Six decades after its founding, the Italian Communist Party is the largest, most successful, and most dynamic communist party in the West. But the PCI wants more. It wants to govern.
At its 16th national congress, held in Milan last week, the PCI switched tactics once again and unveiled a new course of action by which it plans to gain access to the government. The proposal, called the ''democratic alternative,'' is less interesting as a political program than as an indication of the party's evolving identity.
The democratic alternative, as elaborated by party chief Enrico Berlinguer, proposes an alliance of the movements and parties of the left - in particular, the Communists and Socialists - as an alternative to the Christian Democrats, who have dominated Italy's governments since 1947.
This is an abrupt turnaround from the PCI's strategy of historic compromise with the Christian Democrats.
Through most of the '70s, the PCI sought a working partnership with the ruling Christian Democrats and even achieved a role in policymaking from mid- 1977 to the end of '78. During the last party congress in 1979, communist leaders were still lamenting the sudden termination of the compromise, which ended when the Red Brigades murdered Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat leader who had made the plan possible.
Historians note the irony of the PCI's latest initiative. The PCI was founded in 1921 by a splinter group of the Socialist Party which felt the party was underestimating the value of the October Revolution in Russia. In Milan last week, the PCI not only made overtures to the Socialists, but also restated it believed the force of the October Revolution was spent.
Last year, after martial law was imposed in Poland, the PCI called the Soviet model a failure because it ''does not permit real democratic participation in the economic or political sphere.''
The position shocked many members of the PCI's rank and file and caused some dissension within the leadership. The fear was that a negation of the heritage of the first country to achieve real socialism - the Soviet Union - would strip the PCI of its own identity.
But by the time the congress convened, it was evident the initial shock had been absorbed and ''digested,'' as one delegate put it. The leading proponent of healing the rift with Moscow, Armando Cossutta, had the backing of a mere 4 percent of the delegates. The issue was never even put to a vote at the congress.
The PCI took other stands that demonstrated its autonomy from Moscow. It condemned the Soviet Union's use of power politics in Afghanistan. It affirmed it did not advocate a unilateral withdrawal from NATO, but a gradual elimination of the power blocs - both NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Concerning the missiles due to be installed in Comiso, Sicily, at the end of this year, the PCI called on the Italian government to await the outcome of the Geneva negotiations on arms control. It pointed out the Soviets seem to have an edge on the balance of power in the medium-range nuclear missile area but suggested the English and French missiles outside NATO jurisdiction should also be put on the negotiating table.
But primarily, the congress emphasized the democratic alternative as the solution to the country's economic woes. Increasing production, technological transformation, ridding the public administration of corruption, and fighting the Mafia were among its priorities.
Instead of elaborating concrete steps, however, the party leadership merely defined a new rallying cry.
''The democratic alternative is certainly more convincing than the historic compromise,'' said Gian Luca Cerrina, a member of Parliament from Florence.
The historic compromise is now recognized as one of the biggest mistakes of the PCI in recent years.
''It was so little understood by the rank and file that it cost the PCI a lot of support,'' explained Giuseppe Vacca, a member of the Central Committee. ''For all the compromising, the PCI never got much for its cooperation. But it assumed some of the blame for the troubles of the country.''
In real political terms, the democratic alternative is a remote possibility. Bettino Craxi, head of the Socialist Party, gave no hint the Socialists would abandon a position in power to join the communists in the opposition.
''Relations between us are not good, and not as they perhaps could be,'' Craxi told the PCI congress.
Moreover, the Socialists and the Communists would have difficulty getting the required 51 percent majority in the next national elections, scheduled for June 1984. The Communists are expected to drop from 30 to 28 percent of the vote, with the Socialists adding only 2 or 3 points to their previous 10 percent vote, according to recent polls.
''We haven't proposed, nor do we propose to the Socialist Party, a government for tomorrow or for the day after,'' Mr. Berlinguer said at the conclusion of the congress on Sunday. ''It's a perspective for us to work toward in the future.''
But in philosophical terms, the democratic alternative makes a significant statement about the perception of the PCI. The historic compromise was born after studying the mistakes of the Allende regime in Chile. To prevent a similar right-wing backlash, the PCI embarked on a policy of moderation and compromise.
That the PCI feels it can shed its pretense to cooperate with the rightist parties means it feels secure in its image as a moderate, responsible party on the Italian political scene.
Prof. Mario Losano, a delegate from Milan, said, ''Some have even suggested all we have left to do now is change our name to be considered totally respectable.''