Bourgeois Populism and Social-Democratic Reformism: A Dead End
Full Citizenship Rights for All
For Workers Action to Stop Deportations and Smash Fascist
The following article is translated from a February 2018 supplement to L’internazionalista, published by the Nucleo Internazionalista d’Italia, section of the League for the Fourth International.
The campaign for the March 4 Italian elections has been dominated by vile xenophobic anti-immigrant chauvinism. All the competing bourgeois parties and coalitions attack the bogeyman of “illegal immigration.” The racist Lega (ex-Nord)1 rails about the “invasion of aliens, drug pushers, delinquents and illegals,” raising slogans such as “Italians first! Now or never! Stop the invasion!” Lega capo Matteo Salvini justifies the fascist shootings in Macerata saying that it is the “fault of the left that has permitted immigration and has contributed to transforming Italy into a refugee camp” (see “Lesson of Macerata: For Mass Worker Action to Defend Immigrants and Stop the Fascists”).
Reporters rush to interview the media star Salvini daily, while candidates of other parties fall all over themselves to have friendly debates with him, thereby legitimizing and taking part in the constant barrage of racist poison. And with the populist Cinque Stelle (Five Star) movement running first in the opinion polls, its historic leader, Beppe Grillo, recently called for immediately deporting all “illegals” and rails about how immigrants supposedly infect Italians with diseases. The Five Star mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, has cut off essential services to Rom2 camps and promises to evict them. She calls for stopping other migrants from coming to Rome and Grillo writes: “The music has changed: close the Rom camps, away with the beggars.”
Long before the election campaign began, the strategy of the Democratic Party (PD) 3 government of Renzi-Gentiloni-Minniti4 has been to put itself at the head of the anti-immigrant hysteria by aggressively extending the sway of Italian imperialism in the Mediterranean, Libya and to the south. A series of pacts with the United Nations-backed Libyan “government” (February 2017), Libyan tribal leaders (April 2017) and the interior ministers of Libya, Chad and Niger (May 2017) called for controlling immigration and building detention centers in exchange for money. Meanwhile, Italy’s high-tech navy has clamped down on ships of NGOs5 that previously saved immigrant lives at sea.
Once the refugees have been thrown back by the Italian and Libyan navies and the armed forces of various countries, they are crammed into super-crowded detention centers in Libya, which have been repeatedly condemned for the prevalence of beatings, rape and torture. There is now a well-documented and lucrative slave trade in Libya where some of the refugees are sold. Militia leaders have reportedly received payoffs [from the Italian government] to turn from smuggling to other activities. Now, following a December 2017 intergovernmental agreement, Italy is sending 470 military personnel and 130 vehicles to Niger, to control the territory and stop migrants before they reach Libya.
This imperialist drive to the south is accompanied by a campaign of all-sided racist repression against immigrants and refugee seekers in Italy. The Minniti-Orlando decree of 12 April 2017 accelerates and simplifies deportations with summary proceedings without debate or appeal. It has reinforced police operations directed against immigrants (and demonstrators), established “voluntary” unpaid (i.e., slave) labor by those seeking refugee status, and extended deportation centers. Timid proposals for a limited form of ius soli that might have given some children of immigrants born in Italy a difficult “path to citizenship” appear stillborn.6
The imperialist drive and internal racist campaign are part of an overall attack against the entire working class and the oppressed. Tens of thousands of teachers now risk decertification and mass firings, the number of “absolute poor” has exploded to 4.5 million people, income inequality continues to grow and austerity cutbacks continue. Under Italy’s Jobs Act, young people are condemned to short-term work contracts with no employment stability, the right to strike has been gutted and arbitrary layoffs facilitated, all on the pretext of making Italian capitalism “competitive.” While all the candidates are now making empty electoral promises, whichever electoral alliance comes out ahead in the vote will inevitably try to push through more brutal austerity measures soon after the elections.
Thousands of immigrants and other workers protested against exploitation, racism and repression: the SI COBAS contingent in Rome, February 24.
