There is little doubt among seasoned political observers and card-carrying Communists that Italy's second largest political party--the largest communist party in the West--is in serious trouble.
Most of the blame is being heaped on Enrico Berlinguer, who has headed the Italian Communist Party (PCI) for the past nine years, although many doubt the problems of the party would be resolved by the selection of a new leader.
''The party is spent, exhausted. It has gone as far as it can. To go any farther, it must change,'' is a commonly heard analysis.
However, Mr. Berlinguer's efforts to set the party in a new direction have failed to stem the steady erosion of popular support. They have also earned him the wrath of the Soviet Union and a good deal of harsh criticism from the ranks of the 1.7 million PCI members.
The party's tardy and, until recently, lukewarm embrace of the peace movement sweeping through Europe has not boosted party membership.
PCI militants stubbornly refused to follow Mr. Berlinguer's lead in December and pour into the streets demonstrating support for Poland's Solidarity trade unionists. And Berlinguer's swift and sudden condemnation of the Soviet Union, following the martial law crackdown in Poland, has sparked bitter debate among perplexed party militants throughout Italy.
In January, Berlinguer shocked communists the world over when he coolly dismissed the Soviet Union's experience with socialism, which he called regressive and stagnant, as a model for the Western democracies. The maneuver won him the admiration of intellectuals and the fragmented Spanish Communist Party, but generally alienated grass-roots militants.
The confused rank and file were as angry over being robbed of their ideological heritage as they were by the autocratic nature of the leadership's decision. ''We have our own (Wojciech) Jaruzelski right here in Italy,'' snorted Giuseppe Cesareo, a Milan sociologist and 30-year-member of the PCI.
Many militants secretly agreed with the scathing reply in the Soviet Party newspaper, Pravda, that the Italian Communist Party was giving moral support to Moscow's adversaries. ''The rank and file don't know who their enemies are anymore,'' complained one leader from Perugia.
''Despite the errors of Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and Poland, many of these people see the Soviet Union as the only force capable of combating imperialism,'' the Perugia leader continued.
To fill in the gap, Berlinguer began promoting the idea of the ''third way,'' a notion that was born in 1979, but not used as a rallying cry until now. It implies that an alliance of labor forces can do what Soviet socialism and Western capitalism have not been able to do so far. In fact, it is a variation of the Eurocommunism which has gradually lost adherents since it was first sounded in 1976.
Berlinguer insists his new concept is different from the traditional social democratic solutions proposed in West Germany and other Western European countries, but he has yet to show how. Interestingly, his most attentive listeners so far have not been the communist parties in France and England, but their socialist counterparts.
Berlinguer's efforts to define a new role for the Italian Communist Party on the domestic political scene are proving equally unpalatable for many members.
Although the PCI won 30 percent of the vote in the last nationwide elections in 1979, (down from 34 percent in 1976) and controls the local governments in Italy's largest cities, it has consistently been denied a place in state governments.
When the Christian Democrats proved so inept at administering relief aid following the Naples earthquake last year, the PCI quietly determined the Christian Democrats were not a suitable ally.
The main obstacle to Berlinguer's strategy is Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialist Party which had 12 percent of the vote in the last elections and is the second largest party on the left.
Mr. Craxi, however, has found it more beneficial to ally himself with the Christian Democrats in his quest for premiership.
''This is a party of the masses. Yet the leaders don't know anything about the lives of people on tiny retirement pensions, or drug addicts, or the unemployed,'' said a middle-aged bricklayer from Rome. ''It's time they thought about those people a little.''