May Day anarchism Italian-style

How do they celebrate May Day in the anarchist heartland of Carrara? With wreaths, wine, beans, and pride.
Crosscut archive image.

Francisco Ferrer gets his wreath.

How do they celebrate May Day in the anarchist heartland of Carrara? With wreaths, wine, beans, and pride.

When I walked into my neighborhood coffeeshop late Tuesday afternoon, a guy was describing the May Day ruckus downtown to the barista, who’d been stuck behind her steam nozzle. “All it takes is a few anarchists to spoil a good demonstration,” he concluded.

The Black Bloc had struck again – according to news reports, 75 Bloc-heads, more than afflicted the 1999 WTO demonstrations. Those were, in retrospect, the first and biggest Occupy rally, when a hundred times as many non-vandal demonstrators filled the streets. This time the Bloc-heads brought heavier gear too – long bars for smashing windows, instead of dinky hammers. They made sure to hit American Apparel, a company that boasts of operating the largest clothing factory in the North America, and employing the best-paid garment workers in the world. Way to stand up for the 99 percenters, Bloc-heads.

Once again, “anarchist” became a word to conjure terror with. KING-5 News’s Chris Daniels did it best, in a spot-on imitation of a movie-trailer voiceover: “Tourists found a downtown transformed by fear… fear of another anarchist assault!”

All this would seem disturbing, or perhaps amusing, but surely odd to the anarchists I knew in a town that can make a fair claim to being the capital of the anarchist movement: Carrara, Italy, the marble-quarrying mecca where Michelangelo, Bernini, and a legion of other sculptors have gone for their stone. The connection is not coincidental: Perhaps because they are so dangerous and strenuous, quarrying and mining have long been seedbeds of organized labor and radical movements.

I spent seven or eight months in Carrara, working on a book about its storied quarries, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s times there, and the mysteries of marble. I even joined in its anarchist march on primo maggio, May 1st, the biggest day on the local calendar. Quando a Carrara, fa com’i carrarini.

The anarchist movement played a big part in Carrara’s story over the past 110 years. And it has much older roots there, in the ancient Romans’ grinding oppression of the slaves who worked the quarries and, in later centuries, the way the hardheaded quarrymen joined to protect their interests. Michelangelo could attest to that; they nearly rioted, trapping him in his quarters, when his Medici patrons told him to stiff the Carraresi and get marble from other quarries to the south.

In 1912 Carrara, with about one-thousandth of Italy’s population, held a tenth of the members of the Italian Syndicalist Union. They organized a bitterly resisted but remarkably successful strike, winning better wages, safer conditions, and, reflecting the rigors of the quarry work, a six-and-a-half-hour workday.

Such organizing is the farthest thing from the, well, anarchy we here associate with the movement. But anarchism had many forms, and an amoeba-like propensity to divide into new, sometimes hostile factions. “Anarco-syndicalism” is the labor version, a type of “social anarchism.” The opposite brand, “individualist anarchism,” became “libertarianism”: Ron Paul, neo-anarchist. Then there are anarco-pacifism, anarco-naturism (freedom from clothing), everything except anarco-authoritarianism. The unifying element in all these anarchism: the belief that government, and coercive authority generally, are pernicious and unnecessary.

That didn’t forbid organizing, and Carrara’s anarco-syndicalists sometimes showed themselves very good at it, and not just at organizing strikes. Under German occupation in 1944 and ’45, the region saw some of the bloodiest fighting and atrocities in wartime Italy; the fascist Black Brigades were so brutal they even shocked the S.S. The anarchists formed one of the most effective partisan forces against them, and even cooperated with their communist, republican, and Christian counterparts. But they knew how to cut a deal. The anarchist partisan commander (yes, “commander”) Ugo Mazzucchelli persuaded the Germans to leave Carrara peacefully, without the usual massacres and mass evacuations. After the war, he organized food banks and networks that saved the town from starvation.

The organizing went international in 1968 when Carrara hosted a conference of the French, Spanish, and Italian Anarchist Federations, plus a few Bulgarian exiles. They organized an International which continues to this day, with chapters across Europe and South America. In Carrara, the heirs to that project still published a weekly newspaper –  mailed to 8,000 subscribers in dozens of countries – and operated a bookstore/archive-cum Cultural Center named after Gogliardo Fiaschi, who got caught on a quixotic mission to assassinate Spain’s General Franco in 1957. He’s buried in the in a little field called the Anarchist’s Cemetery at the entrance to town.

L’anarchia seemed the prevailing political sentiment in Carrara; I heard even wealthy quarry owners call themselves anarchists. It would have been the dominant political force as well, if it could have while continuing to be itself. But the anarchists proudly refused to vote: Non votiamo bumper stickers were everywhere, and the communists (“Mercedes Benz communists,” some sneered) controlled city hall. Disdain for government may be a reasonable response to Italy’s merry-go-round of graft and corruption. But it may also explain why Carrara had so much more graffiti on its ancient walls and dog poop on its sidewalks than nearby Pietrasanta.

Still, the town was safe and relatively crime-free. Personal responsibility is enshrined in the anarchist canon: “To live outside the law you must be honest,” Bob Dylan once sang. Given natural primate duplicity, that must be why it’s so hard to live outside the law.

Once a year, the anarchists peaceably took to the streets and took the town. On primo maggio work stopped and a couple hundred stalwarts and fellow travelers, and the odd tagalong like me, mustered under the big red and black banner: Nè servi nè padroni, “Neither servants nor masters.” The speeches were spirited and blessedly brief, with war heroes urging on the younger generation. The crowd skewed much older than Occupy rallies: Grizzled veterans of turbulent past decades, a smaller cohort of the 20ish, right down to toddlers and their neatly groomed older brothers bearing the red and black banner. Some wore ties and some scuffed jeans; some of the women, this being Italy, were in fine fashion; most wore the red and black bandana.

They all set off, behind a brass band of course, on a peregrination that can best be compared to the Stations of the Cross. A dozen or so times they stopped to watch solemnly as red poppy wreaths were hung on marble wall plaques and monuments. These memorials, placed by gli anarchici, honor martyrs to fascist and official violence – from Francisco Ferrer, a Catalan educator summarily executed in 1909, to a mother and son gunned down on a Carrara sidewalk in 1921 after he bumped shoulders with local fascists. Where the monuments stood too high, firemen in chartreuse-striped uniforms climbed ladders to hang the wreaths. Government was good for something – at the least, for protecting the city from liability for falls.

In the 1980s, when Italy was considering readmitting its exiled royal heirs, Ugo Mazzucchelli convinced Carrara’s city council to approve a monument to Gaetano Bresci, the man who assassinated King Umberto I in 1900. The president of the republic denounced the idea and the Italian Monarchist Association sued to stop it. So, one dark night the anarchists installed a slab inscribed to Bresci in the Anarchists’ Cemetery. It stands there still.

Such dustups were now old history, and the assassinations and massacres even older. Primo maggio had the reverent, nostalgic air of Memorial Day ceremonies, only more festive. It turned into a folk festival when the march ended and everyone trooped up to a sprawling loft in an imposing old building owned by the anarchist circle. They sat on the floor, drank from bottomless jugs of good cheap red wine, munched on raw fava beans, strummed guitars, and sang stirring songs that I was sure I’d remember and of course didn’t.

So wait a hundred years and the anarchist bogey will turn mellow and respectable. Perhaps we could speed the process by declaring ourselves all anarchists and inviting the Black Bloc-heads to the party.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.