Ferrer's Influence over Libertarian Education in Italy

In Italy in the years between 1906 and 1910, Francisco Ferrer came to symbolise libertarian education and was at the same time the outstanding victim of a cultural obscurantism represented by a reactionary alliance between Church and State. Italian anarchists looked at him and at his work as the embodiment of those aspirations to freedom, justice and solidarity proper to the libertarian tradition, even in the field of education.

Between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the first world war, the Italian-language anarchist movement was experiencing a period of considerable cultural and organisational renaissance. Among the liveliest, best supported ventures and debates was a debate on education. Libertarians regarded teaching and education as two of the main means whereby the yearning for radical social change could be aroused in the lower classes. At the Rome anarchist congress in 1907 there was unanimous support for a motion (probably drafted by Luigi Fabbri, 1877-1935, a schoolteacher and close collaborator of Errico Malatesta, 1853-1932) affirming the need for “anarchists in Italy to act as the promoters of the scientific rational approach of the modern school institution, after the model of Ferrer’s achievement in Spain”. In the ensuing years there were several attempts to set up such educational ventures in a number of cities such as Bologna, Milan, Turin and Pisa. One of the most telling experiments took place in Clivio, a small town in the province of Varese, from 1910 to 1914 (with a sequel in 1920). The libertarian press as a whole devoted a lot of coverage to the education issue and to Ferrer’s Modern School. In particular, promotion of the ideas of the Spanish educator was conducted through two reviews - Il Pensiero and L’Università Popolare, the former run by Fabbri and Pietro Gori (1865-1911) and the latter by Luigi Molinari (1866-1918). Indeed, Fabbri and Molinari rank among the better known militants who enthusiastically embraced Ferrer’s ideas and publicised his work.Molinari himself tried unsuccessfully to sponsor actual educational activity.

Several years on, Fabbri was to write: “It is up to those of us who were friends but are followers of Ferrer’s ideas rather than of the man to abide more strictly by his demanding testament. Idolising the man does not enter into it. We retain affectionate memories of him but our task is to carry on with his work, in which the bourgeoisie will never follow us, and teach a new godless and master-less civilisation.”

Other activists like Malatesta and Camillo Berneri (1897-1937) expressed reservations about the short-term practical usefulness of Ferrer’s theses. In fact, they favoured instead theoretical options more closely mirroring the political and social tensions present in Italy. Even so, all militants acknowledged that Ferrer and his Modern School had alerted the whole of society (and especially revolutionary movements) to the crucial nature of the educational issue and potential alternatives to the prevailing Catholic or authoritarian systems of schooling.

From: Source: Bollettino Archivio Giuseppe Pinelli 18, p. 43-47 . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.