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Emanuel Garrett

Despite the Current Myth, He Was Not a “Respectable” Liberal

Carlo Tresca: The Life of a Rebel

(10 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 6, 10 February 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Four years ago, in the month of January, Carlo Tresca was murdered on the streets of New York. Since then we have published regularly reports of the activity of a committee established to press for an investigation of his murder. Norman Thomas is chairman of the committee which, quite properly, includes people of many different political hues, united on the single point of ferreting out the fascist thugs who killed Tresca. It is more than proper that these people, an ex-judge, Dorothy Kenyon, various union officials, etc., should be on the committee; it is their duty. However, in reflecting on the activity and publicity releases of the committee, and reviewing the speakers and speeches at the Tresca Memorial Meeting, we feel it necessary to say something about the man and the FALSE legend that is growing up around him. And we feel that were Carlo alive today, he would be the first to protest with us.

Carlo Tresca, above all else, was a rebel! And as a rebel he was a man of rare attainment and courage. Though our political views differed widely, we are proud to number him among our heroes, for he was forged out of the steel that makes revolutionists. But in violation of everything that Tresca stood for, an image of Tresca is developing as a pink-tea anti-totaliiarian, a lovable, genial character, and nothing more. To be sure, Tresca was lovable. Few came near him who did not feel the warmth of his devotion to the ideals of liberty, of his love for humanity, of his contemptuous disregard for the conventions of this bigoted, oppressive society we live in. All that is true, but there was far more to the man and rebel. He was indeed an anti-totalitarian, but we would prefer seeing him described for what he really was: an anarchist-syndicalist.

It reflects poorly on the man to hide his political philosophy behind vague and pale generalizations. We differed with him, but we respected his convictions as he respected ours. The more so because Tresca was not a dilettante anarchist, idling away his hours in futile talk at a bohemian tea shop. For years, the press referred to him as “Tresca the Troublemaker.” And the capitalist press, which despised and feared him, was right to this extent: where there was trouble, where a man of courage was needed, Tresca was there. We well remember how Tresca laughed at the “bomb plots” the police were always involving him in, how at meetings he would tell the story of his many arrests, his clashes with the respectable powers that be, proud that the enemy knew him as an implacable fighter.

A Rebel from His Youth

Born in Sulmona, Italy, Tresca organized in his youth the first Socialist Party in that city. At the age of twenty-two he was secretary of the Italian Railroad Workers Union. Indicted for “libelling” some big-wig, Tresca was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Having forgotten to file an appeal, with characteristic contempt for the judiciary, Tresca fled Italy and eventually came to the United States. From the day he arrived, he was up to his neck in the struggles of the American working class, and his name is linked with unforgettable pages of our history. In this country, he was arrested at least 36 times, tried by jury seven times on accusations ranging from shouting “Viva Socialismo” in a cop’s face to sedition. During the famous Paterson silk strike alone he was arrested seven times, tried by jury three times and held in $30,000 bail. Paterson, Lawrence, Pittsburgh, Mesabi Range, and in others too numerous to list – in every one of the battles which marked the first decades of this century, Tresca was organizer, speaker, fearless fighter. Where Tresca was needed he went, summoned to this trouble and to that one by Vincent St. John, the great leader of the Industrial Workers of the World.

In a pen sketch of Tresca, Max Eastman tells a story about Tresca and the “Socialist,” Jacob Panken (who later became a judge) in the hotel strike of 1913. The strike was a difficult one. At one strike meeting, Panken, who loved flowery oratory, was haranguing the strikers with the admonition to settle their grievances at election time. When Panken finished, Tresca moved to the front with slow and dignified calm, mounted the platform, and in the English that he refused to master, fired the audience to cheers with the simple speech that began with these words: “Fellow workers, a strike, dat is not a course of lectures – dat is a fight.” Panken, so far as we know, was not at the Memorial Meeting, but others like him, and we repeat altogether justly, were there. It is worth musing on what the Tresca of Paterson and the hotel strike and a host of bitter battles would have said had he been able to speak.

How Carlo Tresca Fought The Fascists

At this meeting, many tributes were paid to Tresca as an anti-totalitarian, a tireless foe of fascism. It is a pity that Tresca could not address some of the speakers who believe that the best way to fight fascism is to ignore it, to let the fascists hold their meetings uninterrupted. While Tresca was alive, Mussolini’s Black Shirts in this country scarcely dared hold a meeting in New York. One of our comrades who was with Tresca at the time, tells of an occasion when Tresca went to a small coal town in Pennsylvania, predominantly Italian in population, where the Black Shirts had severely beaten a miner. Tresca called a meeting at which every last Italian coal miner was present. He publicly asked the fascists to come, and prepared the miners, who truly loved him, to receive them. The Black Shirts came, and Tresca defied them to start something, taunted them, asked them if they were brave men only when ranged as a gang against one man. While the audience cheered, the Black Shirts slunk out and never again dared raise their ugly heads in that town.

Many times Tresca risked death. He was shot at countless times and Mussolini’s forces tried repeatedly to kill him, until a bullet did finally lay him low on Fifth Avenue. Tresca scorned them, defied them, challenged them in the open. And not only the Black Shirts. Deputy Sheriffs, armed vigilante bands many times threatened him. Once in Grand Rapids, Minn., during the Mesabi Range strike, he was ordered out of town by an armed band of deputy sheriffs. He left town in a car with some companions, followed by five carloads of deputy sheriffs. At the next town, the streets were filled with deputy sheriffs and respectable citizens armed to the teeth. It looked like a lynching party. Tresca refused to permit his companions to risk their lives. He halted the car and calmly, slowly walked down the main street. The stunned sheriffs did nothing.

His Relations with the Trotskyists

It is possible to tell endless tales of Tresca the rebel. We remember his speeches at the time of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Delivered in Italian, it did not matter if we did not understand the language. The fire in them spoke clearly the rebel’s call to fight. And we remember too the many times that Tresca came to Trotskyist meetings in this country, to defend them against Stalinist attacks, to join with us in whatever was the action at hand.

Tresca was available for Trotskyist meetings when we needed him, because, whatever our differences, he respected us as we respected him: as rebels!

We record with particular gratitude and pride Tresca’s work on the Dewey Commission to investigate the charges against Leon Trotsky. He could not be intimidated by the Stalinist gangsters any more than he could be by Mussolini gangsters. When asked to serve, Tresca did not hesitate for a moment, and bent his efforts to organizing the Commission and getting its work started. It was one of the last great acts in the life of this rebel.

Tresca is dead now. Every effort must be expended to press the investigation of his murder, and to involve in this work every human being in whom there still beats a spark of decency. At the same time, we think it important to keep his memory clean and sharp. Something of the same as is now happening to Carlo Tresca happened to Gene Debs. Over the years, the great rebel Debs has been prettified into a sanctimonious, if lovable, spineless, if benign, plaster-sainted liberal. Debs and Tresca were indeed wonderful human beings in the fullest sense of the word. It is disheartening to see the Gene Debs of the Pullman strike, of the Canton speech, in which he spat defiance at the warmakers and slaveholders of the world, to see this Gene Debs depicted with the pink water-coloring of genial liberalism. Equally with Tresca! Let us remember the man as he was: A REBEL!

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