Transnationalism and Italian anarchists in Canada, 1915-1940

  • Transnational Radicals: Italian Anarchists in Canada and the U.S., 1915-1940

    Travis Tomchuk

    University of Manitoba Press, 2015

There are numerous studies of the left in Canada. These studies range from social-democratic parties like the CCF, various socialists movements, and communists. Curiously there is a lack of studies into anarchist groups in Canada. While there is some information and studies there is far less information in comparison to other groups and movements on the left. This is partially due to the nature of anarchist groups. It was common for anarchist groups to not have formal members lists, meeting minutes, nor did they organize into national parties like their socialist and communist counterparts. Nonetheless, anarchists did make significant contributions to left-wing politics in Canada.

Travis Tomchuck’s Transnational Radicals focuses on the movement of Italian anarchists from Italy to Canada and the U.S. and back to Italy to show the long-term contours of the Italian anarchist movement and its activities across borders, thus the term “transnational.” Transnationalism is the process by which migrants create and sustain social relations that link their societies of origin and societies of settlement. The book demonstrates this form of organization can be highly resilient as it became difficult for states to destroy autonomous groups that were spread across wide geographic spaces.

Transnational Radicals focuses on Italian anarchists in Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto, Windsor, Detroit, Newark, and New York City between 1915 and 1940. The text follows the personal and political lives of several Italian anarchists as they move from Italy to Canada and back and forth between Canada and the U.S. There is the tendency to only study ethnic anarchist groups in a given city or take a national focus on anarchists movements in a given nation state. The problems inherent in these two approaches is that they exclude non-nationals who did not have a secure state identity that were active in a given area and assumes that societies are geographically identical with nation states. Tomchuck’s book supplies an interesting look into the Italian anarchist movement as well as the movement of Italian anarchists from Southern Ontario to the northeastern United States.

The book is organized into eight chapters which go through Italian anarchist culture, anarchist identity formation, factional disputes, and deportation struggles. For those already familiar with the various forms of anarchist thought the first chapter will repeat much of what has already been said but it does contain useful information about Italian history and context to Italian anarchism. Personally I found the chapters on identity formation and deportation struggles to be the most interesting as they demonstrate how the various anarchist groups operated and how the wider networks worked and how Italians were radicalized within these networks.

In terms of sources Tomchuck uses primary sources such as Italian language anarchist newspapers and Italian state surveillance files on various Italian anarchists. Both prove to be illuminating for getting a sense of the types of issues and campaigns these groups were involved in as well as the internal debates. One is left with a glimpse of the various cultural and social institutions that Italian anarchists built during this time period that were in many ways similar to cultural institutions built by ethnic groups of socialist and communists. The socialists and communist Ukrainian community in Winnipeg’s North End comes to mind.

Transnational Radicals is an important contribution to seeing the wider picture of the left in Canada, the importance of culture in the maintenance and expansion of political movements and important contribution to the history of Anarchism in Canada and the U.S.

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