Now SI COBAS7 has called for a national demonstration in Rome on February 24 against exploitation, racism and repression. What leftist would not be against those plagues? The question is what to do about them. The largely immigrant workforce led by SI COBAS has been waging struggles in logistics (warehouse and transportation sectors) and elsewhere and has won some victories. Hopefully its fighting spirit could spread to other sectors. Many of demands raised in the demonstration call are supportable, such as “reduction of the workday with a big wage increase,” abolition of the Jobs Act, no to privatization of teaching, no to the alternation of school and work, no to unpaid labor, etc. Some are improvements on most of the left, notably the call for “the right to residency permits, to asylum, to citizenship and to work at full pay for all immigrants who have reached our country fleeing poverty and wars waged in the name of democracy for imperialist interests.” But how are these good things to be achieved?
In the extensive list of demands for the February 24 demonstration there is no mention of revolution or even transitional demands like workers control. Nor are there particular demands focused on the oppression of women. Overall, the SI COBAS program is for a kind of broad-scale militant trade-unionism. And, notably, there are no concrete calls to action. In their absence, the call to “build a united, class anti-capitalist front” would end up being a propaganda bloc combined with a solidarity network to “closely link social conflicts on an international scale.” A genuine united front as the early Communist International explained, is a call for joint action on a particular issue while various participating groups maintain their own programs according to the motto, “march separately, strike together.”
In particular in the present climate of anti-immigrant hysteria and fascist attacks, what is needed are mass mobilizations bringing out the power of the working class to stop the fascists, including the formation of workers defense groups; and worker-immigrant actions to stop deportations while fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. An effective struggle to smash the Jobs Act and provide jobs for all would involve occupations and the formation of workers committees uniting all unions and unorganized workers in particular workplaces. A struggle against imperialist war would require initiatives aimed at winning soldiers and class-struggle action to block transport, shut down port facilities, etc. Above all, a revolutionary vanguard would emphasize that no lasting gains can be achieved short of international socialist revolution in all of Europe and beyond.
The Left and the Elections
What the domesticated left is counterposing to the three main bourgeois coalitions of Forza Italia/Lega, Cinque Stelle and the PD with its various appendages of homeless bourgeois politicians, is a mixture of bourgeois populism and social-democratic reformism. The first national meeting of Potere al Popolo (PaP, Power to the People) was held in Rome on December 18. This bourgeois popular-front electoral list was initiated by the social center Je so pazzo in Naples, which supports the present mayor of Naples and former bourgeois judge, Luigi De Magistris. In fact, De Magistris has been privatizing, waging war against transportation workers and administering capitalist austerity in Naples since 2011. This is the sort of “people’s power” that the PaP is calling for. De Magistris sent a message of support to the December 18 meeting.
That meeting was addressed by Podemos of Spain and La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélanchon. Podemos is virulently anti-communist, and Mélenchon banned red flags during his recent electoral campaign, instead wrapping himself in the French Tricolore and calling for a “citizens revolution.” The parliamentary deputies of his Parti de Gauche (Left Party) voted for the “state of emergency” following the 2015 Islamist attacks in Paris as part of the imperialist “war on terror,” which has drastically reduced civil liberties. The program of PaP calls for “popular control” of the (bourgeois) institutions, for “democratic control” of capitalism and a “freer, more just, more equal society.” It is full of drivel about “regaining popular sovereignty”, references to “our country Italy” (communists have no country), the “defense and reassertion of the (bourgeois) constitution born out of the Resistance,” and about how the bourgeois “justice system” is supposedly “a common good.” Its classless bourgeois populist program does not call for workers revolution or workers power or even class struggle, but simply for “democratic control of the market.”
PaP includes or is what remains of Rifondazione Communista (RC – Communist Refoundation), the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) of Mauro Alboresi, the Italian nationalists of Eurostop/Contropiano/Rete delle Communisti, as well as the utterly tailist social-democratic Sinistra Anticapitalista (connected to the pseudo–Trotskyist International Committee, formerly United Secretariat) and various other opportunist leftists. But PaP’s bourgeois populist message is for “the people” to control capitalism, like its ally Podemos is doing in Spain as it administers capitalist austerity in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and other cities, much as De Magistris is doing in Naples. Or like the bourgeois populist SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) is doing in Greece, shoving austerity down the throats of Greek workers, and now attacking union rights.
