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<I>Il Manifesto,</I> "Italian Communists Move Beyond Communism"

Italian Communists Move Beyond Communism

Il Manifesto

Fausto Bertinotti, Secretary of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), talks to Valentino Parlato, founding editor of the Communist daily Il Manifesto, about the challenges facing the next center-left government, the challenges to Marxist orthodoxy posed by the powerful rise of democratic mass movements, and the development of the Party of the European Left, a project which Bertinotti is leading in Italy. (Translated by Vittorio Longhi)

These days much has been said and written about Fausto Bertinotti, the political shifts he has taken, and his innovative and even daring approach to the problems faced by the Italian and European left. One afternoon recently, the editor-in-chief of Il Manifesto, Gabriele Polo, political editor Cosimo Rossi, and I went to talk with him. The result was a useful and thought-provoking conversation, full of interesting digressions.

Q: Let's try to divide our discussion in two parts. The first is about what we read in the newspapers: the idea of the individual replacing the concept of class, and bidding farewell to Communist symbols such as the "hammer and sickle," i.e. what we call "the shift," or a paradigm shift. Another question is what will happen after the vote: it looks like we will win these elections, but how will the Rifondazione deal with the centre-left government?

FB: Regarding the first aspect, the big shift, the corporate media tend to be misleading about this. It may be right to term it the completion of a political phase, which, as part of the movement of the European left, is a major shift. However, in terms of political culture as a whole, it does not constitute a major shift. On this plane, we are still awaiting the radical break with capitalism that is needed for such a shift to occur. Also, since this idea is a politically subjective one, there is a certain rashness in promulgating it. I view the “shift” as part of the process involved in founding the Italian wing of the Party of the European Left. In terms of political culture, the shift can be seen in terms of the development of certain points of discontinuity. The inspiration is always the same: extracting from the tough core of the anti-capitalist critique a basis on which to rebuild a political culture and theory of transformation, i.e. the overcoming of capitalism. Therefore, our first task is to make a complete break with Stalinism.Why is this break necessary? Because it is a definite encumbrance to the process of transformation.Q: But isn’t the break with Stalinism an anachronism?

FB: Perhaps you think so, but I believe it's still very relevant. I think that Stalinism is a political approach that constantly self-reproduces and threatens politics permanently. Every time we strive for change, there is a factor that constantly looms over us, now for a century or more, and that is the stress on the attainment of power, and all the arrogance and autonomy of politics.

Q: But it's a fact that whenever you are faced with a real shift, there’s a hard fight.

FB: Fine. But that doesn't mean that military methods are required, as still seems to happen sometimes. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that the echo of Stalinism continues to resound in what we call orthodoxy. However, I by no means feel that this is just an external problem, one that exists only elsewhere. I feel it's inside us as well; it's a very strong vice.

Q: But perhaps in certain situations it is a necessity.

FB: I don't think so at all. I think that would be a catastrophe. And I strongly believe that we must include the idea of transformation as a basic element of the process. We must return to the idea of “critical participation” instead of relying on the dominance of large-scale organized forces.

Q: To put it another way: democracy instead of communism?

FB: Let’s describe it as "democracy through transformation." The meaning is not democracy "instead of" but rather "moving towards" communism. But then there
is the question of non-violence.

Q: I disagree with you on that issue because violence is part of society; it’s part of the way things are.

FB: So is capitalism, and that's why I want to overcome it.

Q: But we don't live in a world where everyone is good.

FB: I agree, but it’s up to us to be different.

Q: Right, but once you are part of the government, how will your principles of non-violence be used to deal with the forces that practice violence by means of the state and the military?

FB: I think that today, with all the alienation and exploitation that exists, we are moving toward a real crisis of civilization. For me, it is a crisis brought on by capitalism and its focus on total competition, so that it now faces a real risk of implosion. In the face of this, the idea of Europe and a Mediterranean where the cross-fertilization of cultures can take place is fundamental. To accomplish this, war must be banned structurally; it must be made taboo.

Q: Nice words, but what can politics do?

FB: First, you need to have some political ideas to propose to your party and your government. I choose pacifism, but I am not saying that my allies must adopt it. What should the government do? I ask the government to return to the fundamental value expressed in article 11 of our constitution, the refusal to wage war.

Q: Prodi (recently elected as prime minister) says that together with the UN we could intervene.

FB: That is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Is the existence of genocide practical grounds for intervention where there is a general consensus? Yes. But is a general consensus sufficient for intervention where there is genocide? No. And this is especially true since the UN itself has often been manipulated by others and subjected to threats.

Q: And so, once you win the election …?

FB: We will withdraw Italian troops from Iraq, and that’s no small thing.

Q: It's important, but I still wonder how you will deal with other conflicts as part of the next government. Prodi says yes to UN intervention, you say no.

