The Italian Communist Party has been undergoing an identity crisis since the death of its charismatic leader, Enrico Berlinguer in 1984.

It was Mr. Berlinguer, secretary for 12 years, who managed to steer the party through the political upheaval of the 1970s as it battled a conservative Roman Catholic church and a backwards Italian state. The last four years, however, have seen the party, Western Europe's largest, struggle to retain its role - and its votes - in Italian society.From a high of 34 percent in 1976, the party plummeted to 22 percent of the electorate in May elections for local offices. But in the last few months the Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI, has shown signs of moving in a new, if not yet entirely clear, course.

The move reflects a desire by the party to adapt to the times and avoid the Syndrome Francaise, a reference to the nominal role the hard-line French Communist Party plays today in France.

In June, the PCI removed transition leader Alessandro Natta, considered a Russophile bureaucrat too entrenched in the old ways of the party. In his place they put Achille Occhetto, a mustachioed, fashion-conscious northerner whose lifestyle is a break with the generally stiff, formal image of Communist Party leaders worldwide.

In July, for example, he let himself be photographed while kissing his wife on the lips - an event unthinkable for a serious Italian politician, communist or otherwise.

The kiss of Occhetto appeared on the front pages of major newspapers and flashed across television screens, reaching scandalous proportions. The kiss, along with the so-called Togliatti admission, would characterize Mr. Occhetto's first month of leadership.

The Togliatti admission refers to the new secretary's open declaration, even as he was unveiling a statue of Palmiro Togliatti, regarding the long- standing PCI leader.

Mr. Togliatti was one of Joseph Stalin's closest colleagues and No. 2 man in the Comintern, the communist organization founded by the Bolsheviks in 1919 to coordinate the activities of communist movements worldwide. Mr. Occhetto said that Togliatti was inevitably involved in Stalin's crimes, having aided the bloodthirsty Soviet dictator in making his cruelest decisions.

Then in September, in a major interview in L'Unita, the party daily, Mr. Occhetto, 52, stated in general terms his views on the new course the party should take. By doing so, he opened the debate within the party, which will continue through its next triennial congress early in 1989.

Mr. Occhetto's wants the PCI to tone down its image as an ideological party and focus instead on concrete problems in Italian society, such as the environment. His aim is to shift the party from its traditional hard-line approach to problems and try to resolve them on a case-by-case basis.

It is hardly news that the PCI is no longer a revolutionary party, nor a Western variant of Soviet socialism. Today, it wishes to be the party of the common man, with down-to-earth values, many shared by the Democratic Party of the United States. The Marxist roots of the PCI are harder and harder to find.

The PCI's course can be seen even in Italian labor's new approach to industrial relations. During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, labor sought to oppose the rules governing labor-management relations. Article 39 of the Italian constitution, for example, allows for the institutionalization of labor unions in companies, while article 46 permits labor to participate in the management of a company in such a way as to tie salaries to productivity. These articles, however, never were accepted by the PCI - Article 39, largely out of fear of giving management too much control over the unions, and Article 46, because of labor's flat refusal to be involved in management.

Now, instead, labor has begun to modify its stance on these issues. CGIL, Italy's largest labor federation, consisting mainly of communists and socialists, began questioning its position a few years ago. Then in July, Bettino Craxi, Socialist Party leader and former prime minister, in so many words asked labor to put the articles into practice.

Finally, Mr. Occhetto, in his first meeting with CGIL as party secretary last week, also exhorted union leaders to open a new chapter in the history of economic democracy.

But perhaps the most telling sign of the PCI's new course is a debate within the party over whether to replace the word comunista in its name and drop the hammer-and-sickle symbol. At the PCI's annual Festa Nazionale held near Florence earlier this month, the traditional symbol did not appear once in the fair's 100-plus page official program.

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