All shades of opinion

For the Left, the Italian elections were an avoidable disaster. Unfortunately, they weren’t avoidable by the Left.

Brief history lesson. Western Communist Parties always were contradictory formations, and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) more than most. The official ideology of the party was gradualist: the irreversible socialist transformation of society was to be achieved through a process of incremental reform, implemented by a cross-party alliance of progressive forces, which would be kept on track by pressure from party members and trade unionists. The only problem with this vision was that, in post-war Italy, it was utterly unrealistic. From 1948 on the Christian Democrats were in permanent occupation of the state, and had no interest in allying themselves with ‘extremists’. (Post-war Italy was a textbook case of the relativity of political geography. The Christian Democrats (DC) had allies to the Left and Right of the party (albeit not very far to the Left and Right); the DC were therefore a ‘centre’ party, and any party which they refused to ally with was by definition ‘extreme’. The Communists were routinely described as an ‘anti-system’ party (along with the neo-fascist MSI), essentially on the grounds that the DC didn’t see them as a trustworthy ally.)

In the 1970s, under the pressure of seemingly permanent exclusion from power, the PCI Right started to think in terms of cashing in the party’s sizeable vote for a place at the political table, even if this meant abandoning the project of socialist transformation. The Left of the party, at this time, included some groups of creative and forward-looking socialists, genuinely responsive to the ferment of the late 1960s, alongside groups whose commitment to socialist revolution was (paradoxically) an aspect of their political conservatism. This current – widely, although inaccurately, called Stalinist – had little or no influence on party policy: its ideological commitment to party unity prevented it from organising independently and mandated support for the party leadership, however right-wing. The party was facing three ways at once, in other words. Its most successful leader, Enrico Berlinguer, owed that success to his ability to move Right while talking Left, giving an inspirational gloss of radicalism to a programme of surrender to DC-dominated political normality. It didn’t work for long, either in delivering political results or in keeping the lid on the contradictions within the party.

In 1990 the PCI right and centre succeeded in dumping the word ‘Communist’ and renaming the party ‘Democratic Left’ (PDS); a new party, Partito di Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), was formed out of the left of the party – or rather the lefts, plural. As well as dividing the party’s membership and its vote, the two new parties split the PCI’s ideological heritage: the PDS took the gradualism and the dream of being accepted as a normal, centre-left political party; PRC took the creativity and the openness to new movements, but also the Soviet nostalgia and the belief in party unity. Consequently PRC was considerably less homogeneous than PDS, and contained several distinct tendencies: ‘Stalinist’ nostalgics, libertarian free-thinkers, believers in the old cross-party alliance project, social movement activists, even a few Trotskyists. (Trotskyism was historically very weak in Italy; Maoists and Autonomist Leninists took up the slack.) What PRC and the PDS shared was a belief in alliances – specifically, alliances with forces to the Right of the party; this was seen not just as a necessity for the party to be able to form a government but as a progressive goal in itself.

Initially the split didn’t do either faction any favours. True, they both believed in forming some kind of alliance which would involve forces to their Right – but what that actually meant was quite different as seen from within PRC (proud to claim the title of Communist) and PDS (Old Labour-ish, tired of getting nowhere, sneaking admiration for Tony Blair). The PDS’s alliance project seemed more realisable; indeed, at one stage it looked as if the PDS were going to take the old polarisation of Italian politics – an immovable centre and two ‘anti-system’ extremes – and shift the whole thing to the Left, with the centre being occupied by an alliance between the PDS and the more left-wing ex-Christian Democrats. The permanently excluded Communist extreme would be taken by PRC, while the DC Right joined the MSI on the ‘anti-system’ Right. This design was scuppered primarily by the emergence of Silvio Berlusconi, who pulled off the double trick of appealing to the old Christian Democrat vote (through his own Forza Italia as well as the centre-right UDC) and bringing the ‘anti-system’ Right in from the cold, in the form of the ex-fascists of MSI (now Alleanza Nazionale) and the proto-fascists of the Lega Nord. If Berlusconi were to be prevented from occupying the state in his own right, something similar would have to be done on the Left – which meant, among other things, that the left and centre-left were going to have to pull together.

There have been two governments led by a Left alliance including both PRC and PDS (or its successor party, the slightly broader-based Left Democrats (DS)). Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been led by ex-Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, probably Italian politics’ greatest deal-maker since Aldo Moro. Both lasted about two years (1996-8 and 2006-8); and both collapsed when the government lost its majority after internal dissension. In 1998 PRC refused to endorse Prodi’s economic liberalism, leading to three years of unstable slightly-left-of-centre coalitions followed by Berlusconi’s second government in 2001. In 2006 Prodi led the Unione, a formal coalition uniting almost everything to the left of Berlusconi; they won the election with 49.8% of the popular vote, as against the 49.7% won by Berlusconi, Alleanza Nazionale, the UDC and the Lega combined (campaigning as the Casa delle Libertà, ‘House of Freedoms’). The figures were always dicey, particularly in the Senate. This time round, however, the wedge was pulled out not by PRC but by Clemente Mastella, an opportunistic centre-right ex-Christian Democrat whose presence in the Unione was perhaps the ultimate proof of its breadth. Prodi’s government fell when Mastella defected to Berlusconi in 2008, in reaction to being named as a corruption suspect. PRC were nowhere to be seen, having held their collective nose and swallowed everything.

Or rather, nearly everything. The previous year, PRC had already looked the prospect of another 1998 in the face; perhaps it’d be truer to say that Prodi took them by the collar and forced them to look it in the face. In January 2007, a parliamentary motion to increase the number of Italian troops in Afghanistan and double the size of a US military base met serious opposition from the left, despite being elevated into a vote of confidence by the Prodi government. Facing defeat, Prodi called the left’s bluff and resigned. In the ensuing manoeuvres, the PRC group decided against being seen to hand the next election to Berlusconi and fell into line behind Prodi, who graciously consented to pick up where he left off. Old habits of party discipline die hard: only one PRC parliamentarian – senator Franco Turigliatto of the Trotskyist Sinistra Critica current – held out, and was promptly expelled from the party.

However, this was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Prodi: he had succeeded in making PRC look both irresponsibly extreme and unreliable, but not in doing without them. Even an explicit move to the Right, rejecting PRC and embracing the UDC, wouldn’t have done the job. PRC had more seats than UDC, so a centrist Prodi coalition (assuming this was feasible) would have lost its majority on day one – to say nothing of the inevitable loss of smaller left parties like Comunisti Italiani. Prodi needed PRC, but what he needed them to do was keep quiet; it wasn’t a good situation either for the party or for the government. Given the parliamentary arithmetic, the only way this kind of outcome could have been avoided was by avoiding the original confrontation in the first place. The only way that could have been guaranteed would have been for PRC leader Fausto Bertinotti to have gone into the coalition for the 2006 election with a list of non-negotiable policies – but then, how to decide which among the party’s policies were non-negotiable, and what message would that have sent about the rest of them?

By 2008, Prodi had overseen a merger between DS and the main centre-left survivor of the wreck of the Christian Democrats, a party called variously ‘Democracy is Liberty’ or ‘The Daisy’. The new party, emphatically not committed to socialism, went by the name of the Democratic Party (PD); Walter Veltroni, a Communist in the Berlinguer mould, was elected to lead the party. Meanwhile on the Right, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia merged with the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale to form something called the Party of the People of Liberty (PdL). The Lega remained a semi-detached ally, while the centre-right UDC – which had contributed 6.8% to the Right’s 49.7% of the vote in 2006 – was cut loose. Veltroni also decided to be selective about alliances, accepting the anti-corruption crusader Antonio di Pietro as an ally but turning Bertinotti away. Instead, PRC formed the Sinistra Arcobaleno (‘Rainbow Left’), an uneasy coalition with the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and a group of DS dissidents who had baulked at joining the PD – although not Sinistra Critica or the Partita Comunista del Lavoro (an earlier split), both of which ran their own micro-campaigns. In 2006 the parties of the Rainbow Left had got just under four million votes and 61 seats. This time round, the coalition got just over one million votes – and, thanks in part to an electoral system described by its own designer as a mess, no seats at all.

Some commentary on the wipe-out of the Rainbow Left has been openly triumphalist. For example, here are some thoughts from Edmondo Berselli in La Repubblica:

To sum up, Rifondazione are out of the contest; so are the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and the group which left DS rather than merge into the Partito Democratico. This is one of the results of Walter Veltroni’s Copernican revolution, which overthrew the old political framework built by Romano Prodi, convinced as he was that the ‘oppositional’ Left needed to be included within the alliance that needed to be built to beat the Right. Meanwhile, it was left to ministers like Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa to teach the ‘dismal science’ to the utopians and the extremists, to the No Global groups and the anti-capitalists.

