By 1920, the forty-one-year-old Carlo Tresca was an immensely popular labor organizer — or, as Italian-American historian Nunzio Pernicone puts it, “indisputably the most important Italian radical in the United States.” Fiery, intelligent, and larger-than-life, Tresca was also an immigrant, arriving in New York in 1904 after leaving his hometown of Sulmona, ninety miles east of Rome. He was one of twenty million migrants from southern and central Europe who reached US shores between 1880 and 1920, an influx which prompted a nativist backlash and harsh new laws to limit immigration.
Tresca also arrived in the United States in a period of widening clampdowns on dissent, which especially developed during World War I. Democratic president Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917, just before the United States entered the conflict, and then the Sedition Act on May 16, 1918, which further expanded the executive’s powers. Together, they gave authorities the power to deport or imprison anyone who criticized the war effort. “Wilson is still remembered as the president who repressed dissent more often and more harshly than any other occupant of the White House,” notes historian Patricia O’Toole, author of the 2018 book The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made.
Worse repression was arising in Tresca’s homeland. On October 31, 1922, Benito Mussolini was appointed Italian prime minister by King Victor Emanuel III. For the most part, this fascist politician was not only accepted, but lauded, by large parts of the American Catholic Church, media bosses such as Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, and some important academics, such as Columbia University’s president. In the United States, there was little or no reporting on the vicious reprisals Italian leftists faced, other than in small, radical newspapers, such as Tresca’s own Il Martello (The Hammer). A fascist bureaucrat had tagged this paper “as the most dangerous of the radical newspapers.” In those years, there were close to a hundred Italian radical papers being published in the United States. Mussolini was, however, not Tresca’s only enemy.
As early as 1914, Wilson’s Department of Justice had been tracking Tresca’s political activities. He had begun working for the International Workers of the World — the IWW — sometime in 1911. The IWW represented thousands of unskilled foreign workers in the West, and later in the Midwest and East Coast. Most of these workers were excluded from the large craft unions, mainly representing American skilled workers.
By summer 1919, the United States was reeling from postwar trauma: inflation, race riots, labor strikes, and a Red Scare against Bolshevism. A lone Italian terrorist planted a bomb in the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The house was damaged, the family got out unharmed, and the remains of the bomber were found in the wreckage. A massive witch hunt, termed the “Palmer Raids,” ensued. An intelligence division, part of the Bureau of Investigation, the BI, was set up by Palmer. Leading the new unit was J. Edgar Hoover. Over the next two years, the BI amassed files on sixty thousand so-called radical aliens, many of them Italian, and ten thousand were arrested. As Pernicone points out, “victims were arrested without warrants, held for weeks and months without bail, denied counsel . . . and sometimes brutalized while in custody.” It was only because of one man, Assistant Secretary of Labor, Louis F. Post, that thousands of warrants for deportation were cancelled. Eventually, only 556 people were deported.
Nevertheless, Hoover’s department remained very much intact and would track Tresca closely for years. “More than any single man in New York or the U.S., Carlo Tresca blocked the rise of black-shirted Fascists who terrorized the streets of Italian-American neighborhoods,” wrote Tresca’s good friend, Norman Thomas. “In its desire for Tresca’s deportation to Italy,” explains New York journalist Dorothy Gallagher in her deeply researched All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca, “the Fascist government had the eager cooperation of many agencies of the U.S. government. Only a few scrupulous officials unwilling to bend immigration law . . . stood between Tresca and deportation in the early 1920s.”
At one point, in November 1923, the Department of Justice prosecuted and won a case against Tresca. The government had claimed that an Il Martello advertisement (for a Margaret Sanger book on birth control) was “obscene.” Tresca began serving a one-year sentence. Washington and Rome had actually colluded on the case, but there was an unexpected backlash in favor of Tresca, and President Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentence to four months. The New Republic concluded that “Tresca’s real crime consisted in his bitter opposition to Mussolini.”
