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.