Why Berlinguer was so important

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In one of his books in the series Seen up close, Giulio Andreotti – Christian Democrat leader and several times Prime Minister – also dedicates a chapter to Enrico Berlinguer, historical secretary of the Communist Party. In his portrait, Andreotti includes admiring observations on Berlinguer’s temperament (“Enrico had the same calm, detached-looking tone when he announced a favorable vote or when he considered an experiment exhausted”) and at the end, after briefly recalling his sudden death , defines him as a “tough opponent but a correct and responsible man”.

Andreotti wrote these respectful lines about a year after Berlinguer’s death, which occurred following a stroke that struck him while he was on stage for a rally in Padua. Today, almost 38 years have passed since that death often defined as “heroic”, and exactly one century after his birth – on 25 May 1922 in Sassari – Berlinguer is still one of the most respected and remembered political figures of the so-called First Republic, the subject of a myth perhaps less transversal than that of Sandro Pertini but equally rooted.

In part this is due precisely to the way he died and the memory of the enormously attended funeral that followed. But above all it is due to the innovations that Berlinguer tried to introduce in Italian politics and within his own party, which earned him the esteem and trust of a large number of voters: the PCI reached an all-time high during his secretariat. of consents.

In the memories of the man Berlinguer, often described as generous and with a mild and morally flawless character, the action of the political Berlinguer sometimes takes a back seat. We can distinguish at least two important concepts that he introduced into the public debate when he was secretary: the so-called “historical compromise”, that is an attempt to bring the PCI and the Christian Democrats closer together after almost thirty years of exclusion of the Communists from the government; and the “moral question”, which placed the accent on a drift of the parties that had made them become, according to him, “machines of power and customers”.

– Read also: The day “the moral question” was born

Berlinguer was born into a liberal family that was not aristocratic but still very important in the city, related to other families of nobles and notables such as the Satta Branca, the Delitala and the Cossigas, from which Francesco Cossiga who would later become president of the Republic came. Berlinguer grew up in an anti-fascist environment and in general very politically connoted – his grandfather Mario was a Mazzinian – but his adolescence was profoundly marked by an event that had little to do with politics: the premature death of his mother, Mariuccia Loriga.

“As a boy there was a feeling of rebellion in me. I contested everything. Religion, state, clichés and social customs. I had read Bakunin and I felt I was an anarchist “Berlinguer himself said many years later. Influenced by his uncle Ettore, he began to frequent the anti-fascist circles of Sassari and approached communism, a choice not taken for granted given the bourgeois – even if progressive – environment from which he came.

In the mid-1940s his family moved first to Rome and then to Milan. In 1948, at the age of 26, he entered the leadership of the PCI and began his long political career, becoming general secretary of the communist youth federation, the FGCI. Berlinguer’s rise within the party was facilitated by the benevolence of the then secretary and historical leader Palmiro Togliatti, who in 1960 appointed him responsible for the organization of the party. In this decade Berlinguer demonstrated good mediation skills, in particular during the long phase of confrontation between the “rigorist” wing of Pietro Ingrao, who sought an alliance with the movements to the left of the PCI, and the more moderate wing of Giorgio Amendola, who called for an opening towards the socialists and a federation with the entire Italian left.

A photo of the famous moment in which Roberto Benigni picked up Berlinguer during a demonstration for peace on June 16, 1983 (ANSA / ARCHIVIO)

Probably precisely because of his mediating position, Berlinguer was first elected deputy secretary and then, in 1972, party secretary.

The historical moment that Italy was going through was very complicated. From the end of the 1960s a long phase of protests by students and workers had begun, and at the same time extra-parliamentary political movements had been forming which had made armed violence their instrument of struggle. In 1969 there was the Fascist massacre in Piazza Fontana, in Milan, while in the very year in which Berlinguer was elected there was the first kidnapping of the Red Brigades, to the detriment of Siemens manager Idalgo Macchiarini, also in Milan.

The international context was just as complicated. Berlinguer was particularly impressed by what happened in Chile to socialist president Salvador Allende, dismissed by a military coup in September 1973, after he had been democratically elected three years earlier. Given the many points of contact, including the strong presence of the Catholic Church and a conservative bourgeois business class, Allende’s experiment was closely watched by Italy.

The events in Chile stimulated Berlinguer, who a few weeks after Allende’s death put his reflections in three articles published in Rebirth, the political-cultural monthly of the PCI. The last of these is considered the act with which the idea of ​​the historical compromise was born, even if in reality Berlinguer’s proposal collected some signs of rapprochement that were already being seen on the part of the Christian Democrats.

Starting from the tragic outcome of the Chilean political experiment, Berlinguer reasoned about the road to take in Italy, and in the article of 12 October he wrote: “it is clear that the task of a party like ours can only be to isolate and drastically defeat the tendencies that aim or that can be tempted to aim at the opposition and the vertical split of the country, or that in any case persist in a position of prejudicial anti-communist ideological foreclosure, which in itself represents, in Italy, an impending danger of splitting of the nation “.

He then warned that even if a path of constructive dialogue with the opposing party “is not easy nor can it be hasty”, the time available was not infinite:

The gravity of the country’s problems, the ever looming threats of reactionary adventures and the need to finally open up to the nation a secure path of economic development, social renewal and democratic progress make it increasingly urgent and mature that it reaches what can be defined the new great “historical compromise” between the forces that gather and represent the great majority of the Italian people.

Berlinguer’s idea did not please the party base or the leadership. But as the historian Aurelio Lepre wrote, the historical compromise was in any case an attempt to “respond to the processes of transformation that were underway in the party itself, in Italian society and also in Europe”.

After all, at that moment the people enrolled in the PCI or who voted for it were no longer those of the immediate postwar period: there had been the rise of new social groups, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs with new demands but with the same political ideas of when they were artisans or workers. This meant that the PCI could no longer rigidly represent only the working class, but had to open up to society as a whole.

Yet, again according to Lepre, on the one hand Berlinguer’s attempt had a “rigid form”, not adequate to the speed of the social transformations underway; on the other hand, at the same time, it was a “too radical” change of course for a part of the party and also of society. This is what Lepre defines as a “gap” between the party’s ideals, still based on equality and a socialist society, and the economic interests that had been formed over the decades.

The historical compromise also had a component that aimed to prevent a right turn in the country, and to shift the DC to the left. However, this is not enough to explain the peak of popularity that the PCI went through a few years after the three articles by Berlinguer, in particular the regional ones of 1975. The reasons for this popularity lie in part precisely in the figure of Berlinguer, seen as the symbol of a “Revolt against a policy that had tired and irritated and that many attributed to the lack of alternative,” writes Lepre.

The moral question raised by Berlinguer years later, in 1980, after the attempt of rapprochement between the DC and the PCI had led to the governments of the so-called “national solidarity” in which – for the first time in history – the PCI had not voted against, first abstaining and then giving its support without expressing ministers.

Between 1975 and 1979, however, relations between the leaderships of the two parties had deteriorated, weakened by continuous negotiations and a very heavy climate in the country (the government to which the PCI gave external support swore on the day in which Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades). And therefore, during the emergency for the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, Berlinguer decided to break definitively with the Christian Democrats.

The first page of the Unit of 13 June 1984

Aid for the earthquake victims was not timely – in the following years there were several scandals in this regard – and Berlinguer identified the reason for those dysfunctions in the corruption and amorality of the parties. In a long interview given to Eugenio Scalfari in 1981, Berlinguer explained that “today’s parties are above all machines of power and customers: little or mystified knowledge of life and the problems of society and people, ideas, ideals, little or no programs. vague, feelings and civil passion, zero. They manage interests, the most disparate, the most contradictory, sometimes even shady, in any case without any relationship with emerging human needs and needs, or distorting them, without pursuing the common good “. And he added that the parties “occupied the state and all its institutions”, specifying that precisely in this respect the PCI was different from the others.

Berlinguer’s moral question also attracted various criticisms within the party. Alessandro Natta, then deputy secretary, for example considered the battle just but “irritating” and “moralistic” the way it was conducted. However, Berlinguer always reiterated this idea, right up to the end. In his last television interview, given a few hours before the meeting in Padua in which he fell ill, he spoke of the need “to open the way” to governments that looked at “general interests” and were not “characterized by continuous conflict between parties and among their factions ».

Berlinguer died four days after the rally, on 11 June 1984. His funeral in Rome was a mass event, attended by many international leaders, from Arafat to Michail Gorbachev, and Italian allies and opponents, including the leader of the MSI Giorgio Almirante. The journalist Fabrizio Rondolino, a former militant, described him thus in his book Our PCI:

Rome was full of sun and people, crossed by dozens of processions: an immense crowd dispersed everywhere, in the streets, on the sidewalks, at the windows, in front of the shops with the shutters down, climbing the street lamps, standing on the roofs of the cars. One million people, one and a half million, two: the largest event in the history of Italy. It was not a heroic day, however, I don’t remember it that way: melancholy instead, poignant, and in a certain sense conclusive. It has been written and said that the PCI died that day, and it is true.

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