For Enrico Berlinguer, Communism Meant the Fullest Spread of Democracy

Born 100 years ago today, Italian communist Enrico Berlinguer grew up under Fascist dictatorship. In postwar decades, he became leader of Europe’s biggest Communist Party — and an iconoclastic champion of a democratic path to socialism. 

Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party, born on May 25, 1922.

Enrico Berlinguer was born on May 25, 1922, just five months before Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome. His early childhood was a time of hardening Fascist dictatorship, the same years in which Antonio Gramsci became leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), before his condemnation to a long jail spell. Where Gramsci’s leadership, and his life, were cut short by the regime — the greatness of his thought only really becoming known long after his death — Berlinguer would enjoy greater popularity as a PCI leader in his own lifetime.

Like Gramsci, Berlinguer was born on Sardinia, to a wealthy family in Sassari. His father, Mario, was an anti-fascist lawyer, in 1924 becoming an MP in the final elections allowed by Fascism, in which Gramsci also entered parliament.

Berlinguer became a communist at a young age. This owed to his love of reading Karl Marx and other revolutionary thinkers on the family bookshelves — but also to his acquaintance with workers who had not forgotten their communist ideals under Fascism. He joined the PCI in his hometown in 1943, as Mussolini’s rule was waning. The island had already been liberated by the British and Americans when Enrico was arrested for leading a popular protest against high living costs, spending several weeks in jail. In 1944, he was introduced to Palmiro Togliatti — Gramsci’s successor as PCI leader — by his father, who had become a Socialist and joined the anti-fascist government in the Allied-liberated South. Before long, Enrico began working full time for the PCI, becoming the Young Communists’ leader — as he remained until the fateful year of 1956.

Relations With the Soviets

Berlinguer long led the life of a young party official: serious, well-prepared, honest, never seeking personal power, passionate about international politics, and gradually less convinced of Soviet leadership. In the early 1950s, he spent a lengthy period in Budapest as a leader of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a communist organization comprising tens of millions of young people worldwide. When Warsaw Pact troops invaded Hungary in 1956, he expressed many misgivings, cautiously supporting the Moscow-critical positions of Communist trade union leader Giuseppe Di Vittorio.

The year 1968 brought another watershed moment. At the PCI summit responding to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by these same Warsaw Pact countries, it was Berlinguer who proposed the most critical positions. He told the restricted meeting — its minutes only released in the 1990s — that the PCI had to prepare its base for a clash with the Soviets. This meant distancing it from a USSR that had trampled upon the democratic renewal under Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander Dubček, whose positions were close to the PCI’s own.

After the Prague invasion, fears of an open break with Moscow ultimately prevailed in the PCI: among the Communists, there was a strong myth of the first “homeland of socialism,” with its decisive role in defeating Adolf Hitler. But it was probably also thanks to Berlinguer’s intransigent defense of the PCI’s democratic choices (based on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and Togliatti’s full acceptance of parliamentary democracy upon his return from exile in 1944) that in 1969 he was chosen by ailing general secretary Luigi Longo as his successor.

Berlinguer had made no effort to seek that post against heir apparent Giorgio Napolitano, but he accepted the role with a characteristic sense of duty. When he was appointed Longo’s deputy and it became clear that he would soon become the PCI’s number-one leader, many observers did not hide their surprise. Berlinguer was still not well-known outside the party. But the top PCI leaders knew that he had stood up to the Soviets in numerous confrontations between the two parties throughout the 1960s — and that he was a still relatively young but very reliable politician, loyal to the party and its idea of “renewal in continuity.”

The “Historic Compromise”

The question was: Would this shy, secluded young man be able to step out of the shadows and become a popular leader? Would he be liked outside the ranks of PCI militants? Would he be able to increase the party’s vote beyond the traditional Communist electorate? Yes, he could do all this: within a few years, he became Italy’s most beloved politician. The PCI’s vote rose from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, also boosted by the great student and workers’ struggles of the late 1960s.

These were, however, difficult years: after these struggles, conservatives launched a reaction: the “strategy of tension,” with the bombs — set by fascists supported by the most reactionary wing of the secret services — that caused repeated bloodbaths in banks, trains, and trade union meetings. There was insistent talk of the threat of a coup with possible NATO backing. After all, fascists or reactionary officers were then in power in Greece, Spain, and Portugal — each of them part of the Atlantic Alliance.

The economic crisis was just around the corner: heralded in 1971 by the end of dollar convertibility and the Bretton Woods accords, it broke out into the open with the 1973 “oil shock.” Against this difficult backdrop came the terrible news that Chile’s left-wing president Salvador Allende — democratically elected at the head of a government of socialists and communists — had been deposed and killed by Augusto Pinochet’s US-backed coup.

Berlinguer considered his response to this apparent historical shift to the right in a context of serious economic crisis, both in Italy and worldwide. He launched the “historic compromise” strategy, which proposed an alliance between Communists, Socialists, and Catholics, i.e., the long-governing Christian Democrats (DC). The aim was to reform Italy without running the risks of a fascist or military coup, for the mooted alliance was premised on its being supported by all major parties. This was the resumption of Togliatti’s old strategy of “dialogue” with Catholics, which had won the backing of many progressive, socially engaged Catholics after Vatican II. But Berlinguer’s proposal also disappointed these latter, who had largely lost faith in the DC as it became a party almost exclusively devoted to power. Now, the PCI sought dialogue with the same party that many Italians considered a corrupt defender of conservative interests.

Berlinguer insisted: it was necessary to convince everyone, including the party’s historic opponents in the DC, that the Communists really wanted to change society by democratic methods, through a search for consensus. Unless the Communists could secure an outright majority, the United States would surely have prevented them from entering government, as had happened since the start of the Cold War in 1948.

Berlinguer was viewed with hostility by Washington, for which a communist was still a communist, even if he declared himself a democrat. But he was also disliked by Moscow, which perceived him as a dangerous rival, an alternative to the Soviet vision of society within the international communist movement. There was a strange car accident on October 3, 1973, during an official visit to Sofia, Bulgaria: a military truck hit the car that was taking him to his plane back to Rome. The interpreter sitting beside him was killed, but Berlinguer miraculously survived. He was convinced that the Bulgarian secret service had tried to assassinate him on orders from the Soviets. He had no proof and only talked about it with his wife and a small group of friends among the PCI leadership. The story would only become known in the early 1990s, and we still don’t know whether it was unfounded suspicion or a real attempt to do away with a  communist who was increasingly popular in the East as well as the West.

Indeed, Berlinguer’s fame was growing, and not only in Italy. He was widely perceived as sincere, honest, and fair — almost the opposite of how politicians are usually portrayed. His strong moral temperament reminded people of Gramsci. His ability to address workers, young people, women, the middle classes, and those who had never been communists was unprecedented for a PCI leader. A well-known song says: “Some people were communists because Berlinguer was a good person.” But Berlinguer was not just a good person. He was a democratic communist. Is that an oxymoron? Not for him. He was both tenaciously communist and opposed to the capitalist system, but convinced that it was always necessary to have the consent of the majority of citizens in order to try to bring about change.

The PCI enjoyed unprecedented success in the 1976 general election: 34 percent, no small achievement in a fragmented party system. Still in the lead was the DC (38 percent), both because it had begun a process of renewal and “moral cleansing” under the honest leadership of Aldo Moro (prudently disposed to dialogue with Berlinguer’s party), and because, for fear of Communist victory, the whole of conservative and anti-communist Italy voted DC. With these numbers, the only solution seemed to be a grand coalition, a “government of national unity” between the DC and PCI. This was prevented by opposition from the United States and other capitalist countries, which at the June 1976 G7 meeting in Puerto Rico threatened to bankrupt Italy’s economy if the PCI was accepted into government with the other parties. Then, in 1978, Moro was kidnapped and murdered by Red Brigades terrorists — an action widely seen as enjoying the unconfessed support of the superpowers, which each wanted to prevent the DC and PCI from meeting in government.

But the PCI’s electoral consensus soon waned. Its support especially fell among young people, as it showed a perhaps excessive sense of responsibility in supporting a Christian-Democrat government (in which the PCI itself had no ministers) at a time of dramatic economic crisis and thus anti-popular measures. In the DC, the most bitterly anti-communist (and pro-American) sectors again prevailed, supported also by Bettino Craxi, the new leader of the Socialist Party, strongly hostile to the PCI. All this also showed that the “historic compromise” had been a generous offer, probably desirable for reforming Italy, but realistically with too fragile a basis, and that it had caused divisions on the Left, where more radical parties accused the PCI of wanting to integrate itself into the system. They had in part stuck by a conception of revolution as insurrection, which even in his day Gramsci had judged a losing strategy in advanced capitalist countries. The PCI, however, had not been able to develop sufficient hegemonic action, winning over the middle classes without losing part of the forces that historically looked to it for representation.

In any case, there was no longer any talk of a government that included the PCI. Rather, at the turn of the 1980s the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made the mounting neo-conservative offensive clear.


But Berlinguer had also made another significant move at the international level, in the mid-1970s launching what media dubbed “Eurocommunism.” The aim was to build an international alternative to Soviet communism, based on the desire to combine communism and democracy, pluralism and freedom. Laying the foundations of the Eurocommunist movement — building close relations with French and Spanish Communists in particular — Berlinguer took up some ideas he had already expounded in the early 1970s. For him, Communists had to fully recognize — both before and after they went into government — the freedoms of speech, press, political organization, trade union organization, religion, and culture. Only market freedom had to be limited and regulated, so that companies (public, private, or cooperative) would serve not the wealth of a few but the interests of all society. This was, moreover, what had been envisaged by the Italian Constitution, cowritten by Communists, Catholics, and Socialists in 1946–7 and unheeded during postwar decades.

Berlinguer recognized the historical merits of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and of the first country that had attempted a transition to socialism. But he also declared that the Italian communists understood the limits of the Soviet experience, since the resulting state denied fundamental political freedoms even after decades of stable existence. In polemic with the Soviet communists, Berlinguer declared on countless occasions that the Italian communists intended to advance toward socialism “along a democratic road.” In Moscow, upon the celebrations for the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, he even argued — in front of representatives of almost all the world’s Communist parties — that democracy was a “historically universal value.” By this, he meant that democracy is a value that had to be respected everywhere, and that a socialist society could not be truly socialist if it was not, or did not become, democratic.

The Soviets would succeed in felling the Eurocommunist movement: they sowed divisions among the Spanish Communists and pressured the French Communists to withdraw from the project. Berlinguer went on alone. He began to talk about the need for a “third way,” different from both social democracy (which did not want to overcome capitalism) and Soviet communism (which denied basic freedoms). And then of a “third phase”: a new phase in the struggle for socialism, taking note of the fact that the phase of the Second and Third Internationals (with their heirs, social democrats and authoritarian communists, respectively) had ended forever.

New paths for socialism had to be found and attempted. Not many years later, there would be worldwide talk of a new socialism, a “socialism of the twenty-first century.”

The Late Berlinguer

Berlinguer saw the failure of the “historic compromise”: its eventual defeat owed to the prevalence of the worst, most clientelistic and corrupt elements within DC ranks, but also to the limits of the PCI itself, and the general withdrawal from politics by many Italians after years of intense passions. Faced with this, Berlinguer thought it necessary to give his party a new “fundamental program.” First, he went to visit FIAT workers in struggle, clearly stating that the Communists saw the defense of workers and the poor as the linchpin of all their activity.

But Berlinguer’s thinking — following on from Gramsci — was not only concerned with economic problems. Already in 1976, in a speech to young people in Milan, he had emphasized how capitalism generated “malaise, anxieties, frustrations, drives to despair, individualistic withdrawal, and illusory escapism,” from which stemmed “the unhappiness of man today.” He insisted that politics could not ignore problems of everyday life: “the new quality of life, work and employment, recreation and sport, study and education as a citizen, love, sex, and life as a couple, housing for young couples, the fight against drugs.” These were very unusual words for a politician at the time, especially a Communist one.  In 1977, he spoke of “austerity” as an “opportunity to change Italy”: he proposed a new social model based on public consumption (education, health care, etc.) and not on private consumerism, a model more attentive to the “quality of life” and the environment.

Berlinguer proposed a new way of doing politics, first and foremost to the PCI itself. He denounced the growing corruption of all governing parties, which only sought power and enrichment (raising what became known as the “moral question”). He called on the PCI to entertain dialogue not only with other parties but above all with the “movements” in society: with the peace movement, a strong force in early 1980s Europe; with the green movement, then taking its first steps; and with the women’s movement, which for the first time found an attentive Communist interlocutor open even to advanced feminist theoretical developments, plus a valuable ally in the fight for abortion access. Berlinguer forcefully insisted on the need to take stock of technological and scientific progress, accepting the positive developments in the then-nascent IT revolution.

This “new Berlinguer” saw his popularity grow rapidly again. He met with resistance in his own party but was not intimidated by moderate PCI leaders more nostalgic for the agreement with the Socialists and Christian Democrats. He had the support of the left wing of the party around Pietro Ingrao and, above all, of the PCI base — the hundreds of thousands of members enthused by Berlinguer’s original proposals. Their support made him “untouchable” even though most of the PCI leadership group did not follow or perhaps even understand him.

Berlinguer’s extraordinary popularity also owed to the fact that he was a different kind of politician, who appeared morally and politically sincere: he said and did what he thought. He had lost old allies in Italy but had new ones around the world: from the great left-wing social democratic leaders, such as Germany’s Willy Brandt and Sweden’s Olof Palme, to the leaders of Third World peoples in struggle, from Palestinians to Latin Americans. He led his party to become a staunch supporter of the European unity process. He also reestablished good relations with the new leaders of China, with whom the PCI had long been on difficult terms. Like Brandt, he was particularly attentive to the imbalance between Global North and South. For Berlinguer, a global government of the economy and development was needed to stave off environmental disaster, famine, and drought.

His guiding star remained unchanged: the conviction that Gramscian “democratic communism” was a great experience with global roots, preferable to both authoritarian Soviet communism and the social democracies of northern Europe. This conviction allowed him to say in his later years, even on mainstream TV programs, that he was proud to have stuck by “the ideals of my youth.” To those who called on him to change the PCI’s name because the term “communist” was compromised by twentieth-century dictatorships, he was fond of replying by quoting a phrase from the French socialist François Mitterrand: “to cut off our roots” would be “the suicidal gesture of an idiot.”

Doubtless, in his half-century as an ever-passionate politician, Berlinguer did change much of his thinking. But his choice for communism — on the side of the oppressed and for a society of the free equals — had always remained the same.

When Berlinguer suddenly died of a stroke during an election campaign rally in 1984, the Italian people felt they had lost one of the few politicians they admired: his funeral was a popular event attended by literally millions of mourners, along with leaders from all over the world. The streets of Rome witnessed the country’s largest ever political demonstration, and in the European elections, held a few days later, the PCI outscored the DC for the first and only time.

Berlinguer’s quest for a “new phase” in the struggle for socialism was thus abruptly interrupted and would be left unfinished. However, he remains a point of reference for many who think of politics not as a fight for personal power, but as a means to secure social change inspired by values of justice and solidarity. His career is an inspiration to all those who want to fight for socialism as an expansion of democracy, not as its frustration.