Italian workers and students are fighting back: "We won’t pay for your crisis!"

In April, Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the general elections was hailed as a crushing defeat for the Left and the labour movement in Italy. Many were those who claimed that the class struggle was off the agenda for some time to come. Berlusconi himself had this same illusion.

One could understand why this rather unintelligent and crude representative of the Italian ruling class was thinking like this. He had won a big majority in both Parliament and the Senate. He also faced a very weak opposition in parliament, divided into three bourgeois parties (the Democratic Party, Italia dei Valori led by the former judge Antonio Di Pietro, and the Union of Christian Democrats) while the left-wing opposition, which had stood in the elections under the name of the Rainbow Left, had lost all its MPs and Senators mustering a meagre 3%. For the first time since the 1880s (apart from the period of the Fascist dictatorship) there was not one Socialist or Communist MP in Italy.

In this situation all the reactionary forces, the Church, the bosses, all the right-wing parties, were rubbing their hands in glee: now they were going to teach the workers of Italy a lesson! But such a superficial approach, especially in such a volatile situation as the one that pervades in Italy, can be very misleading.

The Marxists were not thrown off course by these developments. They explained that, given the objective situation and the rottenness of Italian capitalism (http://www.marxist.com/italy/decline-and-fall-romano-prodi.htm), the militant traditions of the workers and the youth, the coming economic crisis and the provocative attitude of Berlusconi and the far-right politicians around him, the workers would soon fight back and the situation would very quickly turn to the left, both in the mass movement and in political parties like Rifondazione Comunista (http://www.marxist.com/italy-berlusconis-victory-prepare-workers-backlash.htm). And this is exactly what is happening now.

Schools and universities in turmoil

The most striking example of how quickly things can turn around is the unfolding of a massive students’ and teachers’ movement as we write this article. Universities have been occupied in Bologna, Cagliari, Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples, Pisa, Lecce, Padua, Turin, etc. In Milan, Palermo, Sassari and Cagliari normal lessons have been suspended and replaced by activities aimed at strengthening the mobilisation and discussing the details of the education counter-reform presently going through parliament. Mass assemblies with students, teachers, researchers and other workers are taking place in all faculties of most universities. “Outdoors lessons” have been organised in Bari, Bologna, Trento and Naples. Mass demonstrations have been staged in Parma, Genoa, Bologna, Naples, Rome, Milan, Pisa, Cosenza, Catanzaro, Siena, Turin, L’Aquila, Venice, Sassari etc. and more cities like Pavia, Bergamo and Trieste are to follow. A large demonstration moving from La Sapienza University in Rome has surrounded the Senate.

High-school students are also on the barricades. To list all the schools that have been occupied would be impossible, and student demonstrations are taking place on a daily basis all over the country. Primary and middle schools are also in turmoil, with the trade unions co-operating with committees of teachers and parents in the organisation of the protests against the government. There have even been reports of occupations of primary schools!

What has provoked this movement is an attempt by the right-wing government to cut state funding to education on an unprecedented scale. Berlusconi and his ministers Giulio Tremonti and Mariastella Gelmini thought the moment was ripe for one large swoop, concentrating all the plans they had in one big shot. They believed that after the post-election shock the trade unions and the Left would be too confused to fight back. This was clearly a serious miscalculation.

Schools have been hit particularly hard, with cuts that would amount to 8 billion euros over 3 years. Spending on the university system would be cut by 1.5 billion euros over 5 years. State universities are to be privatised by transforming them into private foundations (a process which had already been set in motion in previous years with the active co-operation of centre-left governments). Several measures are being proposed that would reduce the number of workers employed in the state education system, in a country where on the one hand schools and universities are in terrible need of more teachers and on the other hand thousands of graduates every year are forced to remain unemployed, emigrate or accept humiliating McJobs. The hopes and aspirations of researchers and other young temporary university and school staff, who are trying to become teachers, are being frustrated once more, and this has created a particularly militant mood among these sections who are now organising strikes and other forms of struggles.

Gelmini, the new Minister of Education, has made proposals that include raising the size of classes to thirty pupils and to reduce the number of lessons and teachers, thus lowering the quality of state education. Schools in small cities and towns (due the geographical features of the country, there are many small schools in towns like these) are to be closed and other schools will be brutally merged and “rationalised”, causing serious problems for working class families and at the same time creating further unemployment.

