Thursday October 18 2012

Rifondazione Comunista: Failed refoundation

Toby Abse reviews: Salvatore Cannavo, 'La Rifondazione mancata, 1991-2008: una storia del PRC Edizioni Alegre', Rome 2009, pp223, €14

Bertinotti: supported bourgeois government

The rise and fall of the Communist Refoundation Party (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, or PRC) in Italy has probably been the most dramatic development on the European radical left over the last two decades.

At one stage it appeared to offer a widely applicable model of a new kind of broad, pluralist party that fused the best of the communist tradition, rooted in working class struggles, with a deep engagement with new social movements - particularly the anti-globalisation movement and the movement against the Iraq war in 2002-03. Then after the disastrous experience of participation as a minor partner in Romano Prodi’s centre-left government of 2006-08, it completely lost its parliamentary representation; split in the most acrimonious way possible after supporters of Nichi Vendola refused to accept their narrow and unexpected defeat by 53% to 47% at the July 2008 congress; and is now merely the biggest of a variety of groups making some claim to represent communism in Italy, with almost no visibility in the mainstream media and no newspaper, daily or even weekly, of its own.

Cannavo’s book represents the first serious attempt to analyse this experience. Whilst the opening and closing chapters have been translated into English1 - perhaps not as fluently as one might have desired - the rest of the book (chapters 2-6) is so far only available in Italian. Cannavo’s account makes no claim to being the definitive one - his subtitle very deliberately includes the phrase una storia del PRC (a history of the PRC) - and is avowedly partisan: the author is a leading member of Sinistra Critica, the Italian section of the Fourth International. Nonetheless, it cannot be described as a crude, sectarian polemic: it draws on a fair range of the available sources, both primary and secondary (newspapers, party documents, memoirs and existing journalistic, sociological, political science and historical accounts of the PRC’s origins and development), and it does not just rely on the author’s memory - although as a journalist who worked for 13 years for the PRC’s now defunct daily paper Liberazione, and as a PRC deputy between 2006 and 2008, Cannavo had first-hand experience of many key episodes and a great deal of personal contact with many leading figures.

Key figures

The dominant figure in Cannavo’s lively narrative, with no less than 112 citations in the index, is, of course, Fausto Bertinotti, who officially led the PRC as secretary from January 1994 until May 2006 and in effect remained in charge during Franco Giordano’s secretaryship (2006-08). It probably needs to be emphasised to readers without a specialised knowledge of Italian politics that Bertinotti did not join the party at its foundation in 1991, only leaving Achille Occhetto’s Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) for the PRC in 1993.

The key figure in the early years of the PRC was really Armando Cossutta - who had stubbornly refused to follow Pietro Ingrao and many of the original leading objectors to the name change from ‘Italian Communist Party’ (PCI) to ‘Democratic Party of the Left’ (PDS) in belatedly capitulating to the confused notion of remaining communists within the PDS. But he was well aware that, as the longstanding leader of the small, traditionalist, pro-Soviet current within the old PCI, he was, to say the least, not best placed to act as the PRC’s public face, given the pressing need to draw in a much broader range of activists who had identified with the Ingrao left or the Berlinguerian centre of the old PCI and did not equate communism with the Soviet Union.

However, whilst Cossutta shrewdly chose Sergio Garavini as best suited to be PRC secretary (precisely because Garavini had signed a manifesto of 101 communist intellectuals opposing the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and had voted against the 1969 expulsion of the Manifesto Group for their intransigently anti-Russian stance over the invasion of Czechoslovakia), in practice the pair were soon at loggerheads. Cannavo is sufficiently objective to recognise (p35) that Cossutta came across as far more amiable and outgoing than Garavini. Garavini, finding himself easily outmanoeuvred by Cossutta, first resigned as party secretary and then left the party in 1995.

Cossutta, as president, was in effect co-leader of the party from 1994 to 1998, but despite public displays of friendship he eventually fell out with Bertinotti as bitterly as he had with Garavini. This was apparent from the public dispute about the PRC’s line in relation to the Prodi government in 1997 - the quarrel culminated in the split of 1998, when Cossutta and his closest followers left the PRC to found the more traditionalist and Togliattian Partito dei Comunisti Italiani.

Although Cannavo does not say so, it should be noted that ironically there was much more of a leader cult around the anti-Stalinist, Bertinotti, than there ever was around the Stalinist, Cossutta. Whilst Cannavo rightly criticises the extent of that cult, he does not really address the issue of the shared responsibility of the Trotskyist current around Livio Maitan (which eventually became Critica Sinistra) for this state of affairs. The diplomatic abstentions and at times outright silences of the Fourth International supporters may have played a role, albeit a fairly minor one, in encouraging the eventual slow decline of internal democracy - to which they themselves fell victim after the Venice congress of 2005.

The Fourth International’s motives may not have been explicable in purely Italian terms. Cannavo seems to suggest that the PRC’s very early and intense involvement with the Social Forum movement of Porto Allegre was linked to Brazilian Workers Party leaders who at that stage were in, or close to, the Fourth International (p98). The limit of Cannavo’s self-criticism is a vague remark on p148 to the effect that he should have taken unspecified “countermeasures” in 2005.

Bertinotti enigma

It is evident from Cannavo’s vivid first-hand account of Bertinotti’s role in Genoa in July 2001 (pp99-100) and the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002 (p113) why so many of us put our trust in this charismatic figure. On the first occasion, he both succeeded in restraining a young crowd from attempting to take revenge on the authorities in the immediate aftermath of the shooting dead by police of Carlo Giuliani, and then persuaded tens of thousands to come to Genoa in solidarity the following day. This avoided the danger of the isolation of a movement repudiated by the PDS, which could have led to it being subjected to even more state repression than actually occurred. On the second occasion, at Florence, he was quite prepared to declare to 5,000 people that “reformism is dead” and the “centre-left is defunct”.

Cannavo has come up with a plausible retrospective explanation of Bertinotti’s shift back to the right, towards collaboration with the centre-left, that centres on the outcome of the June 2003 referendum, when the PRC sought unsuccessfully to extend the safeguards of article 18 of the workers’ statute to workplaces with less than 15 employees (p120). More than 10 million people voted for the PRC’s proposal, but the turnout was only 25.7% - both the right and the centre-left had urged abstention. In actual fact this was an impressive result for the radical left, which showed that the PRC had convinced a large proportion of the base of the PDS and the trade unions of the justice of their demands for an extension of the protections of article 18 to the entire working class, despite the opposition of the PDS leadership. However, Bertinotti seems to have swerved from an irrational, manic optimism that the referendum was winnable, despite the opposition of the PDS and leaders of the CGIL union confederation, to a depressive pessimism about the significance of the outcome, once it became apparent that there was no chance of getting near the quorum; here Cannavo is relying on the testimony of those who were with Bertinotti on the evening when the results came in.

More generally, Cannavo paints an ambiguous picture of Bertinotti, stressing both his genuine engagement with a wide range of ideas and his intellectual incoherence, reminding us that all his books took the form of extended interviews rather than organic, single-author texts. The author goes out of his way to draw attention to Bertinotti’s more laudable private actions, such as his visits to the dying Trotskyist veteran, Livio Maitan, even if Cannavo qualifies this by pointing out that Maitan, despite his extremely long record of activity in the workers’ movement, was never given an official position in the PRC.

One might even be tempted to argue that Cannavo is being a little too kind in his judgment on the closing phase of Bertinotti’s political career, resisting the temptation to suggest that Bertinotti betrayed the party and the class it represented in exchange for the ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ of the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies - roughly the equivalent of the speakership of the British House of Commons and nominally the third office in the Italian state. Cannavo claims that, even if there was an element of personal ambition, Bertinotti sincerely imagined that he could use the office to the advantage of the party and the left as a whole. One might have thought that Bertinotti would have known that Ingrao had already failed to use the office in such a way in the late 1970s - although, of course, vanity and self-delusion can take an infinite number of forms.

Whilst, as Cannavo implies, the leader cult could be seen as a continuation, however unconscious, of the tradition of the old PCI, which had granted a similar status to both Togliatti and Berlinguer, as part of what Cannavo calls the rifondazione mancata (failed refoundation), the phenomenon has a wider, international relevance. Various other attempts to create new parties of the left since 1991 - not least in Britain - have been dependent on such charismatic leaders: the Socialist Labour Party with Arthur Scargill, the Scottish Socialist Party with Tommy Sheridan and Respect with George Galloway. Whilst for all his weaknesses Bertinotti was a better party leader than any of that trio, the general points about the dangers of giving excessive authority to any one individual, however gifted, apply both in terms of internal democracy and the long-run survival of the organisation itself, which can fall as well as rise with an individual’s personal trajectory.

Left or right?

In the light of the recent stance taken by the veterans of the New Left Review, it is worth reiterating some points made by Cannavo in the course of his narrative. Such veterans have been dismissive of Bertinotti and the PRC, but remarkably indulgent towards Lucio Magri, Rosanna Rossanda and the Manifesto tradition in general - the very tradition that a quarter of a century ago the New Left Review’s central figure used to privately decry as “fag-end Maoism”.2 Those who have in recent years waxed lyrical about Il Manifesto’s stance on Afghanistan ought to be very forcibly reminded that in 1995 the Manifesto Group came out in support of the aggressively neoliberal government of the rightwing banker, Lamberto Dini, urging the left to “swallow the toad” in order to weaken Berlusconi. Moreover, Lucio Magri, Luciana Castellina and other PRC parliamentarians who split to form the Comunisti Unitari helped Dini push through attacks on pensions.

Cannavo, as a longstanding Liberazione journalist, also reveals that after the paper’s reincarnation as a daily (as opposed to a weekly) in 1995, the Manifesto collective regarded it as a rival for circulation and repeatedly hoped that it would close (p45). Sadly, the Manifesto comrades have seen their dream come to pass, but their excessively intellectual approach and political eclecticism - courting those in or near the Democratic Party’s rather feeble ex-‘official communist’ left - mean that Il Manifesto is far less effective as a ‘communist daily’, despite its continuing use of this phrase on its masthead.

Whilst Cannavo’s scepticism towards Bertinotti’s ‘European left’ project makes him more generous towards Magri’s Rivista del Manifesto, a magazine that existed from 1999 to 2004, he acknowledges that the Rivista was urging the PRC to revert to the strategy of ‘structural reforms’ associated with the PCI in the 1950s and 1960s and to put external pressure on the more moderate left rather than challenge it head on (pp137-38). In short, the real story of the Magri/Manifesto critique of the PRC is of a series of attempts to pull it to the right.

Without a fight

Chapter 6 deals with the events of 2006-08, but is less satisfactory as a general historical account of the PRC than the earlier chronological sections and eventually narrows its focus to Sinistra Critica itself, without ever explaining why, having adopted what British readers would call a long-term ‘entryist’ position in relation to first Democrazia Proletaria (DP) and then the PRC itself (once DP had dissolved itself into the PRC in late 1991), this group quite suddenly walked away from the PRC without a fight.

One might have assumed that, had Sinistra Critica taken a clearly thought-out, collective decision to break with the PRC over Afghanistan, it would have urged a more straightforward and overtly defiant vote against government policy in order to justify its exit to a wider layer of anti-war activists outside its own ranks. After all, it had become perfectly clear that the PRC leadership was not going to tolerate continuing dissent in any further parliamentary votes on the issue - Cannavo’s own account describes how other anti-war PRC parliamentarians who had rebelled in previous votes in the Chamber of Deputies retreated in the face of such pressure.

In conclusion, whilst Cannavo’s historical account is extremely informative and many of his criticisms of the course taken by the PRC between 1991 and 2008 are amply justified, no serious attempt is made to assess the future prospects of the PRC, which despite institutional inclinations on the part of some of its remaining local and regional councillors is inevitably being pulled leftwards in reaction to the liquidationist course of its former right wing - Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL), which seems set on a gradual fusion with the PD and has firmly rejected the June 2012 unity call for an ‘Italian Syriza’ made by the PRC.

If Sinistra Critica has seemingly rejected the ‘broad party of the left’ strategy favoured by the majority of the Fourth International, it has had very little success as a pure and combative formation of the extreme left, a niche that has been far more effectively filled by Ferrando’s Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori. Indeed, so far as an outsider can judge, the line of Falce e Martello (Grantites) and Controcorrente (Committee for a Workers’ International) of continuing to work inside the PRC seems a more logical tactic for Trotskyists aiming at left regroupment.



1. D Bensaid, A Krivine, F Louca etc New parties of the left: experiences from Europe London 2011.

2. The Maoism of the Manifesto group did not end in 1969; in 1976 the Il Manifesto front page obituary of “comrade Mao Tse Tung”, recently republished as if it were a proud moment in the paper’s history, was another eulogy of the Chinese tyrant. The assessments of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the books recently published by Magri and Rossanda remain as absurd as ever.

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