Dear Comrades

When Ital­ian stu­dents estab­lished some nascent inde­pen­dence from their offi­cial orga­ni­za­tions in 1968, sec­tions of the move­ment called for greater con­tact with indus­trial labor. At the time, they knew where to find them. The Left had flirted with a strate­gic alliance between tech­ni­cal, white-collar work­ers and stu­dents, a link that made sense given the former’s aca­d­e­mic train­ing. But the inter­est proved to be ephemeral. As the strug­gles of South­ern migrants work­ing in the North­ern fac­to­ries of FIAT esca­lated, the stu­dents opted to forgo tech­ni­cians as the “ideal vec­tor” between them­selves and the work­ing class. Uni­ver­sity rad­i­cals dodged unions, too, instead forg­ing direct links at the gates of auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries, where they dis­trib­uted lit­er­a­ture and held assem­blies. Mil­i­tant strikes grew more fre­quent and stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies clam­ored to come into con­tact with history’s appar­ent vanguard.

The worker-student assem­bly became a prin­ci­pal orga­ni­za­tional form dur­ing this cycle of strug­gle. Much of its work involved the pro­duc­tion of lit­er­a­ture for dis­tri­b­u­tion in the fac­to­ries. After work, labor­ers would rush to the gates and recount what had hap­pened that day. The stu­dents took duti­ful notes, and stayed up until the early morn­ing hours fash­ion­ing them into weapons. These pam­phlets were impor­tant cir­cuits of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, an alter­na­tive cur­rent for work­place coop­er­a­tion, which encour­aged rather than repressed mil­i­tancy, while evad­ing union chan­nels that would have had the oppo­site effect. The prac­tice engen­dered last­ing rela­tion­ships between mil­i­tants and the mass worker, giv­ing rise to more for­mal orga­ni­za­tions like Lotta Con­tinua (Con­tin­u­ous Strug­gle). The impor­tance of col­lab­o­ra­tive the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion was not lost on these new group­ings of intel­lec­tual and man­ual labor – Lotta Con­tinua ran a widely read news­pa­per. Its pages weren’t just filled with reports of tac­ti­cal inven­tions in the fac­to­ries; in some respects, it was its own innovation.

One of the paper’s most pop­u­lar ele­ments was Gas­parazzo, a comic strip char­ac­ter who turned the moral con­dem­na­tions of lazi­ness issued by bosses and bureau­crats alike into a point of pride. Draw­ing ref­er­ences from a shared cul­ture of strug­gle, the comic pro­tag­o­nist rep­re­sented the ten­sion between a sub­ject that work­ers could iden­tify with, and the iconic rev­o­lu­tion­ary that Lotta Con­tinua hoped to meet. The car­toon ele­vated the every­day expe­ri­ence of the mass worker into an ani­mat­ing force of rev­o­lu­tion. What’s more, mil­i­tants work­ing from the very shop floor cul­tures that were dis­cov­ered and devel­oped by the comic strip, gen­er­al­ized the mass worker’s ten­dency toward list­less­ness on the job into a tac­ti­cal inter­rup­tion of cap­i­tal­ist val­oriza­tion. Slow­ing down pro­duc­tion became a favorite expres­sion of their oppo­si­tion to the Tay­lorist orga­ni­za­tion of the workplace.

Much credit is due to the strip’s cre­ator, Roberto Zamarin, a graphic designer who boasted an impres­sive pro­fes­sional career before devot­ing him­self to the agit­prop of the extra­parlia­men­tary Left. But his work was the prod­uct of a con­tin­ued encounter between com­mu­nists and fac­tory labor, with­out which Gas­parazzo would have been impossible.

Zamarin would die in 1972, his hero shortly after. The restruc­tur­ing of the FIAT’s pro­duc­tion process in the early 1970s came with mas­sive lay­offs, which hit shop floor rad­i­cals harder than most. It also made the slow-down tac­tic dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble to employ. Luck­ily, Gasparazzo’s fam­ily, under a diverse array of ban­ners and a plu­ral­ity of move­ments, would carry on the anti-capitalist resistance.

From the per­spec­tive of stu­dents and aca­d­e­mic work­ers, the con­cept of the van­guard had engen­dered cross-class rela­tion­ships with an indus­trial work­ing class, which in turn informed the strate­gic and orga­ni­za­tional con­tent of their com­bined resis­tance. But those mod­els found lim­ited pur­chase as the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion changed. When the insur­gent FIAT employ­ees were hit with tar­geted fir­ings and lay­offs, the util­ity of old forms faded, and dif­fi­cul­ties in trans­lat­ing the industry-based per­spec­tive to new move­ments out­side the fac­tory gates threw groups like Lotta Con­tinua into cri­sis. The grow­ing rifts in the party, par­tic­u­larly between fem­i­nists and male fac­tory work­ers, exploded dur­ing a party con­fer­ence in 1976. Reflect­ing on this chang­ing class com­po­si­tion, the party decided to dis­solve itself.

Despite the larger col­lapse, the organization’s edi­to­r­ial col­lec­tive con­tin­ued to pub­lish Lotta Con­tinua as a news­pa­per with­out a party. Attempt­ing to over­come its dis­tance from exist­ing move­ments, the paper opened a read­ers’ let­ters sec­tion for its daily pub­li­ca­tion in 1977, titled “Dear Com­rades,” and Lotta Con­tinua’s cir­cu­la­tion swelled. In a period of six years, over 8,000 let­ters were sub­mit­ted, and a siz­able num­ber of them – 1,000, in fact – were pub­lished. In 1980, the London-based pub­lisher Pluto Press pre­sented 350 of these let­ters in Eng­lish translation.

The hope and fear that so often join new weapons also accom­pany these let­ters. Yet we should avoid being too sen­ti­men­tal about these sto­ries of inter­per­sonal cri­sis, lest we over­look the cri­sis of polit­i­cal forms that gave rise to them. The let­ters sec­tion was a response to a very spe­cific con­junc­ture, in which pro­le­tar­ian activ­ity was both dis­parate and unknown. When the gates where stu­dents met “history’s van­guard” were either miss­ing or locked, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies dis­solved the old orga­ni­za­tional forms based on yesterday’s alliances. With new sub­jects, “Dear Com­rades” wrote towards a dif­fer­ent kind of coop­er­a­tion. Most of the let­ters con­tain at least a trace of desire for an encounter across sec­tions of the class. But it is often more explicit than that. Immi­grants ask for more socially immer­sive orga­niz­ing and out­reach. Moth­ers write for sons to come home. Pris­on­ers want pen pals, and one man really needs the rabble-rouser who bor­rowed his bike at the demon­stra­tion to return it. Even reflec­tions on com­mu­nist strat­egy pro­vide an address so some­one can fol­low up the debate. There is plenty of talk about ene­mies and what to do with them. But the col­umn was addressed to com­rades, and it is the prac­tice of friend­ship that seems most pressing.

Dear Com­rades was the crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture that simul­ta­ne­ously dis­cov­ered the pre­vail­ing need for com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the class, while mak­ing mod­est ges­tures towards sat­is­fy­ing it. Our sit­u­a­tion is not that dif­fer­ent – the orga­ni­za­tional forms and tac­tics of Occupy have faded, but peo­ple and their net­works are still try­ing to per­sist. We still can’t find the gates of “history’s van­guard,” but that might be rea­son to cel­e­brate; encoun­ters never take hold with­out sur­prise. It is towards this goal that we revive the prac­tice here.

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