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Communism and Democracy in Italy

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The existence of a powerful Communist Party in Italy has been a constant source of concern to me in over 50 years of political activity, first as a clandestine anti-Fascist in the Resistance movement, and finally in the free democracy that Italy has enjoyed since the liberation.

As a young Sicilian of 22, I first joined a democratic party in 1925. This was the National Democratic Union, founded by Giovanni Amendola, a highly distinguished politician of irreproachable moral standing. Among the members of this party were Mario Berlinguer, father of the present Secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Silvio Trentin, my old professor at Venice University and father of one of the most intelligent and forceful exponents of Communist trade unionism today.

A few months after I joined this party, Giovanni Amendola was beaten to death by the Fascists, and I found myself at his deathbed with his son Giorgio, whose politics were the same as his father's. In 1930, with the Fascist scourge at its height and the ominous threat of Nazi dictatorship looming on the horizon, Giorgio Amendola abandoned the democratic cause and threw in his lot with the underground Communist Party. Gradually, most of the young men who had been my companions in the early clandestine resistance to Fascism between 1925 and 1930 decided to carry on the fight under the hammer and sickle, and I was left virtually alone with just a few like-minded friends.

I have often wondered why so many brilliant and undoubtedly sincere young men lost faith in the democratic cause during the 1930s and went over to the Communists, particularly the three sons of Giovanni Amendola, a great democratic victim of Fascism, and those of such noted democrats as Silvio Trentin and Mario Berlinguer. I can only explain this by recalling that at the time, in the wake of Italy and Germany, the whole Western world seemed about to succumb to Fascism. The Spanish Civil War, which showed up the weaknesses of the Western democracies and culminated in a triumph for Franco, and the incredible appeasement of Hitler at Munich can only have lent weight to this argument. In the West, the fabric of democracy appeared to be gradually crumbling under the pernicious onslaught of Nazi-Fascism. Yet in the East there stood a champion in the struggle against Fascism, the mighty Soviet Union, governed by an all-powerful Communist Party, which gave support and a haven to communists from all over the world.

Whatever my personal view of how the ideology of certain Communist leaders came to be formed, the fact is that as soon as Italy was liberated it immediately had to contend with a strong Communist Party, largely dominated by Soviet ideology. Since then I have always felt that any democracy with a powerful communist party in its midst can only be a weak, or, if you like, a lame democracy. And so it is that Italy has been limping along ever since 1945.

I now belong to a minority democratic party, the Italian Republican Party (PRI), whose inspiration and democratic ideals derive directly from great figures in the Risorgimento such as Giuseppe Mazzini and Carlo Cattaneo. During the Resistance period and for a brief time after it, I was a member of a short-lived militant party, the Action Party, also founded on democratic ideals. And it was precisely because I stand for a democratic tradition, embodied in those ideals of the Risorgimento, that after the war I felt there was a need to build a new bulwark against the Communist Party, an organization with close ideological and political ties to a nation and a party I have always held to be the negation of all the true values of freedom, democracy and orderly civil, economic and social development so cherished by my own party and others.

After the Liberation of Italy in 1945, governments consisted of representatives of all parties that had played a role in the Resistance movement, and this included the Communists. The Socialist Party, which has had a solid democratic tradition, though fundamentally Marxist in outlook, was linked to the Communists by the so-called United Action Pact. Concerned by this, I proposed that an alliance be formed between the Action Party and the Socialists that would carry enough political and electoral clout to provide an adequate counter to the Communist Party and on the other side to the Catholic party, the Christian Democrats, which was already displaying increasing strength. The Socialists turned down this proposal with the result that the non-Catholic democratic parties and the Social Democrats, who had splintered off from the Socialists under the leadership of Giuseppe Saragat, had no alternative but to join forces with the Christian Democrats in a coalition that could mount a reasonably strong front against the constant and increasing pressure exerted by the Communist Party and its Socialist ally.

