Danilo Dolci: Nonviolence in Sicily

by Joseph Geraci

In March, 1969, Danilo Dolci was in New York for the publication of his book, The Man Who Plays Alone. Dorothy Day and I had the good fortune of meeting him for an hour and a half, in a quiet corner of the lobby of the famous Algonquin Hotel, along with ten or so others that included Dolci’s biographer, Jerre Mangione, his editor, the journalist and co-founder of Pax, Eileen Egan and various press people.

Danilo Dolci; c. 1970; public domain image; photographer unknown.

Dolci was actually born in Sezana, Yugoslavia, under Italian administration at the time of his birth. So, if you were to imagine a small Sicilian type, you would be surprised. He is over six feet tall and solidly built; his eyes dark blue, behind gold-rimmed glasses. He was wearing an inexpensive knit suit and tie, and spoke without gestures. His answers to our questions were short and precise, often only a yes or no; he always looked directly at the questioner, sometimes returned a question with a question, and sometimes made a joke. Dolci has also published a volume of poetry; he uses words carefully and precisely.

Eileen Egan asked some pointed questions on nonviolence. What did he think about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and did assassinations threaten the future of the nonviolent movement? Dolci said he did not agree when people spoke of the death of King or Gandhi as proof that nonviolence could not work, or continue. Nonviolence, he said, was like a man working in a power plant. The worker might be killed but the electricity went on. When asked about his present work he said it was twofold. First, it was the reconstruction of the areas devastated by the 1968 floods, and second it was the organization and development of his Center of Studies in Partinico, western Sicily. The Center was training experts on problems of social change and organization. Eileen asked, “Do you consider yourself primarily an educator?” And he said emphatically, “Yes!”

In the midst of questioning from journalists, a rather slight, but telling incident occurred between Dolci and Dorothy. She, Jerre Mangione and Dolci were sitting side by side on a sofa. A reporter sitting opposite had been talking to Dolci in rapid Italian for 10 minutes or so. Perhaps wanting to cut him off, Dolci leaned forward without actually taking his eyes off the speaker, and reached across to take Dorothy’s hand. The journalist looked surprised and stopped mid-sentence. Dolci was able to turn to Dorothy, smile and say in heavily accented English, “Now, Dorothy, tell us about your work.”

Dolci says he wrote The Man Who Plays Alone (New York: Pantheon Press, 1968) “to understand what the obstacles to reform in Sicily are.” The book takes a Sicilian proverb as leitmotif, “The man who plays alone never loses,” constantly returning to and discussing it. The book is primarily a series of taped interviews with a cross-section of Sicilians, from a street sweeper to Cardinal Ruffine. Divided into three parts, Part One explains Dolci’s main theme of “associative life,” as opposed to individualism, paternalism, and “the Sicilian temperament.” Part Two reports on meetings held at Castellamare (Sicily) on the role of the Mafia in Sicilian life. The Castellammarese War of 1929-31 was one of the bloodiest of all the internal Mafia struggles for control of regions of Sicily, so choosing this site for the conference was not coincidental. Part Two documents the connection between the Mafia and the politician Bernardo Mattarella, a former Minister of Trade, Post Office, Agriculture, etc. who, according to Dolci’s evidence owed his election to the Mafia. This section of the book especially illustrates how the people, once they lose their fear of speaking out, are articulate in their denunciation of the Mafia. Part Three, “The Trial”, is an account of the libel suit brought against Dolci by Mattarella. Dolci was found guilty and fined, but he has appealed. Pantheon provided us with an excellent pamphlet entitled “The Mafia and Politics: Danilo Dolce on Trial!” It is a clear summary of the case and the appeal.

By “associative life” Dolci means something very much like Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, especially his sarvodaya campaign of his later years: cooperation, working together to overcome a social ill for the common good, the organization of small communities, getting things done first on a local level.  Dolci calls this “pianificazione del basso” (grass-roots planning), that is, teaching the local people self-sufficiency, to analyze their own problems in order to find their own solutions; to fend for themselves.

Dolci found that radical independence (“the man who plays alone”) was one of the obstacles to making people independent. Take for example the following exchange with an emigrant back from Switzerland. Dolci is the questioner.

Q: Have you ever been a member of any organization?

A: How do you mean, organization?

Q: Have you ever taken part in any organization, of any kind?

A: I’ve always kept to myself.

Q: Why have you never belonged to any organization?

A: I’ve always kept to myself and nobody’s ever told me what to do.

Q: Then, what  do you think a political party might be?

A: It’s like, well, like the father of a family, who can get certain jobs done.

Q: You’ve never felt like being a member of some religious group?

A: No, never.

Q: Did you go to school?

A: Only a few days. I’m illiterate.

Q: Are you close to other people besides your family?

A: No, not really close. I keep my distance. It’s habit. The proverb says, “The man who goes his own road can never go wrong.”

Q: Couldn’t the poor all get together and agree, and change things, to make a different world?

A: How could they all agree to make a different world? I don’t think they can ever agree.

