It's not often that you leave the congress of a political party with strong emotions, especially if you are only there as an observer. Sunday 14 March 2005 was such a moment.
I was taking the water bus from the Venice Congress of Italy's radical left Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) on that Sunday. Anyone would feel sad to turn their back on the beauty of a snow touched Venice but other images intensified my feelings: the coffin of secret service agent Nicola Calipari arriving in Rome from Baghdad, draped in the red, white and green of the Italian flag; the president of the republic comforting Nicola's completely distraught widow and children, pressing his hands on the coffin for several minutes; the taught, frail, determined face of released hostage journalist Giuliana Sgrena as she was carried alive but in pain from the plane that carried the body of her rescuer and protector.
For a few days I had vicariously lived the drama, being among Giuliana's friends. The move from celebration to coming to terms with the tragedy of her escape had unfolded before my eyes. 'Giuliana libera, Giuliana libera' echoed into the room for international guests where I was trying to work the internet connection. I rushed to the Congress Hall. It was erupting in unexpected joy. There was Luciana Castellina, a founder of Il Manifesto, Giuliana's paper and leading the campaign for Giuliana's release. Over seventy years old, Luciana was beautiful on the stage, mobbed by photographers, her emotions visible to all, relayed on a huge video screen. The cameras lingered as she and Chiara Ingrao, fluent translator daughter of the revered veteran communist Pietro Ingrao, embraced. (Earlier that day Fausto Bertinotti, the General Secretary of Rifondazione had announced that Pietro Ingrao had given Rifondazione a 'most wonderful present' - his membership). The hugging continued as Paolo Pietrangeli, composer of the songs which became the soundtrack of Italy's 1968 protest movements, strummed his guitar and began to sing, giving a shared voice for the emotions of relief and happiness. Photographers moved to another corner where journalists were getting statements from Bertinotti. The mood was one of dazed elation.
People moved off to celebrate. I went with Alessandra Mecozzi, international secretary of the radical metalworkers' union (CGIL-FIOM) and a close friend of Giuliana through their shared involvement in the politics of the Arab world, into Venezia. As the boat from the Lido dropped us off, Alessandra's mobile started to ring. 'Bad news, bad news' she said as we walked past the Doge's Palace marking the opening to the Grand Canal. 'The car was shot at, Americans...' We crossed Piazza San Marco, weaving through the back streets surrounded by the ghostly beauty of an empty Venice and eventually found our restaurant, the feeling of celebration ebbing with every step. As we sat down Alessandra's mobile bleeped. 'È morto l'agente' read the text message. 'Agent dead.'
The Congress continued the next day as normal, but the repercussions for Italian politics of the heroic tragedy of Nicola Calipari's death were becoming clear. His senseless killing deepened the already strong hostility to Berlusconi's support for Bush. Nicola's sacrifice was understood in contrast to the careless brutality of the US military, and was emblematic of resilient traditions surviving in Italian politics despite their rogue Prime Minister. Nicola (by this time, everyone called him by his first name) was a policeman from the ranks, not a recruit from the secret service elite. At lunch with Luciana we bumped into a police member of the party who knew him well, describing him as 'a good man, a democrat. He always worked within the law.'
Democracy was the underlying theme of the conference debates - surfacing in many, complex and furiously disputed ways. A shared starting point between the five tendencies represented in the Congress debates (the party's formal democracy at a national level is organised around these tendencies and the numbers who vote for them) was how to defend Italy's democratic constitution, formed out of the resistance to fascism, against Berlusconi. How to go on the offensive and defeat Berlusconi and all that he is trying to do?
In Italy, government and state are sharply distinguished in the constitution, a distinction which Berlusconi attempts to blur but which is reinforced by every memory of the struggle against fascism. (Such memories were present throughout the Congress, with a ninety year old partisan leading the celebration of the 60th anniversary of its victory). This distinction, fundamental to the democratic rule of law, is striking to the eye of someone whose country has never had a codified, written constitution - the kind of arrangement which would suit Berlusconi as well as it has suited his ally Blair and Thatcher before him. In Venice, the theme of respect for the democratic constitution was reinforced in the chair's opening remarks when he read from an apology sent by the president of the House of Deputies, whose role is to be a watchdog for the constitution: 'I would be present if it weren't for the snow closing the airport. I send my greetings to the Congress and emphasise the value of the party's debates for our democracy'. Again a striking contrast. Could you imagine the Speaker of the British Parliament, as a custodian of democracy, sending their greetings to a party on the British left? First, however, we would have to imagine the existence of a radical left party with the equivalent national standing to Rifondazione.
