The invention of democracy as a universal value

Image: Gareth Nyandoro


Excerpt selected by the author of the newly released book

If I could indicate the most important date in the political trajectory of Enrico Berlinguer as Secretary General of the Italian Communist Party – the moment when he committed the most important heresy from the point of view of its repercussions for democratic socialism – that would be November 3 from 1977.

With the presence of hundreds of Soviet communist leaders and from all over the world, the sixty years of the October Revolution of 1917 were celebrated in Moscow – capital of the Soviet Union and of the international communist movement.

On the occasion, Enrico Berlinguer gave a brief speech that had a strong impact on the audience and went down in history as a landmark in the criticism of the despotic character of the “barrack socialism” that actually existed on the other side of the “iron curtain”.

In an environment very unfavorable to the theses that were being developed by the Italian Communist Party, Enrico Berlinguer launched the challenge regarding the need for socialism to be built based on the guarantee of individual and collective freedoms. Even more, the importance of a project capable of recovering such freedoms lost in the course of the revolutionary socialist experiences of the XNUMXth century was advanced.

To this end, Enrico Berlinguer breaks with the traditional way of thinking about the “democratic question” within communist parties and organizations, rejecting its submission to the “class question” and the consequent establishment of an oppositional relationship between two types of democracy: “bourgeois democracy” and “workers’ democracy”.

So, in yet another demonstrative example of his heretical character within the communist movement, Enrico Berlinguer utters the expression that would intensely displease the nomenclature Soviet Union and the other communist parties, present in Moscow on November 3, 1977: “democracy, universal value”.

After, formally, in the first part of his speech, he hailed “the sixty years since the victory of the October Socialist Revolution” as the fulfillment of “a radical turning point in history”, which “broke the prison of the hitherto world domination of the capitalism and imperialism”, and reaffirming the importance of “the indestructible reason for that internationalist solidarity that must be continuously sought, Enrico Berlinguer, in the second part of his intervention, defends the need to respect the countless ways of building socialism followed by each one of the communist parties, since “uniformity is as harmful as isolation”, and criticizes the existence of “parties that guide and parties that are guided”, since internationalist solidarity “requires the free confrontation of different opinions, the strict observance of the autonomy of each party and non-interference in internal affairs”.

After the protocol phase of the initial greetings and the discordant announcement about the importance of autonomy and non-interference, Berlinguer reaches the apex of his speech, which would demand from his translators a true tour de force to, at the same time, distort and soften the strongly critical content contained therein: “The Italian Communist Party also emerged under the impetus of the Revolution of the Soviets. It grew later, above all because it managed to make the working class, before and during the Resistance, the protagonist of the struggle to regain freedom against fascist tyranny and, over the last 30 years, to safeguard and broaden the development of democracy”.

“The experience carried out led us to the conclusion – as it happened with other communist parties in capitalist Europe – that democracy is today not only the terrain on which the class adversary is forced to retreat, but it is also the historically universal value on the which an original socialist society should be founded”.

“This is why our united struggle – which constantly seeks understanding with other forces of socialist and Christian inspiration in Italy and Western Europe – is aimed at realizing a new, socialist society, which guarantees all personal and collective freedoms, civil and religious. , the non-ideological nature of the State, the possibility of the existence of different parties, pluralism in social, cultural and ideal life” (BERLINGUER, 1989, p. 29-30).

For almost all of those present at the celebration of the sixty years of the October Revolution of 1917, the defense of democracy as a universal value, of personal and collective freedoms, of the non-ideological character of the State and of pluralism in social, cultural and ideal life as foundations of a new and original socialist society to be built, represented a set of principles contrary to the socialist system effectively in operation, as well as dissonant from the Marxist-Leninist conception that theoretically based such a system.

Thus, if before the speech recognizing the “universal value of democracy”, Enrico Berlinguer was already seen with distrust by Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet communist bureaucracy, after his pronouncement, even more so in the context in which he emerged, the secretary -general of the PCI will be watched with even greater distrust, almost like a persona non grata in the communist world.

Notwithstanding this, Enrico Berlinguer and the Italian Communist Party never suffered an “excommunication” process by the Soviet Union and his Communist Party, in the same way that the General Secretary of the PCI never led his party to a formal rupture in relation to the Soviet-led international communist movement.

In the words of Michele Battini, a professor at the Escola Normal Supérieure in Pisa, one of the main characteristics of Berlinguer's “anomaly” results precisely from the “permanence of a loyalty to the international communist alignment” – very critical loyalty, but loyalty –, at the same time in that “the clarity of his democratic choice” remained firm (BATTINI, 1994, p. 13).

In other words, on numerous occasions already seen in this book, Enrico Berlinguer “stretched the rope” of dissent in relation to “really existing socialism”, without ever breaking it, however, without ever giving up the democratic principles and values ​​defended during the nearly fifteen years he led PCI.

