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Italian Communism at Home and Abroad: The Soviet Connection

It is becoming fashionable to speak of European Communism, particularly the Italian party (PCI), as if it were a major schism in the world Communist movement, and consequently a threat to the hegemony of the Soviet Union—the same kind of threat that Martin Luther was to the Church of Rome. Yet, while no one would deny that there are areas of dispute between PCI Secretary Enrico Berlinguer and Leonid Brezhnev, far too much has been made of these disagreements. Furthermore, and most importantly for those who are trying to influence American foreign-policy makers to take a more tolerant (or even positive) attitude toward European Communism, the conflicts between the PCI and the Soviet Union have virtually nothing to do with foreign policy. The fact is that if Italy were governed by the PCI, it would represent a major threat to the security of Western Europe.

In a series of conversations with half-a-dozen leading PCI policy makers early this past summer, I asked them to describe the conflicts, if any, between their party and the Soviet Union in the area of foreign policy. They answered with a single voice: no such conflicts exist. The party’s line remains unchanged from Berlinguer’s famous statement to the London Times last February:

We support the fundamental philosophy behind the policy of peaceful coexistence and détente that is being practiced by the Soviet Union. But we do not see why this should occasion surprise. It would be irresponsible for us not to recognize what is widely recognized elsewhere, that the Soviet Union’s peace policy is in the general interest of mankind.

It may seem peculiar to hear such words from a man who has been widely described as a heretic of the international Communist church, but the nature of the Italian Communist heresy has been generally misunderstood. In many ways it is similar to Dubcek’s, and the Czech question is very important for understanding the PCI’s approach to foreign policy. In February 1969 the PCI officially denounced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia on the ground that the Czechs had not threatened either the unity of the socialist camp or the international balance of power. Dubcek would have remained within the Warsaw Pact. He was not challenging the validity of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. He simply wished to follow an independent road to socialism, based on a popular consensus within his own country.

The leaders of the PCI are currently pushing the same themes with regard to their own participation in NATO and the overall policy of détente. They are saying to both the Russians and the Americans that the PCI should not be considered a threat to the current balance of power. The Italian Communists want their country to remain in NATO and the Common Market. Like Dubcek, they say, they are not interested in disrupting the Atlantic alliance or the Warsaw Pact. They simply want the chance to pursue their own path toward socialism, based on a popular consensus.

There is no reason to suspect that these statements reflect any diabolical strategy, for the PCI is not interested in becoming another satellite of the Soviet Union any more than it wishes to be under the thumb of the United States. As one high party official put it to me, it would not matter greatly to the PCI if it were eaten by the Russians rather than the Americans, since “we would be thoroughly digested in either case.”

What is of great importance, however, is the Italian Communists’ notion of what they would do within the NATO alliance. In a front-page editorial on March 1, the official party newspaper I’Unita proclaimed that it was “unthinkable” that the PCI could “accept the Atlantic Pact as it actually is.” The PCI proposes to make fundamental changes in the policies of NATO, all directed toward weakening. American and German influence and strengthening the “new European forces” (read “Eurocommunism”). In fact, the image of NATO which one finds in PCI rhetoric these days is fundamentally the same that was heard prior to the shift in Communist strategy on this question. Back in 1969, for example (when the PCI was still calling for Italian withdrawal from NATO), the Atlantic alliance was described as “the principal support for capitalism in Western Europe,” and “a democratic transformation of Italian society” was deemed possible “only by breaking the conditioning influence of [NATO].” Last March, I’Unita put it in much the same way: “[NATO] is one of the fundamental instruments for American manipulation of the politics and economy of our country and of Western Eruope . . . the relations between the countries of Western Europe and the two superpowers must be rediscussed.”

