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Reflections on the History of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI)

Sunday 21 November 2021, by siawi3


Reflections on the History of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI)

The dissolution of the PCI was a great loss for it had been characterized by the vitality of an open mass party that operated as a collective intellectual.

November 13, 2021

Nicola Benvenuti

Stansbury Forum

PCI 1970s campaign poster, Credit: PCI – vota comunista, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Note: From Peter Olney, co-editor, Stansbury Forum:

In the fall of 1971 I joined an Italian rugby club in Florence, Italy. One of my smartest and toughest teammates was Nicola Benvenuti. He and I became friends. He went on to become a historian and a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). He served on the City Council of Florence and was Council President for a term. The Stansbury Forum is pleased to present his reflections on the PCI and its impact on Italian society.

Upon the 100th anniversary of the PCI’s founding and the 30th anniversary of its dissolution

The Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) as the largest communist party in Western Europe still arouses interest even if it cannot be said that much remains of that experience. The reasons for this perhaps go beyond the responsibility of the PCI, given that a similar crisis of ideas and political effectiveness today concerns the left as a whole or even the political system that emerged from the postwar period. Here we only want to emphasize some crucial aspects of the PCI’s politics in the period of its greatest success after liberation and until its dissolution in 1991.

The post-war political economic system has certainly changed. Towards the mid-seventies, what has been called the “social democratic compromise” ended. This was a period in which the virtuous cycle of investment in productivity in the context of regulated capitalism and a mixed economy allowed wage increases and fueled the construction of welfare states, modeling in Europe advanced democracies governed by social democratic parties. It was replaced by a liberalism which, cloaked in the promises of economic growth through deregulation, or the minimization of state intervention in the economy, favored social recomposition by reducing the power of the working class, and weakened workers’ organizations rendering left-wing politics less attractive.

The politics of the PCI has roots in the reflections of Antonio Gramsci (Party Secretary until his arrest in 1926) on the causes of the defeat of the labor movement and the advent of fascism, even if his theoretical influence was minimal until Togliatti published the “Prison Notebooks” after WW II. After Togliatti’s return to Italy in 1943, he elaborated a political program centered on the project of a “new party”, a mass party (not a class party in the Leninist sense), which operates in the context of parliamentary democracy, and builds broader political alliances than the United Front with the socialists, and indeed explicitly turns to the DC, a party of Italian Catholics, to carry out “structural reforms”. The democratic parliamentary choice was mandatory in the context of the anti-Nazi alliance throughout Europe and took the form of the participation of the communist parties in popular front governments not only in Italy. The PCI was therefore part of the Italian government and contributed to the Constituent Assembly which produced the Republican Constitution, until the Party’s exclusion after the start of the Cold War. In the Eastern European countries occupied by Soviet troops popular front governments were replaced by the authoritarian centralist model of the USSR.

After the revelation of the crimes of Stalinism at the XX Congress of the CPSU (1956), Togliatti (who never agreed with Khrushchev’s mode of deStalinization) took the opportunity to claim the end of the role of the USSR and PCUS(Partito Communista della Unione Sovietica – Soviet Communist Party) as the “State and the leading Party” of the communist movement. He declared the autonomy of the PCI which supported an “Italian way” to socialism. Following the riots against Soviet domination of Poland and the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops and the divisions this caused in the PCI, Togliatti continued to focus on the capacity for self-reform of the communist system and the importance of communist internationalism. He accentuated the hierarchical and centralized structure of the PCI, with a clear limit on internal confrontations: thus, delaying the analysis of the nature and contradictions of socialism and eliminating an essential node for the construction of a revolutionary politics in the West. However, even shortly before his death, by re-proposing the principle of unity in diversity in reference to the clash between the USSR and China in international communism, Togliatti kept the democratic political project open, reminding Khrushchev in the Yalta memorial[1] that the fundamental aspiration of communists is “The maximization of freedom”: 1917 remains an “epochal” historical fact, a turning point in history, but – in fact – a historical fact.

Meanwhile, the Italian economic boom of the 1950s, although intrinsically fragile because it was still largely based on low wages and the pressure of unemployment, had an extraordinary impact on the social composition and customs of the country. Industry and services became the main forms of occupation and there was a large internal migratory flow from largely agricultural southern Italy to the industrial north. An attitude that situated the trade union battle mainly in the defense of the workplace was replaced by dynamic bargaining over salary in the context of growing employment and technological innovation. This gave rise to a new profile of the worker, which Tronti called the “mass worker”[2].The centrality of the workers’ struggle emerged as an engine of social change, counter to the vision that the trade union struggle was subordinate to the political project (the transmission belt theory)[3]. The group around the “heretical” magazine Quaderni Rossi, (Panzieri, Tronti), like the trade unionists Trentin and Garavini (PCI)5 or Foa (PSI)[4], underlined the potential of worker’s struggle to confront the new mode of capitalist accumulation which in turn confronts the problem of power in the factory and in society.

The contrast of the modernity and backwardness of Italian capitalism[5] and the effects of the workers ‘struggles, opened up a polemic on the left between an interpretation with spontaneist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas based on workers’ subjectivity (ideas that in the 70s fed the cultures to the left of the PCI ), and the position of many in the PCI who, worried about fueling sectoral corporatism, emphasized the unifying role of the general societal interest achieved by a policy of “structural reforms”.[6]

With the crisis of centrist governments and the electoral decline of the Christian Democrats (DC), the DC Secretary Aldo Moro had opened the door to a center-left politic, that is to the participation of the socialists (PSI) in the government. The socialists, now operating far from any “frontist” hypothesis, had defined a political project based on the intervention of the state as a market regulator through the central role of public industry and economic planning policy. Soon the right of the DC showed that it was able to block the reformist push of the PSI, highlighting for the left the need to increase the pressure. In October 1964, Giorgio Amendola published in “Rinascita”[7] an article with a significant title: “The time has come to reshuffle the cards”, in which he judged both the social democratic and the communist models to have historically failed. He invited the PCI to make a clear criticism of Soviet communism and proposed the reunification of the left parties in Italy (PSI, PSDI, PCI). At the time the article was considered a “provocation” typical of the character of Amendola, and dropped, but in fact it went to the root of the political problems that the PCI and the left would have to face in the years to come.

When in the second half of the 1960s the German Social Democratic party (SPD) launched Ostpolitik, the Italian communists undertook to support it, playing a mediating role with the communist bloc. In the East, détente and the intensification of commercial and cultural relations between the countries of the two blocs strengthened the currents of reform, clashing with the difficulties of the Eastern economic system in sustaining mass consumption. When in Czechoslovakia, Dubcek’s “spring” legitimized forms of the private market, the USSR invaded the country (1968) and stopped the experiment. The repression of “Prague Spring”, a self-reform project that had raised great hopes, provoked the open dissent of many Communist Parties in Western countries and above all of the Italian party, expressed with particular force at the Moscow Conference in June 1969 by Enrico Berlinguer, deputy secretary of the PCI. The dissent, however, was not taken to its extreme consequences. In 1969, after the 11th Congress which saw the moderate current of Amendola prevail over the left-wing of Ingrao, leftists gathered around the newly founded review “Il Manifesto”, were expelled from the PCI. Adherents of Il Manifesto considered the PCI policy towards the Soviet Union too timid. They also differed on the issue of the development model of Italian capitalism and the interpretation of the workers’ struggles of the 1960s.

Taking into account the social and cultural changes in the country of an anti-bureaucratic and libertarian nature, the PCI of Berlinguer, Secretary since 1973, was able to integrate the communist project with an opening to the student movement of ’68 and an acceptance of civil reforms, such as the right to divorce and abortion. Furthermore, Berlinguer altered the condemnation of the European Economic Community as the political equivalent of NATO, whose defensive role he would accept, expressing the need to overcome the bipolar division of the world.

The relationship established with the German Social Democrat Willy Brandt in favor of detente was followed by consultations and exchanges of information, mostly informal and unofficial, on issues of domestic and international politics. The PCI played a bridging role with the communist world, but soon the contact points with social democracy were enriched by a renewed commitment of the Socialist International, and in partcular of the German and Swedish, on the issues of international collaboration between the developed and underdeveloped countries. The origins of the austerity policy that characterized Berlinguer’s approach in subsequent years can be found in the need to review the terms of trade between developed and underdeveloped countries. The PCI’s international politics were above all directed against American imperialsm and support of the struggle for the liberation of Vietnam was an essential component of communist ideology. With the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam (1975), the end of the colonel’s dictatorship in Greece (1974) and the end of Franco’s fascist Spain (1975) it seemed that a fresh wind was blowing.

This took shape as a political direction, later identified as Eurocommunism, which involved the PCI, the French and Spanish, and partly English, Communist parties. Due to disagreements between socialists and communists in France and the political disappearance of the Partido Communista de Espana (PCE) in 1977 with the end of Franco’s dictatorship, that political project remained an aspiration. After the failure of the historical compromise in Italy, and the assassination of Moro, Berlinguer, in 1982 posited Eurocommunism as a “third way” between capitalism and communism.

Togliatti’s strategy had been relaunched by PCI Secretary Berlinguer after the coup d’état in Chile (9/11/73) which put an end to the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Berlinguer concluded that in countries with parliamentary democracy the united left could not come to power through the conquest of 51% of the electoral votes. Rather to prevent violent reactions from the opposing classes and imperialism, as happened in Chile, it was necessary to widen the borders of the progressive front aiming “not at an alternative left but to a democratic alternative “; in Italy, through a” historic compromise “with the Catholic party (DC).

In the midst of the 1977-78 terrorist wave, the PCI had the opportunity to apply the policy of “historic compromise” with the DC. The PCI emerged victorious in the 1975 referendum on divorce and the administrative elections. In the following year’s political elections the Party reached 34.37% of the votes in the Chamber of Deputies. These victories highlighted the fact that the safeguarding of legality and democracy could not take place without or against the PCI. The secretary of the DC, Aldo Moro, was convinced of this, and therefore intended to bring the communists into the government. The PCI therefore became part of the majority, of “national solidarity”, with the DC government and was strongly committed to defending republican democracy against terrorism on the right and left. The kidnapping and assasination of Aldo Moro on March 16, 1978, prompted the DC to end the political alliance and drive the PCI into the opposition. Berlinguer tried to revive the politics of the left-wing alternative, but with little enthusiasm from the PSI[8], because the left-wing alternative would have made the socialists, already reduced to 6% of the electorate, politically irrelevant. The new secretary of the PSI, Craxi, instead aimed to overturn the balance of power in the Italian left and offered political support to the DC for a government without the Communists. The policy of “national solidarity” had failed and not by chance. The American Secretary of State Kissinger was against the participation of the PCI in the government and even the main European governments (including Schmidt’s Social Democratic government in Germany) were negative towards the PCI’s partipation in government.

At the end of the 1970s, the PCI’s situation was problematic. A Second Cold War (installation of missiles in Europe, invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR) had begun. The adoption of Martial Law in Poland, against Solidarnosc, forced the PCI into a new condemnation of Soviet policy which Berlinguer expressed as a failure of the “propulsive thrust of the October revolution” (1981).

However, the PCI was unable to put in place any alternative strategy that would capitalize on the links established with progressive European forces, while the distancing from the politics of the USSR paradoxically weakened the international role of the PCI. Hence the emergence in the 1980s of ecumenical or moralistic tones, embodied in the attack on working class power:

Firings at Fiat

The cutting of the wage escalator – desired by the Craxi government, but with the consent of the trade unions

The politics of austerity, a central theme in the debate on the new world order for rebalancing the economic relations between developed countries and developing countries

The spread of the state’s tenure by the parties: the exclusion of the PCI, as the largest opposition force and thus the absence of an alternative to the DC, gave the DC and its allies a monopoly in the management of the state and resulted in corruption and inefficiency in public administration.

