The dissolution of the Italian Communist Party (1991)

Twenty years ago what was once a mighty Communist Party of nearly two million members, the Italian PCI, was dissolved and was transformed into the Democratic Party of the Left, later to become the Democratic Party. In the process the party split in two, with those opposing this change setting up the Party of Communist Refoundation. This article by Roberto Sarti of the Editorial Board of Falcemartello looks at how this came about and draws some lessons for today’s communists.

At its 20th Congress, held in Rimini at the beginning of 1991, the Italian Communist Party was officially dissolved. The majority of the delegates decided to found the Democratic Party of the Left, while a part of the minority that had opposed the change in name was to form Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation).

The Rimini congress was the final act in a bitter, intense debate that had begun on 12 November 1989 in Bolognina, a workers’ district of Bologna, when the then PCI Secretary, Achille Occhetto, had announced that the party was to change its name. That fourteen-month debate marked a watershed for the labour movement and the left in Italy and we are still paying its consequences today. At the same time a geological era seems to have gone by since those events. The memories of those events presented in the media are confusing and deliberately mystifying.

We shall leave aside the version of the sponsors of that turn, who saw it as a necessary salvation that was eventually to end up with the creation of the present Democratic Party (PD), because we believe the results speak for themselves. However, to the left of the PD we find an uncritical assessment of the history of the PCI up to the Bolognina turn, according to whom in order to restore the fortunes of the party all that was required was not to abandon the so-called “happy insights” of the “second Berlinguer”, i.e. Berlinguer as he was following the end of the historic compromise. [Note: the “historic compromise” refers to the policy adopted by the Berlinguer leadership of the Communist Party in the mid-1970s that eventually led the party to providing support and collaboration with the minority Christian Democratic government as it imposed severe austerity measures in the wake of the 1974 recession].

Others believe the party line to have been basically correct – apart from a few over-moderate positions in the period of the historic compromise – until it was buried by a handful of traitors led by Achille Occhetto. This position fits well with the idea that today “one big communist party” would be all that would be required to solve the problems of the left in Italy.

So what actually happened in those years? Would it have been possible to save the PCI? These are very important questions, because an understanding of our history, without reservations or sentimental nostalgia about the past, is fundamental to our orientation in the present. What we have to understand is that the difficulties of the Italian Communist Party did not start in 1989, but were rooted much farther back in time.

The 1970s

Enrico BerlinguerEnrico Berlinguer In the 1970s the PCI reached its all-time maximum electorally: 34.4% in the 1976 general election (12,600,000 votes, 3 million more than in the previous election in 1972). Membership also saw a similarly sharp increase, with over 1,800,000 in the same year (300,000 more than in 1970).

This was clearly due to the huge workers’ mobilizations, which from the 1969 “hot autumn” onwards had catapulted the working class to the role of the main protagonist in Italian politics. Millions of those workers and youth, after achieving enormous conquests in terms of trade union rights and welfare, drew the conclusion that a political change was necessary and thus turned to the PCI. However, this party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, frustrated those very same expectations. Already in 1973 Berlinguer had outlined the essential points of a new policy, the “historic compromise”, i.e. that it would be impossible for the left parties to govern even if they won 51% of the vote. The concept of the policy of national solidarity was that “the Communist Party, as the organiser of the working class, the general class, is called on to place the general interests of the country at the centre of its struggle” (Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer [Life of Enrico Berlinguer], L’Unità-Laterza, Rome 1992, p. 292).

To guarantee these “general interests”, a government with the Christian Democracy was envisaged, to “impose a new turn on society and the state”.

It is generally believed that this “national solidarity” policy, as it was known, had been worked out by Berlinguer as a result of the Chilean events, the coup against Allende that took place on 11 September 1973. The Chilean Christian Democrats supported Pinochet’s actions, revealing anything but a democratic nature, in spite of Berlinguer’s analysis. However, reflection on the need for a change in line had begun in the party some time before this. Gerardo Chiaromonte, one of the main representatives of the party’s “right wing” around Giorgio Amendola, had already outlined the essential features of the new Berlinguer line in May of that year, in a series of editorials in the Rinascita magazine [the then political and theoretical weekly organ of the Italian Communist Party].

Thus the tragic events in Chile were used to launch a proposal that the party leadership had already been discussing during the delicate phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which they claimed that it was impossible for a left turn to take place in Italian politics.

Enrico BerlinguerEnrico Berlinguer In the 1970s the PCI reached its all-time maximum electorally: 34.4% in the 1976 general election (12,600,000 votes, 3 million more than in the previous election in 1972). Membership also saw a similarly sharp increase, with over 1,800,000 in the same year (300,000 more than in 1970).

This was clearly due to the huge workers’ mobilizations, which from the 1969 “hot autumn” onwards had catapulted the working class to the role of the main protagonist in Italian politics. Millions of those workers and youth, after achieving enormous conquests in terms of trade union rights and welfare, drew the conclusion that a political change was necessary and thus turned to the PCI. However, this party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, frustrated those very same expectations. Already in 1973 Berlinguer had outlined the essential points of a new policy, the “historic compromise”, i.e. that it would be impossible for the left parties to govern even if they won 51% of the vote. The concept of the policy of national solidarity was that “the Communist Party, as the organiser of the working class, the general class, is called on to place the general interests of the country at the centre of its struggle” (Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer [Life of Enrico Berlinguer], L’Unità-Laterza, Rome 1992, p. 292).

To guarantee these “general interests”, a government with the Christian Democracy was envisaged, to “impose a new turn on society and the state”.

It is generally believed that this “national solidarity” policy, as it was known, had been worked out by Berlinguer as a result of the Chilean events, the coup against Allende that took place on 11 September 1973. The Chilean Christian Democrats supported Pinochet’s actions, revealing anything but a democratic nature, in spite of Berlinguer’s analysis. However, reflection on the need for a change in line had begun in the party some time before this. Gerardo Chiaromonte, one of the main representatives of the party’s “right wing” around Giorgio Amendola, had already outlined the essential features of the new Berlinguer line in May of that year, in a series of editorials in the Rinascita magazine [the then political and theoretical weekly organ of the Italian Communist Party].

Thus the tragic events in Chile were used to launch a proposal that the party leadership had already been discussing during the delicate phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which they claimed that it was impossible for a left turn to take place in Italian politics.

PCI members at a demonstrationEnrico Berlinguer In the 1970s the PCI reached its all-time maximum electorally: 34.4% in the 1976 general election (12,600,000 votes, 3 million more than in the previous election in 1972). Membership also saw a similarly sharp increase, with over 1,800,000 in the same year (300,000 more than in 1970).

This was clearly due to the huge workers’ mobilizations, which from the 1969 “hot autumn” onwards had catapulted the working class to the role of the main protagonist in Italian politics. Millions of those workers and youth, after achieving enormous conquests in terms of trade union rights and welfare, drew the conclusion that a political change was necessary and thus turned to the PCI. However, this party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, frustrated those very same expectations. Already in 1973 Berlinguer had outlined the essential points of a new policy, the “historic compromise”, i.e. that it would be impossible for the left parties to govern even if they won 51% of the vote. The concept of the policy of national solidarity was that “the Communist Party, as the organiser of the working class, the general class, is called on to place the general interests of the country at the centre of its struggle” (Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer [Life of Enrico Berlinguer], L’Unità-Laterza, Rome 1992, p. 292).

To guarantee these “general interests”, a government with the Christian Democracy was envisaged, to “impose a new turn on society and the state”.

It is generally believed that this “national solidarity” policy, as it was known, had been worked out by Berlinguer as a result of the Chilean events, the coup against Allende that took place on 11 September 1973. The Chilean Christian Democrats supported Pinochet’s actions, revealing anything but a democratic nature, in spite of Berlinguer’s analysis. However, reflection on the need for a change in line had begun in the party some time before this. Gerardo Chiaromonte, one of the main representatives of the party’s “right wing” around Giorgio Amendola, had already outlined the essential features of the new Berlinguer line in May of that year, in a series of editorials in the Rinascita magazine [the then political and theoretical weekly organ of the Italian Communist Party].

Thus the tragic events in Chile were used to launch a proposal that the party leadership had already been discussing during the delicate phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which they claimed that it was impossible for a left turn to take place in Italian politics.

The fact is that such a policy was in no way new to the history of the PCI. Lucio Magri, one of the founders of the “Manifesto” group [a left split from the PCI in 1969], explains: “Togliatti much earlier had opted for participation in governments of national unity and accepted an even more moderate version than was necessary” (L. Magri, Il sarto di Ulm [The tailor of Ulm], il Saggiatore, Milan 2009, p. 279). Berlinguer on several occasions was to link the idea of the historic compromise with the Togliatti tradition (Chiara Valentini, Berlinguer, l’eredità difficile [Berlinguer, the difficult inheritance], Editori riuniti, Rome 2004, p. 324). While Togliatti had earlier justified participation in such a government as a stage on the “Italian road to socialism”, Berlinguer considered the “historic compromise as a necessary moment for the construction of the ‘third way’ between capitalism and ‘real socialism’.”

The Communist Party’s support for the one-party, minority Christian Democrat government, first through abstention and then direct participation in the parliamentary majority following the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, was to have devastating effects for the PCI. [Note: Aldo Moro, an important leading figure in the Christian Democracy was kidnapped on March 16, 1978, by the Red Brigades and killed 55 days later. This dramatic event was exploited by the PCI leadership to justify moving the party even further in the direction of class collaboration]. No discussion of the programme was allowed, the communists became guarantors of austerity, which became “sacrifices without compensation” according to the line of Lama and the rest of the CGIL leadership. [Note: Luciano Lama was the General Secretary of the CGIL trade union confederation, and also a leading figure within the PCI, who in 1978 came out openly in favour of the idea that workers had to make “sacrifices” in order to help get Italian capitalism back on its feet].

As a result of all this there was an increasing detachment between the party leadership and the rank and file. At the same time a historical period was coming to an end, as the Italian bourgeoisie, having squeezed the communists like a lemon, discarded them and moved back to their previous policy of a five-party coalition, the famous “pentapartito” as it was to become known, between the Christian Democrats, the Socialists (PSI) and three small bourgeois parties, the Social-Democrats ( PSDI), the Liberals (PLI) and the Republicans (PRI).

The 1980s and the “second Berlinguer”

PCI election symbolPCI election symbol In the early elections of June 1979 the party’s detachment from the mass of the workers became very clear. The party lost a million and a half votes, with a big collapse of its support in the working class districts of the big cities. That defeat led many in the party to the idea that a change in line was needed and it was then that Berlinguer came up with his proposal for the “democratic alternative”, which was seen by many as an abandonment of the previous class-collaborationist “historic compromise”.

This turn to the left, however limited, came up against many obstacles. These were due firstly to the limits of the proposal itself. The democratic alternative, which was directed at the “best and most honest part of the country, inside and outside the parties”, was a vague formula, with no concrete possibility of being put into practice. The bourgeoisie, even its so-called “progressive” wing, had by then abandoned the PCI, or rather the idea of using it for their own ends. The PSI (socialist party, which had previously turned sharply to the left after years of collaboration with the Christian Democrats in “Centre-Left” governments which eventually led to the worst election results ever for the party in 1972) swerved sharply to the right under its new leader Craxi.

Meanwhile, on the industrial front the labour movement was in retreat. The last big struggle was the 35-day strike at Fiat (autumn 1980). Outside the Fiat Mirafiori factory gates in Turin, Enrico Berlinguer, greeted by an enormous crowd, replied to a question as to what the communists would do if the workers occupied Fiat. There are many different versions as to Berlinguer’s role in that meeting. Lucio Magri gives the most balanced account, which is worth quoting:

“What was published in the press is false. In no way did he incite the workers to occupy Fiat. What he said to them was: ‘It’s up to you to decide the form of your struggle and up to you and your union to judge whether the agreements are acceptable. But I want you to know in any case that the Communist Party will be by your side, for better or for worse.” (L. Magri, ibid, p 250).

Thus, in reality what Berlinguer was saying was that he respected “the autonomy of the union”, a union where Communist Party leaders played a decisive role. The problem was that these “leaders” were not up to the task. When the communist leaders of the CGIL, led by the then general secretary Luciano Lama, were faced with a provocation organized by the Fiat management with the famous “march of the 40,000”, they did not step up the struggle, but bowed to the dictates of the bosses and accepted 23,000 temporary layoffs, which were nearly all to eventually become outright redundancies.

Thus a period of workers’ struggles came to an end and this could not fail to have a reflection on the leadership of the labour movement. The CGIL leadership, partially free from the pressure from below, remained entrenched in their policy of the so-called “two phases”.