The problem of associative life is the problem of Sicilians overcoming their basic mistrust of others, getting them to accept others as partners in their work and social life. What Dolci is asking for is nothing less than a reeducation of the personality, a transformation in fact, for if the Sicilian is to make the leap from “the man who plays alone” to associative life he must in fact begin with basics, reorient his concept of the neighbor from someone who is out to get him to someone with whom he can cooperate to better himself. The Sicilian believes that others are out for their own good and will only try to cut him down if he tries to get ahead. After all, he himself is like that. His fear and mistrust are re-enforced by a tradition of paternalism, which begins within his family, within a father-centered authoritarian structure. He will say, “No one is any good outside your own family.” This paternalism extends to the Church and its hierarchical structure, and to the Mafia, which feeds on the negativity within the people it threatens, harasses, and controls. Standing alone is really a mistrust of the other, a cynicism grounded in fear and expressed through mockery. It is a fear of the new, a dependence on tradition, and as Dolci says, a “longing for unity and independence from fear that is often only a nostalgia, but sometimes breaks out as an articulated sentiment.”

Take this dialogue as one among many examples: A man says, “It’s every man for himself.” And Dolci asks. “Why is that?” The man replies, “They (Sicilians) are afraid of the unfamiliar; they have no initiative.” And another speaker interjects,  “Each man is afraid of being robbed by the next and that’s why they prefer to be on their own.”

Yet, at the January 1966 meeting in Castellamare, when people began to see that they could speak openly against the Mafia without fear of reprisal, they said such things as: “I think this proverb, you know, the man who plays alone, was born from ignorance. “ And someone else adds,  “It’s madness to play on your own, because each of us needs to live with other people. It’s absolutely untrue that if you play alone you always win. Men must cooperate.” Another says,  “It’s a dead proverb. It’s had its day.”

One of the more dramatic statements was from a blind man. “We must organize in common agreement to try and conquer dishonesty and encourage honesty in the interests of everyone. No one can deprive us of the right to life. Every single person has the right to liberty, work and freedom of thought. Anything that’s discussed peaceably, systematically, and in a right frame of mind is sure to turn out well.” His statement was met with loud applause!

The obstacles to associative life seem innumerable. Dolci asked a Jesuit, Padre Noto, what he thought these obstacles were and  the  priest replied: “Mutual distrust; uncertainty due to ignorance and to the absence of proper channels of communication; the citizens’ lack of faith in the State; lack of leadership; lack of culture at the base.” And the list did not stop there.

Dolci writes convincingly that any hope of unity is grounded in the abstract ability of men to objectify themselves, to transcend themselves for a brief moment, to educate themselves, to change their consciousness by making the bold leap of thought from “alone” to “together”. This is brought about through education, and Dolci considers himself first and foremost an educator, as he had answered to Eileen Egan’s question.

What Dolci is trying to do through his interview method is first of all make the people aware that there is this alternative  “associative life” and that secondly they can express themselves to someone else who approves and will not take reprisal against them. The nonviolent, peaceful man replaces the menacing father. Dolci reminds me here of A. S. Neill’s dictum that education is basically approval of the child; a shift from authority to acceptance. Social reform, associative life is for Dolci an education in communal trust.

Having set out the basic points of his argument in Part One, having shown the constrained character of the Sicilian temperament and the Sicilians’ intelligent awareness of their own feelings Dolci, in Parts Two and Three, illustrates how the working of the Mafia feeds on a structure of negativity and fear that only reinforces those characteristics in people which are most opposed to constructive change. For self-preservation the Mafia rules people through fear and violence, a brutal consolidation of power. Its methods of infiltration are blatant and subtle. It convinces the church that its members are both good family men and regular, generous churchgoers. It masks itself behind a front of legitimate businesses so that its criminal work, behind this surface respectability, can proceed unimpeded. It can play on the old fantasy-reality, Pirandellian question, “Is it really so?”

Dolci mounts impressive evidence that Bernardo Mattarella used the Mafia for political purposes, a kind of guilt by association. By allowing himself to be seen with, photographed with, escorted and welcomed home by mafioso, Mattarella “won” the votes of his constituency in Castellamare; he manipulated himself into the ironic post of Minister of Trade, ironic because as Minister he could regulate exports, among them the exports of “friends” engaged in drug traffic. Mattarella is influential and powerful; he levels a libel suit against Dolci, and wins. How far up the ladder does the corruption go?

Reading this book gives a vivid impression of the staggering obstacles Dolci faces in his work.  One wonders how he can go on so good-humouredly. Why doesn’t he give up? Must nonviolence always breast the impossible? As an exposition on nonviolent, associative theory Dolci’s book is immensely important. It extends the discussion of Gandhi’s sarvodaya campaign. Along with Vinoba Bhave, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez, Dolci takes his place at the forefront of Gandhian social reform.

The way ahead in Sicily is clear for Dolci; it is through education, knowledge, planning, faith, hope, and work, that is through an effort made “in spite of”; through associative life and organization. As that blind man quoted above said,   “Anything that’s discussed peaceably, systematically, and in a right frame of mind, is sure to turn out well.”

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This is a somewhat shortened version of an article that appeared in The Catholic Worker, September, 1969; pp. 5-6. Courtesy of The Catholic Worker, and the Marquette University Catholic Worker archive.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph Geraci is the director of the Satyagraha Foundation and editor of our website. His last novel is The Path of the Gods (Strand Publishing, London). At the time of writing this he was living fulltime at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi