Anarchists and the Working Class Movements

By Errico Malatesta (1927)

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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.)
• "...the State is incapable of good. In the field of international as well as of individual relations it can only combat aggression by making itself the aggressor; it can only hinder crime by organizing and committing still greater crime." (From: "Pro-Government Anarchists," 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....)
• "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.)

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Anarchists and the Working Class Movements

Today the most powerful force for social transformation is the working-class movement (the trade-union movement), and on its intentions depends to a large degree the course that events will take and the objectives of any future revolution. Through the organizations established for the defense of their interests, workers acquire an awareness of the oppression under which they live and of the antagonisms which divide them from their employers, and so begin to aspire to a better life, get used to collective struggle and to solidarity, and can succeed in winning those improvements which are compatible with the continued existence of the capitalist and statist regime. Later, when the conflict is beyond solution, there is either revolution or reaction.

Anarchists must recognize the usefulness and the importance of the workers’ movement, must favor its development, and make it one of the levers for their action, doing all they can so that it, in conjunction with all existing progressive forces, will culminate in a social revolution which leads to the suppression of classes and to complete freedom, equality, peace, and solidarity among all human beings. But it would be a great and fatal illusion to believe, as many do, that the workers’ movement can and must on its own, by its very nature, lead to such a revolution. On the contrary, all movements founded on material and immediate interests (and a mass working-class movement cannot be founded on anything else), if the ferment, the drive and the unremitting efforts of men of ideas struggling and making sacrifices for an ideal future are lacking, tend to adapt themselves to circumstances, foster a conservative spirit, and the fear of change in those who manage to improve their conditions, and often end up by creating new privileged classes and serving to support and consolidate the system which one would want to destroy.

Hence the impelling need for strictly anarchist organizations which struggle both inside and outside the trade unions for the achievement of anarchism and which seek to sterilize all the germs of degeneration and reaction.

But it is obvious that to achieve their ends anarchist organizations must be, in their constitution and in their operation, in harmony with anarchist principles, that is, they must not in any way be marked by an authoritarian spirit, and that they should know how to reconcile the free action of individuals with the need for, and the pleasures to be derived from, cooperation, which serve to develop the consciences of their members as well as their abilities to take initiative. Anarchist organizations should also be an educative force in the circle in which they operate and a moral and material preparation for the future we desire.[148]

The task of anarchists is to work to strengthen the revolutionary conscience of organized workers and to remain in the Unions as anarchists.

It is true that the Unions, for pressing reasons, are often obliged to engage in negotiations and accept compromises. I do not criticize them for that, but it is for this very reason that I have to consider the Unions as essentially reformist.

The Unions perform a function of bringing together the proletarian masses and of eliminating conflicts which could otherwise arise between worker and worker. While the Unions must engage in the struggle to obtain immediate benefits, and after all it is just and only human that workers should demand better conditions, revolutionaries go beyond this. They struggle for the revolution which will expropriate capital and destroy the State, every State by whatever name it is called.

Since economic slavery is the product of political servitude, to eliminate one it is necessary to eliminate the other, even if Marx said otherwise.

Why does the peasant bring the corn to the boss?

Because the gendarme is there to oblige him to do so. Thus, Trade Unionism cannot be an end in itself, since the struggle must also be waged at a political level to distinguish the role of the State.

The anarchists do not want to dominate the U.S.I. (Unione Sindacale Italiana); they would not wish to even if all the workers in its ranks were anarchists, neither do they wish to assume the responsibility for its negotiations. We who do not seek power, only want the consciences of men; only those whose wish is to dominate prefer sheep the better to lead them.

We prefer intelligent workers, even if they are our opponents, to anarchists who are such only in order to follow us like sheep. We want freedom for everybody; we want the masses to make the revolution for the masses.

The person who thinks with his own brain is to be preferred to the one who blindly approves everything. For this reason, as anarchists, we support the U.S.I. because this organization does develop the consciences of the masses. Better an error consciously committed and in good faith, than a good action performed in a servile manner.[149]

Just because I am convinced that the Unions can and must play a most useful, and perhaps necessary, role in the transition from present society to the equalitarian society, I would wish them to be judged at their true worth and by never forgetting that they have a natural tendency to become closed corporations limited to making narrow, sectional demands, or worse still, for their members only; we will thus be in a better position to combat this tendency and prevent them from becoming conservative organisms. Just as, in fact, I recognize the extreme usefulness that cooperatives, by accustoming workers to manage their own affairs, the organization of their work and other activities, can have at the beginning of a revolution as experienced organizations capable of dealing with the distribution of goods and serving as nerve centers for the mass of the population, I combat the shopkeeper spirit which seems to develop naturally in their midst. I would wish that they were open to all, that they conferred no privileges on their members and, above all, that they did not transform themselves, as often happens, into real capitalistic Liability Companies, which employ and exploit wage earners as well as speculating on the needs of the public.

In my opinion, cooperatives and Trades Unions, under the capitalist regime, do not naturally, or by reason of their intrinsic value, lead to human emancipation (and this is the controversial point), but can be producers of good and evil, today organs of conservation or social transformation, tomorrow, serving the forces of reaction or revolution. All depends on whether they limit themselves to their real function as defenders of the immediate interests of their members or are animated and influenced by the anarchist spirit, which makes the ideals stronger than sectional interests. And by anarchist spirit I mean that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind….[150]

The working class movement, in spite of all its merits and its potentialities, cannot be, in itself, a revolutionary movement in the sense of being a negation of the juridical and moral bases of present society.

It can, every new organization can, in the spirit of its founders and according to the letter of its rules, have the highest aspirations and the most radical intentions, but if it wants to exercise its function as a workers’ Union, that is, the present defense of its members’ interests, it must recognize de facto the institutions which it has denied in theory, adapt itself to circumstances, and attempt to obtain, step by step, as much as it can, by negotiating and compromising with the bosses and the government.

In a word, the Trade Unions are, by their very nature reformist and never revolutionary. The revolutionary spirit must be introduced, developed, and maintained by the constant actions of revolutionaries who work from within their ranks as well as from outside, but it cannot be the normal, natural definition of the Trade Unions function. On the contrary, the real and immediate interests of organized workers, which it is the Unions’ role to defend, are very often in conflict with their ideals and forward-looking objectives; and the Union can only act in a revolutionary way if permeated by a spirit of sacrifice and to the extent that the ideal is given precedence over the interest, that is, only if, and to the extent that, it ceases to be an economic Union and becomes a political and idealistic group. And this is not possible in the large Trade Unions which in order to act need the approval of the masses always more or less egotistic, timorous, and backward.

Nor is this the worst aspect of the situation.

Capitalist society is so constituted that, generally speaking, the interests of each class, of each category, of each individual are in conflict with those of all other classes, categories, and individuals. And in daily life one sees the most complicated alignments of harmony and clashes of interests between classes and between individuals who, from the point of view of social justice should always be friends or always enemies. And it often happens, in spite of the much vaunted solidarity of the proletariat, that the interests of one category of workers are antagonistic to those of others and favorable to those of a category of employers; as also happens, that in spite of the desired international brotherhood, the present interests of the workers of any one country ties them to their native capitalists and puts them in a position of hostility to foreign workers. As an example we would refer to the situation of the various workers’ organizations to the question of Tariffs, and Customs barriers, and the voluntary role played by the working masses in wars between capitalist States.

