Let us begin by giving the complete text of the interview. Our own modest considerations will follow.
The Congress held in Rome and attended by 37 groups from the more important centres in Italy, has led me to undertake an investigation that I consider of interest; that is, to get acquainted with the anarchist party of today and to try to foresee its probable future.
For this purpose I have turned to the wisest mind the anarchist party had in Italy up to a few years ago, Saverio Merlino, the lawyer who defended Bresci at his trial in Milan.
The name of Merlino evokes a whole past of struggle and, let us say it, of persecution. Saverio Merlino was, for a certain period of time, among the most active internationalists in Italy at a time when this could mean arrest, jail, exile, ‘domicilio coatto’ [enforced residence).
In 1884 he was a member of the famous armed rebels of Benevento and everybody remembers his sensational arrest, when he was discovered in the robes of a priest, while he was trying to save himself from serving a three-year sentence in jail for political crimes.
Later, the combative spirit of Saverio Merlino turned to writing, and, as the socialist star was rising on the horizon of Italian politics, he, the anarchist no longer militant, published two books which have taken a durable place in the literature of its kind. Socialism: Pro and Con and The Utopia of Collectivism.
Saverio Merlino separated from the anarchists when their activity turned more towards individualism. He then joined the Socialist Party, but, since the recent division of that party, he has kept to himself. He has remained, however, a scholar, an observer, and he has especially dedicated himself to the legal profession (he comes from a family of lawyers) which he practices with great success.
I found him in his well-lit study on a steep Roman street, au saut du lit, amidst a mountain of legal papers. His face, which exudes intelligence and has the expressiveness of the southern Italians, appeared a little troubled when I asked him for an interview. Saverio Merlino seemed hesitant to express an opinion about a party of which he had been a member — an opinion which, as the reader will see, is not at all optimistic. But he was kind enough to consent to answer my questions,which were at times quite provocative.
“What do you think of the present conditions of the anarchist movement?”
“For me, the anarchist movement has no importance today.”
“Because those anarchist principles which had permanent value have been adopted and are being diffused by socialism, while the Utopian part has been recognized as such and has been dropped as useless. There has been a process of absorption in favour of socialism.”
“What is your opinion about anarchist congresses in general, and, in particular, about the coming International Congress to be held in Luxemburg?”
“In my opinion”, replied Merlino. “the international, as well as local congresses, are mere attempts to give life to a dead body. As I have said, socialism has absorbed what was essential in the anarchist programme, and so today, anarchism is only one of the aspects through which socialist propaganda presents itself. Therefore the anarchist party no longer has a meaningful political function.”
“But”, I remarked, “hasn’t the anarchist party still an organization at its disposal?”
“Yes, there do exist anarchist federations and groups, and party newspapers as well. Actually, in some regions of Italy, one can still find remnants of the old anarchist organizations, for it should not be forgotten that socialism was born anarchist in Italy. But, in its present condition, the anarchist party is divided by the partisans of two different tendencies; that is, between the individualists and the organizationalists”
“The organizationalists are unable to find a form of organization compatible with their anarchist principles. The individualists, who are opposed to organization in any form, can’t find a clear way to action.”
“One must remember”, added Merlino, “the strange position the individualists find themselves in. They arose out of the theory of propaganda by deed, and so, violent action was a necessity for them. But when the idea of reprisal — which was at first the root of anarchist action against the capitalist class — failed, even the individualist anarchists felt that their survival depended upon organization, which they had been striving to reject.”
“Would you tell me now what are, in your opinion, the present conditions of anarchism in Italy?”
“In Italy”, said Saverio Merlino, “we have now the remnants of the old internationalist party, a party which was anarchist in contradistinction to state socialism. It survives because our working class is reluctant to participate in any kind of disciplined party activity and is against any kind of parliamentary life, so much so, that even the socialist party itself has an anti-parliamentary faction — the syndicalist faction. Thus, anarchism in Italy is reduced to these splinters of the internationalist party”.
At this point, touching upon a sensitive issue, I asked: “What place do you see for the anarchist party in the future?” “I believe”, he replied in all sincerity and not without a little bitterness, ”I believe that the anarchist party is bound to end. It is my personal impression that the anarchist party hasn’t any more men of high calibre. Reclus and Kropotkin were the last. Furthermore the anarchist party is no longer intellectually productive; no scientific or political work of notable value has come from the anarchist party. In fact, it has not even proliferated. At the time when the anarchist mind was inspiring vigorous manifestations in the United States, in Germany, even in Great Britain, the anarchist movement seemed on its way to prevail. Now not only has it stopped, it is finished”.
“Then you are sceptical about the results of the International Congress in Luxemburg?”
“It will leave things as they are. After all, it will not be the first congress that this happens to. The importance assumed by the first congresses of the international movement was exceptional, as was the importance attained by some of the farmworkers’ congresses. After all what is to be expected, as a general rule, from a congress?”
“Then what do you think of the present Congress in Rome?”
“This Congress is debating, as usual, the question of organization and individualism, a question which, I dare say, is the scandal of the party.”
“Are the Paterson groups still alive?”
“Yes, the Paterson groups in the United States are still in existence. They are made up of immigrants in transit, mostly Italians and Germans. They also publish papers. But they are artificial entities, they are not spontaneous. Thanks to the emphasis of the labour movement, these and other anarchist groups continue to live — in part because of tradition and in part through inertia — but they amount to nothing really vital ...”
I wanted to close the interview with the question that I was most curious about, and so I asked Merlino:
“How do you explain the obvious and comforting decrease of anarchist attempts?”
“The reasons for such an undeniable decrease are complex.
“In the first place, one must remember that many anarchist attempts of the past had their source in the oppressive policies followed by certain governments. Everybody knows by now that the governments understood nothing about the internationalist movement. They saw the anarchists as ferocious animals and persecuted them mercilessly. The anarchists, to protect themselves from the persecutions of their national police, sought refuge abroad, where, embittered by the violence they had suffered, they would organize groups (like, for instance, the Italian group in Paterson, New Jersey), from which the anarchist point of view would be propagated with renewed intensity. However, the European governments, after the international congresses held by the representatives of their police forces, came to understand the uselessness of persecutions. They served no purpose at all, because no one can foresee or prevent the individual act of a possessed mind. Moreover, the police have almost always arrived too late, even when they have had the opportunity to do something. Consequently, the illusion that the anarchist attempts, which originate from the impulse of a solitary person, could
be prevented has vanished. And so, the anarchist attentat is now considered like any other act committed by the individual will and even, at times, provoked by causes other than political. Now, for instance, it is revealed that Moral, after a disappointment in love, may have chosen his attempt to kill the king of Spain as a means to end his own life ... As I was saying, once the police persecutions in their more severe forms had ceased and the oppressive measures, at first adopted by governments against the anarchists, had abated, a decrease in attacks logically followed ...”
At this point it appeared to me that my inquiries concerning contemporary anarchism had been exhausted and I closed the interview which contained the remarkable statement that the anarchist party is finished.
So! Merlino says that, “The anarchist movement has no longer any importance, because that portion of anarchist principles which is lasting has passed into socialism and is being propagated by it, while the Utopian part has been recognised as such and no longer has any value.
“As the essential part has been absorbed by the socialist movement, anarchism is nothing more than one of the many aspects through which the more forceful socialist propaganda presents itself.”
Conclusion: “Anarchists no longer have a specific political function to fulfill”.
De profundis . . . “Not only has the anarchist movement stopped, it is finished”.
His evidence? Here it is: “The anarchist movement no longer has men of prime importance; the last were Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin; from its womb, once so fertile, no works of notable scientific or political value are issuing forth; no new offspring coming into the world”.
Furthermore: “The movement is divided by the internal struggles between individualists and organizationalists: the latter cannot find an organization that is compatible with anarchist principles; the former, after the idea of reprisal, which had been the soul of anarchist activity, ceased to exist, cannot find a manner of acting and cannot exist without the organization they strive to reject”. This, in short — though with strict adherence to his meaning — is the argument of Francesco Saverio Merlino.
But if we could prove that the enduring portion of anarchist principles has never been absorbed by socialism:
— That the portion which has been recognised as Utopian and worthless, far from being the essence of the anarchist philosophy, is only the residue of ancient Jacobinism, and that, through the selective process, anarchist ideas have asserted themselves better and with greater precision than all other socialist trends;
— That, in this antithesis of ends and means, the anarchist movement, compared to all other trends of socialism, is the slow but persistent forerunner of a different and more advanced society than has been conceived by any other doctrine and by any other political party, and has its own good reason to exist, its own specific function to perform;
— That the anarchist movement has always contained men of the first rank; that, in these last years, it has not only produced works of inestimable value in science and in politics, but it has also put its mark upon the whole intellectual movement of modern times;
— That, far from being as sterile, as Merlino complains, the anarchist movement has nothing to deplore but ... an excesssive proliferation;
— That deplored internal struggles between individualists and organizationalists are an inevitable crisis of development, an inevitable process of selection: they are evidence of vitality, of energy and progress rather than symptoms of exhaustion and anguish;
What would remain of the sinister sophisms, the dark prophecies, and the distressing lamentations of Jeremiah . . . Merlino?
Upon the ruins of his unfortunate thesis would remain this victorious conclusion: that anarchism, as a doctrine and as a movement, has never had more than today its own good reason to exist, and it never has asserted itself more than at present with such intensity and such dimension; that far from being moribund, it lives, it develops and it goes forward.