We make our own history but never under conditions of our own choosing. Political parties are normally to a greater or lesser extent reflections of socioeconomic realities, even if occasionally, as in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, they have been known to have lost contact with any reality outside their own heads. Their day-to-day policies are far more often reactions to exogenous events beyond their own control than heroic or diabolic attempts to impose their will on an entire nation. Most writers who have dealt with the Italian Communist Party seem to have forgotten such elementary historical truths. The great mistake made by most commentators discussing the pci over the last two decades has been to treat it as the central protagonist, the veritable driving force, of modern Italian history. footnote1 The pci has been seen as the party with a genuinely coherent long-term project—in contrast to the mere social-democratic expedients of the British Labour Party, the French Parti Socialiste, or the Spanish psoe—and a formidable capacity for hegemony over the rest of Italian society. In keeping with this vision, the path taken by the pci in recent decades has frequently been given a Gramscian provenance, as if the policies pursued by Berlinguer could trace a direct line of descent back to the Prison Notebooks. footnote2

This way of presenting the party has been increasingly accompanied, in sections of the British Left, by the claim that the pci offers a model of a successsful socialist movement that throws into sharp relief the deficiencies of the Labour Party to date, and by the same token shows the road to reconstructing it as a vital popular force in the future. This theme is a constant refrain of writers in Marxism Today, in particular—a journal tireless in its suggestion of the exemplary character of Italian Communism, and the outstanding merits of its late leader Enrico Berlinguer. For Eric Hobsbawm, the strategy of the pci is the most ‘immediately relevant’ in Europe to the choices before the Labour Party—it is a ‘classical socialist labour party’ which has ‘succeeded’, gaining ‘ground over the decades’, because ‘it has never forgotten that the party of the working class must also be the party of the people’. footnote3 For Stuart Hall, ‘whatever one may say about the Historic Compromise’ (he is careful not to say anything), ‘it has remained a mass popular force’ because ‘it understands that it must maintain a popular presence’, ‘that there is no popular occasion, no popular festival, no issue or cause where the Left can afford not to be present.’ footnote4

In the eyes of many, then, the pci is not just the architect of much of recent Italian history; it is also—mutatis mutandis, of course—a paradigm of political and cultural advance for the Left elsewhere, perhaps the success story of the European labour movement since the war. In this essay, I will look critically at both these claims. It will not be my intention to argue that the pci is an insignificant force—far from it: the party is manifestly the major political organization of the Italian Left. Nor will I be maintaining that its policies stand condemned for having failed to overthrow capitalism and usher in a socialist society on Italian soil. Rather, my aim will be to situate the recent evolution of the pci within the objective context in which it has operated, showing the extent to which these conditions were not of its making—or liking; and to point out that there were other courses than that which it adopted, which were both available and preferable. A party that truly represented revolutionary realism, something to which the pci has long pretended, could and would have proceeded differently.

Both the effective historical conditions under which the pci has acted, and the proper political criteria for judging its actions, have of course altered over time. This essay will be concerned with the period from the late sixties to the present. But it is worth noting at the outset that in the years of the Resistance and post-war Reconstruction (1943–47), the framework of Italian society was molten, and the party commanded a latitude of manoeuvre within it, in ways which were never repeated thereafter. It was in these years that its strategic choices were critical for the form and direction taken by the Italian State in the post-war world—not to speak of the subsequent destiny of Italian labour itself. This pre-history of the present epoch is relatively well-known, and the pci’s role in it has been generally and rightly criticized. For it was Togliatti’s willingness to compromise with Christian Democracy after the svolta di Salerno in 1944 that paved the way for the pci’s relegation from a position of strength as the political representative of the vanguard of the armed anti-fascist struggle to a position of weakness as a marginalized opposition during the 1950s. The turn of that year did not simply mean the abandonment of socialist revolution as a short-term goal, a decision often retrospectively justified by reference to the Greek experience; it also involved completely unnecessary and counterproductive capitulations to the forces of reaction—for example, the acceptance of a monarchy discredited by its collaboration with fascism before July 1943 and its cowardly flight from Rome in September 1943 footnote5 —and set the stage for a series of retreats and compromises that ultimately led to the triumph of De Gasperi in 1948. Had the pci adopted a clear republican line in 1944, it would not have found the 1946 referendum such a close shave. Had the Italian Communists stood up to the Church as the Socialists were prepared to, the fascist Concordat of 1929 that gave massive influence to the Vatican would never have been enshrined in the post-war constitution. Had Togliatti, as Interior Minister, not called a halt to the purge of fascists from the state apparatus in 1946, neither Scelba in the 1950s nor the ‘strategists of tension’ in the last two decades would have found their tasks so easy. Had the pci been willing to co-operate with Parri’s Azionisti, the second largest component of the armed Resistance, footnote6 instead of conniving at their political liquidation, it might have genuinely found the progressive bourgeois forces whom it has claimed to be in search of ever since. The upshot of its policies in this period was to entrench the Party as a mass social force, and expel it as an effective political actor, in the country—ousted, to its surprise, with ease from the governing coalition when the Cold War set in. The pci in 1944–47 behaved as a subaltern rather than a hegemonic force. Once the restoration of Italian capitalism was assured, and the Right securely in power again by 1948, it steadily slid into the role of a kind of prison chaplain to the proletariat—a party which promised Italian workers communism (later no more than ‘structural reforms’) at some indefinite point in the future, whilst asking them to live out their entire lives trapped within the power structures created by the bourgeoisie and its clerical allies. By talking of a promised land which the collective Moses would not live to see, it was to become functionally rather more useful to the ruling class than an avowedly social-democratic party, which is expected by its more mercenary supporters to deliver periodically some material goods in the here and now. The pci’s years in the wilderness during the Cold War made it appear more radical than it really was. Excluded from office and under pressure from its own base, it was socially constructed as a deviant hard-line opposition, whether it wanted to be or not.

The epoch since 1968 has had a markedly different character from the 1940s. The pci has been baffled by all the great changes of these decades—at times, one may speculate, by change itself. For the Party, as we shall see, became in many ways a very conservative creature. In the first half of this period, the forces pushing for change within Italian society came from below, in successive waves of progressive upsurge: the revolt of the university students in 1967–68, the rebellion of the industrial working class of the Northern cities in 1968–69, the rise of the women’s movement in the early seventies, and the growing secularization of Italian culture as a whole that followed on it. The most the pci could do in these years was to try and ride the tiger of social unrest, while wishing that the animal did not have such sharp teeth and claws or howl quite so fiercely at night. External conditions had changed most disconcertingly. The spontaneous semi-insurrectionary general strike that followed the attempt on Togliatti’s life in 1948 could be called off by the pci leadership, however disgruntled Resistance veterans eager to storm Montecitorio may have felt. But the Hot Autumn of 1969 was beyond its control. Eventually, just as the failure of the Tambroni government and the riots of July 1960 had made the Catholic Church and the Italian industrialists decide that a Centre–Left Government, including the Socialist Party for the first time since 1947, was the best option for the maintenance of social peace—so when it became apparent that the new factory militancy and popular turbulence could not be contained via the ‘strategy of tension’ exemplified by the massacre of Piazza Fontana and the black terrorism of 1974, then the integration of the pci into the parliamentary majority became the most attractive course for the more intelligent elements in the ruling class.