Italian Workers of the World: Labor Migration and the Formation of Multiethnic States

Italian Workers of the World: Labor Migration and the Formation of Multiethnic States

by Donna R. Gabaccia, Fraser M. Ottanelli
Offering a kaleidoscopic perspective on the experiences of Italian workers on foreign soil, Italian Workers of the World explores the complex links between international class formation and nation building.

Distinguished by an international panel of contributors, this wide-ranging volume examines how the reception of immigrants in their new countries


Offering a kaleidoscopic perspective on the experiences of Italian workers on foreign soil, Italian Workers of the World explores the complex links between international class formation and nation building.

Distinguished by an international panel of contributors, this wide-ranging volume examines how the reception of immigrants in their new countries shaped their sense of national identity and helped determine the nature of the multiethnic states in which they settled.

Covering the work of republican "Garibaldians" in South America and antifascist currents among Italian migrants in France and the United States, as well as such seminal events as the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, Italian Workers of the World shows how modes of incorporating (or excluding) foreign-born workers were carried over from nineteenth-century labor movements to twentieth-century nation-states. This volume also paves the way for new modes of collaboration across the boundaries of historical nationalism.

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Ser.
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6.38(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.03(d)

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Italian Workers of the World

Labor Migration and the Formation of Multiethnic States

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02659-4



The triumph of nation-states, with their power to shape our thinking, our emotions, and our scholarship, should not obscure the fact that nation building was a complex task. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, states were not as powerful as they later became, and their ability to build nations to support their own legitimacy had not yet been fully demonstrated. Many forces seemed arrayed against them. The age of nationalism from the French Revolution to World War II was also an era of worldwide migrations and ardent dreams of international, proletarian revolution. Migration and labor activism complicated the process of nation building and forced states to new levels of activism to gain the loyalty of their workers.

Too often the histories of human migration, nation building, and labor activism have been studied in isolation and examined in single countries, as if each nation were unlike any other. To produce this collection of essays, we sought an alternative yet also historical approach that could problematize connections among global migration, labor militancy, and the creation of multiethnic nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

To analyze and understand the twinned processes of international class formation and nation building from a global, comparative, and historical perspective, we focus on the particularly peripatetic migratory workers of the Italian Peninsula and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Between the French Revolution and the onset of World War II, roughly twenty million migrants left Italy, representing about 10 percent of long-distance migrants throughout the world during those years. The vast majority of Italy's migrants were unskilled peasants and workers, the pettiest of street traders, and owners of the tiniest parcels of land. Their search for wages spurred temporary migrations but scattered them more widely than most other European and Asian migrants of the era. About half found work in Europe, approximately a third traveled to North America, and a quarter went to South America, while small but significant numbers also worked in Australia and in North and South Africa. Once abroad, the largest groups were men who worked in construction, mining, and industry or in plantation or other forms of large-scale, commercial agriculture.

Italian mass migrations began on the heels of a nationalist movement, the "Risorgimento," for the creation of a united and independent nation-state of Italy. Migration increased after Italy's unification, just as the new state began to face the challenge of creating an "Italian" national identity among its new citizens. Before 1914, the typical Italian migrant was a man without a clear national identity but with strong attachments to his town or village of birth, to which half of all migrants returned. As they left Italy, migratory men increasingly faced nation-states that demanded them to choose whether to become Italian or to adopt the national identities of the countries where they worked.

During the nineteenth century, the creation of new nations and international mass migrations progressed along with the development of new labor movements, many of them premised on the notion that class transcended national boundaries-best expressed by Marx in his appeal to the "workers of the world" to unite. For the workers of the world, as an Italian anarchist in London proclaimed, "there are no frontiers"-and the nation-state was simply irrelevant. Whether they "sent" or "received" migrants, most nation-states around the world were challenged from below (by the regionalism or ethnic diversity of their populations) and from above (by class-conscious and consciously internationalist labor movements). During and after World War I, nation-states increasingly resolved this tension-as well as that caused by the competing attachments of migratory workers to several countries-by pressuring migratory laborers to increase their commitment and loyalty to one nation. Nationalist passions clearly peaked in the Western world and in large parts of Asia as well in the half-century that followed.

Our study of migratory Italian workers forced us to think in new ways about the complex interactions among migration, national identity, and international class solidarity. First, it uncovered the very diverse ways that national groups have coalesced and evolved over time. In some places, it was love of a particular territorial homeland that defined the nation; in others, it was birth on national soil, shared culture or blood, or a voluntary commitment to citizenship and the political ideals of the nation-state. Second, it modified our understanding of nationalism as a factor in class-based labor activism. Labor activists of this era put most of their considerable energies into building national labor movements and finding acceptance as participants in national polities. By the twentieth century, as workers acquired a national identity in increasing numbers, migrations from Italy helped provoke but also repeatedly undermined what Robert Paris has termed "proletarian nationalism."

Third, our study revealed how labor movements-even when dominated by internationalists-shaped nation building. In every country where they worked, Italy's migrants pioneered a surprising range of transnational, multiethnic, and multiracial organizing strategies that transcended ethnic and national divisions. But labor movements in France, Latin America, and the United States also played important roles in defining how foreigners would find incorporation into these multiethnic nations as workers and as citizens. Studying the United States, James Barrett has called this process "Americanization from the bottom up." In France, for instance, leftist workers of Italian descent could rightly claim to be French, having built and defended the nation as labor radicals and antifascists. In the United States, by contrast, incorporation repeatedly spawned "hyphenated" or ethnic identities that tolerated a sentimental attachment to the Italian nation but required a sharp break with internationalist labor radicalism. In Latin America, nation building meant the blending or amalgamation of Italians with other migrants into a hyphen-less Brazilian or Argentine nation-a process evident also in the region's cosmopolitan labor movements.

Internationalist labor activists helped create and shape Italian national and ethnic identities among migrants abroad. Language, migration "chains," and the common intention to return home kept events in Italy an ongoing concern among activists and labor migrants in the nineteenth century. As nation builders, however, Italy's labor activists typically worked in direct opposition to the nationalism promoted by states; they connected patriotism with liberty and a beloved "home place"-not with the state. In the twentieth century, during Mussolini's dictatorship, conflicts between competing varieties of Italian "diaspora nationalism"-one of them fervently antifascist -became particularly intense.

Finally, our study of Italy's migrants underscores the enormous complexity of identities well before our own postmodern age. Migratory workers were variously class-conscious, family-oriented, tied to particular towns or regions, and aware of their ethnic, national, international, and transnational loyalties. Yet neither the transnational lives of migrants nor their hybrid identities ultimately prevented nation-states from consolidating their power to raise armies, evoke loyalty, or close their borders to new generations of migrants. Those who see diasporas or transnational migrations as harbingers of nation-states in decline should ponder the considerable importance of international migration during the age of ascendant nationalism.

To tell this complex story, we have collected eleven essays and divided them into three somewhat overlapping chronological eras, focusing on the interplay of class and nation in a variety of countries in Europe and in North and South America. Regardless of the place or time studied, all our contributors faced a common problem. All wrote about mobile, poorly educated, and often illiterate people who left few records of their thoughts or feelings. Like other scholars before them, our contributors had to learn about migrants from those who were not just like the mass of ordinary Italian migrants. Our contributors have examined the written records left behind by a minority of migrant men (and a majority of migrants were men). Most of the essays have also given central place to the voices of the class-conscious internationalists among them. These internationalists were no more self-interested or unrepresentative than their opponents, the nationalists of Italy or the Americas, whose writings have long been accepted by scholars as important sources.

Part 1 of this book covers a century of rising Italian nationalism after the French Revolution, when migrations from Italy were still relatively small- no more than two million before Italy's unification in 1861. During these years, Italy's peasants and laborers identified mainly with their hometowns and regions of origin (in addition to their families). The idea of an Italian nation was new, and an Italian state emerged to promote national identity through education and citizenship only after 1861. Abroad, receiving countries showed little interest in the loyalties or identities of migratory workers. When they migrated, however, workers encountered the ideas of both Italian nationalism and Italians as a single ethnic group or nation ("people") defined by a shared culture across class boundaries. They also encountered the universalizing ideology of republicanism, based on the principle of equality, with its emphasis on nation building across class lines.

In part 1, Donna R. Gabaccia and Fernando J. Devoto explore linkages between local and class identities in the formation of a national (or Italian ethnic) identity among Italy's earliest migrants. Both point to Latin America, where over half of Italy's migrants lived in 1870, as an important locus for Italian nation building. In Argentina and southern Brazil, early cross-class alliances built a sense of diaspora nationalism that encompassed artisans, merchants, and political exiles. Gabaccia and Devoto confirm what historians of recent years have also argued-that migrant laborers developed national identities more readily in the diaspora, where natives did not recognize regional differences among them.

Far more than in the movement for national independence at home in Italy, the earliest forms of diaspora Italian nationalism emerged from the ideals of a universalizing and often revolutionary republicanism. In the work of both Gabaccia and Devoto, republican exiles appear as early examples of what Elisabetta Vezzosi (in her essay in part 2) calls "radical ethnic brokers." However, the Italian nation envisioned by radical ethnic brokers rarely matched that of the rulers and representatives of the developing Italian state. Republican exiles sought to unify migrant settlements around their leadership by connecting them with movements of laborers in Italy or the host society. They were nation builders who typically contributed simultaneously to the construction of Italian and American nations.

In a transnational analysis, Gabaccia traces the spread of the ideal of a unified Italian nation from migratory and predominantly republican and revolutionary exiles to the labor migrants of the era. Republicans alone among Italy's nationalists saw the poor as members of the Italian nation. Through radical republicans, diaspora nationalism shaped the course of political unification in Italy. Central to Gabaccia's argument is an analysis of the career and symbolism attached to the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, who recruited plebeian migrants to fight tyranny first in South America and later in Italy. Garibaldi's success in transforming migrants into soldiers was a first step toward making Italy's impoverished masses members of the new nation. Reinforced by the fact that Garibaldi himself later embraced internationalism, a "myth of Garibaldi" became permanently attractive to class-conscious workers of Italian descent throughout the world, as Pietro Rinaldo Fanesi shows in his essay in part 3.

In an essay on the early elite of Buenos Aires, Devoto confirms the initial appeal of republicanism to migrants and the republican character of many of the first Italian ethnic institutions in Latin America. Republicanism linked Italian migrants to many native Argentines' own hopes that their new nation would embody the most modern political ideals of Europe. The early ties between Italian and Argentine republicans would allow subsequent generations of migrants to claim they had helped create an Argentine nation that blended many peoples into a new national group. Devoto ends by exploring the paradox of republicanism's success abroad and its failure at home. Italian republicans were forced to come to terms with the monarchy of Victor Emmanuel once he had unified Italy under his rule. In opposition to the republicans (with their vision of a voluntary nation inspired by the ideals of liberty), Italy's rulers would argue that loyalty to the state among those born on its territory defined the nation.

Part 2 of the book covers the important era of the mass migrations from 1870 to 1914. During these years, European and American nations alike recognized their dependence on foreign and migrant labor. At the same time, they faced the rise of new radical movements focused not on bridging the class divide but on building international and class-conscious opposition to nation-states. In these years, fourteen million laborers left the new nation of Italy, and Italy's migrants truly became "workers of the world." The industries, mines, and construction sites of Argentina, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States attracted the largest streams of Italy's overwhelmingly male migrants. By the eve of World War I, over two million had left for Argentina, and another five million had made the journey to the United States and Canada. Italians were the largest group of foreign workers in Argentina, Brazil, and Switzerland and were a third of the immigrant work force in France.

The years after Italian unification were ones of significant transition in nation building and in workers' organization around the world. Whereas building an Italian nation seemed most problematic in the earlier period, in this era the incorporation of Italians as foreigners into receiving nations gradually took center stage. National strength in these years became associated with economic growth and imperial expansion, and emigration and immigration policies remained universally liberal as nations pursued both. But beyond that, nation-building projects diverged.


Excerpted from Italian Workers of the World Copyright © 2001 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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