Christopher Wellbrook analyzes the Italian-American insurrectionary anarchists of the early 20th Century.
The Galleanisti were a loose affiliation of working-class militants spread across Italian immigrant communities of the U.S. throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their activity crystallized around the works of Italian insurrectionist Luigi Galleani and his paper, Cronica Sovversiva (The Subversive Chronicle). Not ones to shy away from the intensity of class warfare, the Galleanisti considered the pistol and the dynamite stick to be indispensable weapons in the arsenal of any working-class militant. Galleani even produced a short pamphlet La Salute è in voi! (Health is in you!). Publicized as a “must have” for any proletarian family, it was designed to remedy the errors of advocating class violence while providing no means of waging it. In other words . . . a cheap and simple “how to” for bomb making. In fiery rhetoric, Galleani urged his sympathizers to smash the existing system with the utmost force and to brook no compromise with those both inside and outside of the movement. From 1914 to 1920, Galleanisti waged a bombing campaign against the architects of the class system. Magistrates, law enforcement agents, business leaders, police headquarters, and even places of worship were targeted, all in the name of their “Ideal.” The Galleanisti were of course not the first to practice propagande par le fait. Assassination and terrorist activity had been a frequently utilized tactic of European leftists throughout the nineteenth century. However, due to the caricature of the alien radical that was to propel national hysteria during the Red Scare, they are often portrayed as central protagonists of the public fears that gripped the period (Laquer 2001; Murray 1964, 265–7).
It is the purposes of this article to initiate a reevaluation of the place of the Galleanisti and insurrectionary anarchism in relation to working-class struggle. Regardless of the breadth and weight of anarchist philosophy and the extent of its history, the shady, bomb-throwing, wild-eyed, and bushy bearded fanatic is a caricature that still persists in coloring the movement. Accordingly, historical accounts of the Galleanisti, of which there are few, tend to emphasize the “extremism” of their ideas as a means of accounting for the violence surrounding the group (Avrich 1991; Pernicone 2003; Vecoli 1990). Such interpretations remove anarchism as an ideological current situated within, and emanating from, working-class struggle. This tends to promote a “historical exceptionalness” and draw upon “millenarian” readings of anarchist philosophy (e.g., Avrich 1991, 54; Hobsbawm 1959; Simon 2008). Such comparisons are drawn not only on the basis of transformative goals of anarchism, but also, more normatively, to highlight supposedly unreasonable and impractical ideals, the cult-like or fanatical qualities of adherents, and a removal from the everyday experiences and aspirations of working-class communities. In light of this analysis, it is a central objective of this study to examine comparative instances of working-class violence, not only in times of escalation in class tensions, but also as a day-to-day tactic utilized by labor militants to forward collective interests. This will be while acknowledging a wider historical context of the strategic use of state-and corporate-sponsored violence against the American working class as a means for breaking organized labor and ensuring worker discipline. I will emphasize the need to acknowledge the development of Galleanisti thought not only in light of this context, but also within the historical development of Italian anarchism. I will also examine the frequency of violence and revolutionary reprisal within leftist discourse and the popularity and influence of Galleanisti ideals (particularly within Italian-American communities) prior to the state suppression following America’s entry into the First World War. Following from this will be the relatively unexceptional qualities of Galleanisti tactics for the era. This will appropriately reposition the Galleanisti as a relatively popular, political current situated within, articulating the demands of, and acting in the defense of, their own working-class communities over this period.
Degenerative Characteristics Common to Criminals and to the Insane
When I say that the anarchists of Turin and of Chicago are frequently of the criminal type, I do not mean that political criminals, even the most violent anarchists, are true criminals; but that they possess the degenerative characters common to criminals and to the insane, being anomalies and possessing these traits by heredity (Lombroso 1890, 337).
The above excerpt is taken from the analysis of criminologist Cesare Lombroso of the convicted Haymarket martyrs—seven immigrant anarchists who were hanged following a riot in Chicago, Illinois during May of 1886. His ideas have now widely been dismissed as a product of pseudoscience and the political climate of his era (Rock 2007). Yet despite the discredited nature of Lombroso’s claims, traces of his sentiment continue to be found in many of the characterizations of anarchists and anarchist movements.
In many ways, a reliance on such rhetorical characterizations can be forgiven. Constructing an anarchist history is hardly an easy task. In a field of study that requires ample supply of evidence and first-hand material, there is a great deal of obstacles when attempting to document anarchism over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Radical groups were necessarily secretive about their practices and not keen to archive materials that had the potential to implicate their comrades and coconspirators if they fell into the wrong hands. For similar reasons, accounts by activists themselves, although more reliable than the testimony of state officials, spies, and informers, tend to be generally unforthcoming (Turcato 2007). Further issues are presented to the English-language researcher when investigating the Italian labor movement in particular. In spite of the fact that radical periodicals proliferated among immigrant communities over this period, it was uncommon that they would stray from the publisher’s native tongue.
The Galleanisti themselves are a source of great mystery. No comprehensive biography exists of Galleani in the English language, and for a movement that was subject to such state scrutiny, it is not surprising that there is not a great deal of first-hand information beyond the scattered personal testimonies of those who were active in the radical labor movement.1 Documentary accounts from Italian anarchists are no better it seems. Guy Liberti, a prominent Italian- American labor activist, talks of a “conspiracy of silence” against Galleani among the Italians, while Avrich has noted that for a figure of such importance, Galleani has virtually “fallen into oblivion” (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 157; Avrich 1991, 48). The few works that do exist on Galleani and the Galleanisti present further problems. There is a tendency to draw too heavily on the violence and fervor of Galleanisti ideology, while giving too little consideration to their context in a wider working-class history. As a result, the public face, so-to-speak, of Italian-American insurrectionary anarchism remains largely untouched, with far more attention afforded to the post-1914 bombing campaigns—arguably initiated during a period of historic decline. Such patchy analysis has led to a common reliance on past “millenarianist” readings of anarchist ideology as a means of accounting for general endorsement of violent, terrorist methods.
As an analysis of anarchist theory and practice, the comparative analysis of Middle-Ages millenarian groups to anarchist movements is not only forwarded most forcefully by Hobsbawn, but has also been adopted or partially adopted by other writers (e.g., Gelvin 2008; Simon 2008, 195–7). Broadly, it characterizes anarchism as a historically backward philosophy, being unchanging in character, utopian, and lacking practical engagement with what are deemed to be the pragmatic means of achieving social change. Anarchists are, therefore, typically drawn as extremists and “revolutionary zealots” whose fervor and fanaticism precedes practical engagement with a wider working-class movement. This is generally cited as a determinant of historical decline, or irrelevance. The hard line reputation of Galleani and the ultramilitancy of the Galleanisti have guaranteed them a prime place as the embodiment of this analysis. Even Avrich, arguably anarchism’s most conscionable historian, has in his account of the Galleanisti, frequent reference to “disciples,” “conversion,” “doctrines,” and “prophets” (Avrich 1991). The Galleanisti talk of “the Ideal” in particular—their identification with an intellectual tradition of antiorganizational anarchist-communism— has invited comparisons with the “cosmological force” that many Millenarian cults have prophesied as representing the harbinger of dramatic social change. Such a focus on ideology and rhetoric lends to the conclusion that incidents of insurrectionary activity were prevalent in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century-America simply because of the practiced beliefs of insurrectionary anarchists and that the terrorist attacks that occurred during this turbulent period were the result of the frustrated aspirations of uncompromising extremists whose behavior and beliefs are removed from a wider working-class movement.
“He Was Strong with the Ideal”
As several scholars have noted, it is impossible to fully grasp the extent of Italian-American labor radicalism over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century without first acknowledging its transnational character (Topp 2001; Turcato 2007). Likewise, anarchism itself has always involved a cross-pollination of national variations and a general development within a global community of activists.2 It is only in the experience of the Italian context, therefore, that it is possible to fully understand the growth of the Galleanisti movement among American immigrant communities.
The native Italian workers’ movement can be historically characterized as being culturally and intellectually libertarian (Levy 1989). This, along with the influence of radical immigrants such as Bakunin, saw the rapid growth of the anarchist-led, Italian section of the First International. By 1874, the anarchist movement could claim over 30,000 members in Italy. However, during the same period, anarchism and “anarchoid” behavior was dealt with severely by the Italian state, and it was common for anarchist agitators to be considered outside the protection of constitutional guarantees (Levy 1989, 29). The suppression of anarchist papers and the arrest of militants were commonplace while many convicted militants would die mysteriously in Italian prisons. It was in this dangerous climate that a young Luigi Galleani gained his first experiences of labor activism, organizing trade unions within the northern POI (Partito Operaio) while still studying as a law student in Turin.
Philosophically, antiorganizationalism owed its origins to the anarchist-communism of Kropotkin and a more radical reading of the revolutionary optimism and scientific determinism inherent in his thought. This manifested as a general uncritical appraisal for spontaneous instances of working-class action, along with a general belief that a revolutionary society was preceded by a fatalistic convergence of common class interests (Dada 2005, 3–4). Tactically, however, antiorganizationalism was rooted in a climate of severe state repression. Following the failed uprisings of 1874 and 1877, and the criminalization of the International, intellectuals such as Carlo Cafiero and Emilio Covelli began advocating the adoption of clandestine and terrorist methods for the labor movement as a response to state repression. Over time, this developed into a bitter factional struggle in the Italian anarchist movement between the Malatestan’s, who argued for the organization of workers into broad, nonsectarian movements, and the antiorganizationalists, who preferred to practice active propaganda (bombings and assassination attempts included).
