A few notes on Sacco and Vanzetti

Original title: Noterelle su Sacco e Vanzetti. In margine a un Convegno di studi. "Anarchismo" n. 63, July 1989, pp. 36-40
Published in english in Revolutionary Solidarity, Elephant Editions, 1994

Of course we are far from the times and conditions in which the tragedy of Sacco and Vanzetti took place. But have the problems concerning the way the movement of democratic opinion all over the world reacted changed all that much? Why? Perhaps due to lack of clarity and certain misunderstandings? These are the questions that led to the notes that follow.

Why these notes?
I read "Acts on the study day on Sacco and Vanzetti" held in Villafalletto on September 4 and 5 1987, and asked myself how much did the fact that these two comrades were innocent count at the time, and still today, concerning this affair? If the two comrades had declared themselves responsible, or had just as incontrovertibly been considered responsible for the actions attributed to them, would they still have been defended by the international anarchist movement? What would the reaction of the world movement of opinion that took over the whole affair have been in that case?
Of course, history isn't built with "ifs", I know that perfectly well. And it is not my intention to make a contribution to the "history" of Sacco and Vanzetti. I have a strong suspicion of all more or less professional historians, have more than a little suspicion of history itself, and obviously suspect all politicians old and new and their good faith in taking up historical "cases".
On the other hand, I have no doubt about the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were quite extraneous to the specific acts they were accused of. But this certainty is personal and quite foreign to facts that can be ascertained or obscured in the event of a trial and does not prevent me from asking myself, and I hope the few comrades who read me, a few disturbing questions.
To die innocent means more rage
Of course, it must be terrible to die innocent, and that is because the moral value of justice is rooted in each one of us. Not the sacrosanct justice of proletarian rebellion that upturns everything and settles accounts in a collective thrust of destruction, but the technical, judicial, traditional one. The old justice with the blindfolded eyes that we unmask to discover in horror are all rotten.
But although we have read about and are aware of all this, we are still convinced that justice should work! Christ! How can you send two innocent men to death! The holy indignation of so many anarchist comrades goes hand in hand with the lay indignation of the communists, democrats and possibilists of every shade. The glorious crusade of the left reassembles unequivocally each time the names of Sacco and Vanzetti are mentioned. And what links them is precisely the general and objectively justifiable question of innocence. But the rage that is at the root of this, the rage for two comrades murdered by the State, cannot let us shut our eyes to other problems.
The inopportune presence
It seems to me that the flux of democratic personalities, the artistic and literary ones even more than the judicial or academic ones, greatly contributed to spreading the Sacco and Vanzetti "case". This led to vast propaganda at world level, but also to lowering the level of the clash that was undoubtedly taking place in America, and more specifically in court, at the time. Too much talk, too many theatricals, too many democratic journalists, too many politicians. And this, like a continuous, perverse thread, is still going on today with attempts to recuperate them by the contender to the White House, Dukakis.
But how do you decide otherwise? Take the case of piazza Fontana [1967 - a bomb in the Banca d'Agricoltura, Milan, kills 17 people. Anarchists are accused of this State massacre which was denounced by the whole of the left] - could you have told the Communist Party to get lost and drop their support? If anarchists do everything to spread their propaganda in order to involve people and have themselves heard by the widest number of people possible, how can they refuse the collaboration of the political and intellectual forces, even when they know perfectly well where they lead. This is not an easy problem to answer. At the time of Sacco and Vanzetti, could they have refused the support of people like Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Walter Lippman, John Dos Passos, not to mention the various Roman Rollands, Thomas Manns, Albert Einsteins etc., all over the world who supported the anarchists' innocence? Yes, it would have been difficult.
But I don't want to bring up the quite legitimate point of view that the comrades should only have been defended within the international anarchist movement, with propaganda limited to the latter's motivations, accepting only the outside forces who were willing to keep the question within these limits. I just want to say that the kind of collaboration imposed by the lawyer Moore necessarily had to have the. stamp of approval of both the Defence Committee and the two comrades in prison. It wasn't foreseen how much the innocence of the two comrades would be underlined and how neglected their guilt on principle due to their militancy, their belonging to a specific part of the American and international anarchist movement, would be cast into the background. That was the price of that collaboration. After all, one could play on the doubt, and this still happens today, that it was a question of two immigrants, two honest workers, and underline the nationalist and class element which certainly produced results at the time but did not put any light on the anarchist and revolutionary personalities of Sacca and Vanzetti.
Was the presence of the forces of the international "left" useful to the aim of saving their lives? One must conclude that it was not, given that the two comrades were assassinated all the same. The fact that it reduced any possibility of their anarchist activity emerging is also negative.
What would have happened if that presence had been refused? The two comrades would have been defended in the same way as the others who ended up on the scaffold, some innocent, some guilty, by Galleani's paper. And here we come to the question: but does this differentiation between "guilty" and "innocent" make any sense?
Frankly, I don't know. I reread the "Acts" we are talking about here, and saw that both Sacco and Vanzetti contributed to "Cronaca Sovversiva". So they must have been aware of Galleani's position on this false problem. The fact that they were "innocent" could not make them go back to a total acceptation of the innocentist road, at least in the terms developed in the trial. I agree with Pedretti therefore when he writes "Bartolomeo Vanzetti was not an acritical one-dimensional person, he denounced the mechanism that led to heroising his defeat to the bitter end: he was essentially an anarchist communist, profoundly convinced and extremely proud of his political and existential choices... in fact he never concealed his hatred of the injustice he was a victim of and his desire to be avenged". (p. 130) In a sense, once the decision had been made it was necessary to go on to the bitter end, right to the point of making the fact (imposed by the "frightened progressives" who made up the great mass of the supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti) that they were anarchists appear between the lines.
