ITALY BEGAN this month without a government, the previous one having fallen in an attempt to tighten its economic policy. Meanwhile, an angry strike was under way at the huge Fiat automobile plant in Turin, over layoffs and reassignments. In both cases the causes were essentially the same -- the slowing of the European economy following last year's oil crisis.

The slowdown continues, but the Fiat strike came to a curious and unexpected end a couple of weeks ago. Not unrelated to it, a new government has now taken office committed to a program of stringency very similar to its predecessor's. One prominent loser was the Communist Party. The Italian Communists seem to do well in times of rising prosperity, and less well in national adversity.

Fiat, Italy's largest privately owned company, wanted to lay off some 14,000 employees for the same reason that the American automobile companies have laid off several hundred thousand. The market for cars is in a recession around the world. But layoffs are not an accepted fact of industrial life in Italy, and the strike had gone on for five weeks. The Communist were vehemently urging the unions to stand fast.

Then, one day in mid-October, 40,000 Fiat employees and their supporters marched through Turin demanding the right to go back to work. It was the ultimate repudiation of both their own union leadership and, of course, the Communists. A court ruled that employees were entitled to police protection if they wanted to go into the plant. Mumbling something about a desire to avoid violence, the unions hastily settled for the best they could get. It's a decent loutcome. Some layoffs will be delayed. Some automobile workers are going on a state-subsidized furlough for a year while Fiat retools for its new models and hopes for a recovery in auto sales. It wasn't a defeat for labor, but for an ideological crusade.

The fortunes of the Italian Communist have been in a state of gradual decline for the past two years. On the left, the original diagnosis was that the party had become too bourgeois and too addicted to middle-class respectability. But the Fiat affair is at least a suggestion that the resort to radical industrial action is not necessarily going to improve the party's standing.

A few days after the march in Turin, the new government took office in Rome. Like just about every other government in the industrial world, it is committed to a renewed attempt to reduce the inflation rate. There's a sign of hope for it in the way the Fiat strike came to an end.