The Fate of the Party

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

The crisis of today’s Italian left has its roots in the transformations of the Italian Communist Party in the 1960s and ’70s.

Italian Communist Party (PCI) offices in Venice. Jeff Hart / Flickr

Interview by
Bruno Settis
Simone Gasperin

At one point in time, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the largest communist party in the Western world, hitting 2.3 million members in 1947 and capturing nearly a third of the vote in the 1970s. Born out of a split, led by Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga, from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), the party underwent a clandestine period during the Mussolini regime; played a historic role in the antifascist Resistance; and won the inscription of its values into Italy’s postwar constitution, which states that “Italy is a democratic republic founded on labor.”

Yet its institutional legacy reflects little of the party’s original radicalism. Its 1990s transformation into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) was the beginning of multiple splits and rebrandings which ultimately ended in today’s Democratic Party (PD), the center-left party led by Matteo Renzi and committed to liberalizing Italy’s labor relations. What accounts for this trajectory? What was happening inside the party during the long postwar period, from the explosion of student militancy in the “hot autumn” of 1969, to its turn away from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, to its fracturing into the PDS and the dissenting Rifondazione Comunista (PRC)?

To discuss this and more, Simone Gasperin and Bruno Settis spoke with Gian Mario Cazzaniga, who played a crucial role in Italy’s 1960s “New Left,” becoming a prominent figure in the PSI and later the PCI. In 1966 he participated in the foundation of the CGIL Scuola, the communist-socialist trade union for education, and was nominated its national secretary in 1976. He gives us an inside look at the turbulence inside the party as Italian capitalism was transformed, and transformed the PCI’s social base and relationship to society, in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the English-speaking world, and the resurgence of left movements like Podemos and France Insoumise in Europe, socialism is gaining as a credible political alternative.

The young people activated by these movements are now confronted with the need to develop a left-wing political strategy for our times. Many of them look to the Italian political context for inspiration. They draw comparisons with the glorious and not so distant past of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), once the biggest communist party in the Western world, and wonder —

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

— how come you, who were once our teacher, ended up in such dire straits? [Laughter]

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

Exactly. To be more precise: what happened to the oft-cited political Gramsci and the Italian Communist Party that he helped create? How can we explain such a fall from grace? What explains the rise and sudden decline of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in the 1990s and 2000s?

How far can the disappearance of the Italian left today be ascribed to any particular problem of the past?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

Let us start from the crucial episode of 1991. When the general secretary of the time, Achille Occhetto, proposed the final dissolution of the Italian Communist Party and its transformation into a new social-democratic party, there was strong resistance against this move within the party.

These voices of opposition were merely defending a vision of the party that had existed in the past. Yet the party had considerably changed in its structure and social nature. It is therefore essential to re-examine the history of the PCI starting from [longtime former PCI leader] Palmiro Togliatti’s reforms in 1944–45, in order fully to grasp what made it so mighty and what explains its evolution — or its involution, as we shall see. We can really speak of a parable, one which only a few historians have understood, and certainly not the great bulk of its registered members and militants.

Palmiro Togliatti became the secretary of the PCI after Gramsci’s arrest. His strategy was born of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern (1935), in a moment when the previous revolutionary-Leninist strategy, focused on the industrial working class, was giving way to the idea that the formation of broad alliances was the necessary choice in order to counter the rise and the triumph of fascism all over the world.

This was not a purely socialist strategy, but rather a democratic one, which was nonetheless necessary for immediate defense or as a medium-term strategy towards socialism. Togliatti profoundly believed that the division of the world into two poles, after World War II, would force the party to accept, for the time being, Western democratic principles and political pluralism. Therefore, the PCI had to be structured and organized accordingly.

The social base underpinning Togliatti’s strategy was not the usual coalition between the working class and the middle class. Instead of the latter, the Italian industrial working class had to strengthen its alliance with the great majority of self-employed workers such as artisans, peasants, sharecroppers, small merchants and so on. This turned out to be a winning strategy, which led the Communist Party to become essentially predominant in the so-called “red regions,” namely Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Nevertheless, the reference to the second social group would force the PCI substantially to moderate its positions.

Indeed, over the second half of the twentieth century, Italy could enjoy a period of relative social peace for this crucial reason: both the governing party, Christian Democracy (DC), and the biggest opposition party, i.e. the PCI, sought to look after the interests of this large and heterogeneous group. They both safeguarded the interests of self-employed workers through relatively modest taxation levels — which were sometimes even nonexistent, due to unprosecuted tax evasion — while simultaneously including them in a universal welfare state system to which they actually contributed very little.

This tutelage was nonetheless functional to reducing the socially painful development of Italian capitalism in the years immediately following World War II: migration from the countryside toward urban centers, a structural shift from agriculture to industry and, later, from manufacturing industry to services.

Paradoxically, although the PCI theorized that it would be indispensable to overcoming the backwardness of Italian capitalism, in practice it tacitly collaborated with Christian Democracy in order to slow down this very same development process. In exchange, it obtained the assurance of less social suffering, and the sympathies of less marginal sectors of Italian society.

It is difficult to say whether party leaders consciously sought out this situation. What is clear though, is that this particular compromise explains how a Communist party in the Western hemisphere could prosper and become such an important, powerful, and far-reaching political force, contrary to what happened in many other countries, most particularly France.

The PCI membership was well over two million in the early 1950s, out of a population of forty-seven million. In the 1953 general elections, which were the first vote since the foundation of the Republic in which the PCI competed with its own symbol and not in a coalition list with the Socialist Party (PSI), the Communists obtained more than six million votes, 22.60% of the total electorate. This was a number that kept increasing until 1976, when it reached its historical high water-mark of 34.37%.

On the other hand, given that the PCI was a powerful opposition party operating in a purely parliamentary system — only in the 1980s, with the premiership of the nominally socialist Bettino Craxi, did executive power start to gain a predominant role — it did have substantial veto power. Nonetheless, only rarely did it assume a really conflictual role, preferring to maintain a “sense of responsibility” towards the newborn republic.

Yet in exchange for its moderation, the PCI could make many significant achievements: the opportunity to practically shape the legislative process through the various parliamentary committees; influence, if not actual control, over municipalities and local governments in central Italy; and the possibility of reinvigorating trade union activism, starting from the emergence of openly conflictual social struggles at the beginning of the 1960s.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

In the years 1962–63, and later with the so-called “hot autumn” in 1969 and in the 1970s, Italy had two important waves of social and labor unrest. The interaction of the Communist Party with trade union organizations took on fundamental importance in those periods. What kind of relation did the PCI have with the major labor organizations? What role did it play at that crucial time?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

First of all, it must be recognized that the major Italian trade union organizations had always been substantially moderate. They were mainly organized according to ideological distinctions: the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL) was closely associated with the ruling party, Christian Democracy. Then there was the Italian Labor Union (UIL), mainly linked to the small reformist social-democratic party (PSDI).

But the biggest, more radical and truly socialist of them was the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) which was the counterpart of the PCI and of the more radical fraction of the PSI. They still exist and operate, despite having drastically shifted towards more moderate, if not conservative and pro-boss positions.

Surprising as it may be, it was typical for the trade union leaders belonging to the communist-led CGIL to be accused by their social-democratic comrades in other European countries (France, Belgium, Scandinavia, and even Germany) of being “firemen” dampening down social struggles. It was certainly true that the pressure for higher wages was never extremely high from the trade union side, which was also partially open to the practice of overtime work. From time to time, the union grassroots’ more radical claims over wages and working conditions were watered down by the leadership. Yet to see the CGIL as a sort of pro-boss union is rather over simplistic.

As for the main strategy of the PCI, its left-wing union could gain significant social reforms from its moderate approach. Not just the CGIL, but also the other major unions, played a fundamental role in the creation of the Italian welfare state and in the formulation of its very protective labor laws. The Workers’ Statute of 1970, now strongly neutralized by successive rounds of anti-labor laws promulgated in the 1990s and more recently in 2014 by the last Renzi government, became the ultimate realization of this strategic compromise.

Protective labor laws and a modern, advanced, and universal welfare state — covering public pensions, maternity leave, invalidity, and health care — were formally put in place by reformist center-left governments (the PSI being part of the governing majority for many periods in the 1960s), but they were effectively pushed forward by the Italian working class organized through its main unions and facilitated by the political strategy of the PCI, with its broad social support.

The Failure of Modernization

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

This political compromise over social and labor reforms appeared as a viable strategy for the emancipation of the Italian working class only up until the mid-1970s. In the following years, that strategy no longer seemed viable. Where should we locate its failure?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

In the contradictions created by the development and transformation of Italian capitalism. Such a compromise might have been politically reasonable within a broader democratic strategy in the postwar context — remember that the country had been under a fascist regime for two decades between 1922 and 1943 — in which half the labor force (as of 1945) was still employed in agriculture.

Nevertheless, in the following decades some radical structural changes did take place: a rapid process of industrialization; the development of mass consumption; a violent urbanization process with massive internal migration, whereby hundreds of thousands of young workers escaped from the Southern countryside to the big industrial cities in the north; mass education and the increased share of technical and intellectual categories as a proportion of the workforce. These were mostly the byproducts of the extraordinary period of economic development between 1956 and 1963, which came to be celebrated as “Il miracolo economico,” the economic miracle.

A radically changed socioeconomic landscape necessitated a radically different political strategy. For the Communist Party, this became increasingly clear at the beginning of the 1960s, prompting a discussion within the party and its related organizations. However, the PCI was not the only left-wing party — despite being the biggest one at that time — to feel the need for a redefinition of its political strategy. In 1963, the Socialist Party joined the governing majority composed by the Christian Democrats and two minor center-left partners, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party (PSDI) and the Italian Republican Party (PRI).

The birth of this “organic center-left” would be the premise for major socioeconomic reforms: the institution of a unified public system of high schools, the nationalization of the energy sector under a single state-owned enterprise and the aforementioned Workers’ Statute. However, despite becoming a governing party, the PSI remained strategically close to the PCI: they shared the same trade union organization — the CGIL — and their associated intellectuals were, in many ways, not so dissimilar in their Marxist orientation. Moreover, both parties were strongly allied at the local level, so that in most municipalities in central Italy they could govern together and facilitate the establishment of local and regional systems of welfare.

Therefore, the discussion over a new strategy for a changing situation involved not just the PCI and the CGIL, but also the PSI, which in the meantime moved from opposition to governing party. These debates mainly concerned the need to change the social, if not sociological, composition of their support base, in connection to the structural transformations that the country underwent in the span of just a few years.

The focus of the discussion was the following: should the Left begin to address a different social bloc, in accordance with the new historical phase, in order to push for social reforms that would radically transform  Italian capitalism in a truly socialist way? This theoretical and political conflict took place within both the PSI and the PCI, as well as within the CGIL, with a combative minority pushing for a modernization of Togliatti’s original strategy. Unfortunately, the modernizing minority lost that crucial battle.

In fact, Togliatti’s strategy had a fundamental impact on shaping the democratic constitution of the republic, as well as in contributing to a progressive improvement in the material conditions of the Italian working classes. That strategy remained almost untouched and continued to dominate the party line for a long time.

