When Achille Occhetto, the new General Secretary, closed the debate at the Eighteenth Congress of the Italian Communist Party (P.C.I.) in Rome on March 21, the delegates gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. Spontaneously. The new leader had passed his test at the congress with tremendous success, giving a dispirited party a new injection of confidence by reassuring its members that their organization could be brought up to date in a spirit of continuity, that it could have new tasks and ambitions without disowning its principles and its itinerary. There were some novelties in Occhetto's platform: It dropped democratic centralism, put ecology at the heart of its policy and stressed the vital importance of the feminist movement, symbolically illustrated by the entry of ninety-three women into the 300-member Central Committee.
Contrary to some expectations, however, Occhetto did not make a clean break with the past. He preserved, as it were, the "C" in P.C.I. Indeed, while admitting mistakes, he proudly laid claim to the party's tradition. He also insisted on the P.C.I.'s autonomy, which in no way excluded working with other parties in the search for a left-wing alternative to the permanent rule of the Christian Democrats. And he carried this platform with only marginal dissent.
The Italian Communists badly needed such a fillip. True, they were, as Mikhail Gorbachev reminded them in a message to the congress, "precursors of perestroika" who had ceased to be subservient to Moscow and had got rid of their Stalinist habits much earlier than their comrades elsewhere. As a result, they were the only European C.P. to have remained the dominant force on their country's left. Even so, since the death five years ago of General Secretary Enrico Berlinguer, and the rise of Bettino Craxi as a successful Prime Minister and leader of a growing Socialist Party, the Communists have been losing nerve and votes. Hence the ovation for Occhetto.
The P.C.I. has no intention now of attacking capitalism. It has become a social democratic party in all but name, with a program in many respects less radical than that of the German Social Democratic Party, the P.C.I.'s partner of choice. Indeed, to stress this evolution, the P.C.I. proposes to leave the Communist group in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in favor of the Socialist one, and it is helped in these tactics by Gorbachev's foreign policy.
The snag in all this is Craxi, who is doing his best to disturb the P.C.I.'s wooing of Europe's social democrats. Craxi is ready for a domestic alliance with the Communists but only on the terms imposed by François Mitterrand in France, with the Communists as junior partners. The P.C.I. hopes to put pressure on Craxi by demonstrating that he is really more at home with the Christian Democrats. But even if the Communists manage one day to force him into a coalition, they should beware of precedent: When two partners reach an alliance on a moderate program, the one with the more moderate reputation tends to benefit most.
Last but not least, it is unclear whether the P.C.I. can still appear as a real, radical alternative to the status quo. It will take time to tell whether Occhetto's new line--strategy being too big a word -is effective. But it will be put to a test at once, in the European Parliament elections in June. Should the Communists make a poor showing, the divisions within the party between those who still wish to change society and those who wish only to manage it may well break through the March congress's veneer of unity.