Today, after a decade of continuing economic crisis, and the utter failure of reformist labor struggles (such as impotent one-day “general strikes”), there has been an upsurge of bourgeois populist movements (SYRIZA, Podemos, France Insoumise, Bernie Sanders in the U.S.) and the reformist social-democrat Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour, as the ruling class seeks to channel discontent into the dead-end of parliamentary politics. These movements have not set back the capitalist anti-working-class onslaught one iota. Instead, “business as usual” politics have been disrupted by the surge of ultra-rightist racist and outright fascist forces feeding off the failure of the left to stem the deepening impoverishment of the working class and middle-class sectors.
Sinistra Rivoluzionaria Pushes Social-Democratic Reformism
Sinistra Classe e Rivoluzione (SCR – Left, Class and Revolution), connected to the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), and the Partito Communist dei Lavoratori (PCL – Communist Workers Party) have joined together to present an electoral list called Sinistra Rivoluzionaria (SR – Revolutionary Left) for the March 4 elections. They present themselves as being “anticapitalist, revolutionary, communist, class-struggle and internationalist” and affirm that they are “the voice of those political organizations, the only ones, that have never betrayed the exploited and oppressed.” Posing left, SR also writes of “a bourgeois offensive of all the governments and all the government parties, including the Tsipras SYRIZA-ANEL government that all the ‘reformist’ Italian and European left continue to support uncritically.”
What the SR electoral declarations do not say is that the IMT hailed the election of SYRIZA in January 2015, or that the PCL supported the election of De Magistris as mayor of Naples in 2011. Furthermore, the IMT group in Greece was posing at the time as a Communist Tendency of SYRIZA. The fact that the IMT was part of such a bourgeois party does not bother it, as it has for years posed as the “Marxist wing” of populist capitalist parties from Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party to the Party of the Democratic Revolution in Mexico. The IMT also supported the bourgeois nationalist Mélenchon in the recent French elections. The concept of a class line between bourgeois and proletarian is alien to these opportunists, who consider the police – the armed fist of capitalism – to be part of the working class.8
The SCR/IMT support police strikes, call for the unionization of cops, brag about selling their paper to cop demonstrations (as its predecessor Falce Martello [Hammer and Sickle] has historically done in Italy), and have long proclaimed that police are “workers in uniform.” When the body of professional agents of class repression that are the police go on strike, they do so for more repressive power. We of the LFI say “police out of the unions” and in Brazil have uniquely fought to carry this out, for which our comrades were repressed by the capitalist cops and courts. IMT’s support for the police is consistent with their call for a Labour-dominated British parliament to pass an “Enabling Act,” which would nationalize the largest companies and supposedly institute socialism through parliament, while the bourgeois state remains intact.
The right-centrist PCL has no problems sharing an electoral list with the completely social-democratic SCR because at bottom they have the same program. The platform of their joint Sozialismo Rivoluzionario slate is a long list of demands pointing to a social-democratic “left” government of a bourgeois state, an idyllic version of “welfare state” capitalism. Rather than calling to bring down the anti-working-class bourgeois parliamentary regime, replacing the dictatorship of capital with the rule of workers councils (soviets), the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, it talks vaguely of “democracy of working people” which would ensure that “control by the working people must be extended to all spheres of public life.” It calls for a series of nationalizations (of privatized companies, of the big industrial consortiums, of transport, telecommunications, energy and water, etc.). But even if they were nationalized, or renationalized, these would still be capitalist enterprises, subject to the market, ruled by the profit drive.
Far from being a revolutionary program, this would be a return to the Italy of the 1950s, when the economy was dominated by state-owned companies (ENEL, ENI, AGIP, Alitalia, etc.). The SR slate’s call for an “economy under the control of working people” is a reformist pipedream in any circumstance short of a socialist revolution overthrowing the capitalist state. When it talks of putting “nationalized companies under the control and management of the workers,” this is not the Bolshevik program of workers control, which as Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program amounts to dual power in the factory, but the reformist concept of administering enterprises while capitalism remains intact. And what of the crucial question of the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state: the armed forces, police and judicial system? When it says “no to imperialism,” the SR program calls only for a change in policy (“no participation in foreign military missions”), and for a “drastic reduction of military spending.” But imperialism is not a policy, it is capitalism in its state of advanced decay.
