From Splits to Unification? On the Recent History of the Italian Radical Left

By Eleonora Forenza

Italian Left, European Left

 “Syriza, Podemos, venceremos”: it was January 22, 2015, when, at the concluding rally of the electoral campaign, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA who would become Prime Minister of Greece a few days later, and Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos in Spain, went on stage in Omonia Square in Athens evoking “the wind of change” blowing from the south of Europe. The reference was to the possibility of breaking with the paradigm of austerity and constructing a People’s Europe, starting with Southern and Mediterranean countries. That extremely crowded piazza, shortly after, started to sing Bella ciao, an Italian popular song of the partisan resistance and one of the most popular songs of the workers’ movement. Right there, in Athens, a current ‘photograph’ of the Italian left could have been taken, significantly present in that moment: Cosmopolitan, internationalist, or deracinated?

A few months earlier, the Italian radical left presented a united list called ‘The Other Europe with Tsipiras’ (L’altra Europa con Tsipras) on the occasion of the European Parliament elections of May 25, 2014. With 4.03 percent of the vote, the list managed to overcome the 4 percent threshold and bring the Italian radical left back into the European Parliament. Five years earlier, the radical left had presented several lists (the main ones being Federation of the Left [Federazione della Sinistra] and Left and Freedom [Sinistra e Libertà]), none of which had been successful. The unified list, spearheaded by the Party of Communist Refoundation (Partito della rifondazione comunista, PRC), and Left Ecology and Freedom (Sinistra ecologia e libertà, SEL), had an explicitly European reference, as Tsipras was at that time running for the presidency of the European Commission. It was thus through the European channel that the fragmented Italian left could move toward reunification.

After the dramatic days in Genoa (July 19-21, 2001), where the global justice movement underwent a heavy repression, in November 2002 in Florence, during the first European Social Forum, a million people demostrated for the idea that “another Europe is possible.” Two years later, on the heels of this  “movement of movements” and with the initiative of the PRC, the Party of the European Left (PEL) was founded in Rome. The PEL consists of political forces of the left from much of Europe. Shortly afterwards, Fausto Bertinotti, then secretary of the PRC, pushed for the formation of the Italian Section of the European left with the aim of innovating the nature of the party to provide more organic links with the various sectors of Italian activism (environmentalist, feminist, housing rights movement, etc.).

The Italian left’s Europeanism has much deeper roots, however. It is enough to mention the Eurocommunist ideas of Enrico Berlinguer (national secretary of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] until 1984), who called for a Europe “neither anti-Soviet nor anti-American,”1 or even the relationship that the secretary of the PCI built with Altiero Spinelli (founding father of the idea of a federal Europe), who was elected to the European Parliament as an independent candidate on the PCI list.

Despite this longstanding “European” orientation, however (expressed even in Gramsci’s idea of creating a a European political subjectivity), one of the main tasks of the Italian radical left today is to take on a national-popular dimension. This challenge has been a constant since the breakup of the PCI, the largest Western communist party, after 1989. The debates within the Italian radical left take place, however, in a context of mass depoliticization, which is quite different from what is happening in other southern European countries.

The Italian scene is thus marked by a strong push toward social passivity (passivizzazione) that results from a process of Americanization of the political and media system which is decidedly more pervasive than in other European countries – a process that in many ways has its roots in the years of the dissolution of the PCI.

The end of the PCI and the two decades of Berlusconi

Between 1989 and 1991, the PCI held its 19th and 20th Congresses, in which it decreed its own dissolution. On November 12, 1989 Achille Occhetto (then the party’s national secretary), announced the need to avoid continuing on the old paths and, therefore, also the possibility of changing the name of the party.2

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the triggering argument for this step. In this way, the fate of the PCI came to be linked with that of the Soviet Union, thereby erasing one of the peculiarities of Italian communism – its distinctiveness in the global political panorama. A continuous search for a democratic Communism had nourished the Gramscian “philosophy of praxis,” the concepts of hegemony, “war of position,” and “Western revolution,” and also the crucial Togliattian search for an Italian way to Socialism and “progressive democracy,” and the Berlinguerian proposal of an alternative democracy and democracy as a universal value. But most of all, what made this experience so unique were the millions of people who, through their activism, formed what Pier Paolo Pasolini called a “Country within the Country,”3 and made communist diversity the guiding principle of their political practice.

Undoubtedly, the core trait of capitalist restructuring – the neoliberal restoration that would destroy any compromise between capitalism and democracy (whether representative or welfare-oriented) – demanded a rethinking of the communist analysis and agenda. Hence, the debate over the dissolution of the PCI raised two alternative hypotheses for innovation: one, a post-communist approach focused on governability and modernization, and the other, the idea of communist refoundation, stressing the need to transcend capitalism. In the latter perspective, discussion of the present-day need for communism is linked to analysis of the complex forms of domination in capitalism’s current phase, drawing on the emancipatory perspectives of feminism, environmentalism, and pacifism. This approach would constitute the theoretical core of the “No” vote (against dissolution of the PCI) and would subsequently shape the PRC, which was founded in 1991 and has been one of the main protagonists the radical left since that time.

The progressive injection of the ideology of governability (with modernization privileged over democratic participation) is one of the main features of Italian left history from 1989 onwards. A few months after the end of the PCI and the birth of the Democratic Party of the Left (Partito democratico della sinistra, PDS), Occhetto backed the proposal to transform the electoral law from proportional representation to majoritarian. The passage to a majoritatian electoral system was central to the transition from the ‘first’ to the so-called ‘second republic’; it would insulate the political-institutional system from social conflict. Representation of labor and of the subaltern classes was increasingly marginalized in the political system, in which how to maintain the status quo becomes the main point of contention between an increasingly indistinguishable center-right and center-left.

In its role as a “governing left,” the PDS underwent a continuous genetic mutation, not only surrendering its original class-base, but also fully absorbing neoliberal ideology (in the form of such key concept as competitiveness, privatization, and balanced budget). It also went through several name-changes: first Democrats of the Left (Democratici di sinistra, DS) in 1998, and then Democratic Party (Partito democratico, PD) in 2007, thus renouncing any reference to the word “left” altogether. Finally, the PD was renamed by its current leader, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as the “Party of the Nation” (Partito della nazione), with a further rightward shift.

Certainly, this is a common trend shared with other forces of the European Socialist Party, which leads the EU parliament in a grand coalition with the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and is one of the pillars of this Europe founded on monetarism and austerity. At this point, the entire European Socialist Party is given over to the logic of neoliberalism and has abandoned any reference to the need to transcend capitalism. Renzi’s PD is one of the most obvious examples in this regard, as the main force in the dismantling of the Republican Constitution, of working-class gains from the 1970s, and of the public education system.

The question of whether to participate in government (by allying with or supporting the center-left) became one of the principal lines of division within the radical left. The PRC suffered its two main splits over this issue. One took place in 1998, giving rise to the Party of Italian Communists (Partito dei comunisti italiani, PdCI), at the time of the Prodi government. Another split happened in 2009, after the electoral defeat in 2008 of the Rainbow Left (Sinistra arcobaleno, a left-wing federation that united the PRC, PdCI, Green party [Verdi], and a splitoff from the DS), which led to the exclusion of the radical and communist left from the Italian Parliament for the first time.4

The years of the majoritarian voting system are the years of Berlusconism, of a political confrontation that did not question neoliberal recipes whether from the center-right or the center-left, and reduced itself to a clash between pro- and anti-Berlusconi forces, marginalizing social issues, while conflicts of interest and corruption took center stage. Berlusconism caused a profound change in the political, mass media, and cultural systems, and even in common sense. Politics, subsumed by the private Berlusconian media empire,5 was transformed into spectacle and theatre, with Berlusconi as the sole man in command, with his ideology of competitiveness and simplistic logic of winners versus losers. This transformation, which laid the foundation for the Americanization of Italian society, represents the triumph of “the ideology of post-ideology” (that is, the neoliberal conception of the world) and ties Berlusconism to Renzism.

Italy during the crisis

The transition from Berlusconi to Renzi coincided with the years of the crisis. For Italy (and Europe), the crisis sets the context for capitalistic restructuring called austerity. In May 2008, after the electoral victory, Berlusconi became Prime Minister again, remaining in charge until November 2011. His budget and his reforms of all levels of education were highly contested. Furthermore, the Berlusconi years witnessed a succession of scandals, judicial incidents, conflicts of interest, and a rotten relationship between “sex, power, and money” (highlighted by numerous assemblies and demonstrations by women and feminists).

After a Memorandum sent by the European Central Bank (ECB) and European Commmission to the Italian government, Berlusconi was forced to resign. Without new elections, Mario Monti, the so-called ‘technocrat’ and former European commissioner who was strongly favored by the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano (former leader of the moderate wing of the PCI), suceeded Berlusconi. Under Monti’s government, harsh austerity measures were launched: anti-popular pension reforms (the so-called Fornero Law), greater job insecurity, cuts to public expenditures, and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget (approved by both the center-right and the PD).

The elections of February 2013 created a very unclear political context: a great affirmation of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle), the breakup of the “Italy Common Good” (Italia bene comune) coalition between Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) and the PD, and the failure of the PD to form a government. For a few hours, Italy found itself simultaneously without a Prime Minister and the President of the Republic, without a Chief of Police, and without a Pope (following Ratzinger’s resignation).6 After Enrico Letta’s brief period in power, Matteo Renzi’s “government of action” began. It pushed for greater job insecurity (the Jobs Act), a business-oriented reform of education, cuts to public administration, and a project to reform the Constitution and the electoral system. In short, cuts to democracy and social rights.

What were the social consequences of these measures? Useful data for comparing the situation in Italy before 2008 with the current scenario can be found in the OECD Employment Outlook 2015.7 The unemployment rate went up from 6 percent in 2007 to 12.4 percent in May 2015 (1.3 points above average in the Eurozone). Even more dramatic is youth unemployment: from 19.6 percent in 2007 to 41.9 percent in 2015. According to the SVIMEZ 2015 report,8 this maintains or even aggravates inequality between the North and South of Italy, in terms of GDP, investments, and employment. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat), gender inequality in employment has also grown.9

In sum, the crisis and austerity measures in Italy, together with the rest of Europe, have led to increasing the gap between rich and poor, redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top. In Italy, this happened with more severity and slower recovery, in the context of growing depoliticization, almost complete absence of mass social conflict, and widespread “anti-political” movements. And so, as the crisis went on, with the increase of inequality and absence of social mobilization, the protest vote grew enormously – more against the rotten political classes than against the austerity policies themseves. The Five Star Movement, launched in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo, defined itself as “neither right-wing nor left-wing” (even though in the European Parliament, it is part of the ultra-conservative English group Farage) and polemicized principally against corruption of the “caste.” In the 2013 elections, the Five Star Movement was the first party with more than 25 percent of the votes, thanks to a combination of Grillo’s leadership and populism, and the role of the internet in organizing the movement. Also gaining, given a strong political presence, was Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (Lega Nord),10 riding on xenophobic sentiments against immigrants. But in an important departure from Italian tradition, abstention has grown the most. In the 2008 elections, voter participation was 78 percent, and in 2013 around 72 percent. But in the 2015 regional elections, it dropped to 52 percent. The Americanization of the political system thus goes on.

Rainbow, downpour, wave, and water: fluxes of the radical left during (its) crisis

In reality, the “anti-globalization movement” or “movement of movements,” born out of the protests in Seattle in 1999, deeply influenced the Italian radical left. The powerful days against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001 (even in its dramatic aspects, the killing of Carlo Giuliani, the police repression, and the “Mexican slaughterhouse” in the Diaz school) will forever mark an entire political generation: the generation of disobedience (for example, trainstopping11 to block military trains). The “movement of movements” is above all multifaceted: “multitudinous” end “excessive” (to use Toni Negri’s words). Young communists (the youth organization of the PRC) and the PRC, the Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (Union of Metalworkers, FIOM), the White Overalls movement (Tute Bianche), pacifist organizations, Christians organizations, squats (centri sociali), and many other realities animated the Social Forum in almost all Italian cities. The strength of the “movement of movements” lies in its mythopoetic capacity and ideological strength (the view that “another world is possible” capable of “widening the horizon of what is possible12) which has enabled it to become the motor for social mobilization and for the transformation of common sense. In 2002, massive mobilization to defend the statute of workers’ rights (passed in 1970) drew 3 million demonstrators in Rome. At the beginning of 2003, there was an almost equally large protest against the impending war in Iraq.

Whereas in 1998 the PRC had chosen to break with the Prodi government and practice building a “social alternative,” in 2006, it chose once again to be an “alternative in government,” in alliance with the PD, on the basis of the idea that the power of the movements could influence the action of the government. The results were disastrous. After two years of failed governing experience and a “consensual divorce” with the PD (which was at this point explicitly a party with “a majoritarian vocation”), the catastrophe of the 2008 elections arrived: the Rainbow Left got only 3.08 percent of the vote, not reaching the 4% electoral threshold. Various factors contributed to this outcome: the failure of attempts to influence government action (due to the limited political weight not only of the PRC, but also of the movements, which by then were wearing thin); recourse to the lesser-evil argument to beat Berlusconi, despite the wide electoral advantage of the center-right over the radical left; disappearance of the ‘hammer and the sickle’ (symbol of the PRC) from the electoral ballot; and the general fragility of the alliance constituting the Rainbow Left. In summary, after the rainbow, there began the downpour: a dramatic debate was created in the PRC and the entire radical left that would produce lacerations and fragmentations – a disaster from which the Italian left has not yet recovered.

In 2008, the PRC held an extraordinary congress at Chianciano, spurred in part by recognition that the Rainbow Left project had been a step toward dissolution of the party. Once again in the history of the Italian left, the rhetorical call for innovation is used to overcome references to Marxism and to the communist horizon. The Chianciano congress saw a sharp conflict between, on one hand, the PRC thesis of a “social alternative” (building up the left’s social base) and, on the other, the idea of a “governing left,” which was favored by most of the outgoing leadership. The analogies to the 1989 debate are many, but this time, contrary to predictions, the congress decided by a slight margin not to dissolve the party, to continue with the project of communist refoundation, and to present a radical alternative to the PD. Paolo Ferrero was elected as party secretary to lead in implementing these decisions.

The project of the PRC, therefore, persists “in an obstinate and contrary direction.”13 Despite its electoral failures, it is the only Italian party born before the majoritary system to survive the entire duration of the Second Republic, from 1991 until today. The PRC is rooted in the history of Italian communism (not only of the PCI, but also of the so-called New left), but projected into the future. The thesis of a greater relevance to the present and of the need for communist refoundation in a neoliberal society, together with the roots the PRC has spread throughout the country, account for its twenty-year survival, despite the reduced number of its members and supporters.14

Subsequent to the 2008 defeat, Nichi Vendola, then President of the regional Government of Puglia, charged the PRC with having a minoritarian political culture linked to the past and unable to meet the challenge of governing. In 2009, he led the split from PRC of what would become Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL), which would bring together exponents of the PdCI, Green party, and a few others coming from the left Democrats. Strategically allied with the PD, the SEL applied to join the Party of European Socialists, but soon afterward suspended its application – following a congress on the eve of the 2014 European elections – because of its negative coalition experience with the PD in Italia Bene Comune. After a phase of oscillations and contradictions, the SEL switched its European link from the Socialists to  the European United Left (GUE/NGL).

After a poor performance in the years between 2009 and 2011, the left attempted to “do good, a common good.” A widespread mobilization of common-goods movements highlighted the need to defend the “the commons” and public services from privatization, commodification, and the dismantling of welfare. The mass mobilizations began with the defense of public education, against cuts and the privatization of schools and universities, for which Berlusconi’s Minister of Education proposed a devastating reform that was approved in 2010. University researchers joined “book blocks”15 by students in the “Onda” (the student movement of those years), occupying the universities (even the roofs of university buildings) for weeks. On December 14 2010, when Berlusconi obtained gained approval of his program through a confidence-vote tinged with corruption, a student demonstration in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo became a riot. One of the student movement’s slogans, “we will not pay for the crisis,” went viral, spreading to the numerous factory struggles that were being waged in those months. A few months later, in June 2011, the common goods movement obtained a historic victory in the referendum against privatization of water. More than 27 million Italians voted to defend water as a common good. In those same days in Rome, the Teatro Valle was occupied and became the epicenter for mobilizing workers in show business.

Large trade union confederations were not structurally linked to these mobilizations. They were practically silent during the hardest years of the crisis and austerity. The two important exceptions were the schoolteachers (Federazione dei Lavoratori della Conoscenza, FLC) and FIOM, which, amidst a harsh conflict with Fiat, sought to ally with the movements.

Unionization efforts did not extend to precarious workers, the self-employed, and the unemployed. Precarious workers progressively organized themselves using a tactic of “social strikes.” The precarious generations that never knew the right to strike, and for whom precariousness is not only work-related but existential, demand a guaranteed minimum income.

Practicing left-wing politics: socially useful?

