Dear Comrades

Gasparazzo: "But it doesn't stop here!"
Gas­paraz­zo: “But it doesn’t stop here!”

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.


Class war is not contained by municipal codes

At any major demon­stra­tion in Oak­land, you will see police from all cor­ners of the East Bay. Class war is not con­tained by munic­i­pal codes, even when it has his­tor­i­cal­ly echoed in them. As inner-cities gen­tri­fy, low-income and work­ing-class fam­i­lies are mov­ing into the sub­urbs and upper mid­dle-class fam­i­lies have tak­en flight to exurbs or into the city. The low-income jobs of the future are more like­ly to be found in Deco­to than Dolores Park, and con­se­quent­ly the demo­graph­ics and com­mu­ni­ty issues in sub­urbs are begin­ning to resem­ble big cities.

We were many, we were strong: lessons from University of Sussex and the pop-up union

I do cler­i­cal work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex. In May 2012, the Uni­ver­si­ty announced plans to out­source 235 jobs to pri­vate con­trac­tors. These includ­ed all estates and main­te­nance work­ers, porters, clean­ers, cater­ing, and hos­pi­tal­i­ty staff. I wasn’t one of those direct­ly affect­ed, though at the time was on a casu­al con­tract.

I was working with them to pay for my education

When I was attend­ing Cypress Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, I worked at Labor Ready, a con­struc­tion temp agency, so that I could pay for school. The work was back­break­ing and exploita­tive in many ways, but those of us who worked usu­al­ly were in need of fast mon­ey. Fees at the Com­mu­ni­ty Col­leges were grad­u­al­ly increas­ing due to state dis­in­vest­ment. My increas­ing edu­ca­tion­al expens­es forced me to find what­ev­er work was avail­able, and most stu­dents were in the same posi­tion. I wit­nessed many stu­dents hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ties try­ing to work and keep up with the increas­ing costs of edu­ca­tion, some of them being forced to drop out. Many of us were work­ers and stu­dents at Cypress, but our strug­gles remained sep­a­rate and we remained vul­ner­a­ble. At work I would be phys­i­cal­ly beat down, and at school I would have my pock­ets emp­tied.

Put organizing before organization

We are still find­ing lessons from the last cycle of California’s stu­dent strug­gle. Among them, the need for chan­nels of stu­dent com­mu­ni­ca­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion that could reg­is­ter and rec­ol­lect insur­gent knowl­edges to guard against the dan­gers of under­grad­u­ate turnover and oppor­tunist inten­tions. In the fall of 2011 and again in the spring of 2012, the strug­gle was ani­mat­ed by rad­i­cal rank-and-file activ­i­ty, even when it was direct­ed by the lack­eys of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. And not once, but twice, did they sell out those same stu­dents for a pret­ty pic­ture in the news­pa­per.

Regional student power centers

I’ve been orga­niz­ing with the Cal­i­for­nia Stu­dent Union (CASU) project since its incep­tion as a work­ing group cre­at­ed dur­ing the first South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edu­ca­tion Orga­niz­ing Coali­tion con­fer­ence, held in Jan­u­ary 2012 at Pasade­na City Col­lege. Inspired by inter­na­tion­al stu­dent move­ments with strong stu­dent union­ist foun­da­tions – like those found in Cana­da and Brazil – the stu­dent union work­ing group put out a statewide call for cam­pus­es to start work­ing col­lec­tive­ly to devel­op a move­ment toward stu­dent union­ism and form alter­na­tive mod­els of democ­ra­cy capa­ble of mobi­liz­ing stu­dents en masse against the pri­va­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion. Since that time, three statewide con­fer­ences have been held dur­ing which stu­dents have dis­cussed and vot­ed on next steps as a coali­tion of cam­pus­es with­in all sys­tem of edu­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia (K-12, Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, and pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties).


is a city of lines straight and sin­gle.
Absent are cosines, con­tours, curves of any nature.
Streets form grids. Parks, squares.
Some are rec­tan­gu­lar, but none cir­cu­lar.
Church­es are box­es. Schools, pen­tagons.
Five is gold­en, but rings are not.
Pythago­ras per­vades where par­tridges pace, wings sans waves.

Author of the article

is managing editor at Viewpoint.