The Life of An Anarchist: Franco Leggio

Even as the December 2006 edition of Sicilia Libertaria was coming off the presses of the Tipografia Moderna, comrade Franco Leggio’s eyes were closing for the very last time on his bed in a side ward at the Opera Pia in Ragusa Ibla. That was on 15 December 2006. The very same date on which, 37 years previously, another comrade - Giuseppe Pinelli - was sent flying from a window on the fourth floor at Milan Police HQ three days after the Piazza Fontana bombing.

Franco’s death signifies not just that we have lost a little bit of history but also that those of us who were active alongside him for any length of time have lost a little bit of ourselves.

It was the Piazza Fontana outrage and the crackdown on the anarchist movement that had prompted Franco to return to Ragusa once and for all after twenty years away from Sicily (albeit that he never really left the city where he popped up with frequent, productive initiatives). He had set himself the task of bolstering anarchism’s foothold in his homeland because Southern Italy, especially in those days, had turned into the stamping ground of reactionaries; its finest sons had been forced into emigrating and the haemorrhaging of militants had become too great. This was what attracted so many of us high-school youngsters and apprentices to the very idiosyncratic anarchism of Franco Leggio, the long-haired grown-up with the clear ideas about revolution and rebellion who, though in his 50s was always surrounded by young people and who was living proof that our enthusiasm was not the fleeting enthusiasm of youth.

Last June (2006) he took a heavy fall, probably as the result of a further stroke: his precarious health, precarious ever since February 1993 when his body had been sorely tried by a series of strokes, was now seriously undermined. He was now robbed of what remained of the independence that had enabled him to live alone all those years, and to spend a few hours a day dropping in on us every day and for the four afternoons a weeks that we opened; to take part in nearly every venture mounted by Ragusa’s anarchists; to spend hour after hour immersed in his reading; never to miss a single dispatch of Sicilia Libertaria from our centre. Recuperating initially in hospital he was then transferred to the convalescent home attached to the GB Odierna hospital, thereby returning to the sanatorium where he had recuperated way back in 1944 from the TB he had contracted during the war and from where he would sneak out in order to plan and lead the revolt in early January 1945 against the draft. Now, though, he had no heart for reading any more; he was just waiting for Sicilia Libertaria to come out, always insistent that he got his copy. And when the comrades and youngsters would insist that he get back to reading again, in order to occupy his time in hospital, it was in the knowledge that he would not be coming home and he always answered that he preferred to think instead.

In late November, with his health rallying ever so slightly, he was moved to a convalescent home in Ragusa Ibla. Where his comrades followed him and where he was lovingly cared for by the attendants and volunteers. Around 8 December his condition started to deteriorate. He was in a lot of pain. It was common knowledge that he would not be going home and perhaps he realised that himself. He passed away on the morning of 15 December while one last attempt was being made by one of his dearest comrades to get him to swallow a vitamin drink.

He had gradually become an anarchist in the late 1930s. Born in 1921, he had not been exposed to revolutionary political movements: but his rebellious spirit was apparent everywhere, at work, and in the company of young people: he learnt about anarchists in 1937 from reading a scurrilous article about their role in the Spanish revolution. He was immediately drawn to them. Along with some of his contemporaries he had begun to read maverick writings and joined small clandestine antifascist groups. His work in the mines brought him into contact with the harsh realities of working class life in Ragusa and with persons who despised the regime. In order to give the slip to police surveillance, he decided to join the navy where he spent the war years undergoing punishments and transfers before returning to Ragusa with TB.

The “Don’t go!” revolt found him among the protagonists alongside young libertarians like Pino Catanese and Mario Penna and so many other working class men and women who rejected the militaristic policy of the government of liberated Italy and minister of Justice Togliatti. Young libertarians drafted a hand-written manifesto La scintilla dara la fiamma (The Spark Will Produce the Flame) that they distributed among the miners, urging rebellion. And as soon as the uprising erupted he was to the forefront of it, implicated in courageous episodes. After the surrender and even as the repression was hitting the region hard and the army making arrests by the hundreds, he managed to slip back into the convalescent home where he was protected by the doctors and nurses who insisted that he had never left the place during the revolt. That June, thanks to a nark, he was arrested and given a 16 month sentence; only to be freed by Togliatti’s amnesty.

