Max Nomad, Rebels and Renegades, 1932.
The Romance of Anarchism
Anarchism is a dying creed; its faithful communicants are getting scarce. The ghastly glamor once attached to the word itself is fading; other specters -- syndicalism and communism -- now disturb the slumber of the respectable. One after another, the most prominent figures in the movement have disappeared: the Bavarian bookbinder, Johann Most, of German and American fame, its fiercest master of invective; the Dutch preacher, Rev. Domela Nieuwenhuis, its foremost polemist; the German Jew, Gustav Landauer, its philosopher and esthete, barbarously murdered after the downfall of the Bavarian Soviet Republic; and finally the Russian Prince, Peter Kropotkin, its most scholarly theorist. Those of the old guard who are still alive are gradually passing into oblivion or at best marking time: Vladimir Cherkezov, veteran of veterans, who in 1866 was involved in a plot against the life of the Tsar; Jean Grave, Sebastien Faure and Charles Malato, prominent in France during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and now either discredited or forgotten; Rudolf Rocker in Germany, fighting a losing battle against communist and socialist influence; and finally Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, deported from this country during the Bolshevik scare and now most irreconcilable enemies of the Soviet regime. . . .
One name, however, belongs neither among the dead nor among the fading survivals. Its bearer stands out alone, towering mountain high above the rest -- the living romance and tragedy of anarchism. That man is Errico Malatesta, upon whose shoulders fell the mantle of the prophet, after the death of Peter Kropotkin.
Errico Malatesta was born nearly eighty years ago (1853) in a small town of Southern Italy. That town, Santa Maria di Capua Vetere, is what has come down to our days of the glorious city of Capua, whose opulence so perniciously affected the fighting qualities of Hannibal's soldiers.
Among the many legends current and recorded about the great rebel, is that of his descent from the famous or infamous dynasty of the Malatesta of Rimini, whose name occupies so conspicuous a place in the history of the Renaissance and the centuries preceding it. Thirty or forty years ago, it was picturesque copy to assert that the dreadful sect of assassins was headed by three princes of the blood -- yet the truth was by no means as colorful. While Peter Kropotkin was actually a direct descendant of the Rurik dynasty which preceded the Romanovs, and Vladimir Cherkezov, another famous Anarchist, was a Caucasian "prince" from Georgia -- where only descendants of serfs do not carry that title! -- Errico's ancestors were merely prosperous members of the local gentry, innocent of any halo of blood and romance. The glamor attached to his name is all his own. Hardly one out of a hundred Italians -- in whose imagination, as one of his friends said, Malatesta is imbedded as a cross between Garibaldi and Lenin -- has ever heard of his medieval namesakes.
He could have been the Lenin or the Mussolini of postwar Italy, if he had so desired. He wanted neither part. It might be said in the words of the Gospel that his Revolution "was not of this world" -- but that would not be the whole truth.
He lives in Rome now, with his wife and adopted daughter, until recently earning a living as an electrician, the manual trade he learned after his revolutionary activities forced him to give up his medical studies nearly sixty years ago. Guarded and followed day and night by three agents of the secret police -- one for each member of his family -- he is virtually a prisoner, though to a certain extent better off than his numerous friends and comrades. For even Mussolini, ruthless and callous as the medieval Malatestas themselves, has not dared to imprison the grand old man whose return from exile he had hailed so enthusiastically two years before his march on Rome. . . .
Malatesta's early youth belonged to the years when the risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy, was nearing its victorious end. At the age of seventeen, as a young student of medicine at the University of Naples, he hailed the final crowning of the aspirations of all patriotic rebels and martyrs -- the occupation of Rome, which henceforth became the capital of a united Italy.
Mazzini, the apostle, and Garibaldi, the hero of national liberation, had lived to behold the triumph of their vision -- and also the reality, which was not quite the same as the ideal they had formed of a redeemed fatherland. Mazzini's motto had been "God and the People." "Liberty," "Equality," "Humanity," and other generous abstractions had been written on his banner. But instead of a theocratic republic, with himself at the head, as the connecting link between "God" and "the People," what did he behold? "Liberated" Italy had simply been conquered by the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, whose government he had been fighting all his life. Garibaldi, who with his irregulars had dared a hundred deaths against the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons, saw his native Nice bartered away to France and his heroic red-shirts treated with contempt by the military caste of the crowned beneficiary of national unification. A horde of profiteers, job-hunters, and other carpet-baggers were let loose upon the liberated sections of the country. Modern commercialism and political corruption took the place of the medieval methods of extortion practiced by the former rulers. Not a few of the heroes and idealists of the period of struggle now became reasonable and began to feel perfectly comfortable on the monarchist band-wagon. The nebulous socialist slogans -- flaunted to attract the underdog -- were now discarded. The revolution of the Italian middle classes was accomplished. But revolutionary discontent still remained.
Every country not over-rich in natural resources or not well-developed industrially, sooner or later finds itself with a surplus of hungry aspirants and a deficit of soft jobs for distribution. With the Italian band-wagon filled to the last seat, there still remained a disappointed residue of young men with college education, but no future -- and no present either, for that matter. As usual, this group of malcontents, with a sprinkling of disappointed idealists, formed the nucleus for the development of a new revolutionary movement.
They were to find an unequaled leader in the great Russian revolutionist, Michael Bakunin. After his flight from Siberia Bakunin had settled first in Florence and then in Naples, where he remained until 1867. With his bewitching personality and a halo of heroism comparable only to that of Garibaldi, he soon surrounded himself with a group of young men who later became the nucleus of the Italian section of the International Working Men's Association, founded in London in 1864 (the so-called "First International").
Bakunin's program contained the general socialist postulates. Like most of his writings, it was hazy and nebulous in its wording, but it voiced the dissatisfaction of the masses who had not benefited by the national revolution. It voiced likewise the unspoken desires of the younger set of Italian intellectuals; for, when he spoke of the "Revolution which was to convert Italy into a free republic, consisting of free communes united with each other of their own accord in the free nation," they could easily see themselves as the future organizers of those "free communities," i.e. as the future leaders and rulers of their country. . . . Bakunin, who at that time was working out his anarchist philosophy, might have been surprised at this interpretation of his ideas. But ideas, once uttered, acquire an existence and logic of their own, often quite independent of the intentions of their originator.
In 1870 Malatesta, then a young medical student at the University of Naples, was arrested during one of the student demonstrations frequent at that time. Expelled from the university, he learned a trade as a means of support, but by choice rather than by necessity, for his family was not exactly poor. He stuck to his choice for the rest of his life, however, except during the periods when he was engaged in underground work, in propaganda tours, or in editorial activities which claimed all his time.
Malatesta was at this time a republican, a follower of that faction of Italian republicans which took its inspiration from Garibaldi. In the following year, the struggle of the Paris Commune of March-May 1871 -- an event as stirring in those days as the Bolshevik Revolution of two generations later -- aroused his interest in the ideas of the "Internationalists," as the socialists of the various denominations were called. That historical event, indeed, contributed much to the clarification of the ideas of the younger generation. Mazzini's insults directed against the Commune at a time when it was bleeding to death after an unequal struggle were neither chivalrous nor in good taste and alienated many of his former admirers. On the other hand, the generous but uncouth Garibaldi, now that the wars for national liberation were over, proved himself to be well-nigh illiterate in matters of domestic policy. He accepted Socialism for the distant future, as testified by his famous words, "the International is the sun of the future." He sympathized with the Paris Commune and even considered himself a member of the International -- but he was not really interested in the social struggles of the present. Bourbon and Hapsburg rule had aroused his vindictive rage -- yet the misery of the tenant farmers who suffered under absentee landlordism he seems never to have noticed.
The younger men did notice it. Some of them were prompted by their own hopeless outlook for the future; some by their revolt against the older generation; and some by their personal tragedy. Strange as it may sound, speaking of an octogenarian who has gone through more adventures than most of his contemporaries, Malatesta was a frail youth, affected, or believed to be affected, with tuberculosis. He did not expect to live long, and facing death, he naturally enough dreamt of immortality. He had been brought up in the heroic atmosphere of the Garibaldian campaigns for a liberated Italy. He had read the pathetic accounts of the revolt of Spartacus, who, two thousand years before, had begun his desperate struggle in Capua, Malatesta's birthplace. In his sensitive and generous heart all these impressions crystallized into a fearless determination to emulate the great heroes of his country's history. As he himself relates in an article of reminiscences of his early youth, it was Spartacus who inspired him most and with whom he identified himself in his dreams. He has held through all the years the inspiration and the resolve.
At the age of nineteen Malatesta had made up his mind as to his immediate allegiance. He joined the Italian section of the International which held a convention and was constituted in 1872.
