Giovanni Rossi was an Italian anarchist who promoted an experiment in socialist life by founding an alternative community in the countryside of Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. The experiment, however, was short lived and lasted only from 1890 to 1894. After the collapse of the community, Rossi remained in Brazil until 1907, working as an agronomist. In the meantime, he wrote a novel, Il Parana nel XX Secolo, in which he describes the future of the southern Brazilian state of Parana, imagined as one of the greatest world powers at the end of the twentieth century, along with Belgium. The future of Parana combines advances in technology and social life and resembles Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published a few years before. In this article, I want to present a study of this novel, relating it to some of Rossi's main commentators and to more general studies about Utopian and anarchist thought.
Keywords: Giovanni Rossi; Cecilia colony; Utopia.
A NEW WORLD
By the end of the twentieth century the southern Brazilian state of Parana would become one of the greatest world powers, along with Belgium, having replaced the burdensome bureaucracy of government with the spontaneous associations of individuals. That is how Giovanni Rossi, an Italian anarchist, novelist, and founder of a Utopian community, foresaw the future in a short novel--Il Parana nel XX secolo (Parana in the twentieth century)--written in 1895 and published in 1897 in Utopie und Experiment, an anthology edited by Alfred Sanftleben, a Swiss libertarian activist. This novel was far from popular, unlike an earlier work, Un comune socialista, that ran to five editions and, according to the Italian historian Paolo Favilli, was the only title of among around fifty from the Biblioteca di Propaganda Socialista to go out of print in the 1880s. (1) Even today, Il Parana nel XX secolo is not widely known beyond a small circle of scholars. Nevertheless, the novel is an exemplary nineteenth-century Utopia and it is important for the reassessment of Rossi's ideas following the ending of the anarchist colony that he founded in Brazil a few years earlier.
Il Parana nel XX secolo is a first-person narrative told by Cardias, an Italian anarchist who lives in Brazil--the character is actually Rossi's alter ego. After spending the day fishing in the Nhundiaquara river, Cardias is invited for dinner at a friend's house. His friend, Diego Diaz, offers him coffee, aguardente (an alcoholic beverage made out of sugar cane) and a cigar. Those elements, combined with the effect of having spent the entire day in the sun, make Cardias dizzy, producing a state of semiconsciousness, something like a dream. In this state he consents to Diego Diaz, who is a follower of Allan Kardec's doctrine, summoning the spirit of Dr Grillo, a deceased old friend of both. Without completely committing himself to the belief in the after-world, since he is an atheist, Cardias describes what happens next:
In fact I don't recall that moment very clearly, but I remember that my spiritualist friend sank his hands on his forehead and was immersed in profound concentration. It is certain, however, that my altered state of mind produced an effect of auto-suggestion, and I fell victim of a visual and auditory hallucination; because little by little, on the armchair in the dark living-room, a body took shape; at first with uncertain and vague lines, but in the end there it was, the good old Dr Grillo in flesh and bone. (2) As a spirit, Dr Grillo is no longer bound by the limits of time and space: he can see the future and describe it to Cardias. Patiently explaining the temporal metaphysics of the afterlife, the ghost eagerly tells Rossi the good news about the future development of socialism in Parana:
Towards the end of the nineteenth century an anti-political movement took shape in our country [Parana]. The wickedness, the shocking robbery, the violence that was perpetrated everywhere in the last period of the revolution, had already filled many citizens with indignation against all party politics. The systematic plunder of the public treasury, the ridiculous claim of glory and intellectual nullity, [...] the evident aspiration of the opposition to take the place of the dominant party to faithfully continue its game, all this had demonstrated to many in Parana what we already knew, that is, that the government is always constituted of comedians, troublemakers, and bandits, with the only purpose of taking advantage of the situation for their own profit. The first ones who cherished this clear and exact conception of politics launched the battle cry: 'Down with the government! Long live the free initiative! Long live the free association!' These were only a handful of men; but they soon developed a phalange, started a reaction against politics and later on grew into a socialist movement. (3) Belgium followed the Parana example, after a single terrorist attempt killed all the members of the government, thus allowing the population to establish anarchy. The narrative goes on to give specific details about the new world. It describes how it was prepared in the first instance by a generalised reading of Darwin, Wallace, Spencer and Letourneare (on natural and social evolution), Marx (on the genesis of capital), and Diderot, Fourier, Proudhon, Bakunin, Reclus, Kropotkin and Grave (on social life and the end of the state). The world of the future has made advances in urban life and technology, brought the traditional bourgeois family to an end and developed new ways of conceiving parenthood. In many respects the picture is strikingly similar to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, in which the narrator is also introduced to the world of the future by an almost omniscient character, who coincidentally, perhaps, is also a physician. But, before dealing with an analysis of Parana in the twentieth century, let us first explore some aspects of Giovanni Rossi's life and work, so that we can understand the meaning of this novel in a larger context.
WHO WAS GIOVANNI ROSSI?
Giovanni Rossi was an Italian veterinarian and agronomist who, as early as 1873, proposed establishing a socialist colony in Polynesia to the International Workingmen's Association section in Pisa. His project was rejected, but it helps us appreciate the strength of Rossi's commitment to practical experimentation in socialist living and the consistency of his advocacy throughout of his (anti)-political activities. According to Rossi, experiences of this kind would prove scientifically, and once and for all, the viability of socialism. For Helena Mueller, an interpreter of Rossi's thought:
The question of experimentalism is the epicenter from which derives all his action: the anarchism is always present as a natural expression of a society. For 'natural' he understands the relation that human beings develop before they become 'civilized', when, according to him, human beings separate themselves from their essence. It is by means of experimental nuclei of anarchist life that one could prove to the whole world the excellence of socialism. (4) In 1878 Giovanni Rossi published the novel Un comune Socialista--A Socialist Commune--with the purpose of disseminating his ideas to a larger audience. The book tells the story of young Cardias--who we should take to be Rossi himself --who visits Poggio al Mare, a property owned by his friend Alessandro di Bardi. Alessandro argued that the misery and violence that afflicted the peasants' lives were in fact the thorn that comes with the rose, that is, private property. Cecilia, Alessandro's sister, however, disagrees:
What kind of joy does this immense property offer us? A very uncertain one, or good only for a greedy, greedy soul. Here we have a splendid palace, tapestries, artistic furniture, expensive paintings, jewels, fancy clothes, servants, dinners, horses... but brother, I will be equally glad to have none of this. A happy cottage, good furniture, simple but elegant clothing would also please me. (5) Shortly afterwards Cardias and Cecilia fall in love and convince Alessandro to restructure the community on collectivist principles. Thanks to the motivation of the workers, organised in work groups according to their affinities, to modern equipment and agricultural techniques, Poggio al Mare prospers and is totally transformed..
The plot of Un comune Socialista is extremely naive and mellifluous, as Rossi himself would later admit. But in an introduction to the book, bearing the title Ai Borghesi'--to the bourgeoisie--Rossi presented in a very clear and straightforward way some of the main principles of his thought: anarchy, love, collective property of the means of production and atheism. He was probably inspired by Bakunin's Principles and organization of the International Brotherhood, (6) and it is highly informative about Rossi's political ideas.
Rossi was prepared to make practical compromises in order to ensure that his book was widely read. When Andrea Costa decided to leave the anarchist movement and join the the socialist movement in Italy, provoking a period of crisis in the anarchist movement, Rossi published a new edition of Un Comune Socialista with a preface written by Costa. In the light of the sustained criticism that Costa attracted from 'hard line' anarchists, notably Erico Malatesta, this collaboration could easily be misunderstood as a sign that Rossi accepted Costa's social democratic view of politics. Yet he still rejected any participation whatsoever in the political structure of the Italian state. And it was as an anarchist that Rossi decided to exploit Costa's enduring influence in the Italian socialist movement to promote his own politics, no matter how incongruent this alliance seemed to others.
Rossi's pragmatism affected the book's literary style. Un commune socialista was published in five editions and Rossi made significant changes from one...