Assessing Togliatti

Palmiro Togliatti helped build the Italian Communist Party into the envy of the European left. But just how tangible was his Italian road to socialism?

Palmiro Togliatti in 1963. Marisa Rastellini

The collapse of the Soviet Union had dramatic consequences for the anti-Stalinist left internationally. Far from just freeing Marxism of its association with the bureaucratic regimes of the East, 1989–91 brought a wave of capitalist triumphalism. The victory of the new neoliberal managerialism was expressed in not only the rightward turn of social democrats and ex-Communists, but also the inability of anarchists or Trotskyists to fill the “vacuum” they hoped their rivals had left behind.

While the crisis beginning in 2008 has seen episodic breakthroughs for the radical left, from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, there has been no revival of the old dissident-Marxist minorities. Recent years have instead seen a renaissance of Eurocommunism — the reform current that emerged in the post-1968 Western Communist parties, rejecting the most authoritarian and class-reductionist aspects of the Leninist tradition.

Having grown out of the libertarian fad that accompanied 2011’s “squares movements,” Europe’s radical left today looks more warmly on the Eurocommunist current and its intellectual forebears in the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Not only has Antonio Gramsci long been a key academic reference point from political science to cultural studies, but something of the same aura surrounds the PCI more widely. This particularly owes to the sense that the independent “Italian road to socialism” pioneered by Stalin-era PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti and developed by his 1970s successor Enrico Berlinguer offers an alternative to the defunct Soviet model.

Beyond the Latin American reflections of Gramsci’s thinking on the “national-popular,” figures like Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias today invoke Togliatti and Berlinguer as part of their own intellectual inspiration. Recent translations of Lucio Magri’s The Tailor of Ulm, Rossana Rossanda’s The Comrade from Milan, and Lucia Castellina’s Discovery of the World have also fed interest in the Italian road to socialism in Anglophone countries.

These latter authors in fact each come from Il Manifesto, a dissident current that emerged in the PCI in the late 1960s, and would ultimately survive the party’s 1991 demise. Unlike the PCIers who refashioned themselves as centrist “Democrats” after the fall of Soviet socialism, these left-Togliattians sought to maintain a connection between present-day social movements and the historical traditions of what had once been the West’s largest Communist party. Looking beyond mere “protest,” it is unsurprising that their defense of the PCI’s struggle to build a Communist cultural and political hegemony appeals to a radical left today seeking to regain its transformative power.

Nonetheless, the party’s history remains little understood in the anglophone world. Telling in this regard is the widespread identification of the PCI with the phrase “long march through the institutions,” a quote by German student radical Rudi Dutschke often wrongly imputed to Antonio Gramsci.

But what can we learn from the PCI’s Italian road to socialism? In this article we shall seek to understand Italian Communism in a historical perspective, looking at it in terms of longtime leader Palmiro Togliatti’s concrete actions during his leadership and not just the party’s Gramscian-inflected theoretical canon.

This moreover means questioning the idea that the PCI built an “alternative path” to socialism, on which road its lingering attachment to the Soviet Union merely represented an obstacle. Without doubt, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is understandable that Togliatti’s admirers today attempt to free his legacy of its Moscow connection. However, their efforts seem rather less convincing when we consider the PCI’s own failure to survive the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here we shall argue that Togliatti’s Italian road to socialism was in fact a partial realization of the Soviet model, beginning with its origins in the interwar Communist movement.

Birth of a Giraffe

In one 1960 parliamentary exchange, liberal MP Ugo La Malfa asked PCI general secretary Palmiro Togliatti how a party with such strong roots in the Stalin-era Third International (the Comintern) could nonetheless proclaim itself the best defender of Italian democracy — indeed, the patriotic “party of the whole Italian people.” Togliatti replied that La Malfa was like “the man who visiting a zoo, and seeing a giraffe, denies the evidence in front of his eyes, insisting that such a creature could not exist.” La Malfa conceded that there was no doubt that the “giraffe” existed, but what strange gestation process linked it to its “rhinoceros, elephant or lion” forebears?

The PCI’s peculiarities were in part a byproduct of fascism, its development heavily shaped by two decades of repression. With landowners and industrialists throwing their weight behind Mussolini’s blackshirts during the bitter class struggles following World War I, and Italy’s liberal authorities raising a fascist-led government to power in October 1922, the barely year-old Communist Party was quickly destroyed. Almost all Communist cadres were forced into prison or exile by 1926.

Only in the anti-Nazi Resistance of 1943–45 would they return to mass activity, as the clandestine PCI became the leading partisan force. The party’s dramatic evolution in the intervening period however owed not only to fascism’s effect on Italian society, but also to exiled PCI leaders’ apprenticeship in the Moscow-directed Comintern.

