The indefatigable anarchist revolutionary, Errico Malatesta, died at the age of 78 on July 22, 1932, while under house arrest by the Fascists in Italy. He had been active in the international anarchist movement since the time of the First International (see my new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, for further details regarding Malatesta’s role in the Italian Federation of the International and the creation of an Italian anarchist movement). I included several selections from Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The following excerpts are from an article that Malatesta wrote in 1922, when the Fascist counter-revolution was well underway in Italy. Malatesta’s advice regarding the approach anarchists should take in such circumstances, and how to work with people and groups who do not identify as anarchist, remain pertinent today. Davide Turcato, who wrote the introduction to Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology, is now in the process of publishing Malatesta’s collected works in Italian and English.
What Is to Be Done?
In recent years we have approached the different avant garde parties with a view to joint action, and we have always been disappointed. Must we for this reason isolate ourselves, or take refuge from impure contacts and stand still trying to move only when we have the necessary strength and in the name of our complete program?
I think not.
Since we cannot make the revolution by ourselves, i.e. our forces alone are not sufficient to attract and mobilize the large masses necessary to win, and since, no matter how long one waits, the masses cannot become anarchist before the revolution has started, and we will necessarily remain a relatively small minority until we can try out our ideas in revolutionary practice, by denying our cooperation to others and by postponing the action until we are strong enough to act by ourselves, we would practically end up encouraging sluggishness, despite the high-sounding words and the radical intentions, and refusing to get started, with the excuse of jumping to the end with one big leap.
I know very well — if I had not known for a long time I would have learnt recently — that we anarchists are alone in wishing the revolution for good and as soon as possible, except some individuals and groups that champ at the bit of the authoritarian parties’ discipline, but remain in those parties in the hope that their leaders will resolve someday upon ordering general action. However, I also know that the circumstances are often stronger than the individual’s will, and one day or another our cousins from all different sides will have to resolve upon venturing upon the final struggle, if they do not want to ignominiously die as parties and make a present to the monarchy of all their ideas, their traditions, their best sentiments. Today they could be induced to that by the necessity of defending their freedom, their goods, their life.
Therefore we should always be prepared to support those who are prepared to act, even if it carries with it the risk of later finding ourselves alone and betrayed.
But in giving others our support, that is, in always trying to use the forces at the disposal of others, and taking advantage of every opportunity for action, we must always be ourselves and seek to be in a position to make our influence felt and count at least in direct proportion to our strength.
To this end it is necessary that we should be agreed among ourselves and seek to co-ordinate and organize our efforts as effectively as possible.
Let others keep misunderstanding and slandering our goals, for reasons we do not want to qualify. All comrades that seriously want to take action will judge what is better for them to do.
At this time, as at any time of depression and stagnation, we are afflicted by a recrudescence of hair-splitting tendencies; some people enjoy discussing whether we are a party or a movement, whether we have to associate into unions or federations, and hundreds of other similar trifles; perhaps we will hear again that “groups can have neither a secretary nor a cashier, but they have to entrust one comrade to deal with the group’s correspondence and another to keep the money”. Hair-splitters are capable of anything; but let practical men see to taking action, and let the hair-splitters in good faith, and those in bad faith above all, stew in their own juice.
Let anyone do whatever they like, associate with whoever they like, but let them act.
No person of good faith and common sense can deny that acting effectively requires agreeing, uniting, organizing.
Today the reaction tends to stifle any public movement, and obviously the movement tends to “go underground”, as the Russians used to say.
We are reverting to the necessity of a secret organization, which is fine.
However, a secret organization cannot be all and cannot include all.
We need to preserve and increase our contact with the masses, we need to look for new followers by propagandizing as much as possible, we need to keep in the movement all the individuals unfit for a secret organizations and those who would jeopardize it by being too well-known. One must not forget that the persons most useful to a secret organization are those whose beliefs are unknown to the adversaries, and who can work without being suspected.
Therefore, in my opinion, nothing that exists should be undone. Rather, it is a matter of adding something more; something with such characteristics as to respond to the current needs.
Let nobody wait for someone else’s initiative; let anyone take the initiatives they deem appropriate in their place, in their environment, and then try, with due precautions, to connect their own to others’ initiatives, to reach the general agreement that is necessary to valid action.
We are in a time of depression, it is true. However, history is moving fast nowadays: let us get ready for the events to come.
Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, n. 185, August 26, 1922