Within this context, the defense of the “universal value of democracy”, in the same way as the choice of the “third way/third phase” in which “Eurocommunism” emerged, has its raison d'être and its striking character precisely because it is inserted in the Berlinguerian choice (which was also the Togliattian choice, albeit with much less disruptive potential) to remain within the communist political field, even though this decision had its invoice in 1989.

In these terms above, the Berlinguerian “anomaly” should not be confused with the “ambiguity” (doppiezza) always denounced by opponents of the PCI since Togliatti's time, since Berlinguer's problem was not that he had reservations about political democracy in certain circumstances.

Enrico Berlinguer did not oppose “formal democracy” to “substantial democracy”, “bourgeois democracy” to “workers' democracy”. Its adherence to the “universal value of democracy” did not allow for hesitation, but, for its critics, it assumed a contradictory character insofar as it never resulted in an explicit break with the autocratic countries and communist parties of Eastern Europe.

For the secretary of the PCI Federation of Pisa between 1969 and 1976, Giuseppe De Felice, the explanation for the behavior assumed by Enrico Berlinguer was not exactly linked to the possible existence of reservations in relation to political democracy, but to the fact that the Berlinguer PCI having a “dual loyalty” – on the one hand, to the democratic Italian State; on the other, the socialist camp: “For Berlinguer, there were not two different lines to socialism, but only the democratic line; there were, however, two international blocs and two opposite choices of civilization, West and East, which imposed on the PCI a choice of loyalty to “socialist civilization”, as well as on the DC a choice of loyalty towards the West. The dual loyalties entailed parallel obligations towards two “external authorities” and two external powers” ​​(apoud BATTINI, 1994, p. 13).

In addition, loyalty to “socialist civilization” brought with it the need to maintain the unity of the “Italian communist people” around its leadership, that is, it also represented a way of maintaining the cohesion of party militancy around a historical identity that could not be thrown away, even if, at certain times, it was more symbolic than properly substantial.

In the dialogue organized by Michele Battini between the former secretary of Federazione Giovanile Italian Communist (FGCI) and former Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, and the historian and professor at the University of Florence, Paul Ginsborg, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the death of Enrico Berlinguer, a consensus was reached around the idea that the general secretary of the PCI had been a communist who was very distant from the communist world, but who harbored the illusion that communism could be reformed – a communist who took his relationship with the communist world to a possible breaking point, which he did not reach. consummate because he had to remain faithful to his youth ideals (D'Alema); a communist who supported the preservation of Italian democracy in the perilous circumstances of the 1970s – a communist who slowly but inexorably led his party to break away from the sclerotic political model of the Soviet Union, without putting an end to this process (Ginsborg ) (apoud BATTINI, 1994, p. 39, 40 and 53).

However, let D'Alema and Ginsborg speak in their own words about Berlinguer's political profile: “If we had to draw a synthetic profile of Enrico Berlinguer, we should say that he was a great democratic leader of that Republic of parties that we have already left behind. backwards and, at the same time, a great communist leader. He perceived, acutely and dramatically, the crisis of his world and was a great reformer, both in national political life and in the communist movement. But a defeated reformer. However, in this quest, conducted with extraordinary intellectual and human strength, he knew how to break the limits of his tradition and culture, bequeathing a heritage of ideas, proposals, suggestions that have a universal value” (D'ALEMA apud BATTINI, 1994, p. 46).

“Casting a retrospective look at this historical period with a distance of twenty years, the priorities located by Berlinguer, the dangers against which he protected himself, the strategy he chose, do not seem to have shrunk but to have grown with the passage of time. O leitmotiv de Berlinguer was the need to safeguard Italian democracy and help it to grow. His place in history will be that of the political leader who did much to save Italy and its democracy in a period of great and exhausting work” (GINSBORG apoud BATTINI, 1994, p. 63).

Thus, from a certain point of view, it would not be an exaggeration to state that “Italian democratic communism” represented the formula found by Enrico Berlinguer in order to keep in suspense the contradictions inherent in the fact of fighting for social equality, remaining faithful to the method democratic, at the same time, not taking the decisive step of formal rupture with the Soviet autocratic socialism – a fact that represented, in our view, the “historical limit” of its heretic political personality, but that did not diminish in any way its historical role of democratic leader and reformer.

Marco Mondaini, historian, is a professor at the Department of Social Service at UFPE and presenter of the program Trilhas da Democracia.

Excerpt from the third chapter of The invention of democracy as a universal value.


Marco Mondaini. The invention of democracy as a universal value: Enrico Berlinguer and Italian democratic communism (1972-1984). São Paulo, Alameda, 2022, 134 pages (


BATTINI, Michele (the cure di). Dialogue with Berlinguer: Massimo D'Alema and Paul Ginsborg. Firenze: Giunti, 1994 (

BERLINGUER, Enrico. Berlinguer. Current and future (the cure of Antonio Tatò). Rome: L'Unità, 1989.

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