The list is unending—antagonism between employed and unemployed, between men and women, between native workers and foreign workers in their midst, between workers who use a public service and those who work in that service, between those who have a trade and those who want to learn it. But I would here draw special attention to the interest that workers engaged in the luxury trades have in the prosperity of the wealthy classes and that of a whole number of categories of workers in different localities that “business” should come their way, even if at the expense of other localities and to the detriment of production which is useful to the community as a whole. And what should be said of those who work in industries harmful to society and to individuals, when they have no other way of earning a living? In normal times, when there is no faith in an imminent revolution, just go and try to persuade workers at the Arsenals who are threatened with unemployment not to demand that the government should build new battleships! And try, with Trade Union means, and doing justice to all, to solve the conflicts between dock laborers, who have no other way of ensuring the means of livelihood for themselves than by monopolizing all the available work for those who have been working there a long time, and the new arrivals, the “casuals” who demand their right to work and life! All this, and much else that could be said, shows that the workers’ movement, in itself, without the ferment of revolutionary imagination contrasting with the short term interests of the workers, without the criticism and the impulse of the revolutionaries, far from leading to the transformation of society to the advantage of all, tends to encourage group egoism and to create a class of privileged workers living on the backs of the great mass of the “disinherited.”

And this explains the general phenomenon that in all countries workers’ organizations as they have grown and become strong, have become conservative and reactionary, and those who have served the workers’ movement honestly and with dreams of a society based on well-being and justice for all, are condemned, like Sisyphus, to having to start all over again every so often.[151]

This need not happen if there is a spirit of rebellion among the masses, and if idealism inspires and influences those more skillful and favored by circumstances, who are in a position to constitute the new privileged class. But there is no doubt that if we remain at the level of the defense of present-day interests, which is that of the Trade Unions (and since there is no harmony of interests, nor can they be harmonized in a capitalistic regime), the struggle between workers is a normal occurrence which can, in certain circumstances, and among certain sections become more bitter than the struggle between workers and exploiters.

To convince oneself, one only needs to observe what are the largest workers’ organizations in the countries in which there is much organization and little propaganda or revolutionary tradition. Let us take the American Federation of labor in the United States. It does not carry on a struggle against the bosses except in the sense that two business men struggle when they are discussing the details of a contract. The real struggle is conducted against the newcomers, the foreigners, or natives who seek to be allowed to work in any industrial job; against the forced blacklegs who cannot obtain work in the factories recognized by the Federation because the members are against them, and are obliged to offer their services to the “open shops” … Those American Unions when they have reached the membership which they think sufficient to be able to deal with the employers as equals, immediately seek to prevent the admission of new members by imposing prohibitive entrance fees or quite blatantly simply refusing all new applications for membership. They impose rigorous limitations on the work that members in each Union can undertake, and prohibit workers in one Union from invading the territory “of the others.” Skilled workers look down on manual workers; whites despise and oppress blacks; the “real Americans” consider Chinese, Italians, and other foreign workers as inferiors. If a revolution were to come in the United States, the strong and wealthy Unions would inevitably be against the Movement, because they would be worried about their investments and the privileged position they have assured for themselves. And the same would probably happen in Britain and elsewhere.

This is not Trade Unionism, I know; and trade unionists who unceasingly fight this tendency of the Unions to become the instrument of base egoism, are performing a most useful task. But the tendency is there and cannot be corrected except by transcending trade union methods.

The Unions will be most valuable in a revolutionary situation, but on condition that they are … as little like Trade Unions as possible.[152]

It is not true, whatever the syndicalists may say, that the workers’ organizations of today will serve as the framework for the future society and will facilitate the transition from the bourgeois to the equalitarian regime. This is an idea which met with favor among the members of the First International; and if I am not mistaken, one will find in Bakunin’s writings that the new society would be achieved by all workers joining the Sections of the International.

To my mind this is a mistake.

The structure of existing workers’ organizations corresponds to present-day conditions of economic life, which is the result of historic developments and capitalist domination. And the new society cannot be achieved without breaking up those structures and creating new organisms corresponding to the new conditions and the new social objectives.

Workers today are grouped according to the trades they practice, the industries in which they work, the employers against whom they must struggle, or the business to which they are tied. What will be the use of these groupings when, without the employers and with business relations turned upside down, a large number of existing trades and industries will have to disappear, some permanently because they are useless and harmful, others temporarily because, though useful in the future, will have no raison d’être or possibility of existence in the period of social upheaval? Of what use, just to quote one of a thousand examples that come to mind, will be the organizations of the marble quarrymen of Carrara when what will be needed is that they should go and cultivate the land and increase the production of foodstuffs, leaving to the future the construction of monuments and marble palaces?

Certainly workers’ organizations, especially in their cooperative forms (which incidentally, under the capitalist system, tend to curb workers’ resistance) can serve to develop among workers technical and administrative capacities, but in a revolutionary period and for social reorganization they must disappear and be absorbed in the new popular groupings as circumstances demand. And it is the task of revolutionaries to seek to prevent the development of an esprit de corps in these existing organizations which would be an obstacle to satisfying the new Social needs.

Therefore, in my opinion, the workers’ movement is an instrument to be used today for raising and educating, the masses, and tomorrow for the inevitable official clash. But it is an instrument which has its disadvantages and its dangers. And we anarchists must make every effort to neutralize the disadvantages, parry the dangers, and use the movement as much as we can for our ends. This does not mean, as has been suggested, that we would wish the workers’ movement to be the tool of the anarchists. Of course we would be happy if all workers, if everybody were anarchists … but in that case anarchy would be a fact and there would be no need for such discussions.

In the present state of affairs, what we would wish is that the workers’ movements were open to all forward-looking, imaginative propaganda and that they participated in all the economic, political, and moral activities of society, living and developing free from all outside control, from us no less than from the political parties.[153]

There are many comrades who aim at making the working class movement and the anarchist movement all one, and where they can, as for example in Spain, Argentina, and to a lesser extent in Italy, France, Germany, etc., they try to give the workers’ organizations a frankly anarchist program. There are those who call themselves “anarcho-syndicalists”; or when they link up with others who are really not anarchists, they take the name of “revolutionary syndicalists.” It is necessary to explain what is meant by “syndicalism.”

If it is a question of the sought-after future, if, that is, by syndicalism is meant the form of social organization which should replace the capitalistic and statal organization, then either it is the same as anarchy, and is therefore a term which only serves to confuse matters, or it is different from anarchy and cannot therefore be accepted by anarchists. Indeed, among the ideas and plans for the future put forward by this or that syndicalist, there are some which are genuinely anarchist, but there are others which present, under different names, and in different guises, the authoritarian structure which is the cause of the evils which today we complain of, and therefore can have nothing in common with anarchy. But it is not syndicalism as a social system that I wish to deal with, since it is not this which can determine the present activity of anarchists in regard to the working-class movement. What we are interested in are all workers’ organizations, all the Unions constituted to resist the oppression of the employers and to reduce or destroy the exploitation of human labor by those who control the sources of wealth and the means of production.

Now I say that these cannot be anarchist organizations, and it is not a good thing to wish that they should be, because if they were they would neither manage to do their job nor serve the ends which anarchists aim at in joining them.

The Unions are created to defend today the present interests of workers and improve their conditions as much as possible until such time as they are in a position to carry through a revolution which will make the existing wage earners into free workers, freely associated for the benefit of all.

For the Union to serve its own end and at the same time be a means for education and the terrain for propaganda aimed at a future radical social transformation, it is necessary that it should bring together all workers, or at least all those workers who aim at improving their conditions and whom one succeeds in rendering capable of some kind of resistance against the bosses. Does one perhaps want to wait for workers to be anarchists before inviting them to organize themselves and before admitting them to the organizations of resistance, when it would no longer be required because the masses would already be capable of making the revolution? In this case the Trade Union would be duplicating the role of the anarchist group and would remain impotent both in obtaining improvements and in making the revolution. Alternatively one has an anarchist program on paper and is satisfied with formal, unconscious support, and so brings together people who follow the organizers sheep like, and who will disappear, or go over to the enemy, at the first opportunity in which it is really necessary to act as anarchists.

Trade Unionism is in its nature reformist. All that can be hoped from it is that the reforms which it demands and pursues are such and obtained in ways which serve revolutionary education and preparation and leave the way free to ever greater demands.

Every fusion or confusion between the anarchist movement and the trade union movement ends, either in rendering the latter unable to carry out its specific task or by weakening, distorting, or extinguishing the anarchist spirit.

The Union can emerge with a socialist, revolutionary, or anarchist program, and indeed it is with such programs that many workers’ organizations were originally launched. But they remain faithful to the program so long as they are weak and impotent, that is so long as they are propaganda groups, initiated and sustained by a few enthusiastic and convinced individuals rather than organisms capable of effective action; but then as they manage to attract the masses to their ranks, and acquire the strength to demand and impose improvements, the original program becomes an empty slogan which no one bothers about, tactics are readjusted to contingent needs, and the enthusiasts of the first hour either adapt themselves or must make way for the “practical” men, who pay attention to the present without worrying about the future.

There certainly are comrades who in spite of being in the front rank of the trade union movement remain sincere and enthusiastic anarchists, as there are workers’ groupings which seek their inspiration in anarchist ideas. But it would be a too easy way of criticizing, to seek the thousand examples in which these men and these groups in the reality of their day to day actions are in contradiction with anarchist ideas. I agree that these are the hard facts of life.

One cannot act in an anarchist way when one is obliged to deal with employers and the authorities; one cannot let the masses act for themselves when they refuse to act and ask for, or demand, leaders. But why confuse anarchism with what anarchism is not, and why should we, as anarchists, shoulder the responsibility for transactions and compromises made necessary because the masses are not anarchist, not even if they belong to an organization which has written the anarchist program into its Constitution?

In my opinion anarchists must not want the Trade Unions to be anarchist, but they must act within their ranks in favor of anarchist aims, as individuals, as groups and as federations of groups. Just as there are, or there should be, study and discussion groups, propaganda groups working among the public with the written and spoken word, cooperative groups, factory groups, groups among the land workers, in the barracks as well as the schools, so special groups should be formed in the different organizations which engage in the class struggle.

Of course, it would be ideal if everyone was anarchist and that organizations functioned in an anarchist way; but in that case, it is clear that there would be no need to organize for the struggle against the employers, for there would no longer be bosses. But in the situation as it is, and recognizing that the social development of one’s workmates is what it is, the anarchist groups should not expect the workers’ organizations to act as if they were anarchist, but should make every effort to induce them to approximate as much as possible to the anarchist method. If for the life of the organization and for the needs and wishes of its members it is absolutely necessary to negotiate, to compromise, and establish doubtful contacts with the authorities, so be it; but this must be done by others, not by anarchists whose role is that of pointing to the insufficiency and precariousness of all improvements which can be obtained under a capitalist regime, and of pushing the struggle always towards more radical solutions. Anarchists in the Unions should struggle for them to be open to all workers whatever their views or party affiliations on the one condition: of solidarity in the struggle against the bosses; they should be opposed to the corporative spirit and any ambitions to a monopoly of organization or work. They should prevent the Unions from serving as an instrument to be manipulated by politicians for electoral or other authoritarian ends; they should advocate and practice direct action, decentralization, autonomy, and individual initiative; they should make special efforts to help members learn how to participate directly in the life of the organization and to dispense with leaders and full-time functionaries.

In other words, they should remain anarchists, always in close touch with anarchists, and remembering that the workers’ organization is not the end, but just one of the means, however important, in preparing the way for the achievement of anarchism.[154]

One must not confuse “syndicalism,” which is intended to be a doctrine and a method for solving the social problem, with the promotion, the existence and the activities of the workers’ Unions….

For us it is not all that important that the workers should want more or less; what is important is that they should try to get what they want, by their own efforts, by their direct action against the capitalists and the government.

A small improvement achieved by one’s own effort is worth more, in its effect on morale—materially too, in the long term—than a large scale reform granted by government or capitalists for doubtful ends or even out of the “kindness of their hearts.”[155]

We have always understood the vital importance of the workers’ movement and the need for anarchists to play an active and forceful part in it. And often it has been as a result of the initiative of our comrades that workers’ groups have been formed which are more lively and more progressive. We have always thought that the Trade Union is, today, a means whereby workers can begin to understand their position as slaves, to want their emancipation and to accustom themselves to the solidarity of all the oppressed in the struggle against the oppressors—and that tomorrow it will serve as the first necessary nucleus for the continuation of social life and the reorganization of production without bosses and parasites.

But we have always discussed, and often disagreed, on the ways anarchist action had to be carried out in relation to the workers’ organization.

Should one join the Unions or stay out though taking part in all the struggles, seeking to make them as radical as possible, and always remaining in the forefront of action and danger?

And above all, whether anarchists should accept executive posts within the Unions, and thus lend themselves to those negotiations, compromises, adjustments, and contacts with the authorities and the employers, which the workers themselves demand of them and which are part and parcel of the day to day demands for better conditions or for the defense of concessions already won?

In the two years that followed the peace and up to the eve of the triumph of fascist reaction we found ourselves in a unique situation.

The revolution seemed imminent, and the material and spiritual conditions were, in fact, present to make a revolution possible as well as necessary.

But we anarchists lacked by a long chalk the necessary strength to make the revolution with our methods and relying exclusively on our numbers; we needed the masses, and they were quite prepared to take action, but they were not anarchist. In any case, a revolution without the support of the masses, even had it been possible, could have only resulted in a new domination, which even if exercised by anarchists would have always been the negation of anarchism, would have corrupted the new rulers and would have ended in the return of the Statist, capitalistic order.

To have withdrawn from the struggle, and abstained because we could not do just what we would have wished to do, would have been a renunciation of every present or future possibility, of every hope of developing the movement in the direction we wished it to go. It would have been renunciation for all time because there will never be anarchist masses until society has been economically and politically transformed, and the same problem will present itself each time circumstances create a situation with revolutionary possibilities.

It will therefore be necessary at all costs to win the confidence of the masses, and be in a position to “push” them when they are in the mood for action, and for this it seemed useful to secure executive posts in the workers’ organizations. All the dangers of reformism, corruption were pushed into the background, and in any case it was assumed that there wouldn’t be time for them to take effect.

So it was decided to leave everybody free to act according to the circumstances and as they thought best, conditional on their not forgetting that they were anarchists guided at all times by the overriding interest of the anarchist cause.

But now bearing in mind recent experience, and in view of the present situation … it seems to me that it would be useful to return to the question and see whether it is a case of modifying our tactic on this most important aspect of our activity.

In my opinion, we must join the Unions, because by remaining outside we appear inimical to them, our criticisms are viewed with suspicion and at a time of agitation we shall appear as intruders and our participation coldly received….

And so far as soliciting and accepting posts as leaders I believe that in general, and in calm periods, it is better to avoid doing so. But I believe that the damage and the danger lie not so much in the fact of occupying an executive post—which in certain circumstances can be useful and also necessary—but where the post becomes a permanent one. In my opinion, the executive personnel should be renewed as often as possible, both in order to give as many workers as possible experience of administrative jobs, as well as to prevent organizational work from becoming a profession and inducing those who do it from introducing into the workers’ struggle concern about losing their jobs.

And all this not only in the interests of the present struggle and the education of the workers, but also, and what is more important, with an eye on the development of the revolution once it has started.

