Errico Malatesta: Keep Moving Forward

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

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.

Malatesta Works

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

umanita_entete1

Malatesta: These Things Are Yours (1920)

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

The following piece, “This is Your Stuff,” was published by Errico Malatesta in Italy in June 1920, when Italy was on the brink of revolution. Workers had occupied factories, throwing out their bosses, acting for themselves, without waiting for the various socialist and communist parties to make the revolution for them. When Malatesta heard that some workers and peasants were destroying what they produced, he urged them instead to regard the things that they have produced as their own. “This is Your Stuff” is included in Davide Turcato’s anthology of Malatesta’s writings, The Method of Freedom, recently published by AK Press. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Don't pay for food

This is Your Stuff!

From a few places around Italy, where rebel hearts beat harder, we hear rumors of a madcap notion.

Of the destruction of the crops.

Only recently in the Novara area the peasants maimed oxen just to spite their bosses; and we were reminded of the husband who maimed himself in the nether regions just to punish his wife.

Such acts would be understandable at a time when workers had no hope of imminent liberation, when the slave, having no way of freeing himself, looked for a moment of bittersweet delight by taking his master with him when he died.

But these days, such acts would look more like a suicidal mania.

Today the workers stand on the brink of becoming the masters of all they have produced; today the revolution is hammering at the gates and we should be sparing with all products, especially foodstuffs, so that we may assured of survival and success.

Or is there anyone out there who thinks that, come the revolution, the need to eat will be no more?

The destruction of goods would be tantamount to making it impossible for us to pull off a revolution that brings benefits; and, at the time, since the goods of only a few bosses would be destroyed, that would be playing into the hands of other bosses who would profit by the growing shortfall and would sell off their products at higher prices.

Rather than thinking about destroying stuff, the workers must get used to the idea that everything that there is, everything that is produced, is theirs, in the hands of thieves today, but to be wrested back tomorrow.

It never occurs to any robbery victim to destroy his possessions just to spite the thief, when he knows that he will shortly be getting his stuff back.

Rather than toying with the idea of destroying things, the workers should keep an eye out that the bosses do not waste it; they should prevent the bosses and the government from letting products go to ruin through speculation or neglect, from leaving the land untilled and the workers jobless, or engaged in the churning out of useless or harmful goods.

Starting right now, the workers should think of themselves as the owners, and start acting like owners.

The destruction of stuff is the act of a slave—a rebellious slave, but a slave nonetheless.

The workers today do not want and do not have to be slaves any longer.

Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, June 1920

Malatesta cover page

Malatesta: The Method of Freedom

malatesta method of freedom

AK Press has just published Davide Turcato’s selection of writings by Errico Malatesta, The Method of Freedom, part of a bigger project of publishing Malatesta’s collected works in English. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from Malatesta. One of them was from an article first published in 1894, “The Duties of the Present Hour,” in which Malatesta offered some ideas on how anarchists could best respond to increasingly draconian laws intended to make anarchist groups and propaganda illegal. Malatesta’s article was republished in a French anarchist paper, Devoir d’aujourd’hui, which added a phrase to Malatesta’s text, suggesting that his principled approach rejecting “imposing the good by force,” was merely a temporary expedient. Below, I reproduce Malatesta’s reply to the French paper, taken from The Method of Freedom, in which he corrects this misapprehension.

errico-malatesta

“Doing Good by Force”

Where I say that “our ideas oblige us to put all our hopes in the masses, because we do not believe in the possibility of imposing the good by force,” you have added “for the time being at least.” Meaning that, later, once we are the strongest, we shall impose Good… or whatever we take to be such, by force.

What, in that case, is the difference between us and the authoritarian parties?

We are anarchists because we hold that no one owns the absolute truth, nor is anyone blessed with infallibility; because we think that the sort of social arrangement that should best answer everyone’s needs and sentiments, can only be the result—the always adjustable result—of the free play of all the interested parties; and because we believe that force renders brutish both the user and the target, whereas only through freedom and the responsibility that derives from it can men better themselves morally and intellectually to a point where they can no longer bear government.

Besides, if, as you seem to reckon, a day will come when we too could and would impose our ideas by force, what, precisely, are the ideas that are to be imposed? Mine, say, or the ideas of comrade A or comrade B!… For you will agree that there are no four anarchists who see completely eye to eye with one another; which is all very natural, by the way, and a sign of the party’s vitality.

I thought the essential point upon which we were all agreed and that made anarchists of us was this principle: no imposition and no force other than force of argument and example. If I am wrong here, I cannot see that there is very much else to anarchism.

Now, if—perhaps on account of some lack of clarity on my part—you thought that I was referring to force as the means necessary to fend off the force of government, place all the means of production currently hogged by a few at bayonet-point at the disposal of all and open the way to free social evolution with everyone’s contribution, then again I take exception to the phrase “for the time being at least,” which you have ascribed to me. It was not my intention in my article to turn to the issue of a recourse to arms; and it might well be that I am of the opinion that, in certain countries and in certain circumstances, right now might be the right time to ward off violence with violence.

I am relying, dear comrades, upon your sense of fairness and your love of truth in the publication of this letter. Like me, you will think that the best way for us to get acquainted with one another and achieve the greatest possible measure of agreement between us, is to leave each person the freedom to articulate his thoughts such as they are, without any sort of censorship.

Best wishes to you and to the cause.

E. MALATESTA, October 1894

malatesta