‘Omnicracy’ in modern history was, likely, coined by William Graham Sumner in the late 1800s. Several decades later, also Aldo Capitini, an Italian sociopolitical activist, began to use the word during the second world war resistance against Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. During this period and also after World War 2 Capitini was targeted by the Catholic Church for trying to uproot their power structure through books and activism.
Dr. Aldo Capitni, 1899-1968
A Life Devoted to Non-Violence
Edited by Carlo Gubitosa
“I don’t say: sooner or later we will have a perfectly non-violent society … I mainly care about the use of my very humble life, of these hours or of these few days; and throw the weight of my belief into the intimate scale of history.”
– from: Aldo Capitini, Elementi di una esperienza religiosa
Aldo Capitini was born in Perugia on December 23rd, 1899 into a simple and modest family. His mother worked as a taylor and his father was the municipal steeple attendant. Capitini didn’t serve in the First World War because he was considered unfit for military service due to health reasons. After his technical and commercial studies, from the age of 19 to 21 he devoted to the latin and greek classics, studying self-taught up to 12 hours a day and thereby starting his unceasing inner and philosophical deepening.
In 1924 he won a scholarship for the Normale University of Pisa, where he took his degree in Humanities. In 1929 Capitini sharply criticized the Concordat with the Catholic Church, that he regarded as a trade-off intended to abtain from Pope Pio XII and ecclesial hierarchies a “soft” stance towards fascism. In one of his books he even stated that “(…) if we owe something to the fascist period, it is that it has clarified once and for all that religion is other than institution”.
In these years, the choice of non-violence came to maturity in Capitini as a natural reaction against the violence of fascism and thanks to the reading of Gandhi’s biography, published in Italy in 1929. Capitini discovered the “Mahatma” and his message of non-violence just as Italy was entering its darkest period of oppression and tyranny, and he felt the need to answer to this violence with the efficacy and strenght of a non-violent method. (In 1967 Capitini published the book “Le tecniche della nonviolenza”, “Non-violence techinques”, with whom Gandhi’s non-violent scheme, enriched with Capitini’s original contributions, officially entered Italian culture).
Giovanni Gentile, rector of the Normale University of Pisa, appointed him secretary of the prestigious university in 1930, and in 1932 the same Gentile pressed for his resignation after Capitini had refused to join the National Fascist Party.
During his years in Pisa, Capitini pondered the choice of vegetarianism as an extreme consequence of his decision not to kill, and each meal at the university canteen became an effective and silent rally. (In September, 1952 Capitini will call a meeting about “Non-violence towards the animal and vegetal world” and he will be the founder of the “Italian Vegetarian Society”.)
After his forced resignation as university secretary, Capitini went back to Perugia where he pursued his spiritual and literary activity. In the years from 1932 to 1934 he established a close network of relationships, coming into contact with the leaders of anti-fascist activity in Italy.
In autumn 1936 Capitini visited Benedetto Croce’s home and gave him a manuscript titled “Elementi di un’esperienza religiosa” (Elements of a Religious Experience), that thanks to Croce was published in January 1937 by Laterza in Bari. The “Elements” became soon one of the main literary landmarks for anti-fascist youth.
In consequence of the wide circulation of his book, Capitini promoted with Guido Calogero a cultural movement that tried later on to turn into a political project the ideas of individual freedom and social equality exposed in the “Elements”. The Liberal Socialist Movement was thereby created in 1937, the same year when the Rosselli brothers were murdered, Gramsci died and a strong wave of tyrannical violence assaulted the anti-fascist opposition. Ugo La Malfa, Pietro Amendola, Norberto Bobbio and Pietro Ingrao took part among others in the Movement’s activity.
In February 1942, fascist police arrested Capitini and other participants in a meeting of the Social Liberal Party’s leaders; they were all jailed in the “Murate” prison, in Florence. Four months later Capitini was released thanks to his reputation of “religious man”. “What a terrible accusation against religion, if the power fears revolutionaries more than religiouses”, he said later. In May 1943 Capitini was arrested again and imprisoned in Perugia; he was definitively released on July, 25th.
The Action Party was created in August 1943 and its leadership came from the Liberal Socialist movement. Capitini refused to adhere to any party, because according to him “the renewal is more than political and today’s crisis is the crisis of the absolutism of politics and economy as well”. In consequence of his refusal to rank in the logic of parties, Capitini was excluded both from the National Liberation Committee and from the Constituent Assembly, even if he had given his indelible mark to the foundation of the Republic thanks to his cultural, political, phylosophycal and religious work of moral opposition to fascism.
In 1944, Capitini tried to carry out the first experiment of direct democracy and power decentralization by founding the first Centre of Social Stance (COS) in Perugia, a planning environment and a political space open to the citizens’ free partaking, a “non-violent, reasoning, truthful space”, as Capitini described it. During the meetings of the COS, the problems of the public resources management were discussed with the local administrators, who were invited to take part in the debate in order to show their job and get the assembly’s proposals with the aim of “turning everyone into administrators and controlled people”. After Perugia, COS multiplied in many Italian towns: Ferrara, Florence, Bologna, Lucca, Arezzo, Ancona, Assisi, Gubbio, Foligno, Teramo, Naples and in several other places.
COS started spreading in Italy, but they clashed with the indifference of the Left and the Christian Democracy’s open hostility which hindered the nationwide achievement of the self-government and power decentralization which were successfully experimented during the COS’ meetings.
In the years after the First World War, Capitini became rector of the University for Foreigners of Perugia, but he was soon forced to resign because of the strong pressures made by the Catholic Church. He moved to Pisa, where he taught Moral Phylosophy at the University.
In addition to his teaching, political and educational activities, Capitini carried on his spiritual and religious research by promoting the “Movement of Religion” with Ferdinando Tartaglia, a former catholic priest from Florence. From 1946 to 1948, the movement organised a series of meetings occurring every three months which reached their climax with the “First Congress for Religious Reformation” (Rome, October 13th/15th,1948).
In 1948, the young Pietro Pinna, after he listened to Capitini’s speech at a congress in Ferrara promoted by the movement, made his mind up to a conscientious objection: he was the first conscientious objector of the post-war period. In August 30th 1949, Pinna was brought to trial by Turin court martial and Aldo Capitini’s testimony was of no help to him. Pinna went through a series of trials, condemnations and imprisonments, up to the ultimate sick-leave for an alleged “hearth neurosis”. After this period between jail and barracks, Pinna became one of Capitini’s consistent collaborators.
After Pinna’s arrest Capitini promoted many activities in order to obtain the recognition of conscientious objection, and in 1950 he convened in Rome the first italian meeting on this topic.
In 1952, Capitini promoted an international congress on the occasion of the forth anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination and founded the first “Centre for non-violence”. In the same year, the “Centre of Religious Stance” (COR), founded in Perugia with the aid of Emma Thomas (an eighty-year-old english Quaker) was added to the Centres of Social Stance. The COR was an open space where the religiousness and faith of all persons, movements and groups who didn’t fit in pre-council Catholicism could find expression. The aim of the CORs was to promote the knowledge of religions other than the Catholic one, and to encourage the Catholics themselves to adopt a more critical and committed approach to religious matters.
The local Church forbade its faithful to visit the COR, and Capitini’s book “Open Religion” published in 1955 was immediately listed in the Expurgatory Index. Despite the ostracism of high ecclesial hierarchies, Capitini established nevertheless some effective collaboration relations with some catholics, such as Don Lorenzo Milani and Don Primo Mazzolari.
The debate between Aldo Capitini and the Catholic Church continued after the Second Vatican Council with the book “Religious Severity for the Council”.
As from 1956, Capitini taught Pedagogy at the University of Cagliari and in 1965 he was definitively transferred to Perugia. In March 1959 he was among the founders of ADESSPI, the Association for the Defence and Development of Public School in Italy.
On Sunday, September 24th, 1961 Capitini organized the “March for Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples”, a non-violent parade that curled along the streets leading from Perugia to Assisi, a march that still takes place every two years thanks to peace movements and associations. Capitini describes the march experience in the book “Opposition and Liberation”: “Having shown that pacifism and non-violence are not an immobile and passive acceptance of the existing evils, but are active and fighting with their own method that never stops solidarity, non-collaborations, protests and open complaints, is a great achievement of the March”.
In his last years, Capitini founded and directed the magazine “The Power of All”, developing the principles of what he called “omnicracy”, the spread and decentralized management of power, that he opposed to the parties’ centralism. In these years Capitini founded the “Non-violent Movement for Peace”, still active today, and directed the monthly “Non-violent Action”, the movement’s mouthpiece, published today in Verona.
Aldo Capitini died after a surgical intervention on October, 19th 1968 surrounded by his friends and pupils. On October, 21st socialist leader Pietro Nenni wrote a note on his diary: “Prof. Aldo Capitini died. He was an extraordinary scientist. He was the promoter of non-violence, open to every cause of freedom and justice. (…) Pietro Longo tells me that in Perugia he was isolated and deemed an extravagant person. There is always something extravagant in being against the mainstream, and Aldo Capitini was against the mainstream under the fascism and again in the post-fascist era. This is maybe too much for a sole life, but it is beautiful”.
– Rocco Altieri, “La rivoluzione nonviolenta – per una biografia intellettuale di Aldo Capitini”, Edizioni Biblioteca Franco Serantini, 1998.
– Giacomo Zanga, “Aldo Capitini. La sua vita, il suo pensiero”, Bresci Editore, 1988.