The right wing can hardly conceal their glee over the rout suffered by the Italian left in the recent general election. For the first time since 1945 there will be no communists in the Italian parliament. This is being put forward as further evidence that socialism is doomed.
Italy matters for the left. The biggest single trade union protest in this decade was in Rome, as was the biggest of all the marches against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Mass protests in Genoa against the G8 summit seven years ago galvanised the anti-capitalist movement across Europe.
Rifondazione Comunista, the radical party at the centre of those events, has some 80,000 members.
Two years ago it joined a grand coalition with the centre left to narrowly squeeze right wing media magnate Silvio Berlusconi from office.
The leadership of Rifondazione argued that if Berlusconi won the 2006 election it would represent a fundamental threat to democracy and that an alliance with those who espoused free market policies was needed to stop him.
The centre left took office with Romano Prodi’s government, with the slimmest possible majority. Rather than offer critical support, Rifondazione, the smaller Italian Communist Party and the Greens joined the new government.
For all those who repeatedly argue we have to back New Labour come what may to defeat the likes of Boris Johnson, there is a hard lesson here.
Because the slim majority relied on single votes in parliament, the radical left found itself under immense pressure to loyally vote to keep the centre left in office.
People’s hopes of the new government were not great but they did not expect it to preside over a fall in wages, a mushrooming of precarious employment (no contracts, no rights) and higher taxes.
The government did withdraw troops from Iraq but fully committed Italy to the Nato occupation of Afghanistan and the wider “war on terror”.
The most visible symbol of Italy’s woes was the piles of rubbish rotting on the streets of Naples.
The environment minister responsible for the refuse crisis was a member of the Greens and is now under investigation for accepting gifts from companies involved in removing the waste.
When the government finally had to call an election, the centre left broke with the radical left to stand against Berlusconi on their own.
Their stated aim was to move Italy towards a two party system with the centre left and the right both accepting a free market agenda.
Rifondazione, the Italian Communists and the Greens united in the Rainbow Left to fight the recent election, dusting off the radical language of previous years. But they could not escape the contamination of being in office.
On election day the Rainbow Left was routed on a massive scale. Two years ago the Italian Communists, the Greens and Rifondazione got 3,800,000 votes.
In this election their combined vote collapsed to 1,000,000 – down from just over 10 percent to 3.5 percent. To gain seats in parliament you have to obtain more than 4 percent of the total vote.
Last weekend the political committee of Rifondazione met. The general secretary’s strategy which centred on ending the party and submerging it within an ongoing Rainbow Alliance was defeated by 98 votes to 70.
The whole matter will now be discussed at a national congress in July.
Whatever the outcome, this is evidence of a growing debate on the left, in the unions and the social movements on how they go forward.
There is still a large left in Italy and there are strikes and protests.
The left needs to unite now to build activity outside parliament. At the same time it needs to discuss and assess the way forward.
But one thing is clear – the decision to join a free market government was a mistake that must never be repeated.