The following is the introduction of a new book called Face to Face with the Enemy: Severino di Giovanni and the Intransigent Anarchists of South America from 1920-1930.
“I have a lot of love for our cause and I am capable of doing anything to encourage it,” wrote Severino Di Giovanni in a letter to a comrade a few months before being shot. His love for the anarchist ideal was not platonic: it was his ardent palpitations that pushed him and raised him to the rebellious peak of thought and action. Anarchism is not just action, as it is not just thought either: it unites the two aspects in a great passionate embrace. In good company, Severino went all the way for his love. Some of his comrades died under the bullets of the cops, others spent many years behind bars; some have left in exile to escape repression, others have been able to continue to open their own path of fighters for the ideal in the depths of social war.
If their main field of action was Argentina and the Uruguayan side of the Río de la Plata, the anarchists who found themselves there in the 1920s and 1930s came from all over the world. Many had escaped from the fascist reaction in Italy, others from ruthless repression in Spain, others, like thousands of emigrants, had arrived attracted by a false promise of happiness. Some had already been expelled because of their subversive activity in the United States, but several of them were born to the life of the Río de la Plata, in the Argentine pampas or at the foot of the Andes. And the situation in which they dreamed and acted was far from being pacified. The Argentine industry was expanding, attracting a good number of foreign capital investments. The workers and peasant conflicts were marked by strikes, attacks, revolts and often frequent bloody repression. The largest trade union federation in the country, FORA (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina), was anarcho-syndicalist and strong in a long tradition of struggle. Their newspaper was an anarchist daily called La Protesta. But many other groupings, unions, circles and anarchist groups existed outside the large organization. Not sharing the centralizing tendency and respecting the attitude of fight regularly adopted by some of its figures. There were, for example, radical independent trade unions of bakers, railway workers, dock workers, painters, mechanics, taxi drivers and masons. Another major magazine, the weekly La Antorcha, existed and operated in a more reserved anarchist sense, but many other newspapers and smaller papers were organized in different cities and regions of the vast country. In addition, there were numerous circles of immigrant anarchists, grouped mostly by region or country of origin.
The second half of the 1920s was marked by a massive international solidarity movement to wrest Sacco and Vanzetti from the electric chair, from the rise of fascism and totalitarian regimes in Europe and from an accentuation of capitalist exploitation worldwide before The Great Depression of the 1930s. The life of Río de la Plata, Severino Di Giovanni and his comrades gave birth to an intransigent anarchism. Intransigent in their ideas, refusing to confuse anarchism with a sort of radical syndicalism, with a harsher version of political socialism or even with a democratic anti-fascism. Intransigent even in action: their ideal was not just a vision of the world, a philosophy of life, a perspective of social transformation, it was also a declaration of war to every authority, to all those who represent and defend authority. And in this war, there could be no possible respite.
These anarchists organized themselves in different circles and groups connected to each other to help each other share a clandestine logistics and elaborate broader attack plans. They considered the anarchist struggle as a whole. The agitation could be done through newspapers, flyers, riots, and even with pistols and bombs. The revolution is the way through which it passes through the demolition of the state ideal, the capitalist leeches and the authoritarian society, but it is not a lightning in the clear sky: it is stimulated, prepared, encouraged and unleashed by the actions of minority agents and by insurrectional attempts. And it is for the sake of anarchism that these militants at every order expropriated from banks to support the imprisoned anarchists and finance the publication of newspapers and books. It is for this same love that they beat down the torturer and explosively participated in general strikes. It is still for this same love that they did everything they could to free their own and harshly criticize the pontiffs and their followers, who prefer the sheep-like bleating of a great organized and directed movement to the battle roar of scattered Insurgents.
Their starting point was the individual and his rebellion, and not just any social category or mass organization. It is quite natural for them to organize themselves based on their affinity and knowledge rather than through formal adherence to a program. If they used the expression “autonomous anarchism” it was to emphasize their independence with respect to trade union organizations (including those of a libertarian tendency) or to organizations of synthesis (including anarchist ones). If they called themselves “anarchist expropriators” it was to mark their own difference from those who subordinated their activities to the requirements of the penal code. They tended towards quality in everything they did: the struggle for ideas as a song of life. For them, anarchism was also beauty, joy, sensitivity, company of accomplices, generosity, courage… in other words, the rise to a climax. Not for nothing can we find in the pages of Culmine or Anarchy, newspapers edited by Severino and his comrades, not only invitations to action, claims of attacks, articles of agitation and social analysis, but also poems, literary extracts, historical texts and philosophical, variations on free love and artistic reviews. Because when life burns, it wants to devour everything. He says yes to all possibilities, proudly affirms the individual will.
Not surprisingly, journalists and powerful people treated Severino and his comrades as “terrorists” and “bandits.” On the other hand, certain anarchists of the time called them “provocateurs” and “fascists.” Not content with leading their daily La Protesta into a systematic campaign against “anarcho-banditry” which would have caused so many whirlwinds in the stagnant waters of the “official movement,” they have added slander and infamy, particularly against Di Giovanni. The history of anarchism is full of discussions and controversies, sometimes very harsh and virulent, as happened in Argentina at the end of the 1920s, and this in part also constitutes its wealth. If the principles of refusal of all authority, in all its forms, constitute the heart of the anarchist movement, expressing a tension towards liberation from every yoke, it beats at the pace of discussions and divergences on methods of struggle, perspectives of social transformation, organizational forms. It is certainly not a question of fearing the debate (even if it is hard) that contrasts, or of deploring the controversy that divides (in the sense of a cross-exposure of some clearly different point of view). If ideas are important to us, we must also love and defend them, and be ready to mix with others. On the other hand, slander and infamy are weapons that have hurt more than the enemy’s bullets. These procedures are often employed, yesterday as today, by those who want to exercise hegemony over the movement, who cannot stand that some decide to run, even in all ways, rather than follow the slow march (“of the movement,” “of history,”“of social contradictions,” etc.), and of the renegades who do not even have the dignity of recognizing their renunciation of anarchism that one day they perhaps embraced, but which has now become too burdensome and demanding for them.
If the history of this uncompromising anarchism of the Río de la Plata is largely misunderstood, this is probably due to its disturbing content, its striking gestures, its ardor that leads to boldly go beyond the established codes (including those of the “movement”). Ironically, in the end it was a libertarian and optimistic democratic journalist who devoted himself to considerable research in the archives at the end of the 1970s to dig up the history of “expropriating anarchists.” His book was banned and burned by the Argentine military in power, which did not prevent its subsequent dissemination and translation into other languages (in some cases subsidized by the Argentine state). Since then, some other essays have been published, all with large gaps, but like the book of those who called Di Giovanni “the idealist of violence,” no one has succeeded or tried to reconstruct the different paths of these dozens of expropriating anarchists in Argentina and Uruguay, and even less to provide the elements to place, understand and dialogue with their uncompromising anarchism, based on the autonomy of the individual and groups, coordination of efforts, minority action, solidarity.
These anarchists, exhumed in spite of the oblivion to which they had been destined by the revolutionaries from the cerebral cortex of paper, torn from academic interests eager to confine them to the mere exaltation of anarchist violence. Stolen from the shameful work of the unbelievers, who considered Severino unable to love, but who nevertheless published love letters to a young lover; mediocre people who will never understand the feelings of those who hate to live in chains because they love too much the courage to destroy them. “What motivates us is exclusively the great love for our things,” wrote Severino to a comrade. The insidious attention that has been dedicated to them to date is far below the aspirations that animated these comrade. We propose this work that will finally give them a worthy and consistent place in our anarchist heritage.
But another warning is appropriate. Those who expect clear and fluent reading will be disappointed. Those who would like to read an adventure novel in the absence of living their adventure, would do well to set it aside immediately. Because this book, the anarchism of which it speaks, does not lend itself to easy digestion. If the appeals are fiery, the blood flows more often. If the love for anarchy is infinite, the ardor to vivify it can be implacable. If conviction and courage push towards the climax, the falls are as sharp as they are brutal. Some questions could be asked. What remains today of such a fiery and passionate anarchism? Are there still comrades who are launched without brakes into battle, who act according to their possibilities, who give themselves the means and are willing to make efforts to go beyond these possibilities? Who embrace action and thought, mixing explosive chemistry with the detonations of visceral poetry?
The rose blooming in that decade on the banks of the Río de la Plata was an anarchism that combined in a big embrace all aspects of the war against authority. To devote himself with the same enthusiasm to the editing of a newspaper as to the expropriation of a bank, to spread the word anarchist among the strikers as to dynamize a consulate, to the paralysis of the railway transport as to the constitution of a typography, to the love for his own accomplices like the destruction of the institutions: here is an embrace that surrounds the whole life.
If what this book is about is not a relic of the past, a story belonging to a dead and buried age, but somewhere even a current suggestion for everyone, it is up to the rebel individual to take up the challenge and take on the turn. Rise to the peak of thought and action.