PARIS — Rome.--An American closely acquainted with Italy, Norman Birnbaum of Georgetown University, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September that by comparison with the ''spurious ideology'' and media simplifications of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the ''post-fascist'' Gianfranco Fini ''seems like a philosopher king.'' He added that for this reason, Mr. Fini's political staying-power may be considerably greater than that of the financier-politician now heading Italy's government.
Much the same thing has been said by Rocco Buttiglione, the philosopher now head of the surviving remnant of the Christian Democratic movement, the Popular Party, whom many think the most imposing figure in Italian politics today. Mr. Buttiglione recently said that ''if Berlusconi falls, Fini succeeds.'' His hope, of course, is that Mr. Fini too will eventually fall, opening the way to Italian political reconstruction on reliably democratic terms.
Mr. Fini now is some 10 points ahead of Prime Minister Berlusconi in political popularity polls. Last week the central committee of his Italian Social Movement (MSI) voted in quasi-unanimity to dissolve their party in January into a larger National Alliance meant to become a proper center-right national party like the Conservatives in Britain or the neo-Gaullists in France. Mr. Fini says he wants ''a modern right, which firmly believes in liberty and democracy, able to synthesize the best traditions of political thought in this century.''
Italian neo-fascism, a turbulent but marginal factor in Italian political life since the war, is successfully turning itself into a mainstream movement, with its leader currently the most popular politician in the country.
The Italian Communist Party, for years immensely powerful but unelectable, has been unsuccessfully trying to accomplish the same transformation for the last 30 years. It thought this year it had succeeded and that its successor, the Party of the Democratic Left, would become part of the first government of the Second Italian Republic, probably in coalition with the Popular Party. Instead, Messrs. Berlusconi and Fini took power, with some help from the confused and fading regionalist movement, the Northern League.
If Mr. Fini's ambitions for his new party could be relied upon, there would be no principled objection to it. A conservative movement committed to liberty is a normal component of a modern democracy.
However, the record of the MSI, along with the anti-Semitic (and anti-American) discourse of some of Mr. Fini's associates, compels skepticism.
Fascism has been described (by the Italian scholar Emilio Gentile) as ''the coming to power of mythical thought.'' With the reservation I note below, there is little of this in the new Italian right. There is no rejection of the modern world, nor harking back to a romanticized past.
There is in it a strain of anti-cosmopolitanism, a hostility to the secularized values of liberal society and to a ''Europe'' that seems to embody this secularism and cosmopolitanism. However, this is a form of conservatism and nationalism apparent elsewhere.
Professor Birnbaum told the Senate committee that the National Alliance ''insists on a specific Italian identity. It opposes a generalized social equality and favors leadership by an elite certified by achievement. It . . . considers that national solidarity demands limits on the sovereignty of the market.''
In this respect, the National Alliance challenges what Mr. Berlusconi stands for, since the prime minister is completely committed to value-free market liberalism and sees himself as the Italian counterpart to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. His three private TV networks, devoted to popular diversion at its cheapest, and Europe's biggest importer of American films, serials and game-shows, have been a powerful force subverting the old values of Italian society and substituting a shallow consumerist cosmopolitanism.
As in most countries today, there is an emerging line of battle between this value-free, free-market, completely materialistic cosmopolitanism that Mr. Berlusconi represents (and in a fundamental way, despite its insistence on the connection between markets and democracy, the U.S. as well), and, on the other hand, cultural nationalism and a tradition of social solidarity that usually is religious or socialist in origin, but also found expression in pre-war fascism's corporatism. This is why Popular Party Catholics and ex-Marxist members of the Party of the Democratic Left think it natural that they should create an electoral ''alliance of republicans and democrats.''