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Guido Liguori: The “Deficit of Theoretical Consciousness at the Root of the PCI’s Breakup”

Translated Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Stephan Crown-Weber and reviewed by Derek Hanson

Guido Liguori, a philosopher specializing in Antonio Gramsci, is the author of Qui a tué le Parti communiste italien? [Who Killed the Italian Communist Party?] Instead of just focusing on the debates of 1989, he works to uncover the intellectual and philosophical roots of the decision to dissolve the Italian Communist Party, the most influential in the West, to create the Democratic Party of the Left.

What are the main reasons for the breakup of the Italian Communist Party (PCI)?

Guido Liguori: We find many reasons, but there’s a single basic one. The PCI had long since become a federation of parties, which were held together by a history, a tradition. But its members were growing apart. The PCI’s secretary, Achille Occheto, proposed changing the party’s name (editors’ note: 12 November 1989), and this reshuffled the cards. He could count on two elements in the party leadership. His own (editors: the center leading the party) and the party’s right wing, called the miglioristi [meliorists], long-time supporters of turning the PCI into a social-democratic force, and also where the Republic’s current president, Giorgio Napolitano, came from. Another part of the leadership had a vision of the PCI transforming, but not into a social-democratic party, so they disagreed with the miglioristi. But they felt they had to go along, and considered the communist tradition, idea, and name outdated.


Guido Liguori: A part of Achille Occheto’s entourage from the party’s left wing. It has roots in “Ingraism” (editors: the left-movement wing of the PCI that referred to Pietro Ingrao). It was influenced by the idea of modernizing society and the fight forbidden at the time by the daily paper la Repubblica. If the change got approved, it’s due to Achille Occhetto’s initiative, which was a surprise for the leadership. If the base went along, it’s because the mentality was: “If the secretary does something, it’s because he has a reason to; it’s to trick the enemy, even if I don’t understand why.” If activists were polled on the eve of the proposal, 90% would have been against this kind of move.

In your essay, you cite several people who no longer considered the PCI communist in practice. What’s your opinion?

Guido Liguori: It was a communist party. To be more precise, it was still a communist party to many members. There are a lot of people who would have never had the idea of changing the PCI’s name if Achille Occhetto had not proposed it. One of them was Massimo D’Alema (editors: who would become head of government between 1998 and 2000). D’Alema was one of the most intelligent defenders of the heritage of Palmiro Togliatti (editors: the former secretary of the PCI between 1938 and 1964). All through the summer of 1989, he was still one of the people polemicizing against those proposing to change the party’s name. But in November, he changes his mind. Why? Because it’s the secretary who made the proposal. In an interview, he does a good job of summing up the communist mentality. He reckons that driving a bus that’s already moving means having to climb into it to try to set its course. Naturally, this is an illusion.

It’s worth recalling that Mikhail Gorbachev was still leading the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) at the time and called himself a “student” of the Italian communist. Nobody back then could imagine that the USSR would no longer exist two years later, or foresee that the new political force created by the PCI would grow even further away from it and even away from the left.

You state that even larger sectors of the PCI, all the way up to the highest levels of the party, created a political culture different from that of communism. With more than 20% of the vote, the PCI filled a bigger political space than its European counterparts. Being that large, is it possible to guard against social-democrat influence?

Guido Liguori: The political culture of the PCI stems from Antonio Gramsci and Togliatti. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, the concept of revolution gets redefined. It begins to account for the difference between backward societies like Russia and advanced and complex capitalist societies where the revolution failed. In prison, Gramsci envisions the revolution as a process and not a seizing of the Winter Palace. This concept is taken up by Togliatti at the end of Stalinism in the 1950s and 1960s and it aims to overcome the divide in the worker movement between reformists and revolutionaries. Togliatti proposes “structural reforms”; that is to say that by making partial changes, forces accumulate and situations are shaped that lead toward socialism. In my opinion, that’s why the Italian Communist Party filled such an important space in Italian society. By upholding both of them, he synthesizes the reformist and revolutionary traditions, but not in a social-democratic direction.

When this contradiction between reformists and revolutionaries is maintained, isn’t there the risk of bringing in people who would otherwise be in the Socialist Party?

Guido Liguori: There’s still a risk. The question is: who leads the process? What is the hegemonic culture inside the party? The game was much clearer as long as there was an obligatory reference to the alliance with the USSR. Since the latter enabled the use of any manner of right-wing tactical maneuvers, all while maintaining a communist physiognomy. This was Giorgio Amendola’s style, from the right wing of the party. He was deeply pro-Soviet and even supported the intervention in Afghanistan.

Starting in the 1970s, the leftist parties receive new demands. The PCI takes this into consideration. You state that Occhetto gives a new definition of equality by adopting John Rawls’ theory on equality of opportunities. Rights are pushed for. You’re very critical of this change, since it would make the class struggle disappear. Wasn’t there the risk that the PCI would be on the sidelines of what was happening in society if it didn’t consider these questions? The issue of meritocracy mobilizes young Italians in a major way who have gotten an education today.

Guido Liguori: The battle of ideas is extremely important for me, a Gramscian. In a large part of the communist leadership, as well as among the intellectuals “of reference”, the ideas of the communist tradition were increasingly relativized in favor of new cultural traditions. For some questions, like feminism, environmentalism, this adjustment was necessary. But for other questions, some ideas are only interesting in the context of the class struggle. If these take the place of the struggle, this changes the nature of the party and its leadership. This was the sign of a diverse political culture, known as liberal-socialist in Italy.

You mention rights. From a political point of view, it’s correct to address this question, to defend democracy, minimal living standards for workers. But the theoretical problem is that there are different rights. There are rights based on freedoms, which are just and must be preserved. And there are social rights, which are based on the classic social democracy: right to work, to housing, to health, etc. It becomes risky to defend these when the reference to the class struggle is lost. Since what it the basis of these rights? For a Catholic, it stems from the fact that we’re all God’s children. What is it for a non-Catholic? Rights don’t rest on any foundation; they’re subject to power relations and have no effect without them. Furthermore, who’s the subject of these rights in these sorts of discourses? A cultural and theoretical discourse on the individual arises in the place of the class struggle.

As for equality of opportunity, it’s a left-liberal theory, but it’s quite different from the socialist tradition. Since this is a theory claiming that everyone has the right to become a manager, while failing to critique the fact that this manager can earn a lot more than other people. The theory of equality of opportunity imagines society as a 100-meter course that everyone has a right to run in less than ten seconds. It forgets that if some people secure positions, this comes at the expense of others.

You allude to the fact that when the secretary of the PCI from 1972 to 1984, Enrico Berlinguer, opened the party to new questions, with undeniable success at the polls, there was no real new definition of what communism was. Was that important for what happened later?

Guido Liguori: Indeed, there was a deficit of theoretical consciousness. This allowed the right wing of the party to use some of the Berlinguer era’s necessary changes to subvert the party’s line and identity. This lack of consideration of the theoretical dimension dates back to the time of Togliatti. Priority was given to politics. The theory was implicit. Not making it explicit left more room for the tactical game.

Some of the Italian Republic’s current troubles, like the “weak parties”, the strong executive who replaces mass participation, aren’t simply the product of Silvio Berlusconi. How did these ideas make their way all the way into the PCI?

Guido Liguori: In the 1980s, we witnessed the communist leadership surrendering to the Americanization of politics under the influence of Berlusconian television, which led to a personalization of politics, more delegation [of authority], and image politics. This reflected how society was changing. At the time, it was necessary to see if this change should be fought, or if it should be put to use instead. So, Achille Occhetto and the people close to him thought they knew what their role was: to adapt to the processes of political and social modernization. “New” was Occhetto’s key word in his name-changing operation. His ideology was called nuovismo [newism].

What accounts for the PCI’s decision not to impose cultural hegemony in the country?

Guido Liguori: This starts after Enrico Berlinguer’s death in 1984. In the 1970s, we see a lot of leaders joining PCI who are from the generations who made 1968 and participated in the student movement. This changed the party. Since ‘68 seemed to demand communism; in reality, it pushed for the modernity that Italy sorely needed. This was appropriate, but it was individualist thinking that was very far from the tradition and ideals of communism. This created the preconditions for the changes in the 1980s. The political personnel arriving after 1968 is especially mindful of the modernization process. As long as Berlinguer was there, this mixture with communist culture was successful. But later, when the PCI met electoral defeats, there was a change of opinion and non-communist cultures grew in the party. And this was all the more the case because the liberal-socialist culture, with its hegemonic apparatuses (its foundations, its newspapers like la Repubblica), its international connections, undertook a methodical critique of all the pillars of the communist, Gramscian, and Leninist culture in the 1970s.

Beyond the communist parties, what remains of the history and influence of the PCI in Italy?

Guido Liguori: There’s the idea of reuniting all of Italy’s “Enrico Berlinguer” circles, which are cultural and parapolitical associations, often managed by militants who don’t belong to any party. There’s this attempt to create a vibrant association for the defense of the PCI’s history. And last year, a very big exposition, “Avanti popolo”, devoted to the history of the PCI, was a great success. In Italian society, there are still thousands of militants who aren’t on the rolls anywhere after the end of the PCI. This is the case for the majority of the PCI’s former members. They’d like to be part of a leftist force. This idea of a democratic communism is still alive in Italian society.

Who killed the Italian Communist Party? In Qui a tué le Parti communiste italien? , Guido Liguori describes the last years of the largest Communist Party in the West through a study of its ideological and theoretical changes. It’s a portrait of Italy’s flaws since the 1980s, like the personalization of political life. Even in the PCI, we see the force of the “modern” ideology of “governance”: an executive with strengthened powers in relation to Parliament taking priority over democracy and its corollary, popular participation. This vision has poisoned institutional reform since 1990. The book asks other questions. How can communism —and this is crucial! —incorporate new issues without losing its soul in the process: equal opportunity and the demand for rights. The preface will spark regret, drawing some dangerous parallels between the transformation of the PCI and the French Communist Party. And you’ll appreciate the final chapters, which detail the debates and struggles of the people trying to save communism on the Peninsula. Qui a tué le Parti communiste italien?

Guido Liguori, translated from Italian [to French] by Anthony Crezegut, Aymeric Monville, Éditions Delga, 2011, €13.20.

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