1976: Italian Communists back austerity for workers

I wrote this article in early 1977, (it was published in the Militant, issue 349, 1 April 1977) when the leaders of the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, were supporting a minority Christian Democrat government, which was carrying out austerity measures. In October 1976, that government announced its programme, immediately unleashing a wave of spontaneous strikes across Italy. The PCI leaders used their huge authority among workers to pull them back and accept the “sacrifices” as necessary measures to “get the economy back on its feet”. This moment represented a major betrayal of the Italian working class, which was to mark the beginning of the end of the wave of class struggle that started with the famous Hot Autumn of 1969.

The PCI supported the Christian Democrats in the period 1976-79, initially by abstaining in parliament, but by 1978 moving to active support. The price they paid for this was bruising defeat in the 1979 elections. The article saw the possibility of a military coup, along the lines of what had happened in Chile in 1973, being carried out by the Italian ruling class, once the workers had been openly betrayed. In the end, that proved unnecessary. Nonetheless, there was a “mild reaction” in the form of an offensive against the working class, which started with the famous defeat of the FIAT workers in the autumn of 1980 - the equivalent of the defeat of the miners’ strike in Britain in 1985.

Looking back at those historical events, it is clear that 1977 marked a major turning point in the situation. We have published a much lengthier article on this, Italy on the Brink of Revolution - Lessons from the 70’s, which gives the background to what is described in the present article. The collaboration between the PCI leaders and the Christian Democracy in the period 1976-79 prepared the ground for a long period of relentless and systematic attacks on the working class, with widespread privatisations, the abolition of the sliding scale of wages, speed-ups and a generalised casualisation of labour, and a worsening of working and living conditions for the working class of Italy.

The article ends on an optimistic note. A split in the PCI is predicted, but this came much later than then expected - 14 years later - in 1991. The article was also based on the perspective of building a sizeable Marxist opposition in and around the PCI. This work started in 1977, but the genuine communists were far too small a force, a mere handful of comrades back then, to play any significant role. Looking back at those events, it is clear that the open betrayal of the Italian working class in 1976 prepared, first the defeat of the PCI, and then its final liquidation.

What we would like to highlight in this article is the role played by the leaders of the PCI in 1976-79. They used all their authority to hold back the working class. The workers of Italy - or at least a large part of them - trusted their leaders. And this also explains how deep and widespread the subsequent disillusionment was. Subsequently, a party of almost two million members - the biggest Communist Party in Western Europe - was finally erased.

However, the communist traditions of Italy are not dead. They are beginning to revive. The embers of that tradition were never fully extinguished, and today’s younger generation, faced with a historical crisis of the capitalist system, are once more turning to the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

Gramsci once said “...history teaches, but it has no pupils.” (In Italia e Spagna, L'Ordine Nuovo, 11 March 1921). But we Marxists are good pupils, we are good students of history. We do not forget the past. We remember it, we learn from it, and we put all our energy into building a viable organisation, that will be the nucleus around which the future revolutionary party of the working class will gather.


It is nearly six months [October 1976] since the Christian Democrat government of Andreotti announced its “austerity programme” to solve the crisis of Italian capitalism. Since their announcement, the Italian Communist Party, the major party of the working class, has given backing to the substance of the government measures.

Last month [February 1977] when Luigi Lama, the Italian Communist trade union leader, tried to speak in Rome University he was met with a barrage of stones and bricks and a near-riot. That was the reaction of Rome students to the party line. It certainly reflects, if not in that violent form, a growing feeling among many workers as well.

Lama Image Archivio storico CGIL nazionaleWhen Lama, the Italian Communist trade union leader, tried to speak in Rome University he was met with a barrage of stones and bricks and a near-riot / Image: Archivio storico CGIL nazionale

There was a 25 percent increase in the price of petrol; a 20 percent increase in the price of gas; fertilisers were to go up by 15.2 percent; the sliding scale of wages would be blocked for two years; seven annual one-day holidays were to be abolished ("to increase productivity"). This wasn't enough.

A week later, the Corriere della Sera ran the headline: “More sacrifices on the way – Increases in electricity and telephone bills.” Postal charges would be revised.

This is not the first such ‘austerity’ programme. Over the last few years, there has been nothing but ‘austerity’ programmes. There is a limit to the attacks this government can carry out on the working class. This time they almost caused a nationwide general strike.

The measures to be announced were known several days before. L'Unità (the organ of the Communist Party) kept printing articles about important measures for a “productive take-off” and Lama, the leader of the CGIL, the Communist Trade Union Federation, declared his “complete agreement with Andreotti.” On the other hand, the workers were beginning to show their complete disagreement.

In Naples, on 4 October, the workers of the two shifts at Italsider carried out a one-hour strike. In the months before there had been massive demonstrations by the agricultural labourers in the north, and strikes by the railway workers.

When the official announcement of the measures did come, the workers reacted within 24 hours. At the Arese plant of Alfa Romeo in Milan, the paint shop workers went on strike in protest. This spread through the factory and over 2,500 workers came out. This again spread to other factories. Workers of the OM-FIAT blocked traffic for half an hour on Via Tibaldi. Even the owners of the petrol stations went on strike. The increase in the price of petrol will not benefit them at all, since the increase goes to the government.

The development of a general strike looked certain. But something happened to stop it. A report in the journal Panorama shows exactly what did happen:

“The blow was announced on the evening of Friday the 8th [October 1976]. A few hours later the factories in the North were already in revolt. At the Arese plant of Alfa-Romeo, the Rivalta plant of FIAT in Turin, wildcat strikes exploded. Protests and demonstrations flared up nearly everywhere. The federation of the CGIL-CISL-UIL of Turin almost immediately announced a four-hour general strike for Wednesday 13th October.

“But the wave of anger did not find the Communists unprepared. Strong in its capillary structure and in its presence in the whole Italian territory, the PCI (Communist Party) in less than a day was able to mobilise tens of thousands of activists and local leaders in an attempt to contain the centrifugal pressures. The major effort was carried out in the Piedmont. First came the basic economic explanation, given by Luciano Barca, on Sunday 10th at Turin, in the Alfieri theatre, brim full with workers. (Barca who had a heart attack the day before, managed to speak under strain for two whole hours). Then there was the job of convincing personally: at 5 o'clock in the morning on Monday 11th Diego Novelli, Communist mayor of Turin, was at the No. 1 gate of Mirafiori [the massive FIAT plant of Turin – FW] to meet the workers.

“Almost at the same time, 27 provincial and regional leaders of the PCI were outside almost all the Turin factories. Later on Adalberto Minucci, regional secretary, arrived at the Mirafiori plant; and Renzo Giannotti, provincial secretary, arrived at the Rivalta plant.

“The same scenes were seen in Milan (where Giorgio Napolitano spoke on Sunday at the Palalido in the presence of six thousand workers from the Alemagna, the Alfa-Romeo and the Sit-Siemens) in Genoa, in Naples and in Bari.

“In Florence there was an extraordinary assembly of the administrators of all the 'Red' provinces and councils; in Palermo (Sicily) Paolo Bufalini, one of the highest leaders of the party, called a meeting of the regional committee to be sure that they could control the situation.”

From this account, we can see how far the “Communist” leaders are prepared to go in order to hold back the workers. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. On 10 December 1974, in a report to the Central Committee of the PCI, Berlinguer, secretary general of the PCI, reflecting on the coup in Chile said: “The tragic Chilean experience confirmed and led us to underline a deep conviction of ours, one that has always guided our political conduct; everything possible must be done to prevent the people and the country from splitting down the middle into two enemy camps.”

This is the guiding principle of the PCI. That is why the top leaders of the PCI go to such efforts to convince workers not to go on strike.

The strike wave which had begun on 8 October was mainly unofficial; it was out of the control of the PCI and trade union leaders. The Turin trade union leaders attempted to make the protest official by calling a strike for the 13th. The logic of the situation would have been to go on and bring down the Andreotti government. But this is precisely what the PCI leadership does not want.

They want to maintain a 'respectable' and 'sensible' posture to smooth their way into a future coalition government. In May 1968 in France, a call for a one-day general strike became an all-out strike by the workers, which rapidly grew beyond the control of the union leaders and posed the question in the clearest terms of power: which class was to run society? The PCI leaders knew that a similar situation was inherent in Italy in October. They were determined to stop the workers from striking. This time the PCI was successful. The workers grudgingly went back to work.

The PCI has not entered a coalition government with the Christian Democrats yet. It is tremendously popular, as its 7 percent gain in the July [1976] elections proved. There are still widespread illusions that such a government will usher in a wave of sweeping reforms for the workers.

World School banner

If the “Communist” party were truly a revolutionary party – a Leninist party – it would have spread the developments in Turin to the whole of Italy and have mobilised the working class behind a revolutionary programme for the nationalisation of the monopolies and the overthrow of capitalism. Italy has been in a pre-revolutionary situation for more than seven years, the situation is over-ripe for a transformation of society. What is missing in Italy is a bold Marxist leadership.

That the programme of the PCI is not revolutionary is admitted. Let the PCI leaders speak for themselves.

Luciano Barca, the economic spokesman of the PCI says of the economy: “To use such capacities, to guarantee to free enterprise a role and space, it is necessary to guarantee for the future as a basic choice, the choice of pluralism…” In simpler terms this means that to get the capitalists to invest (“free enterprise”) we, the PCI, guarantee we will maintain capitalism (or “pluralism”). The PCI leaders are convinced that for now Italy is not ready for socialism, and from this flows their whole programme. They have demanded denationalisation!

On the role of the army, we can see the complete degeneration of the PCI leadership. Lenin explained in State and Revolution that basically the state is made up of “armed bodies of men” in the service of the ruling class. The PCI has a different point of view.

In his report to the Central Committee in 1974 Berlinguer said: 

“The PCI has long since outgrown the old anti-military attitudes that characterised a period in the history of the Italian working-class movement. Our principal inspiration and our permanent battles for peace, against war and for solidarity among the peoples, does not lead us to deny the need that Italy too have organised, efficient armed forces to guarantee its security and national independence.

“We want the orientation and organisation of the armed forces to be fully in line with constitutional principles…

“We want our soldiers to be able to fulfil their duty towards the country and the institutions to which they have sworn allegiance with full serenity and dignity and with the solidarity of the people...”

Fascists

It has been revealed that 50 percent of army officers are sympathisers of the Fascist MSI, a further 30 percent support the Christian Democrats, the rest divide their support among the other smaller big business parties, with the rare exception who support the PCI or the PSI. It is to this dangerously reactionary officer caste that has survived intact from the days of Mussolini, that Berlinguer looks for protection from the Fascists! Berlinguer ends his speech on the army thus: “... it is our position that the security forces should be regrouped into two basic services: one employed in defence of national sovereignty and independence; and the other in defence of the democratic constitutional system against internal subversion”(!)

This programme for the army is a programme for defeat and bloody repression of the working class. That is the real lesson of Chile.

Over the last five or six years, even going back to 1964, the more lunatic elements in the armed forces have several times attempted to organise military coups. These have been bungled, or stopped by the shrewder tacticians of capital. A military coup is the last card that the capitalists would play. First they have the option of leaning on the PCI leaders to hold the workers back. At the moment Italy has a minority Christian Democrat government. It keeps going only because the PCI deputies in parliament are prepared to abstain. But in the eyes of most people their attitude of abstention is clearly and concisely understood as PCI support for the Christian Democrats. One old peasant woman, who is illiterate and lives in a house without running water or an indoor toilet told me after the announcement of the austerity programme: 

“The Communists aren't any different. If they wanted to they could have stopped the government from increasing all these prices, but they didn't do anything. They just want to share the pie with the Christian Democrats.”

The reason given by the PCI for forming a coalition government is that by uniting with the Christian Democrats they will not frighten the peasants and shopkeepers into the arms of reaction. Yet this peasant woman is typical of this strata. They are sick and tired of the corruption of the Christian Democrats and they want to see someone do something really decisive to solve the crisis. They've heard in the past that the “Communists” are revolutionary and all the other things that the priests say, and they wonder whether the Communists would really change things. When they see what the PCI actually does, their reaction is one of cynicism—a mood cunningly exploited by the Fascists.

With pressures on the Christian Democrats from the capitalists to carry out more attacks on the working class, and resistance, on the other hand, from the labour movement, this government is bound to fall, despite the PCI's posture. The only party that the Christian Democrats can look to for help is the PCI. They can’t rely on support from the Fascist MSI, because this would lead to massive protests on the part of the workers. In any case, the MSI has already split, and it hasn't got enough deputies to give the Christian Democrats a majority.

Foto LaPresse - PublifotoArchivio storicoPoliticaEnrico BerlinguerAnni '70Nella foto: Enrico Berlinguer Enrico Berlinguer, 11-06-2014 ricorre il trentennale della morteBerlinguer claims that the “historic compromise” (his word for a Popular Front) is a new idea / Image: public domain

The Socialist Party will not re-enter the government unless the PCI enters with them, knowing that to enter alone would finally discredit them. So it seems that the short-term perspective for Italy is a coalition including the PCI. This would probably cause a split in the Christian Democrats. Some would prefer to stay outside of the government, getting closer to the Fascists, and the so-called “left wing” would join the Communists and Socialists in a coalition.

Berlinguer claims that the “historic compromise” (his word for a Popular Front) is a new idea. What is new about such a “compromise” between the parties of the two major contending social classes? Did we not see Popular Fronts in Spain and France in the 1930s – leading to the defeat of the workers in those countries.

In Italy itself, there was a Popular Front immediately after the war. There could have been a seizure of power by the armed partisans at the end of the war, if Togliatti (leader of the PCI, who had just returned from Russia) had not told the partisans to give up their guns and join forces with the Christian Democrats for a “democratic” Italy.

Berlinguer points out that in the event of the “historic compromise” becoming a reality, “a new confidence would stir the working masses and people…” He is right. The workers would regard such a government as their government, a government that would really change things. In the first period of this government the capitalists would be forced to concede reforms because of the immense pressure of the working class. But it would only be a temporary situation.

The capitalist class would use the PCI to hold back the workers, to make sure that they did not go too far. The PCI already explicitly accepts that it must stay within the framework of capitalism. Because of this, it will not be able to solve the crisis. So long as the economy remains in the hands of the capitalists, they will be the ones who control what can and cannot be done. Unemployment and inflation will not be solved.

The workers will undoubtedly attempt to help 'their government' by occupying factories, and setting up their own committees. The agricultural labourers and the poorer peasants will seize the land of the huge estates. But by the logic of their programme, the PCI leaders will do everything they can to make sure the 'consultation' is guaranteed. Like the Allende government in Chile, they will tell workers not to occupy factories, and the peasants not to occupy the land.

If this policy goes unchallenged, demoralisation will set in. The workers will see that 'their government' is not doing what they want. The social conditions would be prepared for a bloody military coup. In such an event, the workers would rise up in an attempt to defend 'their government' and smash the system that spawns Fascism. Never again will they tolerate a return to the slavery of the Mussolini era. The situation would be that of a Civil War.

In such an event, the army would tend to split down class lines and the proletarian section of the army (the vast majority of it) would tend to go over to the workers. But if the PCI continue to preach “order” and respect for the Fascist-minded officer caste – as they did in Chile – then the inevitable outcome of such a Civil War would be a bloody defeat for the Italian working class. The programme of the PCI as formulated now can only lead to disaster.

But how long can the PCI leadership carry on along the road of propping up a minority Christian Democratic government before their own rank and file openly oppose them? This was a question discussed at a Central Committee of the PCI on 19 October. There was a big argument between [Luigi] Longo [former General Secretary of the Party] and [Giorgio] Amendola, the latter being one of the main exponents of the “historic compromise”.

Longo, an old leader of the party, obviously is more sensitive to the rumblings of opposition in the rank and file. He warned of the danger of a split developing between the leadership and the rank and file. He said:

“In my view, the present difficulties and future ones will not diminish if we let ourselves be frightened, if we do not exercise our role as an opposition…” 

Longo realises that there is a limit beyond which the leadership cannot go.

Opposition

Opposition to the leadership already exists in embryonic form. In Naples, Giorgio Napolitano (another leading light of the PCI), spoke at a meeting of PCI members. One member got up and shouted: “For years you have told us that the main enemy are the Christian Democrats, that it is they who we must fight. Now you have changed. What are we supposed to do?” There followed a few minutes of disturbance during which Napolitano, not knowing what to do, just kept quiet. He waited for calm and then carried on his speech.

The opposition exists. A large number of those factory workers who had to be convinced to return to work were PCI members. They can only take so much. The ingredients for a split in the PCI are there in embryonic form. In the course of the class struggle, as PCI members learn from experience, the proletarian elements will move quickly to the left in search of a Marxist alternative.

The PCI leadership believes it has a “winning strategy” based on two points. One is its capacity to control the trade unions, and the second, according to Panorama, is “the absence, to the left of the PCI of a compact group that knows how to channel and manage this protest.”

This is correct. But the alternative to the PCI leadership will not come from outside the mass workers' parties. The ranks of the revolutionary party of the future in Italy will come from out of those militant factory workers and organised unemployed workers who are today in the PSI and especially the PCI.

It is not too late In Italy. Those members of the Communist Party who are already opposing the ideas of their leadership will undoubtedly, in the stormy period ahead, learn from the lessons of the past. They will increasingly take up once again the ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin and reclaim their own party for the ideas of Marxism. Then they can go forward and lead the working class to victory.


The events in Italy during the 1970s are an object lesson on the shameful role played by the Stalinist parties. Sign up for the founding conference of the Revolutionary Communist International, which will include sessions on the bankruptcy of Stalinist ‘policies’ such as ‘Socialism in One Country’.

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