The 17th Congress of the Italian Communist Party was held in Florence between 9 and 13 April, in the midst of Reagan’s first round of sabre-rattling against Libya and his authorization of a new nuclear test in Nevada. Since, as we shall see, the main peculiarity of the Congress was to proclaim a fresh enthusiasm for the American Way of Life and US democracy in general, these circumstances were a source of acute embarrassment to Party leaders addressing delegates from the platform. It is clear that, despite the denials of General Secretary Alessandro Natta, footnote1 the Congress had been called ahead of schedule, as a direct consequence of the widespread worry and confusion generated by the disappointing regional election results of May 1985 and the narrow defeat in the June scala mobile referendum. These setbacks had caused Natta’s previously untested leadership to become an issue in itself: when the Congress was announced, rumours had been rife that it would be not just his first but also his last as Party leader, and that the thrusting right-winger Luciano Lama, with years of experience at the head of the cgil, would sweep this supposedly ineffectual old man aside. The pci’s traditional capacity to conceal internal differences behind a facade of unity seemed to have finally deserted it.

On the eve of the Congress Repubblica carried an article on the various currents within the pci, naming their leading figures and estimating their relative strength in much the way that it would do before a Christian Democrat congress. There were seven identifiable currents at the beginning of April 1986: the Filosovietici (Cossutta, Cappelloni)—10 per cent; the Sinistra (Ingrao, Castellina, Magri, Bassolino)—20 per cent; the Berlingueriani (Minucci, Angius, Pecchioli, Fassino, Mussi, Reichlin, Tortorella, G. Berlinguer)—20 per cent; the Centro (Natta, Occhetto, Zangheri)—25 per cent; the Destra Storica (Bufalini, Jotti, Pajetta, Macaluso, Cervetti, Vitali, Chiaromonte)—10 per cent; the Miglioristi (Lama, Napolitano)—10 per cent; and the Destra (N. Colajanni, Perna, Galluzzi, Turci, Fanti)—5 per cent. We shall look in some detail at the left and centre, but a word should first be said about the currents on the right of the Party. The Destra Storica, which is closest to Natta’s Centro, has the greatest distrust of the new social movements and its conception of politics is firmly based on alliance strategies of the traditional type. It favours an opening to the Socialists and attacks the Berlinguerian line of diversit`, rejecting any approach that lays stress on claims to represent alternative moral values. The Miglioristi are more preoccupied with the danger of a long-term decline in the pci’s electoral fortunes, such as has befallen the pcf and pce, footnote2 which they hope to avert through an urgent social-democratization of the Party’s image. They have also gone further than the Destra Storica in attacking Berlinguerian moralism and explicitly condemn an emphasis on egalitarianism as out of keeping with modern trends in society. The Destra Pura, much the smallest current on the right, believes that the pci should effectively transform itself into a forza d’opinione, along the lines of all other Italian political parties. In the late summer of 1985 a maverick pci deputy had even proposed that the Party should change its name to the Partito Democratico del Lavoro—a proposal which had been a matter for serious discussion, at least in the press. But in the event the Party has kept both its old name and its new leader—neither of which was challenged at the April Congress.

Natta’s leadership has proved more vigorous than anybody had forecast. While his age may preclude a long spell in office, his Secretaryship will be remembered in a way that Longo’s interregnum between Togliatti and Berlinguer is not. Despite his long-standing position in the centre of the Party, Natta has not been a mere caretaker reiterating Berlinguer’s declaration, in 1980 to 1984, of the pci’s distinctiveness from all other parties. Indeed, in a sharp image-reversal, he has broken the last taboo by saying: ‘We do not claim to profess the truth or to be superior to others . . . we know that we are a fallible human association just like any other.’ The language employed by Natta in his three-hour harangue bore no impress of Marxism: if one excepts its inordinate length and certain tactical ploys rooted in Italian political life, the speech could have been made by any leader of a large social-democratic party in opposition to a right-wing government. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Giorgio Galli, the distinguished political scientist, remarked that one of the most enduring characteristics of the pci was its disguise of a very revisionist practice in very orthodox language. This is true no longer: the lexicon of Leninism has been consigned to the attic, as Natta has sought to revive the pci’s electoral fortunes by associating it with the large social-democratic parties. The constant references in his speech to the ‘European Left’ were precisely meant to designate a West European, social-democratic left.

The pci line has now executed a 180-degree turn, with a rapidity reminiscent of the zig-zags of the later Comintern. Whereas it was formerly regarded as a matter of debate whether the Socialists were any longer in a meaningful sense part of the Left, the task now is to preach for a ‘reconciliation between the two great currents into which the workers’ movement has been divided’. Craxi’s allegedly vigorous defence of Italy’s national interest served as the justification for the change in policy, and the meeting between the Communist Occhetto and the Socialist Martelli immediately after the Achille Lauro affair—the first time Craxi’s supremacy in the ruling pentapartito had been brought into question—was the first official sign of a thaw in the arctic relations between the pci and psi. But in reality it had been the pci’s defeat in the scala mobile referendum that had led large sections of the Party, not just the miglioristi Lama and Napolitano, to argue the necessity of a rapprochement.

As early as 17 July 1985 Occhetto had asserted: ‘It ought to have been recognized that the Socialist premiership was the result of a shift to the left of the whole political axis of the country.’ footnote3 Natta was not prepared to go this far in his congress speech, but his invocation of Soares’s recent election as Portuguese President, with Communist support, was deliberately pitched to assuage any fear that Craxi might have about the pci’s ambition to dominate an alliance, as well as to pander to his barely concealed designs on the presidency of the Republic. Naturally Natta was critical of Craxi’s economic policy: it would have been very strange if the leader of the main opposition party had shown no fire at all. Yet the Communist solutions are merely based on Keynesian economics, with an emphasis on reducing unemployment. Planning is advocated, nationalization is not. The untrammelled operation of market forces is condemned but the market as such is not. The black economy is ritually denounced in one breath, before ‘widespread entrepreneurship’ is praised in the next. In short, there is nothing that would distinguish the Italian Communists’ economic approach from that of even a rather moderate social-democratic party, at least during a period of opposition.

In foreign policy, Natta’s speech showed an intensification, not a diminution, of the pci’s commitment to the pro-American line adopted by Berlinguer, supporting nato and in large measure accepting Washington’s analysis of the New Cold War. (No mention was made, for example, of US involvement in Angola, or even of the invasion of Grenada.) While Star Wars and American policy towards Nicaragua were unfavourably cited—in order to give some credibility to Natta’s remark that ‘there are no friends of Reaganism in our party’—fine distinctions were made not only between Reaganism and the American people (which may still have some moral basis) but between Reagan’s and other American governments, between the American ruling class and Reagan’s government, and even ‘between the different forces that make up the Reagan administration itself’. Apparently ‘loyal acceptance of Italy’s participation in the Atlantic Alliance and in nato requires above all respect for its defensive motivations, its geographical limits and our country’s right of sovereignty’, as if the Alliance had not always presupposed Rome’s willingness to play a totally subaltern role towards the Americans. Any autonomy for Italy and Europe should not, in Natta’s words, ‘have the sense of a reversal of the historically established relationship between Europe and the United States.’ Natta’s main criticism of American policy centred on the Mediterranean and the Middle East—the very issue on which both Craxi and Andreotti had already quarrelled with the Reagan administration. Natta’s desire to trump Craxi’s calculated courtship of the Arab world extended to making Israel’s participation in the Star Wars project one of the grounds for his opposition to it. He compared those who failed to see the subtle nuances—‘uncertainties, contrasts, contradictions’—within the Reagan administration over Haiti and the Philippines with those who had urged the Vietnamese people to fight to the finish rather than accept a negotiated settlement with the United States. The comparison itself may be legitimate, but the interpretation is extremely debatable, to say the least. Natta’s unprecedented enthusiasm for all things American reached its nadir in his unctuous lauding of the Kennedys—at the very moment when their reputation in the English-speaking world is thankfully under attack. One assumes that Cossutta was not the only delegate to wonder at Natta’s amnesia over the Bay of Pigs, the introduction of us advisers into Vietnam or the Ich bin ein Berliner reassertion of Washington’s European tutelage.

As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, despite a passing mention of Gorbachev’s recent initiatives, Natta faithfully followed the Berlinguer heritage and made no real effort to conciliate theussr’s emissary and third-leader Zaikov. For his part Zaikov—somewhat to Cossutta’s surprise—seems to have taken a relatively detached view of the proceedings, probably sizing up the pci as one more European social-democratic party that might be of some use in curbing us bellicosity, rather than an errant Communist movement to be won back to the fold. Apart from the predictable references to Afghanistan, Natta attacked the Vietnamese over Cambodia and labelled China’s foreign policy as one of peace—which, even if the tide of Peking’s Russophobia has ebbed a little, is stretching the concept of mediation between the blocs to its outermost limit.