Malatesta: Life & Ideas - review


This book serves as an introduction to Malatesta's thinking on anarchism. And very lucid thinking it is too. You may agree or disagree, but you won't be scratching your head trying to decipher a load of jargon.

Most of the book is taken up with short extracts from Malatesta's writings on various subjects, for example 'Ends and Means'; 'Anarchism & Violence'; 'Reformism'; 'Trade Unions' and many more. Each subject is dealt with in not more than 10 pages and sometimes as little as three.

His clarity of thought is apparent throughout the book. Take, for example, his position on violence and pacifism: the latter is viable only where peace is desired on both sides. The use of force is justified in self-defence and, when used, you must be careful to do in the way that causes least suffering.

But what constitutes self-defence? Malatesta argues that the oppressed and exploited are always in a state of self-defence and therefore the use of force against rulers is justified providing care is taken to minimise human suffering.

He steers a middle course between the terrorist and the pacifist, both of whom, he claims, arrive at similar results: "the former would not hesitate to destroy half mankind so long as the idea triumphed; the latter would be prepared to let all mankind remain under the yoke of great suffering rather than violate a principle".

As early as 1907 Malatesta had voiced doubts about the revolutionary capability of purely syndicalist unions and tactics [not that this prevented him from taking an active part in the struggle of the Italian unions in the early 1920s]. A general strike would not be enough to see off the capitalists unless it was a springboard for insurrection because it would quickly lead to a general famine among the workers before the capitalists collpased.

He saw that trade unions without the constant infusion of revolutionary ideas would lose their militancy. Their natural role is to defend the working class in the here and now. As such they must come to terms with society as it is, conceding long-term goals for short-term gains. His arguments do seem valid when you look at SIPTU! Even the pre-war Spanish CNT probably kept its militancy due to constant pressure from the anarchists and even then there was a significant reformist element within it.

The book contains his important letters criticising pro-allied [World War I] anarchists and also an article where he reflects on Kropotkin's thinking. He's critical in a constructive way. He considers Kropotkin to have been overly optimistic and that his attempts to give anarchism a scientific footing were misplaced. He's correct on both counts I think, any attempt to impose such certainty about a social ideology as physicists have about gravity is likely to fail and is probably dangerous. Human affairs are way more complicated and dynamic than the those of atoms.

Anarchism is not worthwhile because it is natural as Kropotkin strove to prove; it is worthwhile simply because it'd be good to live in an anarchist society.

James O'Brian


Malatesta: Life & Ideas - Freedom Press, London 1965. - Complied and edited by Vernon Richards.

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This edition is No75 published in March 2003