In the European elections the 'Rifo', as it is known, polled around 8 per cent. In 2004, Rifo played a decisive role in the creation of L'Unione - a centre left, radical and green left coalition led by Romano Prodi, former Prime Minister and President of the European Commission. (As a sign of his own personal commitment, Prodi was present at the start of the Rifo Congress.) In the regional elections on 5 April, L'Unione won between 51 and 64 per cent of the vote, surging on the back of discontent at growing inequalities and a deepening economic recession as well as the deep disaffection with Berlusconi's support for Bush. It won 12 out of the 14 regions including Puglia, where Rifondazione's openly gay, communist Catholic candidate Niki Vendola was elected as governor after ten years of rule by the right. Rifo candidates won an average of 6 per cent of the vote, with a peak of 10 per cent in some seats. Party representatives - sometimes independent movement activists on the Rifondazione electoral list - are members of the majority of municipal governments, including those of major cities such as Rome, Naples, Venice and Bologna. It has 12 members of the House of Representatives, three of the Senate and five of the European Parliament.
Rifo's influence, however, does not come primarily from its positions within the political institutions but rather from its vital role in building the peace movement. Rifo was also instrumental in creating a bridging institutional mechanism that brought all anti-war MPs, the centre left Democratsi di Sinistra (DS) and the more centrist Margarhita Party, into a regular, accountable relationship with the peace movement, meeting every month next to the Parliament, planning joint strategies and tactics, drawing more representatives towards the anti-war position.
A hallmark of Rifondazione is its sense of urgency about the crisis of established politics and its consequent commitment to working for a deeper, participatory kind of democracy. This ambition drives its daily work both with the movements and in the institutions. Bertinotti summed this up in his opening statement to the Party Congress: 'Building a participatory democracy where the movements' critical demands are to be turned into a political left alternative is the fundamental challenge we are facing.' For him, as for the majority of Rifo activists, 'social movements are engines of social transformation.'
One actor among many
Rifondazione Communista is perhaps the most significant, self-conscious and determined attempt in Europe to develop a 'a new political subjectivity' - an evocative phrase which brings together in one concept the notion of a new kind of political agency and a new kind of political self-consciousness. The distinguishing characteristic of the party's strategy is its aim to be rooted simultaneously in building the social movements and democratising the political institutions. There was something of this amongst those who worked with Tony Benn in the 1970s and Ken Livingstone in the '80s; but the best developed example is the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). The complex, ambiguous experiences of that party - both at a municipal level and now with the Lula government - is an important reference point in the debates within the PRC. On our own shores, the efforts of the Scottish Socialist Party are today the nearest we come to these attempts to create a new kind of politics.
Rifondazione has made the achievement of the democratic ideals of genuine popular control and political equality one of its central tasks. Its compass in this process is the presumption that there is no way that these ideals can be achieved primarily from within the existing, 'representative' institutions. These institutions are the problem not the solution. The new democratic energy and wellspring of innovation come from movements such as the anti- capitalist globalisation movement that hit the streets of Genoa and began to transform the Italian left. This has lead to a new, if at times uneasy, closeness between the left of the trade unions and the social movements - including the squatters movements acting to meet social needs ignored by municipal government, the environmental movement, and the sporadic movements of factory workers fighting for security and dignity against the flexibility imposed by corporate capital. Rifo activists believe that mechanisms and processes have to be found by which these innovative energies can break through the political barriers that protect the decaying institutions of liberal democracy. In the movements it sees itself as 'one actor among many' and aims especially to help interlink them to build a common infrastructure, like social centres, and create communication tools communication like local radio stations. Its specific role as a political party is not always clear but in practice it provides links, leadership and political representation which will enable the movements to open up political institutions.
Listening to speeches along these lines can become a little frustrating, however. The ideas are in some ways familiar, if made more exciting because they are voiced by members of a party that has a chance to help put them into practice. But they often sound vague and intangible. As a result, it can become difficult to think through the logic, the prospects and the likely problems facing this politics. So I went in search of examples. These came from Puglia, Abruzzo and Naples. They all resonated with my own brief experience of a modest Italian experiment in participatory government in the tourist town of Grottamare on the Adriatic coast, led by an imaginative coalition of Rifondazione and others.
Principles in practice in Puglia
Puglia is the most high profile example. Its governor-to-be, Niki Vendola, speaking before the election, described in his poetic language Rifondazione's mission:
We have to face up to a new change. We have to take a leap forward. We can't shelter under tradition. For me standing as a candidate for the regional presidency will be like a journey, leaving my home, all that is familiar. But politics means movement, learning. We are all asked to start a journey. We are a party which is departing, we must leave our home together with a sense of historical memory but also a sense of curiosity about the future. The experience is driving us to the roots of our history where there are no dogmas but many open ended questions. In the broken age we are going through, our ideology is too weak to deal with them.
Reflecting on the contradictions of the Iraqi opposition, but anticipating too the contradictions of the strong religious feelings on his own soil after the death of the Pope, he asked, 'How do we deal with fundamentalism? Being secular isn't enough. How do we find a balance between secular day-to-day life and our nightly thoughts of a god of life?'
He ended by saying, to huge applause: 'I thank you for accepting me as I am. Without changing anything.' The party's appreciation of such a distinctively individual commitment to collective goals was an indication that Rifondazione is 'more a community than a classical political party' in the words of Marco Berlinguer, director of Transform! Italia, an innovative autonomous research organisation associated with the party - itself another sign of its loose, network character.
The fact that the party promotes and supports such a radical figure as Vendola is significant itself, but the way it works in Puglia is innovative too. I interviewed the local regional secretary, Nicola Fratoianni, to understand how the claims made in the Congress Hall to be experimenting with solutions to the crisis of politics work out in practice.
In Puglia, direct participation began with a primary, proposed by Romano Prodi. Rifo members threw themselves into the primary campaign with enthusiasm and this was not simply because of the charismatic qualities of Vendola. Party activists were very much more than party activists. Since Genoa they had been involved in the building of new social initiatives, 'new subjectivities'. The best example is the 'disobbedienti': the mainly young, anarchist-inclined activists whose strategy in response to corporate capitalism is one of refusal and the creation of centres of autonomous social and cultural life, struggle and as far as possible work and livelihood too. Rifo in Puglia is directly involved in creating social centres. Party activists also work with feminist groups, on cultural initiatives, with organisations of workers facing casualisation and insecurity (Puglia, along with the rest of Southern Italy, has been particularly badly hit by neo-liberal economics, with growing unemployment and an ever widening gap between rich and poor). All well and good, but why then be a member of a political party? What is the distinctive role of the party? 'To interlink the movements, to help develop their institutions,' answers Fratoianni. 'We want to be a resource for the movements without trying to dominate them. It involves giving up on the sovereignty of the party and the idea of being a vanguard.' Two hundred committees for the Vendola area have already sprung up, he reported, proud of the innovations taking place around him. 'They were born during the campaign. It's a kind of "organised disorganisation." The more you have a constitution of a participation that you don't control, the more it is working... that's Rifondazione.'
Contradictions and creative tensions
But Rifondazione is not all harmony and a happy shared journey. At the Congress, Bertinotti reported the decision of the majority tendency (the votes had been cast and counted before the Congress began, through a process of extensive pre-Congress debate in branches and regional committees) to change the rules and constitute the executive committee without any representatives of the minority tendencies. For a newcomer to the Italian left, this is an apparent tension at the heart of Bertinotti's leadership.
Undoubtedly the direction which Fausto (as most people call Bertinotti) has given to the party represents a radical break from the politics of both 'the vanguard party' and the wheeling and dealing of social democratic electoralism. He is quick to sniff change in the political air, willing to take bold risks, ready to grasp new openings for the party and for its project of radical change. He and his supporters seek an alternative vision of modernity - one which challenges the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism. In his actions and speeches, Bertinotti points to a new direction for radical, egalitarian politics, yet for an outsider, with perhaps an English obsession with consistency, it was strange to observe a party with such a strong commitment to radical democracy having its leadership so concentrated in one man.
Most of the leading activists in the party's most innovative experiments, like those in Puglia, admire Bertinotti's leadership and do not worry over any such contradiction. I guess they see him as the champion of innovation against what remains of the stifling structures and habits inherited from the old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and other vanguardist and sectarian tendencies on the Italian left. Here it is important to remember that Rifondazione did not emerge solely from splits within the PCI, though that was an important component which gave the party many of its roots within the left trade union federation, the CGIL and the historic peace movement, Arci. The largest and most active component of Rifondazione, however, came from radical left organisations, most notably Democrazia Proletaria, which were founded in the early '70s, partly in reaction to the conservatism of the PCI, and shaped by the radical movements around squatting, feminism, autonomous factory militancy and cultural alternatives - radio, journals, film and so on. After Genoa, and Rifondazione's strong identification with the global justice movement, this movement-driven thinking was strengthened within the party, with Bertinotti as its champion within the party and, unusually, in public debate.
