Italy’s Communists Found Fleeting Hope in Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent stirred enthusiasm among Italy’s Communists, who had long dreamed of reform in Moscow. The Soviet leader was inspired by the Italians’ more democratic, pluralistic approach to Communism. His failure would doom Eurocommunism, as well.

Mikhail Gorbachev was impressed by the pluralistic, democratic trends in Italian communism. (Bryn Colton / Getty Images)

In the 1970s, Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Enrico Berlinguer became known throughout the world for proposing a pluralist, democratic communism much unlike the Soviet one. When he died suddenly in June 1984, his funeral showed the esteem he had earned: some 2 million people came to express their grief, but also their appreciation of his ideas of an alternative society based on human solidarity. A huge mass of ordinary citizens descended on Rome from all over Italy, but so, too, political figures from around the world. And at the head of the Soviet delegation was a young leader already mounting a sharp political rise: Mikhail Gorbachev.


The two men had first met in 1972, when Gorbachev, then the second-ranking Soviet Communist leader, was in Turin with his wife, Raisa, as guests at the Festa nazionale de l’Unità (a traditional annual mass gathering of Italian Communists). Gorbachev asked the city’s PCI leader, Adalberto Minucci, with whom he had become friends, if he could personally meet Berlinguer and have a face-to-face conversation with him. “Because” — he explained, according to Berlinguer biographer Chiara Valentini — “I was very impressed, on a human level, by the courage he showed in Moscow in 1969. In his speech he said things that until then had never been heard uttered in public.” The two men met and spoke for almost an hour. According to Minucci, Berlinguer showed interest and sympathy for this young Russian Communist so different from the norm.

Berlinguer’s relations with Communists in the Soviet Union had almost always been contentious, especially after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Already then, he had proposed that the PCI not only radically distance itself from the invasion (as did much of the party’s leadership) but from the Soviet Union per se. Berlinguer strongly distrusted the USSR’s ability to reform and become more democratic. In June 1969, newly elected as the PCI’s deputy leader (he would become its secretary — i.e., main leader — three years later), Berlinguer had attended the Third International Conference of Communist Parties in Moscow. His critical speech had resonated throughout the world: for the first time since the great debates of the 1920s, and in an international forum of communists, a Communist party had advanced an alternative proposal to the Soviet one, reiterating its condemnation of the Prague invasion. This position had evidently impressed Gorbachev.

In 1977, Communist parties from around the world gathered in Moscow to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Here Berlinguer defended the Italian Communists’ now long-established insistence on democracy, calling it “the historically universal value on which to found an original socialist society.” Like all the world’s newspapers, even the New York Times reported these statements, to great hubbub. Years later, Gorbachev would comment on Berlinguer’s comments, saying, “Many of us have long remembered that day and kept the copy of Pravda with his speech.”

So already in his career, somewhat on the periphery of the Soviet leadership, Gorbachev repeatedly looked with interest to Berlinguer and his ideas of a reformed communism. But the PCI leader had died in 1984, while Gorbachev would become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the last in history) only in 1985. Yet many features of his political action can be at least partly traced back to the influence of Italian Communists: not only to Gramsci — whom Gorbachev at least partly knew — or to Palmiro Togliatti, who was well known in the USSR, but also to Enrico Berlinguer. Inaugurating perestroika that same year, Gorbachev publicly acknowledged this influence from the PCI and Berlinguer and the rightness of the latter’s criticism of the Soviet Communists: “It would have been bad news for the Italian Communists if they hadn’t had the ability to look at reality and make the criticisms they have made. And it would have been bad news for us if they had left us alone. We owe Berlinguer a debt of gratitude for that, too.”

Post–Cold War Communism

But how far can we really discern the influence of the PCI’s democratic communism on Gorbachev’s ideas? First, in the field of international politics: Berlinguer had been a strenuous supporter of the processes of détente, of peace, that took place in Europe up till the mid-1970s; he had advocated the need to “transcend” both NATO and the Warsaw Pact; he had argued strongly against the resumption of the race for nuclear rearmament.

Again, Berlinguer had argued (on this point converging with the Swedish Social Democratic leader Olof Palme and the German Social Democratic leader Willy Brandt) for the need for “world government” of the economy and of the great processes which subjected so much of the planet to the risks of drought and famine.

Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party, speaks in 1980. (Wikimedia Commons)

These two goals were also shared by the Russian Communist Party leader. Faced with the enormous problems confronting humanity, Gorbachev, like Berlinguer, wanted to leave behind the Cold War and build a world of cooperation, peace, and shared progress among all peoples in the name of an “interdependence” that embraced all countries. For Berlinguer, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had been a reason for a near-definitive detachment from the USSR, soon finalized following the 1981 coup in Poland by General Wojciech Jaruzelski; yet Gorbachev ordered the troops’ withdrawal. Berlinguer declared that democratic values were irreplaceable and, criticizing the Soviet intervention in Poland, doubted that the “propulsive thrust of 1917” was still alive in the Eastern Bloc.

Moreover, Gorbachev and the PCI converged on the growing importance to be assigned to Europe’s political role. Gorbachev intended to tie the Soviet Union to Europe, and the Italian Communists were certainly in favor of this process. Berlinguer had set his party on a pro-European course, indeed to the point that he attracted, as an independent in the PCI’s parliamentary group, Altiero Spinelli, the founder of the idea of European union and author of the Ventotene Manifesto advancing the idea of a united Europe already during World War II. Conversely, the international communist movement, whose irreversible crisis Berlinguer had acutely seen after the Soviets rejected the PCI’s proposal for “unity in diversity,” seemed even to Gorbachev something rather outdated. Berlinguer had long insisted on the need for a new internationalist formation, composed not only of communists but also of liberation movements, left-wing social democrats, and nonaligned countries. It would be a broad front of struggle capable of rethinking — we might say today — socialism for the twenty-first century.

Domestically, Gorbachev announced a series of reforms very close to those that Italian Communists had hoped for throughout the 1970s: a gradual democratization of the USSR’s political structures, the establishment — at last — of a socialist rule of law, the separation of the party from the state, and an opening to the market, which was to coexist with other forms of ownership of the means of production (the state, the cooperative sector, etc.). These were all reforms that were close to the key idea of Eurocommunism, the movement for a democratic communism that Berlinguer had launched in the 1970s, raising the ire of Gorbachev’s predecessors, and especially Leonid Brezhnev. In his reform work, Berlinguer had never ceased to be a communist, albeit a democratic one. Equally, Gorbachev, during the years when he was a major player in world politics, always declared that he did not intend to question the foundations of Soviet society but wanted to modernize and democratize it.


In the mid-1980s, thanks to Gorbachev, the Italian Communists’ judgement on the USSR changed. Perhaps Berlinguer had been wrong, and perhaps the Soviet system was not so unreformable after all. Gorbachev seemed to be proving that it was possible to change it. Meetings between Gorbachev, the new PCI secretary, Alessandro Natta, and other leading Italian Communist leaders in those years were surrounded by an aura of optimism and mutual cooperation. At last, a Russian Communist was speaking the Italian Communists’ political language!

Upon his state visit to Italy in November–December 1989, an Italian Communist could really believe that he was seeing, on the streets of Rome, “the spirit of the world in an automobile” — paraphrasing Hegel’s line when he saw Napoleon on horseback after the Battle of Jena. Here was a leader who was changing the international political scene.

Yet this was an illusion. In fact, Berlinguer’s judgment would soon be shown correct: the USSR proved unreformable. Gorbachev was defeated. This was partly because of his mistakes and probably because of his desire to make such a rapid impact on Soviet society and the Soviet state. And also because of the gravity of his country’s economic and political situation, which would take a long time to heal.

But there were also the betrayals suffered by the forces of Western capitalism and NATO, in whose real interest in partnership he had trusted too much. Gorbachev’s attempt to change the Soviet Union — renewing communist principles in the light of unavoidable demands for political liberalization and economic reform — failed partly because the capitalist West did not want to help him in this endeavor, instead allowing capitalism’s desire to extend its control to the entire planet and increase its profit margins prevail.

Yet with the failure of Gorbachev’s generous-spirited efforts, the problems were not solved but only tragically postponed. Today they are again upon us: the problems of war, economic crisis, the return of nationalism, and world hunger and drought. If the ideas of Berlinguer and Gorbachev had won, the world would have gone in a completely different direction. Today the hopes attached to their names seem dead and buried. But the problems that they saw and brought to international attention are still before us.