Staying in a 17th century building in the heart of Palermo was beautiful, eating pizzas and pasta alla Norma was delicious and climbing Mount Etna was breathtaking. But the highlight of my Sicilian holiday was strolling through the heart of Ragusa, entering the “Società dei libertari” and having a long conversation with Pippo and Letizia, a couple and prominent figures in the local anarchist community.
Ragusa is a city in southern Sicily with an ancient history that was wiped out, along with 5,000 of its inhabitants, in the deadly earthquake of 1693. The survivors could not reach a consensus about where to rebuild their town, and in the end two towns were built, one next to the other: Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Inferiore. Centuries later, the decision to build Ragusa Inferiore in a Baroque style, with a maze of narrow streets and an abundance of palaces and churches, proved fatal in making the city a huge tourist spot and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But I didn’t know all of this. I came to Ragusa to meet the local anarchists, who for 45 years have been publishing one of the oldest anarchist newspapers in Italy, Sicilia Libertaria. Our conversation lasted a few hours, heavily dependent on the help of a translation app. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I decided to convert it into a formal interview and emailed them a group of questions. In the current climate of right-wing populism, media overload and authoritarian regimes gaining ground all over the world, Pippo and Letizia’s experience are vital; they serve as a reminder of the need to take a deep breath, realize we are here for the long run, and find our way to contribute to the subversion of this world.
Could you tell us a bit about yourselves, and how you became involved in the anarchist movement?
Pippo: I’m 67 years old, a retired railway worker; I live with Letizia, and we have two children, Karim and Blanca. From a very young age (13 years old) I began to carry out active political militancy in the Italian Communist Youth Federation. It was 1968, and I was very attracted by the youth protest movements and all the organizational forms they had taken on. After three years of intense commitment, together with other young communists we decided to leave the Federation, no longer recognizing ourselves in the type of communism it carried out (parliamentarian, reformist, pro-Soviet, etc.). Our choice was to continue to be communists, but libertarians, that is, to commit ourselves to a truly egalitarian communism, and no longer to a statist or, even worse, dictatorial one. So we contacted an anarchist from Ragusa, Franco Leggio, who was 50 years old at the time (1971). He was a nationally and internationally known militant and ran the publishing house La Fiaccola which he founded in 1960. Thanks to his advice and his great humanity, we founded the anarchist group of Ragusa and began our adventure in the anarchist movement.
Letizia: I’m 61 years old, I’m a teacher without a permanent contract, but for many years I dealt with Fair Trade by managing a store in Ragusa; I live with Pippo, while our children live in Northern Italy. My political experience began in my city, Vittoria, in the province of Ragusa, during the last years of high school; I attended a far-left political group, a feminist group and a free radio; in 1980 I came into contact with the comrades of Sicilia Libertaria and since then I have been active in the anarchist movement, participating in all the activities of the anarchist group of Ragusa. At the same time, I continue to pay close attention to feminist and women’s liberation issues.
What are the activities in which you are involved?
Pippo: The main activities can be divided into three types: those specifically anarchist; anti-militarist ones and the social-trade union.
Anarchist activity: My activities range over many areas: the editorial staff of the newspaper Sicilia Libertaria, whose first issue was published in 1977, and for over thirty years has a monthly periodicity and is today one of the longest-running anarchist newspapers in the Italian language. The publishing house La Fiaccola, which was founded in 1960 and passed under the direct responsibility of a small group of companions, including Letizia, since 1994; and the publishing house Sicilia Punto L, founded in 1978. The first is a historic anarchist initiative with interesting series dedicated to atheism and anti-clericalism; the second is an initiative dedicated to the publication of libertarian texts on Sicily, both political and historical, literary, and anthropological, etc. This set of activities occupies a lot of space in my life. In Ragusa we also have an office, whose premises we bought 10 years ago thanks to a national subscription, in which there is a book store, a library and an archive. Since 1996 the Sicilian Anarchist Federation has been founded, to which the anarchists of Ragusa adhere, and is present within the main movements of struggle and protest in Sicily.
Anti-militarist activity: Living on an island heavily militarized by NATO and the US Armed Forces, the anti-militarist struggle has always played an important role here; in particular against the construction of new military bases or the closure of existing ones. The most important struggles were the one against the construction of the nuclear missile base of Comiso (years 1981-1987), with a very strong anarchist presence, alongside other movements, and the current one against the MUOS base of the US marines in Niscemi, started in 2012 and still ongoing; here too the anarchists are very present. In addition to these territorial struggles, we have taken part in all international battles against wars (Israeli-Palestinian war, Gulf war, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, former Yugoslavia, and now in Ukraine).
Social-union activity: as an anarchist group we gave rise to many social activities; when we were young (70s), we were present in a poor district of the city, we helped children in school activities: it lasted a few years. Subsequently, we set up groups of workers in some small factories. Since the end of the 80s we have promoted the birth of alternative unions, constituting two very important ones, among the railway workers and the metal workers of an important industry. From that moment on, this activity became regular; the union is called CUB (Confederazione Unitaria di Base) and has its own headquarters in the city.
Could you tell me a bit about your newspaper and how it started?
Pippo: Sicilia Libertaria was born in 1977 as the result of a theoretical elaboration on the relationship between anarchism and the national liberation struggle, and on the practical application of this analysis to the Sicilian situation. Another aspect was to re-examine the history of Sicily since its annexation to the kingdom of Savoy in 1860, and the consequences in terms of underdevelopment, social and economic backwardness that last until today.
From 1977 until 1986 the newspaper was published irregularly, then became monthly. The online version is published on the website and is also available to subscribers. The paper version prints 800 copies; half of these are distributed outside Sicily, where the newspaper is highly appreciated.
What is your motivation in publishing a newspaper in our digital age, when most people spend their time on social networks and, if they read at all, they mostly do it online?
Pippo: The newspaper is important for several reasons; it allows you to reach people who do not spend their time on social networks; moreover, spreading a newspaper allows you to have human, direct relationships with people; exchange opinions, discuss articles, look them in the eye, shake their hands. It is an irreplaceable means of circulating our ideas. Those who live in the world of social media are used to reading a few lines, do not read long and in-depth articles and often isolate themselves from the world. We also have a website, a Facebook page and we are on Telegram, and surely we need to improve our presence on social media, but we believe that they are not an alternative to the newspaper, they are simply another type of tool. Anarchists must be in the squares, in the workplaces, in real protests, and on these occasions having a newspaper is a fundamental propaganda tool.
In the few days I spent in Ragusa, I noticed that in some areas the tourists outnumber the locals. What are your thoughts about the tourist situation in Ragusa?[efn_note]This interview took place before the release of “The White Lotus” season in Sicily, which is rumoured to double the tourists number in the island.[/efn_note]
Pippo: We need to make a very general statement.
The territory of the province of Ragusa was, until about 25 years ago, on the edge of the traditional Sicilian tourist areas: Siracusa, Agrigento, Taormina, Catania, and Palermo, etc. When this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Baroque-style palaces and churches, it began to arouse the curiosity of tourists. But the other factor that brought in a growing mass of tourists was the television series “Il commissario Montalbano”, based on the books by Andrea Camilleri. Since then, the province of Ragusa can be considered a tourist area.
Sicily is a land of emigration, which continues to be depopulated, above all by young people who go to the North in search of work. The tourist boom has represented a possibility for many people to have a job in catering, reception, and related activities in general. We can say that tourism has helped this area from an economic point of view, and this is a positive fact. However, tourism cannot be considered the economic engine of a territory; one cannot think of basing all prospects for well-being on tourism. Tourism, in fact, also contains many negative aspects, starting from stimulating a strong consumerism, from provoking urban gentrification, from seriously damaging the cultural characteristics of a territory, replacing them with “false tradition”, with postcard cities, in the name of appearance, of the image, which replaces the true identity. Furthermore, many activities are based on self-exploitation, on irregular and precarious work, and this is another factor that does not produce well-being. This kind of mass tourism, which is not sustainable and favours quantity over quality, will do harm to the area in the long run, it would leave only rubble.
A stereotypical question… Sicily is famous worldwide because of the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. Can you tell me a bit about this phenomenon? Did anarchists and revolutionaries ever come into conflicts with the Mafia?
Pippo: This would be a very long speech, so I’ll try to express some concepts in summary. The Sicilian Mafia was born in the provinces where large estates existed, that is, very large lands in the hands of a few very rich and parasitic owners, who lived in large cities or abroad (many in Paris). These are mainly the territories of Palermo, Trapani, Agrigento and Caltanissetta. That’s in about 1800. These owners lived on income and did not directly deal with their lands and related activities. To do this they delegated figures called campieri or gabellotti; these were generally violent characters who controlled the peasants and labourers employed in agricultural work, renting them the land, or taking care of their wages.
These characters behaved like real masters, and over time they acquired great power, either by blackmailing the owners or by buying their lands. They had armed men at their service and could be compared to a private police force. Over time they became an autonomous force that began to exercise its own power over the entire territory, with violence, control of productive activities, often in agreement with institutions and police forces and giving themselves a secret organization made up of pacts of honour and blood. This is how Cosa Nostra, or the Mafia, was born. Later, the Mafia moved from the countryside to the cities where it imposed its dominion, also enlisting layers of proletarians who had been marginalized by the state and found protection and work in this second state.
To help you understand the difference with the other Sicilian territories, when fascism arose in 1920, it was very strong in the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa, where the bosses did not have campieri and gabellotti to defend them against the struggles of peasants and workers; then the bosses financed the fascists and their squads to defend themselves against the revolution. In the provinces of western Sicily, the bosses did not need the fascists, because they already had someone who defended them by using violence and terror.
The Mafia then became very powerful, and despite having an origin in certain territories of western Sicily, where we can talk about Mafia culture and Mafia roots, it spread its tentacles in other territories, and then throughout Italy and the United States, following the massive Sicilian emigration starting from the end of the 1800s.
At the origin of the Mafia, when it was not yet a structured organization, many Mafiosi coming from the people were in reality rebels and victims of the state, who sometimes found themselves collaborating with the subversive world in the various riots that took place from 1860 to the end of the century. But in general, the Mafiosi have been adversaries of the anarchists and in the Palermo area anarchists and Mafiosi often clashed; duels were not uncommon. Now that the Mafia is to all intents and purposes a capitalist power parallel to the state, it represents a reactionary force, colluding with the Italian state (secret services, parties, ministries), with the economy and with the fascists. Where the mafia reigns, terror reigns and often the comrades who expose themselves in the fight against the Mafia are killed or threatened. There is an institutional anti-Mafia, which puts all its trust in the state and in legality; there is a radical anti-Mafia, which considers the State and the Mafia as two aspects of oppression and believes that social liberation passes through the defeat of both. Anarchists belong to the latter.
The far right has just won the elections… What are chances that we will see a return to fascism in Italy? And what was the reaction in Sicily to fascism in Mussolini’s time?
Pippo: As I wrote in Sicilia Libertaria, the Right (with a capital R) won the elections, but Italy has long been governed by right-wing policies, carried out by parties that, even if they define themselves as left or centre, are at the service of multinationals, banks, the military industry, and the Vatican. The Italian people have been subjected to such policies for many years, both in the field of work and in that of rights (of immigrants, women, etc.) or in that of welfare. Opposition movements are violently confronted by the police and the judiciary is raging against them. Migrants arriving from Africa suffer state racism that forces them into clandestinity, death in the Mediterranean, and all kinds of discrimination. With respect to all this, the Right of Fratelli d’Italia, Lega and Forza Italia will not be able to do much more, it will continue these policies, perhaps accentuating some aspects that are more related to its identity, in particular with regard to the family, women, LGBTQ movements, and social repression. Italy is not a fascist country; the parties that won the elections represent only 25% of the entire electorate; almost half of the voters did not go to vote or voted blank or void. Fratelli d’Italia represents just 16% of the electorate. So, they do not represent the Italian people.
However, we must not underestimate the presence of a militant and dangerous fascist right, which has its greatest strength in some localities, which is always linked to the more radical fringes of neo-fascism and neo-Nazism. Even if now the fascists in government are trying to camouflage themselves as moderates, to be accepted by the European Union and by Confindustria (the association of industrialists), their DNA is always ready to explode.
In Mussolini’s time, in Sicily, as in other parts of Italy, the clash with the fascists was very strong; unfortunately, the forces of the left were deceived by the legal moderation of the main party, the Socialist one, and by the CGL trade union, who hoped until the end that the fascists would be stopped by the police and the government, which instead colluded with them, protected them and then, together with the monarchy, gave them power. The anti-fascist forces in Sicily also fought the fascists with weapons, and Sicilian history is full of episodes of opposition to the fascist squads. Unfortunately, anti-fascism was divided, dominated by moderates and reformists, and it was defeated.
The 1970s in Italy, “the years of lead”, were a unique phenomenon of mass revolt, mostly in northern Italy. Can you tell me if that revolt also reached Sicily? And what about the political prisoners of that time, are they still in prison, did the anarchist movement supported them even though they were mostly communists?
Pippo: The ’70s and the “years of lead” are two different things: the ’70s were the continuation of ’68 and ’69, years of extremely strong and entrenched mass uprisings; the “years of lead” were the season of armed struggle that involved a part of the post-sixty-eight movement. In the first phase the armed struggle really worried the system, because it could ignite the spark of the revolution. But the armed groups were too self-referential, and broke away from the mass movements, transforming a struggle that could be popular, made by everyone even by different means, into a military confrontation that only small groups could conduct. Descending into the exclusive terrain of military confrontation led to the defeat of the armed groups. It was a phenomenon mainly of northern and central Italy, although it had some small examples also in Sicily, but absolutely secondary. The political prisoners of that time had a lot of solidarity and sympathy even from the anarchists, who are generally very sensitive to prison problems. Today almost all of them are free.
You told me in Ragusa that the high point of Sicilian anarchism was in the 1970s and the 1980s. How did you manage to stay motivated after all those years and in the face of all the obstacles?
Pippo and Letizia: when a choice is made that is not only ideological, but a life choice, of the conception of social relations, of assuming a precise position within the contradictions of society, this choice is maintained both in high and exalting moments, and in the low and solitary ones. Our movement has always had a fluctuating life; in the 1970s it had a peak in membership and activity until the early 1980s; in the 90s this moment was repeated, until the Anti-Globalization movement. Each time, a period of intense activity is followed by a decline in commitments and in the number of militants. But we are equipped to face the best and the worst: we have the headquarters, the newspaper, the books we publish, we continue even in the face of obstacles. We would not be anarchists if we did not consider every kind of obstacle that the state may put in our way. In our struggles, even today (such as the anti-militarist one), the main thing is not to do excellent and rewarding things when you are many and you are strong, but to know how to resist and continue the commitment when you are few, surrounded by disinterest and disappointment. This makes us strong and always ready to start again.