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Lost and Found: The Italian-American Radical Experience

Marcella Bencivenni teaches history at Hostos Community College in New York. She is currently writing a manuscript on radical Italian immigrant culture in the United States. Her most recent article, “Letteratura e arte radicale dei calabresi a New York,” appeared in Amelia Paparazzo, ed., Calabresi sovversivi nel mondo: L’esodo, l’impegno politico, le lotte degli emigrati in terra straniera, 1880–1940 (Soveria Mannelli, Cosenza, Italy: Rubbettino Editore, 2004).

Philip V. Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, eds., The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003), 346 pages, cloth $79.95, paper $29.95.

When, almost ten years ago, I came from Italy to study in New York I was shocked by the discrepancy between Italian-American and Italian politics. To my amazement, I discovered that the left, which has always played, and still plays, an important role in Italian politics, occupies a marginal, if not nonexistent, place in Italian-American political culture. Even worse, I learned that Italian Americans are perceived as a basically conservative group, whose only ties to Italy appear to be the Mafia and food. How did Italian Americans end up identifying themselves, and being identified, with such conservative values and reactionary political forces? Why did their political consciousness diverge so markedly from their Italian counterparts?

The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism, a collection of articles edited by Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, helps provide an explanation to these questions. The book shows that, despite their present conservative image, Italian Americans have a vibrant and rich radical past. Italian immigrants, for example, played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century, providing both leadership and mass militancy in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they were able to build vibrant radical communities wherever Italian immigrants settled that replicated the traditions, cultures, and institutions of the old country. They formed, for example, their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture that was in stark opposition to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italies) and the individualistic culture of capitalist America. Yet, this radical world has been almost completely forgotten, perhaps deliberately suppressed from both American and Italian-American memory.

Consider for example the introduction’s opening story of Cammella Teoli. At thirteen, Cammella was the victim of a terrible working accident: she was completely scalped when her hair became stuck in the machine she was operating. Outraged, she agreed, despite her young age and her scant knowledge of English, to testify before Congress against the terrible working conditions of American factories. It was 1912—the year of great working-class struggles and socialist dreams—and the brave testimony of the young Teoli provoked quite a stir: national newspapers published her tragic story and she became almost overnight a sort of celebrity. Yet, Cammella’s family knew nothing of her heroic past. They learned about it only a few years ago when Paul Cowan, a journalist for the Village Voice who was writing an article commemorating the Lawrence Strike of 1912, tracked down one of Cammella’s daughters in the hope of interviewing her and finding out more information about her mother. Cowan was, to say the least, stunned when he discovered that she had never heard of the accident or the testimony.

As surprising as it is, Teoli’s decision to keep her political activism away from her children was not atypical: for most Italian Americans the radical past of their families still remains impenetrable—buried by their own parents’ and grandparents’ fears of ethnic discrimination and political persecution. Philip Cannistraro, for example, discovered that his grandfather, who in old age seemed a conservative, had attended Communist meetings and participated in anti-Fascist initiatives in the 1940s, thanks to the research of two colleagues who found the letters and contributions of his grandfather to the Communist newspaper L’Unità del Popolo.

With this anthology, Cannistraro and Meyer have sought to break the many silences, like that of Cammella Teoli, that have distorted the history and identity of Italian Americans. The editors themselves have long been committed to recover, and uncover, the lost stories of Italian-American radicalism. Philip Cannistraro, who passed away on May 28, 2005, was a major figure in Italian-American studies and modern Italy, contributing numerous books and articles, especially on fascism and antifascism. Gerald Meyer has also significantly enriched the field of Italian-American radicalism with a biography of radical Congressman Vito Marcantonio and articles on Italian-American communism and labor.

