By Kenyon Zimmer
Pietro Di Paola, The Knights Errant of Anarchy: London and the Italian Anarchist Diaspora (1880-1917) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).
Davide Turcato, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Over the past decade, serious studies of anarchism, and especially histories of anarchist movements, have experienced a renaissance. Italian-born radicals long constituted one of the most important segments of international anarchism, and these two books are among the best works on this topic to appear in English. Though very different in scope and style, they complement one another nicely. Each demands that anarchism be taken seriously as both a historical subject and a political ideology.
Di Paola’s Knights Errant of Anarchy is the first study of exiled Italian anarchists in London. It is both a political history of these radicals, and a social history of their culture and everyday life. As referenced in its subtitle, this work, drawing on recent migration history, conceives of a transnational Italian anarchist “diaspora,” created by repression inside of Italy in the 1870s and 1880s, and within which London was “an essential landmark” (14).
As Di Paola relates, Italians and other European anarchists in the 1890s were absorbed in ideological and tactical debates centered not so much on the use of violence and “propaganda by deed” (as most historians have presented the conflict), but rather on the relationship between anarchism and organization. The author admirably parses out the differences between the “organizationalist” and “anti-organizationalist” factions within the Italian movement, and the ways in which their differences undermined attempts to create lasting anarchist federations or influence the labor movement in these years.
Di Paola then turns to the social life of these exiles, vividly reconstructing a lost world of radical clubs, backroom speeches, and anarchist plays, songs, and celebrations. The presence of anarchists from France, Russia, and Spain, as well as from Britain’s own small anarchist movement, also created opportunities for collaboration and ideological cross-pollination, of which the reader is unfortunately provided only glimpses. Di Paola mentions, for instance, the clubrooms of the International Working Men’s Society, which in 1908-09 were run by a committee of “two Germans, one Jew, one Spaniard, one Frenchman and one Italian” (177).
One of the author’s most important sources is the thousands of pages of files maintained by informants for the Italian government, which is also the subject of his remarkable chapter, “The Surveillance of Italian Anarchists in London.” Diligent detective work by Di Paola uncovers a labyrinthine and tragicomic underworld of spies and intrigue worthy of a mystery novel. Italian authorities kept close tabs on the “subversives” in London, usually without the knowledge or cooperation of British authorities (though some London police provided information, for pay). The anarchists, in turn, developed their own system of “counterespionage” to root out enemies in their midst, with some success, but Di Paola concludes that “the anarchist movement was generally extremely vulnerable: spies were able to infiltrate quite easily” (127). However, these informants were often unreliable and difficult to control. This cast of shady characters included the likes of Gennaro Rubino, an informer whose role was uncovered in 1902 and who, repentant, revealed the identities of other informants before attempting to assassinate Leopold II of Belgium. Another was Ennio Belelli, an informant and agent provocateur who once sued Errico Malatesta for criminal libel after Malatesta accused him (correctly) of being a spy, following Belelli’s own false claim that Malatesta was in the pay of police. Yet in at least one instance, Di Paola relates, information from such sources foiled a plot by two Italian anarchists to bomb the London Stock Exchange (133-34).
Not until the book’s conclusion does the author inform readers of the number of Italian anarchists in London—“a few hundred” in the 1880s and 1890s and “a core of about fifty to eighty” between 1900 and 1914—out of the city’s total Italian population which grew from around 3,500 in 1881 to nearly 11,000 in 1901. It is also in the conclusion that we find demographic data about these anarchists, including the fact that approximately one-third worked as cooks, waiters, or dishwashers—which explains why food service was, as the book notes, the one local industry in which Italian anarchists were sometimes successful labor organizers. The gender makeup and dynamics of the movement, meanwhile, are described only vaguely. The cast of characters in the narrative is overwhelmingly male—in part, Di Paola explains, due to the tendency of archival sources to overlook women—yet he mentions in passing that newspaper accounts of the anarchist clubs “make clear that women constituted the majority at the club evenings” (168), and, “[i]n general refugees lived with their wives and children” (204). We are told virtually nothing more about these women.
Di Paola’s narrative closes with the First World War, which “caused an irreparable schism in the international anarchist community” (185). He may, however, overstate his case for the sake of a convenient end point. The war controversy quickly faded within anarchist ranks in the face of developments like the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism, and Di Paola himself can name only two Italian anarchists in London who broke antimilitarist ranks to support the Allies (one of whom had reversed his stance by 1916). Moreover, Di Paola notes in passing that “the Italian anarchist movement in London maintained a constant and active presence until the 1930s” (8), especially as a center of antifascism.
The book concludes that “the anarchists achieved few tangible results for all their political actions within the Italian colony,” because they “were chiefly interested in events back in Italy and their main aim was a revolution there” (206). This should not be surprising; these were, after all, exiles whose emigrations were largely involuntary and who, for the most part, were impatient to return to their former lives and activities within Italy. Yet these émigrés’ engagement with events within Italy is hardly discussed. Fortunately, this deficit is more than made up for in Davide Turcato’s examination of the activities and ideas of Errico Malatesta, who spent most of the years between 1889 and 1900 in exile in London and North America.
Focusing on an eleven-year period of Malatesta’s life, Making Sense of Anarchism is far more than a biography. Whereas Di Paola focuses on the everyday lives and local activism of anarchist exiles, Turcato is interested in their transnational activities and networks, which spanned Europe, North Africa, and the Americas. Turcato is equally dedicated to making a compelling case that anarchism, although often maligned as utopian, naïve, ineffective, and impractical, was and is “a complex and rational business,” as his conclusion is titled. He takes previous scholars to task for their “mental laziness” in describing the history of anarchism in terms of discontinuity, spontaneous revolts, and irrational or millenarian behavior. Instead, Making Sense of Anarchism grants anarchists “the benefit of common sense” (ix), and looks beneath the surface of events to reveal continuity, patient planning, and rational pragmatism.
Turcato’s meticulous reconstruction of behind-the-scenes organizing and clandestine networks is made possible through his attention to transnational connections. Unlike Di Paola’s portrait of marginalized exiles with little impact on events, Turcato portrays London as a dynamic meeting place of radical migrants from throughout Europe, who exchanged ideas and were active on three continents. For example, Malatesta and other Italian and French anarchists witnessed the London Dock Strike of 1889, an event that shaped their ideas about working-class organization and in turn contributed to the genesis of European syndicalism. Turcato also details Malatesta’s nine-month stay in the US, not from the perspective of anarchists’ impact in North America (which was considerable in some locales), but from within the transnational context of the Italian anarchist movement.
Making Sense of Anarchism further provides an in-depth analysis of anarchist ideology, and the evolving ideas of Malatesta in particular. Nobody is as qualified for this task as Turcato, who is currently editing Malatesta’s complete works for publication in both Italian and English. Like Di Paola, Turcato gives a clear analysis of the division between organizationists and anti-organizationists. More importantly, he identifies and persuasively defends the core elements of Malatesta’s views of revolution. These include 1) rejecting materialism in favor of indeterminacy, 2) viewing class-consciousness as a deliberately undertaken project, and 3) viewing “anarchism as a method” that recognizes the inseparability of means and ends. This latter approach did not mean that anarchists were all-or-nothing millenarians; as Turcato illustrates, Malatesta supported short-term gains and reforms so long as these did not displace the long-term goals of abolishing the state and capitalism, and so long as the methods used to achieve them (i.e. direct action) were congruent with anarchist ends. As the author pithily summarizes Malatesta’s view, “Demanding a full meal was the most effective way to gain snacks, but these were not to replace a full meal as the workers’ objective” (241). Turcato also compares and contrasts the Italian’s ideas with those of a number of 19th- and 20th-century political thinkers, ranging from Karl Marx and Max Weber to F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper, and including other anarchists, like Peter Kropotkin.
Turcato’s writing is filled with sometimes cumbersome analytic terminology like “methodological indeterminism,” “organizational opacity,” and “heterogany of ends.” Those who take on the challenge of reading his book, however, will be richly rewarded with insights from Turcato and Malatesta alike. Taken together, this book and Di Paola’s go far in extending our knowledge of Italian anarchist history, transnational anarchism, and anarchist ideas. Both works also recover something of the humanity, and the extraordinary struggles, of their subjects. Although they did not bring about the peaceful anarchy they sought, these radicals did act in accordance with their ideals as best they could. “All of us,” Malatesta wrote, “without exception, are obliged to live, more or less, in contradiction with our ideals; but we are anarchists and socialists because, and in so far as, we suffer by this contradiction, and seek to make it as small as possible” (226). This observation eloquently describes the dilemma faced not just by the Italian anarchists of yesteryear, but by radicals of all stripes, yesterday and today. And it is precisely for such people that these books should be required reading.
Reviewed by Kenyon Zimmer
University of Texas at Arlington