Few on the left will disagree with the view that the turn taken by events in Italy in recent years is deeply depressing. Capitalism is unquestionably more stable today than at any time since the boom years of the late 1950s, and the social and cultural upheavals of the late sixties and seventies seem to have subsided almost without trace. In seeking to explain how and why this has come to be so, Tobias Abse points an accusing finger in the direction of the Italian Communist Party. footnote1 As the largest force on the Italian left, endowed with mass support and a remarkable degree of electoral strength, it must take, he argues, ‘overwhelming responsibility for the failures and disappointments of this period’. footnote2 In essence, the party stands accused of failing to push things forward in the 1970s, despite the fact that both the necessary forces and the potential were there. In particular Abse blames the pci for not adopting a combative secular stance at a time when increasingly wide sectors of society could have been mobilized in support of such a programme. As a result, social and political trends which in the mid seventies led most naturally in a left or progressive direction were so bitterly thwarted that an opportunist politician by the name of Craxi was able to exploit them successfully for a political design of a rightwing type in the eighties.

In Abse’s analysis of post-war Italian history, the pci cuts a very poor figure indeed. It is suggested that right from 1944 the party’s policies involved ‘completely unnecessary and counter-productive capitulations to the forces of reaction’ that destined it to a position of permanent subalternity in the Italian political system. footnote3 Although it became entrenched as a social force, the party ceased very early on to be a significant political actor or effective vehicle for the promotion of working-class interests. But it is in the 1970s that the politics of Italian Communism reached an unparalleled nadir. The Historic Compromise, Abse argues, was the pitiful strategem of a party so long confined to opposition that it could no longer summon up the courage to knock boldly at the doors of power. Ostensibly proclaimed in the face of threats launched by an aggressive right-wing minority against the democratic state, it was a profoundly defensive option that in programmatic terms amounted to little more than a scheme for the management of the already existing. By fixing its sights on a rapprochement with the Christian Democrats, moreover, the pci passed over the potentially available forces and movements that might have been mobilized in favour of ousting the dc from its occupation of the state and thereby missed an extraordinary, and possibly unique, opportunity to reshape Italian society along more radical lines.

My purpose here is not to furnish an uncritical apology for the pci. Rather it is to argue that the party’s conduct in the context of Italian society from the late sixties to the present cannot be adequately evaluated if the terms of analysis are those set out in ‘Judging the pci’. For it is one thing to suggest that the pci falls short of offering a paradigm for the political and cultural advance of the left elsewhere, but it is quite another to imply that, through its actions alone, the party more or less perverted the course of Italian history by blocking the potentially progressive evolution of society in a reactionary design of dubious value and predictable consequences. To depict the pci in this way as the bearer of a singularly inefficacious brand of reformism, whose shortsighted leadership and tactical incompetence impeded it from taking decisive action in unusually propitious circumstances, is both inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, if this is all the party is, one is tempted to ask why it was that the us government went to such unusual diplomatic lengths to prevent its accession to power in 1977–78 footnote4 or why Abse himself, in his later piece on the pci’s 17th congress, should feel obliged to underline ‘the intensity of the earthquake that could be unleashed in Italy by the end of the forty-year-old Christian Democrat regime’. footnote5 Surely no one should have anything to fear from a party which is apparently little more than a sheep in sheep’s clothing?

In what follows it will be argued that the Historic Compromise was very much more than a cautious, short-term option and that the whole question of secularization was considerably more problematic than Abse is willing to concede. But first the interpretation of events in the period between 1968 and 1973 as being overwhelmingly favourable to the eventual formation of a lay majority must be energetically refuted.

The position of the pci and the left as a whole in the early seventies was significantly weaker than is suggested in ‘Judging the pci’. For while it is true that ‘the whole political landscape had been changed by the social eruptions of 1967–9’ the benefits did not accrue to the left over the short term. footnote6 Indeed, prior to 1974, by which time events were once again moving in a positive direction, the mood in the country was decidedly inauspicious. Certainly no one on the left was talking or even thinking of bold initiatives. Following the break-up of well-established patterns of order and control in significant sectors of society, the risk of some form of authoritarian solution to the crisis of power was a genuine one. The fascist ‘strategy of tension’ was clearly an important factor in this. Another element reshaping the political climate was the shift to the right which took place in the state, with the msi’s parliamentary votes facilitating the election of Leone as president of the republic and a refurbished Centre–Right coalition headed by Andreotti and Malagodi replacing the previous Centre–Left formula. But what should under no circumstances be underestimated in explaining the relative isolation of the left at this time is the extent to which the mass mobilization and protest that marked Italian society in the late sixties had well and truly subsided by the beginning of the new decade. Even though organizations forged in the heat of the struggles could count on a not insignificant measure of support, the revolutionary impulse—of the student movement especially—had quite simply evaporated by 1970. Although there would continue to be important social conflicts in some of the major industrial centres, the scale and energy of the battles which preceded the signing of the engineering workers’ contract at the end of 1969 would never be matched, let alone surpassed, in the years that followed. Moreover, for all their vitality and disruptive force, the social movements of the late sixties were largely circumscribed to the larger factories of the industrial triangle and most, but not all, the main university towns of the north and centre of the country. When the social unrest eventually spread to the south—too late to turn the turbulence of 1968–69 into a full-blown revolutionary moment—it was hegemonized not by the left but by the neo-facist right, as not only the revolt of Reggio Calabria but also events at L’Aquila and Battipaglia demonstrated. Local and regional elections held in the course of 1970 and 1971 revealed no shift to the left, but rather a substantial increase in msi votes throughout the southern half of the peninsula. Final proof that the political thrust of 1968 had expired in the country as a whole came in the general election of 1972 when psiup, the left-wing splinter party which had triumphantly taken 4.5 per cent of the vote in 1968 at the height of the contestation, failed, along with Il Manifesto and other groups of the far left, to reach the minimum quota necessary to return its representatives to parliament.