Anarchists are justifiably opposed to authoritarian communism, which presupposes a government wanting to direct every aspect of social life, and placing the organization of production and the distribution of wealth under the orders of its nominees, which cannot but create the most hateful tyranny and the crippling of all the living forces in society.

The Unions, apparently in agreement with the anarchists in their aversion for State centralization, want to dispense with the government putting the Unions in its place; and they say that it is the Unions which must take over the wealth, requisition all foodstuffs, and be responsible for their distribution as well as organize production and barter. And I would see nothing to object to in this if the Unions opened their doors wide to all the population, and left the dissidents free to act and to have their share.

But in practice this expropriation and this distribution cannot be effected impulsively, by the mass, even if in possession of a Union card, without producing a harmful waste of natural wealth and the sacrificing of the weaker to the stronger; and even more difficult would it be to establish by mass meetings, agreements between the different regions, and the barter arrangements between the various corporations of producers. Provision therefore would have to be made through decisions taken at popular assemblies and carried out by groups and individuals who have volunteered or are duly delegated.

Now, if there are a limited number of people who through long tenure of office are considered trade union leaders; if there are permanent secretaries and official organizers, it will be they who will automatically find themselves charged with organizing the revolution, and they will tend to consider as intruders and irresponsible elements, those who want to take independent action, and will want to impose their will, even with the best of intentions—even by the use of force.

And then the “syndicalist regime” would soon become the same lie, the same tyranny which the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” has become. The remedy for this danger and the condition for the success of the revolution as a progressive force, is the “formation” of a large number of individuals with initiative and the ability to tackle practical tasks: by accustoming the masses not to leave the common cause in the hands of a few, and to delegate, when delegation is necessary, only for specific missions and for limited duration. And the syndicate, if organized and acting in a truly libertarian manner, is the most effective means to create just such a situation and just such a spirit.[156]

The workers’ Union was born out of the necessity to provide for present needs, out of the desire to improve personal conditions, and to protect oneself from a possible worsening of conditions, and is the Union of those who, deprived of the means of production and thus obliged by the exigencies of life to allow themselves to be exploited by those who possess the means, seek, through solidarity with their companions in misery, the strength to struggle against the exploiters. And at this level of the economic struggle, that is, against capitalist exploitation, it would have been possible and easy to achieve the unity of the working class against the owning class.

It was not achieved because the political parties, which incidentally have often been the founders and the first animators of the Trade Union movement, wished to use the workers’ associations as a recruiting center as well as weapons for their particular ends, whether of revolution or conservatism. Hence the divisions within the working class, organized into many groupings under the influence of the political parties, and the concern, of those who want workers’ unity, to remove the Unions from the tutelage of political parties. Buried under these intentions is an error and a lie.

If by politics is meant that which concerns the organization of human relations, and more specifically, the free or limited relations between people and the existence or nonexistence of a “government” which assumes public powers and uses force to impose its will and defend its own interests and those of the class from which it springs, it is clear that politics enters into every expression of social existence, and that a workers’ organization cannot be truly independent of the parties except by itself becoming a party….

It is idle to hope, and in my opinion it would be a bad thing to wish, that politics should be excluded from the Unions, since every economic question of some importance automatically becomes a political question, and it is in the political field, that is, by the struggle between governors and governed, that the question of the emancipation of the workers and of human liberty will have to be finally resolved.

And it is natural, and clear, that it should be so….

The capitalists can maintain the struggle in the economic field so long as workers demand small, and generally illusory improvements; but as soon as they see their profits seriously diminished and the very existence of their privileges threatened, they appeal to government and if it is not sufficiently understanding and not strong enough to defend them, as in the recent cases of Italy and Spain, they use their own wealth to finance new repressive forces and to set up a new government which will serve them better.

Workers’ organizations must therefore, of necessity, adopt a line of action in face of present as well as possible future government action.

