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.

Rossanna Rossanda, one of the leaders of the dissident Manifesto Group which was expelled from the Party in 1969, has claimed recently that Berlinguer’s rejection of the Soviet model not only took far too long but was too superficial. There is considerable truth in this. The Party’s statement of December 1981 analysing the Eastern bloc concentrated for the most part on post-Second World War history. Reference was made to ‘the tragedies and degeneration’ of the Stalinist period, but there was no attempt to link the one-party authoritarian regimes of the East (and not only of the East) to their origins in the first years of the Russian Revolution. Lenin, in fact, remains the great untouchable in the Italian Communist Party. Yet without an adequate critique of Leninism it is difficult to see how the Party’s attempt to unite democracy with socialism will make much progress.

However, to criticise Berlinguer for not having gone fast enough, for not accepting what dissident Communists had been saying for decades, is to underestimate the task that faced him. It was imperative for him to take the great majority of his party with him, and the myth of the Soviet Union and even of Stalin was still deeply entrenched in Italian Communism, and not only among the old guard. The fate of both the Spanish and French Communist Parties, the one divided between pro and anti-Soviet groups, the other fossilised under the leadership of the pro-Soviet Marchais, and both in disastrous electoral decline, served as a terrible warning. It is a tribute to Berlinguer’s considerable political skill that he led the Party through lo strappo without serious lacerations, and that the pro-Soviet group of Armando Cossutta remained isolated at the XVIth Congress of the Party in 1983. Berlinguer’s handling of the Soviet issue was, in fact, one of the very rare occasions in the history of the PCI where the leadership anticipated rather than responded to trends within Italian society and within the Party itself. Whereas 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 and recouped fast, on the principal ideological issue of his time it was Berlinguer who took the initiative and carried the base with him.

It is not easy to speak so unqualifiedly of other facets of Berlinguer’s political career. In the history of Italian politics his name will forever be associated with the ‘historic compromise’ and with the three years 1976-79 which saw the PCI come closer to government than at any stage since 1947. The ‘historic compromise’ was for Berlinguer much more than a temporary electoral alliance between Communists, Socialists and Christian Democrats. He saw it rather as a grand strategy in which Communists and Catholics would find a shared moral and ethical code on which to base the political salvation of Italy. Their combined strength would renew Italian democracy, prevent economic collapse, and guard against reactionary adventures on the Chilean model. This convergence of Catholic and Communist morality in the name of a greater political good was the dominant theme in Berlinguer’s life. His own family was founded on just such a compromise, with his wife Letizia a devout Catholic and his children brought up in the Catholic faith. For Berlinguer, the Communist and Christian Democrat Parties had a shared interest in preserving Italy from the moral degradation of late capitalism, from ‘unbridled individualism, senseless consumerism, economic disorder and the dissipation of resources’. He looked forward to a gradual superseding of capitalism, to the introduction of socialist elements into the economy, to a new order based on austerity, collective values and co-operation. Berlinguer called on the working people of Italy to make sacrifices, and he promised them that these would not be in vain: ‘A more austere society will be a more just society, with greater equality, with more real freedom, more democracy and more humanity.’

Such an attempt to bring Communists and Christian Democrats together was not new in Italian politics. In the post-war years Togliatti had tried to do the same, in a more narrowly political way, until De Gasperi threw the Left out of the government in 1947. Berlinguer’s attempt stood even less chance of success, and for two principal reasons. In the first place, his analysis was based on a quite unfounded faith in the progressive, let alone anti-capitalist, potential of the Christian Democrats. At the XIVth Congress of his party in 1975 he poured scorn on those who doubted the Christian Democrats’ capacity for change: ‘Can a Marxist really believe that there is any part of social and political reality which cannot change? ... The DC’ – the Christian Democratic Party – ‘has changed its attitudes and positions more than once in its history, both in detail and in general, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.’ This was to miss the point. The DC had changed significantly since Togliatti’s time, but not in any direction which fitted in with Berlinguer’s grand strategy. In 1945 the Christian Democrats were a new party, as yet outside the state, and with some radical features to their programme: by 1976 they had enjoyed thirty years of uninterrupted power. In that time they had occupied and transformed the state, and become the capitalist and conservative party in Italy. Both their political practice, heavily marked as it was by clientelism and corruption, and the interests they represented, were the very antithesis of Berlinguer’s project. Even Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat leader most intent on bringing the Communists into government, had little sympathy for historic compromise. His project was to absorb and transform the Communists while maintaining the political hegemony of the Christian Democrats. Moro’s vigorous defence, shortly before his death, of his party’s dubious conduct during the Lockheed scandal, showed clearly that for him it was the Communists, not the Christian Democrats, who had to change.

In the second place, Berlinguer’s appeal for a more just but more austere society fell for the most part on deaf ears. It was an appeal that was profoundly out of tune with the radical transformations that had taken place in Italian society since 1945. Millions of peasants had left the deprivations and primitiveness of the countryside in order to seek a better life in the cities. Mass consumerism held such enormous attractions for these worker-peasants and their families that any appeal for a new austerity, from whatever source and with whatever connotations, was bound to be met with incomprehension. For the ordinary Italian of the new, urban and increasingly secular Italy, Berlinguer’s puritan vision was perhaps to be respected but certainly not to be welcomed.

There was also something distinctly authoritarian and hierarchical about the historic compromise. One of Berlinguer’s closest advisers at this time was Franco Rodano, whose own peculiar combination of Catholicism and Stalinism fuelled the attempt to reach agreement at the leadership level, in the expectation that decisions would then be transmitted downwards to the base of the two great mass organisations of modern Italy. However, times had changed since Rodano had advised Togliatti in the mid-Forties. The Communist base, in particular, was far more autonomous than it had been thirty years before, and the democratic centralist chain of command was not as strong as it had once been.

Historians and politicians will continue to debate long and hard as to whether any alternative to the historic compromise was possible in the years after 1976, when the Communists were at their strongest. Berlinguer ascribed the great electoral victories of 1975 and 1976 (when the Communists won more than a third of the vote) to the electorate’s support for his strategic proposals, but it is more likely that the Party’s success was due to a general leftward shift in Italian society, and to the favourable impression that the youthful and transparently honest Communist Secretary made on every observer. The Socialists argued that a left alternative to the DC was now on the agenda, but Berlinguer was convinced that the dangers to Italian democracy – economic collapse, terrorism and right-wing intrigue – made agreement with the Christian Democrats imperative. In retrospect, there seems little doubt that a strategy aiming at an alternative, left-oriented government would have brought with it the possibility of further destabilisation, but that it alone offered a prospect of serious reform.

As it was, Berlinguer showed himself unable to exploit the victory of 1976. The Communists first abstained from voting against Andreotti’s government, and then joined the ‘area of the government majority’, without, however, gaining any ministerial responsibility. The experience of these years of ‘national solidarity’ was not a happy one. The Communists made every effort to contain trade-union militancy and to compromise with the DC on sensitive issues like abortion. The Socialists found themselves squeezed out, and the origins of the support for Bettino Craxi’s divisive (for the Left) and aggressive independence are to be found in these years. No reform of any significance was carried through to completion. The widespread youth protest movement of 1977 was condemned by the Communists, and any opposition outside the ‘constitutional arc’ of the parties tended to be criminalised and regarded as proto-terrorist. Faced with the menace of terrorism, Berlinguer gave unequivocal support to the state, but committed one of his gravest errors in not being punctilious about safeguarding civil liberties at the same time. Those accused in the ‘7 April’ terrorism case were allowed to rot in prison (and what prisons!) for more than five years before being brought to trial. During all that time not one voice in the Communist leadership was raised in protest.

At the 1979 elections, the Communists lost a million and a half votes. At Fiat Mirafiori in Turin they lost 9 per cent of their strength, and between 10 and 15 per cent in the poor neighbourhoods of Naples. The attempt at convergence politics had ended in disastrous failure, with the Communist leadership risking the loss of a significant section of the Party’s support. ‘We have erred on the side of ingenuity,’ said Berlinguer. Deeply committed though he was to the historic compromise, he now had no option but to abandon it.

The last years of Berlinguer’s political activity (1980-84) were characterised by fewer insistent certainties, and by the absence of that tendency to dogmatism which had marked the years of ‘national solidarity’. At the end of 1980 he announced that the strategy of the ‘democratic alternative’ – ‘an alternative based on the parties of the Left and strengthened by other democratic forces’ – would replace the historic compromise. Though the material conditions of the country seemed to most observers much the same in 1980 as in 1973, Berlinguer made it clear (against the advice of Rodano) that no agreement with the Christian Democrats and their ‘power system’ was possible or necessary. Catholicism, previously seen in terms of a relationship with the Christian Democrats, was now a separate issue. Berlinguer commented in 1982, in a masterpiece of understatement, that ‘this distinction’ – i.e. the distinction between Catholicism and the DC – ‘had been somewhat obscured during the period of democratic solidarity.’ In 1973 he had denounced the slogan of the New Left, ‘United we stand, but against the DC,’ as ‘the expression of a sectarian rejection of that which is essential’. Seven years later, to all intents and purposes, he adopted it as his own. There was only one problem. Whereas the Socialists in the period up to 1976 had supported the democratic alternative, by 1980 they were no longer prepared to do so. Craxi’s adventurist leadership was shifting them away from the Communists, towards agreement with the Christian Democrats – in return for which Craxi became President of the Council of Ministers. Yet again the two major left-wing parties were pursuing separate strategies. With Craxi ever more virulently anti-Communist, the ‘democratic alternative’ began to seem unreal.

