‘Luigi Galleani: The Most Dangerous Anarchist in America’ by Antonio Senta reviewed by Ruth Kinna

Luigi Galleani: The Most Dangerous Anarchist in America

Foreword by Sean Sayers. AK Press, Chico, CA, 2019. 220pp., $18 pb
ISBN 9781849353489

Reviewed by Ruth Kinna

About the reviewer

Ruth Kinna is a political theorist in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough …


On initial reading, Antonio Senta’s biography of Luigi Galleani appears to validate the old lesson: if you fight the law the law will win. But the lasting impression of Senta’s study of Galleani is that he outplayed police on two continents by exemplifying a quintessentially anarchist spirit of revolt.

Galleani is usually remembered in one of three guises: the revolutionary, who provoked the retaliation of the law through his advocacy and use of insurrectionary violence; the charismatic leader of the Italian-American movement, who inspired Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to join its ranks; or, perhaps the author of The End of Anarchism?, a defence of anarchist communism directed against a former comrade Francesco Saverio Merlino, who had turned from anarchism to parliamentary socialism in 1897. Well known by reputation, Galleani is now also notable for his absence in standard histories. When Cienfuegos Press published The End of Anarchism? in 1983, Paul Avrich, the leading historian of anarchism, commented on how unreasonable this neglect was: Galleani was ‘one of the greatest anarchist orators of all time’, on a par with Emma Goldman and Johann Most. As the editor of the influential Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), he rivalled them as an organiser, too. Ten years later, Nunzio Pernicone was similarly effusive. Galleani was ‘one of the movement’s most eloquent writers and spellbinding orators’ a ‘venerated leader of Italian anarchist workers in the United States between 1901 and 1919’, eclipsed only by Errico Malatesta in ‘stature and importance’. Yet little has changed since Avrich’s time. The chapter on Galleani in Steve Shone’s recent American Anarchism opens with the same observations.

Born in 1861 in Vercelli, near Turin, Galleani gravitated to anarchism from republicanism. This was a common path, usually powered by the failure of constitutional regimes to realise egalitarian and libertarian goals. In Galleani’s case, the disappointment was exacerbated by economic crisis: his awareness of the hardship workers endured through exploitation and precarity was decisive. His rejection of electoral participation as a vehicle for socialism strengthened his alignment. Abandoning university law studies, he started writing, lecturing and organising across Piedmont, Liguria and Lombardy. Threatened with arrest in 1889, he left Italy for France. This did not prevent his imprisonment, however. Through his propaganda in anarchist networks in France, Switzerland and Italy, Galleani raised his profile with the police as well as the international movement: short spells in jail regularly interrupted his work. In 1893 the Italian authorities put him on trial for conspiracy. This time he was sentenced to five years, two to be spent in internal exile. By now he was immersed in anarchist literature and, sufficiently competent in English, German and Spanish to translate key texts, he began to circulate subversive ideas to fellow prisoners. In 1900, just before the end of his sentence, he escaped to Egypt. After helping to drive initiatives to establish free universities in Alexandria and Cairo, he travelled via London to America.

In 1901 Galleani settled in Paterson, New Jersey, then a centre of silk weaving with a large Italian migrant population. He began to edit La Questione Sociale, using it to promote labour activism. In 1902, he was identified by police as a dangerous labour leader and key instigator of a dyers’ and textile workers’ strike. With a bounty on his head, he spent a brief spell underground in Montreal before re-emerging in 1903 in Barre, Vermont. This was another centre of Italian immigrants and from 1903-1911, when the paper relocated to Lynn Massachusetts, it was the home of Cronaca Sovversiva. Under his editorship, it became one of the most widely read anarchist papers in America and an essential resource for a network of antiauthoritarian, anticapitalist groups committed to direct action, independent labour activism and antimilitarism.

Galleani opposed the war in 1914 and in 1917 joined Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to agitate against conscription. The campaign was a turning-point for all of them. The Red Scare sparked by the Russian Revolution raised the temperature of anti-anarchist operations and marked all three as undesirable aliens. Coordinated bombings targeting prominent conservatives, including Mitchell Palmer, mastermind of the raids that devastated the American left, heightened the tensions. ‘Galleanists’ claimed responsibility, sparking a major crackdown and new determination to remove Galleani. As a ‘person of interest’, he had already been tried in 1907 for his part in the Paterson strike, but he had been acquitted when the jury failed to reach a verdict. The introduction of a swathe of new anti-anarchist laws made his deportation a certainty. Cronaca Sovversiva was shut down in 1919 and Galleani was put on a ship back to Italy.

Producing a new series of Cronaca Sovversiva in Turin in 1920, Galleani managed to smuggle copies across the Atlantic and maintain links with his networks in America: police suspected him of involvement in the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, though nothing was ever proved. His campaigns also upset the Italian authorities and Galleani was once again forced on the run. Evading capture until 1922 he turned himself in, in poor health and demoralised by the rise of fascism. He spent the next seven years in and out of prison, doing time in cells he had first occupied in the 1890s. He died in 1931, under close police surveillance and shortly after suffering a heart attack.

Senta tells Galleani’s story with infectious enthusiasm, piecing his life together from a mass of primary and secondary sources. His account nicely highlights the camaraderie of the social and political networks anarchists organised to counter the dark, claustrophobic experience of policing. In barely 200 pages, Senta paints a memorable picture of the social and political climate Galleani inhabited.

There’s not a lot of critical reflection, however. Senta outlines but never interrogates Galleani’s muscular response to state repression. Nor does he consider the limits of anarchist transnationalism, a central topic in recent movement histories. While he mentions the role of Italian anarchists in the 1899 Cairo tobacco workers’ strike, he glosses over the general insularity of Europeans and their detachment from local Egyptian communities. There is also some murkiness in the details of his history. For example, Senta estimates three to eight thousand workers attended the strike meeting in Paterson. Kenyon Zimmer’s history of Italian anarchism in America puts the figure at between fifteen hundred to two thousand. Senta places Galleani in Europe in 1906, referring to a meeting with Elisée Reclus who died in 1905, to corroborate the date.

Foregrounding the tests and triumphs of Galleani’s remarkable outlaw life, Senta also leaves readers to extract his political thought from his responses to events or debates. Only one chapter, ‘A Little Bit of Theory’, discusses Galleani’s leading principles. The chapter on The End of Anarchism?, the book Avrich judged to be his ‘most fully realized work’, barely scratches the surface of the text.

There are some important clues to Galleani’s insurrectionist stance: Blanqui was one of his early heroes; he celebrated the actions of leading ‘propagandists of the deed’ who put their own lives on the line to avenge bourgeois greed and state violence. Emile Henry, the son of a Communard who bombed a café near Paris’s Gare St Lazare, was one. Clément Duval, an expropriator convicted of robbery who described his actions as ‘just restitution done in the name of humanity’ was another. In 1907, Galleani published a substantially reworked translation of Duval’s prison memoir which described his life on the French colony in Guiana. Duval’s statement, ‘you must oppose force with force to overcome anything’, would surely have resonated with him. Senta misses this, but skillfully uses other mantras to bring Galleani’s politics alive. ‘Law does not live in declarations. It is law only when one can exercise it’ captures the spirit of his antiauthoritarianism. A line from Étienne la Boétie printed on the front of La Questione Sociale gives a flavour Galleani’s approach to self-emancipation: ‘decide to serve no longer and you will be free’. A quote from Horace placed under the masthead of Cronaca Sovversiva sums up his class analysis: ‘that fortune may leave the proud, and return to the wretched’.

Senta’s chapter on theory provides the philosophical scaffolding of insurrectionism. Galleani subscribed to an idea of progress adapted from Reclus and fellow geographers, Peter Kropotkin and Lev Mechnikov. This encouraged him to think of anarchism as an evolving condition of solidarity aligned to communist principles of distribution according to need. In turn, the promise of anarchism provided a spur for accelerated revolutionary action. Here, Galleani turned to Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own, describing the book ‘a virile call to revolt’. Privately, some anarchists expressed misgivings about insurrectionary actions, even while publicly explaining them as the result of abject, dehumanising social conditions. Galleani had no such qualms and Senta’s account helps explain why. For him, ‘individual initiatives’ were acts of revolt which advanced the revolutionary cause as effectively as collective actions.

Yet Senta’s account raises as many questions as it answers. According to Senta, Malatesta considered The End of Anarchism? brilliant. Yet in 1926 he described it as ‘Kropotkinian’: ‘too optimistic, too easy-going’. Senta suggests that Reclus, not Kropotkin, was the dominant influence on Galleani’s thinking. Nevertheless, his discussion of revolution and evolution leaves the implications of Malatesta’s critique hanging. Senta’s treatment of Galleani’s Stirnerism is also puzzling. His attraction to Stirner was not unusual. Significant numbers of late nineteenth-century anarchists found the assertiveness of The Ego and Its Own thrilling. But Galleani’s view that Stirner rejected the idea ‘that each can do to their fellow beings whatever they please’ is at least questionable. So, too, is his dismissal of Nietzsche. Senta says that Galleani believed Thus Spake Zarathustra to be incompatible with anarchist altruistic ethics. His admiration for Jean-Marie Guyau perhaps explains his mistrust; Kropotkin borrowed Guyau’s philosophy to advance his critique of Nietzsche. But Senta does not develop this line of inquiry.

Galleani’s anti-organisational politics is one of the major themes of Senta’s study. Robust in Galleani’s defence, he corrects reductive critiques that equate ‘organisation’ with collective action and communism to differentiate it from ‘individualism’. Galleani’s approach was practical: organisation meant ‘coordination between activists and anarchist groups’ for propaganda purposes and revolutionary action. This explains Galleani’s refusal to take sides in the ‘organisationalist’ debate that split the Italian movement in 1899. While he agreed with Malatesta that anarchist action depended on the ability of anarchists to mobilise mass support, he was opposed to the creation of workers’ federations, since this risked bureaucratising the movement. Galleani emerges as an advocate of affinity groups who believed that solidarity based on voluntary participation was the appropriate glue to hold anarchist groups together. Accordingly, he campaigned alongside the IWW while lukewarm about syndicalism. He also rejected formal pacts to underwrite united socialist action against fascism while supporting the principle of concerted resistance.

Galleani’s domestic life is another strong suit in Senta’s study. Although Maria, his partner, is not discussed at length, she is an important presence and she appears in one of the photographs reproduced in the book. By following their relationship Senta is able to convey the enormous costs of dissidence. Galleani’s deportation meant separation from Maria and their six children. In his foreword, Sean Sayers, Galleani’s grandson, relates the full story. His account of his investigations into his grandfather’s life is far more than just an interesting family history. Sayers’ reflections on the commercial development of the once harsh, desolate landscapes Galleani knew as a political prisoner and his accurate description of US government repression as a ‘hate-filled, xenophobic and racist campaign demonizing radicals and foreigners’ adds another dimension to Galleani’s struggles. Sayers records that his mother, then a child, asked her father to give up anarchism to avoid deportation, and was subsequently glad that he refused. The whole family paid the price of his principles, stood strong and remained committed. As he put it in The End of Anarchism?: ‘we are revolutionary only when and insofar as we know how to resist and react against the wickedness, corruption and violence of our environment’.

12 March 2020

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *