ROME (Reuters) - They survived the repression of Benito Mussolini's fascist dictatorship, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But Italy's communists, once the most influential leftist force in western Europe, are in disarray after a disastrous election that means the hammer and sickle will be unrepresented in parliament for the first time since World War Two.
"Even in Italy the wall has fallen, the one that was solid even though it was invisible and had remained standing even after the one in Berlin had gone," gloated Il Giornale, a conservative newspaper close to election winner Silvio Berlusconi.
In a "Rainbow Left" alliance with the Greens, the communists hoped for 6 percent to 8 percent of the vote. But squeezed out by a new centre-left Democratic Party, they scored little more than 3 percent, down from 10 percent in the 2006 election and not enough to win any seats in parliament.
"It is a heavy defeat for the left which, for the first time in the history of the Republic will not have any seats in parliament, after the victory of a populist and xenophobic right," Communist Refoundation said in a statement.
Banned by Mussolini, communists played a crucial role in resisting fascism and German Nazi occupation. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was elected to parliament after the war and represented a third of the electorate in its 1970s heyday.
When the PCI rebranded after the Cold War, leftists splintered off to establish communist parties which had several ministers in Romano Prodi's outgoing government. The head of Communist Refoundation was speaker of the last parliament.
The Communist hammer and sickle symbol remains on the wall in Via Giubbonari, just off the Campo de' Fiori market square in central Rome.
A marble plaque identifies a former Rome office of the PCI, now occupied by the Democratic Party (PD), the centre-left party which contains the bulk of Italy's former communists.
"It has to stay there," said PD activist Elisabetta Barrella. "It commemorates Guido Rattoppatore, the head of a resistance group who was killed by the Nazis."
Like many ex-communists, 47-year-old Barrella is proud of communism's legacy. She quit when the PCI morphed into the post-Cold War Democratic Party of the Left in 1991, but returned and is now convinced that the new PD is the left's only future.
"When they took the hammer and sickle off the party symbol it was like a knife in my heart," said Barrella, who works in Italy's court of auditors. "In all other European countries there is a social-democratic party, we need that here."
Die-hards say the PD can never represent them. Italian Communists leader Oliviero Diliberto called the left's defeat a "nice result for (Walter) Veltroni," the PD's head who excluded the communists from his party's election ticket.
Outgoing Health Minister Livia Turco said the communists were to blame for their own demise as they had proved nothing but trouble for Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who needed their support to prop up his tiny parliamentary majority.
"You can't be in government and in opposition at the same time. That was a mistake and the election results showed that clearly," Turco said.
While Berlusconi revels in the defeat of the communists he hates, the hard left faces five years in the wilderness.
"At this point we need to start again from scratch and start again with the old symbols, the hammer and sickle," said Diliberto, vowing to keep communism alive.
Gabriele Polo, editor of communist daily Il Manifesto, said the left now had to regroup in an anti-capitalist movement -- not necessarily a party.
"We need to create a political bond, to build a credible process based on the four values we share: work, civil rights, peace and the environment," Polo told Reuters.
Some analysts picking over the election results say the disappearance of the communists from national politics is linked to the surprise victory of the Northern League, Berlusconi's junior coalition partner which doubled its vote to 8 percent.
Although usually considered right wing, the staunchly anti-immigration League which campaigns for autonomy for Italy's rich north, has the support of workers worried about jobs, the economy and crime.
In coverage that implied Italy's hard left had suffered a lasting blow at the election, a headline in Thursday's La Stampa daily read: "The new PCI is the League."
Editing by Mary Gabriel