This small and stylishly produced volume is composed of a series of short dialogues between Giorgio, a young anarchist, and Cesare, a shopkeeper, Ambrogio, a magistrate, and Prospero, a wealthy businessman. Malatesta is rightly famed for his clear and easily-understood explanations of basic anarchist theory and this attractive little book is a perfect example of his accessible style.
Within the café conversations Malatesta explains the fundamentals of anarchist-communism, describing how a future free society might function and very convincingly countering the most common objections to the libertarian ideal. Anarchists will of course be familiar with these arguments and counter-arguments, but Malatesta writes so lucidly that this book could certainly serve as a useful introduction to anarchist doctrine for beginners.
The actual publishing history of these dialogues is equally fascinating. Begun in 1897 whilst hiding form the police in Ancona, they were interrupted by his eventual arrest, release, house arrest and exile from Italy. The first ten dialogues (of seventeen) were themselves published as a separate pamphlet. It was not until 1913 that Malatesta resumed work on the dialogues whilst working on the new anarchist journal Volontà, which was also based in Ancona. Here he wrote four new dialogues and also introduced some new characters into the cafe discussions.
However, following 'Red Week' in 1914 in which he was an enthusiastic participant, Malatesta was to become a political refugee in London and did not return to Italy until 1920.
The final three dialogues were written whilst editing Umanità Nova in Milan, most probably at the prompting of his close comrade Luigi Fabbri. The manuscript of the set of dialogues were miraculously overlooked during a police raid on Malatesta's apartment in October 1920 and they were to be finally published by as a complete set in 1922 with an introduction by Luigi Fabbri. Overall then, an engaging and accessible read that explains the anarchist position on a range of social and political issues, making it as relevant today as when it was originally written.
At the Café: Conversations on Anarchism by Errico Malatesta, edited translated and introduced by Paul Nursey-Bray
Freedom Press, 2005. ISBN 1-904491-06-5 £7.50
Freedom, 84b Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX