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Incomplete memoirs of early Egyptian anarchism

category north africa | history of anarchism | other libertarian press author Thursday January 08, 2015 15:28author by I. U. Parrini Report this post to the editors

NOTE by Lucien van der Walt: English translation by Nestor McNab of three parts of the historical memoirs of I. U. Parrini – one of the initiators of the anarchist movement in Italy and Egypt, from the days of the First International – which were published in Italian in “La Protesta Umana” of San Francisco, nos. 36, 38 and 40 (21 Nov. and 26 Dec. 1903, and 9 Jan. 1904 respectively). This material is provided for purposes of historical recovery: it must be noted that Parrini was (according to Tony Gorman's 2010 overview of Egyptian anarchism) a "staunch anti-organisationalist, ... notorious for his uncompromising style and ... a persistent obstacle to greater cooperation among anarchists. Not until after his death in 1906 was a national program of action agreed which provided a solid basis for collaboration within the Egyptian movement." His current was in constant conflict with the growing, eventually ascendant, anarcho-syndicalists. Nonetheless, these memoirs -- despite their polemical quality and imbalances -- are a valuable testimony, deserving of wider circulation, not least for their insider view, from the perspective of one current in the movement.

The material is sourced from Leonardo Bettini, "Bibliografia dell'anarchismo, volume 2, tomo 2: periodici e numeri unici anarchici in lingua italiana pubblicati all'estero (1872-1971)" (CP editrice, Firenze, 1976), translation by Nestor McNab. Via Lucien van der Walt.

[Memoirs of Early] Anarchism in Egypt
by “Un vecchio” [I. U. Parrini]
In “La Protesta Umana” (San Francisco, CA), a. II, No. 36 (21 November 1903) and following [1]

During the Paris Commune, we find L’Orso [“the Bear”, i.e. I. U. Parrini] in Alexandria, Egypt. He read the democratic newspapers which were carrying on quite a wonderful campaign in support of Garibaldi, against the insults and lies directed against the Commune and the International by Giuseppe Mazzini.

Without doubt, right from 1871 one could see in Egypt the propaganda carried out by L’Orso against property and the family in support of freedom. However, the concept of liberty was not well explained or well defined: it consisted of an aspiration for a future society where men would mass together, feel solidarity with each other and thus form a single family. It was perhaps the circulation of a principle with utopian forms supported by a great deal of poetry: one could say that it began with a badly demonstrated truth.

L’Orso was alone, isolated, working only with his own mind: he thus remained behind in the ideas that were being widely developed in Europe.

The constant propaganda every day, every minute, little by little brought about if not a consciousness, then at least a doubt about property and Mazzinianism in the minds of three young workers who would later, as we shall see, form part of an anarchist group together with L’Orso. The names of these three young men were Carlo Bertolucci, Leoncini and Boteghi.

From 1871 to 1875 nothing worthy of attention took place. The movement was reborn after that period, when L’Orso returned from Italy. He joined the Mazzinian Pensiero ed Azione club, solely in order to carry out socialist propaganda. He was soon afterwards nominated president in place of the late Ottolenghi. One of the first proposals he made was to make a donation for the benefit of the Internationalists who had been tried in Rome. This sum was sent to comrade Luigi Castellazzo who, though a member of the Masonic Order, was nonetheless a fine anarchist theoretician and “sharpshooter”, as he called himself. An account of the donation was published in the newspaper “La Capitale” belonging to Raffaello [sic] Sonzogno, who was assassinated shortly thereafter by a fanatic patriot, stirred into action by the words of the parliamentarian Luciani. The first donation was followed by a second, for Amilcare Cipriani, whom L’Orso believed to have repented for the killing of poor Lantini – and L’Orso was wrong. At the time the donation was made, Cipriani was in New Caledonia.

Before the end of 1875, L’Orso proposed that the Club change its programme, making it international and socialist. This proposal was rejected: it was, however, supported by Giovanni Urban and Giuseppe Messina. They and L’Orso then left and set up the first International group.

Also towards the end of 1875, several fugitives from the Marches arrived from Italy after the repression of the Bakuninist uprisings. These Marches men, together with the Tuscans Bertolucci, Leoncini and Boteghi and another from Romagna, joined together to form another International group.

