By YVONNE FRENCH
The people who made up the Italian anarchist movement that flourished in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were described as hard-working, idealistic and outspoken in a June 28 lecture at the Library by Paul Avrich. Mr. Avrich is Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the graduate school of the City University of New York. Trained in Russian history, he has written on Russian rebels and anarchists and the Russian Revolution. Recent titles focus on the anarchist movement in the United States between the 1880s and 1930s. He has also written Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991: Princeton University Press), from which he drew his talk about Italian anarchists.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who adhered to a movement that advocated relentless warfare against a violent and oppressive government. Sacco, a shoe worker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were accused of the shooting death of a paymaster and his guard on April 15, 1920, during a payroll robbery at a shoe factory in Braintree, Mass.
Sacco was arrested with a .32-caliber Colt automatic, Vanzetti with a .38-caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver. Sacco was charged with killing the guard, Vanzetti with being one of four accomplices. The other three robbers were never apprehended. Contradictory evidence in the 1921 trial (both men had air-tight alibis, neither man was connected to the $16,000 in stolen money) and the pair's subsequent execution by the electric chair elevated them to martyr status in the Italian anarchist movement, which had spread west from its immigrant roots of artisan and peasant stock in New York and Chicago.
"Many of them [Italian anarchists] came to America hoping to see freedom because of what they witnessed in the old country: monarchy, poverty and repressive government," said Mr. Avrich." They found the U.S. government was not as liberal as they would like. Under capitalism, they experienced oppression and exploitation."
Ideologically, the Italian anarchists fell into four categories: anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist-individualist, anarchist-communist "and just plain anarchist, without the hyphen," said Mr. Avrich. All four groups rejected authority and relied on propaganda to make their beliefs known.
Anarcho-syndicalists adhered to the labor movement and trade unions. Anarchist-individualists relied on the actions of autonomous individuals. Anarchists embraced a range of beliefs and called themselves "anarchists without adjectives," said Mr. Avrich. Anarchist-communists, like Sacco and Vanzetti, rejected the state and private property. Like thousands of other manual laborers, they were followers of Luigi Galleani, the leading Italian anarchist in America during the first two decades of the 20th century.
"A revolutionary zealot, [Galleani] preached a militant form of anarchism which advocated the overthrow of capitalism and government by violent means, dynamite and assassination not excluded," Mr. Avrich said.
Wrote Galleani: "We do not argue about whether property is greedy or not, if masters are good or bad, if the State is paternal or despotic, if laws are just or unjust, if courts are fair or unfair, if police are merciful or brutal. When we talk about property, State, masters, government, laws, courts and police, we say only that we don't want any of them."
Galleani published his opinion in the Cronaca Sovversiva, the foremost Italian anarchist periodical, which he edited. The periodical ran for 15 years before it was shut down by the government.
On display for the lecture were a number of anarchist newspapers from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Some 500 anarchist newspapers and leaflets were published from 1870 to 1940, Mr. Avrich said. Many are in the Paul Avrich Anarchism Collection, donated by Mr. Avrich to the division in 1986. The collection, to which he continues to add, has 10,000 pieces, including books, manuscripts, serials and ephemera.
Larry Sullivan, then chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, recalled an anecdote Mr. Avrich told him when he was doing research for his latest work, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (1995: Princeton University Press). During one of the 1,000 interviews he conducted of individuals associated with the movement, one asked him whether he found it ironic that his collection was stored in the government's library.
Responded Mr. Avrich, "It's the people's library."
Mr. Avrich is not an anarchist, but the FBI keeps a thick file on him, he said. He said he is interested in anarchism as a worldwide movement and in anarchists as individuals. "I find them interesting as people. I admire their courage and integrity."
Mr. Avrich's lecture in the Mumford Room was part of a series on the Italian influence on American culture. The series is sponsored by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library, the Embassy of Italy, the Italian Cultural Institute and the National Italian American Foundation. Future lectures include "The Italo-American Aesthetic in the Wolfsonian Collection, 1885-1940" by collector Mitchell Wolfson Jr., at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31 in the Mumford Room; and a talk by Umberto Eco, who will speak at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8.