Italian Working Class Moves Into Action

THE RIGHT-WING Berlusconi government has provoked a tidal wave of anger and struggle from the Italian workers, culminating in the three main trade union confederations agreeing to call a general strike in April.

Socialist Party general secretary, PETER TAAFFE, recently returned from Italy, reports on this fightback and important developments on the Left

Italian Working Class Moves Into Action

IMAGINE THAT Margaret Thatcher managed somehow to claw her way back to power. It would be possible then to begin to envisage the horror which confronts the Italian people, particularly the working class, under the present Berlusconi government.

The right-wing Berlusconi government was blown out of office by a mass revolt in 1994 after barely nine months. But now he has returned, and with a vengeance, to attack the cherished rights and conditions of the Italian workers.

His Forza Italia-led government is a coalition whose junior partners are: the reactionary nationalist Northern League led by Bossi and the so-called ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance – AN) under Fini.

‘Olive Tree’ failure

The basis for the return of Silvio Berlusconi was created by the complete failure of the previous government – the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition, composed of the ex-Communist Party, now ‘rechristened’ as the Democrats of the Left (DS), and different capitalist parties.

This government presided over a worsening of the conditions of the Italian workers. Neo-liberal measures were introduced into the factories and the workplaces, including partial privatisation in the state sector and the massive extension of ‘precarious’, that is temporary and casual, contracts for workers.

The consequent disillusion and abstention of significant sections of the youth and the working class, rather than massive endorsement of Berlusconi and his policies, explains his climb back to power.

But the installation of this new government has acted as a crack of thunder to reawaken working-class resistance.

This is reflected in a wave of massive strikes, intense discussion within the labour movement and unprecedented ferment in the parties and movements on the left.

But the seemingly unassailable majority which the right enjoys in both houses of parliament, 368 of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 177 out of 315 elected seats in the Senate, has compelled the opposition to take to the streets.

The temper of the Italian working class was reflected in the massive turnout at Genoa last July, with the organised workers, particularly the metalworkers and the left-wing Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation – RC), providing the backbone of that demonstration. This was followed by the huge anti-war demonstration from Perugia to Assisi, previously reported in The Socialist.

In Italy it is impossible to open a newspaper without seeing accounts of strikes, demonstrations and intense clashes at public meetings, particularly of the left.

On 2 March 500,000 participated in a demonstration in Rome, initiated by the DS, to express anger at Berlusconi’s continued ownership of the three main private television stations and his decision to stuff the board of the state television service RAI with a majority of his own creatures.

It is not just the working class but also the intellectuals, artists and significant sections of the middle class who vehemently express opposition to Berlusconi and also come out onto the streets.

Berlusconi does not even hide behind the fig leaf of an ‘independent media’ which exists in other European countries. His new law means that company managers can be excluded from holding public office but not the owners of these companies! The only position that he has been compelled to resign from is the honorary presidency of AC Milan football club!

A concern of Europe’s ruling classes (with the exception it seems of Tony Blair) is that Berlusconi’s government is extremely provocative towards the working class and is in the process of igniting a social explosion. This in turn could reverberate throughout Europe.

Their concerns are well merited given the strikes and demonstrations which have swept through Italy in the last few months.

The day after the demonstration in Rome a strike of all ‘local’ train crews paralysed the country. This merely anticipates what could be one of the biggest demonstrations in recent Italian history on 23 March in Rome as a prelude to a general strike called for 5 April.

The Italian workers have compelled the moderate leaders of the trade union confederation, the CGIL, to threaten this action unless the government backs down over its attacks on Article 18 of the labour law which was only won through bitter struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and which gives some defence at least against ‘unjust’ sackings.

For both the bosses and the workers, the struggle over this issue is of vital importance. Italy, in common with the rest of the eurozone, faces a drastic reduction in economic growth in the next period, with an inexorable rise in unemployment.

Economic hardship

La RepuBblica on 11 February reported that growth this year in Italy may be a mere 1.1%, just half of what it was last year. The pain will be felt by workers throughout Italy with already almost 10% unemployment nationally.

In the South it is much worse. In Palermo in Sicily 120,000 workers, a crushing 29 per cent, are unemployed, three times the national average. This explains why in Gela, a town in Sicily, a near insurrectionary strike with barricades took place over the closure threat to a petrochemical plant. This forced the authorities to temporarily retreat.

The 23 March demo and the 5 April general strike will see an outpouring of massive opposition and discontent at the conditions of workers under rotten Italian capitalism and its present instrument for driving these down, the Berlusconi-Bossi-Fini government.

In February, the CGIL leaders cancelled the proposed public sector strike at short notice, claiming a victory, but with most grades of workers unsatisfied, as we reported previously. Nevertheless, COBAS and other ‘unions of the base’ organised a mighty demonstration of 100,000 in Rome.

