The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism

Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, eds., The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism (Westport: Praeger, 2003).

This is a book a political lifetime—or two, or three, or more—in the making.  The organized Italian-American Left has been relatively slight, one of the smallest proportions along with Irish-Americans, among the larger “new” immigrant groups. The large-scale organization that did exist, in the vicinity of the Industrial Workers of the World, faded into smaller entities, mainly around the Communists and later Popular Front, by the middle 1920s. Descendants of Italian-American radicals often scarcely knew about the politics of grandpa (more rarely, grandma), the story suppressed as a family secret.

And yet: there was an extended moment of extreme volatility from the 1890s onward.  There were leading anarchist groups (one directing a member back home to successfully assassinate King Humbert), agitators and newspaper editors, often united in the same person, with impact upon many unions and a syndicalistic influence equaled by no other group. The radical impulses after the Sacco and Vanzetti tragedy cannot easily be categorized.  But without Italian-Americans, the radical early years of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers as well as the glory years of the IWW would have been different and far less; without Vito Marcantonio and his supporters, the Popular Front would have lacked a champion in Congress. There are so many more details through the lives of individuals–from Carlo Tresca to muralist Ralph Fasanella to the unheralded New Leftists, anti-war GIs, feminists and others who fought to present themselves as a fresh Italian-American Left—that the subject has been long waiting. The Lost World, based in a widely attended, monumental conference uniting radicals across generations and political particularities, is a worthy beginning.

The editors, who themselves played a large role in this conference, note in their Introduction the suffocating power of the Church and the corresponding anti-clericalism of the radicals.  Unlike Germans or Jews, those significantly radical groups in the first generation, there was no free-thinking lower-middle class to provide the Left some needed protection, and scarce work for skilled workers to form the ambivalent craft unions leaning toward and away from the impoverished majority. In consequence, Italian-American anarchism and syndicalism tended toward a theory and practice of near-spontaneous uprising. It brought their leaders, in many ways, closest to those Wobblies working among itinerant Yankees and other footloose workers who likewise had no place in existing society, but sometimes embraced an extreme, romantic and courageous ambition to overthrow everything.

Rudolf Vecoli, founder of the invaluable Immigration Historical Research Center at the University of Minnesota (and, on a personal note: an early mentor of mine) traces the “making” and “unmaking” of the Italian-American working class in the starkest tones. The IWW was crushed by a ruthless judiciary. The Fascists were, not surprisingly, fairly popular (more popular than the hard-working Italian-American anti-fascists in most communities, until 1940) with their appeal to Italian nationalism and virile manhood a la Mussolini. The anti-communist trade union bureaucracy offered benefits (or bribes) to Italian-American leaders, and an aging immigrant working class—so unlike the working class of Italy itself—largely complied. But as Vecoli observes, how to explain LaGuardia and his protégé, Marcantonio? Half a century after the Labor Party champion’s sudden death amid campaigning, no one has adequately interpreted the “Marcantonio Phenomenon” as more than an anomaly. And yet….

There are so many other facets. Radicalized working class women in the Italian-American community conducted what was often a Sysiphean struggle for their own freedom, even within the Left.  After 1920, these women emerged in positions of influence mainly through trade union struggles, frequently as comrades of the more numerous leftwing Jewish-American women. Their successors, the first generation to go to college in large numbers, were the student rebels and feminists who kept close to their own working class background without giving an inch to racism and pseudo-patriotism.

Italian-American Communists at large were, in a sense, another embattled, almost improbable minority, that is, of several thousand. By the Depression years, their membership was fairly limited to scattered mining towns or to the urban zones where ethnicity (and religion) had been overcome by class issues, most especially within CIO unions. Marcantonio and his following are, of course, the one major exception along with Peter Cacchione, actually elected to the City Council from Brooklyn on the Communist Party’s own ticket for three terms. Gerald Meyer elucidates the effects of the most contentious issue faced by ethnic working class communities of all kinds from the early 1940s onward: race. The Communist bloc, including Italian-Americans, was extraordinarily courageous in anti-racist efforts, public and private. But by the later 1940s, the GI Bill created a middle class Italian-American sector, and the natural impulse was to go with upward mobility and the “winners.” That the struggle to encourage immigrants and their children to associate with the “losers” may have been hopeless does not thereby negate its heroic character.

Nor should we underestimate the repressive role of the State in the legal destruction of a militant minority, most prominently the Italian section of the International Workers Order. Like the notorious manipulation of votes by the Dubinsky machine in the ILGWU, leading to heavily-funded CIA activity aimed at the Old Country and carried out by Dubinsky’s henchmen, the will to suppress opposition was absolute, the capacity to do so nearly as great. Individuals resisted at their own risk, and more could not be done.

Jackie DiSalvo offers a kind of afterword for the Old Left with the tale of Father James E. Groppi, the radical priest of Milwaukee who devoted his entirety to anti-racism. For this, Groppi was punished in many ways, a parallel to the story of Mario Savio, charismatic leader of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. When Fred Gardaphe, Julia Lisella and Mary Jo Bona, offer a postscript on a postscript describing writers struggling within their fiction and poetry to recover the radical traditions, we begin to realize how much was really lost. How to cope with the tragedy, personal and collective? Perhaps by thinking about how the Italian-American story is really the story of the immigrant working class that becomes white, without finding the happiness promised in privilege. Perhaps by thinking about how the story is not over.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle
Founder, Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library (NYU) paul_buhle@brown.edu

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