Commentary. There are two souls of the Democratic Party: One is critical of the capitalist model and one defends it. No one is asking Bonaccini and Schlein to have a philosophical debate over the relevance of Marx. But the underlying issues need to be addressed head-on.

Bonaccini, Schlein and the differences swept under the rug

What is the difference between Elly Schlein and Stefano Bonaccini? And, most importantly: why are the two main candidates for the leadership of the PD both avoiding giving an answer to this question, which is run-of-the-mill for a political race for party leadership? Sunday’s talk shows raised some eyebrows: he was on In Onda on La7, she was in Fazio’s salon on Raitre. Both wanted to sidestep this crucial question.

Of course, there is the matter of fair play, entirely understandable among those who governed the same region together until a few weeks ago. Also legitimate is the desire not to sharpen the tone of the confrontation, to dispel the risks of a split in the party. It seems he is deflecting because he wants to be a big-tent candidate, as he feels he has the upper hand, at least among the membership. She, on the other hand, wants to reassure her followers she intends to lead despite having only joined the PD recently: “I am not a Martian.”

And yet, the current situation of the party makes their reluctance to answer this question hard to understand. Goffredo Bettini explained in his latest book that two souls coexist in the PD: one that is critical of the capitalist model and one that defends it, wanting to make small redistributive adjustments but without inconveniencing anyone at the top.

This divide is obvious to any observer, and it has also influenced the debate in the committee of 100 that is supposed to rewrite the party’s manifesto of values. Figures such as Orlando, Cuperlo, Speranza and political scientist Nadia Urbinati have talked at length about the fact that the PD was born in something like another geological era, completely lacking the tools to deal with an economic and social crisis such as the current one. In their reading, it’s a party that is good as a lynchpin for governments of national unity and little more.

Others have pushed back against this thesis, bringing valid arguments of their own: they claim everything works as it is, that only minor tweaks are needed, that Veltroni’s 2007 framework has not lost its propulsive thrust: the party’s unity of reformisms, its interclass vocation, the pact among producers that would turn social conflict into a gala lunch. These are two politically legitimate positions: in France, for instance, they’re represented by Mélenchon and Macron, but the two are political opponents, not party comrades.

Enrico Letta was the latest PD secretary to try to make the “but also” policy survive: as his deputies, he chose the liberal Irene Tinagli and labor-oriented Peppe Provenzano. He defended the Draghi government as the best one possible and then presented voters with an outspokenly leftist program on labor issues. He supported the hyper-Atlanticist line on Ukraine, and also took to the streets for peace. It didn’t work.

Out of this defeat came an urgent need for clarity, something almost everyone agrees with, or at least pays lip service to: the need to choose a clear line and profile. Which does not mean kicking out the liberals (or the socialists), but doing as the great European progressive parties do: at the party congress, one line wins out and the others remain in the minority, as Corbyn had to do in the years of Blairism. On the other hand, the PD is so fragile that it cannot afford to choose, because the bigwigs are afraid that the pot will boil over. However, under fire from both Calenda and Conte, the time for “but also” is over.

No one is asking Bonaccini and Schlein to have a philosophical debate over the relevance of Marx. But the underlying issues need to be addressed head-on. Not least because there are indeed some differences between them: it is clear that she stands among the critics of the current model of development, and that she is the one who speaks out more clearly against inequality and precariousness (we still have to wait for the concrete proposals).

It is equally clear that she’s looking more closely towards the M5S and leftist forces, while he is more in tune with Calenda and Renzi, as he stresses the need for enterprise “that creates wealth, otherwise there is nothing to redistribute,” albeit in a more social-oriented vein. The two won’t point out such differences, however. When Schlein was asked, she quipped: “The differences between us? The hair and the beard.” Later, when she was asked again, she said: “We should have a public debate to bring out the differences.” He said, “You will never hear me criticize Elly, who is my friend. I’m fed up with a ruling class that wages war at home.”

All she would offer was that she doesn’t accept the old “reformist vs. radical” opposition, and then she switched to talking about how the Meloni government is neglecting issues such as precariousness and the climate. Even the mild-mannered Fazio had to press her: “Yes, but I asked you about Bonaccini…” He got nothing. In order to understand where they intend to stake out different positions, one has to read between the lines: he points to the “experience” of those who have governed the local party and the region for years; she stresses the greater “credibility” of a new generation.

There is little point in reminding the two contenders that in the U.S. primaries are supposed to draw blood, something that even the moderate Prodi stressed to the two candidates in the 2021 race for mayor of Bologna. Instead, these primaries are all milk and honey, and chatting over a hearty meal. All this treacly sweetness could end up sweeping under the rug, once again, the deep divisions that exist in the PD. And it leads one to suspect that the “but also” approach will be alive and well after February 19. He could be the secretary and she could be his deputy. Or vice versa. What’s the difference, anyway?

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