Carlo Tresca: The Dilemma of an Anti-Communist Radical

Published on political affairs pa, by Gerald Meyer, November 2, 2009.

A major gap in the radical history of the United States has at last been filled. Nunzio Pernicone’s Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel (New York, Palgrave, 2005) strongly argues for Carlo Tresca’s inclusion in the pantheon of the country’s venerable American revolutionaries. Carlo Tresca (1879-1943) is best remembered as a labor agitator and journalist who played a major role in the pre-World War I labor uprisings in Pennsylvania’s coalfields, in Paterson, New Jersey, on Minnesota’s Mesabi Range, and elsewhere. Less well known is Tresca’s courageous and effective leadership in the anti-Fascist struggle within the Italian American community. As an organizer and a journalist, Tresca fought in the front trenches of the fiercest battles of class struggle in the United States. Repeatedly, Tresca came face-to-face with the country’s elaborate and unrelenting repressive apparatus − and sometimes won … // 

… Tresca always maintained the anarchists’ core belief ‑ abhorrence of authority. In addition to anti-clericalism, this meant rejection of participation in both electoral politics and involvement with conventionally organized unions. Pernicone explores the difficulty of locating Tresca on the broad spectrum of anarchist ideology, because “Tresca evidenced little interest in abstract theory and ideology.” He concludes that Tresca’s thinking is closely related to Errico Malatesta’s “pragmatic, nonsectarian approach to the struggle against the state and capital.” In any case, Tresca was not in the camp of nonviolent anarchists, such as Leo Tolstoy. Nor was his brand of anarchism of the apocalyptic variety associated with Mikhail Bakunin. Unlike many anarchists, Tresca never advocated the use of terror (the assassinations of figures of authority, or the bombing of symbols of authority), as did his archrivals, the Galleanisti, who followed the dictates of Luigi Galleani. Nonetheless, Tresca never renounced the need for violence in the revolutionary process. Pernicone details a number of such instances. During a funeral peroration over the coffin of a striker who was killed by the police during the historic general strike in Paterson, a small textile manufacturing city that in radical circles was known as “the world capital of anarchism” (p. 64), Tresca intoned: “Fellow workers, don’t ever forget the principle of the toilers who came from Italy: “Sangue chiama sangue!” (“For blood you must take blood!”) (pp. 70-71). See George Carey, “Paterson, New Jersey, and Anarchism” in Encyclopedia of the American Left, eds. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (NY: Garland Publishing, 1990): 560-62. The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, was the organization that most closely matched his own beliefs, Although he never joined the IWW’s ranks, in 1914 he declared himself an anarcho-syndicalist. In his introduction to The Autobiography of Carlo Tresca (New York: John D. Calandra Italian American Institute/City University of New York, 2003), Pernicone states that “anarcho-syndicalism best describes Tresca’s position on the spectrum of revolutionary ideologies and movements. (p. iv) Tresca simply did not neatly fit into any category within the typology of anarchism. According to Pernicone, Tresca was “anarchist sui generis and so was his newspaper.” (p. 106) Tresca was truly a “freelancer of revolution” (p. 34), or had he lived in other times and other places, “a stormy petrel.”

The most continuous aspect of Tresca’s political career was his role as direttore (editor-in-chief) of a series of Italian-language anarchist weeklies, which became Tresca’s personal platform. In 1907, one year after his resignation as the director of Il Proletario, Tresca launched a new weekly, La Plebe (The Masses), which went bankrupt in 1909 when the Federal government cancelled its third-class mailing privileges because of the paper’s anti-war stance. La Plebe’s masthead proudly announced: “Neither in the service of personal cliques nor subject to the tyranny of a party, but in combat for “the Ideal” against priests, bosses, and the “camorre.” (p. 34). The camorre for Tresca meant “the rackets,” that is, the alliance between the prominenti of the Italian American community and the consuls and other officials of the Italian government operating in the United States. La Plebe and was later resurrected as L’Avvenire (The Future), which continued publishing until 1917. Il Martello”Giornale politica, litterari, ed artistico (The Hammer: A Newspaper of Politics, Literature, and the Arts), which first appeared in 1917 (the year of L’Avvenire’s demise), the last and longest lived, of these publications, continued to be published until two years after Tresca’s death in 1943. Most frequently, the journals that Tresca directed were weeklies, but depending on finances, the time span between issues could expand to two, three weeks, and sometimes they appeared on an irregular basis. For a painstaking and detailed history of Il Martello, see Pernicone’s “Carlo Tresca’s Il Martello,” Italian American Review (Spring/Summer 2001): 7-56.

Il Martello, which he owned and directed, was the apotheosis of Tresca. Its pages documented Tresca’s beliefs and opinions, and enabled him to maintain a base of support. In a sense, it legitimized his status as a leader of anarchism and of the wider radical community. By 1924 Il Martello boasted a circulation of 10,500, making it the premier Italian-language radical newspaper in the United States. By 1939, however, Tresca was forced to publish Il Martello irregularly and placed it on a biweekly schedule; its readership had declined to a miniscule 2,100 by the time of Tresca’s death. A handful of aging sovversivi produced issue after issue to the dwindling band of first-generation Italian anarchists, until its last issue was printed in 1946. The success of Il Martello, relative to the other Italian-language radical publications, can be ascribed to its fairly liberal editorial politics. In one article, Pernicone describes Il Martello as an “iconoclastic publication that hued to no doctrine, or dogmas, or party line.” (p. 18) Il Martello unquestionably was a platform for Tresca. Nonetheless, it published articles from a wide range of positions on the broad spectrum of anarchism. It was not the mouthpiece of a sect, and so could appeal to a wider range of readers in this small world.
Tresca’s message was further disseminated by his oratory, at meetings held at the Rand School (a Socialist Party-related school in New York), Cooper Union, and other halls in New York City as well as at open-air rallies and humble meeting places within Italian-speaking communities throughout the United States. Over time, his speeches (the bulk of which were in Italian) at public meetings also decreased somewhat. Max Eastman told a friend, “[Tresca] does not speak English with an Italian accent; he talks Italian with English words.” (p. 83) … (full long text).

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