Carlo Tresca and the fight against Fascism in the US
(Above photo of Tresca addressing workers, likely in PA in 1904 or 05,
from the collection of N. Pernicone)
Hot off the press this week is a new edition of Nunzio Pernicone’s biography Carlo Tresca: Portrait of A Rebel. We are pleased to announce this revised paperback edition (the hardcover edition was published back in 2005) that contains two new sections: “Tresca and World War II” and an addendum, “Tresca and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case: Innocence or Guilt?” The book is orderable now at a 25% discount. Don’t miss out.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 12 “Early Anti-Fascist Activities.”
Fighting Fascism became the great crusade of Tresca’s life, the struggle in which he achieved unrivalled preeminence among Italian-American radicals and reached the pinnacle of his career. The fight against Italian-American Fascism represented a new phase in the class struggle Tresca and other sovversivi had waged against the consuls, prominenti, and Catholic Church since the turn of the 20th century. No compromise with the enemy was possible; no quarter given and none expected. Tresca’s war against Fascism was a fight to the death.
Testimony to Tresca’s unique status and formidable abilities as a resistance leader was provided repeatedly by the Fascists themselves. Italian ambassador Giacomo De Martino reported to Mussolini in 1926 that Tresca topped the list of “three renegades” (Vincenzo Vacirca and Arturo Giovannitti were the others) whose deportation would most benefit the Fascist regime. By 1928, Tresca had distinguished himself as such a dynamic and implacable foe of Fascism that the Political Police in Rome dubbed him the “deus ex machina of anti-Fascism” in the United States. That same year, overjoyed that Tresca was the target of a smear campaign intended to undermine his status, the consul general of New York, Emilio Axerio, notified Ambassador De Martino that “the definitive liquidation of Carlo Tresca, imposed upon his followers as well, would administer a mortal blow to anti-Fascism, which depends so much on Tresca.”
Had Tresca still lived in Italy, his “liquidation” would have been physical rather than figurative. His presence in the United States, however, was no guarantee of security. Since paranoia is endemic to all police states, the Fascist regime in the 1920s consistently over-estimated the strength of the anti-Fascists, worrying that their activities might undermine Mussolini’s prestige and influence among Italian Americans and jeopardize his cozy relations with the American government and the Wall Street moguls. The anti-Fascist who caused Rome its greatest concern during the early years of the regime was Tresca. Directly or in collusion with American authorities, Mussolini’s official representatives and local disciples caused Tresca to suffer periodic harassment, several arrests, loss of his Italian citizenship, a four-month prison term, a narrow escape from deportation, destruction of his property, and a bomb attempt on his life. But Tresca never relented.
Tresca’s principal weapon against Mussolini and Fascism was Il Martello, described by the consul general of New York in 1925, as “the most dangerous [anti-Fascist newspaper], because of the skillful manner in which it is edited, and because of its influence over certain elements of the people.” A consummate political analyst, Tresca understood that propaganda and myth were the indispensable props of Mussolini’s regime. Therefore, nearly every issue delivered “hammer blows” (martellate) to dismantle the false image of idealism and heroism with which Fascists enveloped themselves, and to dispel the notion that the Blackshirts had turned back the red tide.
The voices of anti-Fascist opposition required amplification from outside sources abroad, as the free press in Italy was progressively stifled. Tresca therefore placed Il Martello at the disposal of many prominent radicals who lacked publication outlets. Once Il Martello became distinguished as an anti-Fascist organ, letters from Italy requesting the newspaper poured into Tresca’s office; he responded by sending free copies to comrades throughout the country. Alarmed, the Italian Postal and Telegraph Ministry banned the importation and circulation of Tresca’s newspaper in May 1923, prescribing stiff penalties for violators. Tresca attempted to circumvent the ban by asking Italian Americans to send copies to friends and relatives (a risky proposition for recipients) and by establishing clandestine operations to smuggle Il Martello into Italy. By 1928, for example, he was sending 100 copies of each issue to a former lover in Locarno, who ferried them by boat across Lake Maggiore. Tresca’s efforts were greatly appreciated, as indicated by the legendary anarchist Errico Malatesta: “I receive Il Martello very irregularly, because it gets through only when it escapes the police bloodhounds; however, I have read enough to admire the energy and fighting courage you sustain against Fascism, which torments us in Italy.”
Interdiction of Il Martello in Italy did not prevent Tresca from utilizing his newspaper to raise vitally needed funds for the anti-Fascist opposition. Channeling money to comrades in Italy was a long-standing practice of the sovversivi. By raising funds, Tresca helped sustain the Italian anarchist press until its complete suppression in 1926. Funds were also collected on a regular basis to help the victims of Fascist violence and persecution. Over the next two decades, countless anti-Fascists in Italy, Europe, and South America would have found themselves in hopeless circumstances if not for the financial support of Italian immigrant workers in the United States, a factor of major importance invariably overlooked by Italian historians of the anti-Fascist resistance.
Tresca was not content to attack Mussolini’s regime merely with “propaganda of the word” and by assisting political victims with money. The best means of subverting Mussolini was to strike where the regime was most vulnerable—the Italian economy. Rising unemployment and taxes, falling wages, the declining value of the lira, military expenditures for the re-conquest of Libya, and the unresolved dilemma of war debts all added up to one inescapable conclusion by 1923: the Fascists could not make good on their promises to improve the lives of the Italian people. Convinced that Mussolini’s prestige at home and abroad would suffer if recovery failed, Tresca advocated economic sabotage and boycotting of Italian financial and state institutions that generated income for the government. He urged workers in Italy to employ obstructionist tactics on the job, abstain from state monopolies (tobacco, salt, lotteries) that generated revenue, purchase food and other provisions only from merchants friendly to the anti-Fascist cause, avoid luxuries and other non-essential expenditures, and boycott all bourgeois establishments. On his own turf, Tresca sought to deprive the Italian economy of the benefits derived from the remittances sent to family members back home by immigrants in the United States. Tresca urged immigrant workers to boycott all Italian financial institutions that operated in the United States, to deposit their savings in American banks, and to avoid utilizing Italy’s Cassa Postale and other agencies that collected fees for transferring remittances. He also exhorted immigrant workers to boycott every Italian American—doctor, lawyer, shoemaker, grocer, barber, etc.—who was a Fascist. Adoption of his boycott strategy, Tresca acknowledged, would inevitably impose hardships upon Italian workers and peasants, but in his words, “war is war.” Mussolini’s government viewed Tresca’s scheme with genuine concern, and the consul general of New York was instructed to remain vigilant for any sign that the plan was gaining momentum. It never did.
Given the unlikelihood of undermining Mussolini’s regime from abroad, Tresca and other anti-Fascists were obliged to conduct their anti-Fascist activities mainly within the Italian-American community. The struggle, however, was never fought on terms even remotely equal. Anti-Fascists numbered not more than 10 percent of the Italian American population, if that. The majority of anti-Fascists within the political spectrum that spanned middle-class liberal to conservative were neither organized nor generally active. Only a handful of bourgeois liberal democrats, like Gaetano Salvemini and Dr. Charlo Fama, functioned as important resistance leaders prior to 1938, when a sizeable contingent of professionals, intellectuals, and former political leaders—known collectively as the fuorusciti (exiles)—were admitted to the United States and assumed a dominant role. The most numerous and dedicated anti-Fascists were working-class sovversivi, and the chieftains of the movement were generally the same radicals and labor leaders who had led Italian immigrant workers prior to the advent of Fascism: Tresca, Giovannitti, Girolamo Valenti, Vincenzo Vacirca, Luigi Antonini, the brothers Frank and Augusto Bellanca, and many others.
But a resistance movement based on workers could not possibly generate resources comparable to those available to the Fascists, assisted as they were by Mussolini’s regime, the prominenti, and the Italian-American middle classes generally. Moreover, the radical and labor movements were significantly weaker in the 1920s than before World War I, thanks in large measure to wartime and postwar repression. Many of the most important radical leaders and hard-core militants, who would have contributed significantly to the resistance, had been deported or imprisoned. Some had returned to Italy of their own accord, hoping to participate in the revolution that beckoned, while others sought refuge in clandestine life underground or became completely inactive. Another factor that weighed against the resistance was the ongoing hostility of the American authorities, who generally regarded Fascists and pro-Fascists as good, conservative patriots, while the anti-Fascists were considered dangerous Reds. Accordingly, fear of arrest and deportation often limited the effectiveness of anti-Fascist activity, for without such dangers hanging over them, many of the sovversivi—anarchists and communists especially—would have been far more aggressive in their methods.
A new levy of anti-Fascists arrived in the United States between 1919 and 1924, before the new immigration quota system effectively barred Italians. Some newcomers entered the United States illegally or arrived with provisional status as political refugees. Others had previously returned to Italy or had been deported after World War I but managed to re-enter. The most important of them would play leadership roles in the resistance: the socialist Vincenzo Vacirca; the communists Giovanni Pippan and Vittorio Vidali; and the anarchists Raffaele Schiavina, Armando Borghi, and Virgilia D’Andrea. The fuorusciti, the last contingent of newcomers, arriving in 1938 and 1939, included some very prominent liberal and democratic anti-Fascists (Carlo Sforza, Randolfo Pacciardi, Alberto Tarchiani, Lionello Venturi, and others) who had long resided in exile in Europe or were refugees fleeing from Mussolini’s recently promulgated anti-Semitic laws in Italy. Although few in number, the fuorusciti provided the Italian-American resistance with an important infusion of much needed energy and talent.
Despite acquiring some new blood during the interwar period, the Italian-American resistance undoubtedly lost more adherents than it gained. The primary reason was the failure of the sovversivi to produce a second generation large enough to replace the departed. This was a problem of long standing for Italian-American radicalism. The offspring of the sovversivi were generally more assimilated into American society than their parents, accepting American values and rejecting the ideas and principles of their elders. Political and cultural discontinuity between parents and children was also a function of the disproportionate number of male to female radicals, a deficiency fatal to the movement because marital unions generally occurred between a radical father and a non-radical mother, who raised the children Catholic and conservative.
Numerical weakness might not have mattered so much if anti-Fascists had been unified and equally militant. The resistance was multi-factional: anarchists of various orientation; communists of the newly-established Communist Party; revolutionary syndicalists of the moribund IWW; left-wing and right-wing socialists of the FSI (SP); social-democratic trade unionists (particularly leaders of the ILGWU and ACWA), and a small contingent of Mazzinian (i.e., democratic) republicans. All were committed to the anti-Fascist struggle. The crusade against Fascism, as Rudolf J. Vecoli correctly asserted, was the raison d’être of Italian-American radicalism between the wars. Yet, while commitment to the cause might have been equal in the abstract, the zeal and tenacity with which the various radical elements fought against Fascism often differed from group to group. Moreover, the internecine conflicts they incessantly waged were so ferocious and divisive that an outside observer might have concluded that the anti-Fascists devoted more time and energy to fighting among themselves than they did to combating Fascism.
Tresca always pursued his anti-Fascist mission with singular commitment and intensity, excelling at more roles than any of his radical contemporaries: journalist, public spokesman, lecturer, strategist, agitation leader, and front-line fighter. Tresca’s pattern of struggle was set in the early 1920s, when the resistance existed in little more than name. High on his list of targets were local Blackshirts and visiting Fascist leaders and dignitaries. As potential opponents, Tresca held the Blackshirts of the fasci in low regard. Having confronted every imaginable combination of policemen, private detectives, company thugs, and vigilantes during his years as a strike leader, Tresca would not so much as flinch in the face of Blackshirts, whom he considered strutting bullies and cowards afraid to battle the sovversivi on even terms. If the Blackshirts dared to move against them, Tresca and his “boys” would know how to deal with them. To demonstrate his contempt for the Blackshirts, Tresca in July 1923 moved the offices of Il Martello to 304 East 14th Street, a mere stone’s throw from the headquarters of the New York Fascio founded in 1921.
