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(en) Malatesta’s Anarchist Vision of Life After Capitalism - The Anarchist Method, by Wayne Price

Date Sat, 29 Jul 2006 09:46:00 +0300

Anarchism has been challenged for its supposed lack of vision about
post-revolutionary society. In particular, Michael Albert challenges the
great anarchist Malatesta. Actually Malatesta did have a post-capitalist
vision. it was not a formal model but a set of ideas which were to be
developed through experimentation, flexibility, and pluralism. The
highpoints of his political life are outlined. His ideas are contrasted
with that of other great radicals.

Malatesta’s Anarchist Vision of Life After Capitalism
The Anarchist Method
One of the most prominent attempts to present a model for a
post-capitalist society has been the theory of Parecon
(“participatory economics”). One of its two founders, Michael
Albert, has written a new book (2006) with the subtitle of “Life
Beyond Capitalism.” Among other topics, he criticizes anarchists
for their lack of a vision of what institutions a new society would have.
Anarchism “...often dismisses the idea of vision, much less of
providing a new political vision, as irrelevant or worse.” (p. 175)
He makes the same charge against the Marxists, even the
“libertarian Marxists or anarcho marxists...[who are] the best
Marxism has to offer.” (p. 159) In my opinion, there is truth in this
accusation, especially for the mainstream Marxists, but also the
libertarian Marxists and even anarchists. At the same time, it is
exaggerated. His appreciation of the positive proposals of anarchists
and other libertarian socialists is clouded by a desire to see fully
worked-out programs for a new society, such as his Parecon, which
leads him to ignore valuable, if less detailed, antiauthoritarian

For example, Albert refers to the great Italian anarchist, “Errico
Malatesta tells us...that what anarchists want, ‘is the complete
destruction of the domination and exploitation of person by person...a
conscious and desired solidarity.....We want bread, freedom, love, and
science--for everybody’. Yes, yes, but how?” (p. 176) So
Albert challenges Malatesta. “Yes, yes, but how?” Well, how
did Malatesta believe that everybody would achieve “bread,
freedom, love, and science” in an anarchist society? That is my
topic here. As I will show, he did not have a developed blueprint, but
he did have an approach to developing anarchist institutions--the
anarchist method.
Who Was Malatesta?
But first, who was Errico Malatesta? Born to a middle class Italian
family in 1853, he made his living as an electrician and mechanic. He
personally knew Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, but unlike
either he lived to see the rise of fascism. He was imprisoned many
times and sentenced to death three times. Due to political persecution
in italy, he spent over half his adult life in exile. He lived in the Middle
East, in South America, in the United States, and, for about 19 years,
in Britain. Dying at 79 in 1932, he had spent his last years under house
arrest in fascist Italy.

As a young man, he participated in a couple of fruitless little uprisings,
attempts to spark peasant rebellions without first being assured of
popular support. (Pernicone, 1993) He abandoned that for a more
thought-out approach, but he never ceased being a revolutionary
(unlike Michael Albert who does not seem to believe in revolution).
He criticized those anarchist-syndicalists who believed that a
revolution could be won nonviolently, by “folding arms,” just
through a general strike. The capitalists and their state could not be
beaten, he insisted, without some armed struggle. Because he was an
advocate of popular revolution, however, he did not support the
bomb-throwing and assassination tactics (“attentats”) of
anarchist terrorists . (Malatesta, 1999)

To Malatesta, “There are two factions among those who call
themselves anarchists...: supporters and opponents of
organization.” (1984, p. 84) These differences continue to this day.
Malatesta was a pro-organizationalist anarchist. Aside from
disagreements with anti-organizationalist anarchists such as
individualists, this was also the basis for his dispute with the
anarchist-syndicalists. In the international anarchist conference of
1907, he debated the French anarchist Pierre Monatte (1881--1960).
Monatte argued that anarchists should stop concentrating on
small-group propaganda, putting out small newspapers and
pamphlets, and should get into the work of building unions
(syndicates) with other workers. Malatesta was not against building
unions. In Argentina, he participated in building the Bakers’
Union, one of the first labor unions there. But he opposed any
tendency to dissolve anarchists into mass organizations. Effective
unions had to include workers with all sorts of politics--revolutionary
and reformist, statist and anarchist. And effective unions had to
concentrate on winning reform struggles for better wages and
conditions through bargaining with the capitalists--at least in
nonrevolutionary times, which was most of the time. Therefore he
insisted that revolutionary anarchists should also form specific
organizations of anarchists only, to raise anarchist politics inside and
outside of unions.

With hindsight, it is clear that Monatte was right about the need to
join and build unions. The anarchist militants greatly expanded their
influence among the workers through this work in several countries.
However, Malatesta was also right. This became clear as the French
unions which the anarchist-syndicalists had worked to build became
dominated by hardheaded “practical” officials. Then when
World War I began, these union leaderships became supporters of the
imperialist war. (Monatte opposed it and remained a revolutionary.)

Today we pro-organizationalist anarchists, calling ourselves
“platformists” or “especifistas,” agree with Malatesta
about the need for two types of organizations: the mass organization
and the narrower revolutionary organization with more political
agreement. Even many (but not all) of today’s
anarchist-syndicalists would agree. Malatesta did reject the specific
draft proposals of the Organizational Platform of Libertarian
Communists, written by Makhno, Arshinov, and others, which has
since inspired the platformist tendency among anarchists. I will not
review the discussion between Malatesta and the original platformists.
Whether he was right or wrong on this issue, Malatesta continued to
support a pro-organizational position.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Kropotkin and a few
other well-known anarchists supported the Allied side. Despite his
long friendship with Kropotkin, Malatesta denounced this stance,
calling its supporters “pro-government anarchists.”
(Trotskyists like to throw in our faces that Kropotkin supported this
imperialist war. True, but so did most of the Marxist parties and
leaders at the time. For example, George Plekhanov, founding father
of Russian Marxism, supported the war. Unlike the world’s
Marxists, however, the majority of anarchists were in revolutionary
opposition to it. )

Malatesta’s last battle followed his return to Italy. As an editor of
revolutionary publications, he worked with other anarchists and the
anarchist-syndicalist unions. They tried to form a united front with the
Socialist Party and the Communist Party and their unions to beat back
the fascists, through self-defense, confrontations, and political strikes.
But the Socialists and Communists would not cooperate with the
anarchists or with each other (the Socialists signed a peace pact with
the fascists at one point and the Communists were in a
super-sectarian phase under the leadership of Bordiga). And fascism
came to power. (Rivista Anarchica 1989)
The Anarchist Method
All his adult life Malatesta identified with the tradition of libertarian
(anarchist) communism. This was his goal, a society where all land
and means of production were held in common and there was no use
of money. Everyone would work as well as they could and would
receive what they needed from the common store of products
(“from each according to ability, to each according to need”).
“Free associations and federations of producers and
consumers” (1984, p. 17) would manage the economy
“through an intelligent decentralization.” (p. 25). This would
provide economic planning from below. His economic vision went
along with the goals of abolition of the state, of national borders and
nationalist passions, as well as with the “reconstruction of the
family” (p. 17) and the liberation of women.

However, over time he came to be critical of some
anarchist-communist thinking, which he found too simplistic. He
criticized “the Kropotkinian conception...which I personally find
too optimistic, too easy-going, too trusting in natural
harmonies....” (1984, p. 34) He continued to believe in communist
anarchism, but in a more flexible fashion. “Imposed communism
would be the most detestable tyranny that the human mind could
conceive. And free and voluntary communism is ironical if one has not
the right and the possibility to live in a different regime, collectivist,
mutualist, individualist--as one wishes, always on condition that there
is no oppression or exploitation of others.” (1984, p. 103)

Malatesta warned against believing that we have the Absolute Truth,
as do religious people or Marxists. “One may, therefore, prefer
communism, or individualism, or collectivism, or any other system,
and work by example and propaganda for the achievement of
one’s personal preferences, but one must beware, at the risk of
certain disaster, of supposing that ones system is the only, and
infallible, one, good for all men, everywhere and for all times, and that
its success must be assured at all costs, by means other than those
which depend on persuasion, which spring from the evidence of
facts.” (1984, pp. 27--28)

His goal continued to be free communism, while understanding that
others believed in “collectivism,” that is, common ownership
but rewarding workers according to how they work (Parecon includes
a version of this), or “individualism,” that is, as much
individual ownership and small scale production as possible.

After a revolution, “probably every possible form of possession and
utilization of the means of production and all ways of distribution of
produce will be tried out at the same time in one or many regions, and
they will combine and be modified in various ways until experience
will indicate which form, or forms, is or are, the most suitable. In the
meantime, the need for not interrupting production and the
impossibility of suspending consumption of the necessities of life will
make it necessary to take decisions for the continuation of daily life at
the same time as expropriation proceeds. One will have to do the best
one can, and so long as one prevents the constitution and
consolidation of new privilege, there will be time to find the best
solutions.” (1984, p. 104)

Is it likely that every region and national cultures will chose the exact
same version of libertarian socialist society? Will every industry, from
the production of steel to the education of children be managed in
precisely the same manner?

“For my part, I do not believe there is ‘one solution’ to the
social problems, but a thousand different and changing solutions in
the same way as social existence is different and varied in time and
space. After all, every institution, project or utopia would be equally
good to solve the problem of human contentedness, if everybody had
the same needs, the same opinions, or lived under the same
conditions. But since such unanimity of thought and identical
conditions are impossible (as well as, in my opinion, undesirable) we
must...always bear in mind that we are not ...living in a world
populated only by anarchists. For a long time to come, we shall be a
relatively small minority....We must find ways of living among
nonanarchists, as anarchistical as possible....” (1984, pp.

This would be true not only now but even after a revolution. We
cannot assume that even when the workers have agreed to overthrow
capitalism, they would agree to immediately create a fully
anarchist-communist society. What if small farmers insist on being
paid for their crops in money? They may give up this opinion once it is
obvious that industry will provide them with goods, but first they must
not be coerced into giving up their crops under conditions they reject.

“After the revolution, that is, after the defeat of the existing
powers and the overwhelming victory of the forces of insurrection,
what then? It is then that gradualism really comes into operation. We
shall have to study all the practical problems of life: production,
exchange, the means of communication, relations between anarchist
groupings and those living under under some kind of authority....And
in every problem [anarchists] should prefer the solutions which not
only are economically superior but which satisfy the need for justice
and freedom and leave the way open for future improvements....”*
(1984, p. 173)

It is precisely this flexibility, pluralism, and experimentalism which
characterizes anarchism in Malatesta’s view and makes it a
superior approach to the problems of life after capitalism.

“...Only anarchy points the way along which they can find, by trial
and error, that solution which best satisfies the dictates of science as
well as the needs and wishes of everybody. How will children be
educated? We don’t know. So what will happen? Parents,
pedagogues and all who are concerned with the future of the young
generation will come together, will discuss, will agree or divide
according to the views they hold, and will put into practice the
methods which they think are the best. And with practice that method
which in fact is the best will in the end be adopted. And similarly with
all problems which present themselves.” (1974, p. 47)

Malatesta stopped calling himself a "communist," partly for the
reasons given above, while continuing to declare that libertarian
communism was his goal. The other reason was that the Leninists had
effectively taken over the term (with the help of the capitalists, who
agreed--insisted-- that this was what "communism" really was).
“...The communist-anarchists will gradually abandon the term
‘communist’; it is growing in ambivalence and falling into
disrepute as a result of Russian ‘communist’ despotism....We
may have to abandon the term ‘communist’ for fear that our
ideal of free human solidarity will be confused with the avaricious
despotism which has for some while triumphed in Russia....”
(1995, p. 20) If this was true in the 1920s, it has become much more
true by now, after about 80 years of Leninist/Stalinist rule under the
banner of Communism. Unfortunately, the term “communist”
may have a negative impact (setting up a barrier between us and many
workers) due to its history. This will vary from country to country,
however. Instead, Malatesta preferred the vaguer and more generic
title of “socialist-anarchists.” (1984, p. 143)
Related Views
Others have pointed to the flexible and experimental approach as
central to the anarchist program. For example, Paul Goodman, the
most prominent anarchist of the 60s, wrote: “I am not proposing a
system....It is improbable that there could be a single appropriate style
of organization or economy to fit all the functions of society, any more
than there could be--or ought to be--a single mode of education,
‘going to school,’ that suits everybody....We are in a period of
excessive centralization....In many functions this style is economically
inefficient, technologically unnecessary, and humanly damaging.
Therefore we might adopt a political maxim: to decentralize where,
how, and how much [as] is expedient. But where, how, and how
much are empirical questions. They require research and
experiment.” (1965, p. 27)

Goodman had many insights. However, he was a reformist--in favor
of gradualism now, while Malatesta only advocated
“gradualism” after a revolution. Like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and
Marx, Malatesta was a revolutionary. Similarly, Goodman advocated a
“mixed system,” similar to (his image of) the Scandinavian
countries, which included both capitalist corporations and
cooperatives. But Malatesta was only for a “mixed system”
which did not include exploitation. It might include various forms of
producer and consumer cooperatives and federations, as well as
individual workshops or farms, perhaps, but not capitalist enterprises
which hired wage labor.