This rapport between the younger radicals and Bertinotti - who himself comes not from the PCI but the innovative left of the trade unions - also springs from a decisive moment in Rifo's history. In 1998, Rifondazione refused to continue its support for the Prodi government because of employment legislation it was passing, which failed to include the promised 35 hour week and which many saw as part of a general acceptance of the neo-liberal global consensus. As the PRC consolidates its role in a new coalition with Prodi, this historical memory is kept alive in the present debates. At the time, this break dramatically polarised the left. Rifondazione lost 21 of its parliamentary representatives to a new party, Comunisti Italiani, led by ex president of Rifondazione Armando Cossutta. It also lost the support of leading leftists such as Luciana Castellina, who had led an earlier attempt to build a new left political party (Partito di unità proletaria, PdUP, 1974-1984) bridging the new movements and representation in the political system, but who felt that the break with Prodi would prepare the way for a return of Berlusconi.
The radical, movement-oriented wing of the PRC welcomed the bold move. They saw it as a break not only with a particular government but with a form of politics, associated with the left as well as the right. It was a break from a political strategy which revolved almost entirely around parliamentary coalitions, and the moves and countermoves of parliamentary politics. Implicitly it relegated the movements to the role of electoral supporters or a sporadic strengthening of the hand of the parliamentary left, rather than as autonomous sources of democratic power and creativity, as Rifondazione would insist. The implication of Bertinotti's break with Prodi was that this kind of parliamentarist politics was too weak, too shallow in its leverage for change, to effectively challenge neo-liberalism and a growing authoritarianism in Italian politics. Instead, the left's electoral representation had to shift its emphasis to supporting and generalising a democratic resistance to neo-liberalism growing deep in society, the economy, and culture.
In and against
It would be wrong to understand the break with the Prodi government as simple 'oppositionism', a rejection of electoral politics per se or a permanent abstention from government. Agree with it or not, it was a knight's move aiming to shift the party decisively towards a new more deeply radical approach to power by founding a new relationship between movements and electoral politics. Viewed in these terms, Bertinotti's latest initiative to create a coalition with Prodi can be understood as quite consistent with his past break: trapped by traditional left strategies, he moved out to make new alliances with opponents of neo-liberalism and is now returning from a new base able to approach the institutions with forces that could put the coalition under a dynamic pressure for radical change. But opposition within the party (40 per cent of members) comes not only from died in the wool sectarians or conservative Marxists and Trotskyists, but also from many activists who think that in advocating a coalition with Prodi, Bertinotti is selling out on the radicalism of 1998.
Bertinotti's risky strategy depends on movements that are radical, strong and willing to engage with Rifo 'in and against' Italian political institutions. At present, it's not clear to me how ready and able the party is to use the rich local and regional experiments constantly to develop and refine its national strategy so that it doesn't end up driven by the conservative pressures of the coalition in which Rifo is in the clear minority. Bertinotti and the radical activists who support him get impatient with the formalities of the 'tendency' struggles. For them the real democracy of the party lies not in its internal procedures but in its openness to outside innovations and ideas. They see the key as working with movements to open up the political institutions including their own. As Nicola Fratoianni put it: 'Unless you invent everything in a new way, with mechanisms for participation and social movement action to invade the public space, you are unable to break the separation of politics from the people.'
Isadora D'Aimmo, a PRC representative on the coalition government (with Left Democrats) of Naples, describes how this works, with Rifondazione forging alliances with popular movements to open up political institutions.
The presence of Rifondazione in the government forces the whole government to open the doors to movements, to the daily struggles of society, and to people's direct expression of their needs. For instance the president did not want my comrade responsible for employment issues [to have an office] on the same floor as him because, he said, of the 'visits of the unemployed'. My comrade refused to change rooms, saying that he had to be proud to meet unemployed people. Outside my door and inside my rooms you would often meet a lot of Africans or Indians or 'strange' immigrants working together with my staff. Working together: that is the main point.
Another revealing experiences has been over garbage. The DS intended to build an incinerator in the town of Acerra. We disagreed, wanting to respect both nature and the environmental needs of all people, and insisting on ecological ways of recycling waste. The people of Acerra revolted. They were supported by the Mayor, who is a member of Rifondazione. It has been a revolt involving every citizen: men, women, boys, girls, priests. They have often been attacked by the police during demonstrations and the blocking of the construction of the incinerator. But no incinerator has been built. That's how we work, with the movements to change the decisions of the institutions and the way they take those decisions.
Activists like Isadora D'Aimmo and Nicola Fratoianni have generally, so far, succeeded in dragging the DS along with a more radical, open form of politics than these DS members would ever have imagined. Niki Vendola's metaphor of a journey, of leaving the familiar with a willingness to explore and experiment, is apt. Through opening the political process to popular participation they have found a way of shifting the balance of forces in favour of radical change. In turn, movements and local coalitions have adopted far more radical policies against privatisation, in support of the unemployed and in defence of the environment, than the balance of party forces would imply.
In Abruzzo, Rifondazione worked through the local Social Forum to resist the building of a third massive tunnel through the Gran Sasso in the Apennine mountains. Maurizio Acerbo, the party's regional secretary, says that on its own the party could not have moved the politicians of the DS who were 'positive about the tunnel'. But 'a great movement of the Abruzzo people forced the centre left to change their mind.' A similar process halted the privatisation of the water supply. 'When you create an awareness in public opinion you can change the opinion of the centre left.'
For the majority in Rifondazione, life within the coalition is not so much about tying Prodi and the DS down to a detailed radical programme as about ensuring that the coalition's activities and policy development are always rooted in the movements. As Maurizio concludes, with relish: 'This means the coalition will not be an ordinary or "tranquil" kind of coalition with the centre left. It will be a new type of struggle: a non-violent struggle of ideas and interests.'
Tensions have exploded several times recently, as the party chose Giusto Catania to go to Brussels instead of Rifo councillor and disobbedienti activist Nunzio D'Erme, who had received enough votes to be elected. Many activists fear that this showed that although Rifo works in close co-operation with the movements at local level, in electoral politics it acts like a traditional political party, putting party needs first. Then there was the time Bertinotti condemned a direct action shopping spree which involved mass stealing from a shopping centre and redistribution to the poor, and the time that he argued to put aside the demand to withdraw troops from Iraq whilst two pacifist volunteers were being held hostage. Such tensions are endemic to Rifondazione's strategy of encouraging the activity of the movements as a source of pressure on the conservative parts of the coalition.
It is too early to even try to predict the likely outcome of Rifondazione's bold attempt to transform institutional politics through engagement with movements who often want nothing to do with the institutions. It depends a lot on the strength of the movements and on the ability of Rifondazione to fully transform itself to be able to work single-mindedly, undiverted by internal disputes, towards strengthening them, connecting them and opening the coalition to their influence and innovations.
The tragic but heroic events of the weekend of its Congress are proving a positive test of Rifondazione's reliance on the sustained radical momentum of movements. The scandal of the US shooting set off such a deep, popular anger at Italy 's support for the US occupation that Berlusconi felt impelled to say, in a radio interview, that he would call the troops home. (He has since reassured President Bush that he did n't mean it, though the US denial of any wrongdoing has made it difficult for him to bury his casual commitment). The unpopularity of Berlusconi's Iraq adventure was certainly a factor in the dramatic defeat of his alliance in the elections and its subsequent unravelling. In a sense this and the election results are a modest vindication of Rifondazione's bet on the movements. It was because the peace movement had kept going and kept a public presence, including a presence in the political system (all of which owes a lot to the role of Rifondazione), that it could react politically to this tragedy and turn it into a probably unstoppable pressure to end the occupation.
Bertinotti clearly has some confidence in what he has been so crucial in creating. He felt able, though a little nervously, to announce that he would no longer be the party's General Secretary, since he will be putting his energies into creating the Party of the European Left and handing over leadership of the PRC to the younger generation. The development of the European left is integral to the Italian left, both Rifo itself and the coalition, so Fausto will not be any less present in the party's leadership. It's just that his new move also makes possible a more collective leadership, more consistency with the horizontal or at least diagonal politics that the party is trying to create.
This is an incomplete picture, a blurred snapshot of a moment and its precursors. But Rifondazione's experiments are important ones from which the left in the UK can learn. We should reflect on the experiments with opening the political institutions, including those of left parties themselves, to plural and possibly transient kinds of popular power. On the emergence of new kinds of resistance as well as informal, hidden forms of organisation, not adequately understood or even recognised by established trade union and party institutions of the left. On the attempts to create forms of party democracy in which individual creativity and collectively agreed directions can be combined, and through which secondary but important differences can be resolved without the obstruction of stubborn and inflated egos. And on the tensions produced by working in the institutions - with all the associated pressures of hurried timetables and cautious compromise - whilst simultaneously campaigning in the movements with all their desire to shock, upset, resist and subvert. Such challenges will be common to any seriously transformative strategy against 21st century capitalism. In Italy these themes are thrown into stark relief because the radical left is centre stage. The location of Rifondazione's Congress in Venice was a symbolic reminder that Italy is not just a stunningly beautiful place to visit as part of European culture, but also a place from which to learn and become engaged as part of creating a new European left.
With thanks to Diego Albano, Marco Berlinguer, Marco Consolo, Vittorio Longhi and Laurenzo Rossi.
Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.