Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s experiments with revolution 1889-1900 by Davide Turcato [Book review]

Malatesta’s an interesting figure, a good example of the militant activist and thinker. The fact that he’s mobile (so keeps ‘disappearing’ when historians are writing about anarchism in just one country), involved in insurrections (which means he’s careful what he says in print) and more involved in discussions in the anarchist press than producing weighty tomes (which is where most academics look for theory) mean that he’s not unknown but rather underestimated.

If you look at the subtitle, you’ll see that Turcato’s not aiming to write an account of Malatesta’s life. Instead, Making sense of anarchism covers the evolution of his ideas as they developed in step with his revolutionary activities. This is closely tied up with challenging half-baked accounts of anarchism from its ideological opponents – ‘in contrast with marxist historiography, which hastens to toll the bell for anarchism, liberal historiography wishes it a long life as a permanently unsuccessful movement’ (p3) – or ‘sympathetic’ writers that repeat the same stereotypes of irrational, spontaneous action.

Against this, Turcato proposes writing ‘charitably’ about anarchism: taking account of the fact that we may not know the full story of events, and that to understand the actions of anarchists on their own terms gets us a lot further than to assume they are, by definition, backward or stupid. He also talks about events being ‘opaque’: a riot is visible because it gets into the papers. The planning that went into it is (and has to be) hidden from sight. ‘That an agitation appeared to be carried out by a mob speaks to the popular participation in it; and that the agitation seemed spontaneous speaks to the ability of anarchists to work underground. Neglecting anarchist opacity and limiting one’s scope of analysis to what rises to the surface, attempting to simply connect public events, is likely to provide distorted interpretations. […] The issue with opacity is not to reinterpret available evidence, but to question it and probe beneath the surface, so as to capture complexity and rationality concealed by simple and odd appearances.’ (p247-8) This reminded me of the Bristol Radical History Group doing history from below by looking at paintings of the 1831 Bristol riot: ‘We suggested that this wasn’t chaos at all, the mob had clearly been organised enough to traverse the city, picking targets and dispatching them with precision. [The curator] replied “Well, I suppose it depends on what your definition of chaos is”.’ [1] Turcato has the facts at his fingertips to demonstrate that, for example, the riot in Rome on the first of May, 1891, was no spontaneous event but organised and part of a ‘wider insurrectionary project’. (p88)

Malatesta’s ideas evolve during these ‘experiments with revolution’. The book is a demolition job on lazy stereotypes about ‘those crazy anarchists’ so Malatesta’s ideas get looked at in depth. And it’s complicated, like going from a couple of switches marked ‘anarchist/not anarchist’ and ‘bearded/not bearded’ to a whole mixing desk with channels for a huge range of political, tactical and philosophical choices (Malatesta’s ideas and tactical and theoretical themes get over a page in the index). As Turcato says: ‘Anarchist action could be carried out in many ways: underground or openly; on economic or political ground; autonomously by anarchists or as part of larger agitations with non-anarchist objectives; violently or peacefully; legally or illegally; and in pursuit of immediate partial gains or broader insurrectionary aims. […] Yet there was unity in all such tactics, which were all inscribed in the space defined by his tactical principles: insurrectionism, coherence with ends, inclusiveness, “going to the people”, and anarchist autonomy.’ (p245-6)

One interesting point Turcato makes is to emphasise the internal coherence of different strands of anarchism. Where it’s normal to look at debates, dividing anarchists by where they stand on future economic organisation (collectivist – ‘to each according to their labour’ or communist – ‘to each according to their needs’), he sees it as much more productive to look at tactical differences between anti-organisationists and organisationists. (see p209+).

Not content with that, Turcato also draws attention to similarities between Malatesta’s ideas and current thinking in the social sciences. If you want to read up on the history of anarchism, this is a great contribution (both in terms of telling the story behind various revolts, and pointing out the pitfalls of thinking you know it all). I think it’s just as valuable for the close attention it pays to anarchist tactics, and it made me feel I had a bit more perspective on disputes I’d been involved with, and parts of the anarchist movement I’d had disagreements with.

Making Sense of Anarchism is published in paperback by AK Press: ISBN 9781849352314

1, ‘1831 And All That’ by Roger Ball: