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Ian Birchall

International: Italy

Death of a compromiser

(July 1984)

From Socialist Review, No.67, July/August 1984, pp.22-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When the Pope, a fascist and Eric Heffer all sing the praises of a dead communist something must be wrong. Ian Birchall looks at the life of Enrico Berlinguer.

Socialist Review is not in the habit of mourning the passing of Stalinist bureaucrats, and Enrico Berlinguer, the recently departed Secretary General of the Italian Communist Party, is no exception.

Berlinguer, after all, had friends enough without us. He has been described as a ‘great man, a good socialist’ by Eric Heffer, and as ‘a good Communist’ by the Economist. Among the million and a half people who attended his funeral was the Chinese Prime Minister, and tributes came from Mario Soares, Willy Brandt, the Vatican and Almirante, head of the fascist MSI. With admirers like that, he must have been somebody’s enemy.

But despite the wreath from a group of priests and nuns dedicated to the ‘new Saint Francis’, Enrico Berlinguer was no feeble-minded preacher; he was a tough, unscrupulous bureaucrat who had a major influence on the recent history of the Italian Communist Party, now virtually the only CP in Western ‘Europe not showing obvious symptoms of terminal decline.

Born in 1922, Berlinguer became a Communist at the age of 21, towards the end of the Mussolini period. As one of his rivals in the party leadership, Giancarlo Pajetta, put it: ‘As a very young man Berlinguer joined the party ... leadership.’ For Berlinguer was immediately groomed for stardom. As soon as the war ended, he became Secretary General of the Communist Youth, and in 1948 entered the party leadership.

1948 was a tough year for Italian Communists. In the general election held in March the Communist-Socialist joint list appeared to have a good hope of winning. The US State Department announced that no Italian who had voted Communist would be allowed to emigrate to America, and the Vatican cut off all escape routes by announcing that CP voters would be denied absolution. British and American warships anchored off Italian ports during the campaign.

The CP lost the election, but it faced up to its opponents by remaining resolutely Stalinist. No breath of criticism of Russia or of Stalin was permitted. In 1951 two CP deputies were expelled from the party for declaring that Communists had an overriding duty to defend the national territory against aggression from any source (a position that Berlinguer himself, who supported Italy’s continuing membership of NATO, might well have put forward by the seventies).

And in 1956, despite some internal opposition, the CP line was that the Russians had been right to invade Hungary to prevent ‘the restoration of a new fascist regime’. Despite his much vaunted honesty and integrity, there is no indication that Berlinguer had any reservations about these positions.

But by the 1960s the Italian CP was entering into a deep crisis. Destalinisation, the end of the first Cold War, the split between Russia and China and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia all cast the traditional certainties into question. The CP’s former allies in the Socialist Party had done a deal with the ruling Christian Democrats, leaving the CP more isolated than ever, despite its massive electoral support.


More and more it became clear that if the party was to improve its parliamentary situation, it would have to break, at least in part, with its Stalinist traditions. The problem was exactly how to do this, and several different currents emerged.

It was in this context that Berlinguer became deputy to the ailing leader Luigi Longo in 1969, and in 1972 assumed the position of Secretary General. In a party which was increasingly bitterly divided, Berlinguer led from the ‘centre’. On the one hand was a right wing which wanted to make the party more and more openly reformist (some even wanted to liquidate the CP altogether and join up with the Socialists); on the other hand was a ‘left’ current which clung to the old dogmas and friendship with Mother Russia. Berlinguer won his popularity – and his power – by tacking skilfully between the two.

A year later came Berlinguer’s main contribution to political strategy. He was deeply impressed by the catastrophic defeat of the Chilean working class in the coup of September 1973. While some people drew the lesson that the Chilean workers should have moved forward faster and more resolutely, Berlinguer came to exactly thf opposite conclusion. From the inadequacy of the parliamentary road, he deduced, not the necessity for armed insurrection, but the need to cut back on one’s aims.

‘It’s not by obtaining 51 percent of the votes that the left wing parties can be sure of governing and achieving their work of renewal because a vertical split down the middle of our country would not be in the interests of the country and would ruin the experiment of renewing our society. That is what happened in Chile.’

This was the theory of the ‘Historic Compromise’. The Communists not only could not, but should not, govern on their own, or in alliance with the Socialists only. On the contrary, they should seek to rule in coalition with the Christian Democrats, the corrupt bourgeois clique who have dominated every Italian government since the Second World War, and who bear the main responsibility for Italy’s political and economic crisis.

The theory is abject. In essence it is a rerun of the Popular Frontism of the Thirties – with this difference: the Popular Front at least had the minimal plausibility of being offered as an alternative to fascism. The Historic Compromise wasn’t an alternative to anything – for the only alternative was precisely those Christian Democrats that Berlinguer was so anxious to ally with. The practice was equally abject. After the 1976 elections, the Christian Democrats accepted the CP’s support, but offered them no places in government. The CP loyally delivered their part of the bargain – a restraining hand on working class militancy, Precisely because they were so loyal, the Christian Democrats used their assistance to tide themselves over a bad patch, and then calmly ditched their erstwhile allies. This was not even a ‘sell-out’ – the CP gave its services free of charge.

Incidentally, Berlinguer had his own little domestic ‘historic compromise’ – his wife is a devout Catholic, and he used to take her to church each Sunday, though he didn’t stay for mass. If a self-professed Marxist can’t convince the person he or she lives with, who can they convince?

But Berlinguer’s defence of a reactionary Christian Democratic government was not merely tactical; he erected it into a theory. In January 1977 Berlinguer gave two speeches that were subsequently published as a booklet with the bizarre title Austerity, An Opportunity to Transform Italy.

Berlinguer begins with the spurious analysis that it is the growing strength of the Third World that has produced the world crisis. Profit, for him, is part of the system to be defended, not part of the problem:

‘We affirm that the market, private enterprise, and profit can and must retain a function even in the framework of an economy that develops under the democratic public will and is oriented by this will.’

Austerity, in this context, offers the possibility of improving Italian society:

‘Austerity, depending on its content and on the forces which govern its application, can be used either as an instrument of economic depression, political repression, and perpetuation of social injustice or as an opportunity for new economic and social development, rigorous pruning of the state, profound transformation of the basis of society, and defence and expansion of society.’

Such a defence of austerity, not as a necessary evil, but as a positive virtue, must be unprecedented from any self-styled Marxist. In practice it came to mean what Berlinguer calls ‘a new model of consumption’ (that is, a reduction of the consumption of the less well-off) and a recognition that public spending is ‘excessive’ and should be reduced.

One of the aspects of Berlinguer’s career which has been most commended inside and outside the Communist movement has been his open criticism of Russia and the Russian model of ‘socialism’. After the coup in Poland, Berlinguer declared on Italian television that ‘the dynamic created by the October Revolution is now exhausted’.

Yet his criticism was often rather vague. In his report to the Central Committee on the Polish coup he talked about ‘the difficulties and the sclerosis’ – scarcely rigorous Marxist categories. He did criticise the regimes of the Eastern bloc for the ‘identification of the party with the state’; but he also blamed the Polish regime for the ‘incapacity to isolate ... politically ... the extremist demands’.


But what is most striking about such criticisms is their pathetic ineffectiveness. Pravda may accuse the Italian CP of ‘sacrilege’, but the Russian leaders are scarcely worried by the likes of Berlinguer. In 1968 Brezhnev told the Czech leaders after the Russian invasion that the Western CPs were going to ‘sound off – but so what? ... For 50 years now they have not mattered one way or the other.’

In 1976 the Polish oppositionist Jacek Kuron appealed to Berlinguer to intervene on behalf of arrested Polish workers. The Italian CP sent a strongly-worded message – which the Polish regime treated with contempt.

In fact, Berlinguer’s criticisms of the East were nothing to do with a love of ‘democracy’, and everything to do with his own opportunist political strategy. The ‘Historic Compromise’ meant that the CP must accept

Italian membership of NATO. In 1976 Berlinguer told a reporter that he felt that NATO safeguarded ‘the Italian road to socialism’, as Russia could not intervene as it had done in Czechoslovakia. ‘I feel safer being on this side of the fence.’

Secondly, Berlinguer’s claim that the present period has shown the limitations of both reformism and Leninism, and therefore opens a ‘third phase’ allowed him to accommodate to a range of swampish ‘movements’:

‘There exist, and are developing, movements, associations, organisations, groups, particularly of women, youths and intellectual workers, that are expressing in hundreds of ways outside working class parties also and beyond the traditional forms of politics, demands that are being pressed, aspirations, willpower that collides and enters into conflict with economic mechanisms, with the social set up, and with contemporary capitalism’s cultural output.’

In particular, Berlinguer was anxious to set himself up as middleman between the Eastern bloc and Western social democracy:

‘We today are in a position to help communications between social democratic and other movements on the one side and parties and states whose beginnings related directly and indirectly to the October Revolution of 1917, on the other.’

Thus shortly after the Union of the Left in France broke up in 1977, Berlinguer had a formal meeting with Francois Mitterrand – to the great annoyance of the French Communist Party.

Certainly Berlinguer’s policy has not been devoid of success in the short term. While the Spanish CP crumbles and the French party faces irreversible decline, the Italian CP has increased its representation in the European parliament, while both Socialists and Christian Democrats have lost out.

But while Communists troop off in triumph to the toothless assembly’ at Strasbourg, Prime Minister Craxi has got parliamentary support for his plan tOj cut guaranteed cost-of-living increases in wages. The CP cannot protest too vigorously without upsetting all its reformist ambitions, yet if it fails to protest the initiative stays with Craxi.

All around the world former Stalinist parties are trying to turn themselves into openly reformist parties. For most the attempt has led to disaster; the Italian party has gone far further down the road than any other. But it still has a long way to go, and the death of Berlinguer, its most skilful opportunist, will not help it. Time is still on Signor Craxi’s side.

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