Now in contact with Sicilian anarchists such as Fiorito from Catania, Consiglio from Syracuse, Pino from Barcellona, then Alticozzi from Modica, followed by La Torre, Cerrito, Frada from Messina and Schicchi from Palermo, he and other young anarchists launched the La Fiaccola anarchist group. He would soon be joined by another protagonist of the anti-draft uprising, Maria Occhipinti whose fate was to be linked to his own and to that of the anarchists and who was to bring the enthusiasm of so many women into the Ragusa group’s fight against religious obscurantism, prejudice, oppression and poverty.

By the end of the 1940s he was back working in the mines and with some young anarchists had built up quiet support that in 1949 enabled them to resist 200 dismissals and continually outflank the local Camera del Lavoro and Communist Party by promoting an all-out strike involving seizure of the workings and self-management of them during two months of the most intense social struggle that saw him pit thousands of miners and their families against hundreds of police and soldiers in defiance of reformist bureaucrats who ultimately agreed to 40 dismissals. Franco was not one of the 40 but he was to be sacked shortly afterwards by way of retaliation. For a whole month he mounted a back-to-front strike, turning up for work every day only to be stopped by the police, obstructed and eventually paid off with a 70,000 lire bonus that he declined. After that, he emigrated to the mainland.

With his family, he moved to Naples where he tried his hand at all sorts of jobs. It was at this point that he separated from his wife whom family pressures had forced into having their children baptised. After that he was off to Livorno and Genoa where he worked with the anarchists of Puglia, launching countless political ventures and publishing projects with an especial focus on the South: publications like Conoscersi e comprendersi, Ribellione, L’Agitazione del Sud. But above all he was to link up with Spanish anarchist guerrillas carrying on the clandestine armed struggle, especially the likes of Facerias. And with Cipriano Mera, the “bricklayer general” living in exile in Paris. There were exciting time of concrete solidarity with the Spanish struggle even in Italy, in the shape of support operations mounted with young anarchists from Milan, Piedmont, Tuscany and Liguria. When, in July 1960, a revolt erupted in Genoa, [1] Franco was there with the Genoese anarchists, but even then he was thinking of going home to Ragusa, where he had retained a slim foothold by publishing newspapers and one-off publications alongside anarchists from Modica and a few Ragusans like Mario La Perla.

Within the movement, he was anti-organisation but from time to time would choose his partners on the basis of strict conditionality, critical spirit and an itch to be active. He was always open to the new and was not inclined to be afraid of youthful muddle; he was more inclined to take it on and tease out the libertarian content of this. Thus he took an interest in and showed curiosity about beatniks and provos, hippies and extra-parliamentary movements. His cavalier approach to confrontation and his moral rigour, political intransigence, learning and intellect meant that the young were always drawn into his orbit.

Meanwhile he launched the Anteo series of publications and the La Fiaccola [2] imprint, based in Ragusa: publication of anti-clerical texts was to result in his being charged and tried, to seizures and prison sentences: such a courageous undertaking could scarcely expect an easy life in the 1960s. But Franco battled blithely on, giving as good as he got to the “clerico-fascist porcupines” as he used to describe the bench and all reactionaries. La Fiaccola had a stormy existence but it weathered the storm.

When he finally came back to live in Ragusa once and for all, even as the whole world was erupting with the joy of revolt, the groundwork was laid for the emergence of an anarchist youth movement. Franco had charisma and was an enthralling, great communicator. He side with the young without any great moralising and did not create distance but actually banished it. This was looked at askance by his political contemporaries on the left who kicked up a stink when they saw how many youngsters surrounded him and who sat around the table with him in the Mediterraneo bar. Besides, as far as we youngsters were concerned, getting Franco’s opinion on something was a morale-raise and it was as if we were walking beside History, for he had a past and a future with which others could not compete.

