101. Airgram From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State1



  • The “Democratic” Italian Communist Party—New Bait for the Old Popular Front Trap


The Italian Communist Party (PCI) continues to create interest and some confusion with its claims to be democratic, and to be prepared to step down, once in power, if its popular mandate were lost. Most recently, this line has been taken up in a major pronouncement by PCI [Page 200] leftwing Pietro Ingrao. Careful study of Ingrao’s statements, however, leads to the conclusion that there has been no meaningful change in the PCI’s revolutionary, totalitarian ideology. But Ingrao does appear to be emerging as one of the hardest running potential successors of Togliatti, with the ability to appeal not only to a very broad range of views within the PCI, but also to left-wing non-Communists who favor working class unity. The Embassy concludes that Ingrao has talent in appearing to be “all things to all people” and that as such he is a potent weapon in the PCI arsenal. While most Italians do not accept Ingrao’s or other Communist claims to be democratic and trustworthy, a few leaders of public opinion welcome the Communist line and interpret it to be significant, at least in part. To this extent the PCI line has enjoyed some success and is able to make difficult the progress of the non-Communist Italian left toward modern concepts of political democracy.

I. Introduction

Much interest has been shown recently in Italy, particularly by left-wing intellectuals and by the left and center-left political parties, in what is frequently taken to be a slow and laborious effort by the Italian Communist Party to seek a more democratic and “Italian” course of development for the Party. A careful reading of the many PCI statements on the subject of intra-Party and parliamentary democracy leads inevitably to the conclusion that the symptoms of change within the PCI relate to the continuing debate as to the merits of the alternative “hard” and “soft” lines of action open to the Party; the international dispute within the Communist world movement; the question of leadership and succession within the PCI; and even the question of taking different leadership views to the PCI cadres, i.e., the question of factionalism, by any other name. Unsurprisingly, Italian Communist statements do not reveal any tendency whatsoever toward democracy in any meaningful sense of the term, despite the fact that some success has been achieved by the PCI in its long term effort to present itself as a responsible, respectable and democratic party in Italy.

The Embassy has carefully reviewed the major developments in the ideological debate currently in progress among the various elements of the political left in Italy, and endeavors in this dispatch to focus upon those significant documents and pronouncements necessary to assess the PCI position, and upon the general effect and importance of the PCI efforts in this field. Part II of this report examines the PCI claim to be a democratic organization. Part III offers an interpretation of the relationship between the current propaganda line and Party needs. Part IV discusses aspects of the impact of the PCI line on the Italian political scene, and the Embassy’s conclusions are included in Part V.

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[Here follows Section II, a 4-page discussion of PCI public statements on the issue of democracy.]

III. An Interpretation of the Immediate Aim of Current PCI Efforts

The Problems Within the Party

As has been reported in detail elsewhere, much frustration has built up within the PCI as a result of the failure to prevent the formation of the present center-left government, the steady decline in Party membership over the last decade, and the reflected dissensions of the current dispute within the international Communist movement. (See A-1032 of February 14, and A-1385 of April 7, 1964.)2 These frustrations, and the continued existence of the center-left threat, increase the impatience of those Communists who favor a harder, more aggressive line. These “hard-liners” believe that if the Party is held on its current line it will ultimately incur the electoral losses augured by the unmistakable signs of impotence revealed in the PCI struggle to prevent the development of PSI autonomy and the center-left. The “hard-liners” oppose any tendency toward “right-reformism,” and are generally categorized as being on the PCI left, although sympathy for left-wing (Chinese) views in the international movement is not necessarily implied by left-wing intra-Party positions.

On the other hand, the PCI rightwing recognizes the danger that an overly aggressive PCI program could alarm the protest voters who have supported the PCI in increasing numbers over the years, and could push the country as well as the government to the right. The PCI rightwing points out that the fate of the Greek Communist Party was avoided by the PCI due to the wise (and very cautious) middle-of-the-road leadership of Togliatti, and is convinced that further gains can be made by the PCI on the present course.

The natural result of the middle-of-the-road approach of Togliatti, however, has been the falling away of cadres on both the left and the right of the Party, and a disastrous 65% decline in the membership of the Italian Federation of Communist Youth (FGCI). It is generally accepted that the FGCI could regain some of its lost ground with a more militant, bluntly revolutionary line which would have a definite appeal among young radically militant left-wing intellectuals, or alternatively that gains could be made with an honestly democratic program which would have to be based on the junking of the authoritarian Leninist concept of democratic centralism. There is little the FGCI can do as long as it is denied either course, except to blame the Party (as Achille Occhetta did at the PCI Conference on Organization in March) [Page 202] and hope that the FGCI is not a bellwether for the PCI. In recent weeks there has been some evidence of a more aggressive and intransigent PCI stance, particularly in trade union activity, but as long as Togliatti remains firmly committed to what amounts to a popular front line, and at the same time to the principle of democratic-centralism, changes in PCI tactics and changes in PCI propaganda lines must be limited accordingly. In fact, on the eve of the PCI Conference on Organization in March, the Party seemed to be on dead center, in a situation which clearly called for vigorous leadership to give the Party spirit, conviction and direction.

Ingrao’s Solution

At the Party Conference (see A-1385 of April 7), signs of discontent and impatience were much in evidence. Several speakers vigorously criticized Party shortcomings and leadership methods, calling for more aggressive PCI opposition to the center-left government, and for more freedom of discussion within the Party. The most important of these speakers was Ingrao, the acknowledged leader of the leftwing PCI hardliners. Although Togliatti rejected the demands for change, the impatient comrades (all on the left of the PCI spectrum) established an image as innovators, struggling to modernize the standpat Togliatti line. Since the Conference, much has been heard from Ingrao, whose activities seem directed toward creating an image of a vigorous young reformer, who offers the Party more action and more internal democracy, and who sincerely assures the other Italian parties that the PCI is a democratic and reliable potential working partner.

Ingrao is one of the likely successors to Togliatti, and he is a hard-running candidate. He is relatively young (49), he is a reformer, and he does offer the Party more action. Beyond this, the image he and the Party seek for him is credible only to the careless. As is set forth above, even Ingrao’s own words, if accepted without question, do not make him out to be a democrat in any meaningful sense. Sources acquainted with Ingrao have also indicated doubt to the Embassy, based on estimates of his personality, that Ingrao would espouse the concept of greater freedom of discussion within the Party once his own views and his own leadership were established.

On the subject of internal Party democracy, Ingrao avoids talking about democratic centralism by name, but is bluntly opposed to intra-Party factions, thus agreeing with other Party spokesmen who maintain that “factionalism” would be the inevitable and undesirable result of abandoning democratic-centralism. Moreover, his Conference position in favor of the need for “a way in which the [Party]3 militants can [Page 203] make decisions, and not just participate in a debate,” (as quoted in Il Giorno, March 14, 1964) has turned out to be as circumscribed as his support for political rights in the socialist state. In his April 25 Rinascita article he commented: “I find that often discussion is not efficacious and the political organization doesn’t really decide because [the discussion] is based on reports that present again, without change, the entire situation, the entire judgment, the entire political position of the party (underscoring by Ingrao),4 when instead it would be more appropriate to highlight and put in discussion those developments, innovations, and corrections that really add or take away or modify some part of the analysis, line, or tactic of the party, rendering more evident and explicit the modifications and the developments and in this way asking the political organization to really decide hellip;” In other words, discussion within the Party should be ample, but it should be focused on the improvement of the Party analysis, line, or tactic, and not sufficiently wide ranging to question basic Party positions.

Nonetheless, through Ingrao the Party appears to be taking a stand which is intended to be all things to all people. To the impatient left the PCI offers a young, vigorous and hard-boiled left-wing leader. To non-Communist intellectuals and left-wing political leaders, Ingrao offers a PCI position that includes “full recognition” of “the essence of democracy.” To the PCI right and Togliatti possibilismo elements, Ingrao offers capable leadership in the Party drive for a popular front which, without Ingrao, would have less and less appeal to the PCI left. There is no room for non-Communist illusions, either with regard to the things Ingrao really stands for, or with regard to the real political potential of the formula he is developing for a PCI panacea.

