Giuseppe Garibaldi Was a Proud Internationalist

On this day in 1882, Giuseppe Garibaldi died after a lifetime fighting for a united Italy. He combined his patriotism with a proud internationalism — and a thirst for freedom that inspired working-class struggles throughout the twentieth century.

Giuseppe Garibaldi poses for a portrait in 1867. (Wikimedia Commons)

June 2 marks the anniversary of the Italian Republic. That day in 1946, a year after the overthrow of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, an institutional referendum was held together with the vote for the Constituent Assembly. It was also the first time that women voted in a national election, as Paola Cortellesi’s recent film C’è ancora domani reminded us. Most Italians voted for the republic, leading to King Umberto II’s exile to Portugal, then ruled by dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. For the first time since national unification, Italy became a republic.

But June 2 is also another anniversary in Italian history: it is the day on which Giuseppe Garibaldi died, in 1882. He had ardently dreamt of this republic, but in vain, in his later years having to settle for Italian unification under the monarchy.

Almost 150 years later, the name “Garibaldi” is still familiar to millions. His name pops up across Italy: there is no city that does not have at least one street dedicated to him, in addition to several hundred statues throughout the country. But it’s not just in Italy: squares, streets, statues, stations, and plaques dedicated to him can be found in countless cities all over the world, from Montevideo to Taganrog, from New York to Havana. Cuba has even dedicated a commemorative coin to Garibaldi, el héroe de dos mundos.

But who was Giuseppe Garibaldi, really? Here, things get more difficult. Few today would know much beyond the bland definition of Garibaldi as a key figure in Italian unification. As US sociologist and scholar of collective memory Jeffrey K. Olick recently said, half jokingly, the best way to forget someone or something is to turn them into a monument.

So let us try to “demonumentalize” Garibaldi with some facts about his life. Trained as a sailor, Garibaldi spent many years as a young man working at sea, but he was also a language teacher in Istanbul, a spaghetti trader in Brazil, a corsair in the South Atlantic (attacking merchant ships and freeing black slaves on the ships), a math teacher in Uruguay, and a factory worker in New York. Garibaldi fought in seven different official armies: the Republic of the Rio Grande, Uruguay, the Lombard Provisional Government, the Roman Republic, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of Italy, and France. He was arrested, and in some cases tortured, by the Russian police, but also by the French, the Argentine army, the Uruguayan police, the Kingdom of Sardinia (which also sentenced him to death), and then several times by the Italian police after national unification. He was also a member of parliament in five different states.

Here we will not delve into all the complexity of an immense and picturesque biography that can hardly be summarized in one article. But these facts immediately show us a crucial point: we would be mistaken if we confined Garibaldi exclusively to the role of Italian patriot.

Patriot and Internationalist

Garibaldi’s first revolutionary ventures were in fact in Latin America. He had fled there after the death sentence hanging over his head in Piedmont due to a failed insurrectionary attempt against the Savoy monarchy. But his first encounter with politics was even earlier: his intellectual “thunderbolt” came at age twenty-six, when the ship on which he worked was boarded by Saint-Simonian exiles (followers of Henri de Saint-Simon, the French libertarian socialist) who deeply fascinated Garibaldi. As he recalls in his memoirs, he learned from them that “the man who, becoming cosmopolitan, adopts humanity as his homeland and goes to offer sword and blood to every people fighting against tyranny, is more than a soldier: he is a hero.” This was the underlying ideal that drove him to join the Latin American rebellions.

Garibaldi would only return to Italy in 1848, to join the popular uprisings that were breaking out that year throughout the Italian peninsula. Andres Aguyar, a former black slave who had fought with Garibaldi in Uruguay and who decided to follow him to continue the revolutionary fight for freedom in Italy as well, left with him. Ana Maria de Jesus Ribeiro, known as “Anita,” Garibaldi’s Brazilian partner and comrade in arms during the Farroupilha Revolution, in which they had both participated, had also left shortly before.

Both Aguyar and Anita were to die in the tumultuous events of the Roman Republic of 1849, which hoisted the tricolor in Rome for the first time and which in its few months of existence distinguished itself for its radical features in both democratic and social terms (Valerio Evangelisti has written a fine historical novel on this event). Garibaldi and Aguyar defended the Republic militarily, but the latter was killed by a grenade from the French army that rushed to restore the pope to power. (As a black-skinned man, Aguyar is the only great Risorgimento patriot to whom Italy has not dedicated a statue on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, although it seems that it will finally be put up this year.) During the dramatic escape following the fall of the Roman Republic, Anita also died. Although she was ill, she wanted to stay with the revolutionaries to the last, until, while they were being hunted in a lagoon near Ravenna, she lost consciousness and then her life. She was only twenty-eight years old.

A Revolutionary With No Love for Revolution

The international dimension of Garibaldi’s figure is also confirmed by numerous events that intersect with the history of the democratic, workers’, and socialist movements. In 1860, Garibaldi organized the famous Expedition of the Thousand, in which he and a thousand volunteers rushed to support the popular uprising against the Bourbons in Sicily. At that time, Mikhail Bakunin, the father of anarchism and later a friend of Garibaldi’s, was exiled in Siberia. In his memoirs he recounts:

I was in the capital of eastern Siberia, in Irkutsk, at the time of Garibaldi’s memorable campaign in Sicily and Naples. Well, I can say that all the people of Irkutsk passionately [took] the side of the liberator against the King of the Two Sicilies, a faithful ally of the Tsar! . . . In the years 1860–63, when the Russian rural world was in deep turmoil, the peasants of Great and Lesser Russia awaited the arrival of Garibaldov, and if they were asked who he was, they replied “He is a great leader, the friend of the poor people, and he will come to liberate us.”

At the same time in Glasgow, Scotland, the workers decided to work extra shifts to buy and ship ammunition and medical packs to Garibaldi’s forces

A year later, in 1861, US president Abraham Lincoln proposed to Garibaldi to join the American Civil War, publicly asking “the hero of liberty to lend the power of his name, his genius and his sword to the cause of the North.” After a moment’s consideration, however, Garibaldi refused because of the North’s hesitancy in focusing the war on the abolition of slavery. He demanded the immediate and total abolition of slavery as a precondition for his participation.

But let us turn to the more socialist aspects of Garibaldi, those that have been largely obscured by a celebratory Italian historiography. Garibaldi publicly sided with the First International; it was he who gave it the name “the sun of the future,” which in Italy soon became one of the most famous slogans of the workers’ and socialist movement. Garibaldi also supported the Paris Commune, which even elected him as its military leader, a role that the general could not accept as he had just returned to Caprera after fighting in France in the Franco-Prussian war and was now old and ill. On the barricades of the Paris Commune, however, there were many Garibaldians, dressed in the ever-present red shirt. They distinguished themselves during its defense as they were among the few “professional” revolutionaries with military training.

In spite of everything, Garibaldi was not an extremist. We could even say that he was a revolutionary who had no great love for revolutionary turmoil. In fact, his adherence to socialism and his convinced support for the nascent workers’ movement were accompanied by a distrust of the more radical fringes, which Garibaldi repeatedly criticized as harmful to the workers’ cause. Moreover, in the political conjuncture of the Risorgimento, Garibaldi repeatedly showed a pragmatic stance. Famous examples are his acceptance of monarchical rule at the Teano meeting of 1860, in which Garibaldi, as a convinced republican, handed over power in the liberated south of Italy to the Savoy monarch; and the “I obey” telegram of 1866, in which, on the king’s orders, he agreed to halt his advance toward Trento, and thus the fight against Austrian occupation.

Marx, Engels, and Garibaldi

Garibaldi’s political pragmatism, combined with a lively idealism not always imbued with theoretical depth, led Karl Marx to sometimes make derogatory comments toward Garibaldi, considering him, in some private letters, to be naive and an “ass.” But it would be a mistake to conclude that Marx and Friedrich Engels opposed the general. Not only because both of them, as scholars of military tactics, were captivated by Garibaldi’s extraordinary military capabilities (they both followed the 1860 Expedition of the Thousand with daily interest and much esteem). But above all because their correspondence often also contains very positive political judgements, especially on the part of Engels, who applauded Garibaldi’s support for the International, describing it as “of infinite value.” He increasingly forged contacts and ties with Garibaldi’s followers, starting with Garibaldi’s son, Ricciotti, whom they invited to Marx’s house in 1871.

Garibaldi’s name also recurred frequently in the polemics between Marxists and anarchists within the nascent Italian socialist movement (which in turn emerged largely from Garibaldi’s circles). In these early polemics, the general was often “drawn on” and claimed by each of the two currents. Hence Bakunin praised Garibaldi, identifying him with his own side — he wrote enthusiastically that “Garibaldi is increasingly being dragged along by that youth that bears his name, but goes, indeed, runs infinitely further than him.” But Engels expressed his delight that Garibaldi, while maintaining friendly relations with the Italian anarchists, considered mistaken their radical rejection of any principle of authority. Thus Engels concluded:

The old freedom fighter, who did more in the year 1860 alone than all the anarchists can attempt to do in their lifetime, appreciates discipline, all the more so since he had to constantly discipline his armed forces; and he did so not like official military circles, through military discipline and the constant threat of firing squad, but rather by standing in front of the enemy.

In the preface to volume III of Capital, Engels even went so far as to describe Garibaldi as a character of “unequalled classic perfection.”

Garibaldi after Garibaldi

While postunification Italy celebrated Garibaldi as one of the great heroes who had united the country, it also tried in every way to defuse his revolutionary charge. It sought to marginalize him, putting the brakes on any further subversive aspirations he might have had. Not only was Garibaldi repeatedly isolated in unofficial confinement on the island of Caprera, where he had retired to work as a farmer, never having wanted to earn anything from his military exploits, but he was also arrested by the Italian army. On the famous “Day of Aspromonte” in 1862, it even went so far as to shoot him, leaving him wounded.

A sterile, depoliticized, and institutionalized image of Garibaldi was thus upheld by various Italian governments after his death. This created a national pantheon that equated, and distorted, profoundly different political figures and sometimes even sworn enemies from the unification period, such as the count of Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Garibaldi.

Instead, it was on the Left, in the popular and workers’ organizations scattered across Italy, that the image of the revolutionary Garibaldi, linked to the proletariat (which he defined as “the class to which I am honored to belong”), long endured. It was in memory of the patriot, internationalist, and socialist Garibaldi that the anti-fascist Italians who fought in Spain in 1936–39 chose the name “Battalón Garibaldi,” that the communist partisans during the Italian Resistance of 1943–45 called themselves “Garibaldi Brigades,” and that the Italians in Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav liberation army took the title “Garibaldi Division.”

Again in 1948, in the republic’s first parliamentary elections, the socialists and communists united in an electoral front whose symbol was Garibaldi’s face on a star, all in the colors of the Italian flag.

Today, 142 years after Garibaldi’s death, it is important for the Left, and not just in Italy, to keep the image of the revolutionary Garibaldi alive. This means preserving him from an institutional narrative that reduces him to a statue with no political value. But it also means defending him from some recent attempts to discredit him, dusting off 150-year-old royalist propaganda portraying him as a mercenary or a conqueror. We owe this not only to him, but also to all those in the last century who, inspired by Garibaldi, gave their lives for freedom and socialism.