Togliatti; drawing by David Levine

Among the early leaders of the Partito Comunista Italiano, Gramsci and Togliatti are names well known outside Italy. Less familiar is the name of Luigi Longo who now heads the party, and barely known at all is Enrico Berlinguer who will probably succeed Longo in three years. The rhetoric of public pronouncements is not easy to penetrate to assess how or whether the new generation has altered the PCI since Togliatti’s death in 1964. Recently, however, there have appeared a few excellent books which, while they do not entirely answer this question, at least explain some of the background to the twelfth party congress which took place a few weeks ago at Bologna.

Donald Blackmer’s book, relying on weapons of Kremlinology, has analyzed in detail the last years of Togliatti’s life. The book by Giorgio Galli of the Istituto Cattaneo contains some brilliant and disturbing comments on the sterile conflict between the two largest Italian parties. Sidney Tarrow’s book shows how the structure and tactics of Communism in the peasant south of Italy depart radically from patterns familiar in the industrial north. Finally, at a more human level, Belden Paulson reproduces some thirty interviews with the inhabitants of a single central-Italian town—interviews with peasants and aristocrats, priests and policemen, communists and fascists—and lets these men and women demonstrate some of the other complexities which make generalization about Italian Communism so hard.

Twenty-five years have now passed since Togliatti arrived back from Moscow and surprised everyone by co-operating with the conservatives in writing a new liberal constitution. His realistic attitude was invaluable in the restoration of democratic government. But in twenty-five years, while Italy has changed unrecognizably, the PCI has lagged behind. Not only did the “economic miracle” happen, in apparent defiance of orthodox Marxist economics, but Pope John created a religious miracle by showing that Catholicism like capitalism was more vital and adaptable than Communist dogma liked to imagine. Togliatti by comparison, for all his tactical skill and essential moderation, could not entirely dissociate himself from the revolutionary and authoritarian myths of the bad old days.

Italian politics are seriously ailing in 1969, and a strong PCI, which now has the backing of one voter in every four, would seem to confront an easy target. The Christian Democrats have ruled Italy for twenty-five years and are answerable for many frustrating failures in government and administration. Because of quarreling factions among the Christian Democrats, twenty-nine cabinets have succeeded one another in this period. Yet outside politics a few privileged groups remain continuously in positions of power from which they block a dozen urgently needed reforms; and here one can cite the failure to modernize the universities and the State bureaucracy, or the prolonged unwillingness to investigate the Sicilian mafia. Thus the disadvantages of instability are combined with the even worse disadvantages of immobilism. As pressure for change mounted during 1968, parliament could decide almost nothing and hence increasingly discredited itself as an organ of government.

Fortunately Fascism in Italy was much more discredited, and so far there are no visible signs of a possible Greek-style coup which could profit from this parliamentary weakness. Nevertheless Tambroni’s brief premiership in 1960 and the scandals over the secret service in 1964 are reminders that there still exist enemies on the Right. Meanwhile the extreme Left, though evidently more anxious to be accepted by the system than to overthrow it, also saw that parliamentary criticism was so ineffectual that there was little point in thinking out practical alternative policies. While revolutionary aspirations are now out of favor in the PCI, the party has still not succeeded in propounding a genuine reformism that might alter the system from within.

Revolution or reform: this has always been the alternative between which the Left must choose. On the one hand is the Leninist in transigence which talks of conquering power, if need be by violence; on the other there is revisionism, the gradualist, democratic acceptance of the parliamentary system. Togliatti and his successors, though they had to go on talking of revolution, in practice thought that reformism offered the best hope for winning power, and no doubt they remembered how a revolutionary position in 1922 had tragically divided the Left and helped Mussolini. Yet they could not all bring themselves to renounce this Leninist past in such a manner as to persuade the doubters about their commitment to non-violent, democratic means. Both Blackmer and Tarrow refer to this as a kind of institutionalized schizophrenia, an identity crisis in which muddle or disingenuousness prevents an unequivocally clear decision between reform and revolution. Togliatti himself used the word doppiezza to describe it. Perhaps it was a necessary ambiguity if the party was to hold together, but it has also helped to keep Communists away from the experience of practical political responsibility except at the level of local government.


This is the more significant in that Communism in Italy seems in many ways so vigorous. No other party is so strongly represented in culture and the arts or has had such an active membership. It is true that members have lately fallen off: at 1,192,000 they are only half what they once were, and 300,000 must have left in the past year. But, against this trend, the non-committed electorate has increasingly seen the party as a protest against the immobilismo of Christian-Democratic government. From six million in 1953, the Communist vote grew to 6,700,000 in 1958, 7,700,000 in 1963, and now 8,500,000 in May 1968, in other words to 26.9 percent of the electorate. These votes are of many kinds. They come not just from the underprivileged, but also from nobles and rich businessmen, some of whom are pious Catholics. As Paulson shows, they reflect the instinct of many who see Communism as the best hope for social justice, for a better life culturally and materially, and even for spiritual fulfillment. Yet these votes are almost entirely wasted in the political life of the country. This fact, in addition to the ambiguous nature of the Communist message itself, Galli describes as among the main deterrents to the modernization of Italian society.

