As we have remarked on before on this blog, late-19th century London was home to a bustling community of exiles from various European countries, a fair proportion of who were radical activists of one stripe or another, driven from their homes for their political involvement. In Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria, active participation in leftwing politics could often be the key to harassment, arrest, beatings, eviction and the sack…
For many socialists and anarchists living in London, however, fleeing this repression to what was on the face of it a more liberal and tolerant regime in Britain didn’t necessarily mean they escaped surveillance by the police back home. The fact that it was easier to live in London meant it became a base for printing propaganda to be shipped back to the exiles’ country of origin – and increasingly in the 1880s and 90s, to organise plots, provide arms for uprisings and assassinations.
The active involvement of the exiles in supporting radial and revolutionary struggles from London inevitably meant that the secret services, the political police, of several major European powers had an interest in knowing what was going on in London’s radical circles, and in disrupting and dividing it if possible. Most of the socialist and anarchist groups, clubs, and meeting places were heavily infiltrated by spies of all nationalities. British Special Branch also got in on the act. Since many of the activists were expecting police infiltration, and some of the spying was less than competent, suspicion, paranoia and general distrust quickly became second nature among the exiled left scenes. This is in itself, is of course almost as good as spying on people, to make them think that everyone they know is a spy, especially if they aren’t.
Anarchists were particularly targeted by the secret services, especially after some elements of anarchism took a shine to bombings and assassination in the 1880s-90s. The attraction of anarchism to loud-mouthed bombastic nutters, very hard to distinguish from agent-provocateurs, lent itself nicely to a climate of denunciations, accusations and back-stabbing. Which can do the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible. Yes, we’ve been there – and you know who you are.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. In 1902, the Italian anarchists unearthed a plot organised by the Italian inspector Ettore Prina, using Gennaro Rubino as a spy. The Italian anarchist community in London already had a history of being spied on, arguing among themselves and accusing each other…
Prina enrolled at least two informers: Gennaro Rubino and Enrico Boiada. Rubino provided him with lots of photographs of anarchists, and opened a printing company could both provide a cover for Rubino and follow anarchists’ plans step by step by actually publishing their newspapers and pamphlets. And even more conveniently the anarchists could use the premises of Rubino’s press to organise conferences and meetings and to give temporary shelter to comrades who were unemployed or passing through London. According to Prina, the Rubino’s project obtained the approval of leading anarchos, Errico Malatesta, Louise Michel and Peter Kropotkin. But little did the anarchists know that the Italian Ministry of Interior funded it completely to the tune of fifty pounds.
However, in May 1902, the anarchists came into possession of documents revealing Rubino’s collaboration with the Italian police. On 9 May, Malatesta summoned him in front of a court of honour, in the anarchists’ club at 55 Charlotte Street. Rubino did not attend the meeting, at which about thirty people were present. Instead, he sent a long letter to Malatesta claiming that his real intention was to double-cross the consul and the police inspectors by taking the money without providing them with any useful information. Rubino included three letters received by Inspector Prina to support that version; in these letters, the inspector complained about the unsatisfactory nature of Rubino’s spying. Moreover, Rubino added that he had assisted several comrades with the money obtained from the consulate. Finally, he insisted he accepted Prina’s proposal in order to carry out ad hoc counter espionage and discover the identity of other spies of the Italian police.
Rubino accused other anarchists of being linked with the Italian police. And confusion, and some deception (to cover their sources?), about how the anarchist had obtained their proof led to suspicions and counter-accusations.
The day after the meeting, the anarchists sought to obtain more information and documents from Rubino regarding his allegations, but without any appreciable results. They also attempted to ambush Inspector Prina, but he got wind of the plot and avoided any physical harm. As usual when a spy was unmasked, the Italian anarchists issued a leaflet of denunciation, a diffida, against Rubino. In the leaflet, after Rubino’s exposure, they publicised Prina’s address and the name he used as a cover: Piero Marelli. In addition, they published a note in Lo Sciopero Generale and other anarchist newspapers in Europe.
The Rubino affair created a climate of suspicion. Rumours began to circulate; mutual accusations, grudges, and uncontrolled suspicions swirled through the anarchist community. Some anarchists began to raise doubts about the authenticity of the papers implicating Rubino. Moreover, they criticised the fact that the documents were controlled by a small group that, basically, formed judge and jury on the case. They argued that the police could have orchestrated the entire affair and they requested Malatesta and the others to reveal who had provided the documents. A maelstrom of accusations followed, some meetings organised to try to resolve matters ending in fist-fights.
In November 1902, in Brussels, Rubino shot at the King of Belgium, Leopold I, but missed his target. Rubino, who was about to be lynched, was immediately arrested. At the trial, he proclaimed to have acted on his own initiative and to consider himself an anarchist, and that the attempt was an act of revenge for the Belgian authorities’ recent murderous crackdown on a strike in Louvain. He received a life sentence. The police in London felt Rubino may have made an attempt on the life of the King of Belgium in order to prove his bona fides. Rubino had a troubled history of debt, fraud and had clearly been picked to be a spy as he was an easily influenced character – sadly it seem quite possible that he genuinely thought he was still part of the anarchist movement. Maybe he even thought he was playing the police when acting as an informant (not a unique case – the WW1 syndicalist Billy Watson go caught up in this sort of double-dealing in 1918.) Murky and orrible shit. Rubino died in prison in 1918.
The fallout from the affair left scars on the Italian anarchists, causing splits that didn’t heal, the collapse of at least one newspaper, among other repercussions.
More than a hundred years later, and we can recognise some of the trademarks. A public inquiry into undercover police infiltration of activist movements in the UK carried out in the last 5 decades is about to begin, and hard work by a number of those targeted by police spies is continually turning up evidence… But paranoia and suspicion, the division caused by knowing the agents of the state are amongst you, can be as paralysing as the actual work these fuckers carry out.
It’s well worth a proper read of an account of the Italian anarchist scene in London at the time, which gives much more of the background on this and other such cases at the time. Your humble blog-typist is struck by the similarity of some of the arguments raging in 1902 and some of the reactions to exposures of police spies within activist scenes in the last 5 years. While some of the tactics and techniques the filth use have changed, some have not – but what remains constant is our ability to be fucked over by both their penetration of us and the revelation of it.
Carefully tread we must, as Yoda would say.
If you have been personally affected by issues raised in this blog, it might be worth contacting
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online