IN the wake of the dramatic East European events, the West's largest communist organization, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), is wrestling with an identity crisis. The stakes involve not only the party's essence, but the future of the Italian left and of Italy itself. Outside of Italy, the PCI has enjoyed a maverick reputation, having objected to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, accepted NATO, and championed ``Eurocommunism'' in the 1970s.
By November 1989, however, the PCI ran the risk of being in the rearguard of world communism. Party secretary Achille Occhetto proclaimed the ``New PCI'' to distance himself from the Chinese massacre in order to avoid a backlash in the European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, the Hungarians had changed the name of their party and applied for membership in the Socialist International.
In late October, an Occhetto representative met with Mikhail Gorbachev and received the impression that even the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could dissolve itself. Declaring that the cold war had ended and acknowledging how quickly events could overtake him, Mr. Occhetto rapidly announced a name change and the PCI's application for entrance into the Socialist International.
Within the party, Occhetto's policy has produced determined resistance. In the old days, the mechanism of ``democratic centralism'' - a euphemism for authoritarian control - would have guaranteed automatic consensus for the secretary's policy, but no longer. Led by prestigious party founder Pietro Ingrao and former secretary Alessandro Natta, the hard-liners object to the name change and the dumping of party tradition. These opponents argue that PCI tradition differs from those of the ``People's Republics,'' that the PCI has never been in power, and that communist leaders such as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu were really fascists.
Political analysts have rebutted the hard-liners' positions, pointing out that until recently the PCI defended the communist regimes against critics.
Occhetto's proposal to change the PCI's name comes within a troubled Italian context. The PCI vote has been declining slowly but consistently for over 10 years, foreshadowing a time when the Communists may be overtaken by the Italian Socialist Party, Italy's true social democratic force. Furthermore, a majority of PCI membership is over 50 and the PCI has lost the youth vote to the Socialists.
Where is the party heading? Informed observers have indicated that if Occhetto's opponents receive 30 percent of the vote in this spring's special congress, the party secretary will be in trouble. Either his proposals will be in jeopardy, or the party will lose even more steam, or Occhetto himself will be replaced - or all of the above. An alternative list to Occhetto already exists and partial results in the meetings preparatory to the special congress indicate that Occhetto's opponents will receive 35 percent of the vote at the congress.
The other problem comes from outside the PCI. While admitting the communist failure de facto, the PCI denies the implications that failure had held for Italy over the past 70 years. The Communists split from the Socialists in 1921 precisely over the Socialist Party's refusal of their demand to change its name and expel Social Democratic leaders from its ranks, a schism which aided the rise of Benito Mussolini to power. After World War II, the Communists helped sabotage the Socialists, who pursued reforms of the type the Communists later advocated.
Instead of admitting mistakes, the Communists claim that they have been the ``true'' social democrats all along and have applied for admission to the Socialist International on that basis. Such reasoning indicates that the real problem with even the Occhetto Communists remains their lingering Leninist mentality. This problem has alienated the Socialists even further and lessened the possibility that the Italian left will become a cohesive force capable of challenging the 45-year hegemony of Italy's Christian Democrats.
The PCI's strength and its attachment to Moscow guaranteed that there would be no alternation of power in Italy in the first place - contributing to such major problems as corruption. Now communist actions seem headed toward perpetuating the current system.