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What Price Compromise?

Italian ‘sister party’ has second thoughts about hacking down the Olive Tree

The Italian Party of Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista – RC), an organisation designated by Socialist Labour’s leadership as one of our ‘sister parties’, has recently been making headlines. In October, five days after bringing down Italy’s first ‘left’ government since 1945, RC was coaxed back into a position of once again supporting the ‘left’ austerity coalition.

In the early stages of the political crisis RC withdrew its support for the 1998 budget, which the Italian ruling class considers crucial if Italy is to meet the Maastricht criteria for entry into European monetary union. RC demanded that the government rewrite the budget in order to stop cuts to workers’ early retirement pensions, reduce the statutory working week to 35 hours by the year 2000, halt privatisations and create 300,000 jobs for young people in the south.

However, the deal brokered to end the crisis saw Christian Democratic Premier Romano Prodi’s budget still intact. As the Financial Times commented: ‘An extraordinary volte-face by the neo-communists brought both sides to a deal.’ RC leader Fausto Bertinotti compromised on his opposition to the budget, despite its cuts to pension spending, and announced his party’s intention to vote for it. The only concession was a pledge to explore legislation reducing the legal working week to 35 hours from 39 hours.

Refondazione and Socialist Labour

The collapse of the Blairite Olive Tree government came two weeks after a meeting of London SLP members with a representative of RC at which there was disagreement and sharp criticism of RC for its seemingly unconditional support to the government.

The speaker, Andy Vitale, of RC’s London-based Karl Marx branch, said a hard line would be taken on the pensions issue. A couple of weeks later, it seemed he was right, only to be proved wrong within days.

At the meeting, comrade Vitale outlined positions of the party and circulated copies of RC’s internal bulletin and daily paper, Liberazione. He explained how the organisation was founded in 1991 when the old Italian CP dissolved. Refondazione split away when the larger component of the old CP went on to found the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) which is now the backbone of Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition. The Olive Tree, which ranges from liberal Catholics to former Communists, was elected in April 1996 with Prodi as prime minister.

RC now also includes members with different backgrounds and views, who have factional rights and some of whom have places on leading bodies.

Refondazione has formally stayed out of the government coalition, choosing instead a course of lending and withholding the support of its 34 parliamentary deputies on issues as they come up. Recent events show, however, that they draw the line at bringing down the government. This is a clear case of the logic of parliamentary reformism. Whatever its intentions, by using the excuse of needing to keep a bloc together, along with fear of short-term unpopularity, RC becomes complicit in attacks on the working class by a bourgeois government.

How far is too far?

Supporters of the Marxist Bulletin and others at the meeting asked how far RC’s support went in supporting the Prodi government. In response to the question ‘Do you think it is really crucial to keep the government in power at all costs?’, comrade Vitale said: ‘Politics is a dirty world – you have to give on the one hand and take on the other.’

Vitale claimed that there are limits to support for the Olive Tree. ‘We will only go so far,’ he said, and that is to ‘cuts to the welfare state .... We have a minority within the party who say "Let’s get out". It would be a mistake to pull out of the Prodi government, but if – as our general secretary stated – they agree cuts in the welfare state without consulting us it’s very likely there will be a crisis which could lead to the right voting with Prodi.’

In the event, RC did support ‘cuts to the welfare state’ – a lot of ‘give’ for the working class and very little ‘take’.

Supporting a lesser evil?

Vitale described a situation of ‘blackmail’ over the Finance Bill whereby RC was threatened with the scenario of the right wing getting in if they didn’t vote with the government.

Accepting this ‘blackmail’ is a dangerous trap to fall into. RC’s would-be socialist policies are being put out of sight to prop up a particularly right-wing form of coalition government which includes openly capitalist parties. This class-collaborationist regime is implementing overtly reactionary policies such as on immigration where draconian legislation has been introduced particularly against Africans. The Olive Tree government is a liberal face for Italian capitalism, that despite its sometime ‘progressive’ pretence, sent troops into Albania. The Italian state’s repressive forces killed Albanian refugees fleeing the terror there.

