Lost - a leader and his cause: Achille Occhetto took the Italian left from Communism to defeat. Donald Sassoon laments

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WHEN Achille Occhetto, Italy's last Communist leader, resigned on Monday from the leadership of his remodelled Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), he more or less completed the skin-shedding of the Italian Left.

Occhetto had already decided privately, after the victory of Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia in the 27 March general election, that he would step down, but delayed his departure until after the European poll, in which the PDS suffered a further slide in its support. Perhaps he recognised that, along with the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) he had buried, he himself belonged to the past. There is a hint of this in his letter of resignation, which he ended by thanking those who had advised him to resign because he now 'had passed into history'.

Yet the PCI had not been some unreconstructed fragment of Leninist orthodoxy, a piece of Sovietism surviving at the margins of mainstream politics. With 1.5 million members and one-third of the vote, it had been in the Seventies the standard-bearer of Eurocommunism, the largest Communist party in the democratic world.

The PCI revelled in its autonomy and peculiarity. It shared none of the French Communists' proletarian truculence or the eccentricities of the Spanish party under Santiago Carrillo. It had condemned the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the military takeover in Poland, the treatment of dissidents in the old Soviet Union. It embraced the cause of European federalism with enthusiasm, became the natural party of feminists and remained on the side of the angels by declaring, more than 10 years ago, that it had become 'green'.

Thus, by the mid-Eighties the Italian Communists looked in all but name like any other social democratic party - if anything, slightly more modern than some. Its name, as any public relations firm would point out, posed a problem of brand image. Yet, in the same jargon, this was also a unique selling point: a non-Communist Communist party. This was sufficiently intriguing to provide journalists with regular copy, but not enough to win votes. The PCI's share of the vote declined from a peak of 34.4 per cent in 1976 to 26.6 per cent in 1987.

Throughout the Eighties the Communists were engaged in a bitter feud with their only potential allies, Bettino Craxi's Socialists. Together with Mario Andreotti's Christian Democrats, Craxi managed to confine the PCI to the ghetto of opposition while their governing coalition carved up the country and plundered its economy.

Occhetto's hour came with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Recognising the historical significance of the moment, he proposed to drop the hallowed name. Had he stopped there, the majority of the party might quickly have united around him. But he did not. Nothing short of a complete 'refounding' of the party would do, he argued. The 'submerged left', those fragments of the rainbow who, in left- wing mythology, are always lurking somewhere but somehow always fail to unite, would finally find a common home in this renewed party. As it turned out, these fragments were inconsequential chattering intellectuals with little popular support.

It took more than a year of internecine disputes and two special congresses for the Democratic Party of the Left and its symbol, a sturdy oak growing out of the roots of the old Communist symbols, to emerge. The electorate, as is always the case when traumatic internal party wrangling happens, was left out, bemused, wondering what the fuss was about.

Had the name change been decided quickly without Occhetto's unrealistically ambitious plan to unite the entire Italian left in one go, the PDS might have been fit to take full political advantage of the financial scandals which were about to erupt. But by the time the internal fight was over in 1991 and the dissenting 'unreconstructed' minority had seceded, the PDS was exhausted. A year later Italy was plunged into the cathartic cleansing process that destroyed the five parties who had ruled the country for decades in coalition. The grave-diggers of the 'First Republic' - as pre-Berlusconi Italy is now known - were not former Communists, or indeed any other conventional politicians, but a formidable team of investigative magistrates, and Umberto Bossi's Northern League.

Nevertheless, it looked for a time as if Occhetto would reap the benefit of these political changes. The right, divided between the southern-hating Northern League and the neo-fascists in the south, appeared quite unelectable. But the advent of Berlusconi was decisive. Here was someone who had on his side novelty, money, personal charm and the media (most of which he owns). He could give Italians who had supported the previous regime what they wanted: Christian Democracy without the Christian Democrats, low taxes and jobs - in short a new economic miracle.

Contrast this with the self-flagellating electoral message being conveyed by the PDS in its masochistic mode: our opponents were quite right; we were a bunch of financially irresponsible extremists, adherents to the principle of punitive taxation, champions of state ownership, sworn enemies of the market, committed to spend our way out of any problem we might encounter. Now we have seen the error of our ways. The watchword is austerity.

The PDS had lost its old clothes and had no new ones. It had shed so much of its identity that it no longer recognised itself, yet it kept on going. Paradoxically, Occhetto's plan had come to fruition. Italy now, finally, possessed a 'normal' European social democratic party. The bad news was that 'normal' European social democracy did not know where it was going.

Occhetto's successor will inherit a huge task. While the PDS is still Italy's main opposition, with 19 per cent support, it must rebuild itself into an organisation that can challenge Berlusconi's formidable popularity. The PDS could take a leaf out of the British Labour Party's book and sit and wait while Berlusconi runs the country. He will have to make deals, compromise, cut public spending and be generally mean. This is a short-term view, and it prevails throughout the European left. In the long term it is not enough. To create something new, it is necessary not only to have power but to know what to do with it. This, the PDS has not yet discovered.

The writer is reader in contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

(Photograph omitted)

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