It is difficult to know if there is an Italian left today, in the country where the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) founded in 1921 by Antonio Gramsci in the 70s of the past century became the largest in the Western world and a reference for the renewal of socialism. It lived through the rise and consolidation of Mussolini's fascism which it fought with weapons, as well as resisted the country's Nazi occupation during World War II.
With the Liberation in 1945 and the first elections in 1946, the PCI was fully incorporated into the democratic life reaching 18.6% of the votes, while the Italian Christian Democracy (DC) reached 35.2%. In the elections of 1948, it rose to 30%, and the DC added to 48.5% of the votes. From then on, it is possible to follow its path through the classic characters of Don Camillo, the priest of the town, and Peppone, the communist mayor whose relationship reflect the tolerance, respect and complicity that existed between the two main post-war parties. Meanwhile, the United States Government, through the Marshall Plan, provided the funds to boost and enhance the economic development of the north and provide subsidies to the south. The growing strength of the PCI, the unions and the border with the communist world contributed to this stream of aid and loans. Trieste, on the border with the former Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, was where the last accounts between Tito’s partisans and the defeated fascists were settled, along with painful territorial losses for Italy: the entire Istria, the cities of Pola , Fiume, Zara and some islands. It was part of the rearrangement of European borders and the price of losing a war1.
Italy’s proportionally based parliamentary political system has not precisely contributed to the stability of the country. From 1946 to 2019, that is, in 73 years, it has had 66 governments2. In the same period, Germany has had only nine. The bicameral Parliament is made up of 630 deputies and 315 senators plus 5 lifetime senators. However, this very system has not been an obstacle for Italy to become one of the seven largest economies in the world today. The World Bank figures indicate a per capita income (PPP) of USD 42,080 in 2018. In the same year, its exports of goods and services reached USD 746,185 billion, while public spending on education and health, in figures of the IMF for 2015 and 2016, reached 8.11% and 13.47% of GDP, respectively.
Italy’s political party system crashed in 1992, when illegal financing was discovered alongside corruption in the so-called Clean Hands operation, which ended with more than 1,200 convictions and produced about 30 suicides of businessmen and politicians. The DC, the socialist party (PSI) and several others disappeared. For its part, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened the debate on the validity of the PCI that concluded with the decision to end its existence in 1991, after two years of passionate discussions which many times even cost marriages, according to what an old ex-militant told me. In the words of the last general secretary of the PCI, Achille Occhetto:
70% of the communists spoke in favor, after 10 meetings of the central committee and two congresses, all families voted, all sections, all factories, all schools, which was the largest exercise of democracy and that decision was taken2.
The Democratic Left Party (PDS, for its Italian acronym) emerged in its place, and Communist Refoundation (RC) was created with those who did not accept the dissolution of the historic party. The vacuum caused by the main political referents in society produced a kind of social drift in important segments of the population culturally identified with the DC and the PCI. The loss of socio-cultural referrals originated a certain nostalgia that is still observed in the elderly and in young people who have idealized that has been gradually dissolving with the creation of the PDS which later, in 2007, became the current Democratic Party (PD, social democrat) incorporating communist sectors, progressive Christian democrats, socialists and some of the old extreme left. All this change occurred in the midst of the global process of globalization, liberalization of financial flows, the deepening of European integration and the emergence of the so-called Third Way, which came to legitimize a part of the neoliberal discourse that was introduced in the programs of parties and governments.
The leftist leaders of today, old and young, lack a structured political project, are atomized in tiny parties that obtained a poor result in the last national elections of 2018: 5.2% of the total votes distributed in Free and Equal (cleaved from the PD): 3.4%; Power to the People (includes Communist Refoundation): 1.1%; Communist Part: 0.3%; For a Revolutionary Left: 0.1%. This is the electoral force of the so-called "true" left, while the PD (social democracy) reached 18.7%; the populists of the 5 Star Movement (M5S) reached 32.7%, the united right 19.6% and the extreme right of the Northern League (LN) 17.4%.
Over the past 14 months, Italy was ruled by one of the strangest coalitions ever, composed of two populist forces: the extreme right of the League (Matteo Salvini) with the 5 Star Movement3 (Luigi di Maio), having refrained from integrating two right-wing parties: Force Italy (Silvio Berlusconi) and Brothers of Italy (Giorgia Meloni). The crisis was caused by the contradictory nature of the coalition and Salvini's mistake of ending it, awaiting the call of the Head of State to new elections. This did not happen and gave way to another unnatural alliance that is likely to govern: the M5S and the PD, who have been sworn enemies but reached an agreement imposing the first maintenance of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte with a negotiating program.
At the closing of this article, the composition of the new cabinet was discussed for presentation to the President. The votes of both parties in Parliament grant a majority, and with the permission of the Head of State would form a new government. What nobody knows is how long this coalition will last. The M5S has grown with votes coming from a good part of the traditional center left, that is, from the PD. Its motto has been “Honesty! Honesty!” denouncing the vitiated practices, corruption and compromises of traditional parties, while the League grew up appealing to fear of immigration, crime and the European Union, among others. 5 Stars fell significantly to 17.07% in the European elections last May, while Salvini’s League consolidated as the first Italian party reaching 34.27% of the votes, followed by the Democratic Party with 22.73%. In only one year, the volatility of the voters was made evident.
The 70s of the 20th century were the decade of glory for the PCI and the Italian left. The maximum vote reached was in 1976, when it reached 34.4% of the votes, that is, more than 12.5 million voters, and the DC reached 38.7%, equivalent to 14.2 million votes. At the same time, armed groups of the extreme left killed police officers, kidnapped and ended up executing the Christian Democratic Prime Minister Aldo Moro, in 1978. This happened when the so-called "historic commitment" or governance agreement between the PCI and the government had been partially implemented. DC that allowed this last party to govern without interference until 1980. Until today there are several theories about who was behind the Moro crime that ended ending the agreement in 1980. Both the United States and the then Soviet Union did not welcome this commitment whose intellectual author was Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the communists.
Alarmed by the dramatic coup d’état that occurred in Chile in 1973, he was motivated to publish three documents with the lessons of that experience in Rinascita - ideological magazine of the PCI - where he showed that the left forces, with a strong ideological charge as the case of the PCI, could not govern without alliances with the political center, that is, with the DC. In those years, the possibility of a democratic interruption by fascist groups colluded with the military was real in Italy.
So, to use Vargas Llosa's classic phrase, when was the Italian left "screwed"? Was the dissolution of the PCI necessary, or not? The 70% of the militancy that expressed itself in favor of its dissolution seems to leave no doubt. Its disappearance was inevitable even though its strengths were having initiated the process of transformations and democratization of the Leninist vision of the party as a unique vanguard. The Eurocommunism, pioneered by Berlinguer in 1976, and which the French and Spanish communists would join, began a profound revision of Marxist thought and in fact produced the vindication of social democracy. The starting point was the denial of the Soviet model, of Stalinism, and the beginning of the search for a path, putting at the center the respect for people and the acceptance of the multiparty political system, that is, an open society model. It could be said that he picked up the cry of the young Czechs of 1968, who called for "a socialism with a human face," as PC Secretary General Alexander Dubcek put it, before about 200,000 soldiers and 2,000 Warsaw Pact tanks put an end to the so-called Prague Spring and the dream of millions of leftists in the world.
Progressive parties in Italy, as everywhere else, must synchronize with the feeling of the citizens, who, above all, demand transparency in the use of public resources. In the Italian and European case, it is not the class struggle but the maintenance of the social conquests that the welfare society with free quality education and health has delivered, together with pensions, housing and decent wages. The millions of votes that the left had in the past were women and men who today feel disappointed, insecure in an increasingly complex society, and who perceive the lack of a leadership that compromises them, that excites them, that makes them dream. That is the space that has not stopped growing and that right-wing populism has made its own.
Therefore, the challenges are many, in order to raise a proposal for the future that reflects the popular feeling and that should consider, among others, the immigration wave that will not stop, the common currency that has not delivered equal benefits to the countries, the integration of Europe that seems increasingly complicated by the enormous cultural diversity and economic asymmetries that often tends to be ignored. There are also relations with Russia and the United States in times of Trump, Putin and Johnson; the role of NATO, the waiting list of countries to join the EU, the aging of the population, together with global issues such as the weakening of multilateralism, climate change, robotization, artificial intelligence and many others. Progressives must fight with the ghosts of their past and, above all, ensure peace on a continent that has caused two world wars. The endemic divisions of the left, personalisms, caudillismo, fractionation and egos are present factors that allowed that Silvio Berlusconi and the right came to rule three times in Italy, and that today Salvini, despite his current defeat, maintains high chances of becoming Head of Government in a future that may not be so far away.
It is likely that social democracy worldwide is also in danger of extinction along with the current international order for not responding to the urgent demands of the population regarding inequalities, concentration of wealth and climate change among others. The Italian PD, like the so-called left center worldwide, were victims of the discourse of globalization and the phrase created by the campaign strategists of former President Bill Clinton: “It's the economy, stupid”. There was a lack of critical thinking and long-term vision to anticipate that the liberation of the financial circuits would begin a process of concentration of wealth, exclusion of majorities and depredation of the planet, never seen. It was easy for social-democratic parties to accommodate the discourse of modernity, the so-called third way and economic globalization, without measuring the social and cultural consequences that dragged the system into a slide that led to the current neoliberalism that governs us and has generated an unpredictable international disorder in its consequences.
It is the economy, stupid, was transformed into a dogma with the enthusiastic support of the international financial organs, leaving the left unarmed facing an ocean of figures and with the urgency of establishing macroeconomic balances erected around a human paradigm according to which economic growth was elevated to the category of divinity. No one, or few, put in perspective the social, cultural and much less environmental consequences. The wave of privatizations, outsourcing and cuts to social benefits partly have their origin in that phrase.
Whilst people vote taking into account their wallet, it is time to point out that today it is not just the economy: It is inequality, idiot, it is climate change, the fires in the Amazon, excessive profits, the concentration of wealth in less and less hands, the lack of decent jobs and a long list of demands that keeps us in this growing global disorder and that will be what shall mobilize young people to vote. Progressism can curb populism only if it manages to have a coherent discourse, without ambiguities or short-term calculations, to claim for a radical change of policies by putting people and the planet at the center of priorities, rather than utilities.
Translated by Anke Kessler.
1 At the time of writing these lines, the Government chaired by Giuseppe Conte has resigned.
2 Interview with the last general secretary of the PCI, Achille Occhetto. Padellaro A. and Truzzi S. (2019) "C’era una volta la sinistra". Rome: PaperFIRST, pages 25 and 26.
3 The populist M5S was founded in 2009 by actor and humorist Beppe Grillo. It is made up of a wide range that goes from the extreme left to the extreme right. Born as a protest to traditional parties, it incorporates direct democracy through online consultations with its militants on a digital platform known as Rousseau. By this means they will approve or reject the agreement to govern with the PD.