Immediately after Mussolini’s installation as prime minister, Tresca left New York City to speak about fascism in numerous towns across Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Hoover, at the BI, would track Tresca’s every move. “Most all of you have read something concerning the actual state of things in Italy,” Tresca thundered in Cleveland. “And in spite of the fact the press, mercenary and dishonest, gives the savage inhumanity of the Italian fascisti an appearance of Justice, I am here tonight to tell you the press lies . . . Fascismo . . . is an army of degenerate, perverted criminals who are trying to kill the spirit of revolution in Italy.”
Unlike Mussolini, who came from a cash-strapped background in northern Italy, Tresca’s family — at least until his adolescence — were wealthy landowners. His father was involved in local politics but had lent money to various friends when an economic downturn hit Sulmona, causing him to lose not only his fortune but the family home. This coincided with Carlo’s fascination with a group of socialist railway workers, who had been transferred to Sulmona from the north to help make the area into a regional transportation hub. Sulmona was close to Pescina, the village whose grinding poverty Ignazio Silone described in his best-selling Fontamara.
Tresca, according to many who knew him, had a visceral reaction to the peasants’ difficult lives — he had grown up among them and earned their affection. His warmth and charisma attracted one thousand peasants to the very first socialist May Day celebration in that conservative town of thirteen thousand people. His father celebrated his son’s “coming of age” at a family dinner, but other local authorities urged Carlo to leave town or else go to prison for treasonous activity. In 1904, he emigrated to the United States and joined his older brother Ettore, a physician, in New York. Soon afterward, he would become editor of a Philadelphia radical newspaper, Il Proletario, published by the Italian Socialist Federation.
“The sovversivi [the Italian immigrant radicals] never acquired a mass following,” points out Pernicone, “but they wielded influence that was wholly disproportionate to their meager numbers, at least until government repression took its toll between 1917 and 1920 . . . Prior to the immigration restrictions of the early 1920s, the world of the sovversivi had been enriched by a steady flow of men and ideas back and forth between Italy and the United States.” Pernicone had learned about Tresca from his own émigré father who had worked as a radically political actor in a troupe raising money for Tresca’s Il Martello. Pernicone’s biography of Tresca, which he worked on for most of his academic career as a historian, is viewed as the definitive work on the Italian-American radical movement of the early twentieth century; it was finally published in 2010, three years before Pernicone’s death.
Tresca’s earliest experiences as a strike leader paralleled the emergence of a new movement in Europe and the United States. Unlike in Spain, where syndicalism evolved from anarchism, revolutionary syndicalism in Italy developed within the ideological context of Marxism and the institutional framework of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), emerging as a fully developed movement by 1904. Although several currents of revolutionary syndicalism evolved, they all stressed the primacy of proletarian action, especially the general strike conducted with revolutionary unions. Tresca, a voracious reader and writer, avidly followed intellectual developments in Italian syndicalism through a network of former comrades before Mussolini came to power.
In 1912, he became a freelance organizer for the IWW, founded seven years previously. Tresca, according to Pernicone, believed the American trade union movement to be “hopelessly deficient.” American labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers opposed socialism and sought harmony between labor and capital. Only the IWW, Tresca believed, represented a real struggle for the proletariat. But even here, the IWW failed to meet Tresca’s expectations and he aligned even closer to the Italian-run socialist group, the Federazione Socialista Italiana (FSI), during what would become a famous strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
In this city, the American Woolen Company employed Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Greeks, Syrians, Portuguese, and Russians — a majority of them women. A walkout occurred when workers failed to receive their promised wages after the Massachusetts legislature reduced their hours from fifty-six to fifty-four a week. A female worker, Anna LoPizzo, was killed by a stray police bullet during the walkout. Police used this as an opportunity to arrest two IWW organizers for being “indirectly responsible” for her death. The IWW introduced strike and relief committees with written handouts in multiple languages. Nationally known newspaperman William Allen White wrote, “there was no excuse for the violence of police and the military.” On September 29, 1912, four thousand workers — most of them Italians — marched silently with Tresca at the head, standing backward in a one-horse buggy with a large red banner reading “No God, No Master.” Tresca had a lifelong hatred of the Catholic Church, which had a long history of trying to destroy socialism in Italy. But Catholic priest James T. O’Reilly countered Tresca, declaring: “We will drive the demons of anarchism and socialism from our midst.”
