Anarchism and Violence

By Errico Malatesta (1925)

Entry 9736


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(1853 - 1932)

Italian, Anarchist Intellectual, Anti-Capitalist, and Anti-Fascist

: There have almost certainly been better anarchist writers, more skilled anarchist organizers, anarchists who have sacrificed more for their beliefs. Perhaps though, Malatesta is celebrated because he combined all of these so well, exemplifying thought expressed in deed... (From: Cunningham Bio.)
• "Let there be as much class struggle as one wishes, if by class struggle one means the struggle of the exploited against the exploiters for the abolition of exploitation. That struggle is a way of moral and material elevation, and it is the main revolutionary force that can be relied on." (From: "About My Trial: Class Struggle or Class Hatred?,"....)
• "And tomorrow, in the revolution, we must play an active part in the necessary physical struggle, seeking to make it as radical as possible, in order to destroy all the repressive forces of the government and to induce the people to take possession of the land, homes, transport, factories, mines, and of all existing goods, and organize themselves so that there is a just distribution immediately of food products." (From: "The Anarchist Revolution," by Errico Malatesta.)
• "If it is true that the law of Nature is Harmony, I suggest one would be entitled to ask why Nature has waited for anarchists to be born, and goes on waiting for them to triumph, in order to destroy the terrible and destructive conflicts from which mankind has already suffered. Would one not be closer to the truth in saying that anarchy is the struggle, in human society, against the disharmonies of Nature?" (From: "Peter Kropotkin - Recollections and Criticisms of....)

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Anarchism and Violence

Anarchists are opposed to violence; everyone knows that. The main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. It is life based on the freedom of the individual, without the intervention of the gendarme. For this reason we are enemies of capitalism which depends on the protection of the gendarme to oblige workers to allow themselves to be exploited—or even to remain idle and go hungry when it is not in the interest of the bosses to exploit them. We are therefore enemies of the State which is the coercive, violent organization of society.

But if a man of honor declares that he believes it stupid and barbarous to argue with a stick in his hand and that it is unjust and evil to oblige a person to obey the will of another at pistol point, is it, perhaps, reasonable to deduce that that gentleman intends to allow himself to be beaten up and be made to submit to the will of another without having recourse to more extreme means for his defense?

Violence is justifiable only when it is necessary to defend oneself and others from violence. It is where necessity ceases that crime begins….

The slave is always in a state of legitimate defense and consequently, his violence against the boss, against the oppressor, is always morally justifiable, and must be controlled only by such considerations as that the best and most economical use is being made of human effort and human sufferings.[80]

There are certainly other men, other parties and schools of thought which are as sincerely motivated by the general good as are the best among us. But what distinguishes the anarchists from all the others is in fact their horror of violence, their desire and intention to eliminate physical violence from human relations…. But why, then, it may be asked, have anarchists in the present struggle [against Fascism] advocated and used violence when it is in contradiction with their declared ends? So much so that many critics, some in good faith, and all who are in bad faith, have come to believe that the distinguishing characteristic of anarchism is, in fact, violence. The question may seem embarrassing, but it can be answered in a few words. For two people to live in peace they must both want peace; if one of them insists on using force to oblige the other to work for him and serve him, then the other, if he wishes to retain his dignity as a man and not be reduced to abject slavery, will be obliged, in spite of his love of peace, to resist force with adequate means.[81]

The struggle against government is, in the last analysis, physical, material.

Governments make the law. They must therefore dispose of the material forces (police and army) to impose the law, for otherwise only those who wanted to would obey it, and it would no longer be the law, but a simple series of suggestions which all would be free to accept or reject. Governments have this power, however, and use it through the law, to strengthen their power, as well as to serve the interests of the ruling classes, by oppressing and exploiting the workers.

The only limit to the oppression of government is the power with which the people show themselves capable of opposing it.

Conflict may be open or latent; but it always exists since the government does not pay attention to discontent and popular resistance except when it is faced with the danger of insurrection.

When the people meekly submit to the law, or their protests are feeble and confined to words, the government studies its own interests and ignores the needs of the people; when the protests are lively, insistent, threatening, the government, depending on whether it is more or less understanding, gives way or resorts to repression. But one always comes back to insurrection, for if the government does not give way, the people will end by rebelling; and if the government does give way, then the people gain confidence in themselves and make ever increasing demands, until such time as the incompatibility between freedom and authority becomes clear and the violent struggle is engaged.

It is therefore necessary to be prepared, morally and materially, so that when this does happen the people will emerge victorious.[82]

This revolution must of necessity be violent, even though violence is in itself an evil. It must be violent because it would be folly to hope that the privileged classes will recognize the injustice of, and harm caused by, their privileged status, and voluntarily renounce it. It must be violent because a transitional, revolutionary, violence is the only way to put an end to the far greater, and permanent, violence which keeps the majority of mankind in servitude.[83]

The bourgeoisie will not allow itself to be expropriated without a struggle, and one will always have to resort to the coup de force, to the violation of legal order by illegal means.[84]

We too are deeply unhappy at this need for violent struggle. We who preach love, and who struggle to achieve a state of society in which agreement and love are possible among men, suffer more than anybody by the necessity with which we are confronted of having to defend ourselves with violence against the violence of the ruling classes. However, to renounce a liberating violence, when it is the only way to end the daily sufferings and the savage carnage which afflict mankind, would be to connive at the class antagonisms we deplore and at the evils which arise from them.[85]

We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition.

We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government.

We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labor, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest.

We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labor of others.

We would resist with force any “dictatorship” or “constituent” which attempted to impose itself on the masses in revolt. And we will fight the republic as we fight the monarchy, if by republic is meant a government, however it may have come to power, which makes laws and disposes of military and penal powers to oblige the people to obey.

With the exception of these cases, in which the use of force is justified as a defense against force, we are always against violence, and for self-determination.[86]

I have repeated a thousand times that I believe that not to “actively” resist evil, adequately and by every possible way is, in theory absurd, because it is in contradiction with the aim of avoiding and destroying evil, and in practice immoral because it is a denial of human solidarity and the duty that stems from it to defend the weak and the oppressed I think that a regime which is born of violence and which continues to exist by violence cannot be overthrown except by a corresponding and proportionate violence, and that one is therefore either stupid or deceived in relying on legality where the oppressors can change the law to suit their own ends. But I believe that violence is, for us who aim at peace among men, and justice and freedom for all, an unpleasant necessity, which must cease the moment liberation is achieved—that is, at the point where defense and security are no longer threatened—or become a crime against humanity, and the harbinger of new oppression and injustice![87]

We are on principle opposed to violence and for this reason wish that the social struggle should be conducted as humanely as possible. But this does not mean that we would wish it to be less determined, less thoroughgoing; indeed we are of the opinion that in the long run half measures only indefinitely prolong the struggle, neutralizing it as well as encouraging more of the kind of violence which one wishes to avoid. Neither does it mean that we limit the right of self-defense to resistance against actual or imminent attack. For us the oppressed are always in a state of legitimate defense and are fully justified in rising without waiting to be actually fired on; and we are fully aware of the fact that attack is often the best means of defense….

Revenge, persistent hatred, cruelty to the vanquished when they have been overcome, are understandable reactions and can even be forgiven, in the heat of the struggle, in those whose dignity has been cruelly offended, and whose most intimate feelings have been outraged. But to condone ferocious anti-human feelings and raise them to the level of a principle, advocating them as a tactic for a movement, is both evil and counter-revolutionary.

For us revolution must not mean the substitution of one oppressor for another, of our domination for that of others. We want the material and spiritual elevation of man; the disappearance of every distinction between vanquished and conquerors; sincere brotherhood among all mankind—without which history would continue, as in the past, to be an alternation between oppression and rebellion, at the expense of real progress, and in the long term to the disadvantage of everybody, the conquerors no less than the vanquished.[88]

It is abundantly clear that violence is needed to resist the violence of the adversary, and we must advocate and prepare it, if we do not wish the present situation of slavery in disguise, in which most of humanity finds itself, to continue and worsen. But violence contains within itself the danger of transforming the revolution into a brutal struggle without the light of an ideal and without possibilities of a beneficial outcome; and for this reason one must stress the moral aims of the movement, and the need, and the duty, to contain violence within the limits of strict necessity.

We do not say that violence is good when we use it and harmful when others use it against us. We say that violence is justifiable, good and “moral,” as well as a duty when it is used in one’s own defense and that of others, against the demands of those who believe in violence; it is evil and “immoral” if it serves to violate the freedom of others….

We are not “pacifists” because peace is not possible unless it is desired by both sides.

We consider violence a necessity and a duty for defense, but only for defense. And we mean not only for defense against direct, sudden, physical attack, but against all those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude.

We are against fascism and we would wish that it were weakened by opposing to its violence a greater violence. And we are, above all, against government, which is permanent violence.[89]

To my mind if violence is justifiable even beyond the needs of self-defense, then it is justified when it is used against us, and we would have no grounds for protest.[90]

To the alleged incapacity of the people we do not offer a solution by putting ourselves in the place of the former oppressors. Only freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school for freedom.

But, you will say, to start a revolution and bring it to its conclusion one needs a force which is also armed. And who denies this? But this armed force, or rather the numerous armed revolutionary groups, will be performing a revolutionary task if they serve to free the people and prevent the reemergence of an authoritarian government. But they will be tools of reaction and destroy their own achievements if they are prepared to be used to impose a particular kind of social organization or the program of a particular party….[91]

Revolution being, by the necessity of things, violent action, tends to develop, rather than remove, the spirit of violence. But the revolution as conceived by anarchists is the least violent of all and seeks to halt all violence as soon as the need to use force to oppose that of the government and the bourgeoisie, ceases.

Anarchists recognize violence only as a means of legitimate defense; and if today they are in favor of violence it is because they maintain that slaves are always in a state of legitimate defense. But the anarchist ideal is for a society in which the factor of violence has been eliminated, and their ideal serves to restrain, correct and destroy the spirit of revenge which revolution, as a physical act, would tend to develop.

In any case, the remedy would never be the organization and consolidation of violence in the hands of a government or dictatorship, which cannot be founded on anything but brute force and recognition of the authority of police—and military—forces.[92]

… An error, the opposite of the one which the terrorists make, threatens the anarchist movement. Partly as a reaction to the abuse of violence during recent years, partly as a result of the survival of Christian ideas, and above all, as a result of the mystical preaching of Tolstoy, which owe their popularity and prestige to the genius and high moral qualities of their author, anarchists are beginning to pay serious attention to the party of passive resistance, whose basic principle is that the individual must allow himself and others to be persecuted and despised rather than harm the aggressor. It is what has been called passive anarchy.

Since there are some, upset by my aversion to useless and harmful violence, who have been suggesting that I displayed tolstoyanist tendencies, I take the opportunity to declare that, in my opinion, this doctrine however sublimely altruistic it may appear to be, is, in fact the negation of instinct and social duties. A man may, if he is a very good … Christian, suffer every kind of provocation without defending himself with every weapon at his disposal, and still remain a moral man. But would he not, in practice, even unconsciously, be a supreme egoist were he to allow others to be persecuted without making any effort to defend them? If, for instance, he were to prefer that a class should be reduced to abject misery, that a people should be downtrodden by an invader, that a man’s life or liberty should be abused, rather than bruise the flesh of the oppressor?

There can be cases where passive resistance is an effective weapon, and it would then obviously be the best of weapons, since it would be the most economic in human suffering. But more often than not, to profess passive resistance only serves to reassure the oppressors against their fear of rebellion, and thus it betrays the cause of the oppressed.

It is interesting to observe how both the terrorists and the tolstoyans, just because both are mystics, arrive at practical results which are more or less similar. The former would not hesitate to destroy half mankind so long as the idea triumphed; the latter would be prepared to let all mankind remain under the yoke of great suffering rather than violate a principle.

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.[93]

[80] Umanità Nova, August 25, 1921

[81] Pensiero e Volontà, September 1, 1924

[82] Il Programma Anarchico, Bologna, 1920, in this volume, pp.173–88

[83] Umanità Nova, August 12, 1920

[84] Umanità Nova, September 9, 1921

[85] Umanità Nova, April 27, 1920

[86] Umanità Nova, May 9, 1920

[87] Pensiero e Volontà, April 16, 1925

[88] Fede!, October 28, 1923

[89] Umanità Nova, October 21, 1922

[90] Il Risveglio, December 20, 1922

[91] Fede!, November 25, 1923

[92] Umanità, Nova July 18, 1920

[93] l’Anarchia (Numero Unico), August 1896

(Source: Text from Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta, 2015 Edition, edited and translated by Vernon Richards, published by PM Press -- please support the publisher!)

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