However, helping to make the country governable wasn’t all that the radical left felt it was called to achieve. Consequently, being the handmaiden to a technocratic centre-left government wasn’t satisfactory … it was unbearable owing to the finely-tuned social conscience of many of those on the radical left, to the critical edge that was sharpened by personal political involvement, to pacifism and, all in all, owing to the radical left’s inability to put up with compromises, on the economy or on international politics, for very long.

Veltroni exposed the fragility of this left, forcing it to pose the question of representativeness, and put the quality of its political programme to the test, not on the parliamentary benches or through conscientious objection, but in the cruel sport of the electoral arena. In truth, nobody thought that the total liquidation of a political project like Rifondazione was possible; and everyone thought that the oppositional left would find room for the environmentalist niche programme of the Greens, the post-Communist sclerosis of Comunisti Italiani and the unease of the DS dissidents.

Instead of which, the radical Left walked into a sort of electoral booby-trap … While Veltroni attempted a genuinely hegemonic initiative (one which the radical left has often denounced as such), aiming to define the profile of a Left capable of governing, the Rainbow Left was caught in a dramatic impasse. No longer could minor parties reap the benefit of extremist votes by turning them into “useful” votes for a broad and adaptable alliance. The radical left was placed in an impossible situation, which the voters resolved by abandoning the Rainbow Left: for the PD, for the anti-political Di Pietro, for the radical-sounding populism of the Lega Nord. A few people, nostalgic for the hammer and sickle, may have found refuge with Sinistra Critica and the heretic Turigliatto, but many others opted for abstention.

It should be said that the flight from politics, into an ideal rather than an empirical Left, leaves a diffuse but significant element of society deprived of any institutional representation. Bertinotti is retiring; the other leaders are talking about Year Zero, founding conferences, a new beginning. Any conference is worthwhile if it addresses the problem of engaging with the problem of government. The idea of living in a playground of radicalism has been torn apart by the violence of reality. For those who have always liked to talk of ‘objective’ reasons, the ‘balance of forces’ and ‘structural’ problems, the time has come to face up to reality and turn away from the maze of illusions.

This is dreadful stuff, but it’s worth taking seriously for two reasons. One is that it illustrates a widespread perception of PRC, and by extension demonstrates just how bad a position Prodi’s ultimatum had left the party in. As praiseworthy as their “finely-tuned social conscience” might be, at the end of the day the socialists and Communists of PRC had only one choice: they could face up to reality and engage with the problem of government – by bowing the head to Prodi – or they could show themselves to be irresponsible extremists, indulging in a flight from politics into a playground of radicalism. Any colour you like, as long as it’s mild neo-liberalism; there is no alternative. Prodi didn’t only whip PRC into line by holding the threat of Berlusconi over them; he undermined the party’s claim to political legitimacy, echoing his old party’s eternal exclusion of the ‘anti-system’ PCI.

The second reason is the insight this offers into the real reason for the wipe-out. The blame doesn’t really lie with Prodi for posing his ultimatum or Sinistra Critica for giving him the chance; say what you like about Prodi, he did get PRC into government twice (even appointing Bertinotti as leader of the Chamber of Deputies). Even Bertinotti isn’t really to blame, although his leadership does seem to have laid PRC wide open to this kind of attack. The blame for what happened this year lies with the party that set the electoral booby-trap. From an interview with Walter Veltroni:

The new centre-left has been launched beyond any possibility of going back: we’ve created a great reformist party, which has broken with the old alliances and contested the election on its own. But the new centre-left had to deal with the negative image of the old centre-left. For the lower classes, the lasting contribution of the old majority could be summed up as taxes that were too high and parties whose arguments stopped anything being done.

Prodi paid – and we all paid – for the atmosphere of permanent conflict within the coalition, which was paralysed by the culture of negativity. This is why all the old parties of Prodi’s Unione alliance got such bad results. Or rather, all except one: the PD. This is why I can say now that our decision to make a break with the past was the right one: our courage has been rewarded. If we had gone to the polls in the same lineup as in 2006, we would have been swept away by a tsunami from which the centre-left would never have recovered.

Right. But there has been a tsunami all the same – the Rainbow Left no longer exists. And they’re blaming you.

