Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2062

The legacy of Giuseppe Garibaldi – the 19th century’s Che Guevara

This article is over 15 years, 0 months old
The Italian national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, the ‘Che Guevara of the 19th century’, was born 200 years ago. He played a crucial role in the unification of Italy, writes Tom Behan
Issue 2062
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Giuseppe Garibaldi

If you visit Italy, you will notice that, wherever you’re staying, the main street or square will almost invariably be named after Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi is the national hero who led the movement to unite Italy in the mid-19th century.

Italy only became a unified state between 1859 and 1871. Before that it was a patchwork of different states.

“We Italians adore Garibaldi – from the cradle we are taught to admire him,” Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist, wrote.

“If one were to ask Italian youngsters who they would most like to be, the overwhelming majority would certainly opt for the blond hero.”

But it is not just the left that would like to claim Garibaldi as one of their own. The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and other leaders of the Italian right have been fascinated by Garibaldi’s military exploits and admired him for his patriotism.

Garibaldi’s exploits made him an international hero during his lifetime. An account from April 1864 describes one of his visits to London:

“The working men of London had organised a procession for the purpose of meeting and welcoming the liberator of Italy.

“But this procession, though numbering 50,000 intelligent artisans, was completely swallowed up in the mighty ovation by the whole metropolitan people, and served merely as a foretaste to Garibaldi of the extraordinary testimony which was about to be given of the estimation in which his principles and services in the cause of liberty were held by the English people.”

Garibaldi was in London primarily to raise funds to finance an expedition to free Venice, which was still under Austrian rule. He mixed in government circles, and spent many evenings chattering with the middle classes.

But in a contradiction that sums up his life, Garibaldi had also been invited to London by the city’s trades council.

The reaction he provoked among workers and trade unions began to worry the government. It eventually ordered him out of the country – and Queen Victoria made clear she regarded this as good riddance.

But why did people make such a fuss about Garibaldi, and why is his memory so contested? He was born 200 years ago in the city of Nice, then an Italian-French area, the son of a fisherman.

Like many people in continental Europe at the time, Garibaldi experienced brutal domination by a foreign power. However the local opponents of this rule were often not much better.

They were typically aristocrats and business leaders, totally uninterested in democracy or in improving the lives of working people.


As a young man Garibaldi gravitated towards a secret movement known as La Giovine Italia, “Young Italy”. It was led by Giuseppe Mazzini. He believed in revolutionary action to unite Italy as a republic, rather than as a monarchy.

However it is always difficult to build a mass movement under a dictatorship, and Garibaldi’s first experience of armed insurrection, in Genoa in 1834, was a dismal failure.

The following year Garibaldi moved to South America where he spent the next 13 years taking part in a variety of national liberation movements.

Word of his exploits started to feed back to Italy and he acquired a reputation as the “hero of two worlds”.

The year 1848 was a turning point for popular struggle throughout Europe, as revolt after revolt broke out against hated rulers. This continent-wide uprising began in Sicily.

Karl Marx noted at the time, “The bloody revolt of the people in Palermo affected the paralysed mass of the people like an electric shock and reawakened their great revolutionary memories and passions.”

In northern Italy the catalyst was revolution in Austria and the fall of its ruler, Prince Metternich. The Austrian army was occupying northern Italy and many began to desert. An uprising broke out in Milan four days after Metternich’s fall.

Poor people and peasants supported this movement, since they suffered from conscription into the Austrian army – which landowners could pay to avoid – and had to pay heavy taxes to the Austrian empire.

The whole continent was soon in revolt. As Marx wrote, “Every postal delivery brought a fresh report of revolution, now from Italy, now from Germany, now from the remotest south east of Europe, and sustained the general intoxication of the people.”

One of the highest points in this revolutionary wave was the Roman Republic, proclaimed in Rome in January 1849.

Not only did it oppose monarchy, it was also in favour of fair systems of taxation. It all looked similar to the French Revolution of 1789, right down to the planting of “trees of liberty”.

Indeed there had been another revolution in France the previous June.

As Marx noted, “The Roman revolution was an attack on property and bourgeois order as dreadful as the June revolution [in France].”

But the revolution in France had been defeated, so “the re-establishment of bourgeois rule in France required the restoration of papal rule in Rome”.


Radical ideas had already taken hold in Venice and Florence. This was another reason for 6,000 French troops to attack the radicals in control of Rome.

Having just returned from South America, Garibaldi led working class volunteers in a heroic defence of the city for three months until 20,000 professional soldiers finally crushed them.

Italian democrats had been defeated once again by powerful foreign forces. But they had been most successful in areas where working class people had been part of their struggle.

Workers saw that they were fighting for something far more important than a flag.

“The Hungarian, the Pole, the Italian shall not be free as long as the worker remains a slave,” as Marx put it.

Garibaldi and Mazzini moved in the opposite direction, however, trying to break the link between national independence and political egalitarianism.

They united with nationalists in Piedmont in the north, whose leaders wanted to make an alliance with France to get the Austrians out of northern Italy alone.

Count Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont, admitted he knew far more about southern England than southern Italy – he even once claimed that Sicilians spoke Arabic!

But whatever his inclinations, Cavour still needed Garibaldi for his military skills and popularity. If Garibaldi appealed for volunteers, people came running.

After a series of incredible victories against the Austrians in the north, Garibaldi was allowed to sail to Sicily in April 1860, which was already in revolt. He left with just 1,000 men – and there has since always been a suspicion that Cavour sent him off as a diversion, expecting him to be killed.


Yet in Sicily Garibaldi won a stunning victory against one of Europe’s most powerful armies. The rebels were forced to use unorthodox tactics at times, such as charging the enemy with fixed bayonets because their rifles were so old and unreliable.

Just as in 1848, the rebel victory happened because peasants rose throughout Sicily against their landlords and joined Garibaldi. But in other respects this was a different revolution from 1848, which was an attempted “revolution from below”.

Although some land was redistributed to peasants, when peasants pushed further by attacking landlords and taking over their land, Garibaldi’s forces repressed those actions ruthlessly.

Garibaldi’s successful campaign on the mainland continued to guarantee him popularity, and forced Piedmont to accept that the whole of the peninsula would be united.

But this Italian unification was a “revolution from above” and it stopped halfway – Gramsci called it a “passive revolution”.

As Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels would write many years later, “The bourgeoisie, which gained power during and after national emancipation, was neither able nor willing to complete its victory.

“It has not destroyed the relics of feudalism, nor reorganised national production along the lines of a modern bourgeois model.”

Garibaldi wanted nothing for his massive achievements – he refused all honours and financial awards.

Although he would later fight to allow Rome and Venice to join the new nation of Italy, he essentially retired to a tiny island off Sardinia.

Not even Abraham Lincoln could tempt him to take a major command in the Union forces during the American Civil War.

As Garibaldi grew older, the limitations of his “revolution from above” became clear. In the south, people resented new taxes placed on consumer goods such as salt and tobacco to pay for the Crimean war, as well as military conscription.

In many areas there were virtual revolts, with armed gangs attacking troops and robbing wherever and whatever they could.

Over 100,000 Piedmontese troops were sent down to quell the south by destroying villages. They were greeted as an occupying foreign army.

Italy came into being as a “bastard state”, according to Gramsci.

Garibaldi’s life carries both hope and a warning to us today. In Latin America a number of charismatic leaders have appeared on the world stage.

So far they have not created a situation of “revolution from below” – and the conservative forces that oppose them could still be victorious if the revolutionary process is not deepened.

But some heroes and leaders are a source of inspiration. What Che Guevara was to the 20th century, Garibaldi was to the 19th. He died, penniless but still a hero, in 1882.

The Resistable Rise of Benito Mussolini by Tom Behan is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance