Beppe Severgnini talks to Walter Veltroni, the man who wants to turn Italy's ex-communist party into an American-style democraticc partyby Beppe Severgnini / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Walter Veltroni attracts comparisons. He has been described as a Mediterranean Tony Blair, an Italian Clinton and a 1990s Robert Kennedy-his political idol. Officially, Veltroni is a double “number two”: he is Romano Prodi’s deputy in the Italian centre left coalition (Ulivo) and Massimo D’Alema’s right hand man in the post-communist Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the largest party in the coalition. In both cases, Veltroni’s immediate future will be decided on April 21st, when Italy holds its third general election in four years. But irrespective of their political beliefs most Italians agree that 40-year-old Veltroni is the best thing the Italian left has produced in a long time. Soft spoken, with a passion for button-down shirts, the internet and American films (including Forrest Gump), he looks more like a young Harvard professor than a leader of what was, until 1989, the largest communist party in western Europe. After the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) changed its name to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS)-and lost the 1994 general election (won by Silvio Berlusconi’s centre right coalition)-Veltroni was chosen as new leader by the party’s rank and file; but the cadres preferred D’Alema, and they had the last word. At 38, Veltroni took the decision philosophically. He wrote a best-seller,
La Bella Politica, and became the champion of buonismo, a new concept that sums up everything the young politician believes in: transcending aggressive and confrontational politics; accepting that the left must respect its opponents and gain the trust of the middle class. At present, Veltroni’s main job is to edit l’Unita, the PDS’s newspaper, whose offices are nestled in Via dei Due Macelli, a narrow street in the centre of Rome. Beppe Severgnini, a columnist on Corriere della Sera, talked to him there about the need to complete the modernisation of the Italian left. Some of his comments, particularly his hostility to the PDS’s election partners on the hard left, are certain to cause ripples in the run up to the election.
Q In Italy elections are coming up again. In Britain too there will be elections soon. What are the characteristics of an “electable European left”?
A Looking at the programmes of Tony Blair, Jacques Delors, and our own Ulivo, the points of similarity are clear: we speak the same language, see the same trends, and present the same proposals. The characteristics of the “electable left,” as you call it, are the following: first, possessing a liberal outlook; second, being prepared to accept the challenge that events present; third, knowing how to project yourself into the future. One of the tragedies of the left has been its ties to the past. Traditionally, the left has been far better at defending past glories than at constructing an innovative future. The difficulty for the left is to view the world as changing and expanding.
Q Some people say that you remind them of Tony Blair. Blair has certainly studied Bill Clinton. Clinton has been inspired by the Kennedys, and the Kennedys-as can be seen from the photograph behind you-are your political idols. The circle is closed and the personalities merge. Why does the left believe it can win with these ideas and these leaders?
A For many years, a very strong ideological element has been prevailing in the left. This was evident in the Mediterranean left, but also (although in a more moderate form) in the Anglo-Saxon left. Personalities such as George McGovern and Jesse Jackson were radicals. They represented a strand within the left well suited to ideological debate, but not to government. Things are changing now. New horizons have opened for the Italian left now that we have become more amenable to a democratic and liberal outlook. Recent Anglo-Saxon experience has taught us the idea of politics as the intertwining of a programme and a vision. That is to say: I answer your specific problem, and at the same time I offer you a vision of what the country might be. It seems clear to me that this is the only kind of left which can win; not the left which sees politics and strategy as a game, as a complicated web of alliances. In France, Lionel Jospin lost. In Germany, the SPD lost. Tony Blair, however, can win. We in Italy can win. And Bill Clinton can certainly win again in November.
Q Don’t you think that this left needs to rid itself of the “other left,” even if it does so in a politically bloody way? While the face of Britain’s Labour party was Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, it was unelectable. In France, the left won when it succeeded in swallowing George Marchais’ Communists. Don’t you think that, whatever the niceties of electoral strategy, the hard left-despite its romanticism-should be wiped out?
A Yes, I think it should. The left has two cores: one ideological and one governmental. In Italy, the first has been dominant. The nature of this left is such that it cannot govern; it is radical for its own sake. It is necessary to break with this radical left if one is to gain credibility as a governing force. Every temptation to indulge in the past must be resisted. I have been the butt of many insults because, to the question “Who was right-the communists or the anti-communists?” I have replied: in my opinion, if the choice is between democratic anti-communism and communism in practice, I will choose the former every time. It seemed obvious to me. And yet I have been attacked and derided in il Manifesto [Italy’s hard left daily newspaper]. But I shouldn’t need to say that Brezhnev was wrong and Solzenitzyn was right. It’s crystal clear. It’s obvious that, wherever governments rule, those who have wanted democracy, parliament and freedom of the press have been in the right. Dear God, there shouldn’t even be a need to say it. But there is. Mainly because there are deep roots in the left and they need to be dug out. This can be done in two ways: we can either become centrist and deny that the left exists; or we can say that an alternative left is possible. An alternative left that is seen not only in Clinton, Delors or Blair, but also in Nelson Mandela. Between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I have no doubt that I would choose Martin Luther King. I think that either we make it to government or, frankly, we might as well join Marxist reading clubs, sit under posters of Che Guevara and sing Chilean songs from the 1970s.
Q The Italian left is still associated with a statist and welfarist economic policy. But are you not gradually coming over to our side-the side that believes in the market and individual opportunity? It’s my impression that the intelligent European left understands that the great welfare plans of the past are no longer feasible: the money has run out.
A That’s certainly true. There are many problems that have only one solution, not two. On many pressing structural questions of our time, there now exists a similarity of views. However, just as there are two “lefts,” so there are also two “rights.” There is the reasonable right of The Economist; and there is the right of Newt Gingrich and Steve Forbes. The 17 per cent flat tax, for example, could unleash a social revolution. In Britain, there’s the right of John Major; there’s also the more extreme right of Michael Portillo.
Q The left has had to withstand some incredible blows. And it seems to me that you-the leaders of the new left-are “children of defeat.” At first, the more defeats for the left the better it was for you revisionists. The British Labour party had to lose four times before the path opened up for Blair. In the US, the Democrats lost three elections in a row before picking the young governor of Arkansas. In Italy, the left…
A …has lost them all.
Q Aren’t you embarrassed to be…
A … the product of so many defeats? Look, the left wanted those defeats. It lost because it wanted to lose. Let me give you concrete examples. I have cited Jesse Jackson and George McGovern. At election time they presented themselves to the public and said: “We want to lead a band-wagon which unites drop-outs and Hispanics, blacks and feminists.” But a caravan is not a majority; and instead it guaranteed a landslide defeat. The same thing happened in Italy. The left has never wanted to work together to govern, otherwise the PDS would have been born earlier. The opportunity for the PDS was to break with the philosophy of opposition that epitomised the Italian left, and to contribute to the construction of a bipolar political system which fits a European model. So, yes, it is true: all these defeats have created the conditions needed to construct a clear identity.
Q Describe this “clear identity.”
A As a young man, I remember being taken for a fool whenever I mentioned my admiration for Kennedy. When, in 1992, I went to the US to follow the Democratic Convention, I became enthusiastic once again and said Bill Clinton would win: again, I was thought to be mad. That is the left I like. Today the old distinctions-the right wants a free market, the left nationalisation-no longer exist. Paradoxically, part of the right is more statist than the left. In Italy, Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance party is a statist party, with an inclination to defend the public sector.
Q Is this the reason why the financial world seems to have more faith in the Italian centre left than in the centre right?
A For this reason, and because we have assured them of stability. The right is quarrelsome and creates uncertainty in the markets. All things considered, we govern well; we have shown this in the cities and the regions. We give an impression-and I hope it corresponds to reality-of seriousness and rigour. The right doesn’t. The Italian right is not like Jacques Chirac’s right. It’s a strange mixture; one part MSI [Movimento Sociale Italiano, the name of Fini’s neo-fascist party before it changed its name], one part first republic. It has a Peronist bent rather than a European one: twisting away from the rules of the game, with an economic populism, some demagoguery and an authoritarian spirit. Against all of this, the centre left offers a guarantee of stability.
Q The title of your book is “La Bella Politica.” How would you translate that into English?
A Perhaps “High Politics.” A more literal translation might be better: “The Beautiful Politics.” I am convinced of this: politics must once again become bella. People today want values. The disappearance of values from politics has brought with it a collective depression. There is a need for oxygen. When we were children, the governing class had many defects; but it possessed authority. It had led the resistance, it had chased out the Nazis, it had fought a war. So when it said “it is necessary to pay tax,” it had some right to do so. Today we need to retrieve that sort of moral authority. And if we can’t construct it on ideas, then on what else?
Q These are praiseworthy aims. But surely the left must be a little more concrete? An example: returning here from living in the US, I was struck by the fact that the Italians, like the Americans, desperately want to simplify their lives. In Italy, it takes 13 documents, 90 days and 640,000 lire to get hold of a car registration log book. In the UK you only need ten days, one document and it’s all free. Why doesn’t the left fight on these issues instead of leaving the field free to the right?
A One of the most important objectives of the left will be to give time back to the people. In Italy we have 150,000 laws; you only need 10,000. It’s been calculated that 60 hours a month are lost through bureaucratic problems; two and a half days a month, in front of what I call “counter number 16.” This is why I love technological innovation; it allows us to solve these problems.
Q You are among the few Italians who not only talks about the internet, but actually uses it. Is this interest in computers -another thing you have in common with Blair-personal, or does it represent a new “school of thought” on the left?
A In today’s newspapers I read: “People on the internet are from the left.” If that it so, I’m happy. The left is being forced to think forward. From this point of view, Clinton and Al Gore have been very important because they have projected the image of the left-as-future. Before, the left was only “history.” But we must take care not to exaggerate: the idea that the internet will put “the world at your finger-tips” does not correspond to reality.
Q The Italian left still suffers from many rigidities. Take its defence of the right to work. Companies can no longer dismiss an incompetent worker and take on a good one. Is this what the left wants? Protect the incompetent, while blocking the progress of the young? Do you feel that, in this field, the left can do things that the right finds impossible?
A Yes. In Italy the left has been able to reform the pension system; something the right could not do. It was able to reach an agreement on labour costs. This is because we are seen as a protector of the weakest sections of society. It’s important, then, that the left doesn’t act slyly and, once in government, behave like the right. This is why I like Clinton and why I liked the Kennedys, Brandt and Palme. They took office, and governed true to their own convictions.
Q Haven’t some laws governing work-I am thinking of the Workers’ Statute-become “sacred cows” for the left?
A Yes, we probably need to put our minds to updating aspects of the labour market. At the same time we must strike a balance between the need to liberalise and the wild liberalism of the US. In the US, if a business closes, it is the blue-collar worker who loses everything.
Q However, the American “blue-collar” worker can hope to find another job. In Italy, more often than not, if you lose a job it’s like falling from a train.
A When the left fought to defend public companies in financial difficulties, it was wrong. It should have concentrated instead on the professional retraining of workers in expanding parts of the economy. The state, rather than just protecting and guarding, should be enabling. I like the idea of the state as creating opportunities for other players rather than being a player itself. For years, however, the state has been a player-playing with IRI [the state holding company], playing with the national health system, playing with everything.
Q In Britain the buzz word is “stakeholder society.” In the US, people such as Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama talk of civil society. Can we Italians ever succeed in developing a healthy civil society? Or is it right that “Italians are not a nation; just a collection of individuals?”
A Italy has lost the collective bonds needed to hold a community together. This is an Italian tragedy. We need to redistribute power within society.
Q What is the Veltronian translation of civil society?
A Diffused power.
Q Two personal questions to finish with. Why this passion for the Kennedys? And why Bob instead of Jack?
A I come from a family of democratic traditions, not communist ones. I came across the Kennedy philosophy as a child. The tale of two young, rich men with all their women was not enough for me. So I set out to read what they were writing and doing. I ended up writing a book about Robert Kennedy-I was fascinated by the political language he used.
Q What about your own ambitions? Look at Blair: he is the prophet of your brand of left wing politics; if he wins, he will govern. Given his inspiration, shouldn’t you, Walter Veltroni-leader of today-be prime minister tomorrow?
A Blair can do it in a two-party structure; it’s more difficult in a bipolar one. However, I do have a dream in my life: that in Italy, we can succeed in creating something like the Democratic party in the US. It won’t be ready for the next elections; but perhaps it will be for the following ones.
Q So for your dream to come true, the “child of defeat” needs just one more? (Veltroni laughs.)