Until not so long ago most children in Italian primary schools only had a half-day at school. This was changed in 1971 with the gradual introduction of a successful full-time scheme in primary schools, where two, and since the Eighties three, teachers are employed per class. The scheme also allows working-class women with children to have a normal career as their children are at school for the length of most of the working day. All this would be destroyed thanks to the reintroduction of one teacher per class.

An amendment proposed by the far-right Northern League (an influential component of the Berlusconi coalition) has also added a racist and populist content to this vicious attack: they have raised the idea of separate classes for immigrant children, trying to separate them from “pure-blood” Italian children. Even the Catholic Church has had to recognise that this proposal implies the creation of ghettoes in the education system.

It is quite clear that all this is an attempt by the government to cut social spending in a draconian manner. And the students are becoming more and more aware of the fact that all this flows from the general crisis in this system. The link between all these policies and the present crisis of world capitalism did not go unnoticed by the students who wrote on their banners “We won’t pay for your crisis.”

Authoritarianism and repression

Students have always been a traditionally rebellious section of society in Italy. And as in many other countries, high-school students in Italy are also politically active and they are often the most sensitive barometers of changes in the political climate.

Therefore to attack the students and their teachers in their first year back in power was a very short-sighted provocation by the right-wing clique around Berlusconi. The present movement that has erupted will most likely have the same effect as the anti-G8 demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, when the previous Berlusconi government had just come to power. As in 2001 with the brutal assassination of Carlo Giuliani, state repression will only help the youth in triggering off a much broader movement involving the bulk of the working-class population.

Ms Gelmini tried to give the school authorities more powers to repress students even before the protest had started to build up. It is not at all by chance that in her “reform” we find the concept of a student being forced to repeat a school year only on the grounds of the marks he or she gets in the annual report for “behaviour”. This was the case in the past but years of student struggles and protest forced the authorities to drop this idea. In the Italian education system if a school student fails the end of year exams either the student recoups through passing resits in September or the whole year has to be repeated. The idea that a student can “fail” the year just for his behaviour is a repressive tool in the hands of the school authorities. Organising a strike, occupation or any kind of protest can be considered “bad behaviour”. Gelmini’s latest proposal therefore is simply adding petrol to the already blazing fire of student protest.

Her public statements do not leave any doubt as to her reactionary repressive approach towards education: “It is my conviction that 1968 caused huge harm to the school system – harm that must absolutely be repaired. It is paramount that we restore responsibility, hierarchy, respect for authority and authoritativeness. This is mine and the whole government’s commitment.”

On October 22, Berlusconi threatened the students: “We will not let schools and universities be occupied. I will soon meet the Minister of the Interior and I will instruct him to rely on the police forces to prevent this from happening.”

The following day, as he has done many times in the past, he said he had been “maliciously misquoted by the left-wing press” even though what he said had been recorded in the official video of his press conference. By a strange coincidence, on the same morning the right-wing newspaper Libero, carried this front-page headline: “CALL THE POLICE. Tomorrow, the students are organising pickets to stop those who want to study. The police must intervene with any licit means. No hesitations.” The editorial was written by Renato Farina, also known as Agente Betulla (“Agent Birch”), a Forza Italia MP who admittedly worked for the Italian secret services SISMI and was condemned in 2006 and 2007 for writing articles and interviews under their orders.

An even more extreme view was put forward in a recent interview on October 23 by Senator Cossiga. Cossiga was Christian Democrat Minister of the Interior in the 1970s, later President of the Republic, and is now a life Senator. Whereas Agent Betulla suggested the use of all licit means, Mr Cossiga stated quite clearly that illicit means would do as well. The following extracts from the interview give a flavour of what tactics he is suggesting Berlusconi should adopt:

“… leave the school students alone, because imagine what would happen if a young child was killed or seriously injured…”

The interviewer asked him the question “And what about the university students?”