One can accept the status quo, recognize the legitimacy of economic privilege and the government that defends it, and be content to maneuver between the different bourgeois factions and obtain some improvements—as happens with the huge organizations which are inspired by no ideal, such as the American Federation of labor and a large part of the British Unions—and then one becomes in practice the tool of the oppressors and gives up the task of freeing oneself from servitude.

But if one aspires to complete emancipation or even if one only wants specific improvements which do not depend on the will of the boss or the whims of the Markets, there are but two ways of freeing oneself from the threat of government. Either by seizing the reins of government and using the public powers, and the collective force captured and held down by the rulers, to get rid of the capitalist system—or by weakening and destroying government by leaving to the workers and to all who in one way or another, by manual and intellectual work, cooperate in keeping social life going, the freedom to provide for individual and social needs in the way they consider best, but without the right or the possibility of imposing their will on others by the use of force. Now, how is it possible to maintain unity when there are some who would wish to use the strength of the organization to get a seat in the government, while others believe that every government is of necessity oppressive and iniquitous, and would therefore wish to lead the organization in the direction of struggle against every authoritarian institution now or in the future? How can social democrats, State communists and anarchists be held together?

This is the problem, and one which can be overlooked at certain moments, such as in a clearly defined struggle, when all are unanimous, but which always reemerges and is not easy to solve so long as conditions of violence, and a diversity of opinion as to the means for resisting violence, exist. The democratic method, that is, of leaving the majority to decide and of “maintaining discipline” does not solve the question, since it too is a lie and is not sincerely supported except by those who have or believe they have the majority on their side. Apart from the fact that the “majority” always means a majority among the leaders and not of the masses, one cannot expect, or even wish, that someone who is firmly convinced that the course taken by the majority leads to disaster, should sacrifice his own convictions and passively look on, or even worse, support a policy he considers wrong.

To say: let the others get on with it and you try in your turn to win over the majority to your point of view is rather similar to the argument used in the, army: “accept your punishment and then put in your complaint”—and it is an unacceptable system when what one does today destroys the possibility of doing otherwise tomorrow. There are matters over which it is worth accepting the will of the majority because the damage caused by a split would be greater than that caused by the error; there are circumstances in which discipline becomes a duty because to fail in it would be to fail in the solidarity between the oppressed and would mean betrayal in face of the enemy. But when one is convinced that the organization is pursuing a course which threatens the future and makes it difficult to remedy the harm done, then it is a duty to rebel and to resist even at the risk of providing a split.

But then, what is the way out of this difficulty, and what should be the conduct of anarchists in the circumstances?

In my view the solution would be: general agreement and solidarity in the purely economic struggle; complete autonomy of individuals and groups in the political struggle.

But is it possible to see in time where the economic struggle becomes a political struggle? And are there any important economic struggles which do not become political right from the start as a result of government intervention?

In any case we anarchists should extend our activities into all organizations to preach unity among all workers, decentralization, freedom of initiative, within the common framework of solidarity and not worry over much if the mania for centralization and authoritarianism of some, or the intolerance to all, even reasonable, discipline by others, leads to new splits. For, if organization of the workers is a fundamental necessity in the struggles of today and for the achievements of tomorrow, the existence, or the longevity of this or that particular organization is not all that important. What is essential is that individuals should develop a sense of organization and solidarity, and the conviction that fraternal cooperation is necessary to fight oppression and to achieve a society in which everybody will be able to enjoy his own life.[157]

[148] Il Risveglio, October 1–15, 1927

[149] Umanità Nova, March 14, 1922

[150] Umanità Nova, April 13, 1922

[151] Umanità Nova, April 6, 1922

[152] Umanità Nova, April 13, 1922

[153] Umanità Nova, April 6, 1922

[154] Pensiero e Volontà, April 16, 1925

[155] Umanità Nova, April 6, 1922

[156] Fede!, September 30, 1922

[157] Pensiero e Volontà, February 16, 1925

(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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