Workers Hammer No. 241
Populism and right-wing reaction
MILANO — The results of the Italian elections on 4 March introduced a new riddle for the Italian bourgeoisie and the Euro-imperialists. The result was a hung parliament dominated by forces that are not part of the mainstream bourgeois establishment and that have at times opposed the European Union (EU), although in their bid for government they made it quite clear that they are willing to support the EU.
Disgruntled over a decade of immiseration and austerity, working-class and petty-bourgeois voters ditched the main bourgeois parties — the Partito democratico (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — to massively support bourgeois-populist formations posing as defenders of the “little man”: the far-right, racist Lega (formerly Lega Nord — Northern League) and the nationalist Five Star Movement (M5S). Both of the latter two parties advanced a chauvinist agenda of “Italians first”.
While the PD promised to continue austerity policies, the Lega trumpeted demands for a 15 per cent “flat tax” benefiting entrepreneurs in the North and a lowering of the retirement age. The M5S got support based on its tirades against corruption and its proposal for a minimum monthly income, which would require recipients to accept jobs proposed by the state and would exclude anyone who is not an Italian or EU citizen. The minimum income scheme was particularly popular in the impoverished South. The M5S emerged as the leading party in parliament, gathering almost 36 per cent of the seats and sweeping Southern regions with 40 to 60 per cent of the vote. The Lega, which dropped its historic “Northern” label to appeal to right-wing voters throughout Italy, got 19 per cent, scoring over 30 per cent of the vote in the Venezia region and in the hinterland of Milano.
The success of the Lega and M5S is a sinister development for the working class, as both parties promote anti-immigrant racism, anti-unionism and chauvinism. But class-conscious workers must shed no tears over the collapse of the PD, which got less than 19 per cent of the vote. The PD, which had been at the core of ruling coalitions since 2011, was formed in 2007 through the fusion of social-democratic remnants of the old Communist Party with elements from the Christian Democracy and other bourgeois politicians. Since its inception, it has been capitalist in its social composition and programme.
No coalition got a decisive majority, and at the moment it is unclear what will emerge from the parliamentary cattle market. The only certain thing is that whatever government is formed will benefit the capitalist class, the enemy of the workers and all the oppressed. The Lega trotskista d’Italia (Ltd’I) issued a leaflet opposing a vote for any of the parties standing for election, including those left slates running against the PD, Lega and M5S, none of which represented even a deformed expression of working-class independence.
There is a burning need for a revolutionary party to lead the working masses in repelling capitalist attacks and opening the road to a socialist future. The Ltd’I fights to build a revolutionary party of the multiethnic proletariat — a section of a reforged Fourth International — on a programme for workers power in Italy and internationally.
Right-wing populist backlash against austerity
The Lega and M5S fomented anti-immigrant racism in order to channel discontent over poverty and unemployment into hatred directed against the most vulnerable section of the population and away from the capitalists and their government. The Lega called for “defence of the white race” and for a “halt” to the alleged “invasion” of refugees. (Berlusconi promised to deport 600,000 “clandestines” accused of making a living off crime.) The M5S is also racist, nationalist and anti-working-class. Just like Lega chief Matteo Salvini, M5S guru Beppe Grillo rants about “closing Roma [Gypsy] camps” and “repatriating all irregular immigrants immediately”.
In Italy as in other European countries, the rise of the right is the product of the “left-wing” reformist and liberal governments that have administered the EU’s murderous austerity. While the PD claims to have created a million jobs, these were overwhelmingly part-time and other forms of precarious employment. PD governments presided over the devastation of the country’s industrial output, which in 2015 was 31 per cent below the level right before the 2008 economic crisis. Bankrupt banks, dismantled airlines, jobs in industry wiped out: this is the political legacy of the PD. The PD dealt a blow to previous conquests of the workers movement, symbolised by Labour Law Article 18, which protected workers in larger companies from individual firings. Destroying these protections, in 2014-15 the “Jobs Act” introduced conditions of unbridled exploitation. This was extended to students who are now forced to work as unpaid interns. PD-led governments pushed the retirement age to almost 70, so that many workers die before they retire or shortly thereafter.
It was the acquiescence of the trade union bureaucrats that let these governments continue their anti-worker austerity policy: all the attacks were allowed to go ahead without even the usual symbolic strikes. For the unions to be revived, we need hard class struggle based on the understanding that the interests of the workers are counterposed to those of their bosses. We need a new leadership of the trade unions, built in the course of the struggle for a multiethnic revolutionary workers party.
Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!
PD-led governments have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of immigrants with their policy of repatriation at sea, detention camps and military missions in Libya and Niger. All these actions are aimed at blocking desperate people from fleeing imperialist devastation. The PD has maintained the Bossi-Fini law, which binds residency visas to employment contracts, and racist laws based on the “ius sanguinis”, which deny citizenship to the 800,000 young people born in Italy to parents who are not citizens.
The bosses use racism against immigrants to divide and rule their wage slaves. But immigrants are not only victims. They are a vital part of the Italian working class and its unions, often bringing with them a clearer understanding of imperialist looting in the neocolonial world. Indeed, the few union victories over the last ten years have almost all been won by immigrant workers, especially in the logistics sector, through hard struggle against the bosses, the police and even the trade union bureaucracies that sabotaged those efforts.