The Rainbow Left’s exclusion from Parliament was an electoral tragedy; it’s not a good result for our democracy. But they are overlooking two errors – and pretending not to see those errors seems to me almost as bad in itself as blaming the PD for their defeat. The first error was to bombard the Prodi government with demands, right from day one … The second error is summed up in the words of Bertinotti, in the PRC’s paper last December, when he wrote “the government’s project has failed” … The Rainbow Left never understood contemporary society. I’ll give you an example: when I launched my campaign on law and order, which I said was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing issue, the extremism of the PRC’s paper was such that they called me a Fascist. And they suffered for that. They suffered for not understanding that tough decisions needed to be made, and that the culture of negativity would have led us to disaster.

So what now? Will you reopen dialogue with what’s now the extra-parliamentary Left?

We’re always available for dialogue. I’ll go further: in Parliament, as a reformist force, we’ll also try to represent the culture of the groups to our Left. But there’s no going back. We’ll talk to them, but we’ll never be the same as them.

“Our courage has been rewarded”, indeed. This is open to challenge on two levels. First, here are some voting figures for 2001, 2006 and 2008, for the Rainbow Left and the five main parties represented in the Italian Parliament: the PD, Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori, the UDC, the PdL and the Lega Nord. Where parties have merged or split between elections I’ve estimated a figure on the basis of the votes of their predecessors.

2001 2006 2008
Rainbow Left 8.9% 10.2% 3.1%
PD 33.3% 32.5% 33.2%
Italia dei Valori 3.9% 2.3% 4.4%
UDC 3.2% 6.8% 5.6%
PdL 41.5% 36% 37.4%
Lega Nord 3.9% 4.6% 8.3%

Look at the votes for the two main parties, the PD and Berlusconi’s PdL – and look how little they’ve changed. Veltroni’s great reformist party has been rewarded with a share of the vote almost identical to the figure for the party’s predecessors in 2001 – an election won by Berlusconi. Admittedly there’s a rise of 0.7% as compared with the 2006 election – but when you consider that the DS actually won that election (in alliance with PRC), it’s difficult to see what there is to boast about. Unless, of course, that slump in support for the Rainbow Left – with all that followed – was actually the object of the exercise. As Berselli noted, poll data suggests that some of those Rainbow Left voters opted for the PD (which presumably lost votes to the Right at the same time); some went for Di Pietro, or for the populism of the Lega; and a lot stayed at home. And, if we look at the seats gained by parties as well as the vote, we can see that the result not only penalised the Rainbow Left, but positively benefited PD. Here are the proportions of votes and seats won by the main coalitions in 2006 and 2008:

2006 2008
Votes Seats Votes Seats
PD / Unione 49.8% 54.2% 37.5% 38.7%
PdL / CdL 49.7% 44.8% 46.7% 55%
UDC n/a n/a 5.6% 5.8%

The electoral system has been designed to guarantee a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, so it’s not surprising that the winning coalition in both elections is over-represented. And it’s not a surprise to see that the CdL was under-represented in 2006 – those extra seats have got to come from somewhere. But now look at 2008. The PdL is over-represented, but so is the defeated PD. Even the UDC, which you might expect to be suffering from the classic third-party squeeze, is over-represented relative to its vote. But those extra seats have come from somewhere – effectively, they’ve come from the parties who were under-represented to the point of gaining no seats at all. Micro-parties standing in Italian national elections, essentially for propaganda purposes, are nothing new; in 2006 there were 14 parties who stood but gained no seats, taking 3.3% of the vote between them. This time round, there were 23 parties unrepresented in Parliament, and they took 9.6% of the vote between them, of which the Rainbow Left accounted for 3.1%. As well as encouraging potential Rainbow Left voters to vote PD or stay at home, the PD’s refusal of an alliance thus created the conditions for a million Rainbow Left votes to be completely wasted – and for the PD to reap the benefit. Defeat, demobilisation and delegitimation – nice one, Walter.

The worst of it is, there was never really any chance that the PD’s courage in shafting the Left would genuinely be rewarded – rewarded with something useful, like a defeat for Berlusconi. Here are some more voting figures, from the last few elections contested by the PCI before it split. The ‘DC bloc’ figures include the Christian Democrats and all the small parties which were admitted to DC-led coalitions. The ‘PCI’ figures include votes for the Radical Party, a small middle-class leftish party which has merged into the PD.

