Notes for a Biography

By Errico Malatesta (1930)

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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 oppressed are always in a state of legitimate self-defense, and have always the right to attack the oppressors." (From : "Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles," by E....)
• "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....)
• "...the agelong oppression of the masses by a small privileged group has always been the result of the inability of the oppressed to agree among themselves to organize with others for production, for enjoyment and for the possible needs of defense against whoever might wish to exploit and oppress them. Anarchism exists to remedy this state of affairs..." (From : "Anarchism and Organization," Authored by Errico M....)


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Notes for a Biography


… So I left for Switzerland with Cafiero. At the time I was sickly, I spat blood and was said to be consumptive, more or less…. While crossing the Gothard during the night (at that time there was no tunnel and one had to cross the snowy mountain in a diligence) I had caught cold, and arrived at the house where Bakunin was staying in Zurich, with a feverish cough.

After the first greetings. Bakunin made up a camp bed, and invited me—he almost forced me—to lie on it, covered me with all the blankets he could lay hands on and urged me to stay there quietly and sleep. And all this was accompanied by attention, and motherly tenderness, which gripped my heart.

While I was wrapped up in bed, and all present imagined that I was sleeping, I heard Bakunin whispering nice things about me and then adding sadly: “What a shame that he should be so sick; we shall lose him very soon; he won’t last more than six months.”

That touching description of his first meeting with Bakunin in 1872 was written by Malatesta in 1926[220] when he was in his 73rd year and Bakunin had been fifty years in his grave.

Others at the time referred to Malatesta’s ill-health. Cafiero (in a letter 1875) spoke of “poor Malatesta is sick with consumption” and thought that no doubt the intentions of their persecutors was “to stifle a life so young and noble, within the stinking and silent walls of a prison cell.”[221] Borghi points out that Malatesta’s “respiratory system remained his weak point throughout his life” and adds “I will never forget the crises provoked by the bronchial attacks he suffered in the stinking cell in Milan during the cold winter of 1920–21.”[222]

His companion during the last years of his life, Elena Melli, in a letter to Damiani (July 28, 1932) describes the last weeks of his life: “He had got over the bronchial-pneumonia, as well as the relapse he suffered a few weeks ago. It seemed as if he was better, and out of danger, but he was getting weaker all the time; one could see it from one day to the next. Even he did not believe that he was dying but another attack on the left side suffocated him…. During those last few days he could hardly breathe, he was suffocating in spite of all the oxygen he took—1,500 liters in five hours…. He died on Friday, the 22nd [July 1932] at 12:20 p.m.[223]


George Woodcock in his recent history of Anarchism writes:

In the middle of 1871, however a new group of militants appeared, different in character from those veterans of earlier struggles who had first gathered around Bakunin. The leaders among them, Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta, and Carmelo Palladino, were all young men in their early twenties, the educated sons of Southern Italian landowners; all of them came from regions where peasant poverty was endemic …; they were in fact the Italian equivalent of the conscience-stricken Russian noblemen who in the same decade felt the burning urge to “go to the people.”[224]

At least so far as Malatesta is concerned, the comparison does not fit the facts that are available.

(Of Palladino not a great deal is known other than that he was a young lawyer who had been very active in the Naples section of the International from 1869–1871; that he visited Bakunin in company with Cafiero towards the end of 1872 and went to Locarno in 1874 after the failure of the Italian insurrectionary movement of that year but eventually returned to Cagnamo Varamo “where he died many years later in tragic circumstances.”[225]

Carlo Cafiero (born in Barletta in 1846 of a “rich and reactionary family”[226]) was a member of the London International whom Marx intended should be used to help convert Italy and Spain to Marxism. On his return to Italy it was he who was converted instead, and in part by Malatesta’s efforts. Bakunin completed the “conversion” the following year. He remained active until 1882, when he championed the social democratic cause. A year later Cafiero suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He died in a mental home in 1892.

Errico Malatesta was born in Santa Maria Capua Vetere (a garrison town with a population of 10,000 in the province of Caserta) on December 14, 1853. We know very little about his family’s background. The popular view that he was descended from nobility is baseless. Fabbri[227] describes Malatesta’s father as “a man of moderately liberal ideas” as well as “a rich landowner.” According to Nettlau[228] the family came from the “petit bourgeoisie and engaged in commerce,” and this description is confirmed by Borghi[229] who recounts that Malatesta was always highly amused by his alleged descent from Sigismundo Malatesta “the famous tyrant of Rimini” who in the 15th century erected a temple to God and his mistress Isotta. No noble blood coursed through his veins. “His mother and father were retiring and modest landowners.”

From Malatesta’s own account of his first meeting with Bakunin in 1872[230] we learn that by then his mother and father as well as a brother and sister had died from “chest complaints,” and in another article of political reminiscences, of Giuseppe Fanelli, he mentions that at the time (1871) “I was a student and lived with my brother and an old aunt who was mother to us after the death of our parents.”[231]

The International had been introduced in Italy by bourgeois who in their love for justice, had deserted their class, and in 1872 and also later in many places, the majority, at least the leadership and active elements were not workers but young people from the middle- and lower-middle-class.[232]


In the middle of 1871 Malatesta was not in his “early twenties” but just over 17 years old, and already active in the political struggle.

When he was fourteen he protested over a local injustice by addressing to King Victor Emmanuel II what Fabbri[233] describes as an “insolent and threatening letter” which Authority took sufficiently seriously to order his arrest (March 25, 1868). With the help of friends his father secured his release from prison and as well as from the threat of being sent to a special school “in view of the fact that his family had so neglected his education as a loyal subject of the Crown.”[234]

At supper on the night of his release his father tried to reproach his son or at least warn him to be more prudent in future. But Fabbri tells us that the young Malatesta’s reply was so intransigent that all his father could say, with tears in his eyes was “My poor boy, it displeases me to tell you, but at this rate you will end up on the gallows.”[235]

Two years later (1870) according to Angiolini[236] he was arrested and sentenced in Naples following a demonstration and “sent down” from the University of Naples (where he was studying medicine) for a year.