His reply was: “Let them get on with it for a while. Withdraw the police from the streets and campuses, infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs who are ready for anything, and leave the demonstrators for about ten days as they devastate shops, burn cars and turn the cities upside down. After that, having gained the support of the population – making sure that the noise of the ambulance sirens is louder than those of the police and carabinieri – the forces of order should ruthlessly attack the students and send them to hospital. Don’t arrest them, as the judges will only release them immediately; just beat them up and also the teachers who foment the movement.”

The interviewer asks, “Also the teachers?”

Cossiga’s answer is: “Above all the teachers… not the older ones, but the young ones. Do you realise what is going on? There are teachers who indoctrinate children and then take them onto the streets, a criminal behaviour!”

The interview says: “But do you realise what they will say in Europe after such a cure? They will say that Fascism is back in Italy.”

Cossiga replies: “Bollocks, this is a democratic prescription: put out the flame before it becomes a conflagration.”

The interviewer: “What conflagration?”

Cossiga: “I am not exaggerating, I really believe that terrorism will once more stain the streets of this country with blood.”

One could be forgiven if one thought that old Cossiga is talking under the influence of dementia, but what he describes in the interview are tactics that have often been used by the Italian state apparatus when confronting a mass movement of the youth. In 1977, when Cossiga was the Minister of the Interior, the police assassinated Giorgiana Masi, a 20-year-old student, during a demonstration in Rome and Francesco Lo Russo in a demonstration in Bologna. At the time the police claimed they were firing warning shots in the air, but there is plenty of evidence that proves that the police fired directly into the crowd of protesting students. Cossiga knows what he is talking about when he suggests these brutal tactics.

Deeds have soon followed on from these words. Several occupied high schools have been attacked by the police in recent days and the students (some of them minors) have been reported. Demonstrations of university students have been attacked too in some cases. But it is already too late: the fire is out of control, and no “democratic prescription” will stop it now.

The call by Minister Gelmini for “a calm debate with all students’, teachers’ and parents’ organisations” is no longer very credible and in any case so long as the present education counter-reform going through parliament is not removed the movement will not calm down.

The workers’ movement

While the students may have set in motion the largest movement of the Italian youth of the last 30 years, the workers are not standing idly by either. On Saturday, September 27th, the largest trade union confederation, the CGIL (with 5,600,000 members), called for rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins in all the main cities against the counter-reforms and the cuts being proposed by the Berlusconi government. Most demonstrations were a success, which gave added confidence to the trade union leadership. The following day, many bourgeois commentators, worried that a radical mood may engulf the trade unions, urged the CGIL leaders to behave “responsibly”.

The main issues CGIL activists are protesting against are related to the negotiations about the weakening of the national collective wage bargaining system. Negotiations are currently taking place between the government, the bosses’ associations and the main trade unions. The government and the bosses are demanding limitations on the right to strike. But they have also come up with an idea that is seen as being really scandalous in a country like Italy where inflation has seriously eroded real wage levels over the last years. The idea they have is to adjust wages during national collective bargaining agreements according to expected inflation levels, but what they consider to be “expected” inflation levels are even worse than the ones presently being used. In practice, they are proposing a system that automatically cuts the income of millions of households over the coming period.

These negotiations are producing the same effects as last time Berlusconi was in government: the trade union bureaucracies are splitting, with the CGIL and minor left-wing trade unions on one side, and the two other main trade unions, the more moderate CISL and UIL, on the other side. While the CISL and UIL are keen to sell out and sign a deal with Berlusconi and the bosses, the CGIL leaders are more or less compelled to come out in opposition because of the pressure from below and also because of the aggressive stance of the government that is openly trying to crush them.

An example of this is what recently emerged in one important industry, the retail trade industry. The CGIL did not sign the new national agreement whereas the CISL and UIL did. The same is happening with the civil servants. At the same time, the CGIL leaders are also under the pressure of the Democratic Party leadership (part of which come from the old PDS and before that the old PCI, Communist Party). This was the case at Alitalia recently, when the direct intervention of the leader of the Democrats, Walter Veltroni, convinced the CGIL to sign a very bad deal.

A national strike of the school staff (teachers and non-academic workers) has been called for October 30. In November the University workers are coming out on strike. These strikes will certainly be a success and they will connect with the student mobilisations. The outcome of the strikes will most likely encourage workers in other industries to take action. Government workers are under attack and they too are organising strikes, and other important sectors will follow.

