ROME — TEN years ago, a visit by the head of the Italian Communist Party to the United States was unthinkable. Italy's communists were then at the pinnacle of their political support at home, and the prospect of communists coming to power in Italy generated concern in the US. This week's seven-day visit by Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Achille Occhetto - which includes meetings with members of Congress - breaks new ground. Mr. Occhetto's trip comes as the PCI is struggling to reverse a steady decline at the polls.
Giorgio Napolitano, who as the party's foreign policy czar accompanies Occhetto to the US, sees the trip as a chance to drive home the message that his party has no intention of undermining the Western alliance.
``We are not something half East and half West. We are a fully-fledged Western European party of the left, and we want to contribute to the policies of the European Community and NATO as a party which believes in the importance of Western European integration and believes in a European pillar within the Western alliance,'' he says. ``Many of these positions are not well known in the US.''
Neither is Occhetto, whose aim, since taking leadership last year, has been to revive flagging party fortunes amid a worldwide decline of communist parties.
Occhetto is seen in Italy as a maverick. He has installed talented young activists at the upper echelons of the PCI, adopted positions in favor of feminism and the environment, and is pushing reforms to democratize the party.
Occhetto's charisma stands in sharp contrast to his colorless predecessor, Alessandro Natta, who presided over one of the PCI's worst electoral defeats. In 1987 parliamentary elections, PCI support dropped to 27 percent from a high of 34.4 percent in 1976, when it was thought the communists might outpoll the dominant Christian Democratic Party.
A month after Occhetto returns from his trip, the PCI faces a critical test in June elections for the European Parliament.
``We hope to hold the line,'' says Napolitano, meaning that the communists hope not to lose more ground to rival Socialists.
With growth of the service sector and more widespread affluence in Italy, the Communist Party has found its traditional working-class base shrinking. The party's new strategy seeks to capitalize on appeal to environmentalists and women. It has also catered to the traditional rank-and-file by, for example, backing the May 10 general strike opposing Italy's austerity program.
PCI leaders stress they feel a close affinity for the German Social Democrats and the French Socialists, while they shun the Stalinist French Communists. Recently, Occhetto said, ``There is no international communist movement. By now, all communist parties are profoundly different. There are those who are aligned with Gorbachev, there are those hostile to him, and there is a party like ours that is totally different.''
Some critics question the sincerity of the PCI's disavowal of doctrinaire communist positions, despite the fact that the party embraces NATO and a mixed economy. But the PCI has attracted some notable noncommunist converts, such as Eugenio Scalfari, editor of the daily La Repubblica. In a recent editorial, Mr. Scalfari wrote that the PCI ``has nothing more to do with communism'' and ``is rapidly developing into a progressive democratic party.''
The PCI, of course, still dreams of governing Italy some day in a left-wing coalition. Napolitano insists that once in power, the PCI ``would not challenge in any way'' the US-Italy alliance.
``I wouldn't say it's imminent,'' he adds quickly, referring to prospects for a left-wing government.
Under former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the Socialists have been highly critical of the PCI, calling on it to shed its name as proof of goodwill. PCI leaders have not ruled out such a change, but Napolitano says, ``I think the most important thing is a change of substance. Otherwise the name change could be seen as a trick.''