In contrast, communists like Karl Liebknecht in World War I said “not one man, not one penny for the bourgeois army,” while Lenin called for civil war against the imperialist war. The bourgeoisie will never disarm itself no matter who is in parliament, because its class rule is based on a repressive apparatus that must be smashed by a victorious proletariat. Naturally, the SR program does not call for police out of the workers movement.
The PCL and its predecessor Proposta have a long history of backing bourgeois governments and/or forces that take part in them. Proposta supported the first Prodi government of 1996-98; it voted for the “progressives” of the Ciampi government in 1994, for the Dini government in 1995, Jospin in France, the local Pericu government in Genoa and other local municipal governments. After leaving RC in 2006 the PCL directly called for a vote to the Hollande government in France and voted for De Magistris in Naples and Pisapia in Milan in the 2011 mayoral elections. To our knowledge the leadership of the PCL has never repudiated its popular front betrayals of the Proposta period while in RC from 1990-2006 and, in fact, stands by its policies then. This hasn’t stopped these opportunists from some cheap left posturing.
So the PCL in an article of 10 December 2017 quotes the secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, Maurizio Acerbo, of the PaP arguing against those who want to unite with the ex-PD bourgeois politicians D’Alema and Bersani. The PCL correctly reminds RC that “Rifondazione Comunista has governed for a total of five out of the last 20 years, which included support for the first Prodi government (1996-98) and its organic participation in the second Prodi government (2006-08).” Good point! But we would like to remind the PCL that, as mentioned, its predecessor Proposta also supported that first Prodi government (which depended on RC votes in parliament) while it was inside RC. The Prodi government that RC and Proposta backed introduced lower wages in the south and “flexibility” in labor relations (the Treu decree), established prisons and deportation centers for immigrants (the Napolitano law), and carried out vicious austerity. For its part, SCR (then called Falce Martello), was also inside RC when it was part of the second Prodi government from 2006-08.
Forge a Genuinely Leninist-Trotskyist Vanguard
The SI COBAS call for the February demonstration has a soft syndicalist denunciation of participation in the “bourgeois electoral theater,” saying that “conquests and rights are won through struggle, in whose absence the vote can only lead to illusions and delusions.” Lenin waged a struggle against “left communists” who refused to participate in bourgeois elections. They can be used as a platform for spreading the revolutionary program, as the Bolsheviks did in elections to the tsarist Duma in 1912. However, the program put forward by SR is not for revolutionary class struggle but for social-democratic reformism, which indeed can only lead to “illusions and delusions.” Calling for nationalization of bankrupt banks like Monti dei Paschi is not anti-capitalist but an attempt to prop up the tottering banking system. In this advanced state of putrefaction, the capitalist “welfare state” of yore is dead and gone. As unions have fought in vain to bring it back, this has had a demoralizing effect on working people. Today successful class struggle can only be waged with a revolutionary program.
The SI COBAS appeal calls for an amorphous “anti-capitalist united front,” much like some leftist groups in Italy such as the PCL and Frazione Internazionalista Rivoluzionaria (FIR, associated with Fracciòn Trotskista, FT) regularly do. Many class-conscious workers are realizing that a trade union can not be a revolutionary party and some are now posing the task of creating one. Some SI COBAS cadre, ex-Bordigist organizations, some members of a grouping in Naples and assorted others have been discussing the need to create a revolutionary workers party. But as Lenin emphasized in What Is To Be Done? a revolutionary party cannot simply add a political dimension to the economic struggle. A genuinely Leninist party, which is what workers and the oppressed in Italy urgently need, must be based on clear principles and a consistent program for socialist revolution. But it appears that the only major points that these various forces agree on are militant trade-unionism and labeling China “state capitalist.”
The political conclusion of the designation of “state capitalism” is to refuse to defend the deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba against imperialism and the internal forces of counterrevolution. And as then-centrist Karl Kautsky showed when he used the term to describe the nascent Soviet republic, it is only a short step from there to openly supporting imperialism. The pseudo-Trotskyist lash-up of the FIR and the FT is an example. The Fracción Trotskista got its start in 1989-90 by calling for a “constituent assembly” (its trademark slogan) in all of Germany, in the imperialist West and in the DDR (East Germany). They also called for dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet bloc military alliance) and withdrawal of Soviet troops from the DDR. Given the overwhelming weight of German imperialism and the crumbling Stalinist regime, this was a call for counterrevolution in fake-“democratic” garb.
