that this is what happened to Berlusconi last time he was in power in 1994. After just nine months it was a mass extra-parliamentary movement that opened up the cracks in his government coalition and brought him down. This time the movement is of a much broader and more determined character.

What political alternative?

IN THIS CONTEXT, the unions and the main party of the left, the RC, should be pressing home the advantage. Remembering the five years of Olive Tree governments which preceded Berlusconi’s election victory last May, there are workers who blame them for today’s situation. The centre left, after all, pioneered the neoliberal agenda in Italy and carried out stiff cuts in spending on vital services. As a train driver in Northern Italy explained on the eve of the 3 March national rail strike, ‘under the Olive Tree there were no strikes. We ended up with the terms of our wages, hours and conditions set back 25 years’. This worker, already a firm supporter of the right, would not be looking to a new ‘centre left’ government to sort things out.

But there are others who still blame the defeat of the centre left, or the coming to power of Berlusconi, on what they see as the ‘defection’ of the RC. After acquiescing to an Olive Tree government which pushed through anti-working class policies and big cutbacks in spending, the RC failed to explain and prepare the ground for the withdrawal of its support. By then, however, it should have been clear to all who were active in the movement, that the Olive Tree was carrying out the dictates of capital and not of the working class. It was cutting back drastically on public services and began a programme of privatisation in the same (third) way as Blair and Lionel Jospin have done.

A new Olive Tree government, wedded to the capitalist way of doing things, and in the context of a worsening economic situation, would be forced to opt for anti-working class measures similar to those of Berlusconi, if not in quite such a belligerent style. Because of this, it would again lead to disappointment and pave the way for, rather than block the path of, a new right-wing government. Given this, the debate inside the RC in the run up to its congress in April is of considerable importance. A party claiming to be both revolutionary and communist must not hide behind the broadness of the anti-globalisation movement to dilute its programme. Instead, with a sensitive approach to the younger generation who understandably have little confidence in parties, the RC should be trying to win these fresh layers over to understanding the need to counter capitalism as a system and not just the worst aspects of capitalism.

The social forums and the ‘movement of movements’ are a kind of ‘united front’ of anti-globalisers, although the forums can also involve elements of a ‘popular front’ or an alliance of forces from both the exploited and the exploiting classes. The differences can get glossed over in the interests of ‘consensus’ and lead to confusion and paralysis. On the other hand, they can lead to the opening up of ferocious conflicts, splits and a falling away of active participation. Both these tendencies have been seen in the ‘No Global’ movement in Italy in the recent period, but this does not mean that Marxists should turn their backs on them.

The RC leaders should be sensitive and aware of the nature of these broad movements. The young people involved can be initially attracted by the idea of reforming capitalism. Many of them, for the best of reasons, throw themselves into doing good works that ameliorate capitalism’s worst features for particularly disadvantaged groups. What is really necessary, however, is to set the goal of eliminating a system that can only survive through the super-exploitation and even the destruction of human and natural resources.

The RC should be able to step in here and act as a catalyst for the youth drawing revolutionary conclusions. In the present stormy atmosphere, it should be able to recruit to its ranks the best layers. Instead, in some areas, it has alienated them by trying to impose its policies on the movement. In others, in the North East of Italy (Friuli) for example, the RC has reacted against the amorphous nature of the social forums by marching their local branches out. On the other hand where the RC is actually represented on local government, sharing power with the DS (as in Perugia/Umbria) and carrying through cuts, it has been understandably pushed out of the social forums! If its elected representatives implement austerity programmes, instead of resisting them, they will not be seen by workers and young people as anything different from other parties.

While the overall support for the RC must be increasing countrywide as the struggle intensifies, it seems there are some layers of workers and youth who have become disappointed with the party and even moved away from it. The vagueness of some of Bertinotti’s speeches must be a factor and also his increasing tendency to move in the social circles of ‘the other side’ – soirees, Berlusconi anniversary festivals etc! By contrast, the most attractive element of any party aspiring towards a genuine government of workers and poor people is a clear, independent class programme. This is something the RC majority (and minority, for that matter) have yet to elaborate.

The raw material for such a programme is abundant. Just on the question of jobs, the lies and hypocrisy of the ruling clique can be exposed. Berlusconi actually claims to have created 700,000 new jobs since coming to power, but the vast majority are unskilled and ‘precarious’, temporary jobs. Most will sooner or later be nothing more than low-paid, insecure versions of jobs that are at present held by organised workers. In the South, unemployment is often as high as 30% and yet worse amongst school-leavers. A campaign around the demand for jobs and housing for all could attract thousands of youth into a revolutionary party.

A display of power

THE CURRENT WAVE of trade union struggle in Italy may still have a long way to run. If the one-day general strike does not force the Berlusconi government to back down (or even if it does) it will be necessary to go for more determined action. To avoid frustration and disappointment, the trade union leaders at a national and local level will have to work out a strategy for victory. Troops cannot be pushed constantly into battle without a perspective of winning. Workers can begin to feel their energies are being used up to no avail. Negative moods can develop, especially amongst the young and understandably impatient. Adventurism can tend to fill a gap left by inadequate leadership but it advances the movement not one inch. It is a blind alley.

The Bologna killing of one of Berlusconi’s advisors will not stop the government from attacking the rights and living standards of workers. In fact, it gives the state an excuse for intensified repression against workers and their organisations. Only a mass movement that threatens the very existence of capitalism will achieve fundamental change.

The bomb which went off in Rome a couple of weeks ago was more likely to have been a provocation than a serious expression of frustration by workers or youth. Official fingers were immediately pointed at the usual scapegoats – immigrants (especially Muslims or Arabs), ‘anarchists’ and ‘left’ forces – in a mini-strategy of tension, à la late 1970s and 1980s. But attempts to intimidate the workers’ movement in the run-up to the general strike have been quickly dismissed by both its leaders and the rank and file.

A successful general strike requires the fullest mobilisation through elected committees and co-ordination on a regional and national level. If it brings Italy to a halt, the April strike will help workers feel the potential power they wield in society. Again, a revolutionary party needs to help workers conclude, in the course of such a struggle, that they are the class which, through its own actions, can determine what happens and what does not happen in the whole of society.

The more intense the industrial struggle becomes, the more inadequate is a purely trade union approach. A political campaign, aiming to channel the energies and anger of the youth and workers, would have to have the clear aim of winning a majority to the idea of replacing capitalism not just with ‘something nicer’ but with a socialist organisation of society.

The RC and any Marxist forces in Italy should, in this heightened political climate, spell out a programme for linking up the basic demands of workers for their rights, decent jobs and welfare provisions with the need to transform society. This means putting forward an alternative to capitalism and authoritarian rule that involves taking into public ownership the big banks, industrial and agricultural enterprises, and running them on the basis of a democratically elaborated plan and workers’ control and management through elected committees.

With this as a concrete aim, and not just an ideal for special occasions, the movement can link the struggle for democratic demands and for economic and social measures in the interests of workers and young people with the need for socialism. The struggle of workers and youth in Italy is indeed setting the pace for elsewhere in the world. The outcome is of vital interest not only within the borders of Italy but far beyond.


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