This rediscussion would aim toward what the Italian Communists term a “transcendence of the bipolarization” of Europe. They are determined that Europe achieve a more thorough independence of the superpowers, and develop a foreign policy of its own. Such sentiments are undoubtedly admirable in many ways, but in practice they involve criticisms of American, not Russian, foreign policy. In fact, not a single one of the PCI leaders I spoke to believed that there was any menace to Europe from the Soviet Union. Giorgio Amendola was quite explicit: “Nobody really believes any longer that Russia is a threat to Western Europe,” he said, and cited the Helsinki Pact and the development of Germany’s Ostpolitik as evidence of the lack of any concern in the old continent about Russian territorial objectives. The PCI views America, not Russia, with grave misgivings. Alberto Reichlin, editor of the party’s theoretical weekly Rinascita, told me that the PCI was deeply concerned about the role of American multinational corporations in Italy, viewing it as a far more serious limitation of Italian sovereignty and freedom than any possible action from the other side of the Urals.

PCI opposition to American interests and support for Soviet ones often carry over into areas where one would expect a socialist party “with a human face” to be explicitly anti-Soviet. This was dramatically demonstrated during the negotiations for the Helsinki Pact, when the Italian Communists endorsed the Russian positions and opposed the Italian government’s support for the European view. The Soviet Union tried very hard to get Premier Aldo Moro and Foreign Minister Mariano Rumor to endorse “Basket One” issues (irrevocability of boundaries, generally construed as accepting Russian control over the satellites) and to mute the “Basket Three” themes (multiple-entry visas for journalists, greater cultural exchange and civil liberties). The Italian government refused to shift its position, but the Russians demonstrated their appreciation for PCI efforts on their behalf at a party at the Soviet embassy in Rome at the end of June 1975. There were two Italian groups at the festa. The first was composed of the Premier, the Foreign Minister, and their advisers, while the second included Berlinguer and PCI foreign-policy officials, Sergio Segre and Gian Carlo Pajetta. While the governmental delegation dined with the other guests, the PCI leaders were entertained in a separate room by the Soviet ambassador’s wife, and were treated to the finest caviar and champagne the embassy could offer.

The PCI, to be sure, has occasional conflicts with the USSR, but they are confined to discussions of the Russian attitude toward other socialist parties and countries. The Italians have long deplored the Sino-Soviet conflict, for example, and the death of Mao in September gave some PCI functionaries the opportunity to pose as great reconcilers between the Russians and the Chinese. But the Chinese were unwilling to be used as pawns in the Italians’ propaganda game, and they coldly rejected the PCI’s letter of condolence. Some disgruntled PCI members took the opportunity of Mao’s death to complain about the strict alignment of Italian Communist policies with those of the Soviet Union, yet significantly, it was impossible for this complaint to be aired in the pages of the Italian Communist press; even one of the editors of l’Unità, Alberto Jacoviello, had to go to Le Monde in order to publish his claim that Mao’s death had produced “a new fissure between the Soviet Communist party and the great Communist parties of Western Europe.” L’Unità immediately announced that Jacoviello’s ideas were his own private ones, and had nothing to do with the “line” of the PCI (in a subsequent interview with Le Monde’s Rome correspondent, Jacoviello noted that many party leaders had stopped talking to him).

The Sino-Soviet story is a particularly important one, for it shows how diligent the PCI has been in cultivating an image which is far removed from the truth. For years party leaders have been claiming that the PCI had—on its own initiative—tried to bring the Russians and Chinese together. But it now turns out that this “initiative” took place (in 1965) following specific instructions from Suslov. In short, even when the PCI disagrees with some Soviet views, it does not criticize the Russians from a position of independence. The PCI’s criticisms are those of a “loyal opposition” which has no apparent intention of breaking with the Russian world view.



For the PCI simply does not see anything wrong with Soviet imperialism. Any Western actions to counter Soviet initiatives (or those of countries sympathetic to the USSR), on the other hand, are met with righteous indignation. Thus, American support for Holden Roberto in Angola was “imperialism,” while the Cuban troops there at the Russians’ behest were “freedom fighters.” Thus, the Israeli liberation of the hostages hijacked to Entebbe by Arab-financed terrorists was termed an “intolerable violation of Uganda’s national sovereignty” and the PCI called upon the Italian government to denounce Israel at the UN (the Italians, happily, supported the Western position in the debate). And thus too, when Henry Kissinger proposed a transition to black rule in Rhodesia, I’Unità, using the same expressions that had been appearing in Tass and Pravda for days, condemned this as an attempt to “save the neocolonial and military-strategic interests of imperialism.”

