THE ANARCHIST REVOLUTION. Polemical Articles 1924-1931 by Errico Malatesta.
Though complete in itself this volume of Malatesta’s writings is intended as a ‘supplementary’ to the Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas which I compiled and edited in 1965 and of which the fourth reprint appeared in 1993. That volume is 311 pages long and includes more than 200 pages of Malatesta’s writings, mostly translated for the first time. But in order to present as complete a picture of Malatesta’s life as an agitator and as a propagandist for nearly sixty years, it was impossible to do so within 200-odd pages and at the same time print complete articles by him. Instead what I did was to make a list of topics that he dealt with constantly in his propaganda and so arrived at the 27 selections which comprise the main volume. I feel it is important to explain how that volume developed in order to ‘justify’ (if I have to) the publication of the latest Malatesta volume. And I quote from Life and Ideas:
“The next stage was to condense the material within each classification and then to reduce the number of headings, either by combining some or by deciding that the material in others was not sufficient or specially interesting to justify inclusion. The picture that emerged was one of anarchist Ends and Means, and I therefore grouped the sections accordingly, ending with the complete text of the Anarchist Programme which Malatesta drafted and which was accepted by the Italian anarchist Congress in Bologna in 1920, for it seems to me to synthesise Malatesta’s ideas and his commonsense approach to anarchist tactics.”
Because I assume that this volume of Malatesta’s writings will attract readers already familiar with the main Life and Ideas volume, I have not included either the ‘Anarchist Programme’ of 1920 (17 pages) or his quite remarkable ‘Peter Kropotkin — Recollections and Criticisms of an Old Friend’ (12 pages) written in the last year of his life (1931) both included in Life and Ideas.
Again to avoid repetition I have to mention that in the main volume I produced a 42-page ‘Notes for a Biography’ as well as ‘An Assessment [of] Malatesta’s Relevance for Anarchists Today’ (40 pages).
Malatesta’s dates are 1853 to 1932. Unlike the other so-called classic anarchists, his lifespan extended into post World War One and the rise of fascism in Italy and also the Republic in Spain in 1931. Also, unlike the ‘aristocratic’ anarchists, Bakunin and Kropotkin, he was throughout his life closely involved in the working class struggle. Unlike them he had no illusions about the ‘working class’ while at the same time making it absolutely clear that anarchist propaganda, while directed to everybody, could not succeed until it persuaded the victims of the capitalist system, the ordinary workers, to actively oppose it.
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For the historians Malatesta was the swarthy Neapolitan insurrectionist, while some of our contemporary anarcho-syndicalists (Laurens Otter in Freedom recently) attacked him for opposing the Monatte faction at the 1907 Amsterdam Conference.
They all want to label the man without bothering to examine what he had to say about these important problems.
In my introduction to Life and Ideas I suggested that:
“some readers may think that in presenting extracts rather than selections one is presenting Malatesta out of context as well as doing him an injustice as a writer.”
I agreed, since I have always admired the logic and the construction of his articles, and I added that: “Perhaps one of these days it will be possible to make good this ‘injustice’.”
This volume consists of 24 articles by Malatesta, most of which appeared in the fortnightly journal Pensiero e Volonta which he edited from 1924-26. The March on Rome by the former revolutionary socialist and journalist, Benito Mussolini, in 1922 had resulted in the anarchist daily paper Umanith Nova being suppressed and government censorship by 1926 made it impossible for Pensiero e Volonth to go on. And Malatesta, until his death in 1932, was like the Burmese lady in the news at the moment under house arrest — which explains why in those articles after 1926 he was complaining about being cut off from anarchist literature published elsewhere in Europe.
The title of this volume, and especially the subtitle Polemical Articles, reflect the choice by this editor. To explain, I have to quote what I wrote in the introduction to the main volume, namely that:
“he is seen by the historians more as a revolutionary agitator than as a thinker [which] explains in part their superficial treatment of his role in what they call the ‘historic anarchist movement’.”
