Interview. The former head of the Italian Communist Party spoke with former manifesto editor Norma Rangeri on the 30 anniversary of Berlusconi’s rise to power.

Achille Occhetto: If Trump wins, we can say goodbye to Western democracy

This interview with Achille Occhetto, the last secretary of the Italian Communist Party, will be aired on Wednesday, January 31 at 9 p.m. Italy time on our website, The manifesto TV project has been warmly welcomed and financially supported by our readers. “We were so hated” is the title of the program dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Berlusconi’s “descent into the field” and his legacy in today’s Italy, ruled by the far right.


Secretary, everyone remembers that historic one-on-one clash in the Canale5 TV studio. At one point, Berlusconi came out with his promise of one million jobs. It was the first fake news, the first swindle of Berlusconism.

As I said back then, after that encounter – and no one believed me – we were at the start of a new phase of politics: not so much the transition from the First to the Second Republic, as some have called it, but rather the transition from a republic of parties to a republic of populism. That was the first example of populist communication. Think about it: on that show, I was working hard to explain that we (including we on the left) needed to move from an old statist view to a new relationship between the public and the private, in which, of course, there would be a pre-eminence of the public sphere, but it would also transform the private sphere. And then I hear this guy say: “I’ll give Italian citizens a million more jobs.” What was I supposed to say to that? Fight populism with populism: “I’ll give them 1.5 million!”? This is clearly the point where the difficulty in communication arises between political thought and populist fake news.

After 30 years, instead of Berlusconi, we’ve got the government of Giorgia Meloni. Is the current right-wing stronger than the one back then? And if so, why?

I don’t know whether it’s stronger, because Berlusconi lasted for a long time, although in a framework that wasn’t yet hard-right at that point. Today we’ve got something very new, for which Berlusconi was only the sorcerer’s apprentice: the element of deception — that is, his supposed liberal revolution, which fooled many people back then — is now gone. Instead of that, we’ve got the hard-right, which has greater strength if we measure that by the degree of violence in communication, but probably has feet of clay. I don’t think it can last as long as Berlusconism lasted in Italy.

Was the political class of those times more politically qualified than the one we have today?

It certainly was, everywhere; and, we must admit, even in the Berlusconian sphere. Precisely because Berlusconi showed many different personas over time: the law-and-order one, the nationalist one represented by the alliance with the MSI, and the one who tears down the state, in his alliance with the Lega. And especially that of the social paladin of a supposed liberal revolution, which fooled even highly respectable people, such as Antonio Martino. I kept my appreciation for him and would later become his friend; not coincidentally, he was one of those who ended up abandoning Berlusconi.

Among the thinking people who were fooled, I remember there was even an intellectual of the stature of Lucio Colletti…

Even the radicals fell for it.

Thirty years later, instead of Occhetto and Berlusconi, we have Elly Schlein and Giorgia Meloni as protagonists. Two women: a profound and radical anthropological change, a sign of our times. But is it all as positive as it seems? Is this a change destined to last?

It’s an important historical fact that there are now two women at the top of Italian politics. Of course, it’s not all rosy; we have to evaluate it according to the behavior it is engendering. Because the very fact that we’re talking most of all about a clash between two women is something anti-feminist: it resembles a ghettoization of women, who are deemed to be able to speak from a position that is not part of the general spectrum of politics. The decisive indicator will be whether these women will be able to bring feminism to the government of the country, which would mean not accepting to enter the male power system built on their exclusion. And I’d like to stress right away that this should start from one essential point: fighting the trend of personalization and leaderism.

Let’s look at our camp. Compared to 30 years ago, in the days of the Ulivo alliance, when there was a broad and complex field, is it a weaker one now that we have the PD, M5S and smaller forces?

To start with, theoretically at least, I’d say the current field is stronger compared to the voting potential of ’94. We have a broader area available for an alternative, which, however, manifests itself concretely in the political ability to federate this area, as people say nowadays. Not so much in terms of certain programmatic differences, although these are clearly not irrelevant, but more in terms of the fact that for the upcoming elections, there is more of an attempt to put up a fight within coalitions rather than fulfill the need for a unified perspective.

But why is it that the right always manages to march together, even when divided (as in the clash over the regional elections), while the left seems doomed to perennial division?

The right-right is more realistic and more cynical. When it’s time to bring the fight to their opponent, they are more willing to put aside internal divisions and unite. You wouldn’t hear on the right the nonsense I keep hearing on the left that you should never “fight against,” but “for” something. The right is willing to fight “against,” because the battle “against” also contains the battle “for,” and that’s something the left doesn’t understand: you should certainly respect different perspectives, but there are historical moments when the “against” contains positive potential within itself. So, in that case, you have to be willing to put aside what divides and privilege what unites.

Among the things that are dividing the PD from the M5S is the position on the war in Ukraine, and there is turmoil about that within the PD as well.

It is a division that we can hope is only tied to a particular period, because on the other dramatic issue, that of Israel and Palestine, we don’t see the division showing up. On Ukraine, a way out needs to be found, which is not the same as scrupulously restoring the status quo before. The left could come together around this perspective, because it has a lot to say about a new international order. All it would take is for people to understand that no one in Europe has any influence at this point on the issue of the war, but Europe can have influence by offering another vision of the world. Just change the subject, which so far has been used to generate division.

We are quickly approaching the crucial European elections. It’s a time of high drama, with ongoing wars as well as elections halfway around the world, from the United States to Russia. Have we reached a turning point?

Unfortunately, we’re not grasping the fact that these are decisive elections. If Europe shifts its political axis to the right, against the backdrop of the U.S. elections bringing Trump to power, we can say goodbye to Western democracy: liberal democracy will shrink more and more, surrounded by authoritarian powers both to the east and west. Europe must understand that there is a crisis of liberal democracy right now. Clearly, we need to make a serious change in the democracy we have, but going in the opposite direction from that of personalization, of direct election of the prime minister. We should move in the direction of active citizenship, of popular participation, of a more intense democratic relationship with the people, with the general population. That’s why I’ve got this to say to them: you are being irresponsible if you think that this election campaign should be used to give a measure of the power relations within the various parties and between them. You don’t understand the historical danger that we are facing. You are all being irresponsible before history.

Speaking of petty issues: should Secretary Schlein run for office?

I quite agree with Prodi’s advice. However, I want to say that I am not willing to go along with the mainstream hypocrisy that pretends not to see that those who are attacking Schlein today are not motivated by principle, but by their own interests. As someone put it, if she runs, she loses, and if she doesn’t run, she still loses, because they will say she didn’t have the courage. Instead, I’m saying that there is a simple way out for her: ask your own party. Maybe not to such a grassroots level, as there’s no time. Put a very practical question before them: would it be worth it? I can’t say whether it would be or not; I’m not in the game. But one has to understand to what extent one could violate a principle that says (as is only right) that one cannot run for office and then not take up that office. On the other hand, to put it bluntly, if this was the trump card to defeat Meloni, I would have no hesitation. You have to calculate the costs and benefits.

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