Today, the Italian radical left finds itself again faced with the need to overcome its own fragmentation – a desire shared not only by the PRC, SEL, and the ‘Other Europe with Tsipras’, but also by those coming from Renzi’s PD. The shared desire is to build a unitary process and an alternative political force that could keep up with other experiences of Southern Europe, like Podemos, Izquierda Unida, and SYRIZA.

In relation to the question of Europe, the blackmail and imposition of the Memorandum on Alexis Tsipras have opened an ever-larger debate, in the Italian radical left, as to whether or not the Eurozone can be reformed. The idea of the reformability of Eurozone seems to prevail, but there is great awareness that the defense of the Italian Constitution is hard to reconcile with an EU governance founded on neoliberalism.

The European dimension also implies a choice: the relationship between the Italian radical left, the PEL (of which the PRC is a member), and participation in the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. The chronic ambiguity in the relationship with the European Socialist Party, which governs at the European level in a grand coalition, is not sustainable. Another issue, therefore, is to find a consensus no longer involving accommodation with neoliberalism (which had made the radical left lose credibility), but based instead on a radical alternative not only to Renzism but also the European Socialist Party. The issue, in other words, is to break with the Socialists and to construct an alternative left rooted in social movements, as was done by the Greek and Spanish radical left – that is, build a governing left based not on the logic of governability but on its opposite, on the capacity to promote widespread participation, conflict, self-government, and social solidarity.

Of course, it is difficult to build a unified process in the absence of social conflict and mass politicization. Precisely for this reason, the unification process should begin by reconnecting the social and the political, recomposing the social bloc, and becoming a social, political, and cultural coalition. It is therefore fundamental that practicing left-wing politics depends on doing socially useful work, being able to construct forms of mutualism and social solidarity: building society as a form of practicing politics. Promoting a unifying process will in fact require combining the various ways of practicing politics (militancy, social activism, and cultural associationism) in a form of democratic participation. It will also require the use of the internet to connect people, while not replacing real struggle with virtual consensus.

The challenge is to understand the formation of a political force as the building of widespread political strength, to see the taking of power neither as a “seizure of the Winter Palace” nor within the neo-authoritarian logic of “governance,” but as construction of power shared by everyone, and connecting emancipatory practices and theories of personal and political transformation, as feminism teaches. The construction of the radical left in Italy requires the formation of a new common sense. It must be simultaneously a process of individuation and of collective political subjectivization: a molecular revolution that becomes, at the same time, a “revolution in the West.”

Translated by Arianna Sanelli


1. E. Berlinguer, Discorsi al Parlamento europeo (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 2014); G. Liguori, Berlinguer rivoluzionario. Il pensiero politico di un comunista democratico (Rome: Carocci, 2014), 39-45.

2. G. Liguori, La morte del Pci (Rome: manifestolibri, 2009); F. Chiaromonte and L. Paolozzi, Il taglio. Due femministe raccontano la fine del Pci (Rome: Datanews, 1992); G. Chiarante, La fine del Pci (Rome: Carocci, 2009); L. Magri, Il sarto di Ulm. Per una possibile storia del Pci (Milan: Il Saggiatore , 2009).

3. P.P. Pasolini, “Cos’è questo golpe. Io so,Corriere della Sera, November 14, 1974.

4. Even during that division – which happened after the result of the troubled PRC congress in Chianciano in 2008 – the topic of government was resolved and interlaced with different interpretations of the topic of innovation: on one hand, the refoundation of the left and on the other the communist refoundation.

5. Berlusconi is the owner of three private television channels.

6. The Vatican’s influence over Italian politics has always been very strong. This has been a structural feature of the political system since the founding of the Italian State.




10. Lega Nord is an extreme right and xenophobic party which, in the European Parliament, is in the same political group as the Front National of France.

11. [In English in the original]

12. Rosi Braidotti, In metamorfosi. Verso una toeria materialistica del divenire (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2003).

13. This is the title of  Paolo Favilli’s history of the PRC: In direzione ostinata e contraria. Per una storia di Rifondazione comunista (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2011); see also Raul Mordenti, Non è che l’inizio. Vent’anni di Rifondazione comunista (Milan: Edizioni Punto Rosso, 2011); “Su la testa,” November 2011.

14. PRC membership data: 71,203 in 2008; 23,529 in 2013; 19,712 in 2014.

15. [In English in the original]

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