Review of Carlo Tresca: Portrait of A Rebel

Review of Carlo Tresca: Portrait of A Rebel

A review of Nunzio Pernicone's book on Carlo Tresca

Carlo Tresca: portrait of a rebel. Nunzio Pernicone. 387 pages. AK Press.£14.00

“I declare that bourgeois society must be changed by attacking the pillars that support it. A revolution is needed to change it, not a fascist revolution that is regressive and reactionary, but a proletarian revolution, one of slaves against slavers, of civilisation against obscurantism. I declare that I feel my spirit and strength reinvigorated every time the interests of reaction attack me with their persecution. I affirm my libertarian faith”. Speech by Tresca in 1925.

Nunzio Pernicone, the author of this book died of cancer on May 30th 2013. He was a colleague of the late Paul Avrich, and like Avrich contributed much to historical research of anarchism. His other major work, Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892 appeared in 1993. This particular volume is an expanded and corrected version of the first 2003 edition. It involved many years of research tracing obscure old Italian immigrant anarchist militants in the United States.

In some ways this book is a tribute to Pernicone’s father, a great admirer of Tresca. Salvatore Pernicone imparted anarchist ideas to his son, and was an actor and director in various amateur theatre groups that put on plays as benefits for Italian-American radical papers that included Tresca’s Il Martello. Indeed some of the plays that were performed in the 1920s and 1930s were written by Carlo Tresca himself.

Carlo Tresca was born in Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of Italy. He was the sixth of eight children unto a well-off family which owned land and a carting business and stationery shop. However an economic slump in the 1890s effected the fortunes of the family. His older brother Ettore became a doctor and joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) after witnessing the appalling health and living conditons of many workers and peasants. Carlo himself had by the age of fifteen developed an intense hatred of the Catholic Church and began to engage in anti-clerical activity. He then began attending PSI meetings where he met many rail workers, Sulmona having developed into a major rail centre in the Abruzzo in this period. By 1902 Tresca was propagandising for the PSI among the artisans of Sulmona. He followed this up with organising drives among the peasants in the surrounding area. He capped his reputation by giving the final speech on the May Day rally that year. His talents as organiser and orator were being honed by his activity, and soon he received a sentence of thirty days for his socialist activity. He aggravated the situation by calling the carabinieri captain who had arrested him a drunk who had arrested him to please the city’s “cancerous criminal clique” ending up serving seventy days.

He now applied his skills to radical journalism, working on a local socialist paper and finally being brought up on a charge of insulting the army. He had now attracted the enmity of a local baron, who sued him for libel. Tresca had few illusions that he would be convicted for this, and in Italy at the time this meant five years in prison and a heavy fine. He decided to emigrate to the USA.

He arrived in New York in August 1904. Here he involved himself with the immigrant Italian socialist movement. He stood on its revolutionary wing. Very soon he became editor of its paper, Il Proletario. He perfected the agitational literary skills he had developed in Italy, attacking the Catholic Church and the consular representatives of the Italian state, accusing them of parasitism and corruption.

Tresca’s exposure to the Sulmona rail workers had developed a taste for direct action among Italian workers. He involved himself in a hat makers strike, delivering fiery speeches on the picket line. By now, he was following the development of revolutionary syndicalism in Italy, which spread its ideas to the Italian American community. He agreed with the statement that “five minutes of direct action were worth as many years of parliamentary chatter”. Another development was the emergence of the industrial unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Tresca welcomed its development and became a very visible supporter, although curiously he never actually joined it. He did publicly declare himself a revolutionary syndicalist.

By now, the reformists among the Socialists were tiring of his revolutionary ideas. He had tried to establish an alliance with the Italian American anarchists and as the result of an incident between the two currents, Tresca was meant to attack the anarchists in the pages of Il Proletario. He declined to do so and was forced to resign in 1906. He resigned from the Italian socialist section itself after the vicious attacks on him by the reformist leadership. He now launched an independent paper La Plebe.

In this period he suffered a first attempt on his life when a small-time Mafiosi tried to slit his throat, most likely under contract from an owner of a conservative Italian newspaper.

Tresca went on to taking a leading role in the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, organised by the IWW. He went on to take part in further strikes throughout the USA, including two textile workers strikes, a hotel workers strike and a miners’ strike. He was always fearless and was arrested several times. He carried on anti-militarist agitation through a new paper L’Avvenire (The future) and was fiercely opposed to the First World War. The authorities closed down the paper when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. A massive repression began against members of the IWW and against anarchists.Tresca was arrested himself along with the IWW leadership, even though he now felt lukewarm about the IWW because of “centralising tendencies” initiated by Big Bill Haywood. In the end the charges were dismissed, but Tresca narrowly avoided imprisonment and/or deportation. Whilst by now Tresca had increasingly anarchist convictions, he did not profess them openly and underlined the point that his new paper Il Martello (The Hammer) was an independent voice. This won him no friends around the anarchist current organised around Luigi Galleani. Whilst professing anarchist-communism, they were strongly opposed to effective organisation, sneered at involvement in workplace agitation which they dismissed as reformist, and adopted the use of armed force, engaging in bombings and bank robberies. They felt that Tresca should have openly expressed his anarchism and to prove it should have risked deportation. Tresca tried at first to get along with this current, but faced growing denunciations from them.

In 1923 he printed an ad for a birth control pamphlet in his new paper Il Martello. For this he received a prison sentence of a year and a day!

He became a driving force in stopping the growth of fascism amongst the Italian immigrant population. He actually forged an alliance with some of the Galleanists , and between 1923 and 1924 anarchists were in the forefront of anti-Fascist activity along with old allies from the IWW. Tresca also became involved in the defence of the Galleanist anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were eventually murdered by the State on flimsy charges. There though Tresca faced Galleanist suspicion (although Vanzetti himself sent him a letter of thanks for his defence work).

In 1926 Tresca narrowly avoided death at a rally as the result of a bomb, which prematurely exploded and killed all three of the fascist bombers. The anti-fascist agitation eventually led to the dissoving of the Mussolini-sponsored Fascist League in 1929.

He was now gaining other enemies. He had at first welcomed the Russian Revolution. However, it soon became apparent that the Soviet Union was nowhere near the ideals of socialism and anarchism and he became a staunch opponent of the Communist Party. They turned on him and launched vicious attacks in their newspapers. He served on the Dewey Commission which exonerated Trotsky of all charges from the Moscow show trials. He accused the Soviet secret police of the disappearance of Juliet Poyntz, who had been involved in the Soviet underground apparatus in the USA, and disgusted by the situation in Russia, was now preparing to issue a denunciation and publish a book on her experiences in both the US and Russia. Indications are that she was murdered by NKVD agents and buried in the woods near New York.
Tresca had to face the combined attacks of both Communists and Galleanists. When Armando Borghi, one of the chief proponents of the organisational anarchist communism of Errico Malatesta and who had been a leading light in the Italian syndicalist union USI, came to the USA he foolishly took the side of the Galleanists. From house arrest in Italy Malatesta pleaded for these vicious polemics against Tresca to cease.

By now, other enemies of Tresca were becoming more concerned about his activities. He had been opposed to the Mafia from soon after his arrival in America. Now he began a public campaign against them in Il Martello. On January 11th 1943 Tresca was shot dead by an unknown gunman as he was crossing Fifth Avenue.

Was it the NKVD who had ordered his death? Was it the work of Mussolini’s secret police? Pernicone and others believe that it was in fact a hit ordered by a Mafia notable, Frank Garafolo. Undoubtedly Tresca’s fearlessness resulted in his death, whoever was responsible.

Pernicone paints a warts and all portrait of Tresca, examining his colourful love life, and his sometimes dubious use of funds. He broke a tenet of anarchism that one should never provide information to the government when he testified to the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney about Poyntz. Many U.S. anarchists, not just the Galleanists, were shocked by this act, and many old friends and comrades broke off relations with him after this. Equally Tresca’s anti-Fascism in the end led him to support for the Allies in the Second World War, though he qualified this with the hope that a social revolution would break out at the end of the war. As Pernicone asks: “Did Tresca not see the contradiction between these two objectives? Did he seriously believe in the possibility of a social revolution emerging from the war, or was he merely engaging in formulaic anarchist rhetoric?”

This book describes a fascinating and larger than life individual, in the process shedding light on the state of the Italian-American anarchist movement, a movement crippled by vicious personal polemics and rivalries, and by a failure to go beyond either anti-organisational Galleanist insurrectionism on one hand and ad hoc labour organising on the other.

The above review appeared in issue 81 of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation