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

Liverpool University Press, 2013, pp. 244, $99.95.

This book is a collective biography of Italian anarchists in the capital of continental revolutionary exile, London, over the nearly four decades between the beginning of the international anarchist movement and the turning point of the First World War. The phrase chosen by the author for his title, «knights errant», is a self-description by the most literary-minded Italian anarchist, Pietro Gori, in the best-known Italian anarchist song, Addio Lugano bella. Although such a label may also conjure up the stereotype of anarchists as aimless romantic wanderers at the mercy of events, this book tells a different story of sustained, oriented action in pursuit of a revolutionary project.

In the author’s own words, the book «combines an investigation of anarchist political organisations and activities with a study of the everyday life of militants through identifying the hitherto largely anonymous Italian anarchist exiles who settled in London». By focusing on «the processes and associations through which anarchist exiles created an international revolutionary network» the book seeks to «understand the nature of the transnational anarchist diaspora» (pp. 12-13).

The book is organized in a broadly chronological structure within which thematic chapters are interwoven. The first chapter sets the scene, both in Italy and England, by describing the «anarchist pathways toward London», which continued an earlier Risorgimento tradition of political exile. It also aptly points out how borders could hinder not only anarchist mobility, but also government repression. The next three chapters deal in turn with each of the three decades from the 1880s through the 1900s. While the chapter about the 1880s mainly deals with «the making of the colony», the other two get into the thick of anarchist action and debates around the turn of the century. Chapters 5 and 6 constitute the more thematic section of the book, dealing respectively with Italian police surveillance and Italian anarchist club life. The seventh and last chapter resumes and wraps up the chronological narrative by examining the disruptive impact that the First World War and the debate on intervention had on the anarchist network of international solidarity.

This is a book about altre Italie, «other Italies», in more than one sense. In London as elsewhere, Italian anarchists were part of the other Italy of Italian migration. They were workers themselves and their pathways around the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea were the same as those of ordinary migrant workers. As Di Paola shows especially in his first two chapters, Italian anarchists in London lived in areas of high Italian concentration such as Holborn, Soho, and Clerkenwell. Their lives were rooted in the colony of Italian immigrants and exerted a significant influence on it.

However, Italian anarchists constituted an altra Italia in their own right, and in a less obvious sense. Their anarchism did not prevent them from nurturing a sense of national belonging. As Di Paola points out, «Italian anarchist exiles’ political horizons remained predominantly focused on events in Italy». There is a widespread tendency to equate national belonging with nationalism, which would ipso facto make national belonging incompatible with anarchist internationalism. In the light of this stereotype, even lending legitimacy to national distinctions would immediately make anarchists self-contradictory. Even Di Paola seems to be not immune from this stereotype, as he argues in the introduction and reasserts in the conclusions that the focus of anarchist action on the homeland «illustrates the retention of practical and conceptual nationalist frameworks, and underlines the complexity of the dichotomy between the “national” and the “international” character of the anarchist diaspora» (p. 207). However, anarchists nurtured an inclusive sense of national identity that was complementary with their internationalism and incompatible with the exclusiveness of nationalism. The focus of their action on the homeland proceeded from a sort of division of labor among anarchists of different nationalities, whereby the action of each group could be most effectively directed to the country they knew best and whose language they spoke. Italian anarchists loved their country and carried a vision of an altra Italia that constituted a radical alternative to the official Italy that spied on them so relentlessly, as Di Paola well documents.

In general, however, one of the book’s main strengths comes from the author’s ability to understand anarchism. This does not necessarily mean sharing its ideas. Rather, it means making sense of the anarchists’ action by attributing them coherent and rational intentions and beliefs, rather than interpreting their action as illustrative of contradictory beliefs and gross cognitive inadequacies. Whereas historians easily allow themselves to become judgmental and condescending when they deal with anarchism, the author exhibits respect for his subject and a commendable restraint in passing judgment.

From a methodological perspective, another of the book’s strengths comes from the author’s unassuming, matter-of-fact approach to his subject. Grand arguments are eschewed in favor of narratives built around central individuals and events. For example, the controversy between organizationalists and anti-organizationalists in the 1890s is explained through the contrast between the two paradigmatic figures of Errico Malatesta and Luigi Parmeggiani. Likewise, the underworld of spies is illustrated through the life stories of individual informants like Orlando De Martijs and Federico Lauria, and through crucial episodes in which spies either wreaked havoc on the movement, or were uncovered by the anarchists. Since very little can be found in the anarchist movement in terms of formal organizations, the author’s focus on individuals serves him well in providing a way into a movement organized as a network of individuals and small groups.

This is an excellently researched and enlightening book that places itself in a current of new studies of anarchist communities in emigration centers. Together with Constance Bantman’s twin work on French anarchists in London, Di Paola’s book fills an important gap and helps give a fuller picture of how anarchist movements operated and managed to survive despite repression in their respective homelands. While the book remains of primary interest for the history of political movements, it should be of interest to scholars and students in migration studies and social history as well.


Davide Turcato (independent scholar)