Resistance to the change in line proposed by Berlinguer was also evident in the body of the party, where the decline in membership gave the apparatus more room to manoeuvre. The “average” cadre of the PCI had changed considerably since the early post-war years. If we analyse the social make-up of the delegates to party congresses and compare this with the membership, “in 1954, with about 40% workers, the delegates to the congress were 39.1% workers, while in 1990 the workers and pensioners who made up 58.5% of the party were represented by only 5.7% of the delegates” (Guido Liguori, La morte del Pci [The death of the PCI], Il manifesto libri 2009, page 50).

Decades of success at local authority level, of growth of the cooperative movement, of penetration into all levels of the capitalist institutions, had considerably increased the number of full-timers who were completely divorced from the workers and their demands. This party apparatus found it difficult to digest the end of “national solidarity” and tried to oppose any suggestion that smelt even faintly of “movementism”, i.e. of linking up with the social movements that existed within society.

The problem of the PCI was therefore more deep-seated and had a material basis. Magri explains it quite well: “The peculiarity of the PCI, which Togliatti had exploited, was that of being a mass party that ‘carried out political activity’, ‘acted on the ground’, but also settled into the institutions and used them to get results and form alliances. This was a fundamental element for taking the democratic road. But there was another side to the coin… Over the decades, and particularly in a phase of great social and cultural transformation, a mass party becomes more necessary than ever, along with its ability to pose problems of government. But by that same transformation it is in turn transformed at a molecular level, in its material make-up.” (op. cit., p. 363).

Internationally the bourgeoisie was launching an all-out offensive against the labour movement. This was imposed by the new economic cycle of recession. The intention was to take back all the conquests achieved by the labour movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Capital broke the resistance of the Fiat workers in 1980 and achieved a similar result in Britain with the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and in the USA when the 1981 flight-controllers’ strike was broken. In the USA Reagan won the election and this was followed by the success of conservative formations in a large part of Western Europe. The bourgeois counter-attack ought to have suggested to the leadership that there was no longer room for reformist policies and that the only possibility for the Communist Parties to resist was through a decisive move to the left in their policies.

However, the changes made by Berlinguer were too timid and the line remained anchored to the constraints of the past. This is how he explained the proposal of the democratic alternative in November 1980:

Ours is not a change in strategy. It is clear that that our general proposal remains centred on the cooperation of the great popular forces, of the Communist, socialist and catholic popular masses (…). Our proposal is not for a non-Christian Democrat government, but for a new government whose promoting force is the PCI and where there are representatives of the centre parties and – why not? – of the more open and advanced sectors, and personalities, of the Christian Democrats, honest and uncompromised by scandals.” (Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer [Life of Enrico Berlinguer], ibid., pp. 438-439, author’s emphasis).

In 1982 Berlinguer was to try to put this proposal into practice by offering Spadolini, a leader of the PRI, the abstention of the PCI and a “government of the President”, where the prime minister, instead of the parties, would decide the ministers (Chiara Valentini, ibid. p. 362-363). This kind of operation is very much in vogue today, but was unheard of under the First Republic. The attempt was a flop, given the firm refusal of the Christian Democrats and the PSI, and only then did Berlinguer put the idea of an alternative without the Christian Democrats on the order of the day. The slogan for the calling of the party’s 16th congress (Milan, 1983) was to remain ambiguous: “A democratic alternative to renew Italy”.

The death of Berlinguer

Enrico Berlinguer's funeralEnrico Berlinguer's funeral Precisely because of the enormous ambiguity of this line, when the PCI launched a campaign against the cutting of four points of wage-indexation from the sliding scale against inflation, proposed by Craxi in February 1984 with the St Valentine’s Day decree, the party and union apparatus resisted the mobilization. After the huge demonstration of 23 March 1984, with 700,000 workers in Rome, the CGIL abandoned the idea of continuing the struggle and the call for a general strike, and instead a campaign for a referendum on the question was organised. The June 1985 referendum proposed by the communists for the repeal of the decree was defeated. Nevertheless, the “yes” vote achieved a very significant result of 46%, a far higher percentage than the combined electoral support of the PCI and Proletarian Democracy, i.e. the parties supporting it. This happened in spite of “an almost total lack of commitment to the electoral campaign for a referendum that had been called for by the communists” (G. Chiarante, Da Togliatti a D’Alema [From Togliatti to D’Alema], Laterza, Roma-Bari 1996, p. 201).

