At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Enrico Berlinguer - Communist politician

Popular leader turned left-wing party into political force


Photo of Enrico Berlinguer
Enrico Berlinguer
Enrico Berlinguer, who for more than a decade was Western Europe's most powerful and influential Communist politician, was born on this day in 1922 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.

As secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party from March 1972 until his death in 1984, he led the largest Communist movement outside the Eastern Bloc, coming close to winning a general election in 1976.

He achieved popularity by striving to establish the Italian Communists as a political force that was not controlled from Moscow, pledging a commitment to democracy, a parliamentary system, a mixed economy, and Italian membership of the Common Market and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At its peak, Berlinguer's Westernized brand of Communism appealed to nearly a third of Italian voters.  His policies were adopted by other left-wing parties in Europe under what became known as Eurocommunism. 

As support for the previously dominant Christian Democrats waned in the 1970s, he proposed a ''historic compromise'' with other parties, rejecting the traditional left-wing vision of violent revolution, and declared that the Italian Communists would be happy to enter into a coalition with Christian Democrats and others.

In fact, in the elections of 1976, at a time when Italy faced economic collapse, Berlinguer's Communists came close to winning power in their own right, polling 34 per cent of the vote.  The Christian Democrats prevailed with 38 per cent but needed the support of some groups on the extreme right to do so.

The result sent shock waves across the Atlantic.  Political leaders in America, in particular Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, regarded Italy as a bulwark against the Eastern Bloc and were alarmed that the Italian Communists had been so close to power.

Time Magazine cover
This cover of Time magazine reflected disquiet
 in the United States at Berlinguer's success
Despite his failure to become Prime Minister, Berlinguer remained one of Italy's foremost politicians. The Christian Democrats had to rely on Communist support to pass legislation and Berlinguer was thereby in a position to influence policy.

His party membership grew to 1.7 million and its success in local elections meant the Communists effectively governed nearly half of the Italian population anyway, controlling Rome and many of the major northern cities, including Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence and Venice.

Berlinguer was born into a middle-class Sardinian family of noble descent yet the politics of his father Mario, a lawyer, leaned heavily towards the left. A socialist deputy and later senator, he was acquainted with a number of Communist leaders, including Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti. The latter became Enrico Berlinguer's political mentor.

Having become a Communist Party member in 1943, Berlinguer was put in charge of the Young Communists in his home town of Sassari. He was arrested and jailed in 1944 after taking part in demonstrations against the Fascist regime.

Released after three months, he resumed his role as an organizer of communist youth, first in Milan and then Rome. He became a member of the party’s Central Committee in 1945 and the party executive in 1948.

He was elected to the Italian parliament in 1968, becoming the party's deputy secretary-general a year later and replacing Luigi Longo, an old-style Communist who had become the party leader after Togliatti's death in 1964, as secretary-general in March 1972.

Married with three children and fiercely protective of his private life, Berlinguer died in June 1984 aged only 62, having suffered a stroke while delivering a speech in Padua and never regaining consciousness.

Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari
Sassari's Piazza d'Italia is an example of the city's
elegant neoclassical architecture
Travel tip:

The second largest city in Sardinia, with a population of more than 125,000, Sassari is rich in art, culture and history.  It is well known for beautiful palazzi, the Fountain of the Rosello, and its elegant neoclassical architecture, such as Piazza d'Italia and the Teatro Civico.

Travel tip:

Padua - Padova in Italian - is a city in the Veneto region of northern Italy, best known for the frescoes by Giotto that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel and for the vast 13th-century Basilica of St. Anthony.

(Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari by Gianni Careddu CC BY-SA 4.0)

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