Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Excerpt

On January 11, 1912, mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, began a three-month strike to protest a cut in their already thin wages. This “crusade for bread and roses,” as the strike was soon called, became one of the most celebrated working-class protests in American history. For the first time, unskilled immigrants of many different nationalities overcame ethnic differences and scored a significant victory against American industrial manufacturers.

The Lawrence strike had an enormous impact on the American public consciousness, bringing attention to the atrocious living conditions of unskilled workers and the social divisions that plagued American industrial society. Overnight, the strike also catapulted Italian immigrant workers into national prominence. Italians constituted the largest single ethnic group of Lawrence’s polyglot population, and they played a decisive role in the strike. Providing both leadership and mass militancy, they introduced the American labor movement to new tactics of direct action that reflected their native traditions of struggle and resistance. As local reporters of the strike noted, “angry” Italians “rushed the gates, broke open the doors, damaged the escalators, pulled girls from their work, cut off the electric drive, stopped the machines throughout the mill, and threatened to kill any person daring to put the machinery in motion.”

Historians have by now written detailed accounts of the Lawrence strike and other labor conflicts of the period, recognizing the crucial contributions of Italian workers and leaders. Scholars of Italian American history have also increasingly documented how these struggles were part of a larger transnational radical movement and subculture that constituted a significant presence in the Italian immigrant community and the American Left until World War II.

Thanks to these pioneering works, we know that Italian Americans possess a vibrant if “lost” radical past. As early as 1882, Italian immigrants founded a socialist club in Brooklyn, New York. Radical organizations then . . .

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