"Innocent" or "guilty"
The fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were murdered although obviously innocent proves only one thing: that the concept of innocence and guilt is not an objective fact but is a measure imposed by the class struggle. The legal techniques and police procedures that establish whether a person is guilty or innocent are part of the culture of power.
For an anarchist revolutionary the procedures that come to be pushed as logical "evidence" are worth absolutely nothing. It is to one's revolutionary conscience that one must respond, not the evidence of a situation orchestrated by an enemy who makes and breaks the rules of the game at its pleasure. For a "democrat" on the contrary there is a net difference between being guilty and being innocent. Guilty is he who has broken the law in a precise way, in the context notified to him and for which legal proceedings are commenced. On the contrary, the innocent are those who did not do what for various reasons they have been accused of. The great mass of those who still cringe in horror when they think of the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti, do so because these two comrades of ours were innocent, i.e. did not carry out the robbery or kill the people they were accused of and which they died for on the electric chair. A small minority, and among them there must have been anarchists, cringe in horror not only because of the ignominous incredible atrocious method in which the prosecution succeeded in maintaining their responsibility concerning the specific events, but because Sacco and Vanzetti were murdered by the State. Would the horror we are talking about have existed, apart from in this small minority which for one reason or another did not take any notice of the objective fact of their innocence, if the two anarchists had had a more dignified trial (from the point of view of establishing proof) and it had turned out that they had committed the robbery? We are sure things would have been quite different.
The great mass of those who are respectable by profession would all have been in favour of a sentence, and we understand that. On the other hand a small minority, including anarchists, would, like Galleani, have stated that there is no difference between innocence and guilt.
Had Sacco and Vanzetti really been responsible for these deeds there would only have been a modest show of defence at the level of opinion by comrades, such as that which existed for Ravachol for example, some time before the tragedy of Sacco and Vanzetti. On the other hand, comrades who put themselves in the optic of expropriation cannot believe that they have a movement behind them, no matter what its objective conditions are and the level of theoretical awareness within it.
Why can we not expect such a thing? For at least two good reasons: first, because the decision to carry out particular actions, including those aimed at participating through a precise effort in increasing the availablity of certain revolutionary instruments, is always a personal decision and must be borne, in good as in evil, by the individual comrades and their matured awareness. Secondly, because a movement, even a revolutionary one, needs to develop, has divergences of opinion, certain legitimate reservations that cannot all be cast aside in one go.
Put this way, correctly as far as I can see, there is nothing strange about taking a distance in such cases, thus clearly showing one's extraneousness to the question. Why ever should one let oneself become involved a posteriori in something that one does not agree with? The only criticisable position is the moralistic one, which necessarily ends up in the realm of the morals of power that are produced and imposed by the bosses.
This brief reflection should help us to see various situations more clearly, in the first place that of Sacco and Vanzetti. If being innocent is no more than an external factor that might or might not exist - and in the case of the two comrades murdered in America, Sacco and Vanzetti, they were innocent - comrades should be defended everywhere, even if they are "guilty". Now, if this so, we cannot constitute wide fronts when comrades are innocent, then limit ourselves to a small part of the anarchist movement when comrades are "guilty". The thing should be approached in the same way, at least theoretically, if we admit in the first place, as should be obvious, that there cannot be "innocent" or "guilty" except in the logic of power.
How can we get out of this dilemma? Quite simply. By always starting from the fact that, for us, the technical aspect is secondary and if comrades are accused, imprisoned and in some cases even killed this happens, apart from the objective event that constitutes the element of debate in court and which is of marginal interest to us, because they are anarchists. We cannot make technical points become the central elements of the defence campaign.
Many comrades, even those in good faith, think differently because they are prey to the banalities of dominant ideas. The claim to objectivity is one of the cornerstones of the philosophy of the conquerors.
It is important to understand this because it always takes us by surprise, reappearing where we least expected it. That reality is something that can be determined in a precise way is one of the many myths at the basis of the new scientific thought, just as when it emerged from the complex conditions of the Renaissance, let's say, in the ideas of Galilei: rationalism reduced to description, no longer as essence. And contemporary law is a worthy heir of enlightenment rational-ism, not having changed the certainties concerning the "way" in which things went much. One still assists today in comical "reconstructions" and other such things in court. We have become so used to this way of thinking that we do not even notice it.
When we say that Sacco and Vanzetti were not innocent but on the contrary were guilty, but only of being anarchists, we insert into the trial that claims to be objective (therefore of a quantitative nature), an element that is extraneous to the trial itself (or at least, considered so by judicial science), an element of a qualitative nature.
And yet this is not so. Reality is precisely this complex thing that cannot be reduced to the result of a legal procedure. The latter will always be arbitrary and founded not on evidence but on strength, not on logic but on power.
A difficult way of reasoning? Perhaps, yes, but if you do it once you never forget it.