When judging only the rhetoric of anarchist movements over this period, any onlooker could be forgiven for immediately being drawn to comparisons with millenerian cults. Anarchists will frequently employ a quasi-religious style and terms such as “the Ideal,” revolutionary “faith,” blood, and sacrifice. However, what is clear from their context is that Galleani’s ideas were not bound to some ethereal ideal but firmly rooted in the history and strategic choices facing the Italian working class. Upon arrival in the U.S., this remained unchanged as his editorship of first, La Question Sociale, and later, Cronoca Soversiva, allowed for the opportunity to continually document and analyze the experiences of working people and the prospects for revolutionary struggle on the continent. In fact, Galleani would discover that the suppressive measures facing anarchists and other working-class radicals in the U.S. proved not to be that distinct from those that many Italians had already experienced back home. Of course, these publications were not free from Galleani’s trademark incendiary style—they served as much for the purpose of agitation as a source of information for subscribers. However, they also allowed Galleani the opportunity to provide an intellectual defense of his own brand of anarchist philosophy in his serialized La Fine dell’Anarchismo? (Galleani and Paul Avrich Collection 1982). In fact, despite his reputation as a rabble-rouser, some have attested that the sophistication of Galleani’s thought often put him at odds with the uneducated workers he was seeking to convince (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 103).
Ultimately, even if comparisons to Millenarianism can be drawn on the basis of anarchist discourse, such analysis would remain only skin-deep without any consideration of the means by which these ideas were put into practice. Similarities in religious doctrine may ring true on the surface, but they contradict the strong and consistent criticisms of religious faith that Galleanisti considered as a central plank of their philosophy and their commitment to nonhierarchical modes of mutual cooperation and practice. Avrich even concedes that Galleani’s “disciples” adhered to no leader in any practical sense (Avrich 1991).
There is absolutely no doubt that the Galleanisti were dogged in their purpose. Guy Liberti recalls the following incident:
I’ll tell you what sort of man Galleani was. Galleani’s lawyer describes an incident at the time of the last number the Cronaca Sovversiva was being prepared for distribution. Galleani was already under an order for deportation, and Palmer was questioning him. Palmer asked, “Mr. Galleani, what is your occupation?” Galleani: “I am the director of Cronaca Sovversiva.” Palmer: “Mr. Galleani, what other activities are you engaged in?” Galleani: “I am the director of Cronaca Sovversiva.” Palmer asks another question, and Galleani gives the same answer. Palmer (angry): “I have repressed your paper!” Galleani (taking out the last issue of Cronaca Sovversiva and holding it up): “And yet it is here! Viva l’anarchia!” (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 158)
The Galeanisti were also renowned for their sectarianism. Political opponents were publicly denounced as traitors and spies, and they refused to concede to any action that compromised their ultramilitancy. For example, in the newspaper L’Adunata dei Refrattari, Galleanisti pursued a particularly vicious smear campaign against the Italian-American labor activist Carlo Tresca (Pernicone 2003.3 The terrorist bombings also displayed a rather callous disregard for the innocents who could unwittingly become caught in their acts of vengeance, including the thirty-eight lives (and injuries to a further four hundred) that a Galleanisti would claim in the Wall Street bombing of 1920.4
There is absolutely no doubt that the Galleanisti were a radical movement who openly embraced terrorist tactics. However, if the characterizations of Millenarianism are to ring true, it needs to be demonstrated that they considered forces for social change to be outside of the capabilities of ordinary working people and that their tactics, therefore, were a reflection of isolation and removal from a wider working-class movement.
Despite Galleani’s privileged upbringing (born of middle-class parents, he was sent to study law at the University of Turin before turning to anarchism), the overwhelming majority of Galleanisti were composed of working-class immigrants. This was not some marginalized sect, nor was it, as Hobsbawm suggests of classical anarchism, “a form of peasant movement almost incapable of effective adaptation to modern conditions” (Hobsbawm 1959, 57–8). In New York, they were garment and construction workers; in Tampa and Philadelphia, they worked in the cigar factories; they were among the mining communities in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, and they made up barbers, tailors, bricklayers, and machinists in Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (Insurrectionary Anarchists of the Coast Salish Territories 2004). They were thriving and integrated members of expanding working-class communities. Radicals (anarchists included) after all, as Turcato emphasizes, “were not isolated exiles” but instead became “integral parts of large and steady immigrant communities” (Turcato 2007, 418–9).
Yet Avrich notes that despite Italians comprising one of the largest and most militant immigrant groups, Italian anarchists did not play a notable part in the organized labor movement, differing in this respect from their Russian and Jewish comrades (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 316).
Similarly, Valerio Isca (an anarchist involved in both the English-speaking and Italian movement of the time) recalls that unlike the Spanish anarchists who were successful in recruiting ordinary Spanish Americans into their libertarian organizations, the determination of the Galleanisti to “remain pure” often isolated them from potential recruits (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 148). To understand this situation more fully, it is necessary to first look at the wider state of the both the domestic and immigrant labor movement that the Galleanisti were emerging with.
The State of Labor
With the end of pioneer expansion, the U.S. domestic population was increasingly turning toward the cities in search of work in the factories. There was a sharp decline in the rural population, cities expanded at a tremendous rate, and child labor was on the rise (Adamic 1931, 78). Prior to this, labor unrest had appeared as “sporadic and unthreatening,” and many prominent industrialists were content to adhere to their free market principles of minimal state intervention in the market, including in industrial relations (Lipold 2007). However, in the wake of one of the worst depressions America had experienced up to that point, the Great Railway strike of 1877 rapidly transformed the relationship between the state and industrialists and organized labor. In a short period of time, and, despite being widely disorganized, the Railway workers had succeeded in paralyzing industry on a city, state, and eventually, national level. This was accompanied by several riots in major cities. For the first time in the American experience, workers had acted on their class interests on a national level (Fusfeld 1984, 345). There was even evidence to indicate that workers could begin to pose a political threat to the ruling classes. In St. Louis, for example, thanks to the agitation of radicals from the Knights of Labour and the Workingmen’s party, when the railroad strike hit the city, it spread into a general strike involving thousands of workers across various industries. Strikers elected an executive committee to command the strike which also served to administrate commerce and transportation in the city, on the lines of the Paris Commune of 1871, before being violently crushed by an army of over 8,000 police and state militia (Burbank 1966). As to the origins of this new explosion in labor unrest, despite many alleging the influence of European radicals, it was the exploitative and impoverished experience of the American economy alone that represented the true impetus for class conflict. Even early, native labor organizations, such as the “Knights of Labour,” were characteristically reformist in their aims. They did not include in their program a plan for worker’s government nor workplace self-management, but rather a “producerist” philosophy of a greater share of the profits of capital for workers and measures such as equal pay and a progressive income tax. This, however, did not stop working-class people from also turning to radicals for hope of a better world and as a means to struggle against exploitative and debilitating conditions.
The capitalist class quickly recognized this new threat and rapidly instituted a particularly bloody regime of labor management. There is a wealth of evidence to support the strategic application of violence to break organized labor over this period; strikes for union recognition were more likely to turn violent than those for economic gains; workers who, despite representing protagonists of picket line violence, were also disproportionately affected by this violence; Leftist-led unions were subject to state suppression, while a general climate of violence proved to have a cumulative negative impact on both the attractiveness of union membership and overall union strength (Fusfeld 1984; Johnson 1976; Lipold 2007;Wallace 1970;Weiss 1986). The previously inactive state militias were also revived in 1877 for use primarily as a strikebreaking force, while vigilante groups were frequently utilized by employers to break up labor meetings and attack organizers. Such measures would profoundly shape the nature of class conflict over the following decades.
This era also witnessed millions of aliens entering the U.S. in search of a better life. If conditions could be described as exploitative for the native working class, this could be applied twofold for the immigrant community. A continuous supply of cheap immigrant labor also represented another potential source of labor discipline, opening up the possibility for employers to undercut the existing contracts of domestic workers. In the coalfields of Pennsylvania, enterprisers would even utilize the newest wave of immigrants to undercut the conditions of those that had recently settled. What resulted was a constant stream of underwaged and obedient labor through ethnic competition (a situation that was heightened by the depressions of 1895 and 1907). This situation provoked a great deal of resentment from the domestic population, who were already struggling for the safety of their own institutions. As one of the larger ethnic groups, the Italian-American community drew the enmity of numerous segments of organized labor. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had the restriction of immigration high on its political agenda and worked strenuously to restrict European immigration through literacy tests. AFL organizers made little effort to organize unskilled aliens, preferring instead to focus on them as a problem presented to them for their members’ conditions (Greene 1998, 73).5 In many cases, union activity, unfortunately, coincided with attacks on immigrants (Olzak 1989), all while immigrant workers lived in deplorable squalor and poverty.
So, where do the Galleanisti fit into this? Highly critical of any permanent organization, their ideology would suggest (and historical accounts confirm it also) that they would play little part in the working-class movement. A focus on working-class institutions, however, may be misleading. While they were vocal in their criticism of trade unionism, Galleanisti could be regularly found bolstering picket lines, delivering speeches amongst striking workers, and raising money for jailed strikers. It is also important to be clear that although Galleani held a strict line of anti-organizationalism, his ideology should not be classified as anarchist-individualist, desiring instead spontaneous, cooperative structures among workers that would emerge during periods of crisis. Neither was this desire necessarily unrealistic, as organizing unions carried huge risks, and recognition struggles were met with fierce opposition. As a result, spontaneous industrial action was not uncommon and had been a common occurrence in many parts of the country during the upheavals of 1877. In January 1916, at such a strike in Coddage, Galleanisti (and Galleani himself ) gave speeches praising the workers’ decision to refuse the offers of affiliation from the AFL or the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The lecture tour was also a central part of labor agitation and Galleani frequently toured the country spreading his ideas, often attracting huge crowds of workers (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 113). Radical periodicals were equally important and Cronoca Sovversivaclaimed a subscription of 5,000 during the height of its popularity. Nor was its influence confined to Italian-American communities with a distribution network that included subscribers in Europe, North Africa, South America, and Australia. The affinity groups that formed around Galleani’s ideas would also organize plays, picnics, as well as their own lectures. These groups were certainly small, as was the publishing and writing staffs associated with the paper, but as a tendency within the wider political movement, some evidence does suggest that the Galleanisti are far more influential than their official activity gives them credit for. Valerio Isca admits that,
On the surface, Tresca had the larger following, yet actually there were just as many Galleanists. (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 147)
With the AFL so hostile to immigrant labor, many Italian Americans turned instead to the IWW as an alternative means to fight for better conditions. The IWW was founded on the “one big union” principle of solidarity unionism and, as such, welcomed workers from all races and all trades. Galleani’s inner circle would never become involved out of principle, but that did not preclude other Italian anarchists from union activity. Although a minority as an ethnic group, the Italian Gruppo L’Era Nuova proved to be pivotal in keeping the union alive during the factional disputes of 1905–1909 (Salerno 2005). A prominent member of the group, Ludivico Cannita, had also worked for Galleani’s Cronoca Soversiva before relocating to Patterson, while quotations from Galleani could be found inside their paper Il Proletario—also the first Italian language periodical to take the Wobbly logo (Salerno 2005, 620). Alberico Pirani also attests to the general popularity of Galleani and the influence of Cronaca Sovversiva among Italian anarchists involved in IWW organizing in Chicago (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 142). In his study of Italian-American syndicalism, Topp suggests that, despite not being able to halt the war effort, the propaganda of Galleani with other prominent labor militants had some lasting impact on Italian-American attitudes toward the war effort (Topp 2001, 154).
The nature of their ideology meant that the Galleanisti were never going to become a mass movement on the scale of the American Socialist Party or other social libertarian groups. Even if such a movement had materialized, it is unlikely that they would have seen it as fitting to their philosophy. Their desire was for organization as long as it was necessary. Affinity groups served merely to propagate ideas, as social and educational clubs for like-minded comrades, and to organize insurrectionary activities. They were not intended to be organs of mass representation nor seeds of a future society. As far as Galleani was concerned, the working class was already capable of handling its own political and administrative interests; all that was required was violent and direct, revolutionary action to smash the impediments to this in the form of the class structure and the state (Galleani and Paul Avrich Collection, 14). This belief, combined with a climate of severe state suppression and the routine use of violence against the labor movement (particularly unskilled workers in the immigrant community), only reinforced the value of the insurrectionary strategy they had inherited from the Italian context.
“We Must Devastate the Avenues Where the Wealthy Live”
Galleanisti propaganda was rife with clarion calls to arms and incitements to take no mercy upon those who would exploit and make gains from the misery of the workers. However, despite the character of their writings, in comparison to the wider labor movement, the activities of the Galleanisti were actually rather restrained prior to the repressions of 1917. The only recorded Galleanisti activity prior to the Youngstown bomb (November 1917) is that of the New York Gruppo Gaetano Bresci. In April 20, 1914, a miners’ strike in Ludlow, Colorado had turned violent when a detachment of militia attacked the strikers’ tent colony. They killed four miners and a boy, while a blaze started by the militia smothered a further eleven children and two women to death. Later, three prisoners, including the leader of the strike, were savagely beaten and murdered (Avrich 1991, 99). A collective of American anarchists led an attempt to bomb Rockefeller’s home (his family owned the mining company the dispute had been over), which involved the Bresci group. The plot was unsuccessful and a premature explosion took the lives of three anarchists (Avrich 1991, 100). During 1914, the Bresci group also planted bombs at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Alphonsus’s church, the Bronx Court House, all of which caused minor structural damage. An attempted assassination of Magistrate Campbell in the same year was foiled when the explosive device was discovered. The only further incident prior to America’s entry into the war was an explosion at the Salutation Street station in Boston as a reprisal against arrests following an anti-militarist rally— damage was considerable, but no one was injured (Avrich 1991, 102). Whether by fortune or intent, the Galleanisti had only been responsible, if we are to take these reports as accurate, for the accidental killing of three of their own throughout this entire period.
Meanwhile in the wider labor movement, violence was a day-to-day reality of class struggle. Enterprises such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency provided a wide network of operatives to spy and gather information on labor leaders, and they could provide a well-trained militia to break strikes by force (most of the time through a combined effort of shipping in scab labor and violent confrontation with pickets) if intelligence operations failed. By the early 1870s, Pinkerton programs were active in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City, with operatives instructed to note expressions of discontent among the workforce, report on conduct, and inform employees of dishonest workers (Weiss 1986, 89).
Anarchist agitators and other leftists obviously drew a great deal of attention from employers and state authorities—however, although often on the front line, they were certainly not the sole practitioners of class violence. In the Homestead strike of 1892, the Carnegie Steel Company, eager to eliminate the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, sent an expedition of Pinkerton militia in heavily armored barges against the union. Frick, the owner of the plant, had responded to union calls against wage decreases with a lockout, bolstered by the erection of a barbed wire fence on the perimeter of the land. The union workers and their families, in turn, surrounded the plant in a determined effort to keep it closed. It was the intention of Frick to use the Pinkerton’s to break the pickets and open up the plant again with nonunion men. The strikers, however, had already occupied the plant before the agents arrived and as the Pinkerton barges attempted to land from the Ohio River, a fierce fire fight broke out between Pinkerton’s and the union. Refusing to let them disembark, strikers kept the militia under constant fire and even attempted to dynamite the barges. After a twelve-hour siege and losses on both sides, Pinkerton’s were forced to surrender to the strikers (Krause 1992). In 1903, the miners of the Cripple Creek district, Colorado, struck for the eighthour day. In response to the union’s demands, the Governor James Peabody declared martial law. Militiamen arbitrarily rounded up and locked up strikers with little concern for civil liberties. In response, mining bosses were assassinated and mines and mills were dynamited (Adamic 1931, 84). Such incidents were not limited to the picket lines—strikes often escalated into urban riots that frequently witnessed violent, sometimes deadly, clashes between workers and the authorities.
The concept of “revolutionary reprisal”—vengeance for acts committed against the working class—was also by no means a unique characteristic of the Galleanisti. In fact, as a trait of the labor movement, it was widely applied by domestic workers well before Galleani was established in the U.S. (Adamic 1931). Nor was it any less prevalent during Galleani’s tutelage of the Italian anarchist movement. In 1909, at the Pressed Steel Car Company Strike the IWW led 8,000 workers against the Pennsylvania “Cossack’s.” Formed on the instigations of the mine and mill owners’ political lobby, the Pennsylvania state police had developed a reputation within the labor movement as violent strikebreakers (Gerda 1995). In a clash with IWW picketers, a Cossack shot a striking worker. In response, the strike committee issued a proclamation to the constabulary commander that for every future striker injured or killed, the life of a Cossack would be exacted in return. After eleven weeks of hostilities, around a dozen lives had been lost and over fifty wounded on both sides. When Bill Haywood was arrested alongside other IWW activists during the first labor crackdowns, the Socialist party leader Eugene Debs proposed organizing an army of working men and marching on Idaho and freeing the prisoners. Fortunately, the levelheadedness of his wife persuaded him of the foolishness of such an adventure (Adamic 1931, 87). Such sentiments reflected the bitter and enduring hostilities that characterized strikes and labor unrest during the period.
It was also not uncommon for trade unionists to resort to terrorism as a measure against employers using nonunion labor. Even the unions of the socially conservative AFL saw its members employing such tactics. July of 1906 witnessed an incident where thirty AFL unionists attacked a company guard deployed to protect nonunion employees, dropping one of the guards from the roof to his death (Adamic 1931, 111). The International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers had the infamous McNamara brothers, who in response to the owner’s antiunion crusade, conspired to blow up the Los Angeles Times building, killing 21 newspaper employees and injuring a further hundred. With the general availability of dynamite to the trade, dynamite was a common tool for the construction unions in exacting pressure on union-busting employers. Between 1920 and 1921 there were over a hundred bombings in the city of Chicago, half of which could be reasonably attributed to the unions—they damaged buildings under construction and homes of builders and contractors unfriendly to organized workers (Adamic 1931, 187).
Employers would later come to move to a position of corporate partnership with conservative unions as a less costly and disruptive mechanism for labor management (and effectively sidelining political syndicalism). However, in these early days, class conflict was a bloody war of attrition against organized workers, a war that the employers inevitably held an upper hand in. Even outside of direct conflict with employers, militants still faced the constant threat of violence from vigilante groups and harassment by state authorities. In the face of the multiplicity of tactics that union-busting employers utilized—from spies and agent provocateurs to state militia and antiunion legislation—it was no surprise that working people were often pushed to terrible acts of violence to forward their collective interests.
Given that this was the backdrop of the wider working-class movement, it is unsurprising that the fiery rhetoric of the Galleanisti was also rather unexceptional and probably accounted for much of their general appeal. In fact, incendiary speeches were very much a staple of labor agitation. Years before Galleani’s arrival, native anarchist-communist and labor organizer Lucy Parsons (reported to be described by the Chicago police as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”) had been urging workers to,
Lay in wait on the steps of the places of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy and let it be a war of extermination and without pity. (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 1984, 91)
Far from alienating her from the working-class movement, such promises of vengeance and redemption proved to be a great attraction and drew a large section of Chicago workers to the anarchist International Working People’s Association. Even the presidential candidate of the moderate Socialist Party of America was to talk of the “redemptive” qualities of class warfare (Kazin 1995).
War and Repression
America’s entry into the First World War was to only escalate existing tensions. The jingoistic calls from state officials and the national media fuelled further racial tensions between immigrant workers and the domestic population. Both Roosevelt and Wilson had already talked of the dangers of “hyphenated Americanism,” Wilson adding that,
any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready. (Wilson 1919)
The antiwar stance of many of the unions and labor organizations also put radicals under even greater scrutiny. Citizens formed organizations like the National Security League, the American Defense Society, and the American Protective Society to enforce patriotism and rout subversives (Avrich 1991, 93). In many cases, this could turn violent. On the night of August 1, 1917, IWW organizer Frank Little, who had been pivotal in pushing the union’s antiwar line, was abducted from his boarding house (most likely by a local vigilance group), beaten, and dragged by a rope out of town where he was lynched from a railroad trestle. His murderers were never found (Thompson and Bekken 2006).
Preparedness for the war also served another political purpose. The decades of escalating tension and increasingly violent instances of class warfare between organized workers and the state and private industry had set the impetus for the Red Scare. Entry into the war gave the government the opportunity to further legislate against subversive political currents in the name of nationalistic unity. As Goldman argued at the time, the war effort was not only directed against the external enemy; it aims much more at the internal enemy. It concerns that element of labor, which has learned not to hope for anything from our institutions, which awakened part of the working people which has realized that the war of classes underlies all wars among nations, and that if war is justified at all, it is the war against economic dependence and political slavery (352).
Emma would be later arrested and then deported for speeches urging workers to avoid the draft.
The Espionage Act of June 1917 and Sedition Act of May 1918 effectively outlawed antimilitarist and anarchist activity—whether this came in the form of advocating violent revolution or simply propaganda denouncing the war effort. Some fifteen hundred prosecutions were carried out under both acts, resulting in more than a thousand convictions with sentences proving to be especially harsh. Throughout the country, anarchist clubhouses were raided, radical literature seized and destroyed with male and female activist subject to beatings (Avrich 1991, 94). On September 5, 1917, the state coordinated a nationwide crackdown on the IWW; officials ransacked union halls, raided the homes of organizers, and arrested hundreds of activists (Thompson and Bekken 2006, 114). Galleani’s publication of Matricolati!, in which he called for his followers to avoid the draft, made him liable for prosecution. This, along with the Galleanisti’s enthusiasm for violent struggle and Galleani’s reputation within the anarchist movement, made them a primary focus for federal authorities.
Even though Italians were among the hardest hit by the sedition laws, the legislation did little to diminish the Galleanisti’s efforts. They continued to organize, edit the paper, and meet in their affinity groups. Despite their enthusiasm, the June banning of Cronaca Sovversiva proved to be deeply damaging. With no formalized membership structure, the paper, along with its subscribers and distributors, was central to sustaining their influence. While they attempted to continue to distribute the paper despite the ban, a further raid on the paper’s offices in February 1918 provided state authorities with a subscribers list, allowing for the arrest and deportation of key supporters and contributors. Organizations such as the IWW were able to retreat into their own structures in the face of such repression, and although suffering a great deal in terms of their influence, were able to survive, more or less. The Galleanisti had no such recourse. Galleani would attempt to return to the old methods of speeches and lecture tours before his deportation, but by now the working-class movement was in retreat and the fiery rhetoric was just not going to cut it. Their hold over many Italian-American working-class communities meant they had access to an army of sympathizers who could provide them with shelter and escape from the law. However, in practical terms, all that remained was a handful of devoted, but nonetheless isolated and outlawed, loosely organized affinity groups.
In response, the Galleanisti initiated a concerted terrorist campaign in response to either attacks on antimilitarist demonstrations (as was the case with the Youngstown bomb), state officials responsible for the suppression of the left (as with the package bombs), or those involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial (as with the Wall Street bomb). The Galleanisti would not permit authorities to attack the workers’ movement without reprisal. However, in isolation, their efforts were never going to prove successful and only served to demonstrate how marginalized the radicals had become. Their actions claimed the lives and destroyed the homes of numerous innocents and gave the state cause for the infamous Palmer Raids and the mass deportation of immigrants that was to follow. These last acts of revolutionary vengeance would guarantee the Galleanisti’s vicious reputation in the history books—however, as a political movement, they were effectively finished. Galleani was deported in 1919 and many of his supporters would follow. By the early 1920s, the Galleanisti had largely relocated back to their homeland.
This was also prompted by more fundamental changes that were also occurring inside Italian immigrant communities. The war had not only served as an opportunity for the repression of working-class militants but had also transformed the political attitudes of many Italian Americans. Despite the concerns of the government, war propaganda proved to be highly effective even within the immigrant communities, and many Italian Americans turned against radical leaders who opposed the war (Sterba 2003). Heightened senses of ethnic identity prompted by declarations of “un-Americanism” during the Red Scare also further entrenched socially conservative attitudes—paving the way for widespread approval of Mussolini’s government (Vecoli 2003, 53). The legacy of the Galleanisti proved to have some strength, and many who remained played an active role in antifascist organizing, utilizing fists, guns, and dynamite to break up pro-fascist rallies. Nevertheless, with most radical presses banned, the majority of Italian language papers carried a pro-fascist line and, despite the best efforts of the antifascists, sympathy for Mussolini grew. In 1938, when the anarchists of Spain were battling alongside other Loyalists in the civil war, a survey of New York City found Italian Americans to be the highest proportion of all the ethnic groups in pro-Franco sentiment (50 percent) (Vecoli 2003, 62). By the 1940s, all that had remained of the radical, Italian-American workingclass movement, Galleanisti included, was gone.
This period in American labor history is defined by a particularly bloody strategy of labor management, and while the Galleanisti may have been unsuccessful in spreading their anarchist “Ideal” within the wider working-class movement, their tactics certainly were not out-of-tune with it. While it is clear from the testimony of their compagno that their ideological purity and sectarianism would often isolate them, their rhetoric and commitment to acts of revolutionary violence certainly did not. In fact many Italian Americans—exploited into poverty, living in squalid conditions, subject to severe repression for organizing, demonized by the native population, and often subject to racial attacks and abuse—were positively encouraged by the Galleanisti promise of class vengeance. Neither was this some kind of “quasi-religious” call from a bygone era. Galleani and his adherents were not appealing to some mysterious force that would sweep away the old world and usher in the new, but spoke of the common actions of organized workers in their struggle against the armies of capitalists and the mechanisms of the state. In a period when the power of the capitalist was represented in the physical force he could muster, violent and direct confrontation was often the only resort for organized labor. Neither were such measures purely defensive. Many working-class militants made their reputation on violent tactics and relied heavily upon them for their collective strength. In the early days of labor organizing, when the “Molly Maguires” stalked the mines of Pennsylvania, the “respectable classes” would “tremble in fear” at the prospect of crossing the Irish miners for fear of assassination (Adamic 1931, 12–3). For many years, the AFL unions dominated industries through the use of violent gangs before corruption and labor racketeering broke the movement.
The Galleanisti thrived in this climate of class warfare. America’s entry into the war, however, ended this wave of conflict and was successful, as Goldman (1972) predicted, in “quelling the enemy within.” What had been a period of continually escalating and receding class strength was transformed into a one-sided war against labor. The state decapitated the movement by arresting and suppressing prominent radicals, while dividing its base by fueling nationalistic fervor through pro-war and antiradical propaganda. May Day of 1919 did not see workers rallying behind the red flag, only division as soldiers, civilians, and policemen attacked a parade in Cleveland while soldiers and sailors ransacked the offices of “Socialist Call” in New York (Avrich 1991, 159). The bombs delivered by the shattered remnants of the Galleanisti were a final, deadly reprisal for a defeated movement.
By the 1930s, radicalism had been pushed into marginality and the state’s turn toward conservative unionism in the form of partnership with the AFL only compounded this fact. Class struggle continued of course, and so did violence against the working movement. The interwar period saw the proliferation of private agencies devoted to strikebreaking, while these same agencies took advantage of war surpluses by equipping themselves with huge arsenals of weapons, including millions of dollars worth of machine and handguns, sickening gas, tear gas, and chloropicrin (Weiss 1986, 97). The Depression also saw the return of social unrest, class discontent, and a renewed appeal for radical ideas. But the rules of the game by now had changed. The state was now well established as a legislator and disciplinary mechanism against unruly labor, while the union official was quickly emerging as a secondary source of control. There was no place for the fiery rhetoric of a Galleanisti in these times.
Anarchism would also adapt and change. Anarchists would come to widely criticize and condemn the methods of the Galleanisti (and other anarchists over this period). Terrorist and clandestine tactics would later become practiced by small Marxist-Leninist groups, but never again in the anarchist movement. Ultimately, the organizational strains of anarchism would win over and the Spanish revolution, in particular, would serve to legitimize this strategy to a global audience of militants. It was no longer assassins and dynamite, but the examples of organized, anarcho-syndicalist unions, which would inform the practice and provide lessons for a new generation of radicals.
Christopher Wellbrook is completing his PhD in Politics at the University of Sheffield (UK). His research focuses on labor history and western political philosophy.
Originally appeared in WorkingUSA September 2009 (Volume 12, Issue 3)
- 1It is to the credit of Avrich, who has done the movement a great service in his collection of these
- 2For example, in the case of Italian anarchism, it was Russian immigrants who played a pivotal role in organizing early generations of activists. This international character was to remain consistent decades later with Malatesta’s involvement this time with Spanish intellectuals informing his adoption of a “without adjectives” strategy in Italy and the organization of workers into large syndicalist bodies.
- 3However, it should be noted that prior to Galleani’s deportation, despite engaging in polemics over political strategy and organization, Galleanisti demonstrated for Tresca during the Mesabi strike of 1916. Tresca served alongside antiorganizationalists on the Aberno-Cabona Defence Committee, expressed profound concern over Galleani’s arrest in 1917, and severely condemned his deportation in Il Martello.
- 4There is no conclusive evidence to link the Galleanisti with theWall Street bombing and no perpetrator was
found by the state authorities. Avirch, however, is convinced that it was the act of Mario Buda, a Galleanisti who had been involved in previous bomb plots and who was in the city that day (Avrich and Paul Avrich Collection 2005, 132–3).
- 5Although Freene does also suggest that the leadership may have been less in tune with rank-and-file delegates in its support for restrictions on immigration.