The historic move, approved by the party's national assembly on Thursday night, was another humiliating defeat for Bettino Craxi, once the all-powerful, idolised Socialist leader and prime minister, and now one of the chief suspects in Italy's corruption scandal.
Mr Craxi, who was finally dislodged as party secretary earlier this year, fought the move in a 10-hour verbal battle with his bearded, uncharismatic successor, Ottaviano Del Turco, and other new leaders during which, for the first time in his political career, he was heckled, and laughed and whistled at by his once-adoring followers. After the vote Mr Craxi refused to comment. 'Leave me in peace,' he said.
'It was a pathetic scene,' commented Sebastiano Messina in the fiercely anti-Craxi daily La Repubblica. 'He seemed like an old boxer who refuses to leave the ring.'
The party, which has a distinguished history of labour achievements and of courage during the Resistance, is at an all-time low. It was hardly to be found under its own name in this year's municipal elections, although some tiny Socialist groupings teamed up either with other left-wing groups or with their former Christian Democrat allies. After reaching 16 per cent of the vote at the height of the Craxi era, the party now probably accounts for only a couple of percentage points.
Most party members, seeking to rediscover the Socialist identity which was abandoned in favour of power, glamour and money during the Craxi period, are set to join up with the left-wing alliance which, at least at present, seems well placed to win the elections early next year.
It is an irony of history that this alliance will be dominated by the former Communist party, now called the Democratic Party of the Left, from whom the Socialists parted in the great schism of 1921 and who have been their principal rivals since. It was the biggest of several splits in Socialist history, during which the party has also had various names and symbols.
Thursday night's vote was carried by 156 to 116 and it is possible that Mr Craxi's followers may break away, or simply disappear. Significantly, less than half the delegates took part in the vote - a sign of the wasting away of the party, which has already had to give up its headquarters in the centre of Rome because it could not afford the rent, its chauffeur-driven cars and its huge political machine.
The party's new name has yet to be decided. Press reports say its symbol, currently a red carnation, will now be a book, a sun and a rose.
The Socialist party organ, Avanti], nearly a century old itself and one of Italy's most famous newspapers, is heading for bankrupcty. But there are plans for it to appear again as an independent left-wing newspaper, possibly a weekly, owned by most of its 37 journalists (who have not been paid for 10 months) and, it is hoped, many of its readers and well-wishers.Reuse content