Malatesta’s schooling started in the lycée of Santa Maria but he was soon to move with his parents to Naples where he attended the Scolopian school (a religious order devoted to education) and studied the classics.[237]

I was then (1868) a youth dedicated to the study of rhetoric, Roman History and Gioberti’s philosophy. My teachers did not succeed in stifling in me the forces of nature, so that I was able to preserve in the stupid and corrupting environment of a modern school my intellectual sanity and the purity of my heart.[238]

From the Scolopians he went to the Medical School at the University of Naples. He can have at most completed three years of his medical studies before joining the International and the years following that momentous decision were so packed with political and revolutionary activity that it is unlikely that he ever completed his medical studies.[239]


At the age of 14 he was a budding Republican and in due course applied for membership of the “Universal Republican Alliance,” but Mazzini turned down the application on the grounds that his tendencies were too socialistic and that he would soon have gone over to the International. Malatesta had not heard of the International until then. His insatiable curiosity had to be satisfied and he set about finding out more; in the course of his search he met a number of members of the Italian section of the International and came under the influence of Fanelli and Palladino. He joined the International in 1871, a few months after the “inspiring” events of the Paris Commune. His entry into the Naples section was the beginning of a new phase of activity within the section. As well as a group of workers, many of Malatesta’s student friends followed him.[240] He was also indicating not only a great capacity for work but an ability to inspire those around him, a gift he retained throughout his life.

Many years later he was to describe the life of a militant in those days of “enthusiasm” when the Internationalists were “ever ready for any sacrifice for the cause and were inspired by the rosiest hopes.”[241]

Everyone gave to propaganda all they could, as well as what they could not afford; and when money was short we gladly sold household objects, facing, in a resigned way, the reprimands from our respective families. For propaganda we neglected our work and our studies. In any case the revolution was to take place at any moment and would put all matters to rights! Often one went to prison, but came out with more energy than before; persecutions only awakened our enthusiasm. It is true that the persecutions at that time were jokes compared with what took place later. At that time the regime had emerged from a series of revolutions; and the authorities, from the beginning stern so far as the workers, especially in the country, were concerned, showed a certain respect for freedom in the political struggle, a kind of embarrassment at being similar to the Bourbon and Austrian rulers, which however disappeared as the regime became consolidated and the struggle for national independence receded into the background.[242]

But he also does not hesitate to point to all the false political assumptions with which, at the time, they fed their enthusiasms.

We believed in the general discontent, and since the poverty that afflicted the mass of the people was truly insupportable, we thought it would be enough to set an example, and with weapons in our hands, launch the slogan “down with the gentlefolk,” for the working masses to set about the bourgeoisie and take possession of the land, the factories and all they had produced by their efforts and that had been taken away from them. And then of course we had a mystical faith in the virtues of the people, in its abilities, in its equalitarian and libertarian instincts.

Facts demonstrated then and later (and they had before as well) how far we were from the truth. It was only too clear that hunger, when there is no awareness of individual rights and a guiding idea to action, does not result in revolutions; at most it creates sporadic risings which the signori, if they have any sense, can much more easily control by distributing bread and throwing a few coppers to the clamoring mob from their balconies, than by ordering the carabineers to fire on them. And if our wishes had not blinded our powers of observation, we could easily have noted the depressing, and therefore counter-revolutionary effect of hunger, and the fact that our propaganda was most effective in the least depressed regions and among those workers, mostly artisans, who were in less difficult financial straits.

Unlike many revolutionaries who never saw the wood of reality for the trees of their dreams, Malatesta was at an early stage in his political life subjecting all the hopes and theories of his contemporaries and teachers to the critical test of reality. It is important to stress however that whereas as so often happens, the starry-eyed missionary-type of revolutionary and the action-above-all-else activist who despises those who dare to stop to think, soon lose their missionary zeal, and turn their activism to more mundane pursuits, Malatesta never abandoned his revolutionary activity nor did he lose his optimism, an optimism which must be seen much more as confidence in himself and his closest friends than as blind faith in some anarchist or socialist millennium.[243]

In a rare autobiographical article written in 1884,[244] when he was thirty, and intended both as a warning and an incitement to the youth at that time, he describes his own feelings as a teenager, his dreams of “an ideal world” and his faith in the “republic”—in the cause of which he had seen the inside of a royal prison for the first time—only to be aware as be entered the world of reality what problems had to be surmounted to achieve his ideal world, and the fact that the republic was a government like any other—and sometimes even worse.


Early in life Malatesta understood the dangers of the cult of the personality without, nevertheless, ever under-estimating any man’s worth, or failing to recognize exceptional qualities in others, or the influences they exerted on his own development. The fact that in his early youth he had to choose between a galaxy of “great men”—Garibaldi, Mazzini, Marx, and Bakunin—may have given him an early insight into the dangers that stemmed from associating ideas with personalities. Indeed at the eighth Congress of the International Working Men’s Association held in Berne in October 1876 Malatesta (who was one of the Italian delegates) protested against the habit of calling themselves or of being known as Bakuninists, “since we are not, seeing that we do not share all Bakunin’s theoretical and practical ideas, and because above all, we follow ideas and not men, and rebel against this habit of embodying a principle in a man.”[245]

And of Mazzini he refers to the way “possibly irritated at being deprived of that kind of pontificate that he had exercised for many years over the revolutionary movement, violently attacked the Commune and the International and held back his followers from the steps that they were about to take.”[246] And he writes of Garibaldi’s followers and “their duce”[247] (Mussolini had himself referred to as “il duce,” and since Malatesta’s reference to Garibaldi was written in 1928, at the height of Mussolini’s power, his use of the term for Garibaldi can hardly be considered flattering!)

Yet presumably because he combated the idea of superman, he was as generous in pointing to the qualities and achievements of those of his contemporaries and “mentors,” as he was uncompromising in his criticism of their personal weaknesses and what he considered their political mistakes. This approach is well illustrated by Malatesta’s article of recollections of Kropotkin which is included at the end of these Notes, and in his short but generous defense of Mazzini (1922):

We were against Mazzini for his way of understanding the social struggle, for the providential mission that he attributed to Italy and to Rome, for his religious dogmatism.

There were always, as happens in the heat of the struggle, excesses and misunderstanding on both sides; but in the spirit of objectivity we recognize that at the bottom of our hearts and in the sentiments that inspired us: we were Mazzinians just as Mazzini was an Internationalist.

Fundamental differences of method existed and remain, just as there were and still are basic differences in philosophical concepts; but the animating spirit was the same. Love among men, brotherhood among peoples, social justice and solidarity, the spirit of sacrifice, of duty. And furthermore the decisive and unreconcilable hatred of the institution of monarchy.[248]


Of the influences in his own development Bakunin takes pride of place. Malatesta referred to him as “the great revolutionary, he who we all look upon as our spiritual father.” His greatest quality was his ability to “communicate faith, the desire for action and sacrifice to all those who had the opportunity of meeting him. He would say that one needed to have le diable au corps; and he certainly had it in him and in his spirit.

I was a Bakuninist, as were all my comrades of those far off days. Today—and for very many years—I would no longer describe myself as such.

Ideas have developed and been modified. Today I find that Bakunin in political economy and in the interpretation of history, was too Marxist; I find that his philosophy was conducted without possible issue in the contradiction between the mechanical concept of the universe and the faith in will over the fate of mankind. But all this of no great importance. Theories are uncertain and changing concepts; and philosophy, consisting of hypotheses inhabiting the clouds, has little or no influence on life. And Bakunin always remains, in spite of all possible disagreements, our great master and inspiration.

What is living is his radical criticism of the principle of authority and of the State that embodies it; living is always the struggle against the two lies, the two guises, in which the masses are oppressed and exploited: democratic and dictatorial; and living is his masterly denunciation of that false socialism he called soporific, and which aims, consciously or unconsciously at consolidating the dominion of the bourgeoisie lulling workers to inactivity with useless reforms. And living are, above all, the intense hatred against all that degrades and humiliates man and the unlimited love of liberty for all.[249]


But as he himself wrote of that period “though none of us had read Marx, we were still too Marxist.”[250] Fabbri considered that the period of transition between the anarchism of the First International and the anarchism that he expounded to the end of his life occurred during the seven or eight years from the publication of the l’Associazione (London, 1890) to l’Agitazione (Ancona, 1897). Nevertheless, the same writer observes that already in La Questione Sociale (Florence, 1884) “certain fundamental aspects of his evolution are fairly clearly revealed.” It was in l’Agitazione that Malatesta published six articles on “Individualism in Anarchism,” “Harmony and Organization” in which, without polemicizing openly with Kropotkin, he gives an interpretation of anarchism which is in open contradiction with the Kropotkinian view expressed in the Conquest of Bread and his other writings of the time.[251]

He describes his “evolution” in a letter to Fabbri[252] in which he confirmed the latter’s view that since 1897 he had modified his views on small details only. At the time “I had more faith, more hope in syndicalism—or rather, in the syndicates—than I have now; and communism seemed then a more simple and an easier solution than it appears now.” And he goes on to point out that there was a greater difference between his ideas of 1897 and those of 1872–73–74. “Then we were ‘kropotkinians’ even before Kropotkin (in fact Kropotkin found those ideas which he made his own, already widely held by us before he entered the ‘bakuninist’ wing of the international movement).” He refers to this at greater length in an article on the Question of Revisionism (1927) and also in his Kropotkin “Recollections” appended to these Notes.


Malatesta was the “complete” anarchist propagandist. Early in his political life he lost any illusions he might have had about historical inevitability and realized that only if people could be shaken out of their apathy and “pushed” (“spingere” is a favorite word of his which one constantly meets in his writings) to think and act for themselves, would things change. He was therefore an indefatigable propagandist of the written and spoken word. But also because he was aware of the limits of propaganda as such he was also an activist, viewing direct action, intelligently conceived, as a vital aspect of the task of preparing the environment for revolution. The third ingredient in this “complete” anarchist propagandist was that he began as an Internationalist and remained one to the end of his days.

(Unlike our intellectual expatriates who denounce everything English and live like puckasahibs in countries which, apart from the climate and the low cost of living and cheap labor, are still a century behind perfidious Albion in their way of life and their laws, Malatesta was truly the Internationalist because he loved mankind without ceasing to love Italy:

“Is it not absurd”—he once wrote in answer to a shocked comrade—“to believe that he who loves all countries, who looks on the world as his ideal country and seeks to make it the effective country for all men, linked in brotherhood in work and for mutual well-being, should make an exception of the country in which he was born and the people with whom he has greater affinities and links? … Long Live Italy, yes, a thousand times yes: And Long live all the countries of the world. And, it is understood, not the political States, all of which we want to see destroyed, but the people, emancipated from all political and economic oppression.”[253]

If Malatesta devoted much of his activity and thought to the Italian political scene it was because he felt more able to make an effective contribution to the struggle in a country and among people with whom he shared—among other things—a common language. But as he put it:

For us, our country is the whole world; for us every human achievement is ours just as is every human shame. Italy is part of the world, and though for its liberation we specially devote our efforts, it is only because here our activity can be more effective because here we have relatives, friends and comrades who we specially love…. But all this is so obvious, so elementary, so common-place and has so often been said that one has to make an effort to repeat it.[254]


Because of the special attention he was accorded by government and police in Italy, Malatesta spent nearly half his life in exile. His first period of exile in 1878 began when he was twenty-five. He returned to Italy in 1883 only to leave for South America the following year; he did not return until 1897 when he edited l’Agitazione but by 1899 was again in exile. He returned to Italy in 1913–14 for barely a year, and did not manage to set foot in his country again until 1919 where he spent the next 13 years until his death in 1932 (except for a brief visit to Switzerland in 1922 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the St. Imier conference of the International which he had attended as the delegate for the Naples Section is his youth). Thus Malatesta spent thirty-five years of his life in exile—much of it filled with activity but also much of it frustrated by inactivity. What is clear however, is that even in exile he never lost touch with the Italian political situation.

At the time of writing these lines the Sunday Telegraph (25.10.64) illustrates a review of Mr. Joll’s work on The Anarchists[255] with a reproduction of the photograph of Malatesta used on the cover of this volume and captioned “Dangerous Type.” Professor George Woodcock in his History perpetuates instead the romantic picture of the “knight errant” ranging through Europe and the Levant “in search of revolutionary adventure.” Others accused Malatesta in his time, of being a coward who never stopped to face the music—that is the consequences of his actions. Malatesta was a “dangerous type” but not in the sense clearly implied by the Sunday Telegraph which titles its review “Futile Gang.” He was dangerous so far as governments were concerned, but admired and respected as a man of integrity and vision by people from all walks of life throughout the world. His life was full of those incidents which are “romantic” when viewed in retrospect and by those literati who in a lifetime have never said boo to a goose even in anger, but it was quite clear that after the early years when Malatesta and his friends courted arrest and imprisonment as part of their propaganda activities, he did not consider that his effectiveness as a propagandist was greater in prison than at liberty even in exile. On the other hand this did not prevent him from taking big risks, but they were what could be called calculated risks.

