Italy's Communists move forward after split
By Eva Cheng
ROME — Last October, Italy's Rifondazione Comunista (Party of Communist Refoundation — PRC) brought down the government of Romano Prodi by using its balance of power to reject the latter's new cut in social spending. But a right-wing minority of the PRC split away, taking with it a majority of the PRC's members of parliament and nearly 42% of its income.
In the face of the split and the new coalition government's plan to remove in June the more democratic proportional representation element in Italian elections (applying to 25% of seats), which could seriously undermine smaller parties' parliamentary presence, the PRC has brought forward its once-in-three-year congress by nine months, to March 18-21, to reorient its membership of more than 120,000.
Rina Gagliardi, co-director of the PRC's daily newspaper Liberazione, explained to Green Left Weekly the dangers and opportunities confronting the PRC and the importance of the coming congress. Contrary to the view that the PRC was much weakened by the split, Gagliardi points to a significant political dividend: not only has the party's considerable base in the social movements been kept intact, but there was a big influx of militant recruits (including a large number of young people) inspired by the political spine shown by the PRC majority headed by national secretary Fausto Bertinotti.
The minority was led by national president Armando Cossutta.
According to Gagliardi, about 7000 people have joined the PRC since the split, including a high proportion who have never joined any political party before.
Moreover, all PRC members are re-enrolled annually. In just over two months of the current 12-month drive, already 40% of the party's 126,000 members have reinscribed, a rate which Gagliardi described as very impressive.
Youth support left
Although Cossutta took away a big chunk of the PRC's parliamentarians — in the lower house, 21 deputies out of 34; in the Senate, eight of 11; and in the regional councils, 25 out of 52 — only 80 of the 10,000 members of Communist Youth (the PRC's youth wing) joined the split.
Of the 80, according to Gagliardi, none were significant leaders. In addition, the PRC has another 10,000 members younger than 30 but who weren't in the youth organisation.
"It was mainly a leadership split", said Gagliardi, adding that the split faction came primarily from those with experience in the old Communist Party (PCI).
(The rush of the PCI to the right and its conversion to the social-democratic oriented PDS triggered the split of the left elements in 1991 to form the PRC in alliance with new left forces. Though dominating the Olive Tree coalition of Prodi, the PDS gave it and its right-wing policies uncritical support. As a further sign of retreat, it recently dropped "party" from its name.)
Gagliardi said most of the members who split away held a rigid "orthodox communist" perspective but commanded little influence among the youth, who are generally more open-minded and movement-oriented.
"It was absolutely clear that the party's strength in the social movements was preserved in spite of the split", said Gagliardi. This strength includes a significant presence in trade union movement (especially in electricity, health care, other public services and in rank and file union confederations); in the secondary student struggles (which also involve their teachers and other school workers); in the "third sector" (the quasi-market sector of cooperatives and other voluntary organisations); and in the "fair trade" sector, which promotes alternative trade with the Third World.
As a gauge of the party's continuing mass support, it polled 8.3% recently compared to 8.6% before the split, as opposed to the 1% support scraped up by Cossutta.
Gagliardi said there is a great deal of enthusiasm within the PRC in seeking to capitalise on the political possibilities provided by the split, but she contrasted it with the tricky and difficult context in which the PRC now finds itself.
Gagliardi put the June referendum on the fate of Italy's proportional representation high among dangers confronting the PRC, noting the anti-political party climate among the broader population is working in the government's favour.
"They are selling it as a solution to the 'problem' of having a large number of political parties — to 'simplify' the political system", said Gagliardi. "This is a real big battle ahead."
Another battle is the PRC's attempt to reassert its right to form its own parliamentary group despite its loss of 21 deputies in the lower house.
Formally, a party needs at least 20 deputies to be given this right, or if it has less than this minimum, it must have elected public officials spread around Italy. It is on this second basis that the PRC is seeking to regain that right, which brings with it not only more entitlement to financial resources but also fixed television time, which is highly useful to a party's visibility.
Though this battle is not yet over, said Gagliardi, the other parties are fiercely opposing this endeavour, and the PRC's chance of winning doesn't look good.
The loss of the large number of MPs in the Cossutta split also hurt the PRC's finances significantly. The income that used to come from them amounted to 5 billion lira (about A$5 million), or almost 42% of the party's annual budget of 12 billion lira. The PRC is working on other ways to plug this hole.
Although carrying the class struggle into the parliament (and other levels of government) has its dangers and potential contradictions, including the tendency of elected office-bearers to privatise the benefits and resources associated with those positions, Gagliardi stressed the PRC's reaffirmation of its involvement in parliamentary struggle to complement its bread and butter work in the social movements.
The next national election is not due until 2001, but an earlier election is always a possibility. After the blow to the PRC's parliamentary representation, the party is working hard to regain its strength in this area.
The PRC is also planning to test its strength in elections for the European parliament in June. Different left forces around Europe are collaborating to increase their visibility and influence in the elections.
One such project of which the PRC is an active part is the GUÉ — the Northern Green Left — which involves 21 left parties and was built on a common set of social objectives for Europe, mainly against neo-liberalism, for jobs (campaigning for a 35-hour week as a key strategy to achieve that) and other social rights.
While GUÉ is a formal group within the European parliament, Gagliardi stressed that it is not an ideological bloc. She said the PRC also collaborated with another alliance, the New European Left Forum, but to a lesser extent mainly because the latter's objectives are less concrete.
On the PRC's coming congress, Gagliardi said this is an important event for the party, called to assess its challenges at an important conjuncture. She said even basic things like maximum attendance of delegates and rich and fruitful discussion cannot be taken for granted.
The PRC also hopes to use the congress as a launching pad for an appeal to European left forces for a united fight against neo-liberalism as well as for a broad campaign for a 35-hour week across Europe.
Gagliardi said the PRC also seeks to launch a campaign for a radical reform of public education in collaboration with other left forces in Italy.
Based on the ratio of one delegate to 20 members on its town and provincial bodies, the PRC expects 1300-1400 delegates at the congress. Local and regional congresses for delegate selection are frantically under way throughout Italy — on top of the mobilisation in June for the European elections, the electoral referendum and the Euromarches against unemployment — to ensure the best representation to make the important decisions.