The first such coalition was formed in 1947, when the Communists and Socialists left the government, and between that year and 1953 it proved possible to form democratic, centrist coalitions that were able to start forging firm links between Italy, Europe and the West, both in terms of institutional, economic and social policies at home, and also in the international sphere, by bringing Italy into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and helping to build the foundations of the European Community. To illustrate the situation in those early postwar years, I can recall that in the latter half of 1948, I was appointed head of the Italian delegation sent to the Soviet Union to negotiate details of the peace treaty with the Russians. I spent four months in Moscow to complete those negotiations and came away with an indelible impression of the authoritarian, military-like regime prevailing in the country. Thus, I was able to quote from first-hand experience in stating how crucial it was for Italy to adhere to the Atlantic Alliance when the time came for the Chamber of Deputies to debate the issue of membership in the spring of 1949. The motion concerned was hotly opposed by the Communists and their Socialist allies under Pietro Nenni, both of whom used the full gamut of filibustering tactics in a united attempt to keep Italy out of NATO.

Despite the strong anti-Communist line-up in this critical period when Italy's postwar domestic and foreign policy was being shaped, my worries grew. Not only did the powerful Communist Party in itself make it very difficult to get democracy to work properly in Italy, but the Socialist alliance with the Communists made things even worse. The center coalition, formed by the Christian Democrats, Liberals, Social Democrats and Republicans, continued to hold the fort, but the strain of governing in such conditions was beginning to take its toll. The strong opposition mounted by the Communist-Socialist bloc meant that the coalition partners had every reason to fear that this bloc might sooner or later win an election, resulting in an alternative movement that would pose a major threat to the whole direction of Italy's domestic and international policy. This danger receded when, just before the 1953 elections, the Socialist Party began to develop a more independent line.

The prospect of a divorce between the Socialists and the Communists after so many years of wedlock thus began to emerge, and chances were that the Socialists might be won over into coming into a citadel of government that had hitherto been the preserve of the other democratic parties. Democracy in Italy was beginning to look rather less lame than I had thought up to that time. Many democratic political leaders started a campaign to get the Socialists into the government, and thereby leave the Communists on the sidelines as the sole opposition party. After some ten years of perseverance, this aim was achieved when a Center-Left government was finally put together.

Much hope was placed in the Center-Left formula and the participation of the Socialist Party in government. In the early 1960s, Italy's economy was still booming. It was felt that Italy's high potential for further growth could be harnessed to tackle some of the country's chronic problems, such as the depression in the south, unemployment and emigration as well as shortcomings in basic social services such as education, health, transportation and so on. So much for the initial intention. But as it turned out, pressure from the unions, whose policies were fundamentally irrational and misconceived, along with unremitting pressure from the Communist Party, a general failure to grasp the issues at stake in a modern industrial society and a tendency to muddle along on a constant diet of hand-to-mouth policies, all combined to thwart any such good intentions. First, it proved impossible to maintain the previous high growth rate. Then came May 1968, in Paris. The Italians followed the French example with a vengeance; instead of lasting just a month, as had happened in France, a total breakdown of the economic and social system became a permanent feature of the Italian scene. More recently this economic and social disarray has spread to undermine law and order and the very functioning of the country's institutions.1

To put my view of the turn of events in Italy between 1962 and 1976 in the most succinct terms possible, I will simply quote a statement I once made to a well-known Italian journalist: "In recent years, the Christian Democrats have distinguished themselves by mismanaging the country, the Communists by plumping for extreme socialism and populism, and the Socialists by contributing half the mismanagement and half the extreme socialism and demagogy."

As the economic and social situation, and with it law and order, deteriorated, the tenuous links that had held the Center-Left partnership together for 15 years became increasingly frayed. The Socialists brought their growing impatience into the open and, sensing the ever more active presence of the Communist Party in Italian society, finally demanded that it be included in the government. The grounds given were that if the Communists were to come out of opposition and be given some responsibility, this would help to solve Italy's problems while at the same time diminishing the attraction of the Communist Party to those sections of the electorate that were still voting Socialist.

Early in 1976 the Socialist Party brought down the Moro-La Malfa government, a Christian Democrat-Republican coalition. This led to a short-lived administration, containing only Christian Democrats, which held office until a general election was able to be called - ahead of term - on June 20, 1976.

