On 7 June 1984, at the time of the European election campaign, Enrico Berlinguer was delivering the concluding speech at a Communist Party rally in Padua. It was wet and windy, as it had been in Italy the whole of the preceding month, and it suddenly became clear that the Communist Party Secretary was not feeling well. He took a number of sips of water, his voice became fainter, but he insisted on carrying on until he had finished what he had to say. The terrible photographs of these last few minutes of Berlinguer’s public life show his face even more deeply lined than usual, his eyes contorted with tension and pain. His frail body was all but lifted down from the podium by his aides. When he returned to his hotel he told his personal secretary and closest confidant, Antonino Tato, that he was all right and only wanted to sleep a little. Tato was reassured, but Berlinguer was suffering from a cerebral haemorrhage, and his sleep was a coma from which he never regained consciousness. He died four days later, and his funeral in Rome on 13 June was the greatest spontaneous civic demonstration in the history of the post-war Italian Republic.
In the European elections that followed immediately afterwards, the Italian electorate for the first time ever gave more votes to the Communists than to the Christian Democrats (33.3 per cent to 33 per cent). That many Italians cast their vote in homage to Berlinguer now seems beyond dispute. As the emotional tide ebbed, so too did the Communist vote, and in the Sardinian regional election of 24 June the Christian Democrats regained their primacy at the polls. It is not difficult to explain why Berlinguer’s death evoked the response it did. In the first place, the circumstances of his death were very public and very unexpected. For his party comrades Berlinguer had died ‘on the battlefield’, while other Italian commentators, highly significantly, talked of his Paduan calvary. He was only 62, at the height of his political career, and he left behind a wife and three children to whom he was passionately devoted. Here was a man who had died too young and whose sense of duty to his party and his nation had been seen to cost him his life. Secondly, as every one has remarked, Berlinguer was very much an exception in the world of Italian politics. ‘Shy’, ‘honest’, ‘austere’, ‘modest’ are not the adjectives one immediately associates with the Italian political class, yet Berlinguer was all of these. He certainly did not lack ambition, and as Secretary of the Party he had wielded nearly as much absolute power as Togliatti had done: but his position in the Party was tempered by his aversion to any personality cult. While he took from Togliatti his dislike of rhetoric and the sobriety of his oratory, he lacked Togliatti’s aloofness and disdain, and this made him more loved at the base of the Party. Eugenio Scalfari and Giorgio Bocca, leading lights of the daily newspaper La Repubblica, have spoken of Berlinguer as an ‘anti-Italian’: one of that small group of anomalous Italians who clearly do not belong to the individualist, anarchoid, selfish and undisciplined Italy – the Italia alle vongole, as De Caprariis called it. One can see what they are getting at, but to accept such a judgment is perhaps to make too easy and dangerous a distinction between one small part of the Italian élite and the rest of the nation. Berlinguer was very much an Italian, very much an Italian Communist, but his qualities would have made him an exceptional political leader in any nation in the world.
Enrico Berlinguer’s outstanding achievement was what has come to be called lo strappo – the wrench or breakaway from the Soviet Union, the declaration that Eastern Europe was governed by ‘a system which does not permit real democratic participation in the sphere of production or of politics’. Of course, Berlinguer did not initiate his party’s gradual dissociation from the Soviet model: Togliatti had done that in 1956 and again in his Yalta memorandum of 1964, and Luigi Longo had followed him with his denunciation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969. But Berlinguer went much further than his two predecessors, rendering explicit his party’s search for a democratic socialism which had nothing in common with the ‘popular democracies’ of the East. For Berlinguer himself, the strappo represented the culmination of a lengthy political evolution. In the early Fifties, as president of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, he was, like all his contemporaries in the Party, a convinced Stalinist. Even as late as 1975 he is to be found making the claim that while workers in the capitalist countries were being hit by unemployment and inflation, ‘the socialist countries have guaranteed further improvements in the standard of living of their peoples and in their civic and cultural development.’ Berlinguer went on: ‘It is universally recognised that a superior moral climate exists in these countries, while capitalist societies are increasingly characterised by a decline in idealism and ethical values.’ However, the same year also saw his celebrated joint declaration with the French and Spanish Communist leaders on the distinctive and democratic nature of Eurocommunism. For a time Berlinguer faced both ways fairly successfully, but the crushing of Solidarity in Poland in 1981 proved his point of no return.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 6 No. 20 · 1 November 1984
SIR: More in sorrow than in anger I feel compelled to take issue with the assessment of Enrico Berlinguer offered in Paul Ginsborg’s ‘Berlinguer’s Legacy’ (LRB, 4 October). I hope that Ginsborg, for whose work on Daniele Manin I have the greatest respect, and from whom I have never concealed my opinions on Berlinguer and the Italian Communist Party – the PCI – will appreciate that this intervention is due to my long-standing commitment to the European peace and labour movements and not to any petty points-scoring desire to join the ranks of those who have written something about the Italian Communists in the LRB. I do not in any way wish to suggest that Berlinguer was anything other than an austere man who, almost alone, stood above the rising tide of political corruption that has submerged most of the Italian political class, including some members of his own party. I also freely acknowledge that Berlinguer was an extremely able politician who showed great skill in keeping his party together in the face of changing lines and changing times. Nonetheless, in objective terms, Berlinguer was on the extreme right wing of European social democracy and can no more be treated as a socialist visionary than Denis Healey, Michel Rocard or Helmut Schmidt.
According to Ginsborg, Berlinguer’s claim to greatness centres on lo strappo. Sadly, lo strappo, the breakaway from the Soviet Union, was not a courageous move towards the kind of neutralism and non-alignment supported by E.P. Thompson and large sections of both CND and the Labour Left in Britain, or by Petra Kelly, the Greens and some of the SPD Left in West Germany. Lo strappo was merely a switch from one camp in the Cold War to the other. By 1975, the PCI supported Italy’s membership of Nato and the PCI’s opposition to the American nuclear base at Comiso has been a very belated and half-hearted opposition, designed primarily to ease the homecoming of its prodigal son, the PdUP. The possibility of an anti-nuclear neutralist third way for Italy has been consistently urged in the concrete campaigning activity of Partito Radicale and Democrazia Proletaria. The PCI under Berlinguer called for peace on earth in the vacuous and abstract tone beloved of the cold warrior Pope John Paul II, friend of Opus Dei and enemy of Leonardo Boff. Poland was the PCI’s point of no return in a way that Czechoslovakia was not: not because of some new insight into the unpleasant nature of Eastern Europe’s Stalinist regimes gained since Natta presided over Rossanda’s expulsion in 1969, but because supporting the clericalism and rabid Russophobia of Solidarity was a marvellous ideological meeting-place with the Church and the Christian Democrats. Yes, there has been a change in PCI policy from filosovietismo to Atlanticism: but this is no consolation for those of us who believe the most urgent priority is a Europe free from the nuclear weapons of either superpower.
While Ginsborg is right in asserting that ‘on major internal issues such as the student movement, the Hot Autumn, the divorce referendum and all the other battles for civil liberties in the Seventies, the party leadership always reacted late,’ it is debatable whether ‘it recouped fast.’ The PCI showed none of the enthusiasm of the extra-parliamentary Left, the Radicals and the Socialist Party (in its earlier libertarian incarnation before Craxi’s cult of personality and bureaucratic centralism took hold) in fighting for basic rights like divorce and abortion – because of its craven desire to placate the Catholic hierarchy (and of course a variant of Catholic Stalinism had been internalised by many leading figures, coming to the surface in the PCI’s hostility to the women’s movement). The PCI in 1979-80 not only did nothing to protect civil liberties: it was in the vanguard of the calls for repressive legislation in a bid to conflate all left-wing critics of the compromesso storico with the Brigate Rosse and Prima Linea. The parliamentary lepers of February 1980, the Radical deputies who refused to support Cossiga’s emergency legislation, have been proved right by events. While I would be the first to condemn the terrorismo diffuso of Negri and Autonomia Operaia, the PCI’s sympathisers in the judiciary were largely responsible for the more absurd attempts to brand Negri as the leader of the BR and the prime mover in the Moro kidnapping – accusations which discredited the Italian courts more than Negri himself. Ginsborg is right that ‘the experience of these years of national solidarity was not a happy one’; the decision to treat Giulio Andreotti, the friend of Gelli, Calvi, Marcinkus, Sindona and many other Mafiosi, as a desirable political ally made total nonsense of the PCI’s claims seriously to oppose the Mafia or political corruption, let alone represent either socialism or the immediate interests of the organised working class.
Despite Ginsborg’s hopes, it is hard to accept that the PCI has ever really abandoned its project of an alliance with the Christian Democrats in favour of an alliance of left-wing parties of the type both Ginsborg and I would prefer. Berlinguer’s appearance at the factory gates at Mirafiori in 1980 is less glamorous (and less Gramscian) in the context of Unita’s key role in assisting Fiat’s attack on 61 leading shop stewards accused of terrorism on very flimsy evidence the preceding autumn, and of Amendola’s last ultra-monetarist speeches urging austerity on the working class – one of the few groups in Italian society who pay much in direct taxes – at a time when, as we know from David Yallop and others, Andreotti’s friends in the Vatican were engaged in multi-million-pound banking frauds that did untold damage to the lira. Berlinguer’s reluctant decision to abandon the compromesso storico in the wake of a natural disaster like the Naples earthquake of November 1980 rather than the appalling political event of the Bologna Railway Station bombing, now the subject of Piazza Fontana-style insabbiamento and widely believed to be a strage di stato ordered by Andreotti’s friends in P2, demonstrates how much Eurocommunism owes to the most superstitious Medieval variety of Catholicism, and how little it owes to the post-Enlightenment secular humanist vision of Karl Marx. Berlinguer’s record on the scala mobile was totally inconsistent, involving opposition to Craxi’s first decree blocking wage indexation for a year and collusion in his second decree blocking it for six months, and was the product of a growing fear that the activities of Democrazia Proletaria and the Milan factory committees would precipitate a revolt against the PCI within a working class battered by redundancies and galloping inflation. Berlinguer’s policies live on. Only this month, when the deputies of Democrazia Proletaria and Partito Radicale, in their response to the Sindona case, offered the PCI a golden opportunity to end Andreotti’s sordid ministerial career, the PCI abstained and saved him.
Darwin College, Cambridge
Vol. 6 No. 22 · 6 December 1984
SIR: During my years in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe I had to learn the loony language of the Left (Peace = War; Soviet Imperialism = Liberation; US Famine aid = Imperialism, and so on), and I devoted quite a lot of space to it in my book Don’t send me to Omsk some years ago. But I have not seen a better anthology than Tobias Abse’s letter (Letters, 1 November). Enrico Berlinguer, the late Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, a man who even snored in Marxist Leninist jargon, was ‘on the extreme right wing of social democracy’; Pope John Paul, who forgave his would-be assassin while the bullet was still in his intestine, is a ‘cold warrior’; Solidarity, many of whose members are still bleeding in Polish gaols, is guilty of ‘clericalism and Russophobia’; Bettino Craxi, just a little less grey than the whey-faced men who have governed Italy for the past thirty years, has ‘a cult of personality and bureaucratic centralism’; Berlinguer had a ‘craven desire to placate the Catholic hierarchy’ and had favoured the growth of ‘Catholic Stalinism’; Andreotti is a ‘friend of Mafiosi’, ‘engaged in multimillion-pound banking’, ‘guilty of strage di stato’; Eurocommunism owes much to ‘the superstitious Medieval variety of Catholicism’.
Great stuff! Sign up this Abse! Or maybe ‘Tobias Abse’ is just another pseudonym for Peter Simple, doing a bit of Medieval, Catholic, capitalist, multimillion-pound moonlighting in your journal.