L’Orso and his comrades were unaware of the existence of this group until early 1875 [recte: 1876]. Once they had learnt of it, they joined and all together they founded a branch of the International in April of that year.

From that moment propaganda took off with greater force and activity, the number of members grew and a great will to act began to be seen!

In the same year (1876) L’Orso, Giuseppe Messina and Giacomo Costa from Imola published first the newspaper “Il Lavoratore”, which was banned by the authorities after three issues, and then, having acquired some movable type, “Il Proletario”, which was printed on one side only. The original feature of these two little papers was that none of the three editors knew, one could say, how to write: for this reason, from the linguistic and grammatical point of view, these publications left much to be desired, however good their content was.

In the meantime, the propaganda was fruitful; ideas circulated more easily once they were better developed. This was the situation until 1878, when Errico Malatesta, Guglielmo Sbigoli and Alvino arrived from Italy. It was something new and provided great hope; but the Consulate of Italy began to persecute everyone, previous residents and newcomers alike. Malatesta, Alvino and L’Orso were deported: the first two were sent to Beirut in Syria, while the latter was sent to Piraeus in Greece.

L’Orso returned to Egypt a month later, but was arrested while still on board and deported again. Two days after his arrival he set off for Larnaca in Cyprus, leaving a slap on the face of a janissary. From there he moved to Beirut, where he accompanied as interpreter a charlatan magnetizer and magician. Together they travelled the entire Asiatic coast as far as Constantinople. In that city he found Giacomo Costa, who had arrived there from Italy, and L’Orso joined him to carry out propaganda of ideas. Some anarchist groups were formed, though they had an apathetic life and lasted for only a year and a half.

Back in Alexandria the Consul we mentioned earlier had gone and another had taken his place. It was 1880. L’Orso returned with difficulty. The anarchist element had doubled: the problem was, however, that it was divided into two factions – not on questions of ideas or form, but on personal, perhaps regional, questions. One faction was captained by Luigi Palanca; the other was subdivided into decuries and appeared to be quite authoritarian in its form.

At the start of 1881, all the anarchists – around a hundred – held a festival [2] in the countryside, at Sidi Gaber. At the end of the festival a proposal was made for the two groups to merge. After a long, laborious debate the proposal ended up being approved. The splits thus ended; but later, as we shall see, they began again because all artificial organizations are prone to disagreements, arguments and real disorder, whereas the opposite is true in the natural organization, which alone can give life to free discussion, the creator of social harmony. That same day L’Orso proposed that a clandestine print works be set up, with each being obliged to pay only five francs each time. All accepted and in a few days the money was gathered together to buy a press and movable type. With the essentials bought, the print works was housed on the first floor of a house at the end of the Midan.

Around the same time a Circolo Europeo di Studi Sociali (European Club for Social Studies) was established in which, aside from anarchists, all those who wished to study the social question could participate. The members of a Masonic lodge also participated, for two conferences given there by L’Orso with the assistance of Allerini from Corsica, who is now a prefect in Tonkin, as far as I know.
On 14 July 1881 the Club hosted a public conference by comrade Florindo Matteucci, who ended up as a freemason in Buenos Aires. After the conference the anarchists headed for Place des Consuls with their flags and revolvers as there had been a rumour that some Italians wanted to set about the French, given that some days beforehand the French had beaten some Italians in Marseilles. The rumour was unfounded: the Italians remained calm – the French, too. The anarchists’ aim was to prevent one people going against another, by force if necessary. With all being calm, the anarchists ended up holding an anarchist demonstration under the windows of the French Consulate, cursing Thiers, Mac-Mahon and Gambetta, interspersed with cries of “Long live the Social Revolution! Long live the Commune! Long live Anarchy!”.

The numerous policemen and consular janissaries who were gathered in a group on the square, let them be as they saw that the anarchists were quite firm in their resolve. The next morning, L’Orso was arrested at his house; after two hours he was freed conditionally – freedom that he still enjoys [3].

The anarchist movement also existed in Cairo, though it was weak. In the capital of Egypt anarchy was first propagandized by Pasquale Pianigiani, followed by Boteghi, Bertolucci and Messina, who travelled to Cairo from Alexandria. Thus the movement was kept alive by everyone together, with all helping each other whenever it was decided to do something in one of the two cities.
The clandestine print works in Alexandria had a short, precarious life. It was entrusted to L’Orso and Matteucci, who printed several manifestoes that were sent to Italy and also began to publish Carlo Cafiero’s Revolution – a fine book, the first part of which alone saw the light of day in the pages of “La Révolution sociale” in Paris in 1887 [recte: 1881].

As a result of Andrea Costa’s volte-face, which L’Orso was the first to fight with a letter to comrade Arturo Ceretti and soon afterwards with a letter to Costa himself and then article to the newspapers, a split appeared: the majority, led by Palanca, Falleri and Cesare Pichi, supported Costa; the minority, with a certain Patruno at the head, remained anarchist it is true, but promised little, and those who were a part of it soon became indifferent or ended up as freemasons, as indeed was the case with Patruno.
The print works entrusted to Falleri ceased operations and was lost.

Together with a new element, L’Orso set up the “Passanante” group, the only one that concerned itself really with anarchy.
After the Urabi revolt of 11 June 1882, both the Costans and Patruno’s would-be anarchists left Egypt. There remained only the “Passanante” group made up of L’Orso, his younger brother, Carrara, Messina and a certain Gigetto, whose surname escapes me.
On 11 July of the same year, the English bombarded Alexandria. Soon afterwards the Costans returned to Egypt with renewed energy, declaring themselves to be anarchists once again.

The “Passanante” group set up three other groups, mostly made up of the new element. There were also some comrades who had never been in Egypt; amongst these should be remembered the fine comrade Demetrio Francini from Santa Sofia, in Romagna, who passed away in Paris in 1901 at the age of 60, having always remained active in the anarchist camp.

About a month after the said bombardment, Errico Malatesta, Cesare Ceccarelli, Gaetano Marocco and Apostolo Paolides arrived from Europe with the intention of reaching Urabi Pasha, who was camped in Damanhur. Their aim was to attempt a surprise attack in favour of anarchy.

The presence of military cordons around the city and the continuing skirmishes prevented them and L’Orso from achieving their goal. Many attempts were made to break through the cordons: by sea in an attempt to land at Abukir, by land at Ramleh, and over the Nile. The most dangerous and hazardous was the attempt to cross Lake Mariout, which was dry as a result of the closure of the Mahmoudiyah Canal: but not even this was successful, like the others mentioned – the still-soft mud of the lake forced them to retreat.
With the boyish dream of a daring coup vanished – nor indeed could it ever have come about – the idea was born in the mind of Malatesta to revive the International in Europe. With that in mind he joined Ceccarelli, Sbigoli and L’Orso and imagined that he had found some assistance which would provide money for the organization in Europe. Thus, in early 1883 Malatesta left for Italy with the money generously provided by our good comrade Luigi Alvino.

Once he arrived in Italy he did in fact establish the International (though only in name), which lasted as long as his stay in Florence. Outside Italy, Malatesta found no-one to join him, nor could he print the famous statutes in Geneva, through Grave, because the programme which had been printed without difficulty in Florence, only concerned Italy.

In the meantime, L’Orso too had returned to Italy. He too was in Florence and shared the more or less absurd illusions of Malatesta. The latter finally left for Buenos Aires and L’Orso, after eight years residing in various parts of Europe, returned to Egypt, where he found only two of his old comrades: Cesare Pichi and Augusto Bichielli; the others were lost to the cause and only thought of filling their bellies.

Fresh work was needed and fresh work was done.

No more artificial organizations, no more discipline, no more established programmes, but absolute freedom for comrades to do what each though best. There were no regular meetings: the anarchists met whenever they felt the need to; and this need was very often felt, to such an extent that one could say they were almost always together.

A new public anarchist presence was made on 18 March 1892 outside Moharrem Bey gate, with speeches and song. On the same occasion a manifesto by Bakunin was published and posted on the city walls; it had already come out in Europe, but many copies were also sent to Italy.

From this day on propaganda was re-born – not to find proselytes for a party but to form mind which would be useful for the development and establishment of the Idea.

There was also an end to dreams of coups de main, of organizing the revolution, of workers’ conquests, of the creation of a great party, compact and strong in appearance, in imitation of the old parties. [NOTE: Here, Parrini is speaking of his own current, and providing a misleading picture -- not least, he omits the rise of the multi-racial revolutionary syndicalist unions and leagues - note by Lucien van der Walt]

The anarchists of Egypt stopped calling themselves socialists, because socialism no longer grouped anything but scoundrels at the top and the witless at the bottom. Our comrades in Alexandria became anarchists and nothing but anarchists, just like in France. [NOTE: see previous note].

[1] Note by L. B.: The text of these historical memoirs was sent by I. U. Parrini – one of the initiators of the anarchist movement in Italy, from the days of the International – to Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who published it in instalments in the magazine “La Protesta Umana” which he edited at the time in San Francisco, California. The extracts reproduced here correspond to those of the first three instalments, from No. 36, 38 and 40, of 21 Nov. And 26 Dec. 1903 and 9 Jan. 1904 respectively (a double space in the text indicates the end of one instalment and the beginning of the next) and cover, chronologically speaking, a period of about twenty years, i.e. from the start [of his stay in Egypt] until 1892.
It seems superfluous to emphasize the importance of this memoir, which is also the only document to come down to us of any complete nature and breadth, with which we can reconstruct the history of Italian anarchism in Egypt. Other than some unimportant inaccuracies, for the most part easily identifiable, and in several places some uncertainty (clearly attributable to the author’s fading memory) regarding the events recounted, the historical references are completely reliable as far as can be ascertained; notwithstanding this, however, the reader is warned against any imprudent use of this account which, taken as a whole, is unfortunately marked by excessive and evident ideological twisting. One of the most fiery, fanatical individualists of his time, Parrini wrote this piece for exclusively polemical reasons, to be used against organiztionalist anarchists who at the time were “polluting” – in his opinion – the purity of the Italo-Egyptian libertarian movement. Thus, he tended to ignore facts and events that would not have suited his position and always ensured he gave greatest exposure to the work of the individualist, anti-organizationalist current, in order to be able to conclude that it was more efficient or politically realistic.
Despite these limitations, the document semed more than worthy of revival and republication, at least in its essentials, and being brought to the attention of historians of socialism, considering the fact that it is difficult to access for Italian researchers.

[2] Translator’s note [N.M.]: In English in the original.

[3] Note by L. B.: For further details, see “Il Grido del Popolo” (Naples), a. II, No. 17 (3 Aug. 1881), in the column Notizie estere.

NOTE: The material is sourced from Leonardo Bettini, "Bibliografia dell'anarchismo, volume 2, tomo 2: periodici e numeri unici anarchici in lingua italiana pubblicati all'estero (1872-1971)" (CP editrice, Firenze, 1976), translation by Nestor McNab. Via Lucien van der Walt.

CONTEXT: see GORMAN, A. (2010) 'Diverse In Race, Religion And Nationality . . . But United In Aspirations Of Civil Progress': The Anarchist Movement In Egypt 1860–1940 IN HIRSCH, S. J. & VAN DER WALT, L. (Eds.) "Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism and social revolution", Leiden, Boston, Brill. Republished 2014 in corrected paperback with new preface by editors.

author by Adellepublication date Tue Jun 30, 2015 15:18author address author phone Report this post to the editors

It's great to have this reference material online, but I have an extremely low opinion of the scholarship of Lucien van der Walt. Not only is he a revisionist whose preexisting agenda puts a procrustean frame around his historical narratives, but he can't even resist adding notes in the middle of historical material that contradicts his narrative. He would like to give the impression that he knows better than the major figures of that era what was going on then, but I am not convinced, and neither should you be.

author by Mamalatestapublication date Wed Jul 01, 2015 14:25author address author phone Report this post to the editors

It's true that van der Walt is, to say the least, a partisan historian. All historians are, to some extent, but it's admittedly bad form to present archival material to the public with a bunch of uncited criticism of the content. I would appreciate more references for his assertions, at the least, if we are not to understand his asides as the sort of mere invective unbecoming of a historian.

author by Red and Black Actionpublication date Thu Jul 02, 2015 16:31author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The sources for the comments on the very partisan memoirs *were* provided and explicitly cited: Gorman's history of Egyptian anarchism.

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