IN the wake of the dramatic East European events, the West's largest communist organization, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), is wrestling with an identity crisis. The stakes involve not only the party's essence, but the future of the Italian left and of Italy itself. Outside of Italy, the PCI has enjoyed a maverick reputation, having objected to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, accepted NATO, and championed ``Eurocommunism'' in the 1970s.
By November 1989, however, the PCI ran the risk of being in the rearguard of world communism. Party secretary Achille Occhetto proclaimed the ``New PCI'' to distance himself from the Chinese massacre in order to avoid a backlash in the European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, the Hungarians had changed the name of their party and applied for membership in the Socialist International.
In late October, an Occhetto representative met with Mikhail Gorbachev and received the impression that even the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could dissolve itself. Declaring that the cold war had ended and acknowledging how quickly events could overtake him, Mr. Occhetto rapidly announced a name change and the PCI's application for entrance into the Socialist International.
Within the party, Occhetto's policy has produced determined resistance. In the old days, the mechanism of ``democratic centralism'' - a euphemism for authoritarian control - would have guaranteed automatic consensus for the secretary's policy, but no longer. Led by prestigious party founder Pietro Ingrao and former secretary Alessandro Natta, the hard-liners object to the name change and the dumping of party tradition. These opponents argue that PCI tradition differs from those of the ``People's Republics,'' that the PCI has never been in power, and that communist leaders such as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu were really fascists.
Political analysts have rebutted the hard-liners' positions, pointing out that until recently the PCI defended the communist regimes against critics.