Gramsci’s ideological contribution was important for the politics that shaped the life of the PCI and its legacy. What it provided was an understanding of socialism that was, at the same time, Italian and universal. It meant that party leaders that followed Gramsci (who was to die in 1937 after falling ill in a Fascist jail cell) in the post-war period could call on the party’s own intellectual interpretation of Marxism as it sought to forge a place in the newly formed Italian republic. The PCI emerged from the Second World War legitimised by its fight against Fascism and then its role in the Resistance to Nazi-occupied Italy in 1943-45. It was the second largest party in the Constituent Assembly formed after elections in 1946 to draft a new constitution. The PCI leader at the time, Palmiro Togliatti, took the bold decision to have the party, which would continue to represent roughly 30% of voters into the 1980s, be one of the architects of the new Italy. This meant accepting that the revolution would come through Gramsci’s war of position, building a consensus for a new social order within liberal democratic institutions. The 1948 Constitution remains in place today and is credited with modernizing the country, thanks in no small part, to the role of the PCI in the immediate post-war period.
Despite its role in fighting Fascism and in shaping a new liberal democratic Constitution, the PCI was pushed to the side-lines in 1948 when the Republic came to life. Italy’s governing party for much of the period until 1994, the Christian Democratic Party, not only had close ties to the very anti-Communist Vatican but was also committed to firmly rooting Italy in the transatlantic alliance. Governments in the United States clearly and openly expressed their displeasure that the second-largest party in a NATO member was the PCI. Thus, geopolitics would play a role in shaping the political trajectory of the PCI throughout the post-war period. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most political parties adhered to the conventio ad excludendum, the principle that the PCI could not be considered a coalition partner in any government. This was driven partly by political expediency by some of the other parties but also by Italy’s participation in NATO and what was at the time called the European Economic Community (now the EU). This attempt to isolate the PCI persisted despite the fact that the party had accepted not only European integration but also Italy’s role in the transatlantic alliance by the late 1960s.
Seemingly permanent opposition did not dampen the commitment of Italian Communists to uphold the Republic and its institutions. In the 1970s, when the country was gripped by rampant right- and left-wing terrorist violence as well as political immobility, it was the PCI that sustained a government of national unity that guided the political system through its darkest moments in the mid-1970s. Led by Enrico Berlinguer, the party in this period translated Gramsci’s idea of a gradual revolution into a strategy known as Eurocommunism, which was adopted by other Communist parties in western Europe.
Ultimately, it was to be events outside Italy’s borders that led to the end of the PCI in 1991. The party had always had an ambivalent position with respect to the Soviet Union and its embrace of the EU and Italy’s role in the transatlantic alliance did not necessarily mean that the end of the Cold War would create an existential crisis. However, the end of communist regimes elsewhere did lead to reflection on what steps needed to be taken to bring the party closer to European social democracy.
Italians, especially younger generations, will probably only have fading memories of the PCI today but they continue to enjoy the benefits from a number of public policies that it helped foster. While the PCI was never formally in a governing coalition, Italian decision-making for the first 40 years of the Republic was so fragmented that even parties not in government were able to change policies. A series of reforms that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s – from pensions to family law to labour market reforms – continue to shape economic and social life. As Italy struggled in the face of the Covid pandemic, there was universal praise for the national health service that also has the PCI imprint. Moreover, Italian regions in central Italy, the so-called Red Belt, were governed by the PCI for most of the post-war period and continue to be regarded as those that have the most efficient regional governments in the country.
Italian politics is very different today from those which governed the country for the first decades of the post-war period. Gone is the optimism that industrialisation and liberal democracy were guarantees that the peninsula would be at the centre of Europe. Also gone is a major left-wing party sure of who it spoke for, firmly rooted in trade unions and able to provide a moral and political compass as the country tried to rebuild its economy but also its society and politics ravaged by the twenty years of Fascism. There may not be many celebrations but there will certainly be much reflection on whether the Italian left can once again find an intellectual and political map to help the country deal with an ever more uncertain world.