The economic crisis, which is hitting the Italian economy particularly hard, is also having the effect of increasing trade union militancy. The movement of the youth is an indication of what is to come. The successful strikes we have seen in the recent period are another indication. Of course, there will be ups and downs, but the general direction is towards heightened class conflict.

We also have to take into account the possibility that when unemployment starts to go up in a big way, as the Italian economy enters a deep recession, this could have the temporary effect of pushing some workers to accept some sacrifices in order to “save their jobs”, as the trade union leaders will tell them that this is the only way. The leaders of the Democratic Party have already taken a soft position on the so-called “anti-recession measures” announced by the government, saying that they will not organise any opposition, (as if they were organising a serious opposition on anything these days!).

Whichever way things may develop in the short term, what is clear is that nothing is stable in the relations between the classes in Italy at the present time and no lasting social peace will be attained by the Italian bourgeoisie in the coming years.

A new Rifondazione can only be created in the struggle

What is missing in the Italian situation is a party and leadership of the working class that is capable of developing a strategy and programme that can harness all the revolutionary potential that is building up within society. As we reported in an earlier article (http://www.marxist.com/italy-rifondazione-comunista-turns-left-interview.htm), after the electoral catastrophe earlier this year, a political earthquake has shaken Rifondazione Comunista, the Communist Party in Italy. Rifondazione Comunista is a party that emerged in 1991 from the split in the old PCI, Italian Communist Party. The right wing went on to form the PDS and later fused with a series of bourgeois parties to form the present day Democratic Party.

In the recent Prodi government, ousted at the general election this year, both the Democratic Party and Rifondazione Comunista had ministers. Rifondazione paid a very heavy price for its class collaboration in that government, losing every single MP and Senator that it had previously held. De facto it was transformed into an “extra-parliamentary” force.

After the electoral debacle, the former leadership of the party split into two factions, the right wing of the party who had brought Rifondazione to electoral disaster has been reduced to a minority and all the left-wing tendencies within the party, including the Italian section of the International Marxist Tendency (the FalceMartello group), came together in a united front around the new secretary Paolo Ferrero in the national congress, to oust the old right wing.

This has led to a real, albeit contradictory, turn to the left on the part of the party leadership. This is the direct result of a radicalisation of the party’s rank and file. Alliances with the Democratic Party on a national level have been ruled out by the new majority of Rifondazione, although the line is often inconsistent when it comes to forming coalitions on a local level (mayoral and municipal elections, etc.). The process of dissolution of Rifondazione into an allegedly “broader” reformist “Rainbow Left” Party has been stopped; as a consequence, the minority right-wing faction around Bertinotti and Vendola is waging a vicious factional struggle in an attempt to split the party and create a new more “moderate” party together with other so-called progressive forces.

A decisive element in producing the “new course” in the party has been the orientation towards the working class. This work was neglected by the party during the Bertinotti era, but the last national congress recognised the crucial importance of this work. The IMT comrades of FalceMartello are the ones who have invested more in this field than any other tendency within the party and therefore it comes as no surprise that these comrades are now responsible for the reorganisation of the party in the workplaces and among the workers. Already they have proved in a whole series of workplaces and factories that they can build workplace branches of Rifondazione Comunista. This work will now be stepped up under the guidance of the Marxist tendency of the party.

How quickly the fortunes of a workers’ party like Rifondazione Comunista can change was revealed on October 11. That day represented a turning point when a mass demonstration “against the government and the bosses” was called by Rifondazione Comunista, together with the smaller PdCI (Party of Italian Communists, a previous right-wing split-away grouping from Rifondazione Comunista) and other left-wing groups. As we expected, the demonstration was a huge success, with something like 300,000 people turning up, chanting revolutionary slogans and carrying red flags with the hammer and sickle and very militant banners. After October 11, no one in Italy can claim that the Left has ceased to exist just because it is no longer in parliament!

In fact the irony of the situation is that when Rifondazione was supporting the coalition government loyally it called rallies that attracted small numbers. Only when it called demonstrations that were clearly against the policies of the selfsame government that it was participating in did the party muster sizeable forces. Now that it is in opposition and outside parliament it can muster huge forces and in the situation that is developing it has the potential to muster even more.