However the unresolved problems of the ideology of the PCI were not solved:

The meaning of Soviet communism and the relationship with European socialism:

The claim of “communist diversity”(Stalin’s term) that characterized the self awareness of the militants, hindered the PCI from clearly occupying the space of Social Democracy (Craxi did his part vetoing the entry of the PCI into the European Socialist Party (PSE), the parliamnetary aggregation of the socialist parties in the European Parliament.

Therefore the PCI was condemned to growing political inconsistency resulting in loss of links also with their traditional social base, although that loss was hidden by the national recognition of the political and moral integrity of the party’s leadership.

Upon the death of Berlinguer on November 6, 1984 there was a great emotional outpouring in the country, but the weakness of PCI politics manifested itself openly. In 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new secretary of the PCI, Achille Occhetto, announced that he wanted to take a new political direction, one that foreshadowed the end of the Communist Party and the birth of a new Italian left party (Bolognina turn)[9] At the XX Party Congress, in February 1991, the PCI was dissolved and the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) was formed, but with no clear poltical direction.

It is clear that the PCI’s standing in the international scene resided, for better or for worse, precisely in the relationship with the USSR and the communist movement, and this explains a lot of the hesitation of the party leadership to sever relations with the Soviet Union (Beyond the extreme concern about the destabilizing effects such a break could have had on the party base). The fact is that the PCI, as a major Communist Party of the West and a critical conscience of communism, enjoyed a wide range of maneuverability albeit full of stresses and expectations. When the Party could no longer capitalize on the political credibility conferred on it by the Soviet leadership (unfortunately a little studied theme), the PCI lost a lot of its international credibility, even with third-world countries. What direction could an opposition party offer from a country that played a secondary role in international events?

All things considered the dissolution of the PCI was a great loss. The PCI was certainly characterized by the vitality of an open mass party that operated as a collective intellectual. It situated itself as a political center for sharing political line debated among political leaders, trade unionists, workers, technicians, researchers and university professors and a myriad of territorial and professional organizations. And at the same time the Party was capable of advancing a pedagogy of civil responsibility that activated the participation of the masses in political life. This is the model that is missing today on the Italian scene.


[1] Yalta Memorial was written by Togliatti a few days before his unexpected death in Yalta, in Crimea (August 1964) and was written in preparation for a meeting with Khrushchev

[2] Tronti along with Renato Panzieri founded the “workerist” Marxist journal, Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and wrote an important book, Workers and Capital

[3] The idea that the trade unions led by Party member would dutifully transmit the political project of the Party to the trade union members

5 Bruno Trentin was general Secretary of the largest Italian trade union federation the CGIL and a member of the PCI until its dissolution in 1991. Sergio Garavani was a leader of the metalworkers federation FIOM and also a prominent PCI leader.

[4] Vittorio Foa was a prominent leader of the CGIL labor federation and the Italian Socialist Party.

[5] Expressed in the contrast between the development of the industrial north and the backwardness of the agricultural south to which was added in the context of the economic boom the persistence of backward and authoritarian labor relations, which accentuated differences in productive sectors and geographical areas.

[6] Structural reforms were intended as reforms able to effectively reunite the interests off the popular masses with objectives of social progress, Structural was the term used to distinguish such reforms from social democratic reformism.

[7] Theoretical magazine of PCI

[8] Partito Socialista Italiano – The Italian Community Party was formed in 1921 by members of the Second International PSI

[9] On November 12, 1989 Achille Occhetto then General Secretary of the PCI announced at Bolognina (a section of Bologna) his intention to lead a change in the name and direction of the PCI


Nicola Benvenuti is an Italian political historian who resides in Florence