FB: It's not like that. Let's take a look at the documents. In the center-left program it's clearly written that we are in favor of disarmament. If there’s a fight on that issue, we’ll confront it.

Q: What is original here is that we can fight over an issue like this, without delivering ultimatums.

FB: In this context, I don't see the main difficulties as being in the area of foreign policy, but in social and economic policy. In foreign policy, I see a sharp discontinuity (on the part of the current centre-left) compared to Berlusconi and also compared to previous governments of the Olive Tree Coalition (1996–2001), which we left before the war in the Balkans. I can't say for certain we are never going to face a similar situation again, but that is not my expectation. Today there is a common program regarding foreign policy that marks a clear break with the past. I think the country has changed since 2001, for the worse because of Berlusconi from above, but it has also changed for the better because of the movements from below.

Q: And yet there isn’t political representation of this wave of movements.

FB: There is a dual problem here. Not only is there the matter of political representation, there is also a real question of the ability of the various organizations that comprise the movement to directly confront the problems which the movement faces. There is a real problem of providing a unified “composition” for this movement. And this is a problem that does not belong to the movements only but to the left as a whole. For the latter cannot re-define itself without the movement. This, for me, is paradigm shift. Today what is meant by politics cannot be re-defined unless there is a political effort that is primarily focused on the movements. And what is it that really interacts with these movements? Before the forces of organized politics, there is a culture of politics.

Q: This may be the most important and interesting challenge faced by Rifondazione. We come out of communism, and if our tools are no longer effective, our goals are still valid.

FB: More valid than ever! There is an element in this history that cannot be ignored, and that is the decisive role played by labor in the lives of people and society. That is the why I say that the Marxist schema is necessary, but not sufficient. That is why I like the formulation “beyond Marx”, because it includes it. This is what feminism, environmentalism, and the “culture of criticism” have all been demanding of us in recent years. These are the basic elements from which we can begin to build a new political culture. And this is why I also believe that the relationship between liberty and equality matters so much today.

Q: Hasn’t freedom always prevailed over equality?

FB: In real socialism, not at all. There equality prevailed so much that it suppressed liberty. And this has happened even in the best moments of our history. Even in the form of direct democracy we have allowed equality to prevail, and the championing of homogeneity instead of difference. In doing so we have sacrificed individuality, the person.

Q: So how would you bring unity to all these different elements?

FB: Just look at the movement: what it did well, how was it done? By means of a central committee or by working and deciding on things together?

Q: Looked at in this way, political parties as they now exist need to be thoroughly rediscussed and transformed.

FB: Absolutely. But always through a process of cross-fertilization. Let's look at our own example. There is the Party for the Refoundation of Communism (PRC) and there are other forces that share with us three essential points: no to war, no to neo-liberal policies, and yes to participatory democracy. But they have a certain antipathy to the PRC, either because it's a party, or because it's a "re-founding," or just because it's communist. As for myself, I will continue with this process of re-foundation, and to those who are interested, I can propose the “foundation” of a new framework of political debate. In this new foundation, some will apply themselves to the re-foundation of the communist party and others will concentrate on different problems, all according to the principle of the movement: Everybody is in and everyone is equal.

Q: How much of this is a reflection of the recent creation of the Democratic Party in Italy, which threatens to smother everything else?

FB: There are two things of importance here. The first, I don’t deny it, is achieving the transition to governing….

Q: But you need water to cross the desert!

FB: I believe we cannot make it across with the politics we have
now, because in the present mode we are tempted by an attitude of either/or, either acceptance or severance. In order to overcome this, we need to engage in the rebuilding of autonomous political programs.

Q: What weight does the Democratic Party carry?

FB: One has to make distinctions. I am opposed to the idea of a Democratic Party because it seeks to remove from politics one of the chief constitutive elements of the contemporary world, i.e. labor. And I'm against it because it emphasizes the process of coalition-building, as opposed to the firm rooting of the party within society. Therefore I am not so sure that this is the direction in which things should really be moving. I find it pretty hard to believe.

Q: But it's a serious development?

FB: Certainly, but in the event such a party loses shape and substance, I think that an aristocratic attitude toward it would be disastrous. Perhaps in a society where the class struggle, even if it is a crucial element, does not ascend to the level of politics, the idea of a 'big container' party may be attractive enough to gain some ground in civil society. Therefore we’d do well not to underestimate it.

Q: We don't underestimate it; we simply dislike it.

FB: Do I detect a hint of snobbism? I believe that instead of stressing differences, we need to choose the path of competition. We represent something different, another kind of aggregation. This is the way in which I think we can attract a good part of civil and political society. Also, in respect to the risk involved, I can state very firmly that in a contest between a democratic party and one that represents leftist orthodoxy, the former will win hands down.

[Additional translation by Peter Zerner.]