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WIECK, David. "What Need Be Said"
Article published on 7 May 2011
last modification on 4 May 2011

by r-c.
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Source: Sacco Vanzetti Project 2002 (consulted July 23, 2003, but no longer available).

Paul Avrich’s discussion of the history of the Italian anarchist movement in the United States was not only a beautiful presentation - it is the first statement that I have heard or read that gives a feeling of what that movement was actually like. That movement has been misrepresented, when not ignored, and in his tories of the "Sacco-Vanzetti case, " where it is very pertinent, it is usually ignored. The picture that has been presented here this morning is one that I know to be true; what I will do, mainly, is to try to add to that picture.

First of all it is important to be clear about the historical context in which that movement developed. Anarchism in the United States was predominantly a movement of immigrant people-the Italians, jews, Russians, and others of whom Paul Avrich spoke. Immigrants - we do not always remember - were the core of the working class in this country during the tatter part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century; their exploitation was a prime source of the capital accumulation that built an industrial society and created enormous private wealth for the owners and financiers of industry. It is sometimes thought that the appearance of radical and anarchist ideas among the immigrants could be accounted for by their being aliens-that it could be accounted for by the culture that they brought with them. There is some truth in this but more important for understanding the development of the immigrant movements, I believe, is the fact that in the United States of that time there was something very close to a state of civil war. It was a civil war between the rich and the poor, the people who owned and the people who had nothing or little, between the people who were engaged in establishing the modern capitalist system and the modern American state and people who were opposing and resisting that capitalism and that state. That war was in short a social civil war.

Italian immigrants did, of course, come from a country where traditions of anti-authoritarianism - anti-state, anti- clerical, anti-padrone - were strong and the same kind of battles as in the United States were in fact fought out in Italy during the same era. More than immigrants from some other countries, Italian immigrants may have brought with them a certain intolerance toward authoritarian systems. But only a few of them came with radical ideas; they came to seek a better life and found a world that was not very different from the old, and if in Italy they had (most of them) been despised as peasants, here they were despised as Italians. Their life-situations and job-situations in the United States, and the political and economic developments here, were the reasons why many Italian immigrants, like immigrants from other cultures, were responsive to radical ideas, including anarchism. These anarchist ideas the Italian immigrants heard mainly from those intellectuals who escaped persecution at home by going off to the New World, both North and South America, where they helped create new circles of anarchism. Unintentionally, the Italian government contributed to the dissemination of anarchism around the world: the anarchist ideas of the exiles found resonance in the lives the immigrants were living.

To most of us in the late twentieth century, it may seem as if capitalism, and the American state as we know it, existed always. But they were the products of an evolution. Many people in this country -not just immigrants, notjust people with radical ideologies and convictions, but also American-born workers, and a great number of farmers -had come to hate the federal government, to hate Wall Street, to hate the banks. The federal government, Wall Street, the banks, represented a capitalism, and a great American state that was becoming a world-power, that they did not want, that they felt was crushing them. Workers fought back and tried to organize unions; as soon as they tried to organize in any industry there was massive, united, and often violent resistance on the part, of the employers and on the part of the government. The history of that period, for great numbers of working people, was one of strikes, blacklists, frame- ups, massacres, lynchings, beatings, and the use of the courts and of state militias and federal troops to break strikes. In those hard struggles hundreds of people died. That was the context in which the immigrant anarchist movements developed.

The Italian anarchist movement in the U.S. became known for its justification of violence, and for the background and context of the Sacco-Vanzetti "case ’ this is of course an important fact. About this I want to say first that for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of working-people in those years the justification of violence was not really an ethical problem. Many people were against capitalism, many believed in some kind of socialism, sometimes in terms of nationalization of banks or industries, sometimes more vaguely as a simple opposite to capitalism. Such ideas were widespread, and widespread also was the idea that one had to fight back, one had to defend oneself, that there was violence on the part of employers and violence on the part of the state, and that against this violence, workers, farmers, poor people, had to defend themselves. Violence against violence: rifles against rifles: and sometimes dynamite. In the Middle West of my own background, such stories were part of the traditions of the coal miners -the burning of mine-tipples, the dynamiting of bridges of coal-hauling railroads during times of strike, the warfare of Ludlow and in West Virginia. Anarchists were very seldom responsible for these actions - but many anarchists, especially Italian anarchists, openly justified what they thought of as the self-defense of workers and as part of the struggle to achieve a just society.

The anarchists were different from most other people in rebellion against capitalist society and government in that they did not believe that by winning union-recognition, or by electing the right government officials, or by building a political party, the problems of the society would be solved. They did not, of course, believe in government. They believed in the need for revolution, they believed that the revolution would necessarily be violent, and many anarchists, especially of the Galleanista movement to which Sacco and Vanzetti belonged, believed in the importance of teaching the necessity of selfdefense by violent means and the eventual necessity for popular revolutionary violence, that is, insurrection, the time for which might not be far away.

The reason why it had been easy to convict the Haymarket anarchists, the Chicago anarchists, in 1887 was that they had advocated such a doctrine. (This, of course, was before the time of the Italian immigrant movement) Workers had been beaten and killed on picket lines and demonstrations in Chicago and the anarchists had said, "We have the right to defend ourselves’ " Why? Because the state is not legitimate, the police are not legitimate, they have no right on their side; what they are, is an enemy that stands against the working-people. Anarchists were plain-spoken about what many people practiced and believed but did not so openly advocate.

Some anarchists, particularly those in the Galleani tradition, also justified and believed in the rightness of acts of individual reprisal. justification of such acts was not always easy to distinguish from advocacy The great model for such acts of reprisal would be, of course, Gaetano Bresci. Why did he kill the King of Italy? Perhaps I oversimplify - I do not believe that I do- but I think that it was chiefly because the King had honored with decoration the military commander whose troops had slaughtered hundreds of demonstrating farm-workers in the city of Milano just before the end of the nineteenth century. Bresci had left his home in New Jersey and had gone to Italy to kill the King. Anarchists, especially those of the Italian movement, thought that this was a noble action because it was at the same time an act of sacrifice - Bresci gave up his life in order to make a statement about society, about those who ruled the society, about the need and the importance of rebellion by individuals, the overcoming of passivity and submission. He had made a statement that anarchists understood as meaning that people must not wait for leaders to take care of them, not wait for a socialist party to be voted into office and create a new tyranny -a statement that the movement for justice and freedom must come from the resolution of individuals to act in their own behalf. The actions of such men as Bresci were understood as symbolic of that affirmation - and such, I believe, was in fact the spirit of Bresci’s act.

Not all of the actions by anarchists, in various countries, that Luigi Galleani recounted in his Faccia a Faccia col Nemico - "Face to Face with the Enemy," a book that, I feel sure, played a role in the determination of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to insist on the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti, against the weight of evidence-not all of those actions were on the same level of ideal. But those actions were understood as expressing, in one fashion or another, a spirit of individual resistance and rebellion that was essential to the anarchist ideal. Galleani gave intellectual coherence to this ideal-and the Italian anarchist movement in the United States was greatly influenced by that strong figure.

The movement of which Galleani’s Cronaca Sovversiva was the center was, in a sense, the purest of anarchist movements. By that I mean that its conception of social revolution was one according to which anarchists would not attempt in any way to "run" revolution or make a revolution. The theory was that it is not anarchists who make revolutions, working-people make revolutions; anarchists educate, anarchists give examples. As Paul Avrich indicated, anarchists give examples in many ways. They give example by the kind of lives they lead, the kind of movement that they build, the kind of social and cultural existence that they have among themselves and with their neighbors, the kind of help (the ’mutual aid") that they give to each other and to other working-people and oppressed people. To be anarchist was to rebel, to refuse to be oppressed, not to become an oppressor, to help those who are oppressed. just that, I would say, is the meaning of all anarchism, not merely of that movement. But I have called the movement around Cronaca Sovversiva "the purest of anarchisms" because in many anarchist movements there have been tendencies, of one sort or another, to attempt to lead a revolution; such tendencies the Galleanista anarchists criticized sharply.

The revolutionary anarchists believed that social revolution was possible and not remote. They may have been mistaken but their view was far from irrational. Before 1914 the world - at least the world of Europe and the cultures derived from it, but China also was experiencing revolution - the world was still full of hope. From our perspective those hopes may seem to have been totally unrealistic - but we see that period through the lens of the first World War. When the United States entered that war in 1917, a great wave of repression was mobilized against all radical movements in the United States. The war meant the triumph of American finance-capitalism and of the American state, and it brought down a curtain on the radical movements of the time. As in Europe, that war made an incalculable difference. It gave opportunity for the American government, American corporations, American banks, all working together, to destroy the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, the various anarchist movements, all movements that represented any kind of threat, moderate or revolutionary, to the order that was establishing itself. By the time that Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, the work of repression - misleadingly called "hysterias’-had been done. The Italian-immigrant anarchist movement did not disappear but it gradually ceased to be a significant force, and with the cut-off of immigration its years were numbered.

I don’t know if the people who run governments and the people who belong to the significant classes in society bring about wars specifically for the purpose of better controlling society and putting down the rebels and dissidents. I don’ t know if they do that consciously; sometimes I think so. But war has that effect; and, of course, we live with that same effect in the continuous war, the permanent war-readiness, that is the state of our country. There is always a "threat"- once it was the Spaniards in Cuba, now it is the Russians in Cuba. The appeal is always to national security- an enemy threatens to engulf us.

The deportations of anarchists at the end of the war were one reason why the beliefs and indeed the character of Sacco and Vanzetti were subject to much misrepresentation during "the case’ and afterwards. Imagine if Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman had been in the United States in the 1920’s -after three decades in this country they were only technically "foreigners" - imagine what they would have had to say about Sacco and Vanzetti, imagine what a storm they would have sought to arouse. There were no anarchist speakers of that quality in the 1920’s. Among the deportees was also Galleani. That most eloquent of speakers and most eloquent of writers - in the Italian language - had been sent back to the land whose prisons and persecutions he had fled twenty years before, where he would experience the prisons and persecution of Fascism.

Sacco and Vanzetti were revolutionary anarchists: without this fact in the forefront, the picture cannot be clear. This was not a fact that liberal sympathizers with the case felt comfortable with. The Communists, who were beginning to achieve a place of power in left-intellectual circles, had their own good reasons not to mention that Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists - beginning with the fact that the anarchists were the first radical critics of the Bolshevik revolution. just recently I read a history of American labor from the Communist point of view, and you cannot tell that Sacco and Vanzetti were really anarchists, not from that book. But there has been much falsification of the history of Sacco and Vanzetti, for a variety of political and ideological reasons.

Who, then, were Sacco and Vanzetti? I am sure that we are going to learn a great deal more from the materials in the Felicani collection and I am look ing forward to making use of it. Yet there is a great deal already in print that we should simply re-read with more care. Last August 22nd I was asked to speak at a street-rally in New York City, in commem oration of the men, a rally that was held on the steps of the New York Public Library. To the passers-by who paused a bit, some of them to stay, on their way home from work, I tried to tell in a few minutes what Sacco and Vanzetti mean to me. I tried to do that by translating their world into ours. That week, last summer, was, it happened, a week when desperate people in what was being called an "epidemic’ " were risking liberty and life and the lives of others to rob a few hundred dollars from banks; that day was, a day when the news headlined in the tabloids was that in Brooklyn a squad of city-police had emptied their revolvers into the living, dying, and dead body of a small Hispanic man, armed with a pair of scissors, whose mother had (for his sake) called the police; that time was a time when notice was being taken of the "illegal aliens" who are the labor-force of our contemporary big-city sweatshops; and it was one of a sequence of days when what used to be called an Oil Trust was squeezing dollars, gallon by gallon, from desperate motorists. I mentioned these things and I mentioned other things I had seen in the city that convinced me that Sacco and Vanzetti, alive today, would see a painfully similar world, and would be anarchists. (Instead of a way, that they resisted, a machine of war that never stops running.) That, I said, is part of what Sacco and Vanzetti mean to me. But as to the persons -I said that the best thing that anyone in the audience could do, to find out about them, would be to go into the library behind which I was speaking and read three books carefully: Boston, certainly; the Legacy; but above all the Letters. Sometimes, when I read what is written about Sacco and Vanzetti, I wonder if the author has read the Letters recently.

But there is something more that I want to say here. What Sacco and Vanzetti signify to me alsoto me, as an anarchist -is a force, a strength, of which we should all be capable, a force and strength that we just might encounter among people whom we happen to know. I am phrasing this carefully, because I do not want to call them "ordinary people." That phrase diminishes people; and Sacco and Vanzetti have been too much diminished by those phrases of the Good Shoemaker, etc., phrases that were probably spoken by Vanzetti but, I suspect, with more than a touch of irony. Endless repetition of those phrases adds up to condescension. Good Shoemaker, Poor Fish Peddler, mere victims picked out because, unjustly convicted because, they were Italians who couldn’t speak very good English and insisted on talking in court about their weird anarchist ideas, their naive opinions. Innocent of the charges brought against them, they were "guilty" of trying to help bring about a social revolution. That other, perhaps more comfortable, image is a "view," "history," that has to be overcome in order to arrive at a more serious truth about Sacco and Vanzetti.

If I understand Paul Avrich correctly, he was saying that you could have found many people in the Italian immigrant movement who were doing just the same kinds of things as Sacco and Vanzetti, who would have had many of the same kinds of attitudes, and who would, perhaps, under the same circumstances, have acted very much like those men did when they were imprisoned. How did Sacco and Vanzetti act? This is what matters-it matters more than the fact that Vanzetti was a man of uncommon intellectual abilities. In Sacco and Vanzetti we can see -and if one does not, I do not understand it -we can see persons, individuals, persons of character, persons being true to themselves. These two men were very different individuals, from quite different cultural backgrounds, and their life- experiences were quite dissimilar. Many "sympathizers" did not like Sacco because his way was not as sweet a way as Vanzetti’s could sometimes be. They were individuals with identity, very strong identity, and strong feelings. They had not sought a limelight, they had not sought a martyrdom, but in the face of death each man, in his own way, gave example of dignity and courage and loyalty to a faith. In a sense they were great people, great as persons- though not in the sense in which the term "great" is commonly used. The kind of greatness they had is the kind that human beings in general, I want to believe, have capacity for; and in their living, and in their enduring, they exhibited the idea of anarchism, the idea that human beings-why not all of us?-have such capacities.

The marvelous thing that then comes out is-seven years of an ethical statement. That statement can be read in the way these men acted, in the kinds of things they said, in what they said in court, in letters, in conversations; but also just in their manifestation of conviction, something one can hear in their "voices" even though one never heard them speak. I don’t think that I have to explain this further -it should be the clearest thing in that whole "history" the Letters tell it, I think it is enough to point to those seven years.

This, finally, is the importance to me of Sacco and Vanzetti: they were anarchists who exhibited in their lives, in their situation, the meaning of a social and human vision that is for some people just so many words or perhaps a foolish dream. Yes, in a sense they were visionaries. In a sense, but not in the usual and deprecatory sense of "visionary." They were visionary in their lives: their vision was embodied in their lives.

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