100 Years Enrico Berlinguer: Enrico Berlinguer and 21st-Century Socialism

Secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from 1972 to 1984, Enrico Berlinguer has been long known for two broad political initiatives he introduced in the 1970s: at the level of domestic politics, the compromesso storico (the historical compromise); and, at the international level, Eurocommunism. On 25 May, we celebrate his 100th birthday.

The former was the 1973 proposal of an agreement between Italy’s major parties – the Communist, Socialist, and Christian Democratic (DC) parties – for reforming the country. It emerged after the coup d’état against Salvador Allende’s socialist-communist government in Chile and for years previously from the ‘strategy of tension’ as a response to the major period of struggles in 1968-69 – that is, it arose from the conviction that in a society like Italy’s, marked historically by fascism and subject to the ‘limited sovereignty’ imposed by the United States, 51% would not be sufficient for the left to govern and make its mark. It was a recovery of Palmiro Togliatti’s post-war strategy of governments of national unity to defeat fascism and rebuild the country. But for almost three decades this had been in vain, for the DC had become a party of political patronage, of clientelism and corruption – besides being a locus of enduring anticommunism. And while Berlinguer’s strategy garnered consensus among the middle strata and significant sectors of the Catholic electorate, his proposal displeased both the forces of the radical left – who not incorrectly saw the DC as the political basis of the Italian bourgeoisie’s power – and the Socialists who feared losing whatever remaining political relevance they had by being squeezed between the other two parties whose electoral base was much more substantial.

The compromesso storico met with vast consensus but in the end it foundered – both due to the anti-popular policies of the two ‘national solidarity’ governments of 1976-79 led by the right-wing Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti and imprudently supported by the PCI without the latter being accorded full participation in the cabinet. They were emergency governments in the face of the deep economic crisis rather than being versions of the compromesso storico, although overlapping the common sense of Berlinguer’s 1973 proposal – either because with the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro on the part of the Brigate Rosse, Berlinguer lost, in the DC, the only important interlocutor disposed to give at least some sort of cautious credit to the Communists and their democratic creed. 

The Eurocommunism initiative, on the other hand, was launched by Berlinguer in the international arena towards the middle of the 1970s and matured especially between 1975 and 1977. The PCI Secretary – who had already been cautiously critical of the Warsaw Pact’s 1956  invasion of Hungary – was shaken by the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. In this case, the process of democratic renewal was led by the country’s communist party itself, by its secretary Alexander Dubček, at whose side Longo and the Italian Communists personally worked hard, as they saw in this renewal a national and democratic path to socialism that was very close to their own traditional positions. 

After the invasion of Prague, Berlinguer waged a determined struggle within his party (which was only made known decades later when its archives were made accessible) to have it equip itself politically and ideologically to dissociate from the Soviets; he went to the USSR to communicate the PCI’s strong protest against the invasion; he was even convinced that the Soviets had made an attempt on his life through a strange road accident he was involved in while in Bulgaria in 1973, from which he miraculously emerged alive (this too was made known many years later). In the end he proposed, to the Spanish communists (who initially accepted it) and to the French, the creation of a communist pole in Western Europe to construct a ‘communism within liberty’, a democratic communism that would be attractive for workers within the capitalist West. 

In so doing he came back to principles he had already set out at the beginning of the 1970s, solemnly declaring that if they came to power the Communists would commit themselves to maintaining all political, cultural, trade-union, and religious freedoms. And in Moscow in 1977, in front of almost all of the world’s communists assembled to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, he declared – incurring the wrath of the Soviets – that for Italy’s communists democracy was a ‘historically universal value’, which therefore no communist country could do without on pain of seeing the very motivation for socialism disappear.

The French and the Spanish, having, for various reasons, distanced themselves from the Eurocommunist movement to which they originally adhered, Berlinguer went forward, speaking of the need for a ‘third way’ (that is, a path to socialism different from both authoritarian Soviet socialism and from social democracy, which did not aim at overcoming the capitalist system), then of a ‘third phase’ of the struggle for socialism, subsequent to those symbolised by the Second and the Third Internationals, now seen as having been concluded and unsuccessful.  And, finally, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the pro-Soviet coup in Poland – in 1979 and 1981 – Berlinguer declared that the October Revolution had exhausted its ‘propulsive force’, an event which he however never disowned but continued to consider as fundamental to the history the liberation of twentieth-century peoples.

If this Berlinguer – of the compromesso storico and Eurocommunism – is how he is best known, in Italy and abroad, what is less known but probably more important and vital is the ‘last Berlinguer’, that is, his outlook resulting from a profound strategic rethinking after the end of the Giulio Andreotti ‘national solidarity’ governments, which had so used up the relation between the PCI, its electorate, and Italian workers. 

Politically isolated from the anticommunism of the post-Moro DC and Craxi’s new Socialist Party, and in the face of the state’s inefficacy in dealing with the serious earthquake in Irpinia in 1980, Berlinguer and the PCI denounced ‘the problems of inefficiency, dishonesty, and immorality’ of the DC leadership,  a profoundly corrupt ‘system of power and conception of government’. This is how the policy of the ‘democratic alternative’ proposed by the PCI’s Secretary, began.

 In this last period of his life (he died unexpectedly in 1984) Berlinguer turned above all to Italian society, with a view to bringing about a Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform’ able to change the common sense of the masses. Already in 1977 he had spoken – as had Olof Palme some years before – of ‘austerity’, but conceiving it has an ‘occasion for transforming Italy’, to create a new development model that limits individualist consumption and egoism. In 1980 he went to Fiat to support the workers’ struggle, reactivating that ‘emotional connection’ with the workers that had in part been lost in previous years, an activism that he would continue with his battle to safeguard the ‘scala mobile’ – the mechanism that defended workers’ wages and the standard of living –  in the face of the Craxi government’s attack, which aimed at cutting it back. 

In these years, Berlinguer spoke of a renewal of politics and of the PCI. He confronted the ‘ethical question’, which by then had corroded the prestige of the parties, speaking of ‘communist diversity’ as a mode of doing politics not aimed at personal advantage but at the overcoming of the capitalist system, a society based on profit and egoism. He affirmed the PCI’s need to open itself to society and the movements: he aligned himself with the movement for peace and against the bilateral rearmament then under way; he took up the issues of ecology and the limits to development; he interested himself in the new digital technologies as a means of mass cultural growth (on condition that they did not claim to substitute a politics based on collective and participatory action); he dialogued fruitfully with the feminist movements, including the most advance ones, affirming that the women’s revolution was an indispensable condition for a socialist revolution; he strengthened the ties with the liberation movements and with left social democratic organisations throughout the world to create a ‘new internationalism’. 

In this activity of writing into reality a veritable new ‘basic programme’ for the PCI, Berlinguer incurred the hostility of a good part of his party’s leadership circles – tied as they were to the dynamics of institutional politics and relations with the Christian Democrats and Socialists – but he encountered the impassioned consensus of the communist public and of millions of citizens and voters, not to mention a growing international prestige.

His funeral in Rome in June of 1984 was the biggest mass demonstration in the history of the Italian Republic. Millions of Italians participated in it who not only recognised Berlinguer’s ethical and political integrity but also implicitly the rightness of his propelling ideas (the ‘long ideas’, as he defined them) that he carried forward in his last period – an effort that was suddenly terminated but already heralding the recovery of the PCI’s political and electoral, and national and international, prestige.

A few days after the funeral, for the first and last time, the PCI overtook the DC in the European elections; it was a tribute to a great man and a great communist who had been able to renew his party and renew himself without cutting off his own roots. His ideas remain invaluable in building a ‘21st-century socialism’.