by Gaetano Bresci
Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 24-25
LOVE AND ANARCHY is an appealing movie, often clear in its view of human interaction, but dangerously distorted in its political content. By its sensational use of the word anarchy, it is an obscenity to the lives and acts of thousands of Italian anarchists. By its use of the word love, it is an obscenity to all of us who love enough to fight for a better life.”
In the movie, a man chooses to commit an assassination, to be an “anarchist” true to the simplistic definition he heard at his mother’s knee—to kill a powerful ruler and to be killed in return. He is motivated by personal revenge and a gut knowledge of oppression. He acts in spite of being taught that “it is better to bow down and live then to stand up and die.” It is believable that outrage can move a human spirit to act; this much is beautiful and real. But to succeed, this spirit must be armed; because unarmed, it spells failure and despair. The director betrays Tunin’s spirit when she plays on our prejudices toward the “country bumpkin” who appears to be the perfect dupe in the hands of “manipulative politicos.”
She goes on to betray the spirit of everyone who loves and everyone who fights by setting them against each other. The battle on the bathroom floor between the women, personifying politics/ death and love/ life is a set up for an anti-political victory. It is a false consciousness. Naturally, everyone wants love and life to win. But to make anarchist politics synonymous with death and reckless suicide is double-think of the first order. An anarchist would perhaps have risked his life, but he or she would not have intended to give it away for nothing. Even the most desperate of the anarchist assassins came out of the belief that the act would help to destroy the old society and create a new life.
Tunin’s act may be well based on a desire for revenge, but it is also apparently based on a desire for suicide. The message is that the two are inextricably linked in Tunin’s mind, so much so that when he is deprived of his act, he is still committed to the suicide. This sets us up to conclude that it is really a death wish that motivates political assassination, and not an imperative to defeat tyranny, whatever the cost.
Not only is this political perspective misleading, but love is equally misrepresented as a harness and a betrayal. The ironic, interlocking misuse of “love” and “anarchy” is sealed when our hero yells, “Long live anarchy!” while shooting wildly into a crowd. In the guise of love and anarchy, it is fear and powerlessness that conquers all.
Most Italian anarchists believed that through organization and insurrection they could establish a rational, free economic system based on cooperation and equality. ,Many stressed insurrection over organization and fought against any injustice for immediate redress. These individuals aimed their efforts at making those in power personally responsible for their acts and authority. While some anarchists organized rural communes on the basis of Kropotkin’s cooperative theories, thousands of others organized mass industrial unions. A few chose fatal acts of outrage to the cynical brutality of the powerful and privileged. But to paint the anarchists as trigger-happy assassins and bomb throwers is both incorrect and prejudicial. The anarchists of the Italian Federation fought for the national liberation of the Italian people and eventually based their program on industrial and rural organizations under the Italian Syndicalist Union.
To understand the truth about the Italian anarchist movement, one must know its history. That history began during the struggle for national liberation in Italy in the 1800s. Prior to 1871 there was no real Italy. The peninsula was divided among three major powers: France, Austria, and Spain. The anarchists had actively participated in the struggle and by virtually the same methods they were to pursue later—assassination of Austrian and French officers and officials, insurrections, strikes, and riots. But after 1871 and independence, they turned to social revolution against the monarchy and the republic. Since the war of independence had been a popular struggle for national unity, it was not supported by the middle class, which many times resisted it. The middle class allied with the Church and its armies, and together they represented the power of the state and the right.
In the 1860s and 1870s the anarchists made up virtually the entire Socialist International in Italy. The movement was not primarily insurrectional. Through factory councils and rural congresses, the anarchists believed the Italian people could seize the country and run it for themselves on a cooperative, non-authoritarian basis. But in the 1880s, Marxist socialists began to gain strength as a reformist ideology of evolutionary society. Basing their efforts in the trade unions of the industrial North, the Socialist Party grew as a parliamentary party.
In the fall of 1872, the anarchist movement declared war on the state and its institutions. After two years of planning, a national insurrection began in August, 1874 and was crushed by the public and private armies of the right.
In 1897, anarchist-inspired insurrections exploded all over central and southern Italy. By May, 1898, it had spread to the North. The populace of Milan held the city of Milan as a commune for four days against the armies of the central government. These revolts were sparked by the assassinations of leftists by police agents and by rising inflation and unemployment.
The anarchists had refused to compromise, refused to join the government, refused to be elected or barter for transitory “improvements.” They had called for the people to install themselves in power, to seize the lands of the Church and other large landowners, take over the factories, and open those that were closed. By taking extreme positions, they forced the other leftists either to side with them and the rebellious peasantry and workers, or with the government and “order.”
A basic change took place among the anarchists after 1900 with the introduction of revolutionary syndicalism. This new form provided for direct elections of workers to councils governing production and distribution. Armed with this non-authoritarian structure, and the mass general strike as their tactic, the anarchists and some revolutionary socialist allies focused on the mass strike that they hoped would topple the state.
The anarchists pursued their revolutionary syndicalism, especially in the South. On September 4, 1904, they were able to call a general strike which paralyzed the country for four days. Its failure to topple the state discouraged the movement. When their second attempt in 1907 failed, the Socialist Congress of 1908 banned general strikes and condemned strikes by public employees. The anarchists, however, moved toward building for an armed insurrection.
In 1914 a rebellion, led by Malatesta and the revolutionary syndicalists , broke out in Ancona and throughout central Italy. The people took over their land, and the agents of authority were ousted from power in the towns, with people’s assemblies replacing them. Red flags of Anarchy flew from city buildings, and Bologna and Ancona declared themselves communes and independent.
Thus began Red Week of 1914. When the first army of the central government was sent to quell the rebellion it was defeated and the general captured. (The largest trade union and, the moderate socialists refused to join the insurrection.) Although the 100,000 troops sent from the central government succeeded in crushing the armed rebellion, the movement continued.
In 1919, when the anarchists tried again to launch an insurrection, they were defeated. Mussolini’s fascist bands moved in to destroy the communes and cooperatives. (Mussolini had been a socialist deputy and editor of Avanti, the Socialist Party paper, until 1914.)
In 1921 the Communists demanded control of the movement at the Socialist Congress at Leghorn. The split and the failure of the trade unions to join the occupations in September, 1920, had weakened the entire movement, spreading distrust. The capitalists and the army swept to the support of Mussolini.
The destruction of their 1919 syndicalist assault on the government was a decisive blow to the anarchists. Their organizations were wrecked and their ranks decimated by the constant struggle of the previous 50 years. During the 1920s and 1930s, the anarchists carried on guerrilla insurrection in the South and attempted to carry out strikes and riots in the North. Even with the successful suppression of their communes and councils, including mass arrests and executions, they kept up an organized struggle in the Giustizio e Liberta (Justice and Liberty) movement.
This brings us to the time of the film. Anarchists are often depicted as senseless murderers, acting out of desperation and unconnected to an ongoing movement. In contrast, we have provided this background to show the force and richness in the many levels of anarchist struggles in Italy.