The PCI’s undisputed leader from the Great Depression to the Kennedy years, Togliatti was not its first general secretary — an honor that instead went to Amadeo Bordiga. Yet even as the Communists broke from the Socialist Party in 1921, claiming the mantle of Russian Bolshevism, the twenty-seven-year-old Togliatti was co-editor of Antonio Gramsci’s Turin daily L’Ordine Nuovo. Ironically, in the first two years of the Communist Party’s life, Togliatti was politically closer to the leftist Bordiga than to Gramsci. While after the 1921 split the Comintern soon tried to force the Italian Communists to re-merge with Giacinto Serrati’s left-socialists (terzini, so named in reference to their will to join the Third International) Togliatti opposed such a compromise, believing the time right for offensive action.

However, with the ebbing of the European revolutionary wave of 1916–1923 and the advent of fascism in Italy, Togliatti and Gramsci came to represent a distinct tendency in the Communist Party, advocating a more mediated strategy. They became the party’s center current, and soon also the core of its organization. Where Bordiga’s left maintained its revolutionary intransigence and Angelo Tasca’s right advocated reunion with the Socialists, the center sought to combine “united fronts” over economic and democratic struggles with a conditional process toward rapprochement with the terzini. This matched positions now gaining ground in a Comintern losing faith that it could rapidly export the Russian Revolution abroad. After Bordiga was jailed by Mussolini in 1923, the “center” took charge of the party, also heading off the threat of Moscow imposing Tasca from above.

This early faction-fighting bore signs of themes that would define the Communists’ relationship with Moscow across the next four decades, and thus Togliatti’s own career. While enjoying Comintern backing, the center had arisen as an organic component of the party, making a belated and defensive response to the rise of fascism. However, the actual instrument of Gramsci and Togliatti’s victory over the Left was brazen manipulation, arbitrarily counting the ballots of all delegates unable to attend the decisive 1926 congress — held in French exile — as votes for the “center.”

Henceforth Togliatti would unwaveringly defend Soviet policy while using this loyalty to preserve his freedom of action within the PCI. This was perhaps first expressed in his refusal to pass on Gramsci’s 1926 letter addressed to the Bolshevik Politburo, in which the Sardinian had even-handedly criticized the uncomradely tone set by both sides in the Stalin-Trotsky clash.

The 1920s centralization of the Comintern — and, interacting with this, the weakness of its non-Russian sections — imposed often erratic strategic zig-zags on the Communist parties, including the “Third-Period” line of 1928–1934. This offensive policy originated in Stalin’s hardening domestic rule but also enjoyed a certain plausibility on account of the political crisis in the Depression-era West.

As the Soviet state accelerated its “anti-kulak” war all Comintern sections declared revolution imminent and claimed that social democrats were now mere “social fascists” blocking their advance. The PCI leaders forming a centro estero in Paris hurled similar invective at socialist and liberal exiles, while also mounting a turn to “send everybody [i.e. exiled cadres] back to Italy” despite privately recognizing fascism’s strength. Driven by Comintern dogma and not Italian underground initiative, this turn produced no concrete results, with the average PCI organizer crossing the Alps lasting just seventeen days before arrest.

Decades later, in a classic invocation of the PCI’s “national” credentials, Togliatti would justify his embrace of Third Period positions by characterizing it as a means of defending his party’s autonomy. He argued that not to have followed Stalin’s line — even while considering it senseless — could only have meant the Kremlin “imposing a new leadership from the Left, with a few lads from [Moscow’s] Lenin School.”

The Comintern would indeed oust French Communist Party leader Pierre Semard on precisely this basis in 1928. Yet on the Comintern Executive it was Togliatti himself who had first attacked Semard’s failure to follow the Third Period line, seeking to prove his own loyalty to Moscow. This eagerness moreover helped him entrench his authority among PCI exiles, demands for obedience to this policy (and together with it, denunciation of Trotsky’s opposition) serving as his instrument for expelling party founder Bordiga, as well as Central Committee member Pietro Tresso.

The Popular Front

Despite such loyalism, Togliatti did also have a specific political vision of his own, expressed in many of his more theoretical works. Already in 1925, the Lyons Theses he co-authored with Gramsci had emphasized the need for a specifically Italian conception of socialist strategy, tailored to the country’s social conditions and the need for the working class to find non-proletarian allies in winning progressive and democratic gains short of socialism. This argument first raised its head in response to the isolation of the post–World War I Italian left and the advent of fascism, and a greatly expanded version of this strategic outlook would become dominant in the Comintern after 1933 as the Communist parties abandoned the Third Period line in response to the Nazi takeover in Germany.

Contrary to Third Period radicalism, the Popular Front policy adopted by the Comintern’s 1935 Seventh Congress prioritized antifascist defense, building an international coalition against Nazi Germany including multi-class fronts in each country. Together with Bulgaria’s Georgi Dimitrov, Togliatti was the main intellectual exponent of this policy at the international level, advocating not only overcoming the Communist-Socialist splits of 1917–1921 and the formation of united working-class parties, but also a broader bloc of antifascist “masses.” Analyzing fascism as the “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” the Seventh Congress displaced class struggle onto “the people’s’ fight” against the minority interests of “monopoly capital” and pro-Nazi elites.

The Popular Front Comintern’s strategic focus on isolating Nazi Germany also implied a turn in search of ruling-class allies, and this was particularly necessary in an Italy where the regime had sought to build a “totalitarian” control of all social life. Explaining fascism’s bases of mass support, Togliatti’s Popular Front–era analyses — most significantly his 1935 Lectures on Fascism — built on the Lyons Theses he had co-authored with Gramsci in 1925. This reading was perceptive in recognizing that fascism in fact had social roots beyond its support among the high bourgeoisie, as well as the need for a crisis within the regime to bring the working and rural masses out of their passivity. However, this reading also had the effect of downplaying the importance of agitating for social revolt in favor of producing cracks among Italy’s elites.

To this end, from 1935 onward the exile party sought to “extend a hand to honest fascists,” sowing disruption within the regime’s own organizations. This approach was notably concretized in its adoption of patriotic themes, accusing Mussolini of “selling out the patria” to Germany. This focus would shape even the PCI’s opposition to Mussolini’s colonial drive for Ethiopia in 1935–36, with its Lo Stato Operaio declaring that Italy’s “legitimate territorial interests” were located in the Balkans (a zone of competition with Germany) and not Africa (already “taken” by Britain and France).

This bid to grab patriotic territory from the Right also inspired PCI efforts at cultivating dissidents within the fascist university groups. One instrument of this policy was the party’s re-fashioning of regime ideologue Giovanni Gentile’s onetime talk of a “second risorgimento [unification of Italy]” to achieve a fuller national independence and unity of Italians. Prominent recruits from this work in fascist student organizations included Pietro Ingrao, Mario Alicata, Giorgio Napolitano, and Renato Guttuso.

At the international level, Popular Frontism did also include a drive for social progress through democratic means. In 1936, in France and Spain, alliances of Socialists, Communists, and liberals were victorious at the polls, introducing measures such as the forty-hour week. However, in seeking the widest alliance against Nazi Germany, the Communist Parties resisted anything that might feed the Western democracies’ fear of the spread of communism.

This moderation reached extreme proportions after Franco’s military coup against the Spanish Republic. The Communists rallying to the war against fascism not only denounced the Barcelona anarchists’ and the dissident-Marxist POUM’s adventurism for dividing the republican front, but even militarily clashed with these leftist rivals. As the Comintern’s lead representative in Spain, Togliatti defended the killing of oppositionist leaders like the POUM’s Andreu Nin.

In years in which the Western colonial powers acquiesced in the rise of Franco and made a series of territorial concessions to Hitler, the Communist parties’ energetic antifascism greatly swelled their ranks across Europe. From 1935 to 1939 they were everywhere the most consistent opponents of appeasement. The problem from Moscow’s perspective was that building collective security against Nazi expansionism demanded not only large satellite parties or the rallying of public intellectuals to Communist-led antifascist fronts, but state allies able to mobilize (or at least threaten) real military force against Hitler.

Thwarting this policy was British and French conservatives’ continued prioritization of anticommunism over anti-Nazism, tacitly backing the Franco coup, and responding only passively to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. Unable to seal a Western alliance, in August 1939 Stalin abruptly switched to the opposite strategy, making a pact with Hitler.

This non-aggression pact bought time for the Soviet Union, but also forced all Communist parties internationally to abandon their previously sharp antifascism. They now deemed the war a mere clash of imperialisms, with the French Communist Party, in particular, heaping blame on the City of London rather than Hitler for starting the war.

With the PCI’s French sister party banned as war broke out in September 1939, Paris-exiled leaders like Togliatti were themselves arrested. Apparently unaware of his real identity, French police however released him in time for him to escape to Moscow before the German invasion in May 1940. The following month Mussolini would bring Italy into the war, before the Axis powers launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

From Resistance to “Salerno Turn”

As the Axis onslaught forced the beleaguered Soviet Union into alliance with Britain and the United States, the Comintern returned to a straightforwardly antifascist policy. Communists across Europe joined with other democratic and patriotic forces in anti-Nazi resistance movements, aiding the Allies while forming provisional governments for their respective countries.

In August 1941, Umberto Massola formed a centro interno to reorganize the PCI on Italian soil, and after Germany occupied Italy in September 1943, the Communists formed a National Liberation Committee (CLN) together with with Socialists, Actionists (republican-socialists), liberals, and Christian Democrats. In this same period, the Allied powers began dividing out their postwar “spheres of influence,” apportioning Western and Mediterranean regions to the United States and Britain and central and Eastern Europe to the Soviets.

In this context, Togliatti’s party placed an absolute priority on realizing national unity in the CLN, fearful that the Anglo-Americans and their local agents might otherwise deny the Communists a place in Italy’s post-liberation political order. Indeed, foreign Communist parties mounting a more aggressive strategy would encounter mixed fortunes. Whereas in Yugoslavia the Communist-dominated resistance fought a successful struggle against semi-collaborationist Serb monarchists, as well as the German and Italian occupation forces, winning state power as partisans liberated the Balkans without direct Allied intervention, in Greece the invading British weighed in on the side of the royalists, bloodily crushing the Communists by 1949. Unwilling to give the West a pretext to interfere with its own plans for Red Army–occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet leadership did nothing to save its Greek comrades.

Largely ignorant of these geopolitical questions, much of the PCI base was reticent over the CLN alliance. This also owed to Italian-based militants’ long separation from exiled cadres and their Popular Front policy. Fascism had crushed the party at a moment when the Bordiga-Gramsci clash was still unresolved; and with Togliatti’s anti-“Trotskyite” purges affecting only exile and prison organization, most militants had never imbibed the Comintern’s authoritarian culture or experienced the kind of cross-class alliances that characterized the 1930s Communist parties elsewhere in Europe.

Hence, as Comintern-trained exiles returned to Italy in the war years, their approach came as a culture shock to Communists who had spent the fascist period on home soil. For PCI grandee Giorgio Amendola, “almost all the groups with which the [Center] entered into contact [in 1941–42] proved sectarian and extremist in orientation, and thus motivated neither to understand nor accept its political initiatives.”

Powerful Communist-organized strike waves from March 1943 onward fed militants’ sense of coming social change. A silenced minority in an Italy where the fascist, the boss, and the police had formed a two-decade united front, the hitherto isolated militants who mobilized the first revolts against fascism were often hostile to right-wing elements of the CLN who had previously either backed Mussolini or maintained a lofty social standing under his regime. The partisan war against the German occupation beginning in September 1943 developed in a period in which civil-society-type mediations of bourgeois power were particularly weak, with the ruling class collectively having presided over military fiasco and a collapse in the food supply. While on July 25, 1943 the king finally sacked Mussolini, with ex-fascist Marshal Badoglio forming a new government, their failure to organize any opposition to the German invasion forty-five days later led to the chaotic breakup of the conscript army, mirroring the wider collapse of state institutions.

Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony and “war of maneuver” had no perceptible impact on PCI Resistance strategy. The mass of grassroots militants were in any case basically ignorant of Gramsci’s specific ideas, beyond revering him as an “antifascist martyr.” While Togliatti secured control of the late Sardinian’s prison writings in 1938, he would publish them in abridged form only starting in 1947.

The limited references to Gramsci in the wartime PCI press flatly subordinated his thinking to party policy, making him the mouthpiece for attacks on “Trotsky, Fascism’s whore” and calls for patriotic mobilization. Togliatti invoked Gramsci in just such a spirit as he returned to Italy in March 1944, announcing that the PCI would support Marshal Badoglio’s royalist government in the name of national unity. While this Allied-backed regime was initially composed of disaffected fascists breaking with Mussolini, in April 1944 the CLN parties also joined its ranks in order to strengthen the war effort.

Precisely because this so-called “Salerno Turn” (named after the seat of Badoglio’s government) marked a dramatic break from the party’s class-struggle origins, historians have long questioned its real motives. For PCI-loyalist writers this broad alliance expressed Togliatti’s patriotic credentials, moreover affirming a supposedly Gramscian-inspired commitment to the unity of Italy’s democratic forces. Invoked by 1970s PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer in his own bid for a “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy (DC), the March 1944 Salerno Turn was also mythologized as a point of departure for the party’s independent Italian road to socialism after the Comintern’s May 1943 dissolution.

Liberal and far-left critics of this narrative instead considered Togliatti’s policy a classic example of Popular Frontism, or even one Stalin had ordered in conformity with his deals with Churchill and Roosevelt. Numerous accounts thus characterize the dissent over this turn among PCI ranks as an expression of Italian militants’ rebellion against Stalinist realpolitik.

However, in a sense Togliatti’s March 1944 Salerno Turn was more the end of this dissent than its beginning. Since the outset of the partisan war in September 1943 layers of the Communist base had mobilized separately of the CLN, insisting that their struggle aimed not at a restoration of liberal democracy, but socialist revolution. During the armed Resistance in Rome a dissident Movimento Comunista d’Italia (Italian communist movement) was actually larger than the official PCI organization, and at this point a similar movement called Stella Rossa had about half as many members as the underground Communist Party in its Turin industrial heartland.

Similar oppositions spread from Naples to the towns north of Milan in autumn 1943 as communists pursued the intransigent aim of “doing what they did in Russia,” hoping to use their dominance among partisan ranks to seize power by force. Fired up by the idea of “turning war into revolution, like Lenin did” at the end of the 1914 conflict, these militants rejected “class collaboration” in the CLN.

Identifying the Soviet Union of 1943 with the state they had known before fascism, these oppositions were so strongly Soviet-inspired that they even accused Togliatti of betraying Stalin. As Luigi Cortesi has noted, under fascism a communist underground ignorant of Soviet realities came to use that state as a mere “blank screen for the projection of class feelings and class radicalism,” fantastically idolizing a “workers’ fatherland” opposite to Mussolini’s regime.

A fascist press magnifying the Soviet threat in order to harden its middle-class base itself indirectly served to fan this cult of Stalin, as it identified all opposition with the menacing “Bolshevization of Europe.” In November 1943 Rome PCI organizer Agostino Novella could thus speak of the young militants “knocking on the door of our party, dazzled, seduced and enthused by the Soviet Union’s clamorous political and military victories,” “wanting to ‘do what they did in Russia, to go too far for the current moment . . . for they are anything but persuaded by the national-front policy, which they deride as reformist and collaborationist.’”

Historians’ arguments over the motives for the Salerno Turn have today effectively been settled, with Soviet archives opened up after 1991 showing that Stalin personally ordered the policy that Togliatti was to implement. Yet while previous debates long assumed that the PCI’s claimed “autonomy” reflected positively on the decision — as against the impression of a party following Stalin’s diktats — this offers an only partial view of the realities of 1944.

Given the prestige of the Soviet Union and the strongly Stalinist inspiration of the dissident movements that arose in autumn 1943, the fact that Moscow had defined Togliatti’s policy actually helped cohere militants behind this position, giving a Soviet guarantee to the strategy announced by the PCI leader. When Togliatti arrived in Naples from Moscow at the end of March 1944, preaching an alliance of all “national” forces, he came with the authority of a decision taken at and by the Kremlin. No longer could anyone doubt the consonance of the PCI line and Soviet foreign policy; dissidents whose own belief in the imminence of revolution was fired by their cult of Stalin were exposed for their confusion.

Pushing Resistance politics onto the institutional terrain, the Salerno Turn guaranteed the Togliattians both a place in government and dominance over the Left. In Rome, where the greatest opposition had developed, the strategy also came just a week after the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine, where the SS had murdered 335 antifascist and Jewish prisoners. This decapitated the Resistance’s military leadership in the capital and undermined the dissidents’ ability to raise independent armed forces.

When the British-American forces liberated Rome on June 4, 1944 Badoglio was displaced in favor of 1920s liberal prime minister Ivanoe Bonomi. Two days later Palmiro Togliatti issued a call for PCI-affiliated partisans around Italy to establish CLN power locally but “without imposing changes in a socialist or communist sense.” For all their thousands of participants, later insurrections in such cities as Turin and Milan were conditioned by this same policy, with the PCI already having become a junior partner in the coalition government.

A Cold-War Constitution

April 25, 1945 marked the liberation of Italy’s northern cities, with Resistance fighters seizing control of these industrial centers just hours before the arrival of Allied troops. Two days later, Communists stopping a motorcade headed for Switzerland caught Benito Mussolini and his last remaining associates — shooting the fallen duce and his mistress, they hung their bodies upside-down in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. With Berlin falling to Soviet forces on May 2, the Nazi nightmare was over. In its wake would follow the reorganization of Europe, both East and West. The geopolitical constraints that had shaped the Resistance would however only expand in the postwar period.

The slow Allied advance through Italy from July 1943 to April 1945 had allowed for the beginning of a democratic transition process, gradually handing power from Badoglio’s post-fascist government to the CLN parties. As Lucio Magri highlighted, the sheer length of this two-year struggle allowed Resistance forces to build up their political authority far more effectively in Italy than in Germany or Japan. However, following the Allies’ arrival (and under Allied pressure) the PCI quickly ordered its partisans to down their weapons, as it sought to build a new Italy through democratic means and maintain its legal status. On June 2, 1946 the CLN parties held elections to a Constituent Assembly and a simultaneous referendum on the monarchy.

The results of this first postwar vote, following over twenty years of dictatorship, reflected the demobilization of the radical social struggles of the Resistance period. While a narrow majority of Italians voted for a Republic, the Constituent Assembly election demonstrated the disparity between the composition of the wartime partisans (Communist-dominated, with Actionists and Socialists the other main forces) and that of the national electorate. The vote was a first sign of the sizeable Catholic-conservative bloc that would now become the base of Christian Democracy’s strength.

The wartime antifascist coalition persisted into 1947, with the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists together authoring a new constitution. Enshrining progressive ideals like the right to work, women’s suffrage, and declaring the state a “democratic republic founded on labor,” Italy’s 1948 constitution still today remains a proud achievement of the Left. The need for cross-party unity however also determined significant concessions from the Communists, for instance acceptance of the Lateran Accords organized by Mussolini in 1929, recognizing the Catholic Church as the sole religion of the Italian state. As justice minister, Togliatti moreover sought to pacify continuing violence by issuing a general amnesty covering most fascists’ crimes.

While the PCI sought to maintain the wartime coalition in a gradual advance toward “progressive democracy” in Italy, the Cold War pressures on the country soon saw the Communists ejected from government. Like its French counterpart, the PCI was thrown out of the ruling coalition in spring 1947, beginning over four decades of Christian Democratic dominance. In April 1949, the formally neutral character of the Republic created by the CLN parties itself came to an end, as Christian Democratic premier Alcide de Gasperi brought Italy into the NATO alliance. The Catholic Church excommunicated the Communists three months later, as the Christian Democrats warned voters “In the secrecy of the polling booth God can see you, Stalin can’t.”

The vehement PCI protests against Italy joining NATO, including near-rioting in the Chamber of Deputies, reflected the party’s keen awareness that bloc alliances would determine its future. The March 1944 Soviet recognition of the Badoglio government, followed by Togliatti’s own Salerno Turn, had itself sought to empower Italy as an independent actor, backing those conservative forces most hostile to the country becoming the plaything of its Allied liberators. This was comparable to the Soviet Union’s relatively friendly relations with Charles de Gaulle, champion of an autonomous French imperialism not simply kowtowing to Washington.

In the postwar period, the PCI’s call for “national independence” and “multi-polarism” reflected this same basic agenda, while also serving as a means of asserting its patriotic credentials. Tellingly, the PCI would even finance the left-fascist review Pensiero Nazionale as it sought to empower the “radical” anti-NATO faction of the fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), in a common opposition to US dominance over the country.

The contradictions of the PCI’s place in the new state were however most starkly illustrated by the July 14, 1948 assassination attempt against Togliatti, the act of a far-right gunman. Tensions had already surrounded April’s national elections, at which the strongly US-backed Christian Democrats had secured sizeable parliamentary majorities at the expense of the Socialists’ and Communists’ joint Popular Democratic Front.

Yet as militants heard news that the PCI leader had been shot, armed demonstrations and occupations of factories and even police stations spread across Italy. Weapons “laid down” in 1945 were now again dug up and paraded in Italian streets; for many, this was the moment of final insurrection, just like the coup in Czechoslovakia five months prior.

PCI leaders fearing an all-out conflict and the possible repression of the party reined in the most adventurist elements, and over subsequent days the hospital reports on Togliatti’s improving condition further helped pacify the situation. Certainly an uncoordinated armed struggle for power would have little chance of success.

What the grassroots Communist mobilization nonetheless showed was the continuing influence of the idea of doppiezza (duplicity), with the most diehard militants imagining that the party’s commitment to democratic structures had been a mere preparatory stage or ploy before a later seizure of power. Whereas Togliatti never promoted this idea, its persistence in PCI ranks served to maintain something of the party’s revolutionary luster regardless of its reformist practice.

A Country Within a Country

Italy’s 1960s New Left arose in a context of Christian-Democratic dominance, with one of its founding acts the revolt against a right-wing government reliant on the parliamentary support of the MSI. This New Left portrayed Togliatti’s Salerno Turn as the moment in which the PCI had ensured the “continuity of the state,” propping up Italy’s institutions at their moment of greatest crisis.

In this view, the 1948 constitution’s first article proclaiming Italy a “democratic Republic founded on labor” represented only the new state’s hypocrisy, valorizing workers’ contribution to national reconstruction even as it denied them political power. In a sense PCI leaders were themselves aware of this contradiction, with Cold War anticommunism and the sizeable US-NATO presence in the country effectively barring the party from office in the republican institutions which they had helped to create.

The 1946 referendum abolishing the monarchy and the writing of a constitution that promised far-reaching social progress were serious achievements for Togliatti’s strategy, but Italian democracy remained blocked throughout the postwar period, incapable of meaningful changes of government. It is often noted that Italy has had one government per year since World War II: yet every one of the forty-nine republican administrations before the PCI’s 1991 collapse was based on the parliamentary dominance of the Christian Democracy party.

The biggest factor in this governmental turnover was the rotation of roles between different DC factions, as the permanent ruling party dished out patronage among its various component parts. While the PCI’s hopes of entering office relied on winning over a section of Christian Democracy, ironically it was only the Communists’ self-immolation in 1991 that succeeded in melting the glue holding the DC together.

Given the Christian Democrats’ long-term squatting of Italy’s republican institutions, the Communists were effectively compelled to build bases of hegemony outside of government. In this sense, what is today known as the Italian road to socialism was shaped rather less by the theories of Antonio Gramsci than by geopolitical factors imposing limits on the Left’s strategic possibilities. The PCI’s exclusion from government in an otherwise democratic system allowed it to hegemonize the labor movement and build up para-institutions outside the central state (from the 1970s, including in the new regional governments). It maintained the endlessly deferred promise of transformative change, precisely because it could never reach power.

In this sense the conditions of the PCI’s postwar rise were comparable to those of the late nineteenth-century German Social Democratic Party (SPD), insofar as each organization dominated working-class political representation yet remained structurally excluded from state power. Like the SPD — the first-placed party in every general election from 1890 onward, yet denied office by the Second Reich’s unequal “class” voting system — the PCI built up an impressive array of cooperatives, mutual aid associations, and cultural bodies, forming what Pier Paolo Pasolini termed a “country within a country,” independent of the corrupt central state. The lack of a welfare state and tying of social rights to work history under endless Christian Democrat rule gave the PCI the political space to build a web of para-institutions, albeit without ever being allowed to take over national budgets.

At the most narrowly cultural level, Togliatti’s PCI was at the heart of a renovation of the arts, reflecting Gramsci’s idea of building the “national popular.” Again here the party’s mobilization of directors, artists, and other literati in creating a Communist-hegemonized mass culture answered a void left by Italy’s strongly elitist traditions, though in this sense the attractions of Hollywood and not censorious Catholicism would ultimately prove its fiercest foe.

Nonetheless, the concern to appeal to the “Catholic world” and to appease the Church’s often virulent anticommunism did also lead the PCI to embrace conservative family values, with even such important fronts as the Communist-dominated Union of Italian Women focusing on economic and broadly democratic campaigning to the exclusion of issues such as divorce, abortion, or still less any wider questions of sexuality.

In 1948 Togliatti caused a furor within (and outside) the party by leaving his common-law wife Rita Montagnana and their son. Only the previous year the PCI together with the Christian Democrats (and unlike the Socialists and Republicans) had voted to enshrine the Lateran Pacts in the constitution, thus handing the Catholic Church a veto on divorce. Explaining the party’s opposition to divorce rights at the first PCI women’s conference, Togliatti declared that “in a profoundly shaken country we must above all defend the unity of the family.”

Assuming that women were inevitably economically dependent on their husbands, this was dismissed as a “middle-class concern,” a mere recipe for disruption and poverty. In the 1960s new movements (and not least the growing ranks of employed women) would challenge such a reactionary view — the moralistic and prudish PCI however long remained as deaf to these women’s demands as to those of gays considered mere “bourgeois deviants.”

What Was Different About the PCI?

Before his death in August 1964, Togliatti had written a final testament, Memoriale di Yalta, widely considered the definitive assertion of the Italian road to socialism’s independent streak. After the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, where Nikita Khruschev had condemned aspects of the Stalinist regime and its cult of personality, Togliatti hesitated in admitting that the new Kremlin leader’s “secret speech” was indeed real.

In this 1964 document he however went further than before in insisting on a break with the Stalinist past, meanwhile calling for an international conference to resolve tensions between the Soviet and Chinese parties. Yet despite this polycentric ambition, Togliatti’s Italian road to socialism remained bound by the decisions made at Yalta in 1945, where Stalin, Churchill, and FDR had set the terms for the postwar division of Europe.

Compelled by Cold War dynamics to create a “country within a country,” it was the collapse of the Berlin Wall that ultimately blocked the PCI’s road to socialism. Where World War I had sealed the SPD’s reconciliation with the German state — with the Right helping the Social Democrats to power in 1919 in order to crush mounting revolutionary movements — it was the American victory in the Cold War that led to former Communists’ definitive embrace of Italian capitalism.

Reinventing themselves as the Democrats of the Left in 1991 before ultimately merging with ex–Christian Democrats to form a Democratic Party explicitly modeled on its US counterpart, the PCI majority rapidly abandoned any connection to the social movements that the party had long helped sustain. Once the Soviet Union and the Cold War barrier to their taking office had expired, the hope of these Communists using governmental authority to achieve radical change vanished.

As Stathis Kouvelakis notes, the abandonment of their onetime Communism made former PCI leaders into mere political nihilists. Their bid finally to enter the ranks of the respectable, unbound from their previous Soviet attachment, saw them rush toward a crass repudiation of the party’s entire legacy.

Kouvelakis writes of how the PCI’s final leader “[Achille] Occhetto visited NATO headquarters in Brussels and said, ‘This is the center of world peace.’” He visited Wall Street and said, “This is the temple of civilization.” These are things no social democrat, or even a conservative, would ever say. The Italian Marxist Constanzo Preve made the point that “former left-wingers who disintegrate internally tend to stop believing in anything.” Such were the inauspicious origins of the Democratic Party, today Italy’s main party of government.

From all this we might draw the conclusion that Togliatti’s party was the same as any other Communist party, a record of hope and demoralization in any case only possible due to Cold War dynamics, and leading only to utter political collapse. Such a reading does have elements of truth; across Togliatti’s leadership the broad outlines of its strategy were fundamentally similar to the French Communist Party‘s (PCF), with Italy’s weak welfare state explaining much of the differences between the two parties’ culture and their relative social weight. Even the PCI’s relatively greater focus on democracy at least in part owed to its exile existence under fascism and the delaying of the party’s Bolshevization process, taking place not in the embattled 1920s but instead in the moment that it emerged victorious from the Resistance.

However, this limited openness really did allow the PCI to act as a democratizing force within the international Communist movement. While PCI leaders showed their Soviet loyalism by defending the Red Army’s 1956 invasion of Hungary, their dialogue with non-Marxist or dissident-Marxist thinkers also showed an intellectual openness rare among its counterparts. This itself expressed the PCI’s broad conception of Popular Frontism and prioritization of the democratic rights it had so long been denied under fascism.

Certainly, the PCI’s own internal currents, as represented by more Stalinist leaders like Pietro Secchia or more democratic-minded ones like Pietro Ingrao could have no organized or public form. Yet even this limited pluralism so differentiated it from the other Communist parties that the 1960s “liberalizing” opposition in France’s PCF adopted the name “the Italians”; it was no coincidence that the PCI was at the heart of the 1970s Eurocommunist project.

While since 1991 those who dissolved the PCI have highlighted the social-democratic aspects of its tradition as well as its “national” independence from Moscow — a history supposedly naturally culminating with its transformation into the non-Communist “Democrats of the Left” — the party’s lingering attachment to the Soviet Union was never simply an obstacle to its progress. Even after the PCI denounced the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Berlinguer declared the “propulsive force of 1917 exhausted,” the Soviet Union nonetheless represented in some distorted form the idea of an alternative society.

This desire to see the Eastern Bloc reformed and thus maintained was precisely the reason why Berlinguer became a privileged interlocutor of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. The failure of this reform brought not only the end of the Soviet Union but also a wave of liberal triumphalism, devastating even the non-Stalinist left.

The fall of the Berlin Wall sealed the PCI’s collapse also because Italy’s own bases of class radicalism had already begun to be hollowed out with the end of the economic miracle of the three postwar decades. This left a residual party organization out of proportion to the workers’ movements that had underpinned it in times of strong economic growth. The repressive wave of the late 1970s combined with the decline of the industrial working class ate away at the PCI’s ability to produce new generations of militants, and Berlinguer’s 1984 death also marked the passing of the leaders who had emerged in the Resistance period.

In this sense the fall of the Eastern Bloc was the coup de grace for an already declining party. These factors not only made it easier for the likes of Achille Occhetto and Massimo D’Alema to junk the Communist tradition after 1989, but also undermined attempts to create a continuity party opposed to the Blairite Democrats.

The existence of the Soviet Union had underpinned the PCI’s domestic radicalism yet also conditioned a Cold War dynamic that the party’s Italian road to socialism offered no path out of. It allowed the PCI to build up a “country within a country” yet also prevented its full integration into the Italian state. In this context longtime Comintern cadre Togliatti’s success was to bring together a reformist left, working-class militancy, and harder revolutionary or Stalinist elements in a single mass party.

The history of the PCI in his period and beyond is the history of these tendencies and their unity — the party dissolved when the first of these three elements escaped the control of the other two. The results were unimpressive. Today the Italian left is among the weakest in Europe, its specific national Communist tradition more projected abroad than rooted in political life today. Finally independent of the Eastern Bloc, Italian socialism soon ran out of road.