The PCI attitude toward the Soviet Union and the United States was well summarized by Professor Giuseppe Are of the University of Pisa at a recent conference in Rome on Italy’s role in international affairs. “In the Communist press,” he observed, “one cannot find even one case in which an initiative, move, or design of Soviet foreign policy (or, to be more specific, its policy toward countries outside its bloc) has been considered to be in conflict with detente, or dangerous, threatening, aggressive, or censurable in any aspect.”

At the same Rome conference, Professor Karl Kaiser of the Bonn Institute of International Affairs asked PCI foreign-policy spokesman Sergio Segre what the Italian Communists would do in the event of a conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. “I shall ask you some questions of my own,” Segre said. “What conflict? Under what circumstances?” As Furio Colombo, one of Italy’s most astute journalists, wrote the next day in La Stampa, Kaiser’s unanswered question hung over the conference room, as it did over the country.

The PCI realizes that it can come to power and stay there only if there is no strong opposition either within Italy or the Western community. They do not wish to follow the path of either Allende or Cunhal, and consequently Berlinguer has advocated a compromesso storico—alliance with the Christian Democrats—which would give him international protection at the same time that it guaranteed the absence of a strong domestic opposition party. The need to come to power in a context of consensus and stability explains the change in PCI tactics regarding NATO, just as it also explains in part the PCI’s strong advocacy of an integrated Europe and an effective Common Market. Since Italian departure from NATO would seriously disrupt the balance of power and threaten détente, the Communists will not demand that their country withdraw; and since it would be far more difficult to isolate a Communist Italy if it were thoroughly integrated in the European polity and economy than if it stood alone, the Communists support an integrated Europe.

Yet in both cases the PCI speaks in different tongues to different audiences. On the issue of NATO, the PCI tells its own members that NATO must be radically transformed, and that it is “unthinkable” to support it in its present form. Similarly, readers of the party press are frequently treated to long diatribes against the Common Market, and to pleas that “the imports of foodstuffs and raw materials be strictly controlled.” During the Arab oil boycott the PCI called for increased European independence of the United States as a means of avoiding conflicts with the Third World, and Berlinguer often sounds like a traveling ambassador-without-portfolio when he issues joint proclamations with radical Third World leaders which are hardly calculated to win him favor among other European “partners.” Last winter, for example, following a tour by the Secretary to North Africa, I’Unità noted that the emerging countries were looking for a more harmonious relationship with Europe in the future, and went on to ask a rhetorical question for its readers:

Which Europe? That of Giscard or Bonn, which is trying to fill the void left by other European countries, re-proposing an exquisitely neocolonialist program? Or that which left Kissinger an open field at a recent special session of the UN on primary materials?

There is renewed interest in the initiatives of the European democratic workers’ movement, and, what concerns us more directly, the Italian one. . . .

The point here is not the rather surprising claim that emerging nations are interested in a workers’ movement which leads the world in loss of productivity due to strikes, but rather that the PCI’s concept of the Europe of the future is strikingly closer to Brezhnev’s dreams than to those of Schmidt or Giscard. It is noteworthy that the leaders of European social democracy have by and large not waxed enthusiastic about the prospect of PCI participation in the Italian government. Mario Soares is perhaps the most categorical (he called PCI leaders “archeological examples of a tactical approach which the history of Eastern European countries has condemned for several decades”), but in recent months Harold Wilson and Helmut Schmidt have both warned about the consequences of an Italian “historic compromise.” Schmidt’s statements, and the Italian reaction, are particularly illuminating, since they show that the PCI is prepared to sing in the European chorus only so long as it selects the aria. But when the Western powers decide that it would be too risky to invest in an Italian government which had granted cabinet posts to the Communists, the PCI replays the old tune of foreign interference in Italian internal affairs.



