Creative Destruction

An interview with Claudio Petruccioli

Claudio Petruccioli is an Italian politician who was president of the Italian national broadcast network RAI from 2005–2009.

Davide Ceccanti: What were your early ideological influences?

Claudio Petruccioli: I joined the Communist Party when I enrolled in university, in 1959. I didn’t belong to a leftist family, but it was a work- ing-class family. My grandfather was a worker, my father was a technician. The first in my family to attend university, I was born in a tradition of work but was drawn towards intellectual labor. If I think of the day in which I decided to be a communist, it was probably when I was fifteen and I went to the library in Umbria. I found a small book titled “Wage Labor and Capital” sitting on the table. They were lectures Marx had given to a worker’s club in London. I read the book in one sitting, and when I finished I felt like I had just understood precisely how the world works.

I was born in 1941, the immediate postwar years. They were difficult years, but my family never went hungry. So my shift to the left was not born of my immediate conditions. Why did I join the communists and not the socialists? It was because the socialists were forming a government with the Christian Democrats. It wasn’t because I was hostile to religion; the Christian Democrats repulsed me because they were the ruling party, and they imposed strict cultural limits (Machiavelli’s Mandragola was considered a theatrical text that could not be publicly performed). So the only leftist opposition for me was the Communist Party.

DC: After 1956, the communist and socialist parties began to position themselves internationally. What was the relationship between the two parties like between 1956–1968? And within the Communist Party, what new tensions were emerging in the run up to 1968, particularly with respect to the trade union movement and the CGIL?

CP: The decision made by the Italian Communist Party in 1956 was the most dramatic and, in my opinion, destructive one in the party’s history. I had joined the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and in 1956 I participated in demonstrations in support of Hungary. I believed in defending and supporting a population that fought for its freedom and independence. As I did also for Algeria, for Vietnam, and so on. So very early on, I opposed the actions of the USSR. But the party took ambiguous positions. Everything they did after the Eighth Congress was to try to put the pieces of a broken vase back together. They knew that right there, looking at the Italian left, the vase had broken.

My real breakup with the Soviet Union happened in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was the secretary of the Italian Communist Youth Federation. In a situation where the Czechoslovakian party and its leader attempted to guide a process of change, the Soviet Union intervened again. To me, this signaled the end of the possibility for an innovative social framework which surpasses our current ones. And unfortunately, the umbilical cord between the PCI and the Soviet Union was still not cut. Even Berlinguer did not cut the cord completely, and I think the party paid dearly for this.

DC: At the very least, wouldn’t you say that the existence of the Soviet Union enabled other European governments to bargain with the United States?

CP: With the end of the Soviet Union came the end of what Kissinger called the “world order.” But I find it difficult to think in terms of systems; saying, for example, that the fall of the Soviet Union strengthened the capitalist system. We have instead to think of power, and how power is organized. And in the current moment of concentrated financial power, we have to ask ourselves whether controlling access to data and information is not equally important to controlling the means of production and exchange. I’m thinking of Richard Baldwin’s “The Great Convergence,” recounting the second period of globalization (the first being 1820–1910). The fall of the Soviet Union can be understood as the consequence of this globalization.

DC: How was the experience of 1968 in Italy different from that of France and the United States?

CP: In Italy, we had a close relationship between student and worker struggles. The Italian 1968 occurs in a condition of political compression. It took place when the center-left failed in its reformist policy. The opposition movements of both students and workers supported one another but couldn’t find a clear political outlet. In France we see the consequences of the constitutional reform of De Gaulle, opening over time to the prospect of turnover. In Germany, the replacement is prepared politically through the Große Koalition, with Brandt becoming Chancellor. In Italy, however, everything moved forward, up to the attempt in the mid-70s of national solidarity after the advance of the PCI, which was convinced it was indispensable to resolving the crisis. That attempt ended tragically, as we know.

DC: Let’s talk about the decline of Italian unions between 1970 and the Congress of 1997. What is the relationship between the PCI and the CGIL in this period?

CP: The big problem in the relationship of the PCI to the trade unions, but even more importantly, between the unions and the workers, is the difficulty of both the party and the unions to free themselves from the categories they were comfortable with. The reality of work was changing, but the language and strategy of the trade unions and the Communist Party remained the same. One thing we never talk about in Italy is the enormous divisions between public and private sector workers. We have two pension systems, two social security systems. And if anyone points to this gap, we face an uproar. The majority of workers today, and beginning in the 1970s, are employed in services. And yet the party is still talking about the factory. Globalization has meant productive decentralization, the creation of value chains which have divided the factory across distant territories.

One of the critical moments in the relationship between the party, the unions, and the workers was in the mid-1950s, coinciding with investment from the Marshall Plan. This was the defeat of FIOM by FIAT in the internal commission election of 1955. FIOM, which was the CGIL metalworkers’ union, and which had the overwhelming majority of votes, lost. or six years there was no strike at FIAT. I still remember the excitement as a very young militant member of the party when, for the first time in six years, on the occasion of a strike proclaimed by the metalworkers, 20 percent of the workers of FIAT in Mirafiori remained outside the gates on strike. The struggles returned in the 1960s. At that time there had been technical progress and some changes in the organization of work and duties. It was the moment when the CISL, which was the white collar Christian Democratic union, proposed firm level bargaining, while the leftist, Marxist union advocated a federal contract. In this moment the CISL was simply more attuned to changes in the form and structure of work. This was the CGIL’s problem throughout the 1960s, until 1969. The ongoing strikes in 1969–71 gave way to the formation of firm level councils. This was an innovation in the basic organizational form of the union within a company. We also started fighting for new things, healthcare for example. The moment in which we became more closely attuned to the changing nature of work is the moment in which our movement, if only briefly, recovered. The late 1960s to the early 1970s was a period in which production was already being decentralized, before the creation of global value chains.

DC: How do these broad structural changes figure specifically in reforms like Il Divorzio and the ending of the scala mobile, which hitched wages to inflation?

CP: When Johnson decided not to run for reelection, and Nixon arrived, it marked a huge turning point globally. With the opening up to China, the end of Bretton Woods, the new balance of power in the global monetary order, and the oil crisis of the early 70s, the left spoke only of capitalist crisis. But will the crisis of capitalism that we’ve been chasing ever come? In a way, this is the story of the 1970s. We were chasing the fall of capitalism instead of looking at what was there. The innovations in the first phase of decentralization were organizational rather than technological. I was living in Lombardy at the time; there was a reorganization of factories and a decentralization of production which precipitated the introduction of technology.

At this moment the Communist Party and the trade unions ceased to bear a relationship to the reality of workers. We see it with the referendum of 1985, on the scala mobile, which we lost by three million votes. 2,800,000 more people voted yes. Where did these votes come from? In most of the country, they were fairly equally distributed. It was Lombardo-Veneto: Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, and the Tri-Veneto which pushed the referendum. The Communist Party didn’t win because we didn’t understand the changes that were taking place. The union leaders were concerned with preserving their position as a bureaucratic class.

Today the drama is enormous: There is no Communist Party. The problem is one of creative destruction. Capital has been able to reconstitute itself, we have not.

DC: You argue that the PCI wasn’t able to adapt to a changing productive process. But it seems that after the Chilean coup in 1973, and with the development of Eurocommunism, there were efforts to evolve.

CP: Eurocommunism was certainly a positive development, particularly because of its relationship to social democracy. But there were also two negative elements: one is that Berlinguer conceived the crisis of the 1970s, and the Chilean coup, as the first steps in the collapse of capitalism. This, of course, was wrong. The other aspect was that Brezhnev installed missiles in Europe as we adopted Eurocommunism. Really, the problem was in our relationship to the socialists: if they agreed with us, they were useless. If they didn’t agree, they were the enemy.

DC: Between 1989 and 1991 there were some attempts at collaboration between the two parties. And then there was the name change, which ensured there was still a leftist party in Italy after all that happened. We would like to know your opinion on what worked, what did not work, what could have been done differently.

CP: The turning point was not only about changing the name, and it was not primarily initiated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. We initiated the turning point by putting forward two proposals capable of winning, in order to enable competition. The turning point involved a process of unification that would put the Italian left in a position to compete for the government. We aimed to create institutional and electoral infrastructure that would put more power in the hands of the voters. That is why we promoted referendums. Once the Berlin Wall fell, we sped up the process, but we had already decided to join the Socialist International. The effort to unify the Italian left became a rescue operation for the Italian Communist Party.

What failed in all this? The whole substance of the turning point. We failed because of our weaknesses, because of Christian Democratic obtuseness, because of socialist deafness. The fall of the wall was thought to be relevant to the communists, but it was pivotal for the entire country’s future. What happened after that? In 1992, when we could have followed up on the Turning Point, Tangentopoli broke out and we found ourselves without interlocutors. The Socialist Party disappeared, and the same for the Christian Democrats who changed their name.

February 20, 2021


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