SPONTANEOUS GROUPS CLOSE RANKS
By the spring of 1968, however, yet another—a third!—initiative had got under way to bundle the energies of an entire generation of young people in motion. After the Battle of Valle Giulia on 1 March 1968, the month of March witnessed literally every single institution of higher education from Sicily to Sfidtirol engaging in highly charged protest actions, with many high schools showcasing clear signs of infection by this spirit of revolt. Corrado Corghi, a former regional secretary for DC in the Emilia Romagna, on 23 March 1968 announced the launch of a project to build regional ‘Assemblies for Political Work’ to channel the multiform and disparate but powerful enthusiasms in what he regarded as constructive directions. Four different preparatory workshops met between late June and mid-September. At the 29 June 1968 meeting in Bologna, Corghi assembled a panoply of forces to the left of the traditional political parties, including a spokesperson from the Bologna Gruppo Presenza, responsible for the 14 January 1968 Sala Mozart conference, as well as the ever-present Nando Fabro of Ilgallo, who thus participated in all three parallel efforts now under way to give coherence to the extraparliamentary forces of the anti-authoritarian Left, composed to a significant extent of Catholics.
Questitalia had not been invited to the 29 June 1968 event, nor had the gruppi spontanei themselves. And Questitalia astutely pointed its finger at Corghi’s initiative as an endeavour to recuperate the energies of grassroots social movements to bolster support for traditional electoral politics, with central roles reserved for the PCI. Dorigo, having invested all his efforts since late 1967 precisely to avoid such a constellation by creating a new political force beyond PCI and even the New Left PSIUP, penned a scathing critique of Corghi’s project, which in effect would have sidelined the premier new political forces on the increasingly colourful scene of Italian left-wing politics, the gruppi spontanei, in favour of traditional political and electoral manoeuvres.
As it happened, the whirlwind events of 1968 in general, amongst them the French May, the latter powerfully reinforcing the radical instincts of the Italian anti-authoritarian Left, undermined Corrado Corghi’s best-laid plans. The national convention of the Assemblea dei Gruppi di Lavoro Politico, the fruit of Corghi’s valiant efforts since March, did gather on 29 September 1968 in Reggio Emilia in the Sala Tricolore of the City Hall. More than 200 participants assembled, representing approximately fifty local groups. And at the outset of the historic gathering, it looked like the plans for electoral alliances would indeed dominate the proceedings. But then something happened! A spokesperson for the base community in Parma which had been responsible for the spectacular occupation of Parma Cathedral on 14 September (see Chapter 4) took the microphone, and the meeting began to change character. Forcefully present at Reggio, one after another of the representatives of various gruppi spontanei took to the floor after their comrade from Parma had blazed the trail to point out the gulf ‘which separated the promoters of the initiative from those who the former had imagined’ as the faithful footsoldiers of the former’s electoral plans. The gruppi spontanei made a powerful plea for an independent course of action, against the recuperation of their energies for electoral purposes. Reggio Emilia became a declaration of independence of the new star on the Italian cultural and political horizon, the spontaneous groups, many of them hailing from the Left Catholic milieu.
Yet there was trouble in paradise. The ubiquitous Nando Fabro, present at all assemblies in the course of 1968 and a committed and far-sighted chronicler of events, spent much of his lengthy and detailed conference report criticizing a feature of the post-May 1968 New and (especially) Far Left which would continuously haunt left-wing politics in the ensuing half-dozen or so decisive years of Europe-wide (and not only Italian) contestations. Fabro presciently took exception to the style and the proceedings of the convention at Reggio which, after the initial presentation of documents prepared in the course of the summer, proceeded along disorganized, tumultuous, and ultimately counterproductive lines. ‘I was flabbergasted to realize that for practical purposes only those who were gifted public speakers and who displayed a penchant for vehement populism wound up being most attentively listened to, and they generated a consensus which manifested itself in the most traditional forms of audience applause, thus channelling and directing the assembly towards certain conclusions.’ Having narrowly avoided the fate of becoming pawns in traditional parliamentary politics, spontaneous groups manoeuvred themselves into a corner by falling for an authoritarianism of a different, but similarly pernicious, kind.
Next in this hectic succession of closely related conferences and initiatives came the second national assembly of the forces behind the very first of these ventures, the 14 January 1968 Bologna convention which had given rise to the monthly newsletter Collegamenti. On 13 October 1968, again in Bologna, representatives of forty-six gruppi spontanei assembled, and it was proudly announced that Collegamenti, which had already published ten issues by September, had managed to obtain by then more than 500 subscriptions, the targeted threshold for economic and financial independence of the enterprise. Yet the same mixture of debilitating disorganization, coupled with pseudoanti-authoritarian grandstanding, which had reared its ugly head on 29 September in Reggio Emilia, was now beginning to make a forceful presence amongst the supporters of Collegamenti. In addition, however, a further debate was now beginning to be aired. The October Assembly in Bologna brought into the open a sentiment that had been simmering subterraneously within the community of gruppi spontanei for quite some time.
‘Two distinct tendencies clearly saw the light of day. One expressed the need for a more decisively “political” orientation of the groups, thereby providing a distinct inflection to their work and to their commitments—as well as to their journalistic product: Collegamenti. [... ] The other tendency expressed in equally decisive terms the need for a reorientation of the group towards ecclesial work, and a corresponding commitment of the groups to engage in activities on ecclesial issues.’ Yet Nando Fabro, the most perceptive of all participant-observers with regard to the inner life of the gruppi spontanei in the all-important capstone year of 1968, immediately added: ‘One cannot speak of any sort of polemical exchange between those two tendencies.’ The importance of both ecclesial and political work was recognized by all. At the same time, both tendencies were acutely aware of ‘the necessity to make a choice as far as the basic—or at least pre-eminent— commitment was concerned. In part this derived from the realization that it would be difficult to find the necessary time to engage in serious work simultaneously in both spheres—civic and ecclesial life—without falling into the habit of engaging in unfocused and hit-and-miss protest activities.’ The conference for the moment resolved this discussion by deciding to give a more openly political inflection to Collegamenti, but to begin to publish, parallel to Collegamenti, a supplementary bulletin—bollettino-supplemento— geared towards the needs of groups more specifically oriented towards ecclesial work.
Already in his reflections on Reggio Emilia, Nando Fabro had taken exception not only to the tyranny of structurelessness characterizing the proceedings, but likewise the highly intellectualized, excessively abstract and, as a result, frequently confusing and incomprehensible nature of many of the interventions in the Sala Tricolore. Fabro pointed out the irony of many speakers in Reggio consistently making almost mandatory, incantatory references to Marx and Mao as authorities and role models, given that both Mao and Marx were known to have been sharply attuned to the necessity ‘to express themselves in an extremely uncomplicated and straightforward language easily comprehensible by grassroots activists. This had certainly been the case whenever they had wanted their ideas to promote reflection and reconsideration and, especially, moves towards action by the ranks.’ The promoters of the primacy of politics at Bologna on 13 October 1968, Fabro asserted, suffered from the identical syndrome he had already detected in Reggio.
From 1 to 4 November 1968 the largest and longest of all such gatherings of gruppi spontanei took place in Rimini, organized by the Rimini Circolo Maritain. Three days, billed as a study session, assembled 200 participants representing 68 local groups. The fourth and final day of the gathering was slated as the ‘Fourth National Assembly of Spontaneous Groups with a Political and Cultural Commitment in View of a New Left’, with 600 activists in attendance. Organizationally, it stood in a line of continuity with the 25 February 1968 Bologna Assembly promoted by Questitalia. Two further national meetings in Bologna and Modena had taken place since February. By the time of the Rimini conference, however, Questitalia had begun to distance itself from this exuberant crowd which the editorial group of the journal had helped to create but which was now on a path leading in a rather different direction from Dorigo’s original designs. Both original sins at this particular moment of transition from the New to the Far Left—the fascination with the absence of structure in large and unwieldy assemblies, and the penchant for theoretical ruminations of almost metaphysical dimensions—were forcefully present at this culmination of a year-long effort to fashion the gruppi spontanei into a novel and dynamic national force for radical change in the seaside resort on the Adriatic.
Nando Fabro took perverse pleasure in reprinting the official communique emerging from the Fourth Assembly. He then noted: ‘I have given this text to a cross-section of people—executive staff members, white-collar employees and blue-collar workers—who are all currently engaged in politics. None of them found it easy to comprehend. And one should note that this document is less encoded than the majority of presentations and speeches in the Study Session and the Assembly.’ Fabro also noted the slow crystallization of two distinct orientations vis-a-vis national politics within the welter of gruppi spontanei. ‘One places all its bets on a more clear-cut and decisive intransigence vis-a-vis actually existing political parties, including the organization of the political “Left”. The other calls such an intransigence political “infantilism”. The latter propose as one of the key problems the study of realistic ways and means in which one may obtain agreements with those political forces agitating in favour of a politics “of the Left” for the better part of a century, while carefully avoiding any possible instrumentalization by these potential allies.’ Fabro regretfully added that ‘at Rimini the intransigent tendency carried the day’, with spontaneous groups thus further setting sail in the direction of an increasingly worrisome marginalization and self-imposed isolation. If Corrado Corghi’s spring and summer initiative, culminating in the 29 September 1968 Reggio convention, was a thinly veiled attempt at recuperation of the energies of spontaneous groups for mainstream politics, the welcome course correction introduced at Reggio was beginning to spin out of control.
The highpoint of the organizational life of these spontaneous groups, the four-day gathering in early November with 600 activists from all over Italy in attendance was also the endpoint of this simultaneously promising and frustrating experience. No further similar concentrated and united expressions of their vitality and confusion, trying to blaze a trail towards liberation in a moment of rapid societal and political changes, took place in the aftermath of the November 1968 Rimini conference. The two tendencies discerned by Fabro at Rimini henceforth tended to take divergent paths, with the intransigents oriented towards the sprawling network of the emerging Italian Far Left.
Gruppi spontanei, it should be recalled, almost always and nearly everywhere consisted of secular and Catholic circles, with Catholics heavily represented. It is for this very reason that much attention has been devoted in preceding pages to their course of action during the capstone year of 1968. The energies propelling members of gruppi spontanei to engage in radical social and political action were largely fuelled by Catholic activists in search of fields of engagement. Embracing the spirit of the times, Catholic activists underwent often in the space of very little time—and in 1968 time seemed to run more quickly than at most other historical moments—a learning process of extraordinary dimensions. Some of them eventually abandoned not only the Catholic church but religion altogether. Most, however, at least for some time, kept battling with the choices which Nando Fabro had identified as the crucial question raised in Bologna in October 1968. Should ecclesial or political work gain priority? Another contemporaneous sociological study of Italian gruppi spontanei, this one exclusively targeting those who set out to combine social and religious action, repeatedly highlighted the push and pull of both arguments. ‘In many cases, these groups and individual members of these groups continually oscillated between one and the other option.’ Apart from the debate over the degree of emphasis of political and ecclesial work, the other substantive discussion raged over the crucial topic diagnosed by Fabro at Rimini in November. Virtually all groups wishing to strengthen ecclesial work were in agreement that political work could and should not be ignored. But what sorts of politics would promise the most success? The emancipation from mainstream politics was felt by almost all such groups to be a blessing, but the ever-increasing stridency and intransigence of nascent Far Left politics, making massive inroads into the milieu of gruppi spontanei from the summer of 1968 onwards, was beginning to render the autonomy gained in the course of the spring and summer as a blessing in disguise. A cycle of radicalization ensued which gained majority support in the conjuncture of the moment, but which soon began to leave behind an important element of its troops. The primacy of revolutionary politics brought about a fateful split in one of the most visible and prominent detachments favouring radical social engagements in the course of 1968: the gruppi spontanei. As the momentary dynamic favoured the spiral towards politicization and concomitant radical- ization, those activists not wishing to relegate ecclesial work to the sidelines soon began to pull back. A certain revalidation of ecclesial work began to be regarded as a solution to the impasse encountered consecutively in Reggio (September), Bologna (October), and Rimini (November). The path of the most intransigent groups began to separate from the path of the more ecclesially oriented circles. A multiform and energetic movement began to fray.
The more ecclesially oriented groups soon felt the need for a gathering of their own. A first regional meeting of the minds was organized in early January 1969 in Florence, promoted by Testimonianze, the house journal of Ernesto Balducci, which, already in an April 1968 editorial addressing the phenomenon of gruppi spontanei, had expressed its doubts with regard to ‘their political maturity and the secular orientation of their discourse’.   On 26 January 1969 a larger meeting along similar lines assembled yet again in Bologna. Out of this gathering emerged the plan to amend the October 1968 idea for a two-pronged journalistic offensive. Rather than publish a bulletin oriented towards ecclesial action as a supplement to the more straightforwardly political Collegamenti, participants agreed to create a journal organizationally separate from Collegamenti. Thus was born the Bolletino di collegamenti fra comunita cristiane di Italia, whose first issue was distributed in May 1969 and which operated on a regular schedule until 1973, when other periodicals took over the task of providing a national information network for what, by then, were increasingly identified as base communities (comunita di base).91
Collegamenti continued its separate publication throughout 1969 but was eventually absorbed by the Bolletino di collegamenti.92 And it must be underscored that the substitution of Collegamenti by the Bolletino was not meant to suggest a split between the two wings of the grassroots community of activists hailing from the former gruppi spontanei, who now increasingly referred to themselves as Christian communities—hence the full name of the Bolletino! The makers of the Bolletino never tired of underscoring ‘that the choice for an ecclesial orientation was by no means intended to underestimate or to put in second place the choice for more openly political work’. If there were any doubts that the more ecclesially oriented groups around the Bolletino continued to be committed to a double-track approach, the First National
Assembly of Christian Communities gathering—how could it be any different?—once again in Bologna from 26 to 28 September 1969 put such worries to rest. The religious orientation of this gathering of 403 registered participants was underscored by the fact that 66 out of the 403 were ordained priests.
Luciano Martini, one of the more prominent students of Ernesto Balducci, himself soon to take over editorship of Testimonianze, reported on the assembly.
Notwithstanding the cautionary remarks which accompanied their intervention in the proceedings, in fact very many speakers identified an openly revolutionary engagement as the most effective method available today to express the brotherly love without which there can be no love of God. [... ] Not everyone in Bologna shared such views, but I often had the impression, certainly when listening to the speakers addressing the crowd, that this reflected the dominant mood and that anyone raising objections to this line of thought was put on the defensive without adequate arguments at his disposal to propose a convincing alternative.
In January 1973, in an unsigned thinkpiece on the history of base communities in the Bolletino di collegamenti, the anonymous author offered a similar assessment of the September 1969 Bologna convention: ‘The assembly took place under the sign of the most unrestrained spontaneity. [... ] In Bologna boundless enthusiasm, chaotic illusions and spontaneist intoxication celebrated their small Olympics.’ Was there no end in sight to the rapidly quickening cycle of radicalization affecting all segments of Italian society, especially with respect to its Catholic component? After the separation of ecclesially oriented groups from their most politicized comrades in late 1968, did history begin to repeat itself? As it so happened, from the point of view of mainstream conservative Catholics, in some very concrete ways the worst was yet to come. And it happened in Florence.