Italian Communists march in Rome.
Italian Communists march in Rome. Reuters

The Communist Party has historically held a significant portion of the Italian public in its grip -- indeed, the party has gained as much as one-third of the total vote in national elections. Although the Communist Party never seized control in the county, its influence on Italian society has been profound in some ways.

Sixty-five years ago, in the wake of the end of the Second World War and the cusp of the West’s Cold War against the Soviet Union, fears of the spread of communism gripped the United States and Great Britain. Following the coup in February 1948 that installed a Communist government in Czechoslovakia (with the backing of the Russians), officials in Washington and London worried that leftists would next seize Italy, the very center of Western Christian civilization.

Amidst the backdrop of the worsening tensions between Washington and Moscow, Italians voted in general elections in April 1948, as grave concerns proliferated that the Communists (alone, or in coalition with other Marxist parties) could triumph.

Communism has a long and winding history in Italy.

International Business Times spoke with an expert on Italian politics to discuss the history of Italian Communism and how close the party came to actually acquiring control of the country.

Dario Gaggio is an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

IB TIMES: The Communist Party of Italy was founded in January 1921 as Partito Comunista d'Italia (PCdI) after a split with the Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party), or PSI. What caused that rupture?

GAGGIO: The Italian Socialist Party had long been beset by internal divisions, above all, between the reformists and the revolutionaries. When the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia in 1917, these tensions became even starker, between those who wanted to follow Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's doctrines and example, and those that held fast to more moderate positions.

The PCdI was formed in Livorno, Italy, in 1921 after the Comintern [Communist International organization founded by Moscow] issued a platform for the international socialist parties with 21 points, the most important of which was the necessity to break up with the moderate/reformist elements in the party. At the [International] Socialist Congress that year [in Vienna], the representatives that voted for the Comintern platform seceded and formed the PCdI.

IB TIMES: PCdI was outlawed and dissolved by Benito Mussolini in November 1926. During the 1921-1926 period, did the Communists gain much popularity in Italy? Did the Fascists see them as a grave threat to their power?

GAGGIO: The PCdI was a relatively small force in those years, dominated by Fascist violence and intimidation. The Fascists did see the Communists as dangerous rivals, but more at the level of rhetoric than in reality. The workers' and peasants' movement reached the peak of its force in 1919-20, before the formation of the PCdI, so by the time of Mussolini’s March on Rome in October 1922, the threat of a radical leftist turn had passed.

The Communists were, however, some of the main targets of the Fascist Black Shirts, and the regime never tired of whipping up the specter of the Bolshevik threat to gain the consensus of the middle classes and even of some farmers.

IB TIMES: In 1943, in the middle of the war, the Communists re-emerged in Italy and changed their name to Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party), or PCI. How did they reappear again after 17 years of illegality? Did they operate underground during all those years?

GAGGIO: The leadership of the PCdI was scattered all over Europe and was also underground during the Fascist dictatorship. The future leader of the party, Palmiro Togliatti, sought refuge in Moscow, where he survived the purges and stayed on Stalin's good side till the end. Many Italian Communists also fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-39 as volunteers against the Nationalists, who were sponsored by Mussolini. So there were Italians fighting on both sides in Spain.

IB TIMES: What role did Italian Communists play in the resistance during World War II?

GAGGIO: Because of their military experience in Spain, the PCI emerged as the best-organized anti-Fascist force during the Second World War. They were at the core of the resistance against the Nazi occupation of 1943-45, even though Britain’s perception that the Italian Resistance movement was monopolized by the Communists was greatly exaggerated (there were insurgents of all stripes). A very similar process took place in France as well.

IB TIMES: How did PCI’s policies differ from that of the old PCdI? Was (the new) PCI more independent of Moscow?

GAGGIO: The PCI was definitely not more independent from Moscow after 1943 -- quite the opposite. Before the war there had been bitter debates between different factions within the party, and there had been vocal anti-Stalinist positions as well. But those were silenced as the clout and prestige of the USSR reached their peak in the wake of Adolf Hitler's defeat by the Red Army. Togliatti, in particular, was very much Stalin's man, and the myth of Stalin as a “savior” took hold of many ordinary Italians as well until the mid-1950s.

IB TIMES: After the war, the PCI had some 2.3 million members (its peak) and became the largest left-wing party in Italy. Where did the support principally come from? The working class? The unions? Did they enjoy support across all geographic regions, or was it concentrated in one area?

GAGGIO: The party was supported by a wide variety of people in Italy. It emerged from the war as a "mass party" much like its principal rival, the Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), or DC. That means that people from all classes and parts of Italy were members and supporters. But, of course, the working class of northern Italy and (crucially) the sharecroppers of central Italy, as well as the landless peasants of southern Italy were all disproportionately represented in the party.

The fact that the PCI was deeply rooted in the countryside (and Italy was still a largely rural country in the late 1940s), distinguishes [it] from the French situation, for example.

There were, however, some important geographical distinctions. The Communists were strongest in the sharecropping areas of central Italy (Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria) and in the industrial cities and towns of the north. They also had some strength in parts of Puglia and Sicily. They were weakest in the rural and deeply Catholic northeast and in many parts of southern Italy.

IB TIMES: In the general election of 1948, the PCI allied itself with the Socialists, but were defeated by the conservative DC. How much support did the PCI receive in that election?

GAGGIO: In the 1946 elections for the Constitutional Assembly, the PCI received 19 percent of the vote and the Socialists, 21 percent. Two years later, the Democratic Popular Front (that is, a coalition of PCI and PSI) only received 31 percent of the vote. In the meantime, however, the anti-Communist faction of the Socialists had split and created their own party, outside of the coalition, which garnered 7 percent.

The Front won in the three "red" regions of central Italy (Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria), but it declined in popularity across much of northern Italy, including some industrial centers. But it actually increased its consensus in parts of the south. So, it's a complicated geography.

IB TIMES: Reports have since circulated that the DC conspired with the U.S. CIA and the Mafia to defeat the Communists in the 1948 elections. Is this allegation true? If so, what did they do?

GAGGIO: No need to resort to conspiracy theories. The Left lost the elections of 1948 for a variety of reasons, including its opposition to the Marshall Plan, its support for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia’s claims over the city of Trieste [in northeastern Italy] and its silence over the tens of thousands of Italian soldiers who never returned from the Russian front. In all these cases, Stalin instructed Togliatti accordingly, and he followed suit despite his awareness of how unpopular those positions were with many Italians.

Of course, all those issues also involved the Americans, who influenced the situation with more subtlety. But Stalin never pushed for a Communist coup in Italy. He believed that conditions for such an occurrence did not exist there. So, paradoxically, the PCI proved to be a stabilizing force in Italy, in the face of mounting social tensions and the radicalism of many grass-roots militants. It’s fair to say that the leadership was more moderate than their base of supporters in those years.

As far as the Mafia is concerned, the DC did indeed become the political proxy of the Sicilian Mafia, and several Communist activists paid for their opposition to the Mafia with their life in those years. In Sicily, the violence and pressures imposed by organized crime were successful in isolating the Left, which in the late 1940s and early 1950s showed signs of great potential success. But the Mafia was still by and large a regional (Sicilian) affair. It wasn’t yet the national force it is today.

IB TIMES: In the post-war period, did the Communists continue to enjoy significant support? Did they ever formally join a coalition government?

GAGGIO: The Communists increased their consensus slowly until the late 1970s, mostly to the detriment of the Socialists, who, by the way, broke up with them in 1956 in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution and then became allies of the DC.

But the PCI never joined a coalition government.

IB TIMES: Did Communists ever control any local or provincial governments? If so, where and when during the post-war era?

GAGGIO: The Communists controlled many local governments. Even though the 1948 Constitution envisaged a process of regional devolution, regional governments were not established until 1970-71. At that point, the Communists began to control the governments of several regions, including Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria, but also Liguria, the Marches, Piedmont and others during some periods.

They also controlled many city governments, including (as coalition members) those of Rome, Milan and Turin at different points in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, cities like Bologna and Florence were even more consistently under Communist control. Much of provincial Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna were governed by the PCI by huge margins of support. In fact, some towns like Modena or Siena never saw anything but Communist governments from the early 1950s until the early 1990s. And these were some of the best-governed corners of the Italian Peninsula, by the way.

IB TIMES: How much financial support did PCI receive from Moscow?

GAGGIO: Exact figures are quite controversial, but a lot of money came from the USSR at first, and less and less as the decades went by. Still, some money kept coming until the dissolution of the USSR. This was Moscow's policy -- the PCI was no different from other Communist parties around the world.

IB TIMES: So the Russians did not view Italy as a key location for global Communist revolution?

GAGGIO: As I noted, Stalin believed that Italy was not ready for a Communist revolution (he didn't even support the Communists in the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949, for example). Later on, things became far more complicated, as the Italian Communists grew more and more autonomous from Moscow, to the point of denouncing the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 (they did not criticize the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956).

IB TIMES: Did the PCI break with Moscow in the early 1980s?

GAGGIO: Well, the PCI never officially broke with Moscow. There was a process of gradual distancing, that peaked with the rise of Euro-Communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Italians were at the forefront of a more independent and more westernized course that would include other Communist parties of western Europe (Spain, Portugal, and France above all). By then, society in Rome and Milan looked a lot different than it had in 1948, and a lot different from that of Kiev or Sofia. The PCI was adapting to the consequences of rapid economic growth and the rise of a form of capitalism mitigated by the welfare state and all kinds of progressive institutions, many of which it had contributed to shaping.

IB TIMES: In 1976, the PCI received more than one-third (34.4 percent) of the national electorate. Could they have taken power then?

GAGGIO: The PCI actually peaked in the elections for the European Parliament in 1984, in the wake of the premature death of Enrico Berlinguer (its very popular secretary from 1972-1984). But no, it could not have gone to power without coalition partners, and that was unthinkable even in the 1970s. We know that the U.S. would not have allowed that in any case. The CIA funded (and the Italian intelligence services protected) shady elements, many of them of Fascist persuasion, just for that eventuality. The PCI never had real plans for insurrection, as I said before -- not even in the late 1940s. It was committed to respecting the democratic process.

Togliatti was almost killed by a Fascist student in July 1948, and there were major riots in many parts of Italy, with policemen shot dead and Communists gunned down in reprisal, but Togliatti and the other leaders reined in the militants and recommended calm.

By 1976 the PCI was part and parcel of Italian society, if not the Italian establishment. They were part of "the system," as the radical leftist young people put it after 1968.

IB TIMES: Did the murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades militant group in 1978 kill the PCI’s hopes of ever gaining power in Italy? Did the PCI repudiate the Brigades’ actions?

GAGGIO: The PCI definitely denounced the Red Brigades and left-wing terrorism in general without any ambiguity. But left-wing terrorism did not kill the PCI's hopes. The PCI reached the peak of its consensus and clout at the height of political violence. Interestingly, many saw the party as a bulwark against extremism, actually.

IB TIMES: In January 1991, the PCI dissolved and became the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left), or PDS. Was this a direct response to the fall of the Soviet Union? How did the PDS differ in policy from the PCI? Did they adopt a more moderate stance?

GAGGIO: Yes, that was a response to international changes. They split between a nominally still Communist faction (Communist Refoundation) and the PDS, which held more moderate positions. But the PDS and its successors never equaled the consensus of the PCI at its peak.

IB TIMES: Atheism is a core value of Marxism. Did Italy’s Communists share this attitude? Or did they realize that the Catholic Church is too powerful in Italy to ignore or marginalize?

GAGGIO: That is a tough question. Many grass-roots militants had a complicated attitude towards the church. After World War II, Italy was becoming a more secular society, but it was also dominated by an overtly "Christian" force (the DC), and the political power of the church had never been stronger in Italy, which, after all, had become a nation-state in the 1860s by fighting against the Vatican. The Communist leadership recognized this situation and compromised over and over again with the Catholics, to the point of accepting the 1929 Concordat between Mussolini and the Vatican and even refraining from pushing for divorce in the years of reconstruction and constitutional debate. In fact, divorce and abortion became legal in Italy in the 1970s not through Communist initiatives, but by pressures from liberal forces (the Radical Party).

Many historians describe the history of the PCI as one of missed opportunities. But they also forget that the PCI was not a liberal force. Much like the DC, they worked with a conception of society as composed of organized, even organic forces, rather than individuals.

IB TIMES: What is the condition of the Italian Communist Party today?

GAGGIO: The old PCI went through a series of splits and mergers after it formally ceased to exist in 1991. A massive wave of scandals shook Italy in 1992-93, which led to the dissolution of the DC and the Socialists. The "end of the First Republic," as Italians call it, completely transformed the political landscape. Now there are former Communists in many different political formations, and Italy's current president [Giorgio Napolitano] is a former party member himself.

The largest party of the center-left, now called Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), or PD, includes both former Communists and former Christian Democrats. There are also several smaller parties of the left that include former Communists, as well as environmentalists and people too young to have known the PCI other than from history books.