This seemingly sudden and sharp change in the party’s fortunes is the result of several factors. The first is that it has been forced to break with the idea of returning to any coalition with the forces that made up the previous government, and with this comes a much more militant and radical sounding phraseology. The second is the impact of the worldwide crisis of capitalism which is affecting Italy in a very sharp manner.

However, it must also be said that rebuilding the party and its credibility is not going to be a piece of cake. Two years of coalition with Prodi and the bourgeoisie have seriously compromised the party in the eyes of many. The Democratic Party, being the largest anti-Berlusconi party, plays the most vicious role in confusing, demoralising and diverting all those who want to organise against Berlusconi.

Last Saturday the Democratic Party under the leadership of Walter Veltroni mobilised a huge force in Rome. The police claimed 200,000 turned up, while the organisers claimed two and a half million were there. Whatever the figure, it was a sizeable turnout. In the eyes of a layer of the working class the Democratic Party carries within it a part of the tradition of the old Italian Communist Party, the PCI.

In reality the Democratic Party leaders represent a wing of the Italian bourgeoisie, and they have a programme which corresponds to the needs of the capitalists. What aids the Democratic Party leaders in confusing the workers is the fact that Rifondazione Comunista was also in the Prodi government, making it very difficult for ordinary working class people to see any fundamental difference between the two.

It is indeed a fact that feelings of repulsion against all politicians and politics in general are still strong. The Italian workers have seen over the past two decades governments of the “Centre-Right” (Berlusconi and co) and the “Centre-Left” (Prodi, several small bourgeois parties, the Democratic Party and Rifondazione Comunista) and this has the effect of repelling working people in general, who drew the conclusion that “they are all the same”.

This explains the initial politically confused character of some of the student mobilisations, for example. A new young fresh layer is coming into struggle in these conditions, a layer with no previous experience of politics or struggle. But they will learn fast. State repression à la Cossiga and betrayals on the part of opposition parties will inevitably teach a lot to all those young people who are occupying campuses and high school and taking the streets in these days, and a radicalisation and politicisation of the movement is inevitable. This is precisely what the Berlusconi government fears the most, because it would strengthen the movement by giving it a clearer perspective.

Already the movement has had an impact on “public opinion” as was revealed by an opinion poll published in yesterday’s Corriere della Sera. The title of the article was “Government, first fall in support but the Democratic Party does not gain from it”. The article goes on to explain that support for the Berlusconi government, which stood at 60% as recently as last month, has now fallen to 40%, a dramatic turn around in its fortunes. What is interesting however is that this fall in popularity of Berlusconi is not producing any significant swing towards the Democratic Party. The author of the article writes about a “crisis of confidence” towards all the political forces. This further highlights the potential for a party like Rifondazione Comunista if it were to adopt genuinely revolutionary strategy, tactics and programme.

At this stage, left-wing activists within the movement need to patiently explain   as Lenin pointed out – what is to be done. Struggles that have developed out of apparently single issues have to be connected with each other and unified into one movement. The students need to link up with the working class, the only class that real has the power to change things. This is what happened back in 1968-69 when the radicalisation of the students linked up with the growing militancy of the working class.

The Marxists and all militant layers within Rifondazione and the Communist Youth have the duty to pose the class questions and to raise the overall level of political understanding. They will also be the most enthusiastic organisers and the most convinced fighters. Only by demonstrating in deeds that it can play a decisive role in the further development and unification of the movements can Rifondazione Comunista establish itself together with the Communist Youth as a point of reference for the masses that have started to fight back. This is the task of all genuine Communists as set out in the Communist Manifesto in 1848:

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement. […] In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. […] The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.”

Italy will once again be at the forefront of the class struggle in Europe in the coming period, as it was in the late 1960 and throughout the 1970s. The Italian ruling is facing a two-folded crisis: the special crisis of rotten Italian capitalism within the context of a global crisis of the capitalist system as a whole. As the slogan forged in the struggle says, they will not find it easy to force the Italian workers and students pay for the crisis.

(Written with Fernando D'Alessandro and published on In Defence of Marxism on October 27, 2008)

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