Electoral performance of the PCIElectoral performance of the PCI In all probability the tragic death of Enrico Berlinguer sped up the party’s move to the right. The success in the 1984 European elections, where the PCI actually overtook the Christian Democrats for the first time (33.3% against 32.9%) was the fruit of the mobilizations against the cutting of the sliding scale and, partially, of the wave of emotion following the death of the party leader.

However, this proved to be a mere pause in the general context of decline in membership and activists, which was dictated above all by the limits of the party’s policies. Berlinguer’s attempts at change always stopped halfway: the democratic alternative was entirely within the bounds of capitalism, as was the emphasis on the moral question, clearly an issue of concern, but what the leaders of the party didn’t consider was that corruption for the bourgeoisie is frequently a necessary evil to “lubricate the system”.

The break with the Soviet Union, with the famous “schism” following the invasion of Afghanistan and the coup in Poland, both condemned by the PCI leadership, led the communists not to the rediscovery of the ideas of the October Revolution and workers’ democracy, but to the acceptance of the capitalist status quo. “Feeling safer under the umbrella of NATO”, as Berlinguer had said in a famous interview, fitted into this trend. The great mobilizations against NATO and US bases in the early 1980s, promoted also by the PCI, had a serious limit in the fact that they did not question the very basis of NATO. The famous “third way” between so-called “real socialism” and social democracy, without a return to Lenin, could only mean acceptance of the socialdemocratic model. A television interview following the Polish events was quite clear on this question: “I’m speaking of a propulsive thrust that has been manifested for a long period, which began at the time of the socialist Revolution of October, the greatest revolutionary event of our times. Today we have reached a point where that phase has come to an end.” (C. Valentini, ibid, p. 346).

Occhetto becomes secretary

There was therefore a big problem of how to develop an alternative strategy to the existing system, but after Berlinguer’s death the leadership moved increasingly towards a moderate position. The new secretary was Alessandro Natta, a faithful supporter of Berlinguer, but he lacked Berlinguer’s charisma and was a prisoner of the clash between the various factions. At the Florence congress in 1986 (entitled A modern reforming party. A programme, an alternative for Italy and Europe) it was the migliorista right wing [the “improvers” like the renovators in other communist parties in Europe at the time], the most explicitly reformist current within the party, that emerged strengthened from this struggle. There was a clear opening towards the right-wing PSI and the theses approved at the congress included an old formula dear to Napolitano (one of the leaders of the migliorista wing) that defined the PCI as “an integral part of the European Left”. This was preparing the conditions for application for membership of the Socialist International. This line was soundly rejected in the 1987 general election where the PCI obtained only 26.58% of the vote.

D'Alema, Occhetto and VeltroniD'Alema, Occhetto and Veltroni The Natta leadership was discredited and its days were numbered. There was a thoroughgoing renewal of the secretariat, with a series of young leaders being allowed into top positions for the first time (D’Alema, Fassino, Petruccioli), and with Achille Occhetto appointed deputy leader. In June 1988, when Natta had a minor heart attack, Occhetto was elected Secretary of the PCI. Disliked by the miglioristi and considered a “left Berlinguerian”, in the early stages of his leadership Occhetto aroused hopes within the party left. The new course featured campaigns against prescription charges, then being introduced, and taxes. A series of struggles were taken up and backed by the party, thanks to the commitment of a young member of the party’s Labour Commission, the Ingrao supporter Antonio Bassolino.

At the same time, however, Occhetto was beginning to develop a series of so-called “modernizing” initiatives. The need for a “new communist party” was repeatedly explained. New foundations were discovered for the party; in an interview with Ferdinando Adornato on the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Occhetto stated:

“If we stop at the stage of August 1789, if we look at that basic document of the Revolution, the ‘Fundamental declaration of the rights of Man and the citizen’, there is no doubt: the PCI is a child of that great deed of history. We have recognized democracy as a universal value (…) affirmed precisely in that declaration.” (Idee e proposte del nuovo corso del Pci [Ideas and proposal of the new course of the PCI], l’Unità, Rome 1989, p. 33).

Thus the French (bourgeois) Revolution was being used as ammunition against the October (socialist) Revolution. Also the entire battle to defend the welfare state was conducted in the name of the defence of citizens’ rights (the “inalienable rights of the individual”) and not as part of a struggle with class connotations, led by the labour movement.

The Occhetto leadership was driven by a wave of “post-modernist” thinking, according to which a year earlier during the “Bolognina turn” the taking of steps towards the formation of a new political force that was not to consist solely of communists were not to be excluded. As the above quoted document stated: “This is still premature. But our perspective is this: to establish an area of broad convergence between different non-religious and catholic forces (…). New political events will require new symbols. The important thing is that it should be known right from now that this is the project we are working on.” (ibid, pag. 41).

The 18th Congress of the PCI held in Rome in March 1989 opened with the slogans of “strong reformism” and of an opening to “newism” [nuovismo]. In the light of what has been outlined so far, the fact that Ingrao’s supporters and a large part of the party left gave some credit to Occhetto’s “new course” may seem incredible. [Note: Pietro Ingrao was recognised as the leader of the party’s left wing]. But the official congress document confirmed all the openings to a new formation described above and also, among other things, introduced the “need to reform the political system”. For the first time the PCI contemplated the possibility that majorities should no longer be formed in parliament after the electorate had voted for the various parties standing, but that coalitions of parties should go before the electors, an idea long backed by a section of the Italian bourgeoisie. This support for Occhetto on the part of the Ingrao left revealed the limits in the analysis and strategy of this wing of the party, which were to explode later.

Occhetto cashed in on Ingrao’s support and the undoubted boost to his image that this provided, and proceeded to move in the direction of what they viewed as a decisive renewal, with, “The most thorough-going renewal of the Leadership in the history of the PCI (41.3%) (…). In its turn the central committee elected by the congress had passed from 219 to 300 members, but the old members that were confirmed were only 161.” (G. Liguori, ibid., p. 73).

The Rome congress, however, was also the first one since the post-war period where an alternative document to the majority was presented. It was presented by Armando Cossutta and the current that had formed around him after Berlinguer’s “schism” from the Soviet Union. The document denounced Occhetto’s plan to work towards a new party and suggested opposing this trend on the basis of the classic Togliattian (Stalinist) tradition. Cossutta defended “the conception of the advance to socialism as a democratic revolution, as an implementation of the as yet unaccomplished principles of the Constitution.” (G. Liguori, ibid., p. 69). It was therefore well within the tradition of the “Italian road to socialism” through a compromise with the so-called democratic “progressive” bourgeoisie which no longer existed in reality.

The outcome of the congress led to growing pressure from that same so-called “democratic progressive bourgeoisie” which, faced with the impasse of the Italian political system and not having the strength and ability to bring into being a party of its own, wanted to transform the PCI into its “own” party. What they wanted was a party that could “govern”, something which was difficult to get accepted in the western capitalist world when that party still called itself “communist”.

It was precisely this wing of the Italian ruling class, expressing its views through la Repubblica newspaper, that began to campaign on the question of the party name. It was necessary, according to Eugenio Scalfari, Repubblica’s editor at the time, to eliminate the anomaly of a “communist party that was no longer communist”. This campaign was taken up by “intellectuals” within the PCI, such as Michele Salvati and Salvatore Veca, during the summer of 1989 (Name change: if not now, when? was the title of an article in Rinascita, the party weekly journal).

This idea was also taken up by Occhetto during a visit to the USA (the first time for a PCI secretary) where, ingratiating himself with political and economic world opinion, he unashamedly issued statements such as, “In America the word ‘liberal’ has a meaning that closely resembles what is meant by ‘left’ in Europe. Thus in America, speaking of the PCI, one could talk of an ‘Italian Liberal Party’ [in English in the original] (G. Liguori, ibid., p. 74).

The fact is that the question of changing the party name had already been taken up by the so-called progressive intelligentsia after the death of Berlinguer in 1985, but it became clear almost immediately that the time was not yet ripe. Now, however, the road was clear.

The Bolognina turn

Undoubtedly the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 sped things up. That event, which was to lead rapidly to the dissolution of the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, had a profound impact on the consciousness of millions of people, but especially on the thinking of the majority of the PCI leaders. For the average member of the Communist Party apparatus these were the countries of so-called “real socialism”. Although the Italian communists had developed an autonomous strategy [from the Soviet Union] from Togliatti onwards, everyone looked on the Soviet model as the goal to be achieved. With the collapse of this point of reference and inspiration, why still call oneself communist? This was the question on the lips of many of the PCI leaders.

The horizon of communism had disappeared overnight, once the star of the USSR had begun to fade. What was really required in that situation was a thorough study of the degeneration of the October Revolution, taking on board the valuable analysis developed as early as the 1930s by Leon Trotsky, one of the protagonists of those historic events. What should have been done was to take a vigorous stand in defence of state ownership of the means of production and the planned economy, emphasising that the main cause of the problems of the USSR and its satellite countries was the control of the bureaucracy over the state and the economy. To defend the conquests of the planned economy, that system could not be reformed but a political revolution was required to bring the levers of the economy and the state back into the hands of the working class. Only in this way would it have been possible, also in the West, to resist the siren calls of socialdemocracy and therefore of capitalism.

Instead, in the minds of the majority of the party apparatus the collapse of Stalinism removed the last obstacle to a definitive socialdemocratization of the PCI. This turn, as we have seen, had been in the air for several months, but it came as an absolute shock for a large number of party members, also for the manner in which it was announced. Achille Occhetto believed in using “shock effect” and he thus announced the possible change of the party name on 12 November 1989 in a passing comment during the commemoration of the famous Battle of the Bolognina that took place during the partisan war against Nazi occupation towards the end of the Second World War.

On that occasion, after the official speech to the old partisans gathered for the celebration, where he had insisted on the need to “commit ourselves to great transformations”, he had chatted with some journalists who had asked him whether these big changes also envisaged changing the name of the PCI. Occhetto replied: “Everything is possible”. As a result, hundreds of thousands of party members learned to their amazement from the evening news that “the PCI is to change its name”. In the days and weeks that followed, a big debate opened up at all levels of the party.

The party branches, after years of abandonment, were suddenly alive with people – members and sympathisers – discussing late into the night. The author of these lines clearly remembers that also in the city and in the very district of the turn (the Bolognina district of Bologna) the majority of rank and file interventions were clearly contrary to the secretary’s proposal. And yet within a couple of months the mood had changed and the “yes” to the Bolognina turn won through with two thirds of the party in favour.

Trend of PCI membershipTrend of PCI membership How was all this possible? One of the reasons was undoubtedly to be found in the objective situation. For some time there had been a downturn in the workers’ movement in Italy, which was also reflected in a sharp fall in PCI membership (see table), with a loss of almost 20% of its members between 1977 and 1989, with a total of 400,000 leaving the party. There was a particularly significant fall in the number of workers who carried a party card, down from 828,000 in 1977 to 588,000 in 1988, and in the industrial heartland of the country, the north-west, which saw a reduction of membership of 31% in the same period. At the same time, 40% of members were over 50 years old (all the figures are taken from Viaggio nel cuore del Pci [journey into the heart of the PCI] Ediz. Rinascita, Rome 1990).

The tendency towards “unanimism”, a practice adopted by the leaderships of the communist parties following the Stalinist degeneration, created a tradition at all levels of agreeing with whatever the Secretary or Central Committee said. Over a period a perverse logic had developed, that favoured the turn: “The branches had for a long time become unused to the role of a centre of mass work, of daily training of cadres; they were extraordinarily active only in organizing the party festivals and even more at election time. The factory branches were few and delegated nearly everything to the union.” (Lucio Magri, ibid., p. 364).

In spite of all this, however, opposition to the turn found considerable support among the party’s ranks. At the 19th congress of the PCI, held in Bologna in March 1990, the two “no” motions, one led by Ingrao and the other by Cossutta, together got 33.9% of the vote, a significant result, considering that most of the apparatus had declared itself for a yes vote, particularly in regions like Emilia-Romagna, where Occhetto got more than 79%. This current, comprising a third of the membership (which was confirmed also at the 1991 congress in Rimini) which resisted dissolution of the PCI, had great potential. But that is all that it remained, little more than potential.

There were many reasons why this was so. Firstly, the “no” faction was an aggregate of various and diverse points of view, united only by their opposition to the Occchettian turn. There was no truly alternative common strategy for opposing the majority. Where there was an attempt in the various resolutions presented to work out a few ideas, these were heavily tainted by the reformist, gradualist outlook typical of the post-war PCI.

