Malatesta’s Anarchist Program (in 1899)

I’ve been an anarchist for many years, so I know much more about anarchism than your average person off the street, and probably even your average radical. But be that as it may, I feel like my knowledge could be greatly improved. At this point in my life, I don’t think I could just sit down and write a brief essay on the history of anarchism and anarchist thought. I would like to be able to do so.

In order to address this, I’ve been reading more anarchist texts, and thought that one way to organize the process would be to create an anarchist history syllabus. I searched briefly online for something similar, and found this syllabus, by Dana Ward, emeritus professor at Pitzer College and creator of the Anarchy Archives. I think it is a good start, but not quite what I want – it is more about individual anarchists than it is about anarchism as a whole, and, besides that, part of the idea is that this would be a learning process. In the month or so since I thought of this, I’ve realized it is going to be a longer-term project that I first realized, so it is kind of on the back burner and I’m just going to work on it as I read (or re-read) things. Eventually, I hope to share it with the world so others may benefit. Right now, it’s not even close.

I do know, however, that I want to have an “anarchism according to early anarchists” section early on to give a general overview of anarchist thought. I hope to have that ready in the relatively near future, and will post it when I do. In the meantime, I wanted to share a summary of one of the pieces I’m going to include, Malatesta’s “An Anarchist Programme,” which I found in Davide Turcato’s Malatesta reader, The Method of Freedom (pp 279-293). It was originally published in 1899, in four parts in the Paterson, New Jersey anarchist newspaper that Malatesta briefly edited, La Questione Sociale. (Unfortunately, this piece does not appear to be available online. I’ll quote extensively.)

After laying out the justifications for anarchism over the first few pages, Malatesta says that “it is not enough to desire something; if one really wants it[,] adequate means must be used to secure it,” and spends the remainder of the article discussing how he thinks anarchists should strive towards anarchy. He argues that the first task “must be to persuade people,” but that “we would be deluding ourselves in thinking that propaganda is enough to raise [people] to that level of intellectual development which is needed to put our ideas into effect.” It is not enough to simply engage with individuals, anarchists must also seek to change society at the same time in order to get people to the point where they would be receptive to our ideas. To do this, anarchists must directly challenge capitalism, and in order to do so, “people must be convinced of their right to the means of production, and be prepared to exercise this basic right by expropriating the land owners, the industrialists and financiers, and putting all social wealth at the disposal of the people.” He then asks if that is possible, and answers simply that the fact that it has not been done means that people are not yet capable of this. Therefore, “Our task is the moral and material preparation of the people for this essential expropriation; and to attempt it again and again, every time a revolutionary upheaval offers us the chance to, until the final triumph.” How so? Again, propaganda (the moral preparation), but also “a practical education” in capitalism, in which workers “must be united and mutually dependent in the struggle to achieve their demands.” Anarchists must stand with workers and organize against the bosses, continually encouraging workers to demand more. But there are limits to this. Inevitably, if things go well in the fight against the capitalists and capitalists are unable to smash the workers’ movement, the government will step in to smash it. And so then, “From the economic struggle one must pass to the political struggle, that is to the struggle against government; and instead of opposing the capitalist millions with the workers’ few pennies scraped together with difficulty, one must oppose the rifles and guns which defend property with the more effective means that the people will be able to find to defeat force by force.”

So: 1) propaganda, 2) organizing, and 3) insurrection.

Or, 1) educate, 2) resist, and 3) take control, as The Refused might say:

The piece ends with this summation:

“What we want, therefore, is the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of man by man; we want men united as brothers by a conscious and desired solidarity, all cooperating voluntarily for the well-being of all: we want society to be constituted for the purpose of supplying everybody with the means for achieving the maximum well-being, the maximum possible moral and spiritual development; we want bread, freedom, love, and science for everybody.

“And in order to achieve these all-important ends, it is necessary in our opinion that the means of production should be at the disposal of everybody and that no man, or group of men, should be in a position to oblige others to submit to their will or to exercise their influence other than through the power of reason and by example.

“Therefore: expropriation of landowners and capitalists for the benefit of all; and abolition of government.

“And while waiting for the day when this can be achieved: the propagation of our ideas; unceasing struggle, violent or non-violent depending on the circumstances, against government and against the boss class to conquer as much freedom and well-being as we can for the benefit of everybody.”

Obviously, this is just one article by one anarchist on how to strive towards anarchy – and I’m sure not the last words from him on the subject – but nonetheless, I thought it was quite powerful, clearly argued, and still useful advice for anarchists in the 21st century. This in fact describes much of his writing – I highly recommend picking up a copy of Turcato’s reader.

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