Book shows two sides of anarchist

by Frank San Miguel

Contributing Writer

Whether right or left, every mass social movement is confronted with the question of militance and violence. The faces change, and all parties involved are usually essentially on the same side, but the central question remains the same.

Mainstream land reformers and farmers clash with the extreme-right land-rights group Posse Comitatus over tactics. Animal welfarists spar with advocates for the Animal Liberation Front over ways to win. The average abortion rights and anti-abortion activist will frown on the methods employed by radical peers. Anarchism and Violence takes a look at the question from a very different perspective.

The late 19th to early 20th centuries saw an explosion of activity by those who professed belief in anarchism as a means of social change. From Spain to Italy to the United States and Russia, anarchists organized unions, food cooperatives, housing, newspapers and more to propagandize and show the power of their vision. In Spain, they organized armies which battled against Generalāsimo Francisco Franco's forces, themselves allied with Franco's devotion to Hitlerian fascism. In the United States, anarchists led the movement for the eight-hour day and for mutual aid for the poor.

Anarchism and Violence covers the struggle in Argentina and the ideological division one man, Italian immigrant Severino Di Giovanni, embodied for the masses of anarchists in that country.

Far from fiction, Anarchism and Violence tells about the life of Di Giovanni and his devotion to what came to be called in Italy "propaganda by the deed."

Argentina of Di Giovanni's time was a tumultuous place. Italian immigrants fleeing the regime of Benito Mussolini swelled the South American nation's populace. The immigrants' exposure to the brutality and oppressiveness of fascism (Mussolini and Hitler formed the Axis Powers, after all) as well as the homeland's storied, vibrant and militant anarchist underground, already responsible for numerous assassinations of fascists, radicalized movements for the poor and labor. Di Giovanni himself spirited his family from Italy to escape Il Duces political police. At 24, he was a man with three children, a successful profession as a printer and a zeal for what he called "the anarchist ideal."

Press accounts, author Bayer writes, portrayed Di Giovanni as a very different figure than what one might expect from a man whose perspective welcomed the use of direct action. Tall, blond and handsome, Di Giovanni was remembered as soft-spoken, but passionate and hard-working. For much of his life, Di Giovanni seemed little concerned for police or his identity, publishing his own anarchist newsletter bearing his name and home address. He plainly identified himself as an anarchist after an arrest for disrupting an official Italian dance and always seemed, from what Bayer notes, to discuss politics and philosophy with confidence in his beliefs. As Bayer writes, two Americans had an impact on his life that would change him forever.

Most Americans today can only vaguely identify the names Sacco and Vanzetti, if they recognize them at all. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants to the United States who became the subjects of what could at the time and even now be called the most massive international protest mobilization for prisoners in history.

Sacco and Vanzetti, both anarchists, were falsely accused of a robbery and murder they did not commit. Seizing on the case, activists around the world staged marches and rallies attracting upwards of 100,000, general strikes, work stoppages, and civil disobedience to call for justice for the jailed Italians. What was most remarkable in the Sacco and Vanzetti case was that support for the pair was truly international.

Argentina of Di Giovanni's era staged actions of all sorts. Inevitably, a bomb destroyed a Ford shop and a monument; suspicion focused on Di Giovanni, who, weeks before, called for "individual action" to vent outrage about the case. As bombs blasted holes in the U.S. embassy and other areas, Di Giovanni became a wanted man. Here's where author Bayer gets confusing.

The reader of Anarchism and Violence is treated to two different images of Di Giovanni. One side of the anarchist was ruthless and at times intolerant and unyielding in his fervor to destroy class enemies. Hardened by Italian fascism, he seemed determined to destroy, with every bomb he could make, the foundations of fascism by striking institutions of the Italian ruling class in Argentina. His anti-fascist fire consumed him and made him at points inhuman.

At the same time, Di Giovanni is a man of great passion -- much of it secretly showered on the 14-year-old sister of a comrade. Prone to paranoia, Di Giovanni quarreled with other anarchists over tactics, strategy and ideology. His ruthlessness prompted barbarity, as he rationalized the bombings of buildings containing innocent bystanders. Bayer presents to the reader a truly disconcerting figure, one whose tempestuous emotions made him both charming and repulsive. Within a complex character, there is always the potential for strong feelings; Bayer's principal fault here is in writing Di Giovanni's story as that of a man not just with personality complexities, but as a man with a dual personality. Di Giovanni's mental state notwithstanding, Bayer makes the transition hard to follow.

Di Giovanni clearly favors terrorism and violence and the larger movement pays for it through arrests and repression. Ultimately, Di Giovanni is captured and executed, but not before committing his acts which forever changed the course of Argentina.

Bayer's Di Giovanni is a powder keg in a nation full of firecrackers and a planet of dynamite. Understanding his acts in the context of history and world events -- all in chaos at the time -- only underscores Di Giovanni's imperative. Staring squarely at the rise of fascism, he sought to attack it by any means, even if he was thousands of miles from his homeland. Di Giovanni's tragic mistake, Bayer illustrates well, is forgoing the vision of a utopia he sought by means of direct action with a ceaseless hatred which clouded his decision making and prudence, only to cost him his life.

The mainstream anarchist movement of Argentina, for its part, disavowed Di Giovanni and attacked him in print repeatedly. After he attempted to blow up a cathedral, the Catholic Church branded him "the most evil man to tread the earth." Bayer's text presents a world at odds with Di Giovanni and Di Giovanni in an unending war with the world.

Anarchism and Violence: Severino Di Giovanni in Argentina, 1923-1934 by Osvaido Bayer. Available from AK Press, 250 pages, $8.

Visit The Daily Cougar