If the trade union leaders once more back away (which latest reports indicate is unlikely) the massive discontent with the lack of a clear programme of action to defeat Berlusconi will intensify. This discontent has been directed particularly at d’Alema, the president of the DS.

Workers and youth were also previously alienated by the DS leaders who cancelled their party’s participation on the Saturday demonstration in Genoa, last July, after the murder of Carlo Giuliani. This was compounded by their support for the war in Afghanistan, which was met with enormous hostility on the demonstration from Perugia to Assisi.

All of this is leading to the threat of an exodus from this party of workers and young people who, despite the past rightward shift of the DS, held out hopes for its transformation in a left direction. Amongst other things the 2 March Rome demonstration was an attempt by the DS leadership to recapture the lost ground.

But it is noticeable that there is no attempt to connect the struggle for democratic rights with the economic and social problems confronting the working class and, in the process, tying this to a programme for the socialist transformation of Italy. The criticisms of the RC against the DS are correct. But the RC itself has not come forward with a clear programme to answer the needs of the Italian workers.

The formation and continued existence of the RC is a conquest for the Italian workers and to some extent for the European working class as a whole.

It represents a continuation of a left, radical workers’ party and the hope that, with the correct policies, it could become a significant mass socialist force, conquering majority support amongst the Italian working class.

However, the RC has not yet developed into a clear socialist and revolutionary alternative.

It had an ambiguous position towards the Olive Tree government, of ‘critical support’ for a long period but it did not spell out on all occasions a clear alternative.

There is now much talk by the leadership of the RC, as evidenced in comments by Bertinotti (see report right), that there is “no possibility of reforming capitalism”. This is to be welcomed. But it is not sufficient just to assert this; it is necessary to outline a programme which indissoluably connects the day-to-day demands in education and industry, on Article 18, with a new socialist society.


Worked-out proposals to take into public ownership the media resources currently controlled by Berlusconi on a democratic basis, as well as the monopolies, and many other proposals, should be spelt out together with the idea of the democratic, socialist transformation of Italy.

This should be linked to a clear programme for struggle, particularly on key issues such as the general strike. The RC should, as the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – see below) has suggested, campaign for the formation of elected committees in all workplaces, colleges and schools, with mass assemblies, in preparation for the strike.

It should be used as a day for hammering home the incapacity of capitalism to solve the problems of the Italian workers and a programme for further action, along the lines of that suggested by the CWI, to force Berlusconi’s capitulation and drive him from power.

A real alternative government is not just a new version of the Olive Tree, which would inevitably disappoint the Italian workers, if it remains, as it inevitably would, within the framework of capitalism.

Only a real workers’ government would be capable of transforming society. This would involve the building of a mass socialist revolutionary force with the RC at its core.

But unfortunately the RC has not yet faced up to this task. It has been in existence now for eleven years and has yet to formulate a rounded out Marxist, revolutionary programme.

This has contributed to a mood amongst workers and particularly the youth of seeking other avenues in which to channel their struggle. We have seen in Italy the growth of the Social Forums, which represent the searching for an alternative to capitalism, along with an intense debate on the issue of ‘movement or party’ amongst radical and socialist layers in Italy.

The turning away of a section of young people and workers from the idea of a party is itself a reflection of the rejection of top-down Stalinist methods which exercised a big influence, and to some extent still do, on the Italian labour movement.

It is also a reaction to the right-wing shift of the official leaders of the labour movement, both of the traditional, ‘reformist’ right and those who were formerly on the left.

An element of ‘Argentina’, ie a rejection of all ‘parties’, affects Italy as it does most countries of Europe at the present time. Spontaneous struggle can play a big part in overthrowing governments as the example of Argentina has shown.

Revolutionary party

But history attests to the fact that unless working people are organised to construct an alternative government and a democratic state, controlled and managed by the mass of the people at every level, in an alternative socialist society, capitalism can make a comeback even when it appears to be on its knees, as it was in Portugal in 1974-75.

Therefore, suspicion towards right-wing leaders of ‘socialist’ and even ‘communist’ parties is entirely understandable. It represents a rejection of bureaucratic, reformist and Stalinist perceptions of a party.

However, the working class needs an open, broad, democratic and fighting party of a new type, one that has a clear socialist and Marxist programme and fights to change society.

This party should be democratically controlled at every level, including the leadership, with election and right of recall as an integral part of the party structure. This is what the CWI is fighting for everywhere, but which is a particularly burning issue in Italy at the present time.

A stormy period is under way in Italy. In the course of the tumultuous experiences that impend, the best of the Italian working class and youth will find a road to the ideas of Marxism and socialism.

The Stench of Corruption

BERLUSCONI ACTUALLY returned to power while still fighting criminal indictments over corruption stemming from the Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) period of ten years ago. The whole of the ‘political class’ of capitalist politicians was discredited at that period.

At one point, one third of the nation’s parliamentarians were under scrutiny in the ‘Clean Hands’ investigations begun by Milan magistrates. Half of those indicted eventually got off the charges or are likely to get off because of a Statute of Limitation (time limit) or will be let off on appeal. None of those convicted is still in jail and just one is under house arrest.

Berlusconi was at the centre of this web of corruption with two family members convicted of bribing tax inspectors and he still faces serious charges of bribing judges. His recent hostility to the introduction of an EU-wide arrest warrant was probably linked to the fact that he is under criminal investigation in Spain! All of this has outraged the Italian people and has compelled other European capitalist governments to reach for the panic button.

The Economist magazine has called upon President Ciampi to refuse to sign the government’s ‘conflict of interest’ bill, which would provoke a constitutional crisis and, they probably hope, bring down Berlusconi.

‘AXIS OF exploitation’.

Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar agreed at the recent EU summit in Barcelona to pursue their right-wing agenda of attacking workers’ rights in Europe. Even the tame British TUC general secretary, John Monks, was moved to call Tony Blair’s ‘Americanisation’ of labour laws as “bloody stupid”.

But it appears that Monks won’t be mobilising trade union opposition. His main concern is that Blair’s ‘axis’ could hinder support for entry of Britain into the Eurozone in a future referendum. Monks was also concerned that Blair’s anti-worker stance would pressure the trade union leaders to weaken the political funding link with New Labour – the GMB union has reduced its funding by £2 million in this Parliamentary term and Billy Hayes of the Communications Workers’ Union has threatened to “redeploy” its funding of New Labour if the government presses ahead with the privatisation of the Post Office.

Glossary of terms

‘Olive Tree’. The New Labour-like former governing coalition comprising the ex-Communist Party – now the Democrats of the Left (DS) led by the former Prime Minister, Massimo D’Alema – and other capitalist parties headed by Francesco Rutelli.

Now the main parliamentary opposition to Berlusconi’s ‘House of Liberty’ ruling coalition.

Communist Refoundation (RC) – left wing split-off from the former Communists who have eleven seats in the Lower House of parliament.

Main trade union confederations are CGIL, CSIL and UIL.

There are also several ‘unions of the base’ ie radical, semi-syndicalist unions COBAS, CUB, RDB.

Syndicalism – advocates of political change through strike action, including general strikes, but who eschew political parties.

A Socialist World Is Possible

OVER 1,000 people attended a public meeting on the theme of “From the World Social Forum to the Social Opposition” in Florence on 3 March. This meeting was significant for the speeches of key figures from the Italian working-class movement, report CWI members Henry Silke and Fabrizio Cucchi.

PIERO BERNOCCHI, representing COBAS, the main ‘union of the base’, speaking first, said that “capitalism cannot be reformed it must be overthrown”, but did not spell out precisely how this should be done. Also he echoed the hostility felt amongst a certain section of young people and workers towards the existing parties. This reflects the semi-syndicalist attitude of some in COBAS.

Unfortunately, he also stated that he would have difficulty in supporting the CGIL demonstration on 23 March. He said this was because the CGIL leadership may call off the demonstration and general strike on 5 April, on the issue of Article 18, as they did with the public sector strike in February.

This approach is wrong. The demonstration, which in practice will be supported by all significant sections of the labour movement including COBAS, is a vital event. The left’s approach should be to support this initiative while calling for workers’ committees at the base to ensure that it is effective and to press home the industrial and political lessons which arise from this action.

The last speaker, and the most important, was Bertinotti the leader of the RC.

He correctly pointed out that at Genoa the government tried to break the working class and anti-capitalist movements but had failed. He was very complimentary about the recent World Social Forum, which he said was “without a party centre but is nevertheless opening a discussion on world socialism”.

However, as The Socialist reported previously, the organisers of Porto Alegre do not propose to go beyond the framework of capitalism. And although “another world is possible”, as Bertinotti pointed out, if it is going to be fundamentally different it must be a socialist world.

Bertinotti also said the RC had not supported the 2 March demonstration organised by the DS because it was largely a movement of the middle class. He pointed out that the forthcoming general strike would mark the end of the past phase of workers’ defeats from the 1980s.

He also argued that capitalism could not be reformed but did not put forward a concrete alternative.

Although some of the key leaders of the Italian workers’ movement have a good general analysis of the situation facing the working class under capitalism, they do not possess a clear programme, either for the current struggle or of how to realise the alternative of socialism.

A full report is available from the CWI