Our housing issue is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

A Heretic, Not a Splitter

Pietro Ingrao's life captured the great promise and ultimate tragedy of the Italian Communist Party.

Pietro Ingrao surrounded by PCI supporters in 1974. Fondazione Crs Archivio Ingrao

The late Italian communist Pietro Ingrao was damned with faint praise, as the usual political-class tributes to a “Father of the Republic” streamed in after his September death. President Sergio Mattarella, himself of Christian-Democratic background, commented that Ingrao’s “passion was a piece of national heritage, his inner freedom an example to the younger generation.”

Though no one could doubt Ingrao’s importance as a leading light of postwar Italian democracy, including his service as first Italian Communist Party (PCI) president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1976–79, his true legacy lies elsewhere.

Born in 1915 before Italy even entered World War I, Ingrao’s militant career traversed a vast arc of Italian communist history, from the dissident student milieu of the late 1930s through the anti-Nazi Resistance, the foundation of the postwar republic, the 1970s “years of lead,” and the ultimate demise of the PCI in 1991.

He was an uncomfortable figure, forever a dissident within his party and a communist even after the post-PCI mainstream headed toward social-democratic and Blairite politics.

Ingrao’s political trajectory was a contradictory one, reflecting the difficult position of an intelligent and freethinking member of a party long characterized by an organizational culture inherited from Stalinism. Indeed, what Mattarella called Ingrao’s “inner freedom” was the other side of his lifelong obedience to the PCI: often saying he had to go with “what the comrades were doing,” he remained in the PCI even as close co-thinkers of his like the Il Manifesto group left or were expelled; and even after resisting the dissolution of the party in 1991, he formed a minority current in its social-democratic inheritor (the Democratic Party of the Left, PDS), only in 2005 joining the new Rifondazione Comunista.

As longtime Rifondazione leader Fausto Bertinotti put it, Ingrao was “a heretic but not a splitter.”

Long a minoritarian voice on the PCI leadership, in the late 1960s and 1970s Ingrao enjoyed a reputation as a figure in the party’s inner circle who was more receptive to social movements and youth struggles than other older and more conservative cadres. However, in many ways he was also an avatar for the hopes of a Communist Party radicalization that never came, and which he never himself moved to lead.

If after 1968 students chanted “Ingrao, Ingrao, you are our Mao!,” this was true only in the sense that they projected their hopes of a split in the Stalinist edifice onto the PCI dissident, without him in fact representing a genuinely alternative political strategy. Nor was Ingrao a particularly developed theoretical thinker, though his 1977 Masses and Power was widely read and appreciated as a work on social movements as sites of mass democracy.

Hence while Ingrao’s famously dry 1966 PCI Congress intervention — “I can’t say that you’ve truly persuaded me” — was a declamatory defense of the right to dissent in the context of an outwardly monolithic party, at none of the key turning points in PCI history would he ever place himself at the head of a dissident tendency, which could only have meant excommunication.

Certainly, his rhetorical differentiation from displays of PCI groupthink made him relatively more sympathetic to the reform-minded Il Manifesto group, yet he, too, voted for their expulsion; just as he made no real effort to orient the PCI as a whole toward the demands of 1968 student movement, and supported the mid-1970s “Historic Compromise,” whereby general secretary Enrico Berlinguer attempted his party’s final reconciliation with the Italian state by way of coalition with Christian Democracy.

It is easy to understand Ingrao’s desire to remain within the PCI mainstream, given both its massive size and the relative no man’s land that greeted those kicked out.

First attached to the Communist Party’s clandestine organization in the period of the Spanish Civil War, the young cinema student pulled from the fascist student milieu received a grounding in the Popular Front politics of party leader Palmiro Togliatti.

Togliatti’s desire to place the PCI at the center of Italian life through broad, cross-class alliances had certain Gramscian hues, but was also heavily filtered through the politics of the Stalinist Comintern on which the party’s exiled leadership depended. Characteristic of this was not only its internal hierarchy, but also its sharp hostility to movements and political forces to its left.

Working for various editions of the party’s clandestine L’Unità newspaper during the 1943–45 German occupation of Italy, in 1947 Ingrao became its lead editor, a position he would hold for the following decade. In 1950, he also became a member of parliament, as he would remain until 1992.

The two-million strong party was both the dominant force on the Left, enjoying a broad cultural influence as well as being at the center of the country’s cooperative and trade union movements; but it was also a party heavily shaped by Cold War conditions and its Stalinist culture.

If the PCI was proud of its role in helping write Italy’s 1947 Constitution — which they claimed was “born of the Resistance” — it was also a party permanently excluded from government on account of Cold War pressures, with the Christian Democrats dominating the country’s government from the end of World War II up until the early 1990s. That said, the need for rigid party unity was not only a defensive reaction against the anticommunist climate within Italy itself, but was also conditioned by its subservience to Moscow, which continued after Stalin’s death.

Given the inflexibility of this culture, dissidents could not just tolerate the party line passively, but rather had to be seen to defend it wholeheartedly.

Thus if Ingrao was one of the first in the PCI to welcome Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” denouncing his predecessor’s crimes against “socialist morality” (Togliatti initially doubting its veracity), he, like all other leaders defended the Soviet invasion of Hungary that same year, and as a L’Unità editor was responsible for articles on Hungary tellingly entitled “On one side of the barricades, in defense of socialism” and “The courage of taking a position.”

Ingrao would later regret this line, and, together with the party as a whole, took a different, critical stance toward the 1968 Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. However, the Togliattian tradition only made glacial progress breaking with the “fatherland of socialism” that had provided its constant support during two decades of fascism.

Of course, beyond its connection to Moscow, PCI history was strongly marked by the attempt to find a specifically “Italian road to socialism.” Yet given its Popular Front record as well as its role as a parliamentary party often scoring over 30 percent in national elections, its “openness” was largely directed toward other national parties, rather than to grassroots social movements.

Ingrao was not as hardline a “left” figure within the PCI leadership as Pietro Secchia, a member of its founding generation who believed that the party had given up too much ground to its bourgeois allies during the Resistance; indeed, in the 1970s Ingrao welcomed Enrico Berlinguer’s turn to seek an alliance with the Christian Democracy party.

The contradiction of Ingrao’s politics was that while he had the intelligence to dislike aspects of the party’s culture and its hostility to new social movements, his was only a slightly more movement-oriented version of the PCI mainstream strategy, which did, after all, put primacy on parliamentary politics even to the point of seeking alliance with the main party of the ruling class. This was inevitably incompatible with a real commitment to the kind of anti-institutional radicalism emerging in Italy’s burgeoning social movements of 1968 to 1977.

Certainly, it was all but impossible for the PCI to get ministers in government during the Cold War, with this exclusion from office thus allowing it to maintain the aura of an unfulfilled radical promise; but with this situation rendered obsolete by the fall of the Berlin Wall, a PCI long governed by a tendency toward social democracy finally made this jump for good. Ingrao was left among about a quarter of members who attempted to block the party’s dissolution, though averse as ever to schism, he did join the post-Communist PDS, founding a “Democratic Communists” group within it.

This attachment would not last, and Ingrao’s tolerance was increasingly strained as the PDS shifted to the center of Italian politics, filling the gap left by the also-dissolved Socialists and Christian Democrats. After the end of his parliamentary term in 1992, and his departure from the PDS the following year, the elderly Ingrao also reduced his political role, increasingly devoting himself to his poetry.

The party, and the tradition in which he fought, was now lost. If Ingrao remained a communist, what he had lost was the possibility of maintaining his critical position within a genuinely mass reforming force.

Recollecting his experiences as a leading Communist Party politician, in 2007 Ingrao published his memoirs with the melancholy title Volevo la Luna (“I Wanted the Moon”). Regretting many of the decisions forced by party pressure at the time, from the pro-Soviet line in 1956 to the expulsion of the Il Manifesto group, Ingrao reflected on a life of thwarted hope and tempered criticism.

As the lifelong communist would ultimately conclude, “The only thing in my life I fully lay claim to is my doubts.”