The Christian Democrats went to the country on a platform firmly geared to keeping the Communists out. Voting returns gave the Christian Democrats 263 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the Communists 228, the Socialists 57, the Social Democrats 15 and the Republicans 14. The majority needed to form a government was 316 seats. It will be seen from these figures that a Center-Left coalition could still have been stitched together by the Christian Democrats, Socialists, Social Democrats and Republicans, who together mustered 349 seats compared to the Communists' 228. Yet, because the Socialists had formally declared that they would refuse to take part in any government that did not include the Communists, it was clear that the Center-Left era was over for good. In any case, that policy had already proved to be a failure. The Communist Party thus came out of 30 years' opposition into the general arena of government (albeit only through the device of abstaining on the confidence motion) that the democratic parties had managed to control since 1945. The Andreotti government, composed only of Christian Democrats, which lasted as long as 18 months, came into being on a vote of confidence from the Christian Democrats, but with all the other democratic parties, as well as the Communists, agreeing to abstain.

II

What was this Communist Party that had abstained from voting against the Andreotti government, that had abandoned its extremist opposition stance and joined forces with other parties that had agreed to abstain (or voted to keep) a democratic administration in office? Was it the Marxist-Leninist Party, imbued to the hilt with Soviet dogma, that we had encountered on the morrow of the Liberation? Or was it another party, committed to an earnest reappraisal of its old ideology, gradually feeling its way into the democratic fold? If the first hypothesis were right, then Italy's 30-year-old democracy had suffered its first crushing blow, because the Andreotti government had taken office on the strength of the Communist abstention. If the second were correct, then a new recruit to democracy had come to lend Italy a hand in its darkest hour.

This is the crux of the arguments for and against the democratic credentials of the Italian Communist Party, and with it, the credibility of the so-called Eurocommunist movement, that have been the subject of so much animated debate in Italy and throughout the world.

My opinion, which is shared by my party and broad sections of other parties, is that the PCI is now no longer the animal we knew so well during the Fascist period, the Resistance and the first decades of Italy's postwar republic. The new factors that I feel bear serious study are these:

1. For several years now, the PCI both in Italy and abroad has formally been declaring its willingness to respect the values of democracy, pluralism and free elections and renouncing its ideological commitment to achieve a proletarian dictatorship.

At the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution in Moscow last November, Soviet Party chief Leonid Brezhnev's hard-line reaffirmation of all the well-worn principles of Soviet dogma was followed by a speech from Enrico Berlinguer, Secretary of the PCI. Berlinguer calmly stated that his party believed in the historic, universal precepts of democracy, in the non-ideological nature of the state (i.e., not in the state as conceived by Marxist-Leninist doctrine), in the coexistence of different political parties, and in pluralism in society, culture and ideas. In the debate in Italy on the implications of all this, I made it clear that I felt what Berlinguer had said was significant, because he had said it on a solemn occasion in the presence of delegates from communist parties the world over. My feeling also was that his message would echo through the underground vaults of dissent in the Soviet-bloc countries to herald the arrival of a third heresy, after the Yugoslav and Chinese variants. Other commentators responded that whereas the Spanish Communist leader Santiago Carrillo had been barred from the podium, Berlinguer had been allowed to have his say. They took this to indicate that the Soviets might be working in closer rapport with the Italian Communist Party than with its Spanish counterpart. There is, however, another interpretation: the treatment meted out to Carrillo could have been designed as an indirect warning to Berlinguer himself. Preventing Berlinguer from speaking would have implied a tacit admission by the Soviets that the most powerful Communist Party in the West had become overly heretical, with all the consequences that would ensue. The Soviets could ill afford to let the pot boil over immediately. From Berlinguer's standpoint, as leader of that party, he had somehow to trigger the laborious process of easing the PCI out of its old ideological ways and loosening its time-honored allegiance to the Kremlin.

2. Around the same time, the PCI declared that it went along with the concept of Italy remaining within the NATO alliance, and that is was willing to work with other democracies toward building a European union. In recent foreign policy debates in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the Communists have joined democratic parties in putting their names to policy documents reaffirming the traditional principles of Italy's foreign policy, notably its membership in NATO and the European Community. The contrary view is that the PCI will ostensibly accept these principles at the outset, but seek to alter or overturn them later. Here it is worth recalling that when the Socialists joined the Center-Left coalition, they advocated a policy of total neutrality and were demanding that Italy withdraw from NATO. The Socialist Party has certainly done very little to advance Italy's social and economic progress. Against that, after so many years in government, it has not in fact even scratched the surface of Italy's traditional foreign policy. In any case, when the PCI asks for a say in the country's affairs, it is perfectly aware that it is in a minority position vis-à-vis the other democratic parties. If, on entering government, they were to repudiate Italy's foreign policy, this would be enough in the eyes of public opinion for the democratic parties to break up such a coalition, whereas in present circumstances the Communists can only be, as it were, put on trial for their alleged intentions.

In trying to come up with a clear assessment of this vital issue, another aspect should not be overlooked. The image the Italian Communist leaders had of the Soviet Union and the West before Khrushchev's revelations on the Stalinist era and the ensuing developments must be totally different from what they have learned in the light of years of political experience in a Western democracy like Italy, and profound inside knowledge of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. Party policies and the thinking of party leaders undergo some processes of reappraisal that can be admitted in public and others that, though unavowed, are all the more effective.

3. On the economic and social front, the PCI has of late been retreating from its traditional populist and demagogic stand based on a blind faith in collectivization, and has stated it is willing to back a tough policy aimed at setting Italy's economic and social house to rights, putting law and order on a sound footing, after all the depredations it has recently suffered, and consolidating the country's democratic institutions, all within the context of Italy's existing Western-style economy. Again, Luciano Lama, Secretary-General of the Communist CGIL, the largest trade union confederation, recently gave an interview to a Rome newspaper which aroused widespread comment. Lama stated that wages and employment could no longer be considered independent variables, and that, in pressing their claims since 1969, the unions had overlooked the question of unemployment. This had created a difficult situation, and a whole new approach was needed to help put the country on its feet again. In other words, Lama seemed to be intimating acceptance of the concept of an incomes policy and social compact that has helped the United Kingdom to recover from a crisis, characterized by high inflation, a huge balance-of-payments deficit and an excessive rate of government spending, that bedevilled it until a short while ago. Italy is now alone at the bottom of the EEC league, still wallowing in just such a crisis, precisely because its government has been powerless to secure the support of the unions in putting through a British-style rescue package. It may be objected that Lama made this statement just when Andreotti had fallen and the Communists were forcefully putting in their bid to enter government, or, at least, in a parliamentary majority. Yet those of us who feel, as I do, that Italy will plunge even deeper into crisis if the unions persist in the policies they have adopted since 1969 and that there is no way out of this crisis without cooperation among the government, the unions and industry, cannot afford to take Lama's offer too lightly.

Here it may be helpful to recall what I feel could have been a significant juncture in the war of words between Communist and democratic leaders in Italy in the past. In 1965, I took part in crowded public debates with the top-ranking Communists Pietro Ingrao and Giorgio Amendola. The point I put to them both was roughly this: you, as Communists, look back with longing to the 1917 Revolution which swept the Bolsheviks into power. But remember that Italy today could not be more different from the Russia of 1917, a country with practically no industrial development, inhabited by a vast mass of poverty-stricken peasants, oppressed by a Czarist regime that had no more notion of liberty then than its Soviet successor has now. Italy, with all its problems, is an advanced industrial nation, with highly variegated traditions, firmly in the mold of Western civilization. How do you really expect to import into Italy an ideology and a political solution that was applied to such a fundamentally different environment half a century ago? The Italian Republican Party (PRI), a minority but intellectually respected party, has been insistently preaching this theme ever since, and it is my modest but fond hope that it may have had some part in the current critical rethinking of the Italian Communist Party.

III

Leaving aside for the moment these three points, let me try to make a global assessment of the situation in political terms.