Malatesta, as I see him, was neither a romantic nor a martyr type. But neither did he lack a sense of humor, or underestimate his worth as a political thinker and personality; but he was never an exhibitionist, nor a poseur. He obviously sought approval and a following but always on the strength of his arguments and never by compromising them or by encouraging the cult of his personality. The fact is that Malatesta’s ideas and activities provoked heated discussion not only among the Italian Left but within the anarchist movement itself. It is only since his death that his ideas have ceased to be the center of heated discussion in the Italian anarchist movement. Perhaps now the discussion will be taken up in the English speaking movement!


That Malatesta was far from being the revolutionary in search of adventure is surely illustrated by the relatively inactive years—1900 to 1919—spent in London which were interrupted only by his participation in the Anarchist International Congress in Amsterdam (1907) and that period of less than a year (1913–14) in Italy. His contribution to the Congress is noteworthy for its practical suggestions and approach. I refer to Malatesta’s contributions to it in the concluding section of this volume.

Malatesta’s return to Italy (1913–14) is a model of the thoroughness and the energy with which he set about any task, or assignment he undertook (and one must bear in mind that by then he was sixty, an age when many other revolutionaries were dead, or resting on their laurels and writing their memoirs).

His decision was prompted by a number of considerations principal among them the political “hunch” that the Italian situation, following the unpopular Tripolitanian war was ripe for some “practical” initiative. At the time the Italian anarchist movement was torn by internal and personal polemics, largely the work of a handful of “comrades” who in due course transferred their activities to the bourgeois parties, as generally is the case, and it was with a view to once again bringing together the movement that Cesare Agostinelli the Ancona hatter and Malatesta’s old comrade in arms approached him in London, and Fabbri who was, at the time, doing a teaching job in a village in Emilia, about his idea of starting an anarchist paper in Ancona. Both responded enthusiastically. Fabbri was detailed to draft a circular announcing the forthcoming publication which Malatesta suggested should be called Volontà. The first issue appeared in Ancona, June 1913, and edited by Malatesta from London, WC1. Fabbri writes that “right from the start the new periodical bore the imprint of earlier Malatestian newspapers.”[256] But so far as the presentation went, Malatesta, from London was writing to his friend (June 13): “What do you think of the first issue of Volontà? Typographically its horrible. The quality of the paper makes me shudder. Light inking on gray paper—type too crammed etc. Still … we will improve.” On the 16th June he writes to Agostinelli “The 2nd issue has arrived. Much better, well done! If we go on improving we shall end up by doing something really good. Tonight I will send you the editorial. It should reach you by Thursday. Try to keep space for it. I am late—and I am expecting a telling-off. But in future I hope I will make amends and not deserve your strictures …”[257] I quote this extract because it seems to me to shed more light on Malatesta’s character, his simplicity, and human warmth and comradeship than anything a third party could write on the subject.

And in the course of his letter to Fabbri, Malatesta lets him onto a secret “which will please you: I have decided to come to Italy.” And to Luigi Bertoni editor of the bilingual anarchist fortnightly Le Réveil/Il Risveglio, published for many years in Geneva, he wrote (July 3, 1913) “I have decided to leave for Italy towards the end of the month. Frankly I find it impossible to produce a paper from this distance to meet the needs of the present situation; and furthermore I am loathe to spur others on to act while I am safely tucked away [in London].”[258]

Malatesta’s activity as an organizer, a propagandist and revolutionary agitator during that period of less than a year can be given in some detail thanks to the fact that in the course of an allied bombardment of Ancona, during the last war, a police station was destroyed. Two anarchists, searching among the debris, found the police dossier on Malatesta which Borghi published as an appendix to the postwar edition of his biography of Malatesta.[259] The material printed comes from the diary of the Captain of the Carabineers of Ancona.

“Malatesta’s return from London was the signal for a reawakening of the anarchist movement in Ancona,” which had been reduced to a number of “disorganized and inactive groups” without resources. “Malatesta immediately set about reorganizing it. He made revolutionary propaganda at meetings and gatherings; by leaflets and through articles in the weekly journal Volontà of which he is the editor and which is the organ of the party.”

“In November 1913 after having drawn together all the anarchist elements in Ancona he successfully started a Circle of Social Studies where members and sympathizers meet for readings on social subjects, discussions, and propaganda meetings, which are frequently presided over by Malatesta himself. In a short time in Ancona anarchists and sympathizers number some 600 individuals consisting predominantly of dock porters, workers, and criminal elements of the town.” A list of the most prominent anarchists in the town apart from Malatesta “who is the undisputed leader” follows. “They number 33, and to judge from their trades and professions, and their ages are clearly a representative cross section of the working community. They include shoemakers, carpenters, dockworkers, street traders, barbers, shop assistants, and one student. Their ages range from the early twenties, predominate in the thirties.”

The Captain also notes in his diary that Malatesta had a season ticket which allowed him to travel anywhere on State railway networks, and “he very frequently travels keeping in contact with the more prominent leaders and in constant touch with the other anarchist groups.” And one feels that the next entry is made with a mixture of fear and admiration for the man:

His qualities as an intelligent, combative speaker who seeks to persuade with calm, and never with violent, language, are used to the full to revive the already spent forces of the party and to win converts and sympathizers, never losing sight of his principal goal which is to draw together the forces of the party and undermine the bases of the State, by hindering its workings, paralyze its services, and doing anti-militarist propaganda, until the favorable occasion arises to overturn and destroy the existing State.

Those who underestimate the perception of the police must surely make an exception here! But then Malatesta was always pointing out to those who sought to put words into his mouth which he had never uttered, in order to launch their attacks on him, that what he had to say was crystal clear and could not be misunderstood. And, one can now add, that not even a policeman could miss the points he made!

From August 1913 to May 1914 the Captain lists 37 noteworthy “anarchist demonstrations” in the province at 21 of which Malatesta took part either as the speaker or one of a panel of speakers.

How many private meetings he attended during those months, even the Captain cannot tell for as he notes: “The organizational work of Malatesta is difficult to penetrate, by reason of the prudence with which he acts, and the discretion of his trusted friends, and the circumspection with which he acts.”

And his comrade in arms and biographer, Fabbri,[260] recounts that during his short return to Italy Malatesta also lectured and spoke at meetings in the principal cities of Italy: Rome, Milan, Florence, Turin, Leghorn etc., and in his capacity as journalist attended the conferences of the various parties and workers’ organizations of the Left which interested him above all in order to assess what part they might be expected to play in the revolutionary upheaval he pinned his hopes on.


It was at the end of Malatesta’s brief return to Italy that the “Red Week” (June 1914) exploded. Freedom published the following report of “The General Strike and the Insurrection in Italy” by Malatesta himself, who was back in London having only just managed to escape arrest.[261]

The events which have taken place recently are of the greatest importance, not so much in themselves, but as an indication of the disposition of the Italian people and of what we can anticipate in the near future.

The immediate cause of the outbreak was a massacre of unarmed demonstrators by the gendarmes of the town of Ancona.

For a year the revolutionary and labor organizations of all political shades had been carrying on an agitation in favor of several victims of military despotism and for the abolition of disciplinary battalions, to which are sent all young soldiers known to hold anti-monarchical and anti-bourgeois opinions. The treatment is barbarous, and the unhappy young men are submitted to all kinds of moral and physical tortures.

As the meetings and demonstrations were held all over Italy, but on different dates, they seemed to make but little impression on the Government; and the Trades Council of Ancona proposed, therefore to organize manifestations in the whole country on the same day, that day to be the date of the official celebration of the establishment of Italian unity and Monarchy. As on these occasions great military reviews are always held, the comrades thought that the Government would be obliged to postpone the review in order to hold the troops to preserve “order” and the attention of the whole public would be drawn to the object of the demonstration.

The idea put forward by the Ancona comrades was everywhere received with enthusiasm by all the opposition parties. The Minister ordered the police to prevent any public demonstrations. Of course, that did not deter us. In fact, we had counted on the police prohibition to give more publicity to the demonstration and to instigate the masses to resistance.

To stop the people who were leaving a meeting-hall from going to the central square to demonstrate, the gendarmes fired on the unarmed crowd, killing three workers, and wounding twenty more. After this massacre, the gendarmes, frightened, rushed to the barracks for shelter, and the people were left masters of the town. Without anybody mentioning the word, a general strike was soon complete, and workers collected at the Trades Council to hold a meeting.

The Government tried to prevent the events of Ancona from being telegraphed to other parts of the country; but nevertheless by-and-by the news became known, and strikes broke out in all the towns of Italy. The two Federal labor organizations of Italy, the General Confederation of labor, which is reformist, and the Unione Sindacale, with revolutionary tendencies, proclaimed a general strike, and the same was done by the Railwaymen’s Union.

These strikes and demonstrations in several towns provoked new conflicts with police, and new massacres. At once, without any common understanding, one place ignorant of what the other was doing, as communications were broken off, the movement assumed everywhere an insurrectional character, and in many places the Republic, which meant for the people the autonomous Commune, was proclaimed.

All was going splendidly; the movement was developing, and the railway strike, spreading on all lines, paralyzed the Government; the workers were beginning to take measures of practical Communism in view of reorganizing social life on a new basis; when suddenly the Confederation of labor, by an act which has been qualified as treachery, ordered the strike off, thereby throwing the workers into confusion and discouraging them.

The Government was not slow to profit by this condition, and began to restore “order.”

If it had not been for the betrayal of the Confederation, though we could not yet have the revolution for the lack of necessary preparation and understanding, the movement would certainly have assumed larger proportions and a much greater importance.

In every way these events have proved that the mass of the people hate the present order; that the workers are disposed to make use of all opportunities to overthrow the. Government; and that when the fight is directed against the common enemy—that is to say, the Government and the bourgeoisie—all are brothers, though the names of Socialist, Anarchist, Syndicalist, or Republican may seem to divide them.

Now it is up to revolutionaries to profit by these good dispositions.


Shortly after his return to London war broke out (August 1914) and not only was any anarchist activity made more difficult by the physical restrictions it imposed, but the fact that the anarchist movement itself was divided in its attitude to the conflagration meant that much of its activity would be neutralized by internal polemics. In Freedom, November 1914 we find articles by Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Tcherkessoff, and a letter by the Belgian anarchist Verbelen all putting forward arguments why anarchists should support the Allied cause. And to rebut their rationalizations was Malatesta’s contribution: “Anarchists have forgotten their Principles” (see Appendix I). The title was unfortunate since, as Malatesta notes in the first paragraph it applied to a minority of anarchists, even if among them were “comrades whom we love and respect most,” yet the author of the recent study of The Anarchists has used the title, to imply that Malatesta was a lone voice in a pro-war anarchist wilderness:

He [Malatesta] quarreled with Kropotkin over Kropotkin’s support for the war; and he remained a voice of the anarchist conscience constantly declaring that—to quote the title of one of his English articles of 1914—“The Anarchists have forgotten their principles.”[262]

As Mr. Joll notes later: “[in 1919] Malatesta returned to Italy in triumph” (p.179) and that Kropotkin’s “position” when he returned to Russia in the summer of 1917 “was a curious one, for his support of the war had alienated him from nearly all the revolutionaries on the left” (p.180).

Indeed, but for the fact that the then editor of Freedom, Thomas Keell, who was as opposed to the war as Malatesta and the overwhelming majority of the anarchist movement, was concerned as editor of an anarchist journal to give the “pro-war anarchists” more than a fair hearing, Kropotkin and his supporters would have found themselves in the political wilderness sooner than they did.

When Italy joined the allies Malatesta reiterated his opposition to war in an article headed Italy Also! (Freedom, June 1915). In it he laments that in spite of “the fact that the great majority of Socialists and Syndicalists, and all the Anarchists (except a very few) were solid against war” which “gave us the hope that Italy would escape the massacre and keep all her forces for the works of peace and civilization,” Italy “has been dragged into the slaughter.” And he adds:

We do not know, for want of reliable information, the present situation in Italy, and what are the true factors that have determined so quick a change in her attitude. But one redeeming feature is revealed by the news received in London.

The Italian government has felt that it was not safe to make war without suppressing every liberty, and putting in prison a great number of Anarchists.

This means that the Anarchists remain loyal to their flag to the last, and what is more important, that the Government fears their influence on the masses.

This gives us the assurance that as soon as the war fever has calmed down we will be able to begin again our own war—the war for human liberty, equality, and brotherhood—and in better conditions than before, because the people will have had another experience, and what a terrible one! …

And in 1916 Malatesta replies to the pro-war Manifesto signed by Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Malato, and thirteen other “old comrades” in the editorial columns of Freedom[263] in which he recognizes the “good faith and good intentions” of the signatories as being “beyond all question,” but must dissociate himself from “comrades who consider themselves able to reconcile anarchist ideas and cooperation with the Governments and capitalist classes of certain countries in their strife against the capitalists and Governments of certain other countries.”

But this he had already done in a letter to Freedom[264] in the first months of the war in answer to Kropotkin’s article in which he argued that “an anti-militarist propagandist ought never to join the anti-militarist agitation without taking in his inner self a solemn vow that in case a war breaks out, notwithstanding all efforts to prevent it, he will give the full support of his action to the country that will be invaded by a neighbor, whosoever the neighbor may be. Because, if the anti-militarists remain mere onlookers on the war, they support by their inaction the invaders; they help them to make slaves of the conquered populations; they aid them to become still stronger, and thus to be a still stronger obstacle to the Social Revolution in the future.”

Malatesta’s reply was couched in conciliatory terms though it must have been obviously clear to him that there was no possibility of Kropotkin “seeing his error” in view of the known fact that he had been for ten years “preaching against the ‘German danger.’”

Dear Comrade—Allow me to say a few words on Kropotkin’s article on Anti-militarism published in your last issue. In my opinion, anti-militarism is the doctrine which affirms that military service is an abominable and murderous trade, and that a man ought never to consent to take up arms at the command of the masters, and never fight except for the Social Revolution.

Is this to misunderstand anti-militarism?

Kropotkin seems to have forgotten the antagonism of the classes, the necessity of economic emancipation, and all the Anarchist teachings; and says that an anti-militarist ought always to be ready, in case a war breaks out, to take arms in support of the “country that will be invaded”; which considering the impossibility, at least for the ordinary workman, of verifying in time who is the real aggressor, practically means that Kropotkin’s “anti-militarist” ought always to obey the orders of his government. What remains after that of anti-militarism, and, indeed, of Anarchism too?

As a matter of fact, Kropotkin renounces anti-militarism because he thinks that the national questions must be solved before the social question. For us, national rivalries and hatreds are among the best means the masters have for perpetuating the slavery of the workers, and we must oppose them with all our strength. And so to the right of the small nationalities to preserve, if you like, their language and their customs, that is simply a question of liberty, and will have a real and final solution only when, the States being destroyed, every human group, nay, every individual, will have the right to associate with, and separate from, every other group.

It is very painful for me to oppose a beloved friend like Kropotkin, who has done so much for the cause of Anarchism. But for the very reason that Kropotkin is so much esteemed and loved by us all, it is necessary to make known that we do not follow him in his utterances on the war.

I know that this attitude of Kropotkin is not quite new, and that for more than ten years he has been preaching against the “German danger”; and I confess that we were in the wrong in not giving importance to his Franco-Russian patriotism, and in not foreseeing where his anti-German prejudices would land him. It was because we understood that he meant to invite the French workers to answer a possible German invasion by making a Social Revolution—that is, by taking possession of the French soil, and trying to induce the German workers to fraternize with them in the struggle against French and German oppressors. Certainly we should never have dreamed that Kropotkin could invite the workers to make common cause with governments and masters.

I hope he will see his error, and be again on the side of the workers against all the Governments and all the bourgeois: German, English, French, Russian, Belgian, etc.

Yours fraternally,

E. Malatesta


Malatesta spent many, years of his exile in London. When he arrived in 1900 he was forty-seven and at the height of his intellectual powers, and apart from the period 1913–14 spent so actively in Italy, remained in London until the end of 1919. Why did the old Internationalist apparently remain relatively inactive for so many years? It is significant that even Nettlau in his detailed biography of Malatesta has nothing to say about those years other than references to his anti-war stand and the criminal libel case against Malatesta (in 1913) which earned him a three month’s prison sentence and a recommendation for deportation, which was not however proceeded with by the Home Secretary thanks to widespread demonstrations and protests which had made clear in what high esteem Malatesta was held by a wide public in this country.

One knows that Keell, for most of those years closely connected with Freedom, as printer and later as editor too had a high regard for him, and in the Freedom Bulletin of December 1932 which was a Malatesta Memorial number, Keell recounts that “if he were asked to write an article he would at first refuse, saying we should get English comrades to write for an English paper; but in the end he usually agreed.” Judging by the number of his articles one finds in the files of Freedom for those years one can only conclude that he was not often asked! To what extent was Malatesta inhibited from working with the English movement and contributing to Freedom because of his differences with Kropotkin (with whom he was always careful to avoid engaging in public polemic—though this did not prevent him from pursuing his own line of thought in all his Italian writings)? Nettlau in an important series of articles on Malatesta after his death explains that his reluctance to join issue with Kropotkin was not for “reasons of friendship, but because he thought that the position Kropotkin had established for himself in the public mind in the large countries, by his personality, his intelligence and prestige, was an asset of great importance to the anarchist movement” and that only when Kropotkin sought to use it in favor of the Allies in the First World War did Malatesta feel obliged to challenge his old friend and comrade.[265]


As well as contributing to a large number of journals during his lifetime, (and of course many of his articles were translated and published in journals throughout the world) Malatesta was the editor of a number, never however for a long time, mainly because of police attention or government suppression. The list includes Questione Sociale (Florence, 1883–84; Buenos Aires 1885; Paterson, NJ, 1899–1900), l’Associazione (Ancona, 1889–90), l’Agitazione (Ancona, 1897–98), Volontà (Ancona, 1913–14), Umanità Nova (1920–22), Pensiero e Volontà (1924–26).[266] Malatesta never wrote a full scale work on his ideas, and the means by which he thought they could be achieved, even though one finds him hinting in a letter to Fabbri that he might do something to please Fabbri in this respect, just as he never wrote his memoirs in spite of all kinds of attractive offers by publishers to do so.[267] His pamphlets mostly written at the end of the last century include Anarchy (1891) and those famous dialogues Fra Contadini (1884), Al Caffè (1902), In Tempo di Elezioni (1890) which had an immense success at the time though we are all too sophisticated today to have our propaganda in this form (it’s now done “live” on Television!).