Anyone who arrives in this country should have full citizenship rights! The trade unions must oppose deportations and racist segregation of refugees in detention centres, where they are treated like animals. The labour movement must organise large-scale unionisation of all unorganised workers, from the co-operatives in the North to tomato fields in the South! Italian troops out of Libya and Niger!
Encouraged by the growth of the main right-wing parties, fascist organisations such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova have carried out numerous beatings and provocations against immigrants and left-wing militants. These culminated in a terrorist attack in the city of Macerata, where eight people were injured by a former Lega candidate who drove around shooting at black people on sight, giving a fascist salute and waving the national flag when he was caught.
The fascists’ ultimate objective is the destruction of the organisations of the workers movement — from the trade unions to the left — and racial genocide. In many towns, anti-fascist youth have tried to stop Forza Nuova and CasaPound, clashing with a sea of cops deployed by the PD government. The anti-fascists have been denounced by the bourgeois press, arrested and indicted. We defend them against state repression and demand their immediate release. But the task at hand is the mobilisation of the working class, which has the social power to stop the fascists based on its numbers and collective organisation.
The reformist left preaches confidence in the police and the judges to dissolve fascist organisations. The truth is that the police and the fascists work for the same masters — the ruling capitalist class. We are against any measure reinforcing the powers of the state: even laws allegedly against fascists have been and will ultimately be used against the workers and the oppressed.
Bourgeois populism v proletarian internationalism
Throughout Europe, the ravages of the economic crisis and EU diktats have led to appeals to “the people” to rally around the interests of the nation, that is, those of the capitalist ruling class. Bourgeois populism is not inherently leftist: appeals to “the people” are characteristic of reactionaries, from Donald Trump in the US and the Lega in Italy to outright fascists. In an attempt to compete with right-wing populists, there has been a proliferation of “left-wing” populism, including Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. These are all bourgeois organisations, having no organic link to the working class and wedded to imperialist institutions like the EU.
The new Italian attempt at left-wing bourgeois populism is “Potere al Popolo” (PaP — Power to the People), a conglomerate of reformist groups and bourgeois politicians centred around Rifondazione comunista and the “Je so Pazzo” social centre in Naples. PaP was set up in explicit opposition to a proletarian class perspective. As its spokesperson Viola Carofalo explained: “The word ‘people’ evokes the less well-to-do classes, people who are not normally considered in decisions about their lives. And when somebody comes here, he does not feel repelled by the word ‘people’, which is instead what would happen if we used the word ‘proletariat’” (Internazionale, 18 January).
Reformist groups that in the past identified themselves (hypocritically) with communism, like Rifondazione comunista, the Stalinist Rete dei comunisti and others, have thrown away the red flag to jump on PaP’s bandwagon. Contrary to the myth that social change will be carried out by “the people”, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1848):
“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.... The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat...they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”
The battle to overthrow capitalism is a battle not between the “people” and the “elite” but between the two fundamental, antagonistic classes under capitalism: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat must seek to win oppressed layers of the petty bourgeoisie to its side. But it can do so only by fighting for a revolutionary solution to capitalist crisis, by showing that only with the working class in power and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie can the oppression of the masses end.
Many ostensible Trotskyists have tailed bourgeois populism during and after the elections. The Italian affiliate of the “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” gave their full support to PaP. Other groups, like the Italian section of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) and the Partito comunista dei lavoratori, presented their own reformist slate, “Revolutionary Left”, which got less than 0.1 per cent of the vote. Having tailed the M5S movement, the IMT proclaimed after the elections that the formation of an M5S government was now “an unavoidable passage” for the people to “test and unmask the cross-class equivocation of the M5S”.
EU: imperialist consortium
International finance and imperialist governments fear that the Italian elections could destabilise the EU, a reactionary bloc designed to increase the European imperialists’ competitiveness against their US and Japanese rivals. The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) has always opposed the EU and its euro currency, a financial instrument used by German imperialism and, in smaller proportion, the imperialists of Italy and France to plunder and subjugate the economically weaker countries. As the Ltd’I wrote last year in a leaflet distributed at protests against the 60th anniversary of the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community:
“The working class must fight for Italy out of the EU and the euro. An Italian exit could precipitate the collapse of the EU. This would be in the interest of all workers and the oppressed and strike a hard blow against the bosses. The end of the EU would not mean the end of international capitalism, or of the exploitation and racism that are intrinsic to this system of production, but it would facilitate workers struggles across Europe and more sharply expose that the main enemy to combat is one’s ‘own’ national exploiter.”
— “Italian Trotskyists say: Italy out of the European Union!” (Workers Hammer no 239, Autumn 2017)
Potere al Popolo openly supports the EU. The groups promoting the “Revolutionary Left” also proved their support to the EU in practice by opposing Brexit. So, too, did the US-based Internationalist Group. More recently, its Italian supporters published an eight-page supplement on the elections in which they were not able to even once utter the words “European Union”!
For more than a century, Marxists have explained that the unification of Europe under capitalism is destined either to remain a utopia or to take the form of a reactionary reality. As VI Lenin wrote in August 1915:
“Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capitalists but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America.”
— VI Lenin, “On the Slogan for a United States of Europe”
Only proletarian revolution, with the expropriation of the capitalist ruling classes of the whole continent, can constitute the basis for a true, voluntary Socialist United States of Europe. This is the perspective that the Ltd’I and ICL fight for.
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 1130, 23 March