Below is an edited version of an article by Bruno Steri, of the National Secretariat of the Partito Comunista Italiano dealing with strategic differences in the left highlighted by the participation of most communist forces to the list of the newly formed Potere al Popolo in the forthcoming elections. Some more obscure references have been left out but terms which have a resonance in Italian political culture not found in Britain have been literally translated where they make sense.
In an interview granted last January 10 to the daily newspaper Il Dubbio, the secretary of the PRC (Rifondazione Comunista), Maurizio Acerbo, declared: “For years we have been working to build a unitary subjectivity of the plural anticapitalist left: like Syriza is in Greece, Podemos in Spain and France Insoumise in France”. A legitimate project, but evidently different from the one proclaimed by the Partito Comunista Italiano, since its re-constitution in Bologna, which aims precisely at the reconstruction of the Communist Party. I considered the recent promotion in the electoral campaign of an initiative that, looking beyond March 4, proposes the launch of “a constituent of the alternative subject”: it would have been better to avoid amplifying, before the vote, themes that do not unite the different subjects that make up the Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) list.
However, we take note but at this point we also feel entitled to enter into the debate.
We do it in a somewhat eccentric way, starting with a significant interview with Lenny Benbara, an intellectual close to France Insoumise, who appeared in Le Figaro last 2 February and translated in the Italian periodical Senso comune (Common sense). According to Benbara, the grouping led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon oscillates between a “left-wing strategy” and “a populist strategy” but more precisely to the latter (understood in a positive meaning) as a long game which one should rely on.
Unlike the traditional appeal to the “left” and the “people of the left”, which places the political proposal in a space already delimited and decentralised, the “populist method” is not content to speak to the left but looks at the “construction of a people”, appropriating transversal and less identifiable meanings with the traditional language of the left.
Benbara does not deny that a substantial consensus from the left arrived at France Insoumise. But, in his opinion, the ambition must be to remove from Marine Le Pen the support of the popular classes and from Emmanuel Macron that of the urban middle classes: it would therefore be not very productive “to enrol in a structurally minoritarian and political identity in the full phase of symbolic devaluation everywhere in Europe “.
Similar considerations — inspired by the “populist method” elaborated by the Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau – presided over the birth of Podemos in Spain: where a group of young intellectuals, in a context of strong reflux of social mobilisations, decided to follow the movement “of the indignant” doing without “the old aesthetics of the left” and reasoning “transversely”, thus translating into the political battle the ills of that movement (but also focusing its political image in the figure of a leader). Here too, in short, it was intended to “de-identify the debates” and give priority to the concrete (since “it is in the political action that a people builds”).
We have seen, in debut, that experiences like those of France Insoumise and Podemos are positively mentioned to illustrate the strategic objectives of the PRC and it is not a mystery that they are carefully followed by the promoters of Potere al Popolo. As for the latter, it is plausible that considerations close to the “populist method” have induced them to resist (make a square) against the inclusion of the term “left” within the symbol of the list. The PCI, on the merits, has avoided conducting visceral battles over this. On the contrary, the PCI has worked to make the symbol of the labor movement, the sickle and the hammer, alive and recognised.
A further study of the (alternate) events of France Insoumise and Podemos is useful in illuminating important aspects of this divergence. It should be remembered that both the aforementioned political subjects, after a good beginning, entered a phase of involution and a pronounced decrease in consensus. François Ruffin, parliamentary deputy of the group of Mélenchon, spoke about “reflux” due to the irrepressible rise of Macron….. For his part, Lenny Benbara adds significant details to the analysis. Putting in parenthesis the risk, inherent in the populist “transversalism”, of a blurring of class discriminators, he underlines that at the base of this crisis there would be the “moving character of France Insoumise, which obliges it to go from victory to victory to maintain its centrality”. There would therefore be a structural element, therefore far from contingent, to put lead in the wings of Mélenchon: “The movement was built as an electoral war machine, that is as a machine capable of conducting a war of movement”. But politically too fragile to persevere in the long times of a long war of position. As you can see, here is an issue as old as the workers’ movement: the role and nature of the party.
The perception of the “populist strategy” proposed by Benbara highlights at the same time a serious limit, offering us the opportunity to return to the criticism made by the PCI to the promoters of Potere al Popolo on the exclusion of the traditional symbology of the labor movement. The strength of a political proposal, its long-term credibility, also rests on an entire ideological and symbolic structure: it is the solidity of this system that constitutes a party and guarantees its perspective.
A certain level of political navigation is not enough to prevent the boat from frighteningly flailing at the first headwind (as the history of Rifondazione Comunista has abundantly shown). And it is a serious sin of presumption to believe that one can replace the ideological and symbolic references of a political culture overnight, as any marketing company could do: in these cases, despite the positive intentions and the credentials of social presence, the risk of electoral drift is around the corner.
In short, it is not a matter of defending an abstract closed identity separated from the living by social dynamics. We are all aware of today’s difficulties. Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, argued that the most important event of the twentieth century was the meeting, not at all obvious, between the labor movement and the Marxist theory. In the West (and in Italy) today we are witnessing an accentuated disconnect between these two historical entities.
We know that the work of restitution is not a one-day affair: this and nothing else is the work of reconstruction of the Communist Party. And it cannot be shortened by useless and dangerous plays of prestige.
Should this divergence, which is of substance, prevent the establishment of a coalition and the promotion of a “communist, anti-capitalist, left-class” electoral list? Of course not. If we agreed on everything we would be in the same party. And, in fact, we are not thinking about the constitution of a party but of an electoral deadline: that precisely because it is important, it calls us all to our responsibilities.
With what we are witnessing these days, there is little to joke about; we all have the obligation to try to cope with a political emergency that should not be underestimated, trying to achieve a critical mass that already has the strength to make itself politically visible. It is not here and now a question of finding agreement on the party form, rather than on the historical interpretation of what has been real socialism or still on the nature and role of present-day China.
Today, in a heavily regressive context, we are called to offer here and now some political shore to the social drama produced by the capitalist crisis and deepened by the anti-people policies of the government, on the statute of the European Union. This is specifically the goal. The Poteer al Popolo list has the right credentials to try to offer such an opportunity. Among others, for two basic reasons:
-This is a list starting from what I consider to be the mother of all the current battles: the elimination of any ambiguity regarding Partito Democratico and centre-left and the clear demarcation with respect to the d’Alema of Liberi e Uguali. (This refers to the formation that has broken with the Partito Democratico which is influenced by the politics of former PD leader Massimo d’Alerma.)
-It is a list composed of different subjects but all nominally self-defined and as such recognised as communists. Subjects among which the PCI is legitimately and respectfully intent on asserting its hegemony (as others do).
Two characteristics that make Potere al Popolo essentially and radically different from previous accumulated self-destructivities and that render concrete our proposal for the constitution of a Popular and Class Front in which each component maintains its political and organisational identity.