I thought I was going to the opulent city of Bologna, with its ancient red-brick palaces, for the funeral of the Italian Communist Party. The city’s modern palazzetto dello sport, where the confrontations usually involve basketball, did witness four days of theater and tension, of drama and passion. But the P.C.I.’s 19th Party Congress was never a duel to the death: It was shadowboxing or, more accurately, a fight in which the punches were pulled.
It was the third evening of the congress, March 9, that brought its undoubted climax, with a standing ovation for Pietro Ingrao, leader of the party’s opposition. Next morning, as Ingrao publicly embraced P.C.I. first secretary Achille Occhetto amid cries of “Unity! Unity!” it was possible to conclude that the party stood together and that its future was rosy. But in fact, my original instincts were probably correct. Bologna may not exactly have been a funeral for the party but it was probably the beginning of the end.
However ambiguous the debate may have been, the issue addressed by the largest Communist party in the West was crucial: Now that the Communist world 1s collapsing in Eastern Europe, what is the role of the Western parties that were once connected to that myth? Indeed, what is the function of any progressive party? Occhetto unwittingly raised this question back in November when he proposed to change the party’s name and structure to make it better able to win elected office–if not to take power. But he did not bargain for the resistance he encountered. This came not only from the left wing of the party but from the centrist majority that Occhetto heads. After a three-month fight, the Sì vote for his proposed changes carried the day by two to one, not a very impressive victory if one considers the clout of functionaries within the party, the habit of deference to the leadership and the news media’s overwhelming backing of Occhetto.
What’s in a Name?
Clearly there was more at stake than a change of name. The reasons for dropping the word “Communist” were somewhat symbolic: If the word implied a party prepared to seize power in revolutionary fashion, the P.C.I.–inventor of the compromesso storico, or “historic compromise”–had long ago lost any such reputation. Nor was the aim to avoid guilt by association. Admittedly, it is absurd to claim that the Italian party was never Stalinist: All the parties of the Third International were. It is also worth recalling that twenty years ago the party expelled the editors of Il Manifesto–then a budding monthly, now an independent communist daily–for refusing to accept that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia could be explained as “an error” and insisting that the crime said something about the very nature of Soviet society.
On the other hand, perhaps because the P.C.I. had to work underground during the Fascist period, Moscow’s direct influence was less than elsewhere; the subtle ideas of Antonio Gramsci, one of the party’s founders, survived to some extent. Then, after the war, Palmiro Togliatti proved a more sophisticated leader than Maurice Thorez in France by elaborating the concept of polycentrism (the forerunner of Eurocommunism) before his death in 1964. By 1981 the divorce with Moscow was complete, with P.C.I. secretary general Enrico Berlinguer arguing publicly that “the impetus of October  is by now exhausted.” The Italian party, then, is less damaged than its French or Portuguese counterparts by the collapse of regimes in Eastern Europe that it had openly condemned.