Anarchism & Violence : Severino Di Giovanni [Review]

Elephant Editions have produced a number of interesting books recently. This is the latest of them.

Severino Di Giovanni was an Italian anarchist. Like many others he was obliged to flee Mussolini's Italy, settling in the large Italian community in Argentina. There he engaged himself, first in anti-fascist activity, then stimulated by the murder of Sacco & Vanzetti he began to "light the fuse on the dynamite of vengeance". From May 1926 to his death by firing squad on February 1st 1931 he carried on a campaign of bombings and anarchist propaganda, funded at the end by bank robberies. This included not merely publishing a paper Culmine while on the run from the police, but also establishing a print shop to publish anarchist classics, producing the first volume of a collected Elisee Reclus before his death.

Di Giovanni is a figure of interest to anyone who's dreamed of taking their desire to strike back for reality. Moreover he is almost entirely unknown to English-speaking revolutionaries. This book is a translation of what is supposed to be the best book about Di Giovanni and gives a very interesting account of his activities.

Sadly while this may be the best book about Di Giovanni it's not quite the book one might have wished for. Bayer, the author, is neither an anarchist nor a revolutionary. Indeed not to mince words, he's obviously a bleeding heart middle class ratbag. Originally commissioned to research Di Giovanni, he was as he states unenthusiastic. To judge by the book he wrote, he only became so when he discovered, to his evident astonishment that Di Giovanni had a political rationale for his actions. The book is another addition to the "anarchism as a history of larger than life heroic individuals" school.

Priding himself on his historical diligence, Bayer has clearly done no more than read a lot of documents and (perhaps) talk to some of Di Giovanni's contemporaries. Some of the results of this compilation are indeed fascinating. His access to police files for example reveals how far the group around Di Giovanni was penetrated by informers. Nevertheless writing history is about more than getting your facts right (whatever the likes of N. Walter might assert). It's also about attempting to see those facts and events in the context of the society they occurred in. Most important of all it is not done with any bourgeois pretence at a-historical objectivity, but in order to illuminate the present. Bayer fails abjectly on this score. First of all he presumes his (Argentinean) readership know something of Argentinean history, which is obviously not the case for revolutionaries in Britain. Elephant Editions provide some background notes which help but can only go so far. As understandable is Bayer's failure to write from a revolutionary perspective since he isn't one. Where his cut-rate scholasticism reveals itself is in how far he is tied to what he has been able to copy out in the library. Where there is little documentation on an event he makes little attempt to fill out background himself. By contrast Di Giovanni's capture and execution which obviously filled the papers at the time take up a wholly disproportionate amount of the book. Bayer's only efforts at interpretation concern whether or not Di Giovanni was 'responsible' or not for a particular action. His real sympathies show themselves in the amount of space he devotes to the obscure army officer appointed to 'defend' Di Giovanni at his trial, who 'dared' to make a liberal plea for 'humanity', which is reprinted in full. (Di Giovanni was 'dumbfounded' by this according to Bayer. Doubtless the hypocrisy of bourgeois justice struck him as forcibly as it will revolutionary readers of this gem today.) Lastly, Bayer's book is atrociously written. It should be seen as the equivalent of 'true crime' studies like Donald Rumbelow's on the 'Houndsditch Murders'.

That said it's undoubtedly better than no book at all and Elephant Editions are to be congratulated on doing their best with an unsympathetic text. The political inadequacies are discussed in an introduction, and a great deal of trouble has been taken to remove obvious howlers and render the text a into as clear English as is feasible while remaining faithful to the original. Personally I'd have cut out some of Bayer's more slimily moralistic platitudes. On the other hand it does warn you of how much, and where, you should read between the lines. Revolutionaries get a great deal of practice in this, in reading about revolutionary history, and given these reservations the book is a very interesting one.

It's unfortunately that the books deficiencies make it less useful than it might be. In the introduction the publishers suggest that it provides the materials for reflection on the question of violent action by the oppressed as opposed to terrorism. It does indeed provide food for thought, however it breaks down irritatingly at the point where this becomes most important. Di Giovanni's activities were initially directed at the issues of concern to the exiled Italian anarchist community, but soon broadened their scope in response to the movements of class struggle in Argentina. Di Giovanni was an anti-fascist but equally a resolute opponent of any idea of a popular front with liberalism or leftism (including a fair part of his so-called anarchist comrades). When a military coup overthrew the Radical government in power, Di Giovanni had no illusions about democracy being something to fight for. Nevertheless when an exiled Radical minister issued a leaflet threatening a terrorist campaign if the Generals didn't resign power by a certain date, the group around Di Giovanni surprisingly decided to make this empty threat a reality. They "decided to go into action with dynamite attacks in order to create a widespread climate of despair and disquiet and to rock those in government." These are Bayer's words and as elsewhere in the book he hints, without supplying evidence, at 'inside' information. On the day in question Di Giovanni's group exploded three bombs, two in railway stations and one in a street resulting in a number of deaths and injuries. That is all Bayer tells us about this significant political decision and its consequences, making any judgement of it from a revolutionary perspective all but impossible.

Nevertheless the book is fascinating and well worth reading if only for its account of Di Giovanni's relations with his 'fellow' anarchists. The anarchist paper La Protesta conducted an astonishing campaign of vilification - effectively to the point of naming him as the author of the activities criticised. (One of its editors was Diego Abad de Santillan well on the path that would lead him to a ministership in the 'revolutionary' government during the civil war in Spain. His attacks on anarcho-banditry have to be seen to be believed). Di Giovanni's response to this, having failed to pursuade them to desist, was to shoot one of its editors. In light of events in Spain it's a pity he didn't shoot more!

This is another point where anarchist revolutionaries today might learn from Di Giovanni's example. Particularly as Freedom, La Protesta's equivalent in Britain defies the impossible by getting worse each issue. Shooting it's editors would be a bit excessive. Given the relative political significance and seriousness of the one paper as against the other spitting on them would be about the mark. Some might feel this was too much effort - however the example of Di Giovanni also shows that revolutionaries fail to deal with reaction in their own ranks at their peril …

C. O. J.

From Anarchy 38 [1985]

Anarchism & Violence: Severino Di Giovanni By Osvaldo Bayer. Introduction by Jean Weir and Alfredo Bonnano. Elephant Editions. 1986.

Some copies of Anarchism and Violence are [were] still available from AK Press in Edinburgh