The Black Hole of Democratic Socialism: The Decline and Fall of the Italian Communist Party, 1976-1991

Since 2016 the left has been increasingly seen ascendant for the first time since the 1960s or 70s. At the very least, the left has begun to play offense instead of defense for the first time in a long while. No longer marginal curiosities, it is now faced with the possibility of power. One question that has garnered online debate is that of what that path to power should look like, or, more precisely, what route is most likely to obtain the left’s goals? Unlike in previous eras, there is no real revolutionary left and all prominent participants in the debate accepts that the left should work with existing political parties and within the current system. Whereas once pragmatic incrementalism and cooperation with the center was once considered a betrayal of the left, now the reformist Democratic Socialists of America represents the furthest boundary of plausible radicalism.

There has never been a singular left and that is perhaps truer now than ever. Certainly, there is no consensus as to what policy goals should be pursued. Indeed, it is questionable whether developing clear, implementable policy is even useful socialist praxis. Those who believe that it is have devoted much time and effort to a strategy of infiltrating the existing political system in order to apply pressure from the left (an approach often indistinguishable from crass entryism). The Democratic Socialist approach seeks to shift the needle to the left. The argument is that introducing clear policies to the public discourse will result in a corresponding shift in what is considered possible. That Medicare-for-All has been endorsed by probable Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination has been pointed to as evidence that this approach is working.

It is useful to remember, however, that the left has been ascendant before. Indeed, in real terms it weaker than it has ever been. When one leaves the enclaves of twitter and one finds, instead, decimated labor unions and an almost complete lack of institutional power. When something approaching a socialist does manage to achieve a victory, he is subjected to a three year long smear campaign calling him, amongst other libels, an anti-semite by a vicious centrist establishment that would rather Boris Johnson run the UK than a social democrat. Even the supposed bastions of Marxism, the universities, are in reality among the leading institutions of neoliberalism and have long been stripped of what radicalism they ever had in favor of reproducing the social hierarchies and the “human capital” demanded by capitalism. It is, therefore, crucial to understand how the left has failed in the past to wind up in its current condition. In this piece I will present the example of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, hereafter the PCI).

The PCI is useful for us to consider because in 1976 it appeared to be on the verge of real electoral success and looked to enter the Italian government for the first time. It was by far the most successful and militant Euro-Communist party and at its peak had over 2.6 million members. Moreover, the period between 1967 and 1976 was one of intense activity for the Italian left between the 68ers in the universities and a succession of strikes by Italy’s militant, and at the time still growing, trade unions. These actions had put the establishment under considerable pressure and had forced real changes to a conservative Italian society. The Italian example is appropriate and significant because despite having considerably greater advantages than the left enjoys today, the democratic socialist approach that it would pursue following the 1976 election would fail utterly and completely. The PCI was not able to translate its significant support or the momentum of the period of social radicalism between 1967 and 1976 into the social and economic transformation that it desired. The demise of the Italian Communist Party demonstrates the vacuity and lack of imagination or ambition at the heart of democratic socialism. It lacks the revolutionary characteristics necessary to compel real social change; instead, it cannot but be coopted by the right.

Enrico Berlinguer’s Grand Alliance

In the 1976 Italian election the PCI received a historic best share of the vote with about thirty-five percent—just three percent less than the total claimed by the Christian Democrats (DC) who had effectively ruled Italy since the first post-fascist election in 1948. When combined with the Socialist Party (PSI), the Italian left had managed forty-seven percent of the total vote. For the first time, then, it was presented with the tantalizing possibility of forming government and had the potential political power necessary to pursue real reforms to the Italian state. However, he PCI’s leader, Enrico Berlinguer, declined to make a common cause with the PSI against the DC in a moment when cracks had emerged in the DC’s hegemonic grip on Italian politics. Berlinguer had developed a strategy in 1973 of a “grand alliance” of the major Italian political parties and it was this approach that he continued to follow after the election. Rather than an alliance with the Socialists, he pursued a coalition with the DC. He did so because he believed that this was the only way for the Communists to gain access to the government. An alliance between the Communists and the Christian Democrats would signal the reasonableness of the PCI leadership and would minimize reactionary fears. He hoped to advertise his party—particularly to the Americans who were adamantly opposed to the PCI joining the government—that everything was within the bounds of normal politics. If he tempered the radicalism of his party and slowly infiltrated the government he believed that he could avoid the reactionary response typically received by governments that were perceived as a threat to the interests of capital and the United States.

Berlinguer’s fears were not unfounded. His 1973 strategy was an explicit response to the US-supported military coup that brought down the democratically elected left-leaning government of Salvador Allende and replaced it with the far right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Whether Italy would have been at risk of a military response if the PCI and PSI had formed government cannot be known, but the United States made sure to express their opposition and at the bare minimum it could have expected the punitive economic sanctions taken against France after François Mitterrand was first elected president in 1981. Such sanctions would have compounded Italy’s ongoing economic crisis.

The PCI, thus, premised its actions on Berlinguer’s belief that the most important thing was to protect Italian democracy. If the PCI moved too quickly, it would upset the fragile political order and would assure a violent response from the right. In this view, Berlinguer drew upon the historical example of the anti-fascist alliance formed in the period of 1943-47 and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti’s cautious refusal to back revolutionary action at the end of the Second World War. Togliatti had rejected demands for revolution by partisans who had spent much of the previous years engaged in militant opposition to fascism and as a result had the conceivable military organization with which to execute such a revolution. As Togliatti believed such a revolution would be quashed by the American military who were occupying Italy and that the Soviet Union was not in position to offer the Italian Communists any help, he preached the need for a more cautious, incremental approach.

