The Italian Connection (The Italians in GB – Fascists and Anti-Fascists)

For well over a century poor Italians have swarmed out of Italy as economic refugees. Because of the total impossibility of work for revolutionaries, a significant proportion were also political. In the exodus, a few of those who accepted the system made great fortunes. In London’s Clerkenwell, the firm of Negretti and Zamba prospered and became the ‘godfather’ to the Italian colony, which was dominated by the Church in Clerkenwell – still the centre of London Italian ‘community’ life.

In Switzerland, France, Argentina, North and South America, the Italians moved into work – and the anarchist faction helped influence the movement in those countries to a phenomenal extent unrecognised by labour historians. Not in England. Until the end of the Second World War there was a total block prejudice against Italian workers – except for a few marble masons. They were forced into catering and despised peddling occupations. (Even in 1945 when Italian PoWs were being recruited as agricultural workers, miners and bricklayers I heard one Ministry official say he thought they could only peddle hokey-pokey!) 

The anarchists who came to England before 1939 were largely poor, and vanished into poverty, or in some cases assimilated. I recall ‘Joe the Tailor’, Giorgio, Mintelli in the thirties, as people on the verge of starvation who held on to their ideas, though ridiculed by most workers and held fit only for peddling sherbert or organ grinding. Most British Italians resented this deeply and welcomed Mussolini: he was ‘making Italy great again’; he was causing the English upper-classes to look admiringly at ‘Roman achievements’ which gave Europe culture etc., to imitate Italian ways, to point admiringly to the Fascisti. The Fascists and the Roman Church also lavishly spent on schools and propaganda trips home. 

Italian ice cream makers (no longer peddlers), restaurants and fish-and-chip shops made profits in Glasgow, London and all over. 

They became solid admirers of the Italian Fascisti and the English upper-class. Pictures of both Kings were mixed with the holy pictures and the fascist propaganda. Outside the anarchists, only a few liberal academics opposed Mussolini. But the anarchists opposed him vigorously. Throughout the twenties and thirties constant attempts on Mussolini’s life were made (which bely the impression given in the TV film ‘Mussolini’ that he may once have been attacked by more radical fascists!) Every aid was given internationally, not out of national solidarity but out of a realisation that Fascism was an attack on the workers. 

The reason the Anarchists concentrated so much upon the assassination of Mussolini (which helped reinforce the ‘black hat’ caricature – which had momentarily passed on to the Bolsheviks but came back as a result of anti-fascism) was because Mussolini had smashed the workers’ organisations and there was no longer the possibility of resistance in Italy by any other method. Notwithstanding the new pretence that Mussolini was really quite revolutionary and working class, he had set out deliberately to smash every manifestation of working class organisation (treating liberal dissidents harshly, perhaps, but not as compared with Hitler). 

The People to People series on Channel 4 television, summer 1987, showed the effect of Mussolini declaring war in 1940 on the 220,000 Italians in Britain, a two-part documentary ‘Dangerous Characters’: the seemingly amazing paradox that anti-fascists were interned and the fascists largely went free. It sheds some light on anarchist history too, subject to falsification by Woodcock/ Sansomry. 

The Italian Fascist Party had ‘become a powerful organisation with paramilitary camps, schools and branches in every major city’ approved of by Conservative governments which saw Mussolini as the saviour of Italy, said the film, which however did not mention that it also saved Britain from the Mafia (as distinct from the USA) by itself controlling crime and vice. Its discreet handling of the police made them look favourably on Mosley and most of their energies went to combatting East London (often Jewish) criminal gangs (in commercial rivalry with the fascio), and anti-fascists, which they equated. Italians with good businessess approved of by the Fascio obtained naturalisation papers as easy as vaccination certificates even after war was declared. Anti-Fascists were labelled ‘dangerous characters’: naturalisation, even for those with thirty years residence, was impossible. While Fascist officials were allowed home to serve, their wives filling up from London stores what was unavailable in Italy, the anti-fascists, who had declared war on Mussolini twenty years before, were interned as enemy aliens! 

The Anarchists who constituted the bulk of Italian anti-fascism had been decimated by grinding poverty, and mostly been absorbed into the English-speaking movement. The active Soho Italian Anarchists were in the main people who had survived economically (paradoxically some had made good by being boycotted by the Fascisti and being forced to open their restaurants to English custom, which opened up a whole new industry). Their children, now adult, appeared on the programme. 

Curiously, most tried to evade the word ‘anarchist’. ‘My father was not only anti-fascist, he had his own ideas too’. says Tamburini, son of one of the most determined anarchists – even Vernon Richards (son of E. Recchioni) avoids the word, though surrounded by posters of Umanita Nova, pictures of Malatesta etc (but the omission may have been the producer’s intervention – the intention of the film being to show the Italians were ‘our’ allies all along). 

Richards however perpetuates a typical cynical fudge when he says the reason the Anarchists wanted to kill Mussolini – his father having assisted – was because he was originally ‘a revolutionary socialist… one of them…  he translated anarchist pamphlets’. For the record, Mussolini was since birth a Parliamentary Socialist until bought by the French to become an Interventionist in WWI; then he was an independent MP until he started fascism. He translated atheist pamphlets (one by an anarchist), which led to his being snubbed by the Pope in his first interview as (constitutional) Premier, after which he professed Roman Catholicism. 

The purely personal nature of his dictatorship – the first of its kind – made his attempted execution not only the only form of protest left, but effective if successful (when finally the king and the Fascist Council ousted him, facing military defeat, he said truthfully ‘This is the end of fascism’). 

Richard Pankhurst (son of E. Corio) speaks plainly however about his father’s anarchism. His mother (Sylvia) is largely remembered for her early direct action suffragism but she and Corio were active for years in Italian anti-fascism. However, it must be remembered that for people of an increasingly middle-class background, when working class action becomes remote, anti-fascism became as bourgeois then as pacifism became in the post-war era. (Corio admitted this himself in 1940 when I questioned his pro-Haile Selassie campaign). 

Amongst the Italian group Dr Galasso was prominent (he was later killed on the Arandora Star – after years of persecution by the Fascio he was being deported to Canada as a dangerous character) [not Galasso but Anzani: KSL]. His daughter spoke on the programme on their activities including starting Spain and the World, financed by the Italian group, and edited by the British-born son of one. It was quite independent of Freedom (which suspended publication to help its circulation and merged into the Glasgow Fighting Call). It is quaint to note how the early issues all avoid class struggle even when listing the collective achievements in Spain, concentrating on conventional anti-fascism. 

Later there was an unpublicised split: some forming an FAI (Federazione Antifascista Italiana!) which ditched anarchism for pop-frontism (and some good comrades like DaGiani, whose daughter appeared on the programme, becoming CP at last with Russia entering the war); Spain and the World, under the influence of M.L. Berneri, drifting to the English-speaking movement. The seeds of many subsequent dissensions are contained there. The worst thing done in the name of conventional anti-fascism was to enlist the aid of the British Labour Party – which approached the Home Office on how these convinced anti-fascists could help… the Home Office responded with a request for a list of who the activists were. The secretary of the Labour Party, Willis, asked for – and received! – the list which he handed over. Could one not say that this was a mistake equivalent to the Spanish Anarchists entering the Popular Front Government? That list was a death list. The lesson of the whole episode is that it was not an anti-fascist war merely because that was the enemy’s ideology (something impossible it seems for people to grasp). The first world war was not anti-Imperialist; the second was not pro-Communist, nor from Germany’s side was either anti-Imperialist. There were in the second world war many fascist officers (it seemed sometimes a majority – despite the ‘what, me? I fought against Hitler’ post-war tack). The British ruling class was inundated with fascism. The anti-fascists were held as dangerous characters at worst (or ‘loony left’ at best – but that was when they used the word ‘pinko’ instead). It wasn’t mistakes that led the Government to drive anti-fascists to their deaths. It was only the use of these policies not just against anarchists and anti-fascists but against non-political German-Jewish refugees, often famous in the arts or sciences, with Establishment figures to speak for them, that led to the reversal of these policies. 

Black Flag 177 1987-11-08