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ONE IS A CROWD             No. 6, December 16, 2002

The Left-Wing Anarchism of Malatesta      

By Milton Batiste


  This article was originally published on

 Left-wing anarchists today seem to hate commerce more than they hate the State. Some are even willing to support government interventions like minimum wage laws and environmental regulation to combat the effects of free trade and globalisation. These people could learn a thing or two from Errico Malatesta. Maybe they would, if they read books.

The man was an authentic anarchist. Because of the special attention he was accorded by the police in Italy, Malatesta spent nearly half his life in exile. He was, however, able to return to his country of birth in 1919, after living in London during the war. He became one of the most influential activists in the Italian movement.

Malatesta's experience and dedication met with respect in anarchist circles. Umanità Nova, the daily anarchist paper which he founded, had, at its peak, a circulation of over 50,000. It did not last. Fascism was on the rise. The authorities closed down Malatesta's project. The anarchist movement was driven underground. Malatesta spent the last five years of his life under house arrest.

Errico Malatesta was no academic scholar, but he left a rich legacy of writing. His approach was, in one sense, very pragmatic. Malatesta was a libertarian communist who thought that anti-state individualists should be recognized as true anarchists and given a chance to try out their ideas.

Throughout the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the individualists made up a considerable part of the anarchist movement in the United States. There were not as many individualists in Europe, but there were some. Collectivist anarchists of this period were familiar with the individualist tradition. Many saw it as a more or less valid part of the anarchist movement.

Errico Malatesta discussed the possibility of individualist economic arrangements in an anarchist society. He wrote about a world without the State, where different economic forms would coexist, cooperate, and compete: "Probably all possible forms of ownership, use of the means of production and all forms of distribution will be experimented with simultaneously in the same or other locations, and they will be merged together and adapted in various ways until practical experience identifies the best form or forms."

Malatesta had come to the not very original, but still remarkably unusual, conclusion that an anarchist society must be based on freedom. Many left-wing anarchists seem to be so obsessed with their own collectivist visions that they are unable to see much merit in freedom of contract and association once the State has been abolished. Malatesta pointed out that "for real freedom, that is Anarchy, to exist, there has to be the possibility of choice, and that everyone can arrange their lives to suit themselves, whether on communist or individualist lines, or some mixture of both."

Malatesta envisioned a free society with "a multiplicity of communities made up of neighbouring and kindred populations, who would have a number of different relationships between one another, whether communist or commercial."

Communism would turn out to be the best option, Malatesta thought, but he was quite willing to be proven wrong. And, above all, he was convinced that the victory of the communist ideal had to be won "by persuasion, based on the evidence of the facts."

"To conclude," Malatesta wrote, "it seems to me that no system can be viable and truly liberate humanity from atavistic bondage, if it is not the result of free development."

In another sense, Malatesta's point of view was not pragmatic at all. He realized that nothing good can ever come from the State: "We hold that the State is incapable of good. In the field of international as well as of individual relations it can only combat aggression by making itself the aggressor; it can only hinder crime by organising and committing still greater crime."


Recommended   Errico Malatesta: The Anarchist Revolution