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.
The real reasons for the proposed change in name and structure are essentially domestic. Under Berlinguer the party appeared to do well at first, propelled by the labor offensive that began in the “hot autumn” of 1969. Yet the historic compromise that Berlinguer offered to the dynamic wing of Italian big business after the fall of Allende in Chile and the onset of the deep economic crisis of the 1970s was never taken up in earnest. After a time the tide moved in the other direction. In Italy. as elsewhere, the restructuring of the economy led to a series of defeats for labor, notably at Fiat’s Turin factory in 1980. Besides, while incomparably more flexible than the French Communist Party, the P.C.I. never really came to terms with the three successive social movements of students, women and ecologists. To make matters worse, the general swing to the right has been exploited to some extent by Bettino Craxi–the ambitious new leader of the Italian Socialist Party–whose connection with socialism is purely nominal.
The party that Occhetto took over in 1988 is still, in some senses, a powerful force. Commanding the support of roughly a quarter of the Italian electorate, it is the dominant force on the Italian left, nearly twice as strong as Craxi’s P.S.I. But it is losing ground, with no electoral prospects and, at this point, no other vision. The apparent purpose of reorganizing the party into a looser body is to make it easier for newcomers to join, although one fails to see why women, students, greens or intellectuals should be any more attracted to a movement that offers an even less radical alternative.
The change of name makes more sense in the context of a search for an alliance with Craxi, or perhaps even a formal alliance with his Socialists. The P.C.I., claiming 1.S million members, remains a mass party with the vague reputation of intending somehow to transform society. By dropping the name “Communist,” it proclaims (or confirms) that it is in the same business as Craxi–the management of capitalism.
Sì for Schizophrenia?
It was necessary to recall all this history as Achille Occhetto ascended the rostrum to recite his marathon report, his image projected, Larger than life, on eight giant video screens. Occhetto spoke slowly and distinctly, and what he said sounded like sweet and reasonable music to leftist ears. He talked about the end of Yalta and the decline of the nation-state, the need for the entire European left to adapt to the new situation and the impossibility of the P.C.I. doing so alone. He spoke of liberty and equality, of the crucial contribution of women’s liberation, of the search for a “nondominant, nonviolent relationship with nature.”
And yet, as he went on, I felt a certain unease, which I understood only later as I reread the text of his speech. The reverend Occhetto was trying to be all things to all people; he preached everything and its opposite. But it is impossible to express solidarity with Daniel Ortega and at the same time accept NATO bases on Italian soil, even on newly negotiated terms. One cannot say that the workers must determine “the type, the rhythm, the finality and the organization” of their labor and also extol the “positive function” of private enterprise; or talk of a society “freed from all forms of exploitation and domination” while dis- missing the conflict between the Communist movement and capitalism as old hat. Or if one does, one should expect to be dismissed with an Italian song popular a few years ago: “Parole, Parole, Parole.”
This gap between rhetorical proclamations and concrete proposals was a feature of all the pleas for the Sì–though less so in the case of the “colonels,” Occhetto’s younger assistants, than in that of orators with a leftist background. The epitome was the intervention of Bruno Trentin, leader of Italy’s biggest union, the General Confederation of Italian Labor, and a quarter of a century ago one of the most original thinkers of Europe’s New Left. The tall, elegant Trentin sounded true to his past as he spoke intelligently of “the conquest of the new spaces of freedom by the subordinated workers, by the citizens, by all free subjects.” The snag was that his speech had no apparent connection with the battles being fought at the congress, the realignment of the party or the prospective alliance with Craxi.
I gained a better grasp of the need for duality when I talked that evening to a young college lecturer, . a woman from a solidly Communist family who now finds herself on the fringes of the party. “My mother feels really let down,” she said. All that we got, her mother thought, we got from capitalism; our own dreams are shattered. It was easy to tell her mother that capitalism gave only what it had to; it was much harder to deny the collapse of many of her ideals. The desire of many party members to see the P.C.I. play an active role in reforming Italian society is what gives Occhetto his chance. Their thirst for a project, for an alternative vision, explains why the pragmatic spokespeople for the Sì must also sound as if they have loftier ambitions.
Ingrao for Catharsis
While the advocates of the Sì had to waffle to conceal the contradictions in their arguments, their opponents refrained from pushing them to the point of provoking an open clash. Aldo Tortorella, who delivered a sort of counterreport on behalf of a No vote, did tell Occhetto that he could not remove “democratic centralism” through the door and then bring it back through the window: If the majority had the right to rule, the minority had the right to organize in order to reverse the party line. But he did not go so far as to say, You must choose, you can’t have it both ways. Both Tortorella and Alessandro Natta, a former first secretary who made a similarly passionate speech, gave the impression of deliberately steering away from a collision course.