Italian Communism began in 1921 as a break-away movement from Socialism. As late as 1946, Pietro Nenni and the Socialists could still run ahead of Togliatti at the polls, but subsequently their right and left wings broke away. The Communists remained much more united, and no doubt Nenni’s decline reinforced their desire for party solidarity even at the cost of some doctrinal incoherence. On a number of points Togliatti showed a notable flexibility and lack of dogma; indeed many liberals and Nenniani found it hard to forgive the way he once supported Christian Democracy and the illiberal concordat with the Vatican. He realized, and Lenin would surely have agreed, that communist tactics needed radical adaptation in an advanced industrial society where democratic and Catholic traditions were so vigorous, for wherever the proletariat was weak he needed a broader basis of support.

Thus was born what later grew into the via italiana al socialismo, reformist at heart and not tied too closely to Soviet experience. Togliatti deliberately did not exploit the revolutionary situation arising out of partisan action in 1944-5. As a result—though it is hard to remember now—for three years he remained a minister alongside the Christian Democrats in a basically conservative government. Nor did he withdraw voluntarily. It was De Gasperi who, yielding to Vatican and American pressure, expelled the communists from office and polarized what Galli in a now famous phrase called a bipartitismo imperfetto.

Togliatti was essentially a prudent man, anxious not to stray too far from the middle of the road. That was one reason why he failed to lead his party fast enough to accept the new developments in Italy after 1950. Another reason was that, having been in his early life close to Stalin and implicated in some fairly infamous episodes (for example, the mysterious disappearance of the entire leadership of the party in Poland after 1937), he was reluctant to adapt to de-Stalinization in 1956. Over the invasion of Hungary, too, while expressing regret, he broadly supported Soviet Russia. Certainly the events of 1956 were important in pushing him toward his new doctrine of polycentric Communism, but again he was gradual and half-hearted about it. Togliatti wanted to follow rather than to guide events, and liked to balance liberals and conservatives in the party. Because of this indecisiveness, a number of intellectuals deserted him: they saw that the old doctrines about the collapse of capitalism were inadequate, and that a much greater acceptance of “bourgeois” democratic forms would be necessary if Italy was ever going to be reformed. Admittedly, in the “Yalta Memorandum,” which Togliatti wrote for the Russians just before his death, he bravely criticized the undemocratic, illiberal tendencies in Soviet Communism. But to Fabrizio Onofri who left the PCI in 1956, as to Antonio Giolitti who followed him the next year, Togliatti’s via italiana al socialismo fell short of what was needed if Communism was to be a truly democratic and efficient element in politics.

In 1963, when Nenni’s Socialists finally helped to form a center-left government, many observers hoped that at long last Italy had found a durable administration committed to modernizing the structure of the state. But cabinet instability continued; so did procrastination over reforms because of fear that this hybrid coalition might split; so did corrupt machine politics and local boss rule. For this failure the Socialists paid the penalty in the 1968 elections and the disastrous divisions that ruined their party congress last October. Once again the PCI failed to exploit the situation. Giorgio Amendola, who passes for a right-wing Communist, had even made the astonishing suggestion to renounce any residual Leninist doctrines and form a new working-class party which would be neither Communist nor social-democratic. Pietro Ingrao, who is considered a left-of-center Communist, rather preferred a direct dialogue with well-intentioned Catholics, hoping to break up the amorphous coalition of Democrazia Cristiana and so carve a path to political power. Certainly there exist some Christian Democrats and Socialists who might be happier allied to Communism than with the right wings of their own parties. But so far there is no sign here of any imminent escape from the existing political impasse.


In February 1969 the PCI met in congress at Bologna and elected Longo and Berlinguer to party leadership for a three-year term. Much more openness of debate was allowed than ever before in public, but this merely alleviated the symptoms of schizophrenia without effecting a cure. Dominating their discussion was the Soviet occupation of Prague, which had in Longo’s view been a tragic error, and his sympathy for Dubcek—expressed while the Soviet delegation was out of the room having tea—was warmly applauded. However he balanced these words by a tribute to the Soviet Union, and critics did not omit to connect this with the presumption that half his party’s budget still depended on what amounts to a Soviet subsidy.

His main domestic theme was that, without positive help from the Communists, Italy had no possibility of emerging from her present crisis. No single party, not even his own, would suffice by itself. He was ready to set all preconceptions aside and talk to anyone—though, he quickly added, not of course to the renegade Nenni nor to Mariano Rumor and the hardcore Christian Democrats. He frankly acknowledged that some members disagreed with him over what should be done, and he was prepared to give them representation on the party directorate. In case this sounded too liberal, however, he was careful to repeat that the aim was still to “overthrow the existing social and political system in order to win for the workers their rightful place.”

