Solidarity and Revolt: The October 1909 Ferrer Campaign

In Italy the protests against the shooting of Ferrer assumed various forms and involved a wide spectrum of political and social forces ranging from anarchists to freemasons, socialists to republicans, trade unionists to radical democrats.The working class campaign involved general strikes which were sometimes spontaneous, with attempts to storm Spanish consulates and Church buildings. The demonstrators regarded the latter as "lairs of the parasites and reactionaries", ie. places harbouring the real authors of the judicial murder so recently carried out. There were especially strong popular protests in the Milan and Rome areas where there were prolonged violent clashes with the police and army. As regards the political forces of institutional reformism, besides their law-based demands (which failed) such as repeal of the state subsidies to the Catholic Church and the abolition of religious orders, there were symbolic initiatives such as the renaming of certain streets and squares which were reamed after the "martyr for freethought" (the Via Archivescovado - Archbishopric Street - in Florence being a case in point). In addition to objections from some bar associations outraged at the absence of the usual legal guarantees from the court martial recently conducted in Barcelona which had resulted in the death sentence on Ferrer, respectable bourgeois personages who had held the post of honorary Spanish consuls tendered their resignations.

Several hundred towns, large and small, were caught up in the anti-clerical protests, whilst the numbers of demonstrators can be estimated at hundreds of thousands, with several thousand arrests and hundreds officially recorded as injured. The areas of greatest virulence coincided with the areas of greatest libertarian influence, such as Tuscany.

Such mobilisation demonstrated that in Italy too there was considerable interest in the Modern School and its founder, an interest and sympathy demonstrated earlier in 1906 when Ferrer was first arrested. Such protests also indicated that anti-clerical sentiment was very widespread in various strata of society and political denominations. In addition, the subversive and secular potential signalled by this tidal weave of rebellion show widespread and staunch opposition to the elitist, selfish use of power by the ruling classes in the Giolittian era which oscillated between reform programmes and repressive behaviour as well as engaging in corrupt practices.

Within a couple of days, the initially inter-class unrest prompted by moral outrage gave way to differentiated and indeed contradictory approaches: the approach espoused by the secular moderates was rather wordy, whereas that of the more aggressively anti-clerical subversives was determinedly radical. At bottom, there were factors common to both camps: ranging from the attempt to whittle away at clerical influence over part of the population and institutions to a determination to develop a rationalist and "scientific" culture as a concrete alternative to the superstitions and other aspects characterising the Catholic, conservative mind-set. In the heated week after 13 October 1909, Francisco Ferrer became an ideological and practical reference point for a huge and wide spectrum of social forces and political groups determined to modernise and release Italian society from the tutelage of the Church, a tutelage which in fact has never lessened.

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