IV. The Impact of the PCI “Democratic” Line

The General View

A large percentage of politically conscious Italians probably reject, unread, the long and involved PCI tracts in the Party theoretical journals, and perhaps seldom read any representative cross section of the newspaper and periodical comment on discussions as esoteric as the PCI view of the relationship between democracy and socialism. To many, the voice of the PCI is known to be unreliable anyway, and there seems little point in laboring through the dialectic to come once again to that conclusion. To others, particularly left-wing non-Communist politicians and professional political analysts, the PCI line on democracy and socialism is interesting, even encouraging and welcome as a debate with the comrades, but hardly convincing. Many of these important [Page 204] molders of Italian political opinion are sound and unequivocal in their assessments. On the question of political liberties, Avanti (January 16, 1964) noted that the Communists have long been prepared to grant, once in power, all the political liberties except the possibility to remove them from power. Concerning the PCI claim to believe in a multiparty system, the moderate left-wing Critica Sociale (February 5, 1964) cited Khrushchev’s recent discussions with Guy Mollet, in which Khrushchev asserted the other parties could co-exist in a socialist state where the Communists are in power. Khrushchev’s illustrations—Agrarian Istvan Kobi, Socialdemocrats Cyrankiewicz, Grotewohl, Fierlinger, Szakistas, etc.—were judged by Critica Sociale to be illustrative of Khrushchev’s well known sense of humor, and of the inanity of the PCI claim. On the subject of a minority becoming the majority, in a Communist state, Vita (February 5, 1964) also cited Khrushchev speaking to Mollet, when the question of an opposition was brushed aside by Khrushchev, saying “We will not go backwards”—language remarkably similar to that of Togliatti on the same subject.

By and large, non-Communist politically conscious elements in Italy are not confused by the Communist claim to democracy, whether they reject it out of hand, as do the Italian conservatives and extreme right, or whether they welcome the debate and give the devil his due, as is the case among the non-Communist left.

Wishful Thinkers, Dupes, and Politicians too Clever by Half

Unfortunately, the seeds cast by the PCI do not all fall on barren ground. For various reasons, the Communist claims to democracy and their efforts toward working class unity in a popular front are appealing to some political and intellectual leaders whose opinions in Italy carry weight. These include intellectuals of the stripe of Ernesto Rossi whose experiences seem to teach them that fascism is the real and enduring threat to liberty, and who hopefully see among the Communists democratic tendencies quite unapparent to other observers (see A-1435 of April 17, 1964).5 They include Marxists who are not alarmed by the dialectic of the PCI and the sophistry of Ingrao; who may be inclined, after all, to recognize “the profound difference in quality” between progressive and conservative forces. And they include PSI personalities who cherish the understandable conceit that the principal difference between the PSI and the PCI is that the PSI is several years ahead of the Communists in coming to terms with modern political realities, and that the PCI must follow along and therefore is following along on the path of democracy.