Anarchist experimentalism may seem to resemble the Marxist
concept of a post-revolution transitional period. This was first raised in
Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.” (1974, pp.
339--359) He expected society after a revolution to still show the bad
effects of coming out of capitalism. This would be “the first phase
of communist society,” to be followed eventually, when
production has increased sufficiently, by the “more advanced
phase of communist society.” (Marx, 1974, p. 347) (For reasons
known only to him, Lenin was to call these phases “socialism”
and “communism.”) Politically this transition would take
“the state...form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the
proletariat.” (p. 355) Unlike Parecon, Marx was clear that the
“first phase,” precisely because it could not yet implement full
communism, was following bourgeois norms. Unlike Parecon, he
expected it to develop into free communism. (This might happen by
the expansion of free-for-all services as society became more

Whatever the virtues of this set of ideas, they have been used by
Marxists to justify Leninist-Stalinist totalitarianism--since, after all,
we cannot expect post-revolutionary society to immediately fulfill the
libertarian-democratic goals of classical communism. This was not
Marx’s intention; by the dictatorship of the proletariat he meant
something like the Paris Commune. But that is how the "transitional
period" concept has been used by Marxist-Leninists.

Both Marx and Malatesta believed that it is not possible to
immediately leap into a completely classless, moneyless, noncoercive,
nonoppressive, society. However, Marx’s concept, despite its
insights, was rigid, stating that the lower phase of communism would
be thus-and-so (as laid out in “The Critique”), which would
come to pass in the course of the Historical Process. Malatesta
preferred to make suggestions while leaving things open to pluralistic
experiment. Also, Marx included a belief that some form of the state
will be necessary--instead of thinking about how working people will
be able to provide social protection without the bureaucratic-military
machinery of a state. (Malatesta advocated a popular militia.)

According to Bakunin’s friend, James Guillaume, Bakunin’s
economic goal was libertarian communism, but he did not believe it
could be immediately and universally implemented. “In the
meantime, each community will decide for itself during the transition
period the method they deem best for the distribution of the products
of associated labor.” (Guillaume, 1980, p. 362) This is very similar
to Malatesta’s approach.

To return to Michael Albert’s challenge to Malatesta, “Yes,
yes, but how?” Malatesta did not have a worked-out model for
what anarchist socialism should be immediately after a revolution. He
did not believe in such an approach. Yet he was not for “anything
goes.” He advocated that working people take over the means of
production and distribution and organize ourselves to run them
directly through free association and federation. It was just such a
self-managed society which would be capable of an experimental and
flexible method. However, this was “always on condition that
there is no oppression or exploitation of others.” He was not
against speculations or programs, so long as they were presented with
a certain modesty and willingness to see them change in practice. He
might have appreciated Parecon as a set of ideas for after a revolution,
although not as a completed blueprint for what must be done. His goal
was libertarian communism, but he was willing to see progress toward
his goal go through various paths.


Albert, Michael (2006). Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism.
London/NY: Zed Books.

Goodman, Paul (1965). People or Personnel; Decentralizing and the
Mixed System. NY: Random House.

Guillaume, James (1980). “On Building the New Social
Order.” In Sam Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchism (pp.
356--379). Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Malatesta, Errico (1984). Errico Malatesta; His Life and Ideas (Vernon
Richards, ed.). London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico (1974). Anarchy. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico (1995). The Anarchist Revolution; Polemical
Articles 1924--1931 (Vernon Richards ed.). London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico (1999). Anarchism and Violence; Selections from
Anarchist Writings 1896-1925. Los Angeles: ICC.

Marx, Karl (1974). The First International and After; Political
Writings Vol. III (David Fernbach, ed.). NY: Vintage Books/Random

Perncone, Nunzio (1993). Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rivista Anarchia (1989). Red Years, Black Years; Anarchist
Resistance to Fascism in Italy (Alan Hunter, trans.). London: ASP.
Copied from infoshop.org
* [Ed. Note: Some practical solutions are hard to decide theoretically,
but very simple when practice force people to decide.
In the naZionist project in Palestine/Israel, including the 50s most
of the ideological movements built settlements with libertarian communist
interpersonal relations. Their majority were not opponents to capitalism.
significant part were even of the religious trend. Even some of the new fascist
movement settlements choose this as a temporary model for the first years
till the initial economic problems solved. I.S.]
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