Italian Communism and U.S. Foreign Policy


THE emergence of the Communist Party (PC) as a dominant force in Italian politics poses a dramatic challenge to the whole course of American policy toward Europe since World War II. At the onset of the Cold War, Italy, like other European countries, was the site of a pitched political and ideological battle between pro-Western and pro-Communist forces, with the two superpowers assisting their respective allies diplomatically and financially. Conceivably left and right could have reconciled if the superpowers' rivalry had not polarized political life. In fact, for a brief while, Communists, Socialists and the conservative Christian Democrats (DC) all cooperated in a coalition government.

But after the DC triumphed in the crucial 1948 election against the combined "popular front" forces of the left, the direction of post-war Italian politics changed. The U.S.-backed DC founded their government on an anti-communism platform and drew the lines of political onflict that have continued to the present. And since that time, American foreign policy has pivoted around the central theme of anti-Communism; as long as the PC was excluded from power, American policy makers eyed the Italian peninsula contentedly.

For nearly thirty years, the operation of the Italian political system did little to threaten this anti-Communist premise. Nationally, the Christian Democrats have ruled uninterruptedly since the war. The Communist Party has been relegated to the role of opposition, able to apply pressures from without, but deprived of ministerial responsibilities, unable to influence government policy from within. Locally the PC's record reflected a laudable efficiency--but until recently, the party never seriously contended for national power.

But in the last decade the situation has changed drastically. Secure in its working class, the PC began to approach non-proletarian sectors of Italian society, modifying the party line to become more amenable to a larger portion of the electorate. After regional elections last June, the PC found itself only two percentage points away from becoming the largest party in the country. Meanwhile the American-supported DC has matched the PC's rise with a spectacular decline of its own. Corrupt, fragmented, and stagnant, the DC is split into nine factions with separate organizations and politics, whose laders have run the party for the past 20 years. The DC's poor performance has allowed the PC to reap windfall political profits.

Though unforseen, the rise of the Communist Party is not accidental. Since the late fifties, the party has steadily forged its own particular brand of Communism, substituting gradualist mass politics and a broad electoral appeal in place of proletarian revolution. Since the late fifties--especially after Hungary--the IC has shown increasing independence from Moscow, to the point of regularly denouncing Soviet policies. The grand political design of the party, nurtured by its first post war leader Pamiro Togliatti and continued by current party secretary Enrico Berlinguer, pointed toward the attainment of political power by democratic means. And in June 1975, when the PC boasted control of five of Italy's regions and control of three of its four major cities, the party had ostensibly accomplished what Togliatti had set out to do: it had moved to the brink of political power.


AFTER THE JUNE elections the State Department finally realized what had been happening in Italian politics during the last ten years. The decline of Christian Democracy and the corresponding rise of the PC, as confirmed by the June vote, left Washington shocked and worried. To counteract this red surge, President Ford targeted $6 million in foreign aid, to be channelled through the CIA for distribution among individual politicians in the anti-Communist cause.

Now the surprise at the results of the June elections already betrays a general ignorance of Italian social and political affairs, since the elections simply confirmed what had been going on in plain sight for nearly a decade. But then to think that giving money to anti-Communist politicians would stem the rising red tide raises misunderstanding to the level of folly. Admittedly, Italian politicians are a notoriously corrupt bunch. Even the PC has taken a bribe or two in its day from large American companies (it was disclosed last year that Gulf had contributed several million dollars to PC election campaigns). But of all the politicians in Italy the DC anti-Communists to whom the money was presumably targeted are perhaps the most corrupt. One recently retired State Department official, with wisdom evidently lacking in his superiors, remarked, "You can bet a lot of that money will end up in villas, vacation homes and Swiss bank accounts in the names of Italian politicians." As should have been apparent to the State Department by now, aiding anti-Communists in this manner is like pumping adrenalin into a dead corpse.

This tactic makes even less sense since anti-Communism itself soon will become entirely obsolete in the Italian context. Barring a miracle (and no doubt the fervent anti-Communist Pope Paul prays for this nightly) the PC will receive a plurality in the national elections next year. The Italian weekly Expresso recently released a poll indicating that an election at the present time would give the PC such a victory. In that case, the PC could not be denied participation--of some variety--in the government. It is clear then that anti-Communism will soon cease to be a viable instrument of foreign policy. No matter how much money or State Department rhetoric is aimed at Italy there will be Communists in the government within a year.

Yet in the face of such inescapable realities, the U.S. turns the other way, thinking that dogmatism and intransigence can somehow dissipate the spectre. Secretary of State Kissinger has continually repeated that Communist participation in the government will be "unacceptable." What Kissinger probably hopes for is the "portugalization" of Italy, the substitution of social democracy for communism. But the Italian Socialists have much less support than the PC. Ironically, though, the policies of the PC are very similar to those of most Western European socialist parties, whose participation in power the U.S. tolerates. In fact, much of the tension between the U.S. and the PC stems from lack of understanding.

Beginning this past year, the party has sought a dialogue with the U.S. Last summer the PC approached members of the Council on Foreign Relations stationed in Como, Italy. One staff member, Zygmunt Nagorski, was enough impressed by the PC's candor and sincerity--and moderation of outlooks and political demands--that he wrote an editorial that appeared in the New York times arguing for a more constructive policy towards the PC. He observed that:

1) the PC's brand of communism is not of the totalitarian Eastern European order, but one amenable to the rules of liberal social democracy.

2) the PC fears Moscow as much as anyone else in Europe and so would support, rather than undermine NATO.

3) the PC's record of efficiency and dependability is outstanding and unmatched by any party in Italy. In as much as it is a legitimate, potent electoral force, it cannot be kept out of power indefinitely.

YET FOR ALL their persuasiveness and intelligence these arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Until now, the State Department has shown no sympathy or wish for "dialogue" with the PC. In fact, their actions display an attitude closer to contempt. This past fall, for instance, several prominent members of the PC were denied entry into the U.S. under an archaic, seldom-used anti-Communist statute. This minor act of hostility was followed by an even stiffer slap in the face as neo-Fascist Giorgio Almirante, who is among the most reactionary politicians in Italy, paraded around Capitol Hill talking with Congressional leaders. Incidentally, the same law which barred Communists from entry into the U.S. supposedly also barred neo-fascists.

Secretary Kissinger gives the cold shoulder to any Italian politicians favoring the "historic compromise," that is, Communist participation in the government. One such politician, Francesco DeMartino, the highly-respected leader of the Socialist Party and until now a member of the pro-Western left, was originally scheduled to visit Washington with a group of Italian parliamentarians. However, when it was discovered that DeMartino intended to express his opinion to Secretary Kissinger in favor of PC cooperation in the government, he was politely told by CIA agents that his presence in the U.S. was unnecessary. The Secretary was not going to be told what he didn't want to hear.