Berlinguer’s Legacy

Paul Ginsborg

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.

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