By the mid-1970s the Euro-Communist parties, of which Italy’s was the largest, sought to separate themselves from the Soviet Union on the one hand and European social democracy on the other. Since the Hungarian revolution and the construction of the Berlin Wall, Soviet communism was associated with autocracy and authoritarianism while social democracy was merely reformist and had failed to pursue any real transformative policies. While the social democratic governments had attempted to soften the worst capitalist injustices, it did so from within the confines of capitalism. Berlinguer presented his leadership as offering a “third way,” one that was neither Soviet totalitarianism nor social democratic reformism—though he never clearly articulated what, exactly, differentiated his party from the social democrats or how the PCI would bring about a transition away from capitalism.

In pursuing his grand alliance with the Christian Democrats, Berlinguer alienated the socialists who had already taken a conciliatory approach to the DC and by 1976 had become accustomed to playing a key role in Italian politics. Moreover, in 1975 they had elected as their leader the ambitious Bettino Craxi who hailed from the party’s right flank. Craxi did not forget the snub. As a result an irreparable rift was formed between Italy’s left-wing parties and under Craxi the PSI would go its own way. In 1976 there might have been a possibility of a left-wing coalition against the DC, by 1979 there was no hope of this. Meanwhile, the grand alliance with the DC had come to nought. Berlinguer was unable to obtain meaningful representation for the PCI in the Italian government and the DC instead used the alliance to foment the break between the PCI and PSI. His efforts were further undone by the violence of Italian politics in the late-1970s and, in particular, the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrats’ leader Aldo Moro in May, 1978. Rather than initiating a transition to a new socialism, Berlinguer’s strategy benefitted the rise of neoliberalism that would begin under the prime ministership of Bettino Craxi in the 1980s.

While Togliatti’s cooperation with the center/center right in the aftermath of the Second World War was justified as a pragmatic necessity for a country not ready for revolution, by the mid-1970s Italy was crying out for radical action. If it was not the time, it was hard to see when it ever would be. Berlinguer may have sought to protect Italian democracy from the combined forces of the far right and a deepening economic crisis that he saw as a deliberate strategy intended to counter the mobilization of the students and trade unions on the left, but the outcome was instead the very permanent shift to the right that he had feared and sought to prevent. In chasing respectability Berlinguer emphasized the strong state and largely abandoned the reform of prisons and police or safeguarding the right to dissent. More damningly, instead of freeing Italy from clientalism the communists actively participated as soon as they were given an opportunity. Rather than being a force for change, they turned out to be the same as every other political party. In the 1979 election they would lose 1.5 million votes from their 1976 result.

The End of the Italian Communist Party

In 1987 Umberto Bossi, the leader of a regional party, the Lega Lombarda, was elected to the Italian senate and in 1991 a number of northern regional parties merged to form the racist, anti-European Lega Nord under Bossi’s leadership. Bossi’s movement was animated by the perceived failure of the Italian establishment to deal adequately with the mass migration to the north from southern Italy and the continued economic and social disparities between the northern and southern parts of the country and against the multiculturalism represented by the pro-European, cosmopolitan liberal politicians. While not exactly fascist, his party gave new voice to racist resentment that had long simmered under the surface of Italian politics. Two years after Bossi was elected to the senate the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the intellectual foundation upon which the PCI rested was broken.

In response to the end of Russian communism, Berlinguer’s successor Achille Occhetto announced that the PCI would change its name and abandon the communist moniker in recognition of its transition from doctrinaire socialism to democratic socialism over the previous two decades. At the XXth and final Congress of the Italian Communist Party in 1991 sixty-eight percent of the delegates voted in favor of the new name, Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) while a small faction of militants followed Armando Cossutta and Pietro Ingrao to form the Rifondazione Communista (RC). As historian of Italy Paul Ginsborg observed, “the PCI had been born a party intent on making socialist revolution, it gradually became, by one of those exquisite ironies of history, the champion of the very ‘burgeois’ democracy it had vowed to destroy” (Ginsborg, 2003, p. 161). In doing so it had brought about its own destruction.


By the election of 1992 the writing was on the wall for the remnants of the traditional Italian political parties. The PDS and RC received only 16.6 and 5.6 percent of the vote respectively. Combined, their share of the vote was less than the PCI had received in any election since the 1940s. The ex-communists were not the only ones on the decline, the DC found itself with less than thirty percent of the vote for the first time in its history. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, increased its support from 0.5 percent to 8.7 percent. Two years later the Lega Nord and Umberto Bossi would be instrumental in the election of Silvio Berlusconi.

None of the traditional parties were able to recover their previous status. The PSI has been the most electorally successful and formed a number of governing coalitions; however, its increasing embrace of the political center undermined it in much the same way that the same impulses resulted in the collapse of the French Socialist Party under François Hollande. The neoliberalism of the 1990s was not able to address the economic and racial tensions that would be exacerbated by the European Union and its commitment to failed, punitive German economics that is characterized primarily on the extreme opposition to public debt. In 1994 Berlusconi seemed an anomaly. In 2018 the centrist government led by Matteo Renzi was defeated by an anti-establishment party founded by a comedian. After three months of negotiation a coalition between M5S and the Lega Nord led by the far right nativist Matteo Salvini (who had pushed Bossi out of the League a few years earlier).

None of these developments were inevitable; instead, they were the unforeseen consequences of pragmatic compromises by the left. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been had Berlinguer pursued a radical left strategy when presented with the opportunity in 1976, but the historical evidence strongly suggests that ‘temporary’ coalitions with the center-right in the name of pragmatism or realism only serves to undermine the moral authority from which the left draws its credibility and strength. The center is a black hole into which the left must not willfully fall yet again.

Perry Anderson. The New Old World. London: Verso Books, 2009.

Paul Ginsborg. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Paul Ginsborg. Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State, 1980-2001. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser. Italy: A Difficult Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.