Enrico Berlinguer, on the 40th anniversary of his death

Enrico Berlinguer


The Italian politician had a fixed concern with reforming communism and threw himself with all his energy into the challenge of doing so.

In an analysis of the international policy undertaken by the Italian Communist Party during the years in which it was led by Enrico Berlinguer, the historian and professor at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, Silvio Pons, defended the thesis that “the personality and actions of Enrico Berlinguer must be understood in the light of his attempt to reform communism and to guard, at the same time, the borders of communist identity”, an attempt taken to corporal “with obstinacy and courage, revealing a capacity for change and a vitality that no other European communist party possessed”, an attempt, however, that “revealed to be unrealizable and destined for bankruptcy” (PONS, 2004, p. X).

Enrico Berlinguer had a fixed concern with reforming communism and threw himself with all his energy into the challenge of doing so, despite the existence of a series of obstacles accumulated during more than fifty years of Soviet despotism. But at the time it was in the 1970s, the communist world was no longer a reality capable of being reformed.

However, the limits of the Berlinguerian purpose of reforming communism did not only come up against the objective reality of “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe. It is true that the Berlinguerian PCI was no longer the one from the times of “iron bonds” with the CPSU and the Soviet Union, but it never reached the point of considering an explicit break with the communist world, even in the extreme episode of criticism of the coup d'état. State in Poland, in December 1981. This is because Enrico Berlinguer was a reformer who could not help but ensure the maintenance of communist identity.

And, in order to ensure the maintenance of communist identity, despite defending a reformist policy very close to socialists and social democrats such as the Swede Olof Palme and the German Willy Brandt, Enrico Berlinguer assumed a rhetoric strongly contrary to social democracy, characterizing it as being a supporter of a reformism that had given up its anti-capitalist purpose.

Thus, the importance of recognizing the inseparable nature between socialism and democracy (a distinctive mark of Enrico Berlinguer's political thought and a tradition created by Palmiro Togliatti based on Antonio Gramsci's prison work) remained in place regardless of the unquestionable fact of not having taken the final step of formal break with Soviet-based communism.

Two Italian politicians who, in their youth, served in the Federazione Giovanile Italian Communist (FGCI) when Enrico Berlinguer was general secretary of the PCI, each in their own way, made interesting suggestions about the most appropriate “key to understanding” the role of simultaneously reforming and caring for communist identity played by the PCI leader.

A “key to understanding” that provides the possibility of observing in Enrico Berlinguer the person largely responsible for affirming the universal values ​​of political democracy and ideological pluralism within the PCI, without ignoring the existence of limits that prevented him from taking the decisive leap in towards the break with Moscow, even though, deep down, he had the feeling that socialism was unsustainable.

Former secretary of the FGCI and former deputy during five legislatures, Pietro Folena defined Enrico Berlinguer as a “man of transition”: “From this personal inquiry comes, for those who write, the conviction of being faced with a transition man. Berlinguer, almost torn apart in his spirit and personality, between two eras, two cultures, two centuries, even two millennia – with everything prophetic and millennial that was sometimes present in his words. Conservative and revolutionary, to say it with his own controversial expression. A man of transition, too far ahead in many of his ideas with regard to the specific time in which he operated, too much the son of a political culture that was already exhausting itself” (FOLENA, 1997, p. 25).

For his part, the former FGCI activist, former mayor of Rome for two terms and former candidate for Prime Minister of Italy, Walter Veltroni, sought to emphasize the “innovative tension” that Berlinguer’s “politics” promoted in the “communist people” and in citizens in general, and which was a constitutive part of his own political thought: “There is a gift, in politics, that more than any other I learned to love. It is courage, which is often a good companion to loneliness. And it is not just that which manifests itself in challenging opponents. The “bravest courage” is the one that drives, following an invisible thread, the child of convictions and ethics, to place the world itself, the consciousness of one’s own people, in an innovative tension. It was not easy for Berlinguer to break with the USSR, propose a historic compromise, indicate austerity as a model of development, say that NATO was better off than with the Warsaw Pact. It was not easy to say this to your people and, at the same time, keep them united, while they set out on the march” (VELTRONI, 2014, p.5).

Enrico Berlinguer was perhaps exactly that: a “man of transition” who experienced an “innovative tension” at a time in history when people still believed in the possibility of reforming communism in a democratic sense.

His early death, on June 11, 1984, at the age of 62, – after suffering a stroke while speaking at a rally in the city of Padua, during the electoral campaign for the renewal of seats in the European Parliament, which ended up leading the PCI overcoming Christian Democracy, for the first and only time in its history – represented for many Italian communists the “end of a journey”.

For those, like the author of this text, who did not live through those times, the tradition of “Italian democratic communism” and the political thought of that “communist heretic” called Enrico Berlinguer continue to be fundamental references for the continuation of another journey, even if in a world very different from the one he lived in – a world in which his Italy is governed by neo-fascism and France runs the risk of soon becoming the same.

No longer the idealized journey of reforming a system that no longer exists, but rather the journey of resistance to the extreme right that is authoritarian in politics, conservative in customs and ultra-neoliberal in the economy. The utopian journey of building a society free from capitalist exploitation and the various forms of oppression that plague us – a socially egalitarian society, ideologically plural, culturally diverse and where democracy is always sought after as a universal value.

*Marco Mondaini, historian, is a professor at the Department of Social Service at UFPE and presenter of the program Trilhas da Democracia. Author, among other books, of The Invention of Democracy as a Universal Value (Avenue). [https://amzn.to/3KCQcZt]


FOLENA, Pietro. I ragazzi di Berlinguer. Journey into political culture gives a generation. Milano: Baldini & Castoldi, 1997.

PONS, Silvio. Berlinguer and the end of communism. Turin: Einaudi, 2006.

VELTRONI, Walter. When it was Berlinguer. Milano: Rizzoli, 2014.

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