Italy’s Communists

Jonathan Steinberg

‘1983 is the most important election since the war,’ said my Italian friend, a sociologist, exultantly. ‘After nearly forty years everything is in flux.’ I had rung him the day after the election. He could hardly speak for excitement. The country was stunned. The results had completely flattened the opinion polls, which has been caught with their predictions down. They had not foreseen the landslide of voters leaving the ‘party of relative majority’, as the Christian Democrats tend to be called.

The voters in motion had not gone to the Communists. The Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI, just about held its own. Compared to 1979, the PCI had got.5 per cent fewer votes and lost three seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Christian Democrats had lost 5.4 per cent and 37 seats. The gap between the two mass parties of left and right had narrowed to just over 3 per cent and only 27 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

The Communists celebrated the fact that they had not lost, but for the Partito Socialista Italiano, their perennial rival on the left, the two days of voting had been nearly as disastrous as they had been for the Christian Democrats. Their leader, Bettino Craxi, had caused an election which nobody else wanted in one of those sly moves that make Italian electoral politics so labyrinthine. The PSI gained 11 seats in the Chamber and raised its share of the vote from 9.8 per cent to 11.4 per cent: not nearly enough to give it the balance of power or the right to claim a victory. The PSI had inadvertently pushed the rock which started what my sociologist friend kept calling the ‘landslide’.

Who won? The little parties of the centre gained considerably. The Republican Party, the party of the liberal business classes, did unusually well in raising its share of the vote from 3.8 per cent to 5 per cent, a major shift by the standards of Italian elections. It would now have 29 members in the new Chamber. The tiny Liberal Party, ‘all Gucci handbags and alligator shoes’, as another friend remarked, the fragile remnant of the great party which had unified Italy, celebrated a famous victory. They had grown from 1.9 per cent to 2.9 per cent and Valerio Zanone could now lead a group of 16 Deputies. The right-wing Neo-Fascists also took votes of exasperation from the Christian Democrats and gained 12 seats and 2.5 per cent of the vote. The little parties, swollen with their gains, would cost much more in ministerial posts, under-secretaryships, chairmanships of para-state agencies, directors-general of this and that, than they had ever done before. The Christian Democrats could no longer form a government without them.

The deeper meaning of the election lies in its effect on the two mass parties. Christian Democracy is not a party in our sense but a way of conducting business and life. In traditional Catholic areas like the Veneto, the people have lived from cradle to the grave within the Catholic organisations which nurtured them. When the Bishop in Verona said, ‘Vote!’ to his flock, he had no need to name the party. That a good Catholic would vote anything other than Christian Democrat never occurred to him. In the South, the Church was less strong but the party no less dominant. There the Christian Democrats ruled by elaborate structures of patronage, corruption and violence. They ran client-systems through kinship networks and practised the politics of the bustarella, the little brown envelope filled with cash. 1983 saw this system of patronage and protection crumble. The greatest losses suffered by the Christian Democrats were in Palermo and Naples – to paraphrase Croce’s remarks, the only oriental cities without European quarters. Generations of dealing with Mafia and Camorra, of building ‘abusively’ – that is, without permission – of rake-offs, promises, favours and force, finally pushed the meek too far. They might have to keep silence for fear of the lupara, or sawn-off shotgun, but they could at least vote.

The Communist Party is no less a way of life. In 1982 I went to a congress of the Neapolitan Regional Federation of the PCI. The hall was freezing but the reception warm. After the chaos, crime and violence of the streets of Naples, the Communists received me into their large, orderly family. One became compagno automatically: ‘There’s a comrade here from England who ... ’ they would say and pass me on to somebody who could answer my question or give me a lift through the interminable traffic jams to my hotel. A tough working-class regional councillor explained to me, as we sat in the stalled traffic, that Communist councillors never take their salaries. All payments from the state go to the party, which gives to each what he needs. The PCI takes a puritanical pride in its honesty and sobriety. The late Giorgio Amendola recalled in the second volume of his memoirs how he returned to Paris in 1931 after a particularly hazardous clandestine mission, to be scolded by Palmiro Togliatti, the party’s leader, for having travelled second-class. Amendola was supposed to be a student, wasn’t he? Everybody knew that students were poor and had to travel third-class. After the liberation of Rome in early 1945 Togliatti came into the headquarters of the PCI to find a young militant preparing copy for L’Unita, the party’s daily newspaper. He was wearing battledress left over from his time with the partisans in the North.

‘Are you very poor, comrade?’ Togliatti asked the startled young man.

‘No, not especially,’ he replied, puzzled.

‘Well, if you need money to buy a proper suit,’ said Togliatti, ‘the party will pay for it.’

This severity is reflected in the national headquarters of the party at 4 Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome. The building has a plain, unadorned façade, an aseptic modern lobby and long corridors without ornament or decoration of any kind. When I went recently to interview a high functionary, I was given an appointment at 8.30 a.m.

The party’s ‘diversity’ arises from what Amendola called ‘un orgoglio di partito’, ‘a pride of party’, that pride in being a Communist which, he writes, restrained Communist prisoners from masturbating during their imprisonment and made them ashamed that they could not discipline their dreams. I saw it in the contempt with which the young Neapolitan spoke of the corruption and soft living of the other parties. We, they tell you in word and gesture, are not like the others.

In March this year a corruption scandal broke out in Turin, the Vatican City of Italian Communism. Six Socialist regional and city councillors were accused of taking bribes. That was not unusual. Scandals involving Socialists have been common ever since the Italian Socialist Party took its place in the first centre-left government of Aldo Moro in December 1963. Joining the PSI, a cynic observed to me, is a left-wing way of getting a government job. This time, the leader of the Communist group in the regional assembly was also implicated. PCI headquarters in Turin were so stunned that for 24 hours the party did not stir. Then it opened its telephone lines day and night for a kind of collective therapy session until the shame and anxiety had been talked out. Older comrades rang up and wept.

In his wonderful short story, ‘The Death of Stalin’, Leonardo Sciascia describes the dream which an old Sicilian militant, Calogero Schiro, has at dawn on 18 April 1948, the day of the Communists’ greatest post-war electoral defeat. Calogero was dreaming that he was signing ballot papers as village representative of the PCI when suddenly a heavy arm in a military tunic fell on the pile of ballots. He looked up and saw Stalin. Calogero’s first thought was: ‘He’s pissed off. We must have done something wrong.’ In fact, Stalin, speaking in a strong Neapolitan accent, has come to say to Calogero: ‘Cali, we are going to lose these elections. There’s nothing we can do. The priests have the upper hand.’

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