Organized into three sections—“Labor,” “Politics,” and “Culture”—the book brings together sixteen essays, selected from the more than sixty papers presented at a groundbreaking conference sponsored by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College in 1997. Along with the pioneering research of veteran scholars of Italian immigrant radical history and culture (such as Rudolph Vecoli, Nunzio Pernicone, Calvin Winslow, Paul Avrich, Donna Gabaccia, Salvatore Salerno, Gary Mormino, George Pozzetta, Paola Sensi-Isolani, and Fred Gardaphè), the book introduces original contributions by younger historians (Jennifer Guglielmo and Charles Zappia) and new interpretative studies on the literary work of Italian-American women (by Mary Jo Bona, Julia Lisella, and Edvige Giunta) and the involvement of Italian Americans in the civil rights and student movements of the 1960s (Gil Fagiani and Jackie DiSalvo).

Providing a general background to the other pieces, a fifty-page introduction by the editors traces the history of the Italian-American radical movement, from the formation of the first anarchist and socialist groups at the beginning of the twentieth century to the eventual decline after the Second World War. Much of the information contained here is not new; yet this is the first attempt to bring together the different components of the Italian-American left and offer a synthesis of the radical experience as a whole, in all its multifaceted aspects. The authors justly emphasize not only the political but also the cultural importance of Italian-American radicalism. Besides political initiatives aiming at promoting class consciousness, great attention and energy were given to cultural activities for educational, associational, and recreational purposes, such as lectures, picnics, plays, and dances. Perhaps the best example of such a cultural vitality was the radical press, with nearly 200 newspapers—a number that qualifies Italian immigrant radicals in the United States as the third most prolific ethnic group after the Germans and the Jews.

The importance of this radical culture is depicted with particular force in the essay by Mormino and Pozzetta on the radical community of Ybor City (Florida), where Italians, Cubans, and Spaniards, who worked in the cigar industry, were able to overcome ethnic barriers and create a “Latin” culture based on common values such as working-class solidarity, internationalism, and anticlericalism. Here, as well as in other American cities, Italian immigrants created socialist circles, anarchist groups, labor unions, and later on, sections of the Communist Party. At the same time, they formed educational and recreational circles, Università Popolari (People’s Universities) with librerie rosse (red bookstores), as well as dramatic societies and orchestras, which helped sustain and promote revolutionary ideas while also entertaining the immigrants.

This radical movement included anarchist and socialist émigrés, immigrants—both educated and self-taught, who often were radicalized in America—and, starting with Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, anti-Fascist refugees. Contrary to the belief that the radical leadership came from the northern cities of Italy, The Lost World reveals that the most important figures among the sovversivi (as Italian radicals were collectively called), as well as the largest numbers of their adherents, were children of the south. It should also be noted, that while the movement was male dominated, women were not completely absent, as has been traditionally assumed. Gugliemo, for example, argues that Italian immigrant women played an important role in the anarchist groups of Paterson, New Jersey, as well as in the Italian garment and needle-trades labor unions.

As the articles in “Politics” suggest, one of the distinguishing aspects, as well as one of the main limits, of the Italian-American left was its enormous political diversity and fragmentation. Rivalries and jealousies occurred not only among anarchists, socialists, and communists, but also within each group, as in the case noted by Pernicone between the organizational and the anti-organizational anarchists led respectively by Carlo Tresca and Luigi Galleani, two of the most influential personalities of Italian-American radicalism.

Considering the wide spectrum and vibrancy of the Italian-American radical experience, how do we account for the loss of this heritage? Of course, there is no single explanation. Along with the rest of the American left, Italian-American radicalism was seriously crippled by the Red Scare of 1917–20, which successfully dismantled radical organizations and arrested and deported many of their top leaders. Among those caught up in the infamous Palmer Raids were the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, arrested in 1920 under charges of robbery and murder of a paymaster and his guard at a small shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts (see Paul Avrich’s article). Although the evidence presented at the trial against them was contradictory and inconclusive, they were sentenced to death. The case rapidly won the attention of national and international radicals, labor organizations, and famous intellectuals who became convinced that their conviction was due more to prejudices against their foreign birth and radical beliefs, than to solid evidence of criminal guilt. As Vanzetti proclaimed in a passionate and moving outburst before the court: “I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian” (1).

The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti had an extremely demoralizing effect on Italian Americans, driving many to bury aspects of their radical past for fear of political persecution. Another powerful wound inflicted on Italian-American radicalism was what Vecoli called the “Fascistization” of the Little Italies, fomented by the prominenti and the clergy through a massive chauvinistic campaign. This propaganda helped fuel nationalist sentiments, which in turn undermined the internationalism of the early period and insinuated racial and ethnic prejudices into the minds of many Italian Americans. Interestingly, however, Italian immigrants in other parts of the world did not embrace Fascism. As Cannistraro, as well as John P. Diggins in his Mussolini and Fascism, have long argued, it was the peculiar conditions of Italians in the United States—particularly the persistent prejudices and discrimination they encountered—that made them vulnerable to Fascism.

The Cold War, and its attendant political repression culminating in the infamous execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953, completed the purge of radicalism from the Italian-American communities and American society at large. Many Italian-American radicals, like anarchist Armando Borghi or Communist Michele Salerno, were deported. Carl Marzani, an important but neglected figure of the Italian-American left (briefly discussed in the essays by Meyer and Gardaphè), was arrested in 1947 and sentenced to thirty-two months in jail as a former Communist, becoming in his own words “the first victim of McCarthyism” (217). In prison Marzani wrote the first revisionist account of the Cold War, We Can Be Friends: The Origins of the Cold War, which was published in 1952 with a foreword by W. E. B. Du Bois. In the postwar period he produced a steady stream of writing, including a novel, a five-volume memoir, and the first American translation of the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

Like the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the 1920s, the Red Scare of the 1950s, reinforced by the Truman Doctrine and its patriotic rhetoric, further distanced Italian Americans from their radical past, as assimilation translated more and more into anti-radicalism. Ultimately, as Gabaccia puts it: “Radicals in the United States, try as they may, could not simultaneously be good leftists and good Americans” (321).

Although political radicalism among Italian Americans may have disappeared after the Second World War (a loss by no means pertaining only to Italian Americans), a radical tradition seems to have survived in the individual struggles of some exceptional figures. This is the case, as DiSalvo argues, of Father James Groppi, the civil rights leader from Milwaukee, who fused his Christian faith with a leftist commitment to social justice and equality. Another significant example is that of Mario Savio, a principal figure of the New Left and the Free Speech movement of the 1960s, presented by Fagiani, who was expelled by the university and sentenced to four months of prison for his political activism.

But, above all, an Italian-American radical tradition transpires today in the work of contemporary writers who have explored new “radical” themes such as generational conflict, gender oppression, and sexuality. As Gabaccia suggests in the conclusion, one perhaps should talk about a transformation, or Americanization, of Italian-American radicalism rather than its irreversible demise. One can notice a shift from a radicalism “made-in-Italy” that was intended mostly as a collective political struggle aimed at a fundamental social and economic transformation of capitalism, to a radicalism defined by racial, gender, and ethnic identity, connected to personal transformation, consciousness, or what scholars call identity politics.

Both traditions have much to offer: in a time in which consumerism, individualism, fundamentalism, and conservatism dominate Italian-American—and American—culture, the anticapitalist politics of the sovversivi and the personal politics of the new radicals can cast new light on the current struggle for social change. Indeed some of the issues we confront today—unorganized labor, economic exploitation, increasing social inequality, class, ethnic, and racial oppression—are remarkably similar to the dilemmas of the early twentieth century. A recovery of the lost world of Italian-American radicalism means much more than correcting the distortions and omissions of earlier historiography: it represents a challenge to the dominant neoliberal politics of our times and a vindication of ethnicity against the coercive efforts of American society to strip immigrants of their own identity.