When this was raised at the meeting, comrade Vitale replied that it was the first example of Prodi using the opposition to get things through ‘which we oppose’. RC feels able, at times, to vote against the government on such foreign policy issues. But on questions such as these the government usually receives support from the right-wing opposition and are in little danger of losing the vote.

A principled stand on these questions is of course correct, but in only dissenting when their votes make no real difference, the RC deputies are in effect allowing the government to stay in power and continue these repressive measures. By bowing to the argument that this is a lesser evil, they fail to provide an independent working class opposition to rally those who want to fight all capitalist parties.

A speaker at the meeting made the point that in a roughly analagous situation here, it would be a betrayal of the working class if an SLP parliamentary group supported a Labour–Lib Dem coalition government. We should be fighting for a government of the working class, not propping up coalitions of Blairites and more traditional capitalist parties.

Applying a little pressure

Some members of the SLP leadership have a background in the United Secretariat, whose original inspirer Pablo argued there was no need for an independent revolutionary socialist organisation since his conception was to pressurise the Stalinist parties: supposedly they would then move to the left and carry out actions that would effect revolutionary social change.

Marxists reject this conception of pressurising reformist leaderships to the left – which in the case of RC is taken further in attempting to pressure a capitalist government to the left. In order to establish independent working class politics, we must intransigently oppose popular fronts and cross-class coalitions.

Appealing to comrades to ‘have a little modesty’, SLP London regional chairman and former United Secretariat supporter Brian Heron said the ‘Italian comrades have made a breakthrough on behalf of the world’s working class’. In the debate over reconstructing socialism ‘we have to learn how you rebuild a working class movement’. But his statements then were contradictory to his later report of the meeting in Socialist News (Nov/Dec): ‘Several SLP comrades wondered if the PRC had not become the "hostage" of the Prodi government, a concern fuelled by more recent events.’

One wonders if Heron had undergone some conversion. Not for long. His Socialist News report soon returns to advocacy of pressurising the government: ‘Rifondazione fears that there is a real danger of a very right-wing government moving in were the Prodi coalition to fall. This means that Rifondazione’s approach has to be "sensitive".’

Governing the capitalist state

In an earlier issue of Socialist News an article titled ‘Building a New Movement’ reported on a ‘historic meeting’ between SLP and Rifondazione leaders, saying they discussed the political and economic situation throughout Europe.

‘Rifondazione, which holds a key bargaining position in the "Olive Tree" coalition government, is fighting hard against cuts and against the convergence criteria for European Monetary Union. The campaign involves building a defence of pensions and the welfare state. Bertinotti believes that the fightback against Maastricht and the convergence criteria must develop through the growth of "two movements" one for defence of the welfare state, the other for defence of workers’ jobs. This means there must be a response from workers as part of building a "new movement" to fight together on the issues that unite working class women and men in Italy.’ (Socialist News no 6, June/July)

In reality, however, any government that accepts the ‘need’ to govern through the machinery of the capitalist state will be forced, no matter how good its intentions, to govern in the interest of what ‘the country’ (that is, ultimately, the capitalists) can afford. Comrade Vitale himself effectively admitted the RC’s leadership’s political bankruptcy and lack of answers to the questions posed in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism thus:

‘We don’t use parliament in the Leninist sense – to address the country on the evils of capitalism. We use our party secretary on TV to pinpoint contradictions in the capitalist economy. It’s not easy because after the collapse of communism the response is "You failed". The only example we have is Cuba. So we say "We don’t have any answers".’

None of the components of the SLP leadership has any alternative to this, whatever displeasure comrade Heron or others may express at such manifestations of it as RC’s capitulation over the Prodi budget. The concept that because of the bankruptcy of Stalinist and reformist politics one has to show ‘modesty’ and confine ourselves to ‘rebuilding’ the working class movement according to the reformist concepts inherited by leaders like Scargill and Bertinotti from parties that have decisively betrayed the working class, will only lead to repetition of the old cycle of betrayals.

Those who attempt simply to put pressure on such people, not to fight for a revolutionary alternative to Stalinism and reformism, simply end up as apologists for these bankrupt politics. If these politics are not rejected in favour of a genuinely revolutionary perspective, they will lead to the collapse of the ‘parties of refoundation’ one way or another.