Ray (
Tue, 17 Sep 1996 11:19:04 +0000

** Workers Solidarity No 48 **
** Irish Anarchist Paper **

Anarchisms greatest Hits No 2

Errico Malatesta

Though anarchism is based on the idea of individual
freedom, the anarchist movement, unlike most other
political movements, does not revolve around particular
individuals. Our history cannot be reduced to the 'history
of great men', rather it is the story of the development of a
particular set of ideas, and the struggle to put those ideas
into practice.

That said, there are famous anarchists. Some are known
because their writings helped stimulate new thinking in the
anarchist movement, or define a new current in anarchist
thought. Others, like Errico Malatesta, are famous because
their very lives epitomised the development of anarchist
politics, and reflected the setbacks and advances of the

Activist in exile

Born in 1853, into a growing mood of republicanism,
Malatesta soon saw the need for a more profound change in
society, and in 1871 joined the Italian section of the
International. At the time, the main anarchist/socialist
strategy was to start insurrections, driving government
officials out of small towns and burning the tax ledgers and
bank books in the hope of sparking more widespread
rebellions, a tactic which Malatesta supported
enthusiastically. He was forced to flee Italy in 1878 after the
assassination of King Umberto, by a republican cook, led to a
general crackdown on radicals.

He returned to Italy after five years spent travelling around
Europe, continually agitating for anarchism, but was
arrested in 1884, and had to leave again, this time for
Argentina, where he lived for twelve years and was very
involved in the organisation of the labour movement. He
again returned to Italy, where he became the editor of
L'Agitazione. After only a year, however, he was arrested
once more, but he managed to escape, and after a few years
in America he travelled to London.

There he lived and worked for the next thirteen years, with
a mass campaign stopping him from being deported in 1909.
In 1913 he went back to Italy of his own volition. Following
the collapse of the general strike of 1914, Malatesta, now in
his sixties, had to leave for London once more. He spent the
war years there, writing and speaking often on the need for
anarchists not to choose sides between two capitalist,
imperialist powers. Finally, in 1919, he was able to return to
Italy, this time for good.

Although he had spent barely half his life in his native
country, his experience and dedication had won him much
respect in anarchist circles there. At the time, the anarchist
movement in Italy was strong, the popularity reflected in
the fact that Umanit=E0 Nova, the daily anarchist paper which
Malatesta founded, had, at its peak, a circulation of over
50,000. Unfortunately, this golden period was to be short-
lived. When Mussolini came to power the left-wing papers
were closed down, the anarchist movement decimated and
driven underground, and Malatesta himself spent the last
five years of his life under house arrest.

Ideas and Actions

Malatesta was, above all, an activist. While he wrote many
articles and pamphlets he was no academic, he was a
working electrician who wrote when there was something
to be said, not for the sake of writing. He described an
anarchist society simply, as a "society organised without
authority, meaning by authority the power to impose one's
own will", "a society which reconciles the liberty of
everyone with co-operation and liberty among men". What
more needs to be said?

We also see in Malatesta's writings the changes that were
taking place in the general anarchist movement. Though
he always reserved the right to use arms in the defense of
social gains, maintaining that "if you want the corn, you
need the cannon", over the years the tactics he emphasised
changed, from the insurrectionism of his youth to the
syndicalism of his older years. He had always said that the
anarchist movement needed to be as visible as possible, and
this change reflects his coming to believe, as did the wider
anarchist movement, that this is incompatible with the
strategy of 'propaganda by the deed'.

There is no one action, no single pamphlet or article for
which Malatesta is famous. There have almost certainly
been better anarchist writers, more skilled anarchist
organisers, anarchists who have sacrificed more for their
beliefs. Perhaps though, Malatesta is celebrated because he
combined all of these so well, exemplifying thought
expressed in deed, ideas backed up by action, and all driven
by a fierce commitment to freedom.

Ray Cunningham

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