As indicated earlier on, the Christian Democrats emerged from the last general election in June 1976, unable to form a traditional Center-Left coalition because the Socialist Party, whose votes were essential to achieve an overall majority in Parliament, refused to take part in any government or coalition from which the Communist Party was excluded. The Andreotti government was thus brought in on the basis of a vote of confidence from the Christian Democrats and an agreement by all the other parties, democrats and Communists alike, to abstain. The Andreotti government survived for 18 months and was able to set about tackling some economic problems and a few issues of law and order, because the Communists let it survive on this basis for that long a time. A compromise had therefore already been arranged with the Communist Party, but it was certainly at most an illusion to expect it to allow such a situation to persist until the next general election. Sooner or later, the Communists were bound to ask for a greater say in running the country. In any case, precisely because Andreotti had to govern in this anomalous situation, without a real majority in Parliament, he was unable to make any substantial progress toward overcoming Italy's basic economic problems, i.e., the huge government budget deficit, the excessively high cost of social security, wage costs running far ahead of productivity, and the need to mount rescue operations for a broad segment of the country's industry, chiefly for large companies in severe financial difficulty. At this writing, now that the Andreotti government has fallen, only two options remain open. Either a new government must be formed with the Communists in it or in a parliamentary majority, or a general election must be called.

My party has advocated the first of these options, because an election at this time would not only split the country into two opposing camps, but would also adversely affect the fortunes of the smaller parties now lying between those camps. In any case, the Christian Democrats would still not have a large enough majority to form a government. The result would be very largely a repeat performance of the June 1976 election with both the Christian Democrats and the Communists picking up a few votes, but in the context of a further deterioration in law and order and the economic and social scene as a whole. Furthermore, the two main parties, on emerging battle-scarred from a bitter contest, would then have to seek a mutual accommodation in order to govern the country. In other words, in the continuing absence of any alternative to a compromise, the Christian Democrats after the election would perforce have to accept what they had refused to accept before it. Those who strongly oppose the entry of the Communists into the government or in a parliamentary majority (which, as I have sought to show, is unavoidable whether or not a general election is now held) are deploying every possible doom-laden argument to support their thesis. They refer to the experience the West has had of tactics whereby the Communists have managed to get into government, sometimes in cooperation with other political parties, only to take over afterwards and turn democracies into totalitarian regimes. They quote all the present Soviet-bloc countries as examples, culminating in the tragic fate of Czechoslovakia in 1948. If there were any margin for doubt, the authoritative voice of former U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now swept it away.

Taking this forbidding scenario for granted implies, of course, that no credence whatsoever is lent to anything the Eurocommunists in general and the Italian Communist Party in particular have been saying all this time about their willingness to abide by the rules of democracy and respect freedom. In short, the doomwatchers have convinced themselves that every word the Eurocommunists have uttered is just part of an intricate, cunning scheme to get into power and, once there, to lose no time in setting up a totalitarian regime.

Now, this view of Eurocommunism is not shared by many Italian democrats. First, it is unlikely that a Eurocommunist party would embark on a long, soul-searching reappraisal of its ideologies and policies, which not only involves its leaders but also the huge masses of its rank and file, only to make an abrupt turnabout on gaining power. As part of the current debate in Italy, a leading daily, Milan's Il Corriere della Sera, published an interview in January 1978 with Milovan Djilas, the noted Yugoslav political commentator, a man who has never had a soft spot for Communist totalitarian regimes, including his own country's, and has suffered persecution as a result. Here is what he had to say about Eurocommunism, and the Italian variety in particular:

The Kremlin has already lost a great deal of its influence on the Western communist parties and is afraid of losing its prestige and power over the Eastern parties as well. Its ideological objections are only put on for show. Russia's hostility to Eurocommunism is really of a political nature. The Spanish Communist Party and part of the Italian Party are in the slow process of abandoning Leninism. This is a process that can either go on or be stopped, depending on international developments and the particular political situation in each country. Personally, I am convinced that it will go on and even spread to the French Party, which at present is still Leninist in outlook.

Aside from this, it is hard to accept the reasoning that puts Italy on the same plane as Czechoslovakia in 1948, or Poland, or Hungary. Italy is neither occupied nor dominated by the Soviet army. She lies within the NATO defense structure, and these defenses the Communists accept. She has major U. S. bases on her soil. A coup supported by foreign military forces is therefore not in the cards, and any attempted internal coup would be vigorously resisted by the Italian army and police. While, as a whole, they could tolerate the Communists sharing in government, they would rebel if any attempt were made to turn the country over to a totalitarian regime. The prospect of this democratic state being successfully defended in extremis against such an eventuality, which, I believe, is in itself improbable in the extreme, gains weight when one remembers that the President of the republic, who will certainly not be a Communist, is in charge of the armed forces, including the police, and also presides over the supreme council of the judiciary. He is thus able to take all the decisions needed to cope with any extreme situation where Italy's democratic constitution might appear threatened. As I have said, I do not feel that such a situation is ever likely to arise.

Second, though the traditional democratic parties no longer have either the capacity or the will to go on keeping the Communist Party out of the coalition government or the parliamentary majority, they collectively wield enough power in Parliament to resist with every weapon at their disposal any attempt by the Communists to monopolize that government and overturn the constitution. To put it another way, people in many democratic parties do not feel they can adhere to their traditional dyed-in-the-wool anti-communism faced with a Communist Party leaning toward a democratic stance, yet they would fight tooth and nail if the Communists were to change their spots again.

And it is much easier to fight the Communists on the grounds of an attitude they might adopt today than it would be to fight them on the basis of circumstances that emerged many years ago in other countries in a totally different historical and political environment. Increasingly, the tendency in Italy today to give the Communists, as it were, the benefit of the doubt has come about because of the very difficult situation the country is now experiencing. This attitude would vanish overnight at the first inkling of any volte-face in the Communists' position. In any case, the impact of any such backtracking on the Communist rank-and-file would without doubt severely impair the Party's ability to maintain, let alone expand, its electoral base.

IV

These then are the checks and balances which we must rely on when arriving at an objective assessment of the state of Italy without at the same time falling prey to unwarranted preconceptions. There is also a further point that has been hinted at between the lines several times earlier in this article. Italy's deep economic, social and institutional crisis has brought it to the verge of becoming ungovernable in the democratic sense. An immense effort is needed to pull ourselves out of the trough, and bring the country back to its rightful place as a sound Western democracy. In such a situation it is fair to ask: What sense of responsibility would the democratic leaders be showing to the people who elected them if they shrugged off the Eurocommunists' offer on the basis of outdated prejudices?

Communist leaders of great sincerity (and I rate Enrico Berlinguer one of them) have wholeheartedly committed themselves to Eurocommunism. If, through the process of critical reappraisal that they have been going through for years, they fail to acquire democratic respectability, then their policy will have suffered a resounding defeat. The Communist Party will have to replace it once again by another policy. And that alternative policy can only be a return to Soviet-style orthodoxy. There would be no going back. A large section of Italian society would retreat once and for all beyond the democratic pale and would once again look to the Soviet Union for its lead. In Italy's present state, the reversion of its Communist Party to Soviet orthodoxy and a kind of neo-Stalinism could deal the coup de grace to a country with its institutional framework already in peril. This could result in near-revolutionary disorder, if not something bordering on civil war. A situation like this would be brought about, not by substantiated evidence that the Italian Communist Party is a threat to democracy, but by the preconceived notion that Eurocommunism is nothing but a false front for the communism of yore manipulated by the Soviet Union.

It would be extremely hazardous to throw Italy's fate in the balance on the basis of such a proposition, when the Communist Party has offered to help Italy out of its crisis without impinging on Italy's democratic traditions and ideals. Rather, it seems far more reasonable to put the PCI to the test on the job. If the Communists pass the test, Italian democracy will be consolidated and the country can be set on the road to economic and social renewal, thus strengthening Western democracy as a whole. If they fail, there will always be time, and no lack of ways and means, for a head-on, no-holds-barred confrontation between those forces that stand for democracy and freedom and those that wish to impose a nondemocratic regime. The state of Italy is now such that this test cannot be avoided.

One final word. The real risk of bringing the Communists into the government or into a parliamentary majority situation is not that Italy will meet the fate of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. It is that a government based on cooperation among Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists might be just as ineffective as those past governments made up of Christian Democrats and Socialists. The prospect of yet another government still lacking the authority and drive so vitally needed to set Italy's house in order, whatever its partners' good intentions, is my only anxiety. And it is this grim prospect that my own Party is pledged to do everything in its power to avoid.

Footnotes

1 See my writings on this subject including L'altra Italia, Milano: Mondadori, 1975; La Caporetto economica, Milano: Rizzoli, 1974; Intervista sul non governo in Italia, Bari: Laterza, 1977.

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