However, the new Communist strategy enabled Berlinguer to accomplish what he considered to be the primary task in the period after 1979: to win back those sections of the Party and of Italian society with which the leadership had lost touch in the preceding three years. ‘We are done for if we lose the base,’ he had told Gorresio in 1976. When the change of line was announced, Communist sections throughout Italy flew red flags in celebration. For many militants it was the end of that ‘continuous swallowing of toads’ which had been forced upon them by the historic compromise. At the same time, Berlinguer gave his attention to the women’s movement, to the young, to the intellectuals, all of whom had deserted the Party in droves in 1979. As for the organised working class, the Berlinguer of these years was the Berlinguer who came to the factory gates of Fiat Mirafiori in 1980, promising support to the workers if they occupied the factory in protest against arbitrary sackings; the Berlinguer who, in 1984, led the bitter counter-attack which brought about the modification (though not the withdrawal) of Craxi’s attempt to cut the scala mobile – the anti-inflationary wage-indexing system which had been in force for more than thirty years. The strategy worked. In 1983, in very unfavourable conditions for the Left, the Communist vote held firm while the DC lost dramatically.

Most commentators have interpreted this last period of Berlinguer’s life as a return to the defensive intransigence of the Fifties. This is not so. It is possible, rather, to discern the beginnings of a move towards the major social-democratic parties of Western Europe. If the historic compromise can be seen as the Party’s last great authoritarian moment, the period that followed has been characterised by a marked liberalisation and democratisation. The break with Moscow is especially significant in this context, but almost equally important are the abandonment of a defunct Eurocommunism, the attention given to the Swedish social-democratic experience, the greater tolerance of dissent within the Party, and the acceptance of an unprecedented pluralism of opinions and cultural initiatives. Berlinguer in this last period was not prepared to abandon the Party’s traditional bases of support, but nor was he to be condemned to political immobility.

A final point. Much has been written about the Italian Communists’ ‘third way’ to socialism, a way which follows neither the social-democratic nor the Russian models. Berlinguer himself wished to make clear the distinction between his party and traditional social democracy. In 1978 he explained that social democracy did not pursue ‘truly transformative and innovatory policies, but reformist ones, designed to attenuate the most strident injustices and contradictions of capitalism, but always within the confines of the capitalist system’. However, Berlinguer’s own contribution to any transitional programme which could be clearly distinguished from such reformism was minimal. There are references in his speeches to the necessity of introducing ‘some elements of the socialist ideal’, but these remarks were never accompanied by any theoretical elaboration. Indeed, in the 12 years of his Secretaryship, while the Party’s ideological carapace remained as vague – and as fascinating – as ever, its political practice, from local government upwards, brought it ever more clearly into the ranks of the reformist parties of the West.

Berlinguer’s political legacy, then, was not entirely the one for which he would have wished. The Party’s share of the electorate had grown noticeably under his leadership, but not as much as at one time seemed probable. The break with Moscow had been carried through with consummate skill, but his partners in the quest for Eurocommunism had proved too weak and volatile for a lasting alliance. Above all, the project closest to his heart, the historic compromise, had not been realised. Berlinguer’s deep-seated pragmatism made him turn away from it in 1980, but it would be untrue to say that he had abandoned the ideas behind it. Indeed, in his introductory speech at the Party’s XVIth Congress in 1983, he returned again to the themes of the mid-Seventies in a striking and utopian declaration of his moral and political credo:

Fundamental objective bases exist for a convergence and a mutual recognition of values between Communist militants (both believers and non-believers) and militants in Catholic organisations. They lie in the fact that contemporary capitalist society has produced, and is increasingly producing, an aridity in modern man, a drying-up of his moral tension and commitment. The mechanisms of our society are promoting processes of disaggregation and degradation, as can be seen in the spread of violence and of drugs, in the exaggerated drive towards individual consumerism, and in the greed for money, success and power, which together are considered to be the prime reason for human existence.

    Now the starting-point for the theoretical and ideological patrimony of the Communists is this: in order for man to ... assert his full human dignity, a general process of transformation of our society and its power structures is necessary. This is a revolutionary process which, moving forward gradually, leaves behind it neither those who are exploited nor those who are subaltern, neither those who are discriminated against nor those who are emarginated, neither those who are disinherited by birth nor those who are disinherited by destiny.

On 12 June 1984 Bishop Ersilio Tonini reported in the newspaper Avvenire that on the previous Sunday, in many churches in Italy, the prayers of the faithful at the high point of the Mass had been dedicated to the Communist Party Secretary. Berlinguer would doubtless have been deeply moved.