In 1924 when Malatesta started editing Pensiero e Volonta not only was he in his early seventies with a lifetime of experience in propaganda and agitation and first-hand contacts with the political parties and Unions; he also realised that the possibility of revolution in Italy at the end of World War One had been lost thanks to the Social Democrats and the spineless role of the reformist unions and their leaders. At that time the anarchist Armando Borghi was general secretary of the USI (the revolutionary syndicalist union). Not only did they not succeed in persuading the reformist unions to oppose Mussolini but eventually Borghi, while remaining an outstanding anarchist propagandist, lost faith in anarcho-syndicalism!
So the main period covered by this volume of polemical articles deals with the practical problems facing anarchists when the tide is flowing against them. Of course Malatesta was a revolutionary and believed that the oppressed would only free themselves when they were convinced that their bosses and oppressors would never give up their power unless opposed by a power greater than theirs.
But he was such a practical man (after all, he worked most of his life as an electrician — coupled with a good education which made him think) that he just could not repeat all the slogans of revolution and of life without toil or problems once the revolution had taken place. Nor could he accept the arguments, including those of anarchists, who thought that science would solve all our problems (he didn’t live long enough to tell those critics about the nuclear bomb). And of course there were, like the New Labour lot, also the New Anarchist lot and sure enough, following the Russian Revolution, the anarchists who escaped the Leninist dictatorship launched their ‘Project of Anarchist Organisation’ headed by Nestor Makhno the anarchist guerrilla leader, and there are still today those who propagate the ideas of ‘The Platform’. Hence this volume is truly polemical but, as the reader will soon realise, Malatesta had an open mind, unlike many of his critics even when they called themselves anarchists.
The volume consists of 24 articles unedited and translated for the first time into English, mainly by Gillian Fleming but with the editor having the last word! They have been grouped in six sections without specific headings.
The first is, in my opinion, of vital importance to anarchists who are involved in anarchist propaganda and have reservations about the adjectives: anarcho-syndicalist- communist- individualist- anarchists. I feel Malatesta covers the ground to encourage less ‘dogmatic’ attitudes! I have included in that section two articles on ‘Republic and Revolution’. Though the Italian Republicans in the early ‘20s were rather more ‘revolutionary’ than our 1995 ‘republicans’, I think that his analysis should be of interest to left-wing ‘republicans’ in this country today.
Section Two is more than topical, surely, in this age where not just science but technology—the Internet and its potential and pretensions — are destroying all human values. If anarchism has any message for mankind it is to build up human relations; co-operatives in our daily activities to produce what we need to physically survive — and then the leisure to live!
In Section Three are four articles to demonstrate for all that Malatesta was not remotely concerned with violence per se. In this section I have included not only his important articles on ‘Anarchy and Violence’ and ‘Revolutionary Terror’ but the equally important and significant ‘Let’s Demolish … and Then?’ followed by the `Postscript to Let’s Demolish … and Then?’ which should silence all those academics once and for all who label Malatesta as the romantic `insurrectionist’ of the anarchist movement.
In Section Four Malatesta brilliantly relates anarchism to Democracy, Reformism, Gradualism, Revisionism, as he does in the first section to Individualism, Syndicalism, Communism. Once again I earnestly refer our historians to these articles if they are concerned with discovering what Malatesta believed and advocated as a propagandist.
Section Five follows on with a vengeance in that it deals with a `Project of Anarchist Organisation’ launched by Russian anarchist refugees, the most eminent of whom was Nestor Makhno the guerrilla fighter whose men defeated the White Army but were finally overwhelmed by Trotsky’s Red Army. Obviously I have reproduced Makhno’s reply to Malatesta’s response to the ‘Project’ and Malatesta’s further reply, to which apparently Makhno did not reply. And finally Section Six consists of two articles prospecting the future and the problems of a successful revolution — again a very important aspect of Malatesta’s approach to revolution. For him, not only have anarchists to make the revolution, they must also know what to do on the morrow of a successful ‘insurrection’.
In my opinion this modest volume is a vade mecum for all revolutionaries who are really involved and concerned with trying to change our greedy, unjust, unequal society. There can be no doubt that Malatesta placed no faith in the ballot box!
One final suggestion: do not try to read the volume in one session. There is too much food for thought in the pages that follow to consume in one ‘sitting’ without having indigestion and failing to enjoy the meal!