Another significant measure of the PCI’s continuing dependence on the Soviet Union is the degree to which its income is still involved in the Soviet connection. Like all members of the Comintern, the PCI was almost totally dependent upon Soviet aid for its income at the end of World War II. Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, who had seen Stalin’s methods at first hand (and had himself applied them with exemplary efficiency against Polish and German Communists and Spanish anarchists during the 30’s, when he held a high post in the Comintern), was determined that his party find ways to lessen its dependence upon Russian largesse. To this end the Italians developed an impressive network of import-export operations, some of which operated directly under party auspices, while others worked through either legitimate capitalist companies or the Communist-dominated Cooperative League. Togliatti and company took double commissions on Polish coal, Hungarian meat, and Soviet products coming into Italy, and on Italian fruit, vegetables, and automobiles headed eastward. With its excellent contacts in the Soviet bloc, the PCI became a logical middleman for Italian businesses which wanted to trade beyond the Iron Curtain, and the party collected (as it still collects) substantial agents’ fees for its assistance.

While this system has lessened PCI dependence on direct Soviet aid, it does not seem to have contributed greatly to greater independence for the Italian Communists. The Soviet-related transactions are still the basis for PCI income. For example, one of the central figures in the Lockheed scandals uncovered by Senator Frank Church’s Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations turns out to have been a major contributor to PCI coffers precisely because of the help the Communists could give him in expanding his business activities in the Soviet Union. His name is Camillo Crociani, and before the news from Washington forced him to flee the country, he was president of Finmeccanica, one of the largest companies which form the giant state-owned holding trust, IRI. Finmeccanica owns the Alfa Romeo operation and is active in areas ranging from the Italian merchant marine to nuclear power plants. Crociani had been trying to do business in Russia for several years, and just prior to the discovery of the Lockheed payoffs (in which he was evidently deeply involved), he had been told by the Soviet ambassador to Italy to make a large payment to Restital of Milan, at that time the biggest and most profitable PCI company doing business in the Soviet Union.

In recent years the PCI has tried to make the ties that bind it to the Russians less obvious, and in the past several months has transferred several of its import-export firms from direct party control to the Cooperative League. The party has also been able to transfer some of its business activities to the domestic field, where its strength in local and regional governments makes it possible to capitalize on more traditional forms of money-making. Recent scandals have indicated that the PCI, like virtually all other parties in Italy, has been selling building permits under the table, manipulating zoning regulations, and forcing payoffs in areas under its control. But the bulk of its business continues to be international, as befits a party which has been aptly termed “the world’s biggest multinational corporation” (and which is far and away the wealthiest party in the country).1



Those who are deeply concerned with the future of Italy and with the rationality of American foreign policy have an obligation to call the PCI to task, and to continue to challenge it. There has been a great deal of confusion over this issue. The New York Times, for example, recently suggested that the Italians should be left alone to settle their own affairs, without the warnings of foreign leaders. This is a singular argument from a newspaper which has generally advanced the cause of European unity, and evidently means that European goals should be encouraged silently. Are the Europeans (and the Americans) whose interests would in fact be threatened by PCI entry into the Italian government not permitted to voice their concern? And if they have decided not to send aid to such a government, should the Italians not be so informed, so that their electoral decision will be based on a thorough understanding of the consequences?

In short, it will not do for the Western democracies to maintain that the PCI is “destined” one day to enter the Italian government, and attempt to make their peace with the Communists on “pragmatic” or “Machiavellian” grounds. This serves neither Western interests in general nor those of the Italians in particular. If the PCI is indeed on the road to power, everything possible must be done to insure that a Communist government in Italy would not automatically signify—as it surely does today—a major security problem for NATO. If the PCI wishes to function within the context of the Atlantic alliance and a more united Europe, let it spell out for itself and its supporters the reasons for its allegiance. It is simply incoherent to maintain, as Berlinguer does, that the PCI wishes to be part of NATO but that the Soviet Union represents no threat to the West, just as it is incoherent for the PCI to proclaim its independence of Moscow while it continues to parrot the Soviet line on all foreign-policy questions which involve the West. And let the PCI make clear whether it is prepared to pay the price of losing its greatest contributor—the Soviet Union—in order to guarantee that no conflict of interest exists between its proclaimed Western allegiances and its Eastern European paymasters. Unless and until it does these things, all talk of a new “schism” within the Communist world must be considered nothing more than delusive propaganda.


1 For a more complete analysis of PCI finance, see “Italy’s Russian Sugar Daddies,” by Michael Ledeen and Claire Sterling, the New Republic, March 12, 1976.

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