But the need for a modernization process became a pressing reality in the 1960s, and the PCI should have been transformed accordingly, by focusing more on a political alliance between the working class and the emerging mass of middle-class urban intellectual workers. It is interesting to note that even in the crucial period between 1989 and 1991, when the party was dissolved and renamed the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the official oppositions to this transformation did not put forward a redefinition of the prevailing socioeconomic analysis as a basis for an alternative strategy for the party. At the end of the day, this was its crucial contradiction: the Communist Party had never changed its strategy, while Italian society was constantly changing.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

Where did the responsibility for such rigidity in the party’s strategy lie?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

The answer to this question has to be provided by way of sociological, or better, psycho-sociological categories. First of all, the composition of the party’s political leadership is a fundamental element in this history. Who was behind the transformation of the PCI into the new mildly social-democratic PDS? The young generation of political leaders that came from the youth organization, the Italian Communist Youth Federation (FGCI). This should not be any surprise, as the battle for change is usually waged by the younger cohorts, and not the old guard.

Nevertheless, this latter group had all been trained politically in the distant but tough period of antifascist struggle, exile, incarceration, and Resistance in the final phases of World War II. In its immediate aftermath they personally took part in the fiercest of  social struggles. It was typical in the late 1940s and into the 1950s to move from being a factory worker engaged in trade union activities, to become a small trade union official, and then to reach important positions in the Communist Party, eventually getting elected to Parliament.

In this way, at least in terms of its cadres’ origins, the social composition of the PCI itself, even at the highest levels, partly reflected the social groups it sought to represent. Let’s not forget that Giuseppe di Vittorio, founding leader of the CGIL until his death in 1957 and a towering figure in the PCI, had started working as a day laborer for the land aristocracy since he was a little child.

On the other hand, the youth organization had become — as in many other Communist parties around the world, not least the Soviet Union — the place in which the new leaderships were recruited in their teenage years. It was a sort of school for future leaderships in which institutionalized politics were taught and practiced.

Therefore, members of the FGCI were exceptional politicians, but they had never organized and led an actual social struggle. Had he been sent to lead a real political and social conflict, where workers, peasants or deprived citizens in a particular area were protesting, an FGCI leader would have not lasted even a minute, while an old PCI member would have led the picket line himself.

The way FGCI members were politically educated made them extremely good at changing their political position without ever having a single one. They had learned from the party that only the politique politicienne, politics for the sake of politics, could effectively tackle the contingency of certain political issues. They did not understand, however, the importance of formulating a long-term strategy, consistent with the political necessities of the moment.

Seen through this lens, one can appreciate how the distinctive positions of the most notable figures such as Achille Occhetto, Massimo D’Alema, and Walter Veltroni were in fact irrelevant compared to the underlying social and cultural homogeneity of their backgrounds and ideas. These names made up the “young guard” that came into the limelight when Enrico Berlinguer was general secretary (1972–84). Their role was to mediate between the party and the student movements in the period that went from 1967 to 1977, and they would later be the foremost proponents of the social-democratic, Atlanticist transformation of the party in 1991.

Remember that D’Alema later became the only former Communist prime minister of the Italian Republic (1998–2000). Inspired by the “Third Way” of Blair and Clinton, his premiership was characterized by the tragic involvement in the NATO bombardments in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 and by a further acceleration in the privatization process of state-owned enterprises, which was a prerequisite for Italy’s membership in the European single currency.

Secondly, the party was always very weak as far as the urban intelligentsia was concerned. 1968, the student movement, and the launching of radical democratic movements in social groups such as teachers, doctors and magistrates, all fed the party with new social forces: not only votes and militants, but also leaders on the national level, first in the FGCI and later in the party. In other words, after the wave of 1968, a party that was mainly born of industrial workers developed and also changed with new generations of militants and leaders coming from the petty bourgeoisie, namely white-collar urban workers. This is an aspect that has to be taken into account in the continuous transformation of the party and its internal fluidity.

No wonder the party, having lost its identity, would change its name a number of times: Democratic Party of the Left, Left Democrats, Democratic Party, and on. In this same vein we can look to the recent creation of the Democratic and Progressive Movement, a split by some of the former Communist Youth (FGCI) “innovators,” who became increasingly sidelined in the Democratic Party after Matteo Renzi obtained the leadership in 2013. The name is an explicit reference to the first article of the Italian constitution, which states that “Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labor.”

There is nonetheless little or no credibility in this political operation. How can you portray yourself as the standard-bearer of progressivism and workers’ rights, if you are widely and rightly believed to be responsible for a government record of privatizing public companies, deregulating the labor market, abolishing a proportional representative electoral system, and so on? It is no surprise that this new party stands at only around 4 percent in the polls, despite the political weight of its most prominent leaders and their constant presence in mainstream media.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

So you think that in the 1960s the party should have undergone a structural and strategic transformation?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

Yes. If we read the papers from the conferences organized in the early 1960s by the Gramsci Institute — one of the main centers for the party’s cultural policy — such as the conference on the ‘Tendencies of Italian Capitalism” in 1962, or the one on the “Tendencies of European Capitalism” in 1965, we can recognize an echo of these debates. It was no accident that the voices that argued for a strategic change on the Left came from the trade unions: Bruno Trentin, a communist, and Vittorio Foa, a socialist.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

How, then, did 1968 influence the party? How did it convey the need for a change in the course of the modernization strategy we have described? Palmiro Togliatti’s visit to the Scuola Normale in Pisa, which you organized with other students, is often mentioned as a significant moment. It has become famous for the squabble between Togliatti and Adriano Sofri, who was then a history student, later to become one of the leaders of the extra-parliamentary far-left Lotta Continua.

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

Togliatti’s lecture in Pisa in March 1964 revealed a different sensibility among the younger generations, anticipating the evolution that would fully unfold between 1967 and 1975; but the outbreak of the movement was, so to say, in the air of the times. The architecture department in Rome was occupied in 1962, and in Pisa the Sapienza Palace was occupied for a whole month in spring 1964.

The Scuola Normale is a small grande école, linked to the University of Pisa, attended by very important personalities, from the Nobel Prize winner in physics Enrico Fermi, to Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, former president of the republic and earlier governor of the Bank of Italy. Some of its students, myself included, started to become politicized in the early 1960s. In Pisa in 1964, those students spoke from different political positions, somehow anticipating the movements of 1968. People like me and Adriano Sofri questioned the PCI’s more moderate attitudes on social issues and the strategy of the “democratic road to socialism.”

There were also Catholic students, whose questions had a more historical and realistic spirit. One of them was Gianfranco Fioravanti (now a medieval philosophy professor), who asked Togliatti whether he thought that the Yalta accords [the postwar division of European ‘spheres of influence’ between the Allies] had constrained the PCI’s line. Togliatti snubbed the question by saying: “Yalta accords? Never heard of them.” Quite a weak reply! But this was not an anticipation of 1968. Rather, it was just a case of an intelligent person questioning the “voluntarism” of Togliatti’s argument.

What’s more interesting, is what Togliatti drew from that discussion. At the conference on 1968 which the party organized in Rome in 1971, I happened to be sitting near Antonio Pesenti, one of the most important Communist economists, and Giorgio Amendola, the leader of the “right” wing of the party. They told me what Togliatti had told them seven years previously, after having been to Pisa: that something big was happening there, among the new generations, and they were not aware of it. This shows that Togliatti was a political animal with sharp senses — but he died a few months later, in August 1964, and did not get the chance to use them.

The party’s attitude towards 1968 was, I think, both politically realistic and culturally blind. Political realism: when a social movement emerged, the PCI immediately felt the need to be “in” it and to lead it. With ’68 things were not so simple — but, from this point of view too, the history of ’68 should be rewritten. The standard story goes like this: the anarcho-communist spontaneity of students broke with the party’s moderate attitude and overwhelmed it. Nevertheless, I could mention a few cities where the PCI, worried that no movement was developing on its own, decided to create it itself: in places like Parma and Modena, where the party was quite strong, it gave the FGCI the order to occupy universities and set up the movement. This behavior was quite cynical, but very realistic.

The fact is, the PCI did not address the problem of what this movement was. It wanted to lead it, influence it, find agreements with it, but the party never really considered the idea that the movement was expressing new problems, conveying new challenges. So, when the movement waned and its leaders started entering the party, the attitude was: no problem, everything is now settled! On the contrary, nothing was settled. From this point of view, when I spoke of rigidity in the PCI’s political line I was also thinking of personal life experiences. Many thought: is there a default strategy? It will work. Something new is happening? We will fit it in.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

You focus a lot on the PCI’s rigidity. Its strategy and analysis were less and less adequate to understand the struggles and changes in society, and the rising ambitions of various social groups. How did the relationship between such social struggles and the party change?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

I can speak more knowledgeably of the time when I was myself a political leader than of the final years of the party, when I instead followed politics from a distance. The absence of this kind of party — we’ve been focusing on the PCI, but we could also mention the PSI or the DC — implies a “liquidity” of political structures, so liquid that any continuity is annulled. Social movement leaders (movements which often are born around specific issues, then fade away) might be recruited by a party. Yet this party then becomes a constellation of cultural and political groups without a lot of continuity.

I think Italy’s fundamental weakness is the decadence of its elites. This decadence owes to the fact that the political elites change too rapidly: while previously certain sectors of the elites came out of social, political, economic, and cultural structures where selection and competition were based on merit, now selection in each and every field is based on co-optation. And this in turn relies on patronage and special interests. It seems that we have adopted the dismal American habit of the spoils system, so that every time a leading group comes along it inherits and recruits everything. It is like starting all over again.

Rigidity and Pluralism

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

Let’s get back to your historical views. What are, in your opinion, the reasons for the hegemony of the Communist Party, at the expense of the Socialist Party, in the context of the Marxist left in postwar Italy?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

I think the answer lies in the strength and cohesion of its leadership. After World War II, the prestige of the Soviet Union was enormous, and it was a prestige every national Communist party could benefit from; furthermore, the harshness of the interwar and war years had selected solid leadership groups: I remember those that had undergone fascist prison, exile, war in Spain, and so on, were called, with the cold humor of the apparatchik, “those of the via crucis.”

On the other hand, among the various tendencies of the PSI we could see many different positions, going from the social-democratic right to the left promoting workers’ councils, this latter sometimes “to the left” of the PCI itself. This is one of the many reasons why the PSI was so intellectually rich but, at the same time, politically weak: namely, the many positions within the party, a pluralism that would eventually bring many splits.

On the contrary, the leadership of the Communist Party, kept together by Togliatti’s intelligence, was able to gather together different social forces, different cultural and political traditions. An example: many groups with a popular base that were traditionally near the Republican Party switched to the PCI in the postwar years. The latter demonstrated it was not sectarian — the opposite of what you might expect from a Stalinist party. Within the party, you could recognize different cultural histories.

While in the Democratic Party of the Left, feminism — in its “culture of difference” version — was included in the party statutes, Marxism-Leninism was never officially inscribed in the statute of the PCI. They were able to understand that the victory of a culture does not depend on it being formally recognized by a statute, but rather on its being stronger than the other cultural traditions and potentially able to hegemonize them.

All in all, socialists, republicans, left Catholics, and so on, all adhered to the PCI: it was a much more heterogeneous force than is often recognized. If you flip through the cultural journals promoted or backed by the PCI in the postwar years, you will find an impressive diversity of positions. For example, in Politica ed Economia (“Politics and Economics”) you can find essays coming from various Marxist positions, but also Keynesian ones, or others inspired by the social doctrine of the church. This flexibility, together with the ability and cohesion of the leadership in the postwar years, meant a strength that took ground away from the Socialists, who were tormented by fierce internal confrontations.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

A good example of the party’s internal pluralism is Giorgio Amendola. Amendola came from a prominent liberal family and entered the PCI because of its leadership in the antifascist struggle; he fought in the Resistance, and later led the party’s right wing, known as the “miglioristi” (the “improvers”: those who wanted to make capitalism better, rather than to overturn it).

Do you think that militants like Amendola, who emerged from milieus culturally and politically distant from Marxism-Leninism, affected the character of the party?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

I would say no. From Togliatti to [1970–84 party leader] Enrico Berlinguer, the party leadership was always able to preserve a tendency toward centralization that allowed each wing, Amendola’s right and Pietro Ingrao’s left, to coexist within the party, but never really able to decide its line. In the end, at least until Berlinguer, the centrality of the Communist-Soviet tradition always managed to prevail. This was so-called democratic centralism.

The party remained within this Communist-Soviet tradition even during Enrico Berlinguer’s time as general secretary.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

What was Berlinguer’s role regarding economic policy?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

I think that in this regard Berlinguer resembled Aldo Moro: they were both men of the primacy of politics. Therefore, Giorgio Amendola and Luciano Barca were the ones really important for the party’s economic policies from the late 1960s onward; it was not Berlinguer’s central problem.

Berlinguer’s leadership had two legs: the group of the Catholic communists and the group of young leaders he had brought into the secretariat. These young leaders were going to walk different paths, but, at that moment, they were instrumental for his political line. Nevertheless, Berlinguer was really a centralizer: the important political decisions were his and only his.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

During Berlinguer’s term, the UK Labour Party was also undergoing internal debate. This resulted, in 1983, in an election manifesto that was probably further to the left, at least on certain issues, than the PCI’s line at that time. The manifesto proposed the nationalization of vast areas of British industry, the creation of a structure for economic planning, a 90 percent taxation on wealth, and unilateral disarmament. All in all, it was a program oriented toward the socialist transformation of British society. Did Berlinguer’s PCI in the early 1980s have a similar political sensibility?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

I think Berlinguer was worried that an intervention, some kind of coup, might take place, backed by the Italian and American secret services. We have to keep in mind that after 1968, with the PCI’s stance against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the information it had always previously received from the Soviet secret services started slowing down, and  totally stopped after the party’s 1981 stance on the Jaruzelski coup in Poland.

So an important information shield the PCI had long benefited from was now interrupted. The party had other sources, for example from areas of the Italian secret services it had relations with — but I am under the impression that the party got played by the secret services rather than the opposite. This explains their moderate stance during this era: anything is legitimate, as long as the coup is avoided.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

So the international situation heavily influenced Berlinguer’s PCI?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

There is no doubt about that. We have to look at the fear of a coup in Italy in the context of a series of coups that actually did take place, or were about to take place, in other countries. It might seem easier to pull off a coup in Latin America than in Italy — but we had had one in Greece in 1967. Moreover, Italy never fully recovered its international independence: unlike Germany, which rebuilt its independence after unification, Italian institutions and secret services still suffered the condition of a defeated country. This was very clearly present in Berlinguer’s mind.

In my opinion, the real mistake was less the historic compromise [the PCI’s offer to support Christian-Democratic governments in the late 1970s, during the period of Berlinguer’s leadership], and the parliamentary choice resulting from this, than the decision to put the brakes on social struggles in a moment when they had very great potential. In 1978 the PCI decided to give its external support in parliament to the government of Christian Democratic leader Giulio Andreotti, without a formal alliance and without asking for ministerial positions: this was the so-called “historical compromise” between the Catholic and the Communist Party.

In other phases, the party had two faces, as a protagonist of social struggle and as a governing force: in the 1970s, it chose to be only a “responsible” governing force, albeit without actually being in government. It was not a smart choice, and perhaps the Italian left is still paying the consequences of this.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

There was also what you’ve called a “philo-Soviet milieu” within the party, which underwent many changes. What significance did they have in relation to choices in the party’s internal politics and social struggles?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

The history of the philo-Soviet current in the PCI in the 1980s is complicated because it is the history of forces that had different histories, but converged on some shared aims. Inside the PCI, we had a socially radical current, whose reference was to the Soviet Union, and whose historical leader was Pietro Secchia: it was always dissenting from the PCI’s moderate stance, and came out into the open after the break with the Soviet Union.

But it did not have a real influence within the party; it had already been tamed after 1956. It gained more importance and a greater following when Armando Cossutta joined it. Cossutta was a historical PCI leader from Milan, whose positions where in between Amendola’s and Togliatti’s; he disagreed with the break with the Soviet Union and later he disagreed with the dissolution of the party itself.

Social radicalism and philo-Soviet attitudes converged in an assertion of the party’s class identity and loyalty to the structure of the Leninist party. This was, more or less, the history of this current. It would contribute to the birth of the new party, Rifondazione Comunista (PRC). However, this party’s development was complicated by the fact that it was also joined by far-left and social-movement forces that had hitherto been outside of the PCI.

We could say that the history of the philo-Soviet current in the PCI derives, on the one hand, from impatience with the party’s more moderate stances (following Secchia) and, on the other, from the defense of a class-party, in the anticapitalist tradition of the Italian workers’ movement.

The brief success of the PRC was followed by a dramatic decline, because of its inability to build a real political strategy and because it never managed to bridge the fracture between those coming from the PCI and those coming from Proletarian Democracy. Cossutta’s leadership was always too weak, and looked for short-term compromises; this led first to the secretariat of Sergio Garavini, a long-standing communist leader coming from the Turin trade union movement, and later to that of Fausto Bertinotti, a deeply anticommunist Christian-socialist.

Beyond a history of leaders, the crucial issues addressed in the debates that had begun in the 1960s remained unsolved. It was important to investigate the changes in the working class, so as to lay the basis for a new political strategy. The need for this analysis was never really faced up to.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

Even some of those who opposed the dissolution of the PCI ultimately joined currents within the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS).What was the significance of these forces?

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

The PDS came out of forces that were loyal to the old idea of the party. but skeptical of those that had left to create the PRC. So some forces on the Left decided to remain in the PDS. They were convinced that the old PCI had changed its name but not its rules. They had not understood the extent of the changes that were taking place; they joined the new party without having truly been convinced of its particular strategy and identity. They thought they could carry on with what the dissidents in the old PCI had been able to do, maintaining a subterranean work of influencing party life even when they were in the minority.

Yet things had changed. In the old days the PCI had kept some of these dissidents in the leading groups and, therefore, in a recognizable and respected role. According to the (both written and unwritten) rules of the old party, an independent cadre like me, who was not factionally aligned, could easily influence the party leadership’s decision simply by being a member of it. In the PDS, like in every other new party, the dominant principle became that the winners, those with majority backing, took over the whole party. The minorities who thought they could join the new party and slow down and condition its transformation from within were irrelevant, and they were swept away.

Bruno Settis and Simone Gasperin

So, the same dynamic that took place in Parliament was replicated in the party.

Gian Mario Cazzaniga

Without any doubt. The pluralistic parliament of committees faded away and executive power took over. The same happened inside the historic parties. To cut a long story short, this started with Bettino Craxi and — thanks also to the “innovators” coming from the Communist Youth — ended with Matteo Renzi.

Republished from Il Ponte.

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Gian Mario Cazzaniga born in Turin in 1942, was professor of moral philosophy at the University of Pisa until 2012. He was a prominent figure in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and then in the Italian Communist Party (PCI). In 1966 he participated in the foundation of the CGIL Scuola (the communist-socialist trade union for education), and he was nominated its national secretary in 1976. He retired from political activity in 1997.

Bruno Settis is a PhD student in history at Scuola Normale, Pisa and Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, Paris.

Simone Gasperin is a PhD student in economics of innovation at University College London.

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