For example, the second motion, presented by Ingrao, read: “Communism also means – and this is its essential feature – that all this is possible only by gradually superseding a social formation founded on the priority of profit and the market.” (Documenti per il congresso straordinario del Pci [Documents for the extraordinary congress of the PCI], Vol. 3, L’Unità, Rome 1990, p. 52).

This gradualism also pervaded the third motion presented by Cossutta, when it stated: “The transition from capitalism to socialism can only be seen as a long-term world process” (ibid., p. 65) or other ambiguous formulations such as the fact that it was decisive for the PCI to have “a supranational project for the domination of politics over the spontaneity of the markets, as a perspective of transition to new forms of socialist democracy in the European common home.” (ibid., p. 78)

The basic problem was the refusal on the part of all the left leaders to link up with the experience of the Russian Revolution and the ideas of Lenin. This approach we find underlined in the introductory speech by Lucio Magri in the Arco meeting of September 1990, where the supporters of the “no” front met to unite their efforts for the coming final battle.

For Magri the word communist “indicated the line of demarcation established by Leninism and the October Revolution and therefore above all a number of distinguishing points: the need for a revolutionary break, the concept of proletarian dictatorship, the almost complete nationalization of the means of production, centralized planning, the suppression of the market by administrative means. In this sense the word has been so worn away by events as to be no longer defensible today.” (G. Liguori, ibid. p. 172).

Magri emphasised the need for “an idea of society and the future that is not utopian, and that is radically freed from the essential features of the capitalist system and of class and mercantile society.” (G. Liguori, ibid., p. 173). In that meeting Pietro Ingrao made a famous intervention announcing that he preferred to “remain in the turmoil”, in other words that he would join the new political formation that was to come into being at the Rimini congress: the Democratic Party of the Left [PDS].

This announcement, given the charisma enjoyed by Ingrao, the former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, divided the opposition within the party and greatly weakened its battle in the following period. Thus, at the Rimini congress only about ninety delegates out of a total of 1,245 adhered to what was to become the Communist Refoundation Party [PRC]. However, later on the majority of those who had participated in the “no” battle were to come over to the PRC, after their experience convinced them that it was impossible to carry out even a minimally effective campaign as “democratic communists” within the PDS.

If we look at the bare figures we can see that the decision to dissolve the PCI was a failure from the very beginning. In 1991 the party still had 1,420,000 members. In 1992 a little less than 800,000 people joined the PDS. If we add to these the 117,000 who joined the PRC (joined also by the 8,500 members of the small Proletarian Democracy party), we can see that over half a million people did not join either of the two formations born from the PCI. In the first test, the 1992 general election, about two million votes were lost compared to 1987, and a million and a half compared to the 1989 European elections.

The political effects were even more devastating. The PDS, in its desperate quest for full recognition by the Italian bourgeoisie, has since formed a new party, the Democratic Party, together with the Margherita party (i.e. one of the main heirs of the Christian Democracy), without any great success, seeing that it has been in a state of permanent crisis right from its birth. Equally serious has been the decline of the PRC, a party which aroused great hopes for more than a decade among hundreds of thousands of workers and youth in the years following its formation. All those who hoped for a true refoundation of communism have seen their aspirations dashed by a leadership which has refused to work on the basis of an anticapitalist perspective and has invested all its energies in the possibility of achieving gradual reforms, allying itself on two occasions with forces from the bourgeois camp with the aim of entering the government.

In 2008 this led to a situation where no communist or socialist Member of Parliament was elected for the first time in 120 years of Italian history (excluding the fascist period). This history is still a living experience and one which weighs heavily on the whole of the left in Italy. Today we are faced with a challenge: to stop communists from being wiped off the political landscape of this country. We believe that such a scenario is highly unlikely as it is this system, the capitalist system, that creates such contradictions and such huge inequalities that the ideas of communism will return with a vengeance to regain popularity in the struggles of the near future. In these struggles the communists will be able to play a decisive role, on condition that they are truly able to learn from their mistakes of the past, understand that capitalism cannot be reformed and thus struggle for a programme that does not put off changing society to a distant future, but places the need to break with the capitalist system and develop demands in all the daily struggles of the working class that are linked to this perspective.

(January 2011)