The First International
The International, founded in London in 1864, was the first attempt at a unification of all existing radical, revolutionary, and even altogether non-political organizations of the workers of all countries, regardless of their differences in theory or program. As the "red scare" of that period, it naturally attracted the rebellious, the adventurous, and the dissatisfied of all countries, all those who bore a grudge against the existing system. British trade unionists who wished to prevent competition on the part of immigrant labor rubbed elbows with French workers interested in cooperatives; Polish patriots who had escaped the Russian hangman's rope after the unsuccessful insurrection of 1863, with Italian republican Irredentists who under Garibaldi and Mazzini still carried on their conspiracies against Hapsburg and papal rule; German followers of Marx, with French disciples of Proudhon: all of them united by a common aspiration for what they called "Socialism" -- in reality only a romantic disguise for such very respectable and bourgeois aims as more political democracy and national independence, with State Capitalism as a distant goal.
At the time when Malatesta joined the International, the organization was torn by a violent struggle between two bitterly opposed camps: the followers of Marx and those of Bakunin. This was not a mere duel for mastery between titans, though personal ambition and intolerance played no mean part in it and contributed not a little to its rancor. Nor was it a mere contest for domination between divergent philosophies -- Marx's Socialism against Bakunin's Anarchism. The theory of Anarchism, usually connected with the name of Bakunin, had not been fully worked out at that time. Bakunin's followers called themselves Socialists, and Bakunin himself, in a letter to Marx, frankly admitted himself a disciple of the great German scholar. On the other hand, Marx in one of his statements professed that, for the distant future, he likewise was in favor of "anarchy," in the sense of a commonwealth without State compulsion.
What actually divided the two currents of opinion, was not the "authoritarianism" and "centralism" of Marx, as against the "anti-authoritarianism" and "autonomism" of Bakunin. It was the question of the tempo in the revolutionary movement. Marx, in fact, represented the more sedate, reasonable, patient element, as against Bakunin's turbulent, impatient, adventurous following, ready to strike at any moment. This division was, moreover, not merely a question of diverging temperaments -- although, no doubt, this element played its part in the case of separate individuals. A glance at the forces marshaled by each opponent shows that Bakunin's hosts hailed chiefly from the economically undeveloped, backward countries, like Italy and Spain, where there was a large body of impecunious, poverty-stricken declasse intellectuals without prospects except in immediate revolution. The situation was similar to that now prevailing in many countries that have suffered through war and revolution; but while the malcontents of the present day turn for inspiration to Communism or Fascism, their grandfathers of two generations ago turned to the Anarchism of Bakunin. Bakunin himself, in a letter to one of his friends, described the situation as follows: "There exists in Italy -- and that is what the other countries lack -- a class of ardent, energetic youths, without position, without career, without a way out, who, in spite of their bourgeois descent, are not morally and intellectually exhausted like the young bourgeoisie of the other countries. To-day they are throwing themselves head over heels into revolutionary socialism with our entire program". . . .
The economic prospects were not nearly so dark in the countries where the hosts of Marx had the upper hand. In these, particularly in Germany, there were growing industries with an increasing number of industrial workers; the situation offered great possibilities for the organization of a political party of the working class and for the conduct of a "civilized" political struggle with ballots instead of bullets. Under such circumstances "ardent and energetic" young men from the lower middle classes were not entirely "without career"; they were the prospective leaders, educators and organizers of that potential political struggle. Italy, on the other hand, had hardly any industry to speak of, and its potentialities, as a field for working-class politics, were still in the remote future. In discussing that famous passage from Bakunin's letter, Marx remarked that his opponent's followers in Italy were nothing but a "bunch of declasses, the dregs of the bourgeoisie, . . . lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and knowledge, pool-room students, commercial travelers and other salesmen, and particularly journalists of the small press with a more or less doubtful reputation." This characterization is a fine example of the snobbish contempt in which at that time, the theorist of the aspiring would-be politicians, malcontent but hopeful, held the unlucky desperado who might have to risk his life in order to get anywhere at all. The same contempt, by the way, in the present Marxian camp, marks the attitude of the Socialists towards their Communist competitors, and of the official Communists towards the followers of Trotsky. . . . Ten years later, when the economic situation in Italy began to look more hopeful, large numbers of that very same Bakunist "bunch" began to join the Marxian camp, and then they were "declasses" and "dregs" no longer. . . .
Early in the seventies, however, the Italian section of the International was entirely with Bakunin. Its activities extended over a period of ten years -- from 1872 to 1882. It outlasted by several years the official central body dominated by Marx, which died a quiet death in New York. In a packed convention, held in 1872, Marx had all dissenters excluded and the seat of the organization transferred to the American wilderness. This was to prevent the followers of Bakunin and those of the French conspirator Blanqui from getting hold of the organization. If Belfort Bax, the British sociologist, an intimate friend of Marx's alter ego, Friedrich Engels, is to be believed, the transfer was effected for the purpose of forestalling the persecutions threatened by the European governments in their alarm after the revolt of the Paris Commune of 1871. Bax's statement only confirms the assumption that the followers of Marx were at the time eager to smother the revolutionary fire, to lay the red specter to rest. They did not succeed, however. For many years to come, the International, as represented by the excluded sections siding with Bakunin, continued to disturb the slumber of the propertied classes of Europe to a degree out of all proportion to their actual strength.
Bakunism in Action
Shortly after joining the Italian section of the International, Malatesta visited Switzerland, where he met Bakunin. The impression made by the aging apostle on the mind of the nineteen-year-old "Benjamin," as he was called by the master and the other disciples, remained for life. From that time his story becomes part of the revolutionary history of united Italy. It was then that the two outstanding leaders -- Carlo Cafiero, the generous, tragic Don Quixote of the movement, and Andrea Costa, its brilliant but all-too-practical Sancho Panza -- became his closest friends.
In 1873-4 the situation in Italy was propitious for a revolutionary movement. The country was in a ferment of unrest caused by the high cost of living. There were strikes and riots in many cities and disturbances in the countryside, for the national liberation had done nothing for the peasantry. The moment for action had apparently arrived.
The Italian section of the International differed from the German, English and Belgian sections in that it was not a federation of workers' societies in which socialist intellectuals were engaged in open propaganda for their ideas. It was rather a blind for the activities of Bakunin's "International Alliance of Socialist Democracy," a secret body within the International, which was to prepare and direct the revolutionary movements in all countries, and as a first step, to eliminate Marx's influence in the International. The situation was grotesque. In spite of Bakunin's denunciation of Marx's "authoritarianism," his own "Alliance" was an authoritarian, hierarchical organization with various degrees of "initiation." In the Italian revolt planned for 1874, Bakunin, Cafiero and Costa were the moving spirits. Malatesta was not in direct touch with the inner circle because he was in jail when the plans were made.
The leaders who had charge of these preparations were not equal to their task. They were unable to weld all the dispersed local uprisings into strong concerted action, and the isolated attempts fizzled out in pathetic failures. Of the three to five hundred men who were supposed to rise in Apulia under Malatesta's leadership, actually only six arrived at the meeting place. These set up their headquarters in the ruins of a medieval castle and tried vainly to induce the peasants of the vicinity to join them. They were soon arrested and were put on trial after a year of preliminary imprisonment.
The jury which tried this group of rebels was composed of the richest land owners of the region and was not disposed to be panicky over their ill-fated attempt to overthrow the existing system. The youthful opera-bouffe insurgents were acquitted amid applause from the audience and with the approval of the whole population of the town. The situation was not substantially different in the other trials held under similar circumstances in other parts of the country. No doubt the lenient attitude of the jurors was influenced by other considerations as well as by the tender age of the culprits. In most parts of united Italy, and particularly in the South, even the middle classes were anything but friendly towards the new government. In the minds of the jurors the violent declarations of the accused in favor of such subversive ideas as anarchism, collectivism, and what not, were translated into nothing worse than a republican protest against the detested Piedmontese dynasty with its parasitic bureaucracy.
As a matter of fact, there was more than a grain of truth in this apparently naive conception. While the movement of 1874 was in preparation, attempts had been made to induce Garibaldi and many Mazzinians to take part in it. Garibaldi, whose "socialism" was a rather hazy affair, is reported to have promised to join the movement as soon as it would assume larger proportions. These bourgeois alliances would hardly have been sought, if much more than the overthrow of the monarchy had been expected as a result of the revolution.
After his acquittal in 1875, Malatesta enjoyed two years of Quixotic adventure outside of Italy. Venturing into the land of Cervantes, he successfully organized to its final detail the flight of a Corsican revolutionist who was imprisoned in Cadiz; but at the last moment, when it came to boarding the waiting ship, Bonaparte's countryman decided that the regular meals of the prison were too definite a present good to be renounced for the uncertain joys and certain discomforts of liberty.
From Spain Malatesta turned to the Balkans, where the Christian peasants of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- now a part of Yugoslavia -- had risen against their Turkish rulers. Bakunin tried in vain to dissuade his Benjamin from wasting his efforts in that semi-Asiatic wilderness. His enthusiastic disciple replied that "wherever Carthage is attacked, Rome is being defended." It so happened that in this case the proletarian "Rome" which he wanted to defend was represented by the British Empire, which at that time was following an anti-Turkish policy, and -- Tsarist Russia, which soon afterwards joined in the noble cause! Malatesta knew nothing of these implications. He was twenty-three years old, and his heart was craving for sacrifice and glory.
However, it was not given to him to smell the powder of the Turkish guns or to dangle from a Balkan-made gibbet. Twice he tried to cross Austro-Hungarian territory in order to reach the insurgents, and twice he was arrested and sent back to Italy. The Hapsburgs wanted no Italian interference with their own plans for annexing that corner of the Balkans.
When he came back to his own country, the revolutionary unrest, the after-effect of the long struggles for national unity, had begun to subside. Even the most rabid republicans of Mazzini's and Garibaldi's following had become gradually reconciled to the monarchy and its political dispensations. Northern Italy, the most advanced section of the peninsula, was beginning to enter upon the upward path of economic development. The situation was not so hopeless as it had been several years before, and the more "practical"-minded revolutionists were ready to be reconciled, at least to a degree. Andrea Costa, for instance, the brain of the insurrectionary movement of 1874, and who together with Cafiero was next to the heart of Malatesta, was beginning to see things in a new light. The anarchist ideal, he subconsciously began to realize, was after all nothing but an impossible day-dream of sentimental visionaries or desperate romantics bent upon suicide. At best it was an unattainable guiding star to orientate the revolutionary and socialist pilot on his cruise towards a greater measure of political and industrial democracy. It certainly could not be the concrete object of a practical man with a clear vision. When, early in 1877, Malatesta and Cafiero initiated a new insurrectionary movement, purely anarchist in scope, Costa was no longer with them.
The revolt of 1877 was not inaugurated with the hope of an immediate success, as in 1874, when the participation of various republican elements had been asked and expected. In a way, it was the first case of anarchist "propaganda by the deed"; it was an attempt to stir up the masses and to spread the revolutionary gospel by the symbolic acts accompanying the rising.
The mountains of Benevento, not very far from Naples, were selected for the performance. It began under an unlucky star. Treason had been at work in the very heart of the conspiracy. All of the local peasants who had promised their support -- over three hundred of them -- were arrested before the time set for the uprising. As a result, those who remained, twenty-six in all, including Malatesta and Cafiero, were compelled to act prematurely, while the region was not yet fit for band warfare.
Two towns were seized by the insurgents. The king was declared deposed in the name of the social revolution; all government records were destroyed; all arms and money found in the town-halls were distributed among the local peasants. The revolt, however, did not spread and the twenty-six were soon surrounded and taken prisoner. After sixteen months of preliminary incarceration, they were tried by jury and acquitted. As three years before, Southern Italians, whether rich or poor, felt no affection for the Government and were ready to sympathize with all its opponents -- particularly those who had the romantic atmosphere of youth and daring.
A significant detail: most of the members of that little band, except Malatesta and Cafiero, who were Southerners, were unable to communicate with the peasants whom they wanted to arouse! They did not speak the local dialect. Another symbolic detail: the man who betrayed them was an old Garibaldian, whom they had trusted on account of his glorious past. The poacher of yesteryear had become the gamekeeper of today. . . .
Shortly after the trial Malatesta left Italy. Before doing so he cut the last ties with his bourgeois past. He returned to his home town and donated his property -- a few houses left him by his parents -- to the tenants occupying them. The Quixotic gesture may appear ridiculous to our present sophistication, but there was nothing sophisticated about the anarchism of those days. It was a new gospel and was taken quite seriously not only by its followers but even by most of its preachers.
Malatesta's bestowal of his patrimony on his poor tenants looked very much like the scriptural gesture suggested to the rich young man by a Jewish radical preacher of two thousand years ago, and unconsciously may have been inspired by it. There is much of primitive Christianity in the generous naivete of the anarchist gospel. Malatesta's teacher, Michael Bakunin, was dead by that time. He had breathed his last two years before, a broken and disappointed man. The great miracle of the world revolution which he had tried to evoke, had failed to materialize. But the Faith remained. Faith in the ideal of a commonwealth based on altruism, solidarity, voluntary respect for the other fellow's rights -- in short, on all the generous qualities with which the highest of the mammals has unfortunately been equipped none too lavishly. To the propagation of that ideal Errico Malatesta was henceforth to devote his life, performing his missionary work in all the corners of the world -- wherever people spoke Italian, Spanish, French, or English.
Reforming the Faith
The death of Bakunin coincided with the abandonment of hope for an immediate overthrow of the existing system through the concerted action of determined conspirators who were to arouse the masses. The failure of all the attempts made since the Paris Commune of 1871 suggested to the disciples that the masses were not yet ready for the social revolution and that propaganda was of paramount and immediate importance. Not mere propaganda in the usual meaning of the term, but "propaganda by the deed"; propaganda by the courageous example. It was in this spirit that the revolt of Benevento in 1877 was undertaken by Malatesta and Cafiero. It was only several years later that the expression became identified with individual terrorism.
With the Revolution postponed to a more or less distant future, the disciples had more leisure to discuss the basic principles of their creed and the beauties of the Earthly Paradise they contemplated. Without saying it in so many words, they found that at bottom -- paradoxical as it may sound -- the Master had been a heretic; or at best, only the Precursor but not the real Teacher. The "collectivist anarchism" of Bakunin -- that was the term used at that time -- showed a strange likeness to the ideas of "authoritarian" Socialists. While advocating collective ownership of the means of production, it insisted that the producer was entitled to obtain the full product of his labor. This, the disciples asserted, would imply the existence of a constituted authority by which the full product of everyone's labor would be determined. That authority would be in effect a government -- a thing anathema to the real anarchist.
A way out of this situation was found by Malatesta and Cafiero in 1876. It was very simple. There would be no accounting authority to evaluate each person's production. Nor would there be merely equal pay for an equal number of working hours, as conceived by certain revolutionary equalitarians. For that again would imply a certain administrative supervision and authority imposing undue restrictions upon personal liberty. With an optimism undaunted by the ugly realities of life, the apostles of the new faith assumed that every human being had the urge to work and to be useful to the community. Quite voluntarily and without compulsion or control of any sort, everybody would produce according to his abilities, and consume according to his needs, by taking freely from the well-stocked storehouses. . . .
This idea, called "communist anarchism", was obviously in the air at that time, for other Anarchists came forth with it simultaneously in other sections of Europe. As a result, the new creed was soon adopted without opposition in practically all anarchist circles. Prince Peter Kropotkin became the "scientific" mouthpiece of the new gospel. Only Spain held out for a while, for the grandsons of Don Quixote remain conservatives and traditionalists, even while they are Anarchists. Or, possibly, they stuck to the less Utopian tenets of pure Bakunism because they had not given up their hopes for a revolution, and realized that it would take a few cosmic periods before the beautiful "free lunch" ideal could materialize.
The Anarchists, having removed the last trace of "authoritarianism" from their ideal, now likewise eliminated it from their organization. There is no doubt that for all his dislike -- or perhaps jealousy -- of Marx's despotic rule in the General Council of the International, Bakunin had wielded no less personal power in his secret "Alliance," which he had organized within the official International. It was actually this "Alliance" which, in case of a successful revolution, would have wielded, to use Bakunin's own words, "the collective dictatorship of the Alliance members -- a dictatorship without badge, without title, without official powers, and all the more powerful as it was devoid of all appearances of power." Discarding the shackles of this strictly centralized secret body (not unlike the controlling machinery of the Catholic Church or even the Jesuit order) anarchism, after its reformation, began to wallow in a sort of "new freedom." Independent groups became eventually the favorite form of "organization," with each little group, or rather its leader, jealously guarding its "autonomy." To continue the ecclesiastical parallel, a congregationalist system now prevailed.
The Odyssey of a Conspirator
Despairing of the possibility of an immediate revolution in Italy, Malatesta left his country shortly after his acquittal in 1878. His restless spirit and the international police did not permit him to remain anywhere for any length of time. Driven from Egypt to Syria; from Syria to Asia Minor; from there to Switzerland, Rumania, France, and Belgium in turn, he finally landed in London -- before the War the asylum of all political refugees to whom the rest of the world denied hospitality.
During this Odyssey he came in touch with well-nigh all the outstanding personages of the movement -- and with the prisons of all these countries as well. In Paris he had also the first serious encounter with his Socialist step-brothers. Jules Guesde, once a disciple of Bakunin and later founder of the Marxist Parti Ouvrier ("Workers Party"), had inserted in his paper insulting remarks about the Spanish anarchists and refused to publish a rectification. Indignant, Malatesta took up the cudgels for his Iberian friends and actually challenged Guesde to a duel. Medieval tradition was still potent, even among the most advanced elements of the Latin countries.
Two cruel blows marred his exile in London. His two old friends, Cafiero and Costa, passed out of his life forever. These two, with Malatesta, had done more for the organization of the early labor movement in Italy than anybody else. Cafiero, the rich aristocrat who had been slated for diplomatic service, had chosen the revolutionary career instead, sacrificing for it his entire fortune and his very life. Breaking down under the strain of disappointments and persecutions, his mind now gave way, and he died in a lunatic asylum. Andrea Costa, the brains of the movement, had likewise been unable to stand the strain, but his disappointment took another form. Having lost his faith in the immediate revolution, whether for the pure anarchist ideal or its republican substitute, he now began to "face facts." Economic conditions in Italy were beginning to change. Industries were springing up, the wages of skilled workers were increasing. Here was a potential army of dues-paying party and trade-union members, in need of educated leaders. There before him was the example of the German Socialist Party which, though persecuted, was continuously growing and was gradually becoming an important factor within the State. True, the satisfactions it held in store for its followers and protagonists were far from the millenial promises and iconoclastic ambitions of the first "Internationalists." Still, gradual reforms were helpful to the workers, and the political rewards and emoluments that the party organization held out to its leaders in the near future were not to be despised, modest as they were, by the "lawyers without clients" and the other starving white-collar gentry. Revolution was no longer the only way out of a desperate situation. After all, it was wiser to be a living party official, member of parliament, or trade-union leader, than the dead martyr of a hazy ideal. The Marxian doctrine, with its emphasis upon the objective economic forces as against man's subjective desires, was adopted as a justification of law-abiding tactics. To this course Costa, like many others, was now committed. The revolution was definitely relegated to a period when Italy would have reached a much higher step of economic development. It meant a few generations more to wait -- a mere trifle in the history of humanity. . . .
Malatesta and his band of irreconcilable rebels were outraged at such apostasy. All the more, as this Sancho Panza gospel was threatening to win over all the most educated and ambitious elements of the movement, and to leave only the unpractical dreamers and violent fanatics faithful to the anarchist creed. Even Cafiero himself, during that twilight period when his mind was beginning to cloud, had begun to give in to the new trend.
In 1883 Malatesta returned to Italy, in an attempt to combat the growing influence of Costa, who a year before had been elected to parliament. He was arrested soon after his arrival, and condemned, with a few of his friends, to three years' imprisonment for belonging to an "association of criminals." This henceforth became established as the specific charge against Anarchists, enabling the courts to dispose of them without jury trial. The prosecuting attorney might admit that the indicted men were individually gentlemen of unblemished reputation and pure character; collectively, nevertheless, they constituted an "association of criminals," and could be sentenced as such.
The sentence was appealed from, and in the meantime Malatesta took the opportunity to publish a paper in Florence and to conduct a public campaign of propaganda. Shortly before his sentence became valid, he went to Naples, where along with many other prominent Anarchists and Socialists, including Costa, he helped to fight the cholera epidemic then ravaging the city. The Government, which offered him a medal in appreciation of these services, was at the same time anxious to prevent his flight and watched his movements as well as the house in which he lived. Its vigilance was of no avail. He was carried out of the house in a case supposed to contain a sewing machine and carried on board a ship bound for South America.
Malatesta's journey to Argentina was not planned exclusively as a missionary trip for the conversion of the Spanish- and Italian-speaking workers of that country. It was to a large extent an Argonautic expedition, though the golden fleece was not to be used for his own enrichment. He had heard rumors of gold deposits in Patagonia, the southernmost corner of the American continent, and with a few friends he ventured into that desolate wilderness in a desperate attempt to establish a financial basis for the anarchist movement, in which the "angels" were very scarce. The prospecting trip was successful, but the Argentinian Government, which had got wind of the expedition, simply confiscated the claim of Malatesta and his friends.
Back in Europe in 1889, Malatesta witnessed a beginning revival of the anarchist movement which coincided with the economic turmoil prevailing in those years. This resuscitated his hopes, and from a purely theoretical propaganda of the ideal he turned again to active revolutionary preparations as in the early seventies. Unity in the revolutionary camp was sorely needed, and he launched an appeal for the organization of a Socialist-Anarchist-Revolutionary Party -- an attempt to lay down a basis for the collaboration of Anarchists of the various schools. Preparation for an armed revolution and opposition to any government that might attempt to constitute itself after the revolution -- these were the two points on which, he thought, there could be no divergence of opinion. The question of the distribution of the products of labor -- whether on the "collectivist-anarchist" or "communist-anarchist" basis -- was to be settled after the revolution, through propaganda, example, and experimentation. In those days his anarchism represented the most radical if rather hazy, protest against the existing system.
His permanent residence after his return from South America was again London, where he remained until 1897. During this period he expressed his ideas in a number of pamphlets (such as "A Talk Between Workmen" and "Anarchy") which have become anarchist classics and have been translated into practically all civilized languages. In other respects, too, this period was the most active in his life. He was in his forties -- old enough to have become a seasoned conspirator and propagandist, and still young enough to remain unshaken in enthusiasm and determination.
His artistry in disguising himself enabled him to make a great number of secret trips to Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy -- all countries which waited for him with open prison doors, as he had been either sentenced in, or expelled from, their territories. He toured Spain, soon to become a scene of the most atrocious persecutions directed against the growing revolutionary movement. He went to Belgium, at the time when the first historical experiment of a general strike embracing most of the workers of a whole country was being enacted there as a means of obtaining universal suffrage. Malatesta hoped he could succeed in directing the movement into more revolutionary channels, but nothing came of his hopes, for the influence of the Socialist Party, a rigorously law-abiding corporation, was all-powerful.
Great unrest was meanwhile brewing in Italy. Especially in Sicily, now in the grip of a wide-spread economic distress, a powerful movement was on foot. Under the leadership of the Socialists, great numbers of starving peasants and sulphur miners had already organized, and soon they gave vent to their dissatisfaction in violent clashes with the armed forces. Malatesta and his friend Malato, a leading French anarchist of Italian descent, tried to stir up insurrectionary movements in other parts of Italy and to set the whole country aflame, but the masses failed to respond. The vagueness of the anarchist slogans and the unwillingness of the Socialists to cooperate may have had something to do with their indifference. The riots in Naples and Massa Carrara broke out quite independently, and cut telegraph wires were the only concrete results attributable directly to the anarchist activities of 1893.
At the same time a wave of terrorist acts, sweeping France and to a certain extent other countries, was raising anarchism to the sinister grandeur of an omnipresent red specter. Malatesta's secret activities of those years will probably never be fully recorded. Up to the present he has refused to write his memoirs -- for he has never considered his revolutionary career at an end. Another reason is also valid. Too much of a gentleman to lie for the sake of propaganda, he is likewise too much of a propagandist to tell all his depressing disappointments. Last, but not least, his complete story could hardly be published before his death, for during this part of his career he had his fingers in every revolutionary pie that disturbed the digestion of the frightened bourgeois world. There was a time during the nineties when he was almost as much of a headliner in all European papers as were Lenin and Trotsky during the first years of the Russian Revolution. He was reported to be everywhere and to have organized and instigated every uprising and every political murder -- a modern "Old Man of the Mountains."
The reports were, of course, greatly exaggerated. In spite of Malatesta's efforts, the anarchist movement had never become a really organized affair. Unlike the Russian revolutionists of the seventies and eighties (of the "People's Will"), and their successors, the "Socialists-Revolutionists," the anarchist terrorists nearly always worked without any preconcerted plan. The various terrorist activities carried out by them were either individual acts of protest, committed mostly without preparation, or else simply indirect suicides, prompted by misery, personal disappointment, or Herostratic vanity. Malatesta may have known in advance of some of the more celebrated cases, such as the killing of the Spanish Prime Minister Canovas del Castillo, in 1897, for ordering the mass torturing and execution of Anarchists. But even in these he was hardly anything more than the consultant specialist, and not the initiator. It was against his code of honor to prompt other people to do things he did not do himself. Moreover, he did not attach an excessive importance to individual acts of terrorism -- he was a believer in mass action.
On Three Fronts
His activity during these years was really a struggle on three fronts: against the bourgeois world; against the socialist leaders whom he attacked as politicians reconciled to the bourgeois world; and finally against the all-too-numerous nuisances within the anarchist movement itself.
A great deal of his energy was consumed by the latter quite unsavory task. The "reformation" which the faith underwent after the death of the Master had called forth unexpected results. In the minds of most of Bakunin's successors, the social revolution had become as vague and as distant as in the imagination of the most moderate Socialists. Having lost hope in an early revolution that would overthrow the existing system, the believers could afford to indulge in the imaginative joys of an ideal admittedly impossible of realization by the living generation. The beauty of that ideal, connoting a most optimistic belief in the goodness of human nature, was in reality only a compensation for a profound pessimism. While the Socialists postponed their revolution to the moment when the economic conditions would have reached the necessary point of development -- in the meantime enjoying what blessings graced the interval and finding arguments for extending the latter indefinitely -- the Anarchists saw theirs as still more remote. Their preachers, too, had time to wait -- some of them, like Jean Grave, theoretical head of the French Anarchists and favorite disciple of Kropotkin, openly admitting that it might take centuries before they could reach their goal. In the meantime they kept setting up little debating societies of religious dreamers, whose bark was worse than their bite, and who derived as much satisfaction as they could from the occasional acts of protest committed by their more temperamental or desperate brethren. Political democracy had proved a blessing and a sedative not only for the socialist would-be politicians, but also for the priests of the anarchist ideal-worship. A worship which in its pure, unadulterated form knew of no classes, but only of Anarchists and non-Anarchists, believers and non-believers.
That evolution of the once revolutionary gospel showed that at bottom anarchism was not a protest for economic equality voiced in behalf of the manual workers. It was rather the extreme, one might say poetical, expression of the desire for political freedom -- an extension of the time-honored demand of the liberal intelligentsia for more political autonomy and less government interference. In many of his writings Peter Kropotkin insists that the society of the future would be the resultant of the various active forces of the revolution -- with the "authoritarian Socialists" working towards strict centralization, while the Anarchists worked in the opposite direction. In other words, the Anarchists' extreme demand for "no government" was only meant to be a damper upon the centralist tendencies of modern socialism. What anarchism really aspired to -- without most of its adherents realizing it -- was a Socialist State with as much local autonomy as possible. And its preachers seemed to be hardly more in a hurry to get there than their socialist step-brethren. . . .
In vain Malatesta tried to break up this ineffective complacency. His attempt to create an organization resembling a revolutionary party met with strong opposition. Men like Jean Grave even accused him of a leaning towards the Socialist Party. To the talkative pygmies for whom the terror-inspiring reputation of anarchism was an escape from their sense of inferiority, subordination to a revolutionary leader seemed to be even more hateful than the existing system. A eader like Malatesta might try to whip them into some risky action; they preferred purely theoretical "negation" of the State, coupled with splendid isolation from the masses. But there was something worse still. Since the second part of the eighties a new element had penetrated the ranks of the movement. A very distressing heresy, professed and propagated by a few honest cranks, but chiefly sponsored by what might be called "crooks with a philosophy," had taken its inception from a few acts of "expropriation" committed by disinterested comrades who wanted to replenish the war chest of the cause. These acts were emulated by some less devoted individuals who did the same thing for their own benefit. Since the theoretical luminaries of anarchism unanimously frowned upon this confusion of the cause with ordinary crime, a special theory was gradually evolved to suit the requirements of the trade. Poor Stirner with his Ego and His Own. Nietzsche with his gospel of amoralism, and last but not least, good old determinism -- pragmatism not being invented as yet -- became the philosophical bases of a trend which justified any action that benefited the individual: professional stealing, counterfeiting, procuring -- even stool-pigeoning! In short, the followers of the new gospel behaved as if Machiavelli's text-book had been written not for princes, prime ministers, and diplomats, but also for malcontent manual workers and white-collar slaves. They called themselves "Individualist Anarchists" -- for some people seem to need an ideological cloak for their acquisitive propensities -- but they believed neither in revolution nor in any perfect future society. Their only tenet was to "live anarchistically," that is, in disregard of all the shackles imposed by society upon the individual. The respectable anarchists always claimed that this aberration was systematically fostered by the police. It was a natural assumption, for these miniature Borgias did more harm to the revolutionary cause than any amount of government persecutions ever could. Their activities were confined chiefly to France and the other Latin countries. "Anarchist Individualism" in Germany, England, and America, was a perfectly respectable, purely philosophical affair, based upon Max Stirner, Benjamin Tucker, and a few minor prophets. Libero Tancredi -- later under the name of Massimo Rocca, one of the chief pillars of Fascism -- was the most brilliant exponent and . . . practitioner of this "theory" in Italy. When a few years ago he dared to oppose some of his own heresies to the official Fascist doctrine, it was discovered that he had continued to practice his old "individualist" theories in his capacity as officer of some financial institution of the Duce's realm -- and he had to flee the country. . . . In the middle of the nineties anarchism entered upon a new stage of its development. Police persecutions had greatly reduced the ranks, the terrorist "propaganda by the deed" was declining, the interest that had been aroused by the idea itself, particularly among the intellectuals in France, was abating. The remaining militants now saw themselves faced by the sad prospect of becoming preachers of a dying sect and stewing in the juice of their own sterile phrases and declamations. They decided to descend from their ivory towers and to seek contact with the masses. In France especially, they rushed into the trade unions and gained influence in them. A result of this combination of anarchist theory with trade union practice was the emergence of a new current called "Revolutionary Syndicalism" or simply "Syndicalism." The trade union (in French "syndicat") was proclaimed at once the medium of the revolutionary struggle of the working class and also the basis of the reconstruction after the victorious general strike. "Direct action" and "general strike" became the chief watchwords of the new trend, and soon crowded out the other slogans.
Malatesta was, of course, pleased by this new turn -- but he had his misgivings. He was afraid lest his comrades might rush from the ivory tower of pure anarchist philosophy to the prosaic brick-and-stone mansion of trade unionism pure and simple. Time and again he urged his comrades not to lose their identity in the trade unions; to use these organizations for the propaganda of anarchist ideas; never to forget that "the essential and primary consideration is not 'class unity' but the triumph of anarchism, which affects the whole human race." The later development of French syndicalism and its once anarchist leaders into trade-union respectability on the German or British model, showed that his apprehensions were not unfounded. But it also showed that no amount of anarchist-humanitarian preaching could stop that normal evolution. Just as the best intentions of a romantic Anarchist could not prevent the propaganda for a vague social revolution in behalf of the "whole human race" from becoming the harmless pastime of sentimental phrase-mongers or a pseudo-revolutionary cult exploited by professional preachers.
In 1896, however, the outlook was still very bright, and at the International Socialist and Labor Congress held in London in that year Malatesta represented a number of Spanish trade unions. The Socialist parties sensed the danger threatening them from their anarchist competitors in the trade union field and decided to refuse admission to all those delegates who did not recognize the necessity of using the ballot. Malatesta and his comrades were excluded on this ground, the Socialist majority thus emphasizing the fact that running for political jobs was of greater importance to them than the collaboration with potential allies in the struggle for the overthrow of that capitalist system in which they had begun to feel so comfortable.
Shortly after that congress Malatesta returned to Italy. The trip was secret, as on previous occasions during that period, but this time it was not meant as a fleeting visit. He meant to stay and to work for the cause until stopped by the police. His best friend, Saverio Merlino, had turned "pink" and had begun to advocate the ballot. It was as hard a blow as the death of Cafiero and the defection of Costa had been in the early eighties. Merlino was a lawyer of great ability, and had repeatedly and successfully defended Malatesta and other Anarchists during their incessant trials of the previous period. He was likewise an accomplished and learned writer, and his prestige was second only to that of Malatesta. His undoubted sincerity -- he had no political ambitions -- made his conversion, or apostasy, doubly dangerous.
Malatesta's return was no doubt intended to stave off the effect of this loss to the cause. He began publishing a paper in Ancona, and for nearly a year was able to dodge the police. It was then actually high time for his arrest, for his propaganda among the simple and uncouth workers of the factories and of the harbor was producing alarming results. The police and the courts had previously been kept busy by bloody fights, drunken brawls, and other crimes of violence committed by the longshoremen and other workers; but since his coming they had seen themselves threatened by a dire calamity which was explained during the ensuing trial. The prosecuting attorney, in his simplicity, actually gave vent to his fears in the following argument: Malatesta's influence had destroyed criminality; it had entirely changed the character of the workers of Ancona; owing to him, crimes were no longer committed -- and Malatesta certainly ought to be sent to jail, since by destroying crime he was making the courts unnecessary! Malatesta was condemned to six months imprisonment.
A month after his condemnation, while still a prisoner, he was a distant witness of the desperate revolt of May, 1898. That uprising was caused by the high cost of living; starting in the South it spread to the North and assumed particularly violent forms in Milan. It was, no doubt, in accordance with the ensuing policy of bloody repression that after the expiration of his term he was given an additional five years of "forced domicile" in Lampedusa, one of the desolate rocky islands in the Mediterranean now used as a place of deportation for anti-Fascists.
Malatesta's "forced domicile" did not last long. His escape from that island has the true quality of high adventure. While a storm held the guards within doors, he and three comrades, daring what seemed like certain death, seized a small barge and put out to sea. Picked up by a steamer, they arrived safely in Malta and a short time later Malatesta was back in his London refuge.
After a few months rest he went to the United States, where he lectured in Italian and Spanish and edited a paper in his native language in Paterson, N. J. The inevitable discussions as to the merits or demerits of organization now began again, and this time almost cost him his life. During one of these disputes G. Ciancabilla, the leader of the "anti-organizzatori," seeing that the majority was siding with the old champion, emphasized his own argument by emptying his revolver into the body of his opponent. The hero escaped, and Malatesta, unable to leave the place on account of his wound, was arrested. He refused to name his assailant, although the police left him for a time without any treatment in the hope of forcing him to give the desired information. Ciancabilla remained a prophet among the guardians of the Holy Grail of unrestrained individual liberty, and died a few years later in California, where he edited a paper with the fitting title La Protesta Umana.
The "Red Week" and the War
A year later, in 1900, Malatesta was back in London where he stayed until 1913. During these thirteen years, as in his previous London sojourns, he led the obscure life of an electrician, working in his own small shop. In his leisure time he continued the propaganda of his ideas, participated in the publication of several papers, and enriched anarchist literature with a number of popular pamphlets. The movement sponsored by him was meanwhile rather stagnant. All his attempts to create a well-organized Anarchist party were being thwarted continuously, either by persecutions, or by internal dissensions -- or by the lack of a definite immediate aim.
However, Malatesta was not disheartened -- or, if he was, he did not show it. In 1907 an International Anarchist Congress was held in Amsterdam, at which his point of view prevailed. The Anarchists were now to steer clear of the Scylla of purely abstract propaganda which would condemn them to isolation, and the Charybdis of Syndicalism pure and simple, which would absorb them. Malatesta was elected a member of the International Bureau whose seat was in London. The Anarchist International, thus constituted, showed, however, little activity and vitality. Anarchism as a revolutionary movement seemed at last to be a dead issue, its most energetic elements having been absorbed either by the purely theoretical propaganda of the idea, or by trade union activities.
On two occasions, during this period, public interest again centered about Malatesta. In 1910 he barely escaped being implicated in the then famous "Sidney Street Affair," when nearly the entire London garrison, under the command of Winston Churchill, besieged and exterminated two bandits who had decided not to give themselves up alive. Another member of the band had been mortally wounded a few days before, when jointly with the two other men he had killed several policemen who had surprised him in an attempted burglary. The three desperadoes had behind them a record of daring terrorist activity in Russia, or more correctly, in that Baltic section of the old Tsarist empire which at present constitutes the independent Latvian Republic. During the revolution of 1905-6 they had been engaged in a merciless guerrilla warfare against the Baltic-German feudal lords and their Russian bureaucratic supporters. Later, forced to seek shelter in England, they had first tried to earn a living as workers; but they had lost the habit of work and finally had decided to "live their own lives." For a while one of them had worked on his own account as a mechanic in Malatesta's little shop. Quite unconcerned as to whom he might involve, he had used the address of the shop when ordering an oxygen cylinder, which could be employed for cutting metal rods -- and safes. It was not a very sporting thing to do, but desperadoes seldom see the other side of their actions. The number of the cylinder, which had been found by the police at the scene of the burglary, led the chase back to Malatesta's shop, and only the great esteem which he enjoyed as an idealist of the purest type saved him from being arrested and implicated in the affair.
Two years later he made his first and only acquaintance with a British jail. The Italian expedition to Tripoli in 1911-12 had aroused great popular enthusiasm even among radicals and particularly among those sons of the sunny South who expected to be the first colonizers and civilizers of that "ancient Roman possession"; for, peace-time internationalist convictions are not always strong enough to resist the war-time temptations and allurements of conquest. The Italian revolutionary colony in London was now rent by dissension. Malatesta violently attacked the imperialist venture. On the other hand a certain Bellelli, apparently anticipating the methods of political controversy adopted since the outbreak of the World War, accused the old rebel of being an agent of Turkey; Malatesta, who in the meantime had received confidential information about the activities of his opponent, called him publicly an agent provocateur. As British court procedure did not permit Malatesta to prove his charge, he was condemned for libel and had to spend three months in prison. Only urgent protests from his many influential friends saved him from deportation, which a vindictive judge had attached to the penalty.
A year before the outbreak of the World War Malatesta, as in 1897, received the invitation to edit a local anarchist paper in Ancona. He returned to Italy and his paper soon became the center of revolutionary propaganda. Early in June, 1914, the moment at last arrived for which he had been waiting all his life. Popular discontent had been aroused to the boiling point by the killing of a few paraders who had protested against some official celebration. A general strike declared in Ancona, where the shooting had occurred, soon spread to many other cities, and during that "red week" nearly all of Italy was in the initial stage of a revolution. Republicans, left-wing Socialists, Syndicalists and Anarchists, forgot their old scores and showed a united front.
Malatesta expected from the movement neither the realization of the anarchist ideal nor the establishment of a socialist republic. But he did hope that "many obstacles would have been removed, and a period of free propaganda, of free experimentation, would have been inaugurated, as well as a period of civil strife, at the end of which we would have seen our ideal shining victoriously." In other words, he expected as the immediate result, the establishment of a democratic republic, with a long period of revolutionary struggles to follow it. It was all very hazy. He had become a manual worker as a supreme protest against the existing system, but he had remained a romantic intellectual thinking in terms of "free propaganda," "free experimentation," and civil strife" for the sake of an "ideal" which in the opinion of practically all anarchist thinkers is beyond the reach of those now alive. A mass struggle for concrete demands, aiming at the immediate improvement of the situation of the workers and the unemployed, was altogether outside the scope of his revolutionary ideology.
He was disappointed in his hope. At the very moment when the sweep of the movement threatened to assume the proportions of an actual revolution, the bureaucracy of the General Federation of Labor sent out a circular telegram calling off the general strike. The order created confusion in the ranks of the workers; there was no well-knit system of secret communication that could have maintained the contact between the various cities; and the whole affair fizzled out. The leaders of the Italian trade unions did not want a revolution. The existing system, even with the monarchy on top, was good enough for them. Their jobs were soft and steady, and a real revolutionary outbreak, particularly if it failed, would have meant destruction of the unions, imprisonment, firing squads, or even return to manual work. . ..
Malatesta, romantic scion of the middle classes, saw his hopes dashed by the unromantic upstart sons of manual toil, working hand in hand with college-trained socialist politicians who seem to have been more interested in the socialist careers of Millerand and Briand than in the glory of a martyr's death or the romance of an exile's life.
The reaction that immediately set in forced Malatesta to flee. Though hunted all over the country, he succeeded in escaping and was soon back in London.
A greater disappointment than the breakdown of the "red week" revolt awaited him with the outbreak of the War. Not only the Socialist politicians of the belligerent countries had made common cause with their governments; even the leading Anarchists, with a few exceptions, had taken the same stand. Kropotkin, Guillaume, Grave, Cherkezov, Malato -- founders, veterans, and classic expounders of modern anarchism -- had become bitter-enders pure and simple. Kropotkin saw himself complimented in the New York Times as the "great Russian democrat."
Heartbreaking experience as he felt it to be, Malatesta was now obliged to come out against his old friends and comrades, particularly when they issued an appeal against a "premature peace." His article written on that occasion was entitled "Pro-Government Anarchists," and the stand he took was very closely akin to that of the Bolsheviks, in declaring that the slaughter should be stopped by revolutions in all the countries concerned. Though personally he wished a German defeat, he declared that it was the business of a revolutionist not to help one government against another but to fight his own government. Thus, to a certain extent, he took his inspiration from the old Marxian slogan -- forgotten by the teacher's later disciples -- that "the worker has no country." The "orthodox" Anarchists, as represented by Kropotkin and his friends, were apparently of the opinion that the antagonism between monarchist Germany and republican France was of much deeper significance than the antagonism between the workers and the bourgeoisie, and that not only the French, but even the Russian and Italian workers, were duty-bound to shed their blood for the democratic institutions incarnated in Clemenceau and Poincare. An attitude which could only be explained by the assumption that they had lost all hope for the overthrow of the existing system, and therefore were ardently in sympathy with any government which at least permitted them freely to profess and to preach their belief in Utopia and in the goodness of man.
Malatesta's attempts to return to Italy during the war were not successful. The government of his country simply refused to let him enter. He was dangerous there, whether he was in prison or in liberty. Later, in 1919, when the war was over and an amnesty had removed all the obstacles to his return, the British and the French governments jointly tried to prevent his departure; the French by refusing a transit permit, and the British by issuing an order forbidding any ship clearing from an English port to take him on board. He finally outwitted the joint efforts of three governments to keep him out of Italy. With the connivance of Captain Giulietti, brother of the secretary of the Italian Seamen's Union, he was enabled to board an Italian steamer and to land in Genoa.
The reception given him by the Italian masses was overwhelming. Wherever he came, he was greeted enthusiastically by the entire working population. Anarchists, Syndicalists, Socialists, Republicans -- they all bowed before that old man of sixty-six, whose whole life had been devoted to the Revolution. Even the Fascists, at that time still a long way from their victory, were forced to join in the general chorus. On December 27, 1919, Mussolini, in his Popolo d'Italia, hailed Malatesta's arrival with these words: "We are far from his ideas, for we no longer believe in any revealed truth nor in any terrestrial paradise, . . . but all this does not prevent us from sending our hearty greetings to Malatesta, for we are always ready to admire a man who disinterestedly professes a faith." There was probably another reason for Mussolini's enthusiasm. He was afraid of a Bolshevik dictatorship in Italy, from which in view of his attitude during the War, he could expect no tenderness. Malatesta's anarchist influence was in his opinion a convenient counterweight against a successful emulation of the Russian example.
The Revolution was again in the air in those days, for in spite of "victory," Italy, owing to her poverty, had suffered perhaps more than any other country. This expectation of an early revolution quieted, to a certain extent, the mutual struggles among Anarchists of the various schools and they all joined forces around Umanita Nova, the first Italian anarchist daily, founded in Milan early in 1920. Malatesta became its editor, but he had to spend a great part of his time on propaganda trips in the provinces.
In the atmospere prevailing at that moment, his personality worked wonders. It was his personality alone, his past, the legend around him, his fifty years of disinterested apostolate -- for he is by no means a first class speaker. Some of his experiences read like episodes from early Christian history, when praetorian guards are said to have seen the light and embraced the gospel. Time and again, the State constables ("carabinieri") sent to watch his meetings, were ordered away by their officers, who had noticed that their subordinates had been touched to the quick. There was a case of a sergeant-major of the carabinieri who joined the cheering crowd; his consequent dismissal from service meant to the able-bodied peasant boy the sacrifice of a coveted career.
In spite of the many local outbreaks the revolution itself failed to come. There is no doubt that among the masses many expected Malatesta to give the signal for it, and that they would have followed him if he had done so.
There was a moment -- early in 1920 -- when that revolution was actually within reach. Giuseppe Giulietti, secretary of the Seamen's Union, whose brother had enabled Malatesta to return to Italy, conceived the idea. Giulietti was not an Anarchist, not even a "regular" Socialist. He was in a class by himself, a romantic republican in the Garibaldian tradition; an enthusiastic bitter-ender during the War, but just as enthusiastic for a revolution as soon as the fighting was over. An admirer of Gabriele d'Annunzio, he suggested to his demigod the idea of a "march on Rome" -- more than two and a half years before Mussolini carried out this idea to a quite different end. . . . D'Annunzio was to head the march," winning to the cause the republican and nationalist elements, while Malatesta was to enlist the support of the radical working class contingents.
But nothing came of it. The socialist politicians and trade union leaders were not interested. They were the strongest party in the country, and held several thousand municipal administrations in their hands. A democratic republic, the primary goal of the "march," would have given them no more in the way of jobs than they already had. Moreover, they were certain that the revolution would not stop at a mere democratic republic. That meant civil war -- a risk they were not ready to take. Even the leaders of the left wing of the Socialist party -- those who later constituted the Communist party -- evinced no enthusiasm. Their ardor began to cool as the revolution seemed nearer. They, too, had their safe jobs, and they "were interested more in displacing the old Socialist Party chiefs than in overthrowing the capitalist system.
Malatesta himself wavered, not because he was afraid, but because he believed that the revolution should be carried out by all the revolutionary parties and organizations and not by Anarchists alone. He desired the Socialists to unite with the Anarchists in dispossessing the capitalists. A government based upon democracy and civil liberties, to be set up by the Socialists would then permit the Anarchists, through propaganda and experimentation, to win the majority for the anarchist ideal.
There was only one little flaw in his plans. The Socialists had no intention of performing the task so generously assigned them by Malatesta. Courteously and maliciously, they were ready to leave all the revolutionary glory to the Anarchists. Malatesta clearly saw how incongruous was the situation in which he and his followers were placed. They could not help DAnnunzio merely to establish a republic after the French or Swiss model. To do so would have been impossible in view of the expectations of the rank and file, and in face of the example of Russia, where capitalist rule had been overthrown. Should they go further, and carry out social revolution alone and unaided? Build with their own hands the Socialist State whose evils they never tired of denouncing? Help the Communists to establish their dictatorship? But the Communists demanded absolute submission and were averse to grant any freedom of propaganda or experimentation. Or reach for the anarchist moon outright? But the Anarchists were in a minority; if -- to use Malatesta's own reasoning -- they wanted to introduce the anarchist millennium by force, they would, by so doing, cease to be Anarchists; for they would have to establish a dictatorship not greatly different from that of their Bolshevik antipodes. Such a course would be a complete moral capitulation. Thus the only course left them was to postpone the revolution to that cosmic date when the majority of the population should be converted to the anarchist ideal. . . . The whole tragedy and hopelessness of anarchism as a revolutionary movement was embodied in that dilemma.
With Malatesta and his following unwilling to start a revolution that would lead to the establishment of a bourgeois or socialist republic, or to the paradox of an anarchist dictatorship, [Curiously enough, in 1926 there actually appeared the so-called "Russian Platform" of a group of Anarchists, advocating a sort of anarchist governrnent on the morrow of the social revolution -- contradictory as this may sound. A similar position was taken in 1931 by the most prominent French Syndicalist, Pierre Monatte. Immediately after the victory of the revolution in Spain he declared that the Syndicalists of that country ought to work towards the establishment of a dictatorship of the revolutionary trade unions; thus demanding a dictatorship of the trade union officials as distinguished from the dictatorship of the intellectuals heading the Communist Party.] and with the other radical groups likewise unprepared to take the risk, events hung fire. At the end of August and early in September, 1920, however, the striking metal workers at last took the initiative and occupied the factories. The world was aghast at this new experiment and waited for further developments. Malatesta repeatedly visited the "red trenches" and encouraged the workers to hold out.
Once again, as seven years before, during the "red week," the revolt of the masses and the courage of the apostle proved powerless against the "machine" -- against the collective leadership of the General Confederation of Labor, and the Socialist politicians supporting them. The movement was called off at the price of a few vague promises of "factory control." The upstart ex-workers of the Confederation of Labor, and the lawyers, journalists, professors, and politicians of the Socialist Party who were allied with them, were afraid of the civil war that threatened from a continuation of the struggle. The old saying of Karl Marx, that "the workers have nothing to lose but their chains, and a world to win" did not apply to their leaders. They had their precious lives and their very good jobs to lose. They had, of course, a very plausible excuse for their delay. A revolution in Italy, they said, would not hold out more than a couple of weeks; a blockade on the part of England and France would starve it into submission in less than a month. They would not gamble on the possibility of the revolutionary wave spreading to the other countries of Western Europe. . . .
The old fox Giolitti, who was prime minister at that time, likewise did his share in preventing a revolution, by using the very opposite of the traditional methods. He avoided all violence, all provocation. If the various radical organizations were hesitating in throwing the spark into the explosive barrel of popular discontent -- Giolitti, the wise, liberal statesman, was not going to do it for them. After all was over, he was asked why he had not opposed violence to the lawless occupation of the factories. He replied: "I had confidence in the General Confederation of Labor, which proved that it deserved it."
The decision of the trade union leaders had killed not only the revolution but also the morale of the workers. Their belief in their leaders and their self-confidence were shattered. The government, the bourgeoisie, and the new aspirants for power -- Mussolini and his crowd of ex-soldiers, intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, including to a great extent transfuges from the various radical groups -- saw that the moment had come for a counter-offensive. This notwithstanding the fact that Mussolini himself had hailed and encouraged the occupation of the factories.
Not more than four weeks after the surrender of the factories, mass arrests were effected in Milan, including Malatesta and the very active Armando Borghi, secretary of the syndicalist "Unione Sindacale," a revolutionary trade union organization competing with the General Confederation of Labor but not enjoying great influence. One previous attempt to arrest Malatesta had been made early in the year, but the general protest had been so violent that he had been immediately released. This happened in February, when the wave of revolutionary mass sentiment had been rising. That wave was now receding. This time Malatesta stayed in prison for nearly ten months -- the intention of the government was obviously to keep him there until the storm had blown over and the work of pacification had been accomplished.
Six months passed after Malatesta's arrest and still no indictment was produced against him. To force the hand of the authorities and to obtain the temporary release to which they were entitled, Malatesta and his comrades went on a hunger strike. It was a risky thing for a man of his age to attempt, but he took the chance, as he had taken that other chance when on a frail barge he braved the stormy sea.
The hunger strike had been endured for seven days, and still the sufferings of the revolutionary veteran failed to call forth a protest from the masses which had celebrated his return only a few months before. The unrest had not subsided as yet, but the workers were discouraged, disappointed, cowed. The punitive expeditions started by the Fascist bands were not meeting with any well-organized resistance. It was in vain that Malatesta's friends tried now to stir up the activity of the masses for the old leader. The workers of Milan did not budge. The situation was hopeless, and Malatesta seemed to be doomed to a slow and painful death.
The lack of response among the workers called forth a violent reaction from some of the more desperate elements among the Anarchists. Stricken in their hopes for a revolution, stricken in their faith in the workers, stricken in the person of their leader, they could at least have their revenge! The war and the exploits of the Fascists had not done much to stimulate respect for human life. On the night of March 23, 1921, they went on a mad carouse of mass destruction, placing bombs in a theater, an electric power plant, and a hotel. Twenty-one persons were killed, and many others were maimed by the explosion in the theater.
The massacre did not add to the popularity of the cause which the fanatics had wanted to advance. The audience of the theater included workers as well as capitalists and government officials. The Fascists seized the propitious occasion to deal a heavy blow to their Anarchist enemies. They raided and completely destroyed the offices of Malatesta's daily paper. It could not appear again in Milan.
In view of the renewed persecutions and arrests, and the general perplexity, Malatesta and his friends had to give up their hunger strike. No attention would have been paid to the struggle of the prisoners, and their death would not have caused any great commotion.
This failure of the hunger strike was humiliating enough for the old rebel, who was thus placed in a ridiculous position, but worse still was the further necessity of publicly dissociating himself from his overzealous disciples. He had never approved of those forms of quot;revolt" which expressed themselves in the bombing of cafes or theaters. His aim was revolution but not the satisfaction of individual grudges or hatreds against the bourgeoisie. He knew very well that such forms of protest were not really dangerous to the existing system; that they were harmful to the cause and consequently only too often secretly encouraged by the police. He was also fully aware of the fact that some of his comrades or enemies might suspect that his condemnation of the Anarchist Guy Fawkeses was prompted by considerations of personal safety. Nevertheless, he doubted the necessity of ending his days in prison for an act which he condemned, and he declared frankly that the holocaust in the Diana Theater was either the act of a madman or the result of instigation by the worst enemies of the cause. (It actually turned out that of the two main perpetrators of the butchery, one had been exempted from military service owing to adolescent insanity, while the other was a typical example of the saintly and ascetic fanatic.)
The conclusion of the speech which he delivered before the jurors was not in the defiant tone of a fighter to his implacable class enemies. It was rather the farewell message of an old man who felt that he had lost the long game, so many moves of which were already history. "I am sixty-eight years old, now," he said; "mine has been a modest life; but it has been a life during which I have always tried to do what my feeble powers enabled me to do for my cause. The idea of liberty, of justice, and of love, which has stimulated me since my early childhood, I have pursued and I shall pursue to my very death. I have spent ten or twelve years in prison. Not having been able to win the struggle, it might perhaps be an end worthy of myself to die in pnson for my ideas. It would not be useless; it might perhaps be of greater use as propaganda than anything I may achieve in the future. If I were concerned with the cause alone, I should hope for a condemnation, a merciless condemnation -- for the sake of the propaganda which it would make. But while I am a man of faith, I am not a hero. 'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak' as the mystics say. I love life: I love many people, and I am heartily loved by them in turn. Therefore I desire to be freed; I desire to return to the midst of my friends. But if you believe that you ought to send me to prison, well -- I shall find sufficient strength of mind to face my sad destiny with serenity. I may die in prison, but I want to die there with my honor intact. I want to die there illuminated with all the sanctity, with all the purity of my ideal; for while my ideal may be only a vain phantom or a mere dream -- it is certainly a dream of love. . . ."
Malatesta was acquitted, and so were the comrades arrested with him. The prosecuting attorney, apparently instructed by the government, which feared the effect of a condemnation, did not press for a conviction. His highly liberal and enlightened speech was, in fact, tantamount to a plea for acquittal. After all, Malatesta had been kept in preliminary seclusion for ten months, and he could be rearrested immediately, whenever the situation required. This seemed to the government a better policy than inflicting a heavy sentence, and one just as effective.
Prisoner at Large
Malatesta, however, has not been rearrested. His daily paper, which he had begun to publish again, a few months after his release, this time in Rome, was again destroyed as soon as Mussolini's black-shirts assumed power officially, in October, 1922. Once more, two years later, in October, 1924, he started another publication, a semi-monthly magazine dealing with the purely theoretical aspects of anarchism; no other public activity was possible under the rigid Fascist censorship.
That magazine was a fitting anti-climax to a fifty-year stolate. With the Fascist dictatorship firmly entrenched and the chances for an early revolution hopeless, the great rebel began to wonder whether the theoretical compass which was to guide his comrades over the rough seas of another revolutionary situation was in perfect working order. For that compass had failed him and left him helpless in the supreme crisis of his life.
With characteristic fearlessness he began to examine some of the most beloved stock arguments of his optimistic creed, and reached the conclusion that "we had no practical program that could be applied after a victorious insurrection"; that "it is time to remedy that insufficiency of ours so that we may find ourselves ready for future occasions"; and that "it is to this task of working out a practical program for immediate fulfilment that we are inviting all our friends."
This after nearly sixty years of anarchist theory and propaganda!
Merciless to himself for bungling a revolution, he was no less merciless to those who, having accomplished a revolution, had, in his opinion, made a terrible mess of it. Referring to some phases of the activities of the Soviet Government, he wrote in his daily shortly before Mussolini's coup in 1922: "What a glorious memory the Russian Revolution would have bequeathed us, had it been quenched at the time when it was still a revolution and not yet corrupted and stifled by the authoritarian spirit of its rulers."
His tone became more and more bitter after the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship, which in his opinion was to a grreat extent an imitation inspired by the Bolshevist model. The fact that the younger generation of revolutionists, disappointed with the fading romance of anarchism and fascinated by the glamor of the Russian Revolution, had begun to turn Communist, did nothing to mellow his sentiments. He gave free rein to his feelings in attacking the Bolsheviks to an extent which even some of his most ardent admirers considered in bad taste.
Thus on the occasion of Lenin's death, he declared that he could not mourn him because "even with the best intentions Lenin was a tyrant, he was the strangler of the Russian Revolution," and he exclaimed almost with exultation, "Lenin is dead; long live liberty!" Taken to task for this outburst by his most faithful and cultured disciple, Luigi Fabbri, Malatesta explained his attitude as follows:
"Lenin was a tyrant: and when a tyrant dies, it is human that those should rejoice whose friends and dearest comrades have been persecuted, tortured, shot by order of that tyrant, even if at the beginning of his career that tyrant was a sincere revolutionist, and as such acclaimed and beloved.
"I do not question Lenin's honesty and sincerity, but they do not exculpate him before the judgment of History. Loyola and Torquemada were likewise sincere fanatics, ready to suffer and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the salvation of souls and for the greater glory of God; but they were the most nefarious, as their sincerity was the greater."
The historical role of the great Russian revolutionist, Malatesta seems to have been unable to grasp. That Lenin's advent marked an entire epoch -- the beginning of the transition from private capitalism to state capitalism: a transition as momentous as that from feudalism to capitalism; that it has done away with the capitalist and landlord, and brought to the fore a new form of class rule, that of a section of the intelligentsia and semi-intelligentsia -- all this Malatesta seems to have dismissed as unimportant in face of the tragic acts of intolerance and harshness which seem to be the well- nigh unavoidable accompaniment of every great historical upheaval.
His magazine was suppressed in 1926, and since that time Malatesta has had practically no contact with the outside world. Being under constant guard, he has voluntarily given up paying or receiving visits, or even going out on the street, since those who speak to him or even greet him expose themselves to arrest and deportation to the desert islands.
Malatesta is a very old man. Still he has not made peace with the world. He has seen most of his illusions shattered. But he has not lost his faith in the Future. In his treatises, which he contrives to slip through the tight net of official surveillance, he continues to present his views of the Revolution that is to come. They are simple enough and as far removed from reality as the anarchist creed of his early days. A generous creed and a humanitarian philosophy, but as effective a revolutionary weapon against the existing system as the tomahawk of an Indian brave against a tank.