These troublesome traces of political or ideological confusion are always at hand for the Communists to attempt to form into unwittingly [Page 205] helpful political opinion, and the PCI all too frequently is assisted in their effort by politicians with a particular axe to grind. The unconscious assistance from the extreme right and the assistance from dupes such as Christian Democrat Giorgio La Pira need no comment. The case of the PSI’s Riccardo Lombardi, however, is more curious and more tragic. Opinions vary, with the interests of the observer, as to whether Lombardi’s confusing use of the PSI organ Avanti represents an attempt to play a necessary role in holding on to that part of the PSI electoral base which is to the left of the present government, or whether Lombardi’s game is to hold himself apart from Nenni’s followers in case the fortunes of the center-left government fall and pull the Nenniani down also. Lombardi’s desire to control the Socialist Party, and his reluctance or inability to adjust his attitudes to the Socialist shift from opposition to governmental responsibility, are other facets of his complicated personality. vis-á-visthe Communists, Lombardi is always willing to continue the dialogue, to hold out by implication the possibility of eventual cooperation with the PCI at some further stage in the Communist evolution as he sees it, and to ignore in large part his Party’s judgement that the PCI is an undemocratic element to be isolated on the left. Rome’s A-1628 of May 22, 19646 sets forth the Lombardi view of the prospects for the unification of the whole working class in Italy, to be accomplished by working persistently and patiently for the type of evolution in the PCI that has already occurred in Lombardi’s own party. Lombardi sees this taking place through a series of splits in the PCI and the gradual isolation of the old guard, beginning with Togliatti. In the place of his party’s view, that the PCI should be isolated and its electorate captured by the democratic left, Lombardi apparently holds the view that PCI “dogmatists” should be isolated, but that truly “progressive” PCI elements could be absorbed by the democratic parties. Thus Lombardi envisions a Marxist party absorbing and digesting a Marxist-Leninist party; the sheep to devour the wolves. Lenin’s comment “Who-Whom”? has not helped Lombardi. On the contrary, Lombardi’s own contribution to Socialist confusion helps explain why the splits usually occur in the Socialist Party, rather than in the Marxist-Leninist PCI. Meanwhile, Lombardi and the “maximalist” group he brought with him to Avanti propagate the strange concept of the existence within the PCI of good “innovators” such as Pietro Ingrao, and bad “Stalinists” such as Togliatti—an assessment which sheds no light at all on the situation as it really exists today. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking demonstrates the state of ideological confusion that has predominated in the official Socialist organ, Avanti, since Lombardi assumed control of the paper last February.

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V. Conclusions

The situation within the Italian Communist Party is one of stress and is indicative of change. The indications are, however, that the changes underway reflect largely the imperative need of the PCI to adapt itself to the basically perilous situation in which it finds itself in Italy today, in confrontation with the center-left government. While pressures toward democratic reform without doubt exist at the base of the Party, the Party leaders publicly claim, and there is every reason to believe, that the Party is and will remain Leninist, internally authoritarian, and orthodox in its revolutionary intentions vis-á-visthe Italian state. Left-wing non-Communists thus hope in vain that the pressures from 1.7 million Italian Communists, who do not in any case understand Marxism-Leninism, can induce basic ideological changes among a leadership which is well trained, capable, and determined in its adherence to revolutionary and totalitarian doctrine. The Embassy also regards with reserve the view that the efforts of Ingrao and the “innovators” are the beginning of the end for democratic-centralism and authoritarian control within the PCI. On the contrary, Ingrao may have given the Party the solution to the knotty problem of how Party unity can be forged, after Togliatti goes, from the disparate elements in the right and the left wings of the Party.

The political blend of a left-wing reputation, a welcome call for grass roots participation in PCI decisions, and vigorous support of the PCI popular front tactic, make Ingrao a considerable threat to Italian democracy, and the threat is as yet unrecognized by some important democratic left-wing leaders. The majority of Italians, including the Italian leftwing, recognize that the Communist threat is unchanged. Nevertheless, a small but influential element on the left will continue hopefully to seek indications of PCI evolution toward democracy, and the wish will continue to be father to the thought. The new, different, democratic Italian Communism is a myth, but it will continue to impede the slow course of non-Communist left-wing Italian political thought toward democracy and away from the narrow class concepts which urge unity of the working class, i.e., unity with the Communists, and which therefore furnish grist to the Communist popular front mill.

[Here follows “A Short Bibliography of Significant Articles on the PCI Attitude Toward Democracy.”]

For the Ambassador:
W. Fraleigh
Counselor of Embassy
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 12 IT. Confidential. Drafted by Barnsdale and cleared by Peters. Repeated to Moscow.
  2. Neither printed. (Ibid., POL 12-3 IT)
  3. All brackets are in the source text.
  4. Printed here in italics.
  5. Not printed. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 12 IT)
  6. Not printed. (Ibid., POL 12 IT)