Amendola had a cold reception from the congress, and neither his tubthumping mannerisms nor his commination against dissenters fitted the mood of the day. Ingrao was, however, enthusiastically received, perhaps because of his much more courageously explicit support for the Czechs against a “degenerate” form of socialism. Among various lonely dissenting voices, Ambrogio Donini, a professor of Christian history who stands for the Stalinist rump, advocated full obeisance to the Soviet Union. Donini complained that other delegates had seldom mentioned Lenin; and indeed I think that Longo made history by not quoting once from Lenin in all the eighty-three circulated pages of his speech. Of other non-conformists, the “Chinese left” was not in evidence at the congress, though a rival “Marxist-Leninist conference” was summoned simultaneously by the Maoists in another part of Bologna.

On the other hand, a group known as the “New Left” managed to win a few places on the 171-strong Central Committee. Among them were Luigi Pintor, Rossana Rossanda, and Aldo Natoli, who reminded the delegates that they were a revolutionary party committed to war against the existing system and must not be caught without a plan of revolution as were the French comrades in May 1968. The “New Left” were much more enthusiastic than Longo in supporting student unrest. They were outspoken in their dissociation from Russia, though they struck a discordant note in their impatience with the reformist, compromising positions of the party bureaucracy. The impression was given that they were having a hard fight against the present leadership; but their forth-rightness, their freedom from the dogmas and clichés of the past, as well as their combativeness in debate, mark them as a significant ingredient in the less monolithic and less stereotyped new Italian Communism.

Enrico Berlinguer at forty-seven is also of a new generation not involved with the purges and other crimes of Stalinism. Like Gramsci he is a Sardinian. For the last seven years he has been in charge of the party bureaucracy, and so far he has shown himself an organizer, not a theoretician. Like Togliatti, he knows that the best place to command is from the center; or perhaps one should say a shade left of center, since the consensus of the congress showed a perceptible move away from Amendola. Like both Longo and Togliatti, Berlinguer has considerable skill in saying something and its virtual opposite at the same time. While repudiating any hint of anti-Sovietism, he knows that the invasion of Czechoslovakia makes too close an adherence to the Soviet line an electoral embarrassment. The Russian way of Socialism, he therefore said at Bologna, “is unrepeatable, as anyone with a genuine historical sense would know.”

The PCI, Berlinguer said, is now mature enough to stand on its own feet. It must therefore assert its “full autonomy” and must recognize that some “negative elements” exist in Soviet Russia. He was obliged to agree that the PCI was still a revolutionary party, but he also criticized Pintor for not seeing that Lenin and Gramsci could provide quotations for playing down as well as for playing up revolutionary notions of class struggle. Moreover, the new orthodoxy must allow free discussion and respect for other views inside the party.

The Bologna congress can hardly have satisfied many people, for it fudged the issues and spent more energy over preserving party unity than in analyzing a single one of Italy’s problems today. It is therefore possible to think that the PCI is still largely irrelevant to practical politics. Moreover, many voters still believe, perhaps against the balance of evidence, that the participation of Communists in government would mean the end of democratic parliamentarism. Short of some external catastrophe it is hard to see how the extreme Left could even win an election in the future, and any further increase in their vote runs the risk of triggering off a right-wing revolution, which might be the worst of all possible worlds. Just possibly, however, the ineffectualness of the Christian Democrats, especially if their Socialist allies split again, might create such a vacuum of power that a true popular front may one day emerge. Possibly a Christian-Democrat leader—the name of a former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, comes to mind—may see a chance of out-maneuvering his rival colleagues by bringing the PCI within reach of a government coalition; and in this connection it is worth noting that the “Nazi-maoists” among the students already regard the PCI as having sold out to the bourgeois reactionaries.

But if Longo should enter a coalition on the wrong terms, even perhaps on any terms, he would risk losing his party’s potential force, and that no doubt is why some of his enemies speak so seductively. Reformism may thus seem in his eyes quite as dangerous a policy as revolution: hence the chances are that he will continue to blur the issues and try to appear more revolutionary than in fact he is.

This in turn may possibly lead to the splitting off of a substantial reformist group. The PCI’s 26.9 percent vote, as both Tarrow and Paulson demonstrate very persuasively, represents a fragile union of miscellaneous discontents and could easily disintegrate. It would need only another event like the invasion of Czechoslovakia to cause a major defection; but then, too, the same effect might be caused by nothing more startling than a new center-left government with a true commitment to reform. Perhaps Communism will thus perform its most useful service for Italy by frightening the conservatives into more liberal government. If this fails in the immediate future—and all these years of talk without action leave one pessimistic—perhaps we must fall back with Giorgio Galli on the long run conclusion that in, say, fifteen or twenty years, the PCI may develop by gradual self-emancipation into a party of government once again, or at least into a party which might add a new, positive ingredient to Italian politics. Much of the social energies of Italy are at present bottled up in this still too static, and now perhaps even anachronistic, party. Somehow these energies must be released if a dynamic society is to be created. The trouble is that the long run is not nearly soon enough.

This Issue

May 8, 1969