Henry Mayer. Sydney Libertarians 1965

The Thoughts of Malatesta

Source: Broadsheet No. 44, August 1965;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price

Review of: Vernon Richards, comp. and ed., Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, Freedom Press, London, 1965. Pp. 309, 21/- stg. cloth, 10/6 stg. paper.

While scholars have been anxious to hunt down the last laundry list, social movements have rarely been unduly worried about the primary writings of the “giants” in whose names they profess to operate. All the major classical figures of Marxism – Bernstein, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Plekhanov and Lenin -quite effortlessly managed to be sure about the “meaning of Marx,” though, during their lifetime, there existed in fact only the most incomplete collection of his works. Today, when it has become fashionable to find the “real” in the “young” Marx, when experts on alienation are a dime a dozen, it should be obvious that to treat social movements in intellectualist terms is, to put it mildly, a very incomplete approach. The “early” Marx was not discovered till the midst of the century. If he is indeed the “real” Marx, none of his earlier self-styled followers can have been “genuine.”

It is very hard, if not impossible, to work out any “essentials” of Anarchism. One can say that some people called themselves Anarchists, and that they seem to have in common some kind of rejection of “authority.” It may also be at times fruitful to consider Anarchism alternatively, in terms of a doctrine, a movement, a practice, and a mood. But since the concept of “authority” is as vague as that of “freedom” this does not get us much further in precisely those cases where there is argument as to whether X was or was not an Anarchist or a forerunner of Anarchism.

So far as those who read only English and are interested in Anarchism are concerned, the situation in respect to “the major Anarchist thinkers” is very unsatisfactory. Their views as to which Anarchists had something to say have been strongly influenced by the accident of translation. A little of Bakunin was translated in the 1890’s, one work of Kropotkin about 1906. Even today, there is only an extremely slanted Bakunin selection by Maximoff which underplays all his more authoritarian aspects. Only two major works of Proudhon’s are available in very poor translations. There are so few scholars interested in this field that, when Horowitz put out a complete mistranslation of one of the major works of Sorel, full of schoolboy howlers, none of the standard journals, to my knowledge, noted this – it was left to Neil Mclnnes to protest in the roneod A.P.S.A. News, and Horowitz’ abortion is still quoted (e.g., by James Joll) as a serious work.

Vernon Richards’ work on Malatesta consists of over 200 pages of extracts, arranged by topics, without any chronological order, plus a short biographical sketch and an attempt to assess Malatesta’s relevance today. It is a curious book, for Richards, while declaring his aim as being that of “undisguised anarchist propaganda” (p. 13) and repudiating scholarship, also clearly feels that historians have done Malatesta an “injustice” by treating him mainly as an agitator, a man of action, rather than as a thinker. It is never quite clear whom the book is aimed at. My impression, on the whole, is that it is “propaganda” aimed not at non-Anarchists or even people vaguely interested in Anarchism, but very much at a particular current within the British Anarchist movement today. Richards, who writes very badly (he admits to being “rambling”) seems to look at Malatesta mainly in terms of a man who had “ideas” but these ideas, though they are supposed to offer a “realistic” guide to Anarchist tactics, turn out to be very vague. There is a long and tedious discussion of a very scholastic nature as to when a General Strike turns into an “Insurrection,” and the only concrete bits of advice I have managed to extract from Richards’ discussion boils down to two propositions: Don’t be dogmatic, and don’t subscribe to the tactic of the “lesser evil.” It does not seem to occur to him that they might, given specific circumstances, be contradictory.

There remain the extracts from Malatesta. I do not know how representative they are, Richards mentions that a partial Italian edition of Malatesta’s works runs to over a thousand pages. However that may be, there are some striking formulations of old ideas: “To the will to believe which cannot be other than the desire to invalidate one’s reason, I oppose the will to know. which leaves the immense field of research and discovery open to us.” (p. 39) “I protest against the charge of dogmatism, because, though I am unflinching and definite as to what I want, I am always doubtful about what I know...” (p. 40). Yet, even when the formulation is moving or striking, it is also often remarkably cloudy and empty: “For myself, I would violate every principle in the world in order to save a man; which would in fact be a question of respecting principle, since, in my opinion, all moral and sociological principles are reduced to this one principle: the good of mankind, the good of all mankind, “(p.6l). Clearly, unless this “good” is specified (or, rather, stipulated) both, say Catholics and Communists, let alone liberals, would have no difficulty in “subscribing” to this one principle. It is not hard to think of a stipulation of “good” in which “the good of mankind” far from “requiring” us to “save a man” would “require” us to cut his throat.

Or take the attempt to say something about a key concept, “authority”: “Anarchy is society organized without authority, meaning by authority the power to impose one’s own will and not the inevitable and beneficial fact that he who has greater understanding of, as well as ability to carry out a task succeeds more easily in having his opinion accepted, and of acting as a guide on the particular question, for those less able than himself.” (p.20). Here there is some groping towards the idea of “functional authority,” or, perhaps, an attempt to differentiate “authority” from “influence.” The sort of distinction Malatesta is trying to make depends, in the very first place, on whether one agrees that “the task” should be carried out at all, secondly, on ‘what one thinks of the costs of carrying it out in relation to other preferences one has, etc. There are many passages in the book in which Malatesta specifically denies that he believes in a natural harmony of interests and his remarks here are often striking (see especially pp. 47-48). Yet there is also a good deal about “the great law of solidarity, which predominates in society as in nature” (p. 23) about “social solidarity” as the “guarantee” for “freedom and well-being” of the individual (p.26).

It is not surprising then, to find that the future society is to be “free from any kind of imposition which does not spring from natural needs, to which everyone, convinced by a feeling of overriding necessity, voluntarily submits.” (p.27). Shades of Engels!

All the same, the paperback edition of this book is worth getting, for, in addition to the itsy-bitsy extracts, it has some interesting details about Malatesta’s life and, above all, some documents in which” he criticizes Kropotkin is well worth close study.

Still, on the whole, Richards’ work can only confirm the views of those who believe that the notion of an Anarchist future is not only a bore but also unintelligible. It will do little for those who are interested in the critical side of Anarchism. And it is this side which alone contains any intellectual challenge.

Henry Mayer