“Anarchy” by Errico Malatesta

With the G20 protests engulfing London this week, and anarchy briefly replacing terror as the bogeyman du jour, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at what anarchism is really all about, according to Errico Malatesta, a leading anarchist thinker of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Anarchy is a slim book, just 54 pages altogether, of which the first 15 are the translator’s introduction. Malatesta’s style, though, is dense – arguments come thick and fast, but with extreme clarity. Of course, in such a short book, not everything can be examined in great depth. But as a brief, clear introduction to anarchist thought, this is hard to beat. It’s a hard book to summarise, because it’s already a very concise summary of a whole body of thought. Still, here’s a distillation of Malatesta’s already distilled argument:

Anarchy literally means “without government”. It has taken on the common secondary meaning of “disorder and confusion” only because people have been conditioned to believe that the abolition of government is impossible. In the days when people believed that the abolition of monarchy was impossible, the word “republic” carried a similar meaning to “anarchy” today. The purpose of Malatesta’s book is to show that anarchy is desirable, and that life without government would be a state not of chaos but of solidarity.

He begins by reminding us that government does not physically exist – it is merely a “metaphysical tendency”. We speak of the government doing this or that, but the government has no life of its own – it is a collection of individuals who have power over other individuals.

So why do we give up our personal liberty and initiative to a few individuals? There are many theories of government, but all are fundamentally based on the idea that “men have conflicting interests, and that an external, higher authority is needed to oblige one section of the people to respect the interests of the other.” This is what Malatesta rejects, going back to the origin of human beings to show how, ill-equipped physically to survive against larger carnivorous animals, people banded together and survived through mutual aid. Alone, we died; together, we survived and prospered. Cooperation, not competition, is what makes us human.

However, there’s a problem:

“Man discovered that he could … achieve the advantages of cooperation by subjecting other men to his will instead of joining with them; and … obliged the weakest to work for him, preferring dominion to association.”

So we end up with the paradox that the basic human attribute of cooperation, instead of being used for the benefit of all, is harnessed by a privileged few to work for their benefit alone. Government exists to support this unequal state of affairs. The solution, Malatesta believes, is to abolish private property and inequality, and therefore the need for government. This would lead to a return to the sharing and cooperation on which human progress was initially built.

Malatesta never denies the individualist instinct, but he describes it as a “relic of our ancestors” which has “not only proved useless in ensuring individual wellbeing, but also is harmful to everybody, victors and vanquished alike.” We may still regress to individualist struggle sometimes, but it takes us backwards. Long-term, human progress lies in the higher principle of solidarity, “the coming together of individuals for the wellbeing of all, and of all for the wellbeing of each.” Individual freedom is actually enhanced, not limited, by the freedom of others.


In the latter part of the book, Malatesta deals with the question of whether, after the abolition of private property, there could be a “good” government, one which enhanced individual freedom and protected the gains made. His answer is an emphatic “no”, effectively a rebuke to his socialist rivals of the day, but also a pretty prescient description of the flaws of State socialism as practised later in the 20th century. His description of government becoming its own privileged class, acting in the name of the people but inevitably oppressing them, is pretty much what happened in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

The problem is that a lot of questions remain unanswered. To some extent, this is the nature of the work – it’s a deliberately short, concise book, and doesn’t seek to answer everything. But part of it is also due to Malatesta’s thought process – he says that he can’t predict the future, and doesn’t have all the answers. The point of anarchism is for all the people to decide, not just one. Here he is, for example, discussing education:

“How will children be educated? We don’t know. So what will happen? Parents, pedagogues and all who are concerned with the future of the young generation will come together, will discuss, will agree or divide according to the views they hold, and will put into practice the methods which they think are the best. And with practice that method which in fact is the best, will in the end be adopted. And similarly with all problems which present themselves.”

This is an admirable approach when it comes to details, but the trouble is that there are some pretty big questions that do need to be answered. How will private property be abolished? Who will do it? What kind of system will replace it? How will the rights of those who disagree with the new system be guaranteed? What’s to stop the person with the most guns from setting himself up as the new authority? I’m sure you can think of plenty more valid questions, and none of them are really answered in this book. Malatesta simply says that a revolution will take place, private property will be abolished and the social wealth will be placed in the hands of the people, who will somehow forget the antagonisms they have learnt and revert to the “natural” human principle of solidarity. I’m sorry, but this is not convincing to me.

This, I find, is often the problem with radical social theories. The end result may be desirable, but how to get from A to B? If current society is so irredeemably broken, then how do you change it without riding roughshod over the rights of people to disagree with you? People are, after all, shaped to a great degree by the society they live in, a problem Malatesta recognises:

“How will these men, brought up in a society based on class and individual conflict, ever be able to change themselves suddenly and become capable of living in a society in which everyone will do as he wishes and must do, and without outside coercion and through the force of his own will, seek the welfare of others?”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer convincingly enough for me. The old A to B problem again. Still, I loved reading about B, a place in which “my freedom is the freedom of all, since I am not truly free in thought and in fact, except when my freedom and my rights are confirmed and approved in the freedom and rights of all men who are my equals” (Bakunin). B sounds like a place I could be happy. Perhaps, somehow, we’ll get there in the end.

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