But in this case, the socialists prevailed. “The result of the strike was a decided victory for the strikers,” writes early labor historian Paul F. Brissenden in his 1919 book, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism. Some thirty thousand textile workers in Lawrence got wage increases ranging from five to twenty percent. In addition, thousands of mill workers throughout New England also got wage increases. But there were profound repercussions. Two thousand strikers were “locked out” when they arrived at their mills. Many never got their jobs back.
Tresca, still not totally fluent in English, had emerged as a “fixer” in the strike. He had convinced a local Italian-American doctor to testify sympathetically for the two imprisoned IWW organizers. As a result, they were released. The Lawrence strike would significantly raise Tresca’s profile and catapult him into the ranks of the then vital radical left: the likes of John Dos Passos, John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, and others. He would keep his Italian socialist colleagues in close communication, but his financial situation — until his death — was always extremely precarious.
IWW Over Madison Square Garden
Soon afterward, on February 25, 1913, the IWW became involved in another high-profile strike, among the thousands of silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey. Politicians who ran Paterson were deeply hostile. But “the mills were firetraps. Sanitary conditions were abominable. Some factories were entirely unheated in winter and the weavers had to work in overcoats,” writes labor historian Philip Foner, author of the classic The Industrial Workers of the World 1905-1917.
“Rarely was there a strike in American labor history in which mass arrests of the strikers took place on a scale similar to Paterson,” writes Foner. “Altogether, 4,800 strikers were arrested and 1,300 sent to jail. The vast majority were the foreign-born strikers, of whom the Italians were the most militant. For 14 long weeks the 25,000 silk-workers had been out on strike. . . . Police had clubbed and assaulted their pickets,” Foner elaborates. Families became destitute. The strike lasted through the winter with only the barest trickle of money coming in. “Men walked the picket lines with paper bags on their feet in place of shoes,” writes Dorothy Gallagher. “Accusations of sabotage and violence were made against the IWW throughout the years of its existence. In fact, for all the rhetorical violence, there was little documented violence by workers.”
At one point, radical journalist John Reed shared a prison cell with Tresca. The two had never met and Tresca originally thought Reed was a police informant because he was seen as an outsider and asked so many questions. Finally, Reed won Tresca’s trust and convinced him that if a play or pageant could be written about the strike, perhaps they could save the workers. It was written quickly. Madison Square Garden was rented. “On June 7, 1913,” writes Gallagher, “1,200 strikers . . . ferried over from Paterson and marched up Fifth Avenue. . . . As night fell, real electric lights spelled out the letters IWW . . . over Madison Square Garden.”
But no profit was made for the expensive propaganda. Strikers were forced to “settle” shop by shop. Many were permanently blacklisted. “Never again,” writes Pernicone, “would thousands of workers strike under the IWW banner . . . in the eastern United States.”
Tresca, undeterred, would help lead a strike of iron miners on the Mesabi Range in northwestern Minnesota in 1916. It was, if anything, even more dangerous than Paterson. “I hope you come out alive,” said the IWW organizer to Tresca. One thousand special guards were hired with rifles and clubs to attack the strikers. Tresca would be framed with a murder charge though he was one hundred miles away at the time. His colleagues in Italy (even his mother) raised money to help him. American radicals pooled their funds, and in December 1916 he was cleared of all charges.
An affectionate two-part profile of Tresca in the September 15 and 29, 1934 issues of the New Yorker by his good friend Max Eastman is entitled “The Town Anarchist.” “Carlo, with his explosive humor, his hearty laugh, his bantering comment. . . . his gusto was contagious,” noted American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin in the piece. “We were always cheered up by a session with him, however badly the world was going . . . Unless one knew him well it was hard to guess that underneath his joy in living lay such profound convictions as to human freedom and progress.”
After the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, pro-fascists sensed that Mussolini’s days might be numbered. The distinguished Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini — working as a tenured professor at Harvard University — spearheaded the anti-fascist Mazzini Society in New York. Although Tresca’s politics were decidedly to the left of the moderate socialist Salvemini, the two worked closely together, anticipating the organization might play a major role after the war ended. Tresca had an incredibly complicated list of enemies at this point in his life: he was a vociferous critic of Joseph Stalin; a noisy foe, for many years, of Mussolini; a stalwart critic of elite Italian-Americans who were often entangled with both the mafia and hard-core fascists.
At the top of this last list was millionaire Italian-American and pro-fascist newspaper publisher, Generoso Pope. With both mafia and Tammany Hall ties — and a lot of money to boot — Pope was a dangerous foe to have in New York City. As Pope maneuvered to join the Mazzini Society and change his profile, Tresca accused him on the front page of Il Martello of “being a gangster and a racketeer” which, of course, was true.
But as the US government had long colluded with Italian fascist bureaucrats, so it was doing again, unbeknownst to Tresca. The Office of US Navy Intelligence — the ONI —was not communicating with Mussolini bureaucrats this time round but with the mafia, in the hope that it would guide the navy in its attack on Sicily. Mafia criminal “Lucky Luciano,” a close confidante of Pope’s, was approached in his upstate New York jail cell.
“By early 1942,” writes Gallagher, “Pope was on firm ground . . . despite continuing attacks by the Mazzini Society and Il Martello and a few other anti-fascist papers.” Pope knew about the relationship the Navy had with Luciano. He had also become an asset to the US Treasury Department since he had raised a lot of money for war bonds.
On January 11, 1943, on Fifth Avenue and Fifteenth Street, Carlo Tresca was gunned down at 9:30 p.m on his way to meeting friends for dinner. On January 16, the day of his funeral, more than six thousand mourners — some of them ex-strikers — attended his funeral. “By his long opposition to the local Italian-American notables, by opposing fascists and communists on the international scene, Tresca had earned unique status,” writes essayist Alfred Kazin in his 1988 review of Gallagher’s book. Tresca was more and more alone. By incurring the wrath of Pope and his allies in both official American circles and the mafia, Tresca was besieged on the Right while attacked on the Left by Communists riding the wave of wartime popularity.
Pernicone, who did not see himself as an expert on Tresca’s murder, deferred to Gallagher’s book on this subject: he wrote, “Only one writer who has studied Tresca’s murder provides an account that explores every theory with equal consideration, Dorothy Gallagher.” Much of her narrative focuses on the murder mystery itself, which has never been solved. Her conclusion is that a gangster, Carmine Galante, shot and killed Tresca on someone else’s orders. For a myriad of reasons, the case never went to trial. “If by now there is no doubt that Galante was the de facto murderer,” she writes, “the identity of the person on whose order he acted is still not clear. My own conviction is that the simplest explanation is the correct one in this case, and that Frank Garofalo fills the role of instigator . . . he inhabited a world of crime and violence and Galante was very near to hand . . .”
“Tresca remains a great and cherished figure in what is left of the old, non-communist American Left,” sums up Kazin. “His end, as much as his continuously embattled life, has remained vitally important as the embodiment of an ancient radicalism — intransigent, far-out, relatively ‘pure’ — that still evokes the most stirring associations with early 20th century labor, with a time of great cultural renewal in American thought and with a great company of freely thinking, freely moving, freely loving men and women . . .” A hundred years since Italian fascism’s triumph, Kazin’s words remain a fitting epitaph for one of its greatest opponents on these shores.