Pietro Di Paola: The Knights-Errant of Anarchy: London and the Italian Anarchist Diaspora 1880-1917 (Liverpool University Press, 2013)

Whether anarchists forced by repression to live abroad for many years and sometimes for the rest of their lives felt homesick for their country of origin, we cannot say. As for anarchists who sought refuge in London, the sources provide no answer to this question. The many spies and police authorities had no interest in that side of things. What concerned them was monitoring a sizeable and cosmopolitan anarchist community that included (thanks to England’s liberal policy on political asylum) some of what were deemed the most dangerous of anarchists – Kropotkin, Malatesta, Merlino, Malato, Most, Rocker, Louise Michel and [Emile] Henry. That community was made up of dozens of lesser known militants who helped weave an organisational network and web of personal relationships that linked hundreds of militants scattered around the globe: in Paris, Chicago, Lugano, Marseilles, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Patterson (New Jersey) … That web revolved around experience of exile that allowed the Italian anarchist movement not only to survive repeated waves of savage repression but also to come into contact with libertarian groups of different nationality and to enrich itself theoretically and to contribute towards the spread of the workers’ and trade union movement elsewhere. The story of the anarchist communities in exile is therefore an integral part of the history of the Italian anarchist movement, not to mention the international movement. The Italian anarchist community in London started to expand in the later 1870s. Early internationalist immigrants linked up with political immigrants from earlier times: the exiles from the days of the Risorgimento and refugees from the Paris Commune. The first internationalists hung out in the taverns run by older republicans and anti-clericals. The anarchists settled in the poor Italian immigrant society in Soho, Clerkenwell and Holborn. With their countrymen, they grappled with the same problems of finding work and a place to live. In one of the earliest periods of his stay in London, Malatesta lived off his earnings as a mechanic. A curtain divided his lodgings: on one side was the straw mattress on which he slept, on the other the workshop in which he laboured. One of a host of spies reported that Rava, Ceccarelli and Alvini had been forced to sell a pair of shoes just to feed themselves. Over the years, with the spread of repression to traditionally hospitable countries like France and Switzerland, the anarchist community in London grew. The refugees were joined by their wives. They often plied a trade that they had plied before leaving Italy (tailoring, shoe-making); many found work as cooks and waiters. Some sold edible goods. Families expanded as children came along. Like every other community, the Italian community established its gathering points, its own recreational and social locations. Such Clubs also served as propaganda centres with meetings, discussions and debates. It was in the London clubs that, according to police Inspector Sernicoli, the subversive ideas that raced around Europe and the wider world within days were hatched. The clubs were also cultural production sites. This was a counter-culture that reached out to exiles and which was crucial in creating and bolstering a sense of belonging and identity and tightened ideological connections. The theatre was a showcase for such productivity. Pietro Gori used to send the London comrades his plays to perform, but locally-produced plays were staged as well. One of the most prolific authors in the community was Federico Lauria who was actually an informer for the Italian consulate (as ‘agent Calvo’). In 1893 his comedy was successfully staged at the Italian-Swiss Club. Saverio Merlino acted as prompter, helping the evening to turn out a great success. The clubs were often run in conjunction with other nationalities (Germans, Russians, French, Italians) who pooled their efforts in more international celebrations: the annual May 1st and commemoration of the Chicago Martyrs, the Paris Commune, the death of Francisco Ferrer. These soirees were often set out along the same lines in other exile communities: opening address, poetry readings or monologues, revolutionary songs (inevitable including the Carmagnole), operatic extracts or mandolin performances and finishing off with a big dance.

Another important means of propaganda was the newspapers that made it possible to trade news with Italy and other exile communities. Those publications, though short-lived, nevertheless made their contribution to theoretical debates and the elaboration of the movement’s line of policy, as for instance in the controversy between organisers and anti-organisers (in L’Anarchia, 1896) or in the wake of the assassination of King Umberto (see Cause e Effetti, 1900). However the fact that all the London-published newspapers of the Italian anarchist community right up until the end of the First World War were in the Italian language posed a problem as far as the host country was concerned. In fact, the mother country still remained the chief focus of the Italian anarchists in London.

Not that their small world lacked for deeply divisive polemics and splits, especially between organisers, headed by Malatesta and Merlino, and the anti-organisers led by Luigi Parmeggiani, an anarchist who led a double life. Parmeggiani was known under his real name as the head of a gang of anarchist expropriators, but as Louis Marcy he was the respected owner of an antiquarian art gallery in Bloomsbury Square and in Paris.

The British police kept a close eye on the activities of the anarchists and in 1894 arrested Francesco Polti and Giuseppe Fornara aka Piemonte for possession of explosives. Many of the break-ins carried out by Parmeggiani’s gang were pulled off thanks to false keys made by Fornara. The pair were sentenced to ten and twenty years’ penal servitude, respectively. When Fornara’s release date was approaching, the British authorities, with the agreement of their Italian counterparts, wriggled out of releasing him by referring him for psychiatric problems. The issue rose again once his time had been served. Fornara was diagnosed as mad and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane from which he would never been freed.

He died there in 1941, over half a century after sentence was passed on him.

In order to keep tabs on the anarchist colony, the Italian authorities relied upon plenty of spies and informers such as De Martjis, Lauria, Bellelli and Rubino. This practice, was not without its complications however: it generated serious diplomatic incidents as in the case of Rubino who, having been exposed as a spy in 1902, then tried to assassinate the king of Belgium in order to prove his bona fides to his ex-comrades.

The outbreak of the First World War and the divisions generated by the stances adopted over the war, the internment of anarchists from enemy nations and the repatriation of many Russian anarchists come the outbreak of the revolution, Malatesta’s return to Italy all signalled London’s demise as one of the leading anarchist exile centres.

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli No 40 (Milan) December 2012. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.