Malatesta: Looking Forward


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!

Errico Malatesta

Translated from “Obbligo d’onore: Ai compagni,” L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no. 4 (April 4, 1897).


Making Sense of Malatesta

Making Sense

Davide Turcato’s excellent book, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900, is now out in paperback from AK Press. Davide charts Malatesta’s changing views of anarchism and revolution from the time of the First International to the 20th century, focusing on the period from 1889-1900, when Malatesta developed what Davide describes as a concept of “anarchist gradualism,” which nevertheless remained revolutionary, but acknowledged that anarchists were likely to remain a minority voice on the revolutionary left. Here I reproduce excerpts from Chapter 9, where Davide describes Malatesta’s “anarchist gradualism” in more detail. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

Malatesta’s Anarchist Gradualism

Malatesta summed up the trajectory of Italian anarchism in an article of 1931, a year before his death. He recalled that sixty years earlier, at the outset of their movement, anarchists believed that anarchy and communism could come about as direct, immediate consequence of a victorious insurrection and that their establishment would be the very initial act of the social revolution.

‘This was indeed the idea that, after being accepted a little later by Kropotkin, was popularized and almost established by him as the definitive programme of anarchism’ (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’). That confidence rested on the beliefs that the people had the innate capacity to self-organize and provide for their own interests and that anarchists interpreted the deep instincts of the masses. As time went by, study and experience proved that many such beliefs were wishful thinking.

The historian Richard Hostetter regards that early belief in the ‘instinctive revolutionism of the masses’ as the kernel of an inescapable ‘anarchists’ dilemma’ that by 1882 had already determined the ‘ideological liquidation’ of the Italian International (409–10). However, in spite of the ‘obsequies of the Italian anarchist movement’ that end Hostetter’s book (425), anarchist theory and tactics had more resources and potential than many historians would like to believe.


As Malatesta remarked in his 1931 article, the key realizations that neither the mass had all the virtues attributed to it, nor that propaganda had all the potential that anarchists had believed, were the starting point of a new outlook on the social struggle. Anarchists realized that only a limited number of people could be converted in a given environment; then, finding new members became increasingly difficult, until economic and political occurrences created new opportunities.

‘After reaching a certain point’, Malatesta observed, ‘numbers could not grow except by watering down and adulterating one’s programme, as happened to the democratic socialists, who were able to gather imposing masses, but only at the price of ceasing to be real socialists.’ Anarchists came to understand their mission differently, based on the conviction that the aspiration to integral freedom, or the ‘anarchist spirit’, was the cause of humanity’s progress, while political and economic privileges pushed humanity back into a barbaric condition, unless such privileges found an obstacle in a more or less conscious anarchism.

Anarchists understood that ‘anarchy could only come gradually, to the extent that the mass could understand and desire it, but it would never come except under the impulse of a more or less consciously anarchist minority, acting so as to prepare the necessary environment’. Remaining anarchists and acting as anarchists in all circumstances, before, during, and after a revolution, was the duty they set to themselves (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’).

Malatesta had summarized what anarchists were to do before, during, and after a revolution in his 1925 article ‘Gradualismo’. For Malatesta, anarchy could still be seen as absolute perfection, and it was right that this concept should remain in the anarchists’ minds, like a beacon to guide their steps, but obviously such an ideal could not be attained in one sudden leap. Nor, conversely, were anarchists to wait till everyone become anarchist to achieve anarchy.


On the contrary, they were revolutionary precisely because they believed that under present conditions only a small minority could conceive what anarchy was, while it would be chimerical to hope for a general conversion before the environment changed. Since anarchists could neither convert everybody at once, nor remain in isolation from the rest of society, it was necessary to find ways to apply anarchy, or that degree of anarchy that became gradually feasible, among people who were not anarchist, or were such to different degrees, as soon as a sufficient amount of freedom was won, and anarchist nuclei existed with enough numerical strength and capabilities to be self-sufficient and spread their influence locally.

Before a revolution, Malatesta argued, anarchists were to propagate their ideas and educate as widely as possible, rejecting any compromise with the enemy and keeping ready, at least mentally, to grab any opportunity that could present itself.

What were they to do during a revolution? They could not make a revolution alone, nor that would be advisable, for without mobilizing all spiritual forces, interests, and aspirations of an entire people a revolution would be abortive. And even in the unlikely case that anarchists were able to succeed alone, they would find themselves in the paradoxical position of either pushing forward the revolution in an authoritarian manner or pulling back and letting someone else take control of the situation for their own aims. Thus, anarchists should act in agreement with all progressive forces and attract the largest possible mass, letting the revolution, of which anarchists would only be one component, yield whatever it could.

However, anarchists were not to renounce their specific aim. On the contrary, they were to remain united as anarchists and distinct from other parties and fight for their own programme: the abolition of political power and the expropriation of capitalists. If, notwithstanding their efforts, new powers succeeded in establishing themselves, hindered popular initiative, and imposed their will, anarchists should disavow those powers, induce the people to withhold human and material resources from them, and weaken them as much as possible, until it became possible to overthrow them altogether. In any case, anarchists were to demand, even by force, full autonomy, and the right and means to organize and live their own way, and experiment with the social arrangements they deemed best.


The aftermath of a revolution, after the overthrow of the existing power and the final triumph of the insurgents, was the terrain in which gradualism was to become really crucial. All practical problems of life were to be studied – concerning production, exchange, means of communication, and so on – and each problem was to be solved in the way that was not only economically most convenient, but also most satisfactory from the point of view of justice and freedom, and left the way open to future improvements.

In case of conflict between different requirements, justice, freedom, and solidarity were to be prioritized over economic convenience. While fighting against authority and privilege, anarchists were to profit [from] all the benefits of civilization. No institution that fulfilled a need, even imperfectly, was to be destroyed until it could be replaced with a better solution to provide for that need. While anarchists were intransigent against any imposition and capitalistic exploitation, they were to be tolerant toward any social plans prevailing in the various groupings, as long as such plans did not infringe the equal freedom of others.

Anarchists were to be content with progressing gradually, in step with the people’s moral development and as material and intellectual means increased, doing at the same time all they could, by study, work, and propaganda, to hasten the development towards ever more advanced ideals. Solutions would be diverse, according to circumstances, but would always conform, as far as anarchists were concerned, to the fundamental principle that coercion and exploitation were to be rejected (‘Gradualismo’).

Ultimately, as Malatesta wrote in an open letter of 1929 to Nestor Makhno, ‘the important thing is not the victory of our plans, our projects, our utopias, which in any case need the confirmation of experience and can be modified by experience, developed and adapted to the real moral and material conditions of the age and place. What matters most is that the people, men and women lose the sheeplike instincts and habits which thousands of years of slavery have instilled in them, and learn to think and act freely. And it is to this great work of moral liberation that the anarchists must specially dedicate themselves’ (‘A proposito della “Plateforme”’).

Davide Turcato

malatesta anarchist spirit

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.


“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