As 2016 draws to a close, some more inspiring words from Errico Malatesta. Originally published in 1897 after the Italian parliamentary elections, Malatesta’s comments are particularly appropriate following the failed Italian constitutional referendum, the 2016 US elections, and the Brexit vote in the UK. As Malatesta argues, it is not enough to preach abstention – anarchists most also present a viable alternative to electoral strategies for change. This translation is taken from the just published Volume Three of the Complete Works of Malatesta, “A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione, 1897-1898,” expertly edited by Davide Turcato and published by AK Press. Although this is Volume Three of a ten volume collection, it is the first of the ten volumes to appear, given the importance of the 1897-1898 period in the development of Malatesta’s approach to anarchism and revolution. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.
Point of Honor: To the Comrades
The elections are over.
We—by which we mean all the comrades—have done all we could to alert the people to the deceitfulness and harm implicit in the electoral contest—and we did well. But now another more important duty is incumbent on us: demonstrating—with facts and with results—that our tactics are better than those of the parliamentarists, that we mean to be and are already, not merely a negative force, but an active, functioning, effective force in the fight for the emancipation of the proletariat.
We oppose the parliamentary socialists, and are right to do so, since in their program and in their tactics lurk the seeds of a fresh oppression; and, should they succeed, the government principle that they cling to and bolster would destroy the principle of social equality and usher in a fresh age of class struggles. However, in order to be entitled to oppose them, we must do better than them.
Being right in theory, cherishing loftier ideals, criticizing others, foreseeing the harmful consequences from incomplete and contradictory programs, is not enough. In fact, if everything is confined to theory and criticism and does not offer a jumping-off point for an activity that seeks out and creates the conditions for the implementation of a better program, then our action turns out to be harmful, in practice, because it hobbles the efforts of others, to the benefit of our common foes.
Preventing, through our propaganda, the people from sending socialists and republicans into parliament (since those who are the most accessible to our propaganda are the very people who, but for us, would cast their votes for anti-monarchy candidates) is an excellent outcome as long we manage to turn whomever we lure away from the fetishism of the ballot box into a conscious and active fighter for genuine, complete emancipation.
Otherwise, we would have served and would serve the interests of the monarchy and the conservatives!
Let us all ponder this point. What is at stake is the interest of our cause and our honor as men and as a party.
The isolated, casual propaganda that is often mounted as a concession to one’s conscience, or as merely an outlet for a desire to argue, is of little or no use. Given the unconscious, impoverished conditions in which the masses find themselves, and all the forces lined up against us, this propaganda is forgotten and evaporates before it can build up any impact and make any headway. The terrain is too hard for seeds scattered randomly to germinate and put down roots.
We are after unrelenting, patient, coordinated effort tailored to a range of settings and a variety of circumstances. Each of us must be able to depend on the cooperation of all the rest; and wherever a seed has been thrown out, there must follow solicitous attention from the grower in the tending and protection of it until such time as it blossoms as a plant capable of surviving on its own and bringing forth further fertile seeds.
In Italy, there are millions of proletarians who are still blind instruments in the hands of the priests. There are millions who, while hating the master intensely, are persuaded that one cannot live without masters, and they are incapable of imagining and yearning for any other emancipation than their becoming masters in their turn and exploiting their fellow wretches.
There are vast stretches—actually most of the landmass of Italy—where our message has never been heard or, if perchance it has made it there, it has left no discernible trace behind.
Though only a few, there are workers’ organizations and we are alien to them.
Strikes occur and, caught unprepared, we are neither able to help the workers in their struggle nor profit from the mental unrest to spread our ideas.
Popular upheavals and near-insurrections happen and nobody gives us a thought.
Then comes the persecution, and we are imprisoned, deported in our hundreds or thousands, and we find ourselves powerless to even draw the public’s attention to the infamies visited upon us, let alone to do anything else.
To work, comrades! The task is a big one! To work, everyone!
Translated from “Obbligo d’onore: Ai compagni,” L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no. 4 (April 4, 1897).