Malatesta, Life and Ideas, edited by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press [Review]

For almost ten years now the only work by Malatesta readily available to the English reader has been his essay Anarchy. Now, though, with the timely reprinting by Freedom Press of this selection of Malatesta’s writings, first published in 1965, the full range of this great anarchist activist’s ideas are once again in circulation.

The editor has translated several hundred articles by Malatesta, taken from most of the journals he either edited himself or only contributed to, from the earliest, L’En Dehor of 1892, through to Pensiero e Volonta, which was forced to close by Mussolini’s fascists in 1926, and the bilingual Il Risveglio/Le Reveil of Genoa which published most of his writings after that date. These articles have been pruned down to their essentials, apart from a handful which are reproduced in their entirety, and collected under 27 sub-headings ranging from Anarchism and Anarchy to Anarchist Propaganda. In addition there is a short biographical piece Notes for a Biography, while the third part of the book is devoted to an essay, by the editor, on Malatesta’s relevance today.

The first thing that strikes the reader about Malatesta is his lucidity and straightforwardness. For him anarchism was not a philosophy for a future utopia which would come about one day as if by magic, or simply through the destruction of the state without any prior preparation. On the contrary, Malatesta was, throughout his life, concerned with a practical idea. His anarchism was something concrete, to be fought for and put into practice, not in some distant future but now. It is in this aspect of practical anarchism that gives him a special place amongst anarchist theorists and propagandists.

On the extracts chosen by Richards the ones that have particular relevance for the anarchist movement today are those on violence, organisation and Anarchists and working class movements.

On violence, a subject that still divides anarchists, Malatesta was very clear.

Anarchists are opposed to violence; everybody knows that. The main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations…” but also “It is abundantly clear that violence is needed to resist the violence of the adversary, and we must advocate and prepare it, if we do not wish the present situation of slavery in disguise, in which most of humanity finds itself, to continue and worsen. But violence contains within itself the danger of transforming the revolution into a brutal struggle without the light of an ideal and without possibilities of a beneficial outcome; and for this reason one must stress the moral aims of the movement, and the need, and the duty, to contain violence within the limits of strict necessity.

We do not say that violence is good when we use it and harmful when others use it against us. We say that violence is justifiable, good and ‘moral,’ as well as a duty when it is used in one’s own defence and that of others, against the demands of those who believe in violence; it is evil and ‘immoral’ if it serves to violate the freedom of others …

… We consider violence a necessity and a duty for defence, but only for defence. And we mean not only for defence against direct, sudden, physical attack, but against all those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude…”

Again on organisation, a subject like violence that anarchists have wasted more time and energy arguing over, was for Malatesta as always practical, a necessity. But organisations of a specifically anarchist nature. “… In every case a particular organisation lasts as long as the reasons for unions are superior to those of dissention: otherwise it disbands and makes way for other, more homogenous groupings. Certainly the life and permanence of an organisation is a condition for success in the long struggle before us, and besides, it is natural that every institution should by instinct aim at lasting indefinitely. But the duration of a libertarian organisation must be the result of a spiritual affinity of its members and of the adaptability of its constitution to the continually changing circumstances. When it no longer serves a useful purpose it is better that it should die…”

Malatesta, as an anarchist propagandist, was particularly concerned about the role anarchists should play in working class movements. While he recognised the importance and potentiality of these movements he also saw their drawbacks: “The working class movement, in spite of its merits and potentialities, cannot be, in itself, a revolutionary movement in the sense of being a negation of the juridical and moral bases of present society…

… In a word, the Trade Unions are, by their very nature reformist and never revolutionary. The revolutionary spirit must be introduced, developed and maintained by the constant action of revolutionaries who work from within these ranks as well as from outside, but it cannot be the normal natural definition of the Trade Unions’ function. On the contrary, the real and immediate interests of organised workers, which is the Unions’ role to defend, are very often in conflict with their ideals and forward-looking objectives…”

Nevertheless Malatesta believed that anarchists should involve themselves as much as possible with these movements as anarchists, endeavouring always to develop and nurture a true revolutionary consciousness in fellow workers, but never to dominate a union.

His position towards Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarcho-Syndicalism is also of great importance. The former he saw as being not a great deal better than reformist Trade Unionism, even though the word revolutionary was added. His main point of disagreement them was that they had a very simplistic view of the class struggle, and more importantly, that they tended to make an end of the means, i.e. the general strike. This he thought was a great menace to anarchism, as for him the general strike would and could never be a substitute for the insurrection. As for the latter he believed that they were in fact anarchists, as their name implied, they should call themselves anarchists and not ‘hide’ behind another name. In the light of historical events Malatesta was proved right. While revolutionary syndicalism of the French CGT type came to nothing, the CNT in Spain accomplished a truly social revolution, not because they were syndicalists but because they were anarchists.

Of the articles reproduced in full these include the excellent Anarchist Programme written for the 1920 congress of the U.A.I.[Italian Anarchist Union], and Malatesta’s last article, his recollections of Peter Kropotkin, written in 1931. Malatesta and Kropotkin had been on very close terms prior to 1914, but their respective stands regarding the First World War ruptured this relationship. Yet despite this Malatesta writes with great love and affection for his old comrade, while explaining that Kropotkin’s contribution to the anarchist movement had not always been fully beneficial:

… I have stressed,” he concludes in the article “the two errors which, in my opinion, Kropotkin committed — his theory of fatalism and his excessive opportunism, because I believe I have observed the harmful results they have produced in our movement.

There were comrades who took the fatalist theory — which they euphemistically referred to as determinism — seriously and as a result lost all revolutionary spirit. The revolution they said, is not made; it will come when the time is ripe for it, and it is useless, unscientific and even ridiculous to try to provoke it. And armed with such sound reasons, they withdrew from the movement and went about their own business. But it would be wrong to believe that this was convenient excuse to withdraw from the struggle. I have known many comrades of great courage and worth, who have exposed themselves to great dangers and who have sacrificed their freedom and even their lives in the name of anarchy while being convinced of the uselessnes of their actions. They have acted out of disgust for present society, in a spirit of revenge, out of desperation, or the love of the grand gesture, but without thinking thereby of serving the cause of the revolution, and consequently without selecting the target and the opportune moment, or without bothering to coordinate their action with that of others.

On the other hand, those who without troubling themselves with philosophy have wanted to work towards, and for, the revolution, have imagined the problems as much simpler than they are in reality, did not foresee the difficulties, and prepare for them … and because of this we have found ourselves impotent even when there was perhaps a chance of effective action …”

As for the final part of the book I found this somewhat irrelevant. I am sure anyone reading through Malatesta’s ideas will immediately see their relevance to today’s situation. Despite my criticism though this part of the book does include, although somewhat briefly, Malatesta’s attitude towards the general strike taken from his reply to Monatte during the 1907 Amsterdam International Anarchist Congress. With this though I feel it would have been more relevant to reproduce the two arguments in full, in order to put Malatesta’s position in its true perspective.

Malatesta’s articles represent a specific outlook towards anarchism, not the utopia but the practical and achievable. They are a very important contribution to both anarchist thought and action.

From: Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #4 (1978).