Tortorella and Natta were former members of the party establishment who refused to follow Occhetto. But the most eagerly awaited spokesman for the No was Pietro Ingrao, the veteran leader of the party’s left wing. Presenting the closing argument for his side, Ingrao spoke in a gritty voice, visibly containing his emotion. That the world has changed and that the party has to do likewise is obvious. But the divergences begin with the question of what is to be done. Ingrao attacked the timidity of the party line in foreign affairs, especially on Germany. Why talk vaguely of the future dissolution of blocs instead of putting the issues of demilitarization and neutrality on the agenda?
He then moved on to the changes in contemporary society, the commercialization of the world of science and information, the altered nature of work since the days of Henry Ford and of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The old struggle had to be resumed at a new level in order “to reassert the worker’s new capacity for control and self-determination.” Without a new strategy and a revived movement the P.C.I. risks falling into a “subordinate collaboration” with Craxi’s Socialists. Then, the intellectual taking over from the political fighter, Ingrao mused that, while the computer may be faster than the mind, the riches of the human spirit “cannot be measured by any yardstick of the market.” He ended cryptically: “It’s true there are the guardians. But it is difficult to put the world in a straitjacket. And, on reflection, these keepers, however strong and ferocious, are in the end rather stupid.” The audience paused for a moment, either puzzling his meaning or thinking he had not yet finished, then burst into an extraordinary ovation. For some ten minutes people clapped, cried, chanted, hugged one another, sang “Bandièra Rossa” with its praise–strange under the circumstances–of communismo e libertà.
Why should a hall two-thirds filled with the followers of the leadership react in this way to the spokesman for the opposition? The answer is complex, and may give us an idea of the mood of this congress and the state of the party. There was clearly an element of personal admiration for the man himself, a respect for the prophet rather than the commissar. There was also a feeling of gratitude that he had preserved unity: Ingrao urged people to join the P.C.I., not to leave it (which makes sense, for the leaders of the No fear that their followers will now quit the party). And there was affection for the past, a note of nostalgia. Funeral rites may not have been entirely absent from this celebration, but there was something else at work: the half-conscious wish to be an agent of history, the desire among most of Occhetto’s followers to believe in the more radical part of his contradictory pronouncements.
The next morning Occhetto had the last word in the debate. He made some concessions- on Germany, on the right of organized dissent – and was rewarded with a standing ovation of his own. But his was more organized, more rhythmic, more routine. It matched the spontaneity of the previous night only when he embraced Ingrao. Thus, the congress closed with an ambiguous image.
Divided They Stand
Before the congress there were rumors that Occhetto, having made an alliance with the right wing of the party, would need the backing of the left to redress the balance. But such theories can now be discounted. Occhetto has made a strategic decision to seek an alliance with Craxi and is strong enough to carry the party with him. Whether the P.C.I. will be split in the process is harder to answer. The party now has a full agenda. It is supposed to open negotiations rapidly with intellectuals and anybody else who wants to talk. It is also due to hold a special convention to define its new program, and then to stage a new congress to approve its reincarnation-in principle before the end of the year. Will Occhetto and his colonels take advantage of their position to ram the whole process through? Will the now-organized opposition accept the line, resist, or choose to split rather than yield?
The so-called Pintor affair, which created a stir during the congress, provides some clues. The morning after Occhetto’s first report, Luigi Pintor, co-editor of Il Manifesto, wrote a scathing attack accusing the party leader of doing nothing to attract his political opponents. Twenty years ago, Pintor went on, we were three (an allusion to Pintor himself, Aldo Natoli and Rossana Rossanda, Central Committee members who were kicked out of the party because of their link with Il Manifesto); now it is a third of the party, and if Occhetto proceeds in this way, he will be responsible for a deep division. Next day the party paper, L’Unità, and a number of P.C.I. leaders and sympathizers launched a violent attack on Pintor for being divisive, reminding him that his election as an “Independent Left” deputy had depended on Communist support. The proud Pintor promptly resigned as deputy and the whole affair hit the headlines. The episode was a reminder that the party apparatus has not entirely abandoned its old habits: Moving to the right does not necessarily mean becoming more liberal and democratic.
There are other historical echoes in the Pintor case. If so few people followed the Manifesto group twenty years ago, it was largely because their mentor, Pietro Ingrao, opted for unity. Does his embrace of Occhetto suggest that he will do so once again when it comes to the crunch? Or is he now, as people close to him say, determined to stick to his line, whatever the consequences? My own guess is that communism as an idea may yet have a future in Italy, but that the days of the P.C.I. as an instrument of the radical transformation of society are over. In beautiful Bologna, with its walls mellowed by the centuries, a world was coming ambiguously to an end.