Francesco Ghezzi, from antifascism to Stalin's gulags

Zero in Condotta publishers has just released a book by Carlo Ghezzi (one-time secretary of Milan’s Camera del Lavoro), entitled Francesco Ghezzi. Un anarchico nella nebbia. Dalla Milano del teatro Diana al lager in Siberia /Francesco Ghezzi. An anarchist ‘mid the fog. From the Milan of the Diana Theatre to the camps in Siberia (126 pp, cost 10 euro). The author reconstructs the life of Francesco, a relative of his, a fine figure of an anarchist who, after living in Exile in Switzerland and Germany to escape the repression unleashed in the wake of the Diana Theatre bomb outrage, settled in the Soviet Union, only to be jailed in the aftermath of the Stalinist purges in the Vorkuta camp in Siberia, where he perished.

Below we reprint Massimo Ortalli’s introduction to the book.

Some have thought to see the end of the Soviet Union, the break-up of communist rule and the establishment of brand new balances in the world as a sort of End of History. The definitive, irreversible conclusion to a process that had grown out of assumptions about progress, social emancipation, freedom from need and from poverty, a process which then took off at a monstrous tangent in the opposite direction in a dramatic contrast between the goals it had set itself and actual concrete outcomes. All but signifying that the great scheme for releasing man from exploitation and material and moral conditioning had now become unfeasible and its definitive defeat marked by the lowering of the red flag over the domes of the Kremlin.

But we cannot actually talk about any End of History. The project to achieve freedom and solidarity, which fuelled the great aspirations of socialist and libertarian thought, cannot be reduced to manifestations that have seen reproduction of the violence of the authorities deployed against the person over the course of the so-called “short” twentieth century. Any more than the hope in a better world and articulation of the ideal means of bringing it about should remain confined once and for all within the strait-jacket of freedom-murdering, totalitarian ventures.

There are others paths that could be taken and despite efforts today to forget them and stamp them out they wait there to be followed again.

The protagonist of this book is testimony to that.

Francesco Ghezzi was a Milanese workman, an anarchist, a subversive who fled Italy to escape fascist “justice” and who wound up, after a long pilgrimage through a number of European countries, in the Soviet Union, confident that he would find a better life there and do his bit, due to the generosity of his ideals, for the great social emancipation process that had won the hearts of proletarians everywhere. His was a story shared with other revolutionaries and other rebels hungering for justice who, albeit coming to it from a range of different experiences, finished up, hearts filled with hope, in the “socialist paradise” and in the land of actually existing socialism. We know that things did not actually work out for them because notwithstanding the undeniable improvements in the living conditions of the wretched Russian proletariat, a very heavy burden of oppression and social control fastened upon the new communist society, eventually draining the great experiment of all meaning through a paranoid fear of any form of dissent, if not, indeed, criticism itself.

Francesco Ghezzi was one of many victims of that monstrous degeneration, but as a victim he was unbroken and never gave up; he was an exemplary victim. Indeed, though conscious of the dangers he was defying through his rebellious behaviour, he never ceased asserting his ideals or proclaiming his solidarity with Stalinism’s victims. For which he was, first, marginalised, vilified and harassed, before being dispatched to die in a gulag under the “handling arrangements” that the Bolshevik regime applied as a way of neutralising dissenters. And as we now, that included even those not disposed to supinely accept the bureaucratic, authoritarian deformation that systematically denied the precepts upon which proletarian revolution had been built.

Carlo Ghezzi, a leading light of the labour movement in Milan, is related to Francesco Ghezzi. He is a relative who has not forgotten and means to bring back into the light a historical memory that exemplifies the contradictions and tragedies of the 20th century. After some admirable digging effort, he has reconstructed the many vicissitudes that marked the life of his forebear, from his early anarchist grounding in the factories of Milan to active opposition to the war, from participation in the campaign for the release of Errico Malatesta and Armando Borghi in 1921 to the Diana Theatre tragedy, from the enforced option of exile to the decision to make for the Soviet Union to begin a new life, from whole-hearted efforts to adapt to the new socialist reality to incessant, courageous criticism of the disfunctionality and contradictions making life wretched for the Russian people, up until Ghezzi’s tragic disappearance into a Siberian gulag where the regime finally managed to still his voice. When tackling a biography, the historian is very often faced by the risk of becoming “complicit” with the subject of his investigation, clouding his own objective, cool judgment. But in this instance the author’s affection gives an edge to his narration of tragic, emotive events, nor does he try to hide this behind the ascetic pursuit of historical research. This is the affection of one who shares the protagonist’s essential idealism, but also, primarily, cherishes his deceased relative, whom he had never known and who had gone far away to his death, but of the closeness of whom he is keenly aware. And the sense of that rediscovered, affectionate intimacy is drawn out particularly by the painstaking, and in many regards, seductive reconstruction of family events, covering the times between when their common forefathers left tiny Cusano sul Seveso to move into the big city. In Milan a whole proletarian generation – Francesco’s generation – was involved in the historical process that was to make an urban proletariat of these peasant masses and reshaped an area given over mostly to artisan trades and still tightly connected to the agricultural economy into one given over to a modern industrial city in step with the new times and the far-reaching social changes imposed by the revolution in methods of production.

Francesco Ghezzi was part and parcel of these changes, indeed a paradigmatic face for them, his life story representing a sector-turned-class and actively involved in the incipient social movement (so rich in prospects) into which he poured all of his strength and all of his determination, alongside his like-minded workmates An example of selflessness such as only situations of extreme change are capable of producing. Carlo Ghezzi’s reconstruction is particularly attentive and helps bring alive the total, all-encompassing commitment by Francesco, a commitment that led him (together with his inseparable comrades Ugo Fedeli and Pietro Bruzzi) to some often extreme and dangerous options such as inevitably laying himself open to the attentions of the courts as well as to the rather more heavy-handed attentions of an incipient fascism. The attempt to implicate him unfairly in the horrific Diana Theatre massacre, the reason for his lengthy wanderings around Europe up until he settled in the Soviet Union, was ultimately and actually just a deliberate strategy deployed by political and court authorities, designed to smooth the way for goon-gang violence by neutralising those like Francesco and his comrades who might have been able, otherwise, to make fascism’s advent in power less easy. It is to the credit of Carlo’s protracted and dogged research, as he sought to underline emphatically that his distant relative had had nothing to do with the tragedy at the Diana Theatre, that he also highlights the lack of substance of a sort of “dark legend” which has for years dogged the leading lights of a not insignificant segment of the Milan anarchist movement during the early decades of the 20th century. Thus, in his rewriting of Francesco’s movements – Francesco the innocent victim – he has made a fresh contribution to a more objective and honest reading of those events of long ago.

From: A Rivista Anarchica, no. 384. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.