The presence of Giuseppe Bottai between August and October 1921 provided Tresca and the anti-Fascists with their first opportunity to make life miserable for a prominent Blackshirt visiting the United States to win favor for Mussolini and Fascism. A deputy and political secretary of the Fascist parliamentary group prior to the “March on Rome,” Bottai was a particularly vicious Blackshirt who later would become a major figure in the regime. Bottai’s ostensible purpose of his visit was to raise funds for blind war veterans, but he admitted to the American press that his mission as a representative of Fascism was to help fight “Bolshevism” among Italian Americans—a theme repeated endlessly by visiting and indigenous Fascists to win acceptance and support from American society. In every city he visited, Bottai was feted by consular officials and prominenti, a clear sign of Fascism’s popularity within the highest circles of the Italian-American community more than a year before Mussolini assumed power. That he should receive the red carpet treatment was galling enough, but anti-Fascists were seething because a socialist deputy had recently been murdered by Fascists, a crime that prompted Bottai to boast at a local fascist meeting that he personally had killed five communists in Rome.
The arrival of this despised Blackshirt represented one of the few occasions when most anti-Fascists acted in accord. A protest campaign was launched at a mass meeting in New York, at which Tresca, Pietro Allegra, Arturo Giovannitti, Nino Capraro, and Luigi Antonini, head of the ILGWU’s Local 89, each denouncing Bottai in turn. A more dramatic confrontation followed in Utica, New York, where Tresca was scheduled to address an anti-Fascist rally at the same time Bottai would address local admirers. En route to their own meeting place, Tresca led a column of several hundred anti-Fascists past the theater where Bottai had just finished his speech. Shouting “Abbasso Bottai!,” “Morte a Bottai!,” “Assassino!,” anti-Fascists had to be held back by police lest they attack the fascist celebrity and his hosts. During his next engagement, in New Haven, a threatening crowd of anti-Fascists so unnerved Bottai that he spoke for only ten minutes before leaving the theater under police escort. A week later Bottai was scheduled to speak in Philadelphia, home to the largest Italian immigrant populations outside of New York. On hand to greet the Fascist were the Italian vice consul; the wealthy publisher of the daily L’Opinione, Charles Baldi; and a host of other prominenti. But the audience also included some 2,000 anti-Fascists. The orchestra attempted to play the Italian “Marcia Reale” and the American “Star Spangled Banner” but was drowned out by cries for the musicians to play the “Internationale.” Bottai spoke for ten minutes, repeatedly interrupted by shouts of “Abbasso Bottai!” and “Morte a Bottai!” before police drove the anti-Fascists from the theater with clubs. Outside, another 4,000 anti-Fascists joined the demonstration but were dispersed by mounted police who charged the crowd.
Livid with rage as he fled the stage, Bottai was overheard muttering that the demonstration had been organized by “that vulgarian Tresca” and “if only we were in Italy.…” Tresca answered the implicit threat:
To be sure, if we were in Italy, you would already have had the Fascist royal guards stab us in the back. But here in America, you had to reply on your own forces or those few cowards who surround you. Here we forced you to take to your heels ashen faced, as in Utica, or to protect yourself with Cossack horsemen, as in Philadelphia.
Then Tresca issued a threat of his own: “The four fascist scoundrels in New York [leaders of the local fascio] know it: we will never permit them to raise their heads. We will never permit the lying consuls, the thieving bankers, the exploiting bosses to raise their heads from the swamp—never, never.”