(This article first appeared in US Italia weekly on May 7, 2006)
The slogging of thousands of Communists across the mountains of interior China, however remarkable politically and athletically, seems no more tortured than the political journey of the gray men of Botteghe Oscure [the historic location of the PCI’seadquarters in Rome] from the...
... Salerno Switch of 1944, where we started in this series, to this April’s narrow defeat of the Berlusconi powerhouse behind a soft-spoken Bolognese professor, aided by the surprise votes of Italians abroad.
The maneuverings and transformations are breathtaking on the path from Togliatti’s ministerial portfolio under Alcide De Gasperi to the flames of Mani pulite that engulfed the Communists’ opponents, to the brief premiership of Massimo D’Alema, to a plight where the DS’ continuing hegemony of the Left (in terms of votes) can be translated into nothing better than some seats in a group photo with Fausto Bertinotti giving instructions to the photographer. We have focused on the era of the Compromesso storico because that was when the switches were set that produced the palace coup of the early 1990s and the shape of the Center-Left coalition that now takes center stage.
In the 1970s, we at the embassy in Rome had some unusual conversations with American businessmen. A small number of the larger American businesses having some operations in Italy had let it be publicly known that they thought the Compromesso, the formal political participation of the Communist Party (PCI) in the governing of Italy, was a splendid idea. There was a single reason for this novel (for American business) view: labor discipline. They believed the Communists could control the workers. We, of course, could not go beyond trying to educate these business representatives. Those same businessmen were able to cite, if they had done any homework, the words of several American historians and social scientists who were also noisily supportive of the Compromesso. Belying their profession, the thinking of these academics was not profound: the five habitual governing parties seemed to be having a hard time running the country, so the only question was whether such a change would give Moscow too great a role in Italian affairs (which was universally acknowledged, even among the radical chic, to be a bad thing).
What is interesting here is that that was the absolutely central question for most outsiders and for many Italians also. For a number of American and European academics, anyone who doubted the sincerity of the PCI’s protestations of independence from the Soviets was an ignorant retrograde, and probably had a right-wing agenda of his own. It was the era of “Euro-communism.” Unlike “euro-skepticism,” the term did not imply the continent-wide spread of the noun. Euro-communism was, according to the oceans of ink devoted to it, communism with a human face, enthusiastically democratic, undogmatic, untied to the Soviets, unthreatening…house-broken. The poster child for this phenomenon was the Italian Communist Party, creating a circular cause-and-effect: the PCI was a model of Euro-communism because it was close to being brought into the government because it was a model of Euro-communism… and so on.
As late as 1960, the Italian party had seemed a poor candidate for this role. When Stalin died (1953), even the sophisticated La Rinascita had published a “Glory to Stalin” issue. As late as 1956, the party defended, by name, Stalinism. Party publications usually asserted that life was an unblemished paradise in the Warsaw Pact countries and didn’t report on dissension there. This became difficult when the world watched the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but Togliatti was undeterred: he called for support of the new puppet regime installed by Russian tanks and said that what Hungary needed was a stronger dose of Communism.
We saw in previous columns how the Communists neatly handled the NATO-and-America issues, and had found a remarkably large common ground with the Christian Democrats on social and economic thinking. But the break with Moscow is a complex, only-now-well-documented tale. More important, the perception of the break by publics inside and outside Italy involved a piece of surgery that left scars still visible in today’s group photo. Into the operating room next week!