The hammer and sickle fade in Italy

IMPORTANT changes have quietly been taking place in a country noted for its tumultuous politics: Italy. The big story is the decline of the once-mighty Italian Communist Party, so much so that one of its leaders has suggested changing its name and dropping the hammer and sickle as its symbol. At its height, the party's vote total briefly surpassed that of the Christian Democratic Party, Italy's largest. The slow electoral slide of the once-impressive communist machine has in recent months accelerated into a directionless skid. What explains this development?

The brilliant tactics of Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister and party secretary.

The end of the Communists' cultural hegemony within the Italian social and political milieu.

The party's inability to translate its votes into real power at the national level.

The party's failure to transform itself into a modern reformist political movement.

Mikhail Gorbachev.

Once a dependent ally of the Communists, under Prime Minister Craxi the Socialists declared their independence, emphasized socialist rather than communist tradition, abandoned revolutionary rhetoric, and advocated an aggressively modern reforming policy to solve Italy's myriad problems. Mr. Craxi argued that by achieving control of the prime minister's post, the Socialists could illustrate their policies in an effective and visible manner. His goal: a vote shift to the Socialists, reversing the Italian anomaly of a large Communist and a small Socialist Party.

This strategy produced the remarkably long-lived and effective Craxi Cabinet, which ran the country for 3 years. Although favorable factors such as the drop in oil prices helped, Craxi's policies reversed the prevailing negative economic climate and guided the nation into its current impressive prosperity.

A further result: the accelerated Communist decline. Party leaders spearheaded a broad attempt to sabotage Craxi's policies, completely misinterpreting the country's wishes. The party emerged badly mangled from the June 1987 national elections and from two rounds of local elections this summer. Most of the lost ballots took off toward Craxi's Socialists, while the Communists also lost the leftist youth vote to the Socialists. In June, only four percentage points separated the two leftist parties. Communist General Secretary Alessandro Natta was bounced in favor of Achille Occhetto, publicly squabbling organized factions appeared, and local groups demanded the entire leadership's resignation - all unprecedented events in the rigidly run Communist Party.

So far, Mr. Occhetto has failed to stem the Communists' crisis. In an effort to placate party hard-liners, he announced a critical attitude toward Christian Democratic leader Ciriaco de Mita's government, but on the local level has engaged in deals with the Mita party to shut out the emerging Socialists.

This policy illustrates the Communists' dilemma. European and American hostility shut them out of the government in the past. In response, they modified their Marxist views and flirted with reformism, but a substantial share of the party balked, attributing ineffectiveness to abandonment of the old ideas. The party pays lip service to its revolutionary heritage and deals with the discredited Christian Democrats to keep a toehold on power, thus hoping to demonstrate that it can provide solutions to the novel problems of a rapidly modernizing society.

These contradictions have proved untenable. A decade ago, Socialist intellectuals mounted an effective attack on the Communist ideology, exposing its dictatorial nature and challenging the Communists to abandon it. With Mr. Gorbachev's glasnost and the rehabilitation of Stalin's victims came critical examination of Palmiro Togliatti's close collaboration with Stalin's repressive regime. This analysis set off a national debate, because the late Communist secretary, who made his organization into a potent political force, is still revered by Italian Communists. The party put up a united front in Togliatti's defense, but this fa,cade is now broken.

For the Communists, the future appears bleak. If they abandon their tradition, they divide and weaken their party; if they don't, the crisis will worsen. Furthermore, if the Soviet leader no longer appears to believe in communism, why should the Italians?

While the Communist Party will continue to be a significant factor in Italy, experts predict that its electoral slide will continue until it settles at the figure represented by its apparatus strength, about 17 percent. In the wings, the nation's most influential leader, Craxi, awaits the next (most certainly early) national elections to take the country's helm once more.

Spencer Di Scala is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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