No longer. They have changed as the world has changed around them. Earlier this month President Bill Clinton said, in a throwaway remark, he could live with a left victory; it was as significant in its way as the Catholic bishops' declaration of neutrality in the contest. What used to be Western Europe's strongest Communist Party now confronts power in a capitalist democracy, albeit shared with the technocrats, bankers and industrialists who sit on the bushy branches of the centre-left's "Olive Tree" coalition.
This is a further step in the delivery of Europe from the old politics of an era now over. Here, it cast a heavy shadow over the Eurosceptic assertion that an anti-EMU, anti-Brussels tide is running on the Continent. Of course the "European" dimension to politics in each of the member states belies easy generalisation. Yet in Italy there is what is sadly lacking in this country, a broad and open agreement between left and right on how essential it is for both Italy as exporter and Italy the moderniser to deepen the European connection . It is hard not to be impressed by the sense, south of the Alps, of how the European Union still rides the wave of the future.
The Olive coalition has much mettle to prove. Everything depends on the Party of the Democratic Left, as the former Communists call themselves. Will Massimo D'Alema pull the trick so stylishly accomplished a decade ago by Felipe Gonzalez in Spain and make the left, for a while at least, the natural party of government? According to Romano Prodi, the Olive Tree's Prime Minister-designate, the project is "capitalism tempered by public initiative". It remains to be seen whether that amounts to a recognition, now widely accepted by the left elsewhere, of the power of international money and markets. One thing is for sure, in a country that has recently moved to abandon exchange controls, acceptance cannot be far off.
Reforming the state's parlous finances will be vital if Italy is to meet the Maastricht criteria for economic and monetary union. The lira's recent appreciation against the German mark will not absolve the Italian government from making inroads into a public debt that is almost exactly twice what the Germans - and the markets - consider safe. In the election Romano Prodi found impressive amounts of common ground with Silvio Berlusconi over tax reform. But hacking through Italy's rank undergrowth of taxes will require Mr Prodi to see off interest groups, which may include entire regions.
After fiscal reform, the priority is political and constitutional reform. On the good governance list are further privatisation, the reform of corporate governance (a Prodi speciality) and crime and corruption. The last two are related. The scandal of modern Italy remains the impoverishment of the south, and the continuing potency of organised crime. This agenda of political reform will test any government.
Few Italian politicians have clean hands - even Mr Prodi has allegations hanging over his head. The hothouse of Roman politics is not suddenly going to cool. It is likely that, like many other Italian governments before, this one will suffer from scandals and splits.
Yet that should not blind us to the historical import of the left's final accession to power. The regrouping and rise of the left must be healthy for Italian democracy. And what is good for Italy, a member of G7 and often (if the British government could ever do Euro-politics properly) a British ally within the Union, is good for this country, too.Reuse content