Today, like most of the opportunist left (including the PCL, SCR and PdAC in Italy), the FIR/FT calls China “state capitalist” (many even claim it is imperialist) and refuses to defend North Korea against U.S. imperialism, which bombed all the major cities and killed three million North Koreans and many Chinese soldiers from 1950-53. The more general political point for all “state capitalists” is that those who capitulate to imperialism on the “Russian question,” will inevitably practice class collaboration in general.
A genuinely communist party can not be built on such a basis. Revolutionary Trotskyists are for the unconditional military defense of the deformed workers states against imperialism and for proletarian political revolution to oust the parasitic nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies and institute soviet democracy, as part of the fight for world proletarian revolution. We in the League for the Fourth International have insisted on the coherence between our words and our deeds. We led the fight for cops out of the unions in Brazil in 1996; we sparked the first workers strike action calling for freedom for black revolutionary death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1999, both by teachers in Rio de Janeiro and by port workers on the U.S. West Coast; we called for workers action to stop the imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 and eventually played an important role in bringing about the 2008 May Day strike that shut down all West Coast U.S. ports against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Mexico, the Grupo Internacionalista sparked the formation of workers defense guards mobilizing hundreds of electrical workers to defend the ten-month strike at the National University (UNAM) in 1999-2000. The GI has actively intervened on a large scale in the explosive teachers strikes that paralyzed Oaxaca and southern Mexico in 2006, 2013 and 2016. In the United States, the Internationalist Group played a big role in the unionization of two worksites of immigrant workers (many of them undocumented) in New York City. More recently, Class Struggle Workers – Portland (fraternally allied with the IG) initiated the worker mobilization to stop the fascists in Portland last June, and the IG played an important role in a similar effort in San Francisco in August when the fascists cancelled their rally. In New York, Class Struggle Education Workers has initiated union-based committees to stop deportations and defend immigrants in the schools, hospitals and universities.
A party of professional proletarian revolutionaries, such as the Russian Bolsheviks built, must be based on a solid Leninist-Trotskyist program. Otherwise it will capitulate or fall to pieces at the first real test. We of the Nucleo Internationalista d’Italia/LFI are dedicated to forging that party. ■
- 1. The Lega Nord (Northern League), founded by Umberto Bossi, long called for independence for Northern Italy, which it dubbed Padania. Its present leader Salvini dropped the reference to the North in the 2018 elections in order to rebrand the Lega as an Italian nationalist ultra-rightist anti-immigrant party.
- 2. The Romani, also known as Roma and Rom, are an itinerant people mainly located in Southeast Europe that are often referred to as Travellers in Britain and by the pejorative name “Gypsies” in the United States.
- 3. The Democratic Party is made up of politicians coming from the former Communist Party, Christian Democrats and various other parties considered to be on the center and left of the bourgeois political spectrum.
- 4. Matteo Renzi was prime minister from early 2014 to December 2016 and is still the leader of the PD. He was replaced by Paolo Gentiloni (PD), who was previously foreign minister. Marco Minniti is the interior minister in the Gentiloni government.
- 5. Non-governmental organizations.
- 6. Ius Soli (right of the soil) would automatically make citizens everyone born on the territory of the country, as is the case in the United States (as a result of the U.S. Civil War which established citizenship for former slaves) and almost all of Latin America. The proposal introduced by Minitti and the PD government is far more limited, providing that children of immigrants who are longtime legal residents may become citizens if they pass income and language tests. But even this has gone nowhere in parliament. Trotskyists call instead for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, regardless of how or when they arrived, a fundamental democratic right that was established by the French Revolution of 1789, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917.
- 7. The Sindicato Intercategoriale COBAS (rank-and-file unions) is the main syndicalist labor federation, which has led militant union actions independent of, and often in opposition to, the mainstream “confederal” labor federations of the CGIL, CISL and UIL, traditionally associated with the Communist, Socialist and Christian Democratic Parties respectively, all of them now defunct.
- 8. See “Her Majesty’s Social Democrats in Bed with the Police,” The Internationalist No. 29, Summer 2009.