1976 1979 1983 1987
Far Left 1.5% 1.4% 1.7% 4.2%
PCI 35.5% 33.8% 32.1% 29.2%
DC bloc 56.1% 56.8% 56.4% 57.4%
Far right 6.1% 5.3% 6.8% 5.9%

For the Left to escape from permanent opposition, that >50% DC bloc needed to be split into left, right and centre components, and as much of it as possible had to be drawn into a centre-left alliance. Moreover, this alliance would have to be built very, very carefully if the end result were not simply to be a shift to the Right by the PCI, losing votes on the Left as fast as it gained them on the Right (PCI, 1983: 32.1%; DS, 2006: 32.5%). The DS needed to make a significant move to the Right so as to appeal to left Christian Democrats, but at the same time they needed to keep the Left on side. This impossible balancing act was what Romano Prodi achieved, with the alliance that narrowly won the 2006 election. I’ve got a soft spot for really good machine politicians, and Prodi has shown himself to be one of the best. It’s just a shame that he’s a committed neo-liberal imperialist as well as a tactical genius: his politics tested his own alliance to destruction.

Veltroni, like Prodi, is not a socialist – but, unlike Prodi, he’s a former Communist rather than a former Christian Democrat. Consequently, his attitude to the Left is not tolerant incomprehension but open hostility: he knows what they are, he’s fought them for years and he wants nothing to do with them now. Hence his apparent determination to profit from one half of Prodi’s tactical approach (shoring up the right-PCI vote by merging it with the old left of the DC) while abandoning the other (achieving a majority by keeping the Left on board). You could call this approach a ‘Copernican revolution’; alternatively, you could look at it in the light of the voting figures for the last 10, 30 or 60 years, in which case you’d probably call it quixotic and wildly irresponsible. (The difference between Veltroni and Copernicus is that the world actually does revolve around the sun.)

This brings us to the second and more serious reason for challenging Veltroni’s complacency: the outcome of the elections. Berlusconi is back in power; he’s got a huge majority in the Chamber of Deputies (thanks in part to that electoral system) and a decent majority in the Senate; unlike last time, the relatively moderate UDC is out of the right-wing alliance and out of government; while the relatively terrifying Lega Nord is as close to Berlusconi as before, and numerically stronger than ever. The Lega and Alleanza Nazionale are already fighting like rats in a sack, which is some consolation; however, in the nature of things they’re unlikely to exert a moderating influence on Berlusconi, as the UDC sometimes did. Berlusconi’s even solved the problem of turning his party into something more than a personal vehicle, by merging Forza Italia with Alleanza Nazionale. In short, these results are a disaster for Italy as well as a historic defeat for the Italian Left. And it’s a disaster that could, surely, have been avoided – by Veltroni.

This is a striking example of the ‘realism’ of the centre-left, if it still deserves that name. (We can expect the PD to shift still further to the Right – after all, the UDC got twice the vote of the Rainbow Left, which suggests where the votes can be found. Marco Follini, a former leader of the UDC who is now in the PD, has already put down a marker: “We need to talk about the identity of the PD. If it’s going to be a party of the Left – even a social-democratic party – well, fine, but you can count me out.”) Writers like Berselli, staunch in their support for the ‘realism’ and ‘maturity’ of Veltroni’s party, have excoriated the irresponsible extremism of PRC. Had Bertinotti voted with Turigliatto in 2007, we can be sure that his party would have got the blame for destroying left unity and letting Berlusconi back in. But apparently left unity is a one-way street: Veltroni can dump PRC at will, even if the result of splitting the centre-left in this way is exactly the same as if the split had been initiated by Bertinotti. And apparently ‘realism’ encompasses pitching for an overall majority at the head of a party which has never been known to get as much as 35% of the vote.

Back in the 1970s, Berlinguer came to power within the PCI on the back of a long wave of industrial militancy and local election victories: it seemed that the time had come to capitalise on the PCI’s successes at the national level. What actually happened was that the DC kept the PCI at arm’s length for years on end, while Berlinguer courted respectability by denouncing the irresponsible radicalism and militancy of the Left and the trade unions. Berlinguer never did persuade the DC to admit the PCI to government, but he did irreparable damage to the party – both its vote and its membership rose until about 1976, then declined almost continuously until the split in 1990. You wouldn’t have thought they’d fall for that again.


One Comment

  1. Posted 23 May 2008 at 12:48 | Permalink | Reply

    Illuminating article. Among others, it makes it even more interesting the fact that you combine the analytical and the historical dimension.

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