Those were the ten best years of my own life and probably in many another life. Years of growing up amid thousands of teenage problems, political responsibilities that we could face because we knew that Franco was there, ever ready with advice or to lend a hand: he even bore our whingeing when we were too young. Even those who just flitted through the group could not help but keep up their connections with the man. Meanwhile he soldiered on with his publishing ventures, disappearing for months at a time but leaving his door open for any passerby; putting up with infamous charges and arrests involving himself in major national ventures from the demonstrations on behalf of Valpreda [3] and Marini, to festivals and symposia and he helped to enrich our experience. Ragusa, the south of the south, became a place of pligrimage for comrades from all round the world who came to seek him out: Japanese, Americans, French people and folk from all parts of Italy. He definitely did not need to leave home to get to know the world.

In Catania he had tried to launch a bookshop, L’Underground, with the local comrades. Then he had launched the review Anarchismo, taking charge of its publication and remaining connected to it up until 1978. He refloated the bookshop in Ragusa and Zuleika was launched in 1978 in an effort to counter the ebbing tide of the movement. The birth of that newspaper was also his handiwork as he encouraged us in the writing of it and to stand fast and reflect: he helped improve its contents. For years he had injected part of his character into Sicilia Libertaria by means of polemics, suggestions and analyses. As long as he had the energy to do so.

Then came the Comiso missile campaign. We were all caught up in that and Franco more than any of us: from 1981 up until the end of the ‘80s, he missed only six months (which he spent in Ragusa jail from February to August of 1983, paying the price for his courage in supporting Giovanni Marini who was standing trial in Salerno and Vallo della Lucania for the murder of a fascist). His was an “exemplary” arrest designed to “pick out” the authoritative objectively most dangerous ringleader of the opposition to the construction of the missile base in Comiso. And how his absence was seen and felt!

In 1986 the bourgeois courts could not cope with this anarchist’s dogged defiance of them. No judge was spared his darts every time he faced some charge in the wake of the Marini trial. There was a golden circle of magistrates who had been “vilified” in his letters. Until they finally decided to remand him for psychiatric reports. An act of provocation that could not be allowed to pass, and it was not: Franco invited them to send in the armoured cars to collect him from his home and a wave of solidarity swept through Italy. No examination was ever conducted: it was all too obvious that Franco’s only lunacy was that he was an anarchist, a lover of freedom and a ferocious opponent of injustice.

I realise that these few line cannot do sufficient justice to such a rich life wholly committed to the anarchist ideal. I take consolation from the fact that Franco’s overpowering personality will remain etched in the hearts of any who knew, respected and loved him.

His coffin was displayed at the Societá dei libertari (Libertarian Club), which he had always thought of as home. Surrounded by black and black-and-red flags, with a copy of the latest edition of Sicilia Libertaria tucked under his arm, surrounded by flowers and wrapped in the love of his comrades. So many people showed up, anarchists from the provinces and from Sicily, comrades from the establishment left and non-establishment left, so many former comrades who never forgot him, plus his neighbours and relatives. Together we carried him from the premises as far as the Piazza S. Giovanni, where so many rallies and demonstrations had taken place and where a brief, emotional oration from myself saluted him one last time, as those present wept to the faintly voiced strains of Addio, Lugano bello.

His body was cremated in Bari on Thursday 28 December 2006.

1 The clashes between antifascists and fascists in Genoa in 1943-45 were especially vicious. The city was warded the “gold medal of the resistance”. In 1960, in return for supporting the Christian Democrat government of Fernando Tambroni, the neofascist MSI party asked for and was granted leave to hold its national congress in Genoa. This triggered a massive protest, general strike on 30 June 1960 and revolt by outraged ex-partisans, trade unions and other leftist groups.

2 La Fiaccola means The Torch/The Firebrand.

3 Valpreda: The anarchist dancer whom the state tried to implicate in the series of “anarchist” (but actually neofascist;state) bombings in Rome and Milan in December 1969. After Pinell “fell” from the 4th floor at police HQ in Milan, Valpreda was left as the main target of the police-state attempts to pin things on the anarchists, despite all the evidence of a neo-fascist trail to be chased up.

From: Sicilia Libertaria, No 258 January 2007. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.