Sometimes you trip over a dusty corner and find gold. Sometimes the best writing, the most insightful, the most beautiful and haunting, are found in forgotten volumes long since out of print. And the truth that is revealed within these hidden texts remains; you do not necessarily need something that was published 12 months ago to find relevant info, sharp theoretics, and a reflection of the long term conditions of humanity. Letters from the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser is one such text. From the turbulent late sixties to the turbulent 21st century.
Maria Macciocchi wrote Daily Life in Revolutionary China shortly after writing Letters, and that former book changed my life (for the better) a few years ago. Daily Life blew my mind at the time, during an already turbulent year; Macciocchi thrived during such periods of upheaval, and it was fitting that reading her account of China during the Cultural Revolution would fit neatly at the perfect time in my life.
Macciocchi herself led an unbelievable life that sounds insane on paper. She joined the Italian Resistance to fight against Mussolini in the late thirties, and shortly thereafter joined the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). The PCI was the most progressive and radical of Western Europe’s Communist parties, and the largest, at one point commanding the support of two million members. It was also the leading party in the so-called “Eurocommunism Heresy”, in which many official Communist parties began to distance themselves from the Soviet Union, for obvious reasons.
Louis Althusser was also a member of the Resistance against fascism during WWII, though in his case, France was the battleground and the Communist Party of France (PCF, still existent to this day) was the organization. More importantly, Althusser was the leading theorist of the PCF after the war, and he blasted down fossilized forms of thought and helped create the bedrock, the underlying philosophy of Modern Neo-Marxism. Althusser was another massive influence for me, and more than any other theorist save Badiou and Marx himself, Althusser drew me into Marxism.
In the late 60s, the PCI asked Macciocchi to come on down to southern Italy, to Naples, to run in the national elections which were taking place in the spring. Macciocchi had been living in Paris and writing for the PCI publication, L’Unita, but she jumped at this opportunity. She and Althusser wished to work together in a fashion, with Althusser providing the underlying theory and Macciocchi handling the footwork and agitation. The two agreed to establish correspondence during the election period, and this epistolary narrative makes up the bulk of this volume. The theorist, the militant and the situation; this combination was intended to generate new insight in a general manner as well as concrete observations of one of the poorest regions in Europe.
Althusser unfortunately does not contribute as much content as Macciocchi, but the input that he did produce was profound; they reflected the vantage point of a PCF member, an academic, and a Marxist theorist in the midst of the upheaval in France, May ’68. But more important is the biographical and theoretical writings of Macciocchi, as she devotes herself to aiding and working with the comrades of Naples (some of whom are not especially happy to see her – surprise surprise, all of those bitter people are men).
The “Southern Problem” of Italy had remained as intact as it ever was since Italian unification in the 1800s, and endemic poverty and lethal “living” conditions were still the order of the day. As was the case everywhere else in the south of Italy, chronic unemployment had created a slave labor pool of desperate people who were willing to do and endure anything in order to pay for the basics of survival. And as is the case elsewhere in the world, capitalists neatly pitted possible comrades against each other; the proletariat hated the unemployed, and the unemployed thought that the proles were a bunch of snobs.
Of keen interest to the reader of 2016, this collection falls into the classic category due to the essential truths that ring loud throughout the book. The insights of the theoretical writing, combined with the very real, concrete experiences of Macciocchi who attempted to facilitate dialogue amongst potential Communists, create trenchant, immortal observations. 1968 bears more than a passing resemblance to 2016. Why is that? How is that possible? Because endgame zombie capitalism still dominates us, perhaps even moreso as we get neo-liberalism crammed down our throats. And of course, the State still prioritizes good business over every other human concern.
Macciocchi’s rich storytelling, plainly evident here as it was in Daily Life in Revolutionary China, captures the reader, and her own dry sense of humor sidesteps outright despair when confronted by an ugly situation. Nevertheless, the face of crushing urban poverty is familiar and is terrifying to us – we’re quite familiar with it, and it certainly hasn’t disappeared since Macciocchi’s time. The situation has merely shifted locales, from Southern Italy to the Southern hemisphere.
Really, if you want to see evidence that communists really can be dynamic, flexible, and ready for a range of troubles/situations, give Letters from the Italian Communist Party a chance. I know that principles should come before personalities (do you see what I’m inferring, Bernie Sanders?), and I do sincerely believe that the masses make history, not a handful of godlike MEN, but Althusser and Macciocchi have been incredibly important to me. If you want to see what I mean, pick this up if/when you see it at your local used bookstore or at Amazon.
Just FYI: If you think labor problems have just gone away in Europe, google “France, News, 2016”. It is anarchy in Paris and all of the major cities in France right now, even if the media would rather focus on some goddamn Trump Tweets rather than total chaos on the streets of a major Western country. As the Greek protesters said a few years ago, “We are you in the future”. Start forming groups.