After the years of frustration in London during the 1914–18 War, Malatesta after much difficulty managed to return to Italy at the end of 1919 and the next three years (apart from a period of ten months in prison) were probably among the most active and rewarding in his long lifetime even though once again the hoped-for insurrection did not materialize, and the defeat of the working-class movement in Italy was to be marked by Mussolini’s “march” to power. As well as editing the daily anarchist paper Umanità Nova, Malatesta addressed meetings all over Italy, and was engaged in seeking to bring together all the revolutionary elements in the Socialist and republican parties, and in the Trade Union movement. A detailed study of this period would be a rewarding task for it would not only give a clear picture of Malatesta at work and his method of working, but also show to what extent a movement without large resources, and including in its ranks all shades of anarchism, including anti-organizers and believers in organization, could work together for a common cause.

One would, of course, see the shortcomings, and the weaknesses, but one would also find, in my opinion, even greater shortcomings in the other antifascist, and revolutionary movements in spite of (or perhaps because of?) their authoritarian structure. The anarchists failed to stop Mussolini, but so too did the Socialist and Communist parties as well as the Trades Union organizations.

Umanità Nova managed to survive for over two years, against all kinds of physical difficulties, from paper rationing to the destruction of the printing works and offices by gangs of young fascist thugs, and at its peak had a daily circulation of 50,000 copies. At the height of the agitation among the industrial workers, Malatesta, Borghi (who was then secretary of the Unione Sindacale Italiana, the revolutionary syndicalist Union which had sprung into life after the war and had a membership of more than 500,000), and some 80 other anarchists were arrested (October 1920) and were held in prison awaiting trial until the following July. At their trial which lasted four days, and which Malatesta used to great effect to plead his political cause, they were acquitted by the jury and set free.[268] He moved to Rome where Umanità Nova had been transferred in May 1921, and resumed his activity on the paper “giving it an orientation more in keeping with the situation” (Fabbri) and at the same time “seeking to draw together all the revolutionary and libertarian forces of resistance.” His task was made more difficult because he now not only had to combat the opposition and sabotage of the reformist union leadership but also the hostility of the newly created Communist Party, which was trying to destroy and discredit all the working class forces which were not its creatures.

There was too, Fabbri points out, the beginnings of an internal crisis within the anarchist movement itself, (which, in certain parts of Italy because of fascist gangsterism was being reduced to impotence) and Malatesta used all his tact and experience to keep the movement together. During this period, as well as participating in the internal activities of the movement, he played a large part in the creation of the “Workers’ Alliance” which sought to bring together the anti-fascist forces and which included all the workers organizations. Faced with the growing provocation of the fascists, the Alliance played its last card: the general strike. At the end of July the general strike took place and—according to Fabbri—“was successful throughout the country, at least where circumstances still permitted; but the desperate attempt nevertheless did not achieve its objective and was drowned in blood by the fascist hordes and the official police.”

So far as propaganda activities were concerned the situation rapidly worsened. By now it was virtually impossible to distribute Umanità Nova outside Rome and district, for parcels were either seized, by the postal authorities or at news agents kiosks and burnt, a fate suffered not only by the anarchist press but by all anti-fascist journals. In the circumstances Umanità Nova ceased its daily publications in August 1922 and appeared as a weekly until the end of the year when Malatesta and a number of anarchists connected with the paper were arrested and charged. But it was obviously only a pretext to destroy the paper, for they were shortly afterwards released without trial. (Mussolini’s “March” on Rome took place in October 1922.)


Seeing no immediate possibility of continuing his activities as a propagandist, Malatesta put his pen to one side and took up his tool bag and, at the age of seventy started work again as an electrician-mechanic. He occasionally wrote however in two other anarchist journals which continued intermittently for a little while longer: Il Libero Accordo an old anarchist journal edited by Temistocle Monticelli, and Fede! a weekly started by Gigi Damiani.[269]

Malatesta’s 70th birthday (December 1923) was the occasion for public meetings in Paris, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere, and even in Rome and other parts of Italy it was celebrated but only at private meetings in view of the political repression. But equally important was the decision of many of his friends to give him the opportunity to continue to contribute to anarchist ideas, free from the day-to-day need to earn his living at his trade. And in fact at the beginning of 1924 he issued the first number of the bi-monthly magazine Pensiero e Volontà.[270] In the first year of publication Press censorship was introduced after the murder (June 1924) of Matteotti, the socialist deputy (whose death caused such widespread revulsion as to threaten the fascist regime) and the magazine appeared regularly (24 issues) but its existence became more and more difficult. Only 16 issues appeared in 1925, and the feature “news of the fortnight” was forbidden by the authorities. In due course even theoretical articles were banned by the Censor and in 1926 16 issues appeared as well as five others heavily censored. The last issue was dated October 10, 1926. Before the next issue was due to appear, the anarchist, Anteo Zamboni, had made his unsuccessful attempt on Mussolini’s life, and this was a pretext for the fascist government to suppress the whole anti-fascist, as well as the simply independent, press in Italy. Nettlau[271] considers that Malatesta published in Pensiero e Volontà “many of his most mature writings” (and readers of this volume have an opportunity to judge for themselves since I have drawn heavily on them) and Fabbri adds that through it Malatesta had been able “to remain in contact with comrades in all parts of Italy and abroad, and continue to participate, within the limits of what was possible, in the active movement.”

With the suppression of Pensiero e Volontà Malatesta’s voice in Italy was silenced “forever,” though he contributed a number of important articles to the international anarchist press, and which Nettlau, rightly I think, considers as “invaluable and the most notable production of modern Anarchist literature, something based upon an experience and keen reflection …”[272] The quality of these writings can be judged by his Recollections on Kropotkin which was probably the last of these occasional writings penned during the last five years of his life.[273] Notable too is his long introductory piece to Nettlau’s thoroughgoing study of the International in Italy 1928[274] and his serene, uncompromising polemic with the Revisionists (Makhno and others) in 1927.[275]

It was not new for Malatesta to have his steps dogged by policemen, and his movements noted by the police of the world. From the end of 1926 until he died in 1932 he lived in Rome under house arrest. A permanent police post was established in the porch of the house where he lived with his companion and her daughter, as well as a police guard day and night outside his flat. Whoever came to see him was arrested; and when he went out anybody approaching him was arrested. His mail was opened and not always delivered to him. Fabbri and other comrades in Paris and Switzerland tried to persuade him to leave Italy but he insisted that if he were capable of doing anything it would be by remaining in Italy and not in exile. By 1930 when he seems to have lost hope of any early change of regime and was prepared to leave, it was then too late.


Malatesta must have met a great many of the most active as well as the “eminent” anarchists in the international movement, for there were periods in his lifetime when he traveled extensively, often taking part in the struggles in the countries he visited, and one feels that the absence of dogmatism from his approach to anarchism and the struggle was impressed on him by his experiences of the different problems and revolutionary possibilities that distinguished one country from another. Nettlau has briefly summarized Malatesta’s activities outside Italy.[276]

His travels and temporary residence provided him with new local experience, and he helped on his side the local comrades.

In Switzerland he knew Locarno and Lugano at various times; Bakunin’s Russian friends in 1872, 1873, up to 1875; James Guillaume and the Jurassians, Zürich and Berne, Geneva when the Révolté was founded (February, 1879), and on other occasions, for the last time in 1914 on his flight from Italy.

He was in Paris for many months, 1879, 1880, and beginning of 1881; very active in the first Anarchist groups there, soon expelled, returning again, arrested, imprisoned for returning. He nevertheless started in 1889 L’Associazione in Nice, but had soon to leave; he was in Paris to observe the May Day movement of 1890, and no doubt on other occasions, but never resident, passing through there in 1914 on his hurried return to London.

In the autumn of 1875 he traveled to Spain; visited Madrid, Cadiz, and Barcelona, and saw the militants of the then proscribed, 1891 and secretly continued, International. He made an open journey, a great lecturing tour, from November, 1891, to January, 1892; but the intimate purpose was the preparation of Revolutionary Days in May, 1892. The tragic Jerez (Andalusia) revolt intervened, and he had to break his journey and leave quickly, reaching London via Lisbon this time.

In Egypt, 1878 and 1882, and in Rumania, 1879, he lived in the Italian milieu, though he came to Egypt in 1882 for a revolutionary purpose connected with the natives’ revolt in the days of Arabi Pasha. He intended, for romantic reasons (rivalry in combativeness of the young Internationalists with the young Garibaldians), to join the Serbians in their war against Turkey, 1876, but was twice stopped in Austria-Hungary and sent back to Italy.

He passed some time in Belgium in 1880 and a few days in 1881. He visited the country in 1893 during the political general strike, also 1907 during the violent Antwerp dock strike. Holland he knew at the time of the Amsterdam Anarchist Congress, 1907.

In London he saw the early days of the Socialist movement and knew Joseph Lane and Frank Kitz very well. Returning in October 1889, one of his first visits was to the Socialist League, where he saw William Morris. My acquaintance with him dates from that same evening and lasted until a letter of his to me of May 31, 1932, was the last one I got from him.

He lectured in New York and most of the Eastern industrial towns in the United States where Italian workers live (1899–1900). To Cuba, 1900, for Spanish lectures.

In the Argentine Republic, his activities from 1885 to the first half of 1889, mark the beginning of a more intense and coordinated movement there.

After the Russian revolution of 1917—I do not know at what stage of the ensuing events—he wished to go to Russia, to see things with his own eyes, but the British Government refused to let him depart.

This covers about all his known movement, though I do not pretend that I can retrace all his steps.

His last journey abroad was made in September, 1922, when a Jessinese comrade led him across the high mountains on smuggler paths in Switzerland, where he met the Italian Anarchists residing there in Biel, and the local and international comrades in St. Imier, at a private conference in commemoration of the St. Imier Congress of 1872, of which he was the sole survivor. When the meeting was over, the Swiss police with their order of expulsion of 1879 wanted to get hold of him, but he had just that moment been spirited away and returned to Italy.


One other aspect of Malatesta’s political life which deserves to be studied in some detail but to which I must be content with only a brief reference, is his attitude to police officials and to imprisonment.

In his time the ordinary policeman in Italy was more often than not some “poor devil”—as he would say—from the hungry South, less interested in protecting the State or of satisfying his personal lust for power, than in ensuring that he and his family could afford a square meal once a day. So Malatesta never missed an opportunity to “seduce” his captors by pointing out to them the relationship between the anarchist struggle and their struggle to live, and there are dozens of delightful anecdotes which illustrate Malatesta’s successful technique with policemen and jailers.[277] I would say that the times have changed, that the proportion of “poor devils” engaged in these jobs has considerably decreased in the past forty years, and that Malatesta who was a pragmatist, would today probably adopt quite another tactic. (Even the cover picture to this volume would indicate that the “rapport” with the British “bobby” in 1912 was not flowing with brotherly love even in one so experienced in handling policemen!)

In his youth, as he has already told us earlier in these Notes, being arrested and going to prison were part of the young revolutionaries’ apprenticeship: “persecution only awakened our enthusiasm.” But he also pointed out that in those days police persecution was a “joke compared with what took place later.” It seems clear that during the 16 months he spent in prison awaiting trial for his part in the abortive attempt at insurrection in Benevento in 1877 (which resulted in the acquittal of all concerned)[278] Malatesta had decided that he could better serve his ideas outside than behind prison bars and whenever, therefore, he knew that his activities were about to be curtailed by the authorities, he generally chose the road of exile rather than long months in prison awaiting trial.

Some of the most vulgar and vocal of his political enemies accused him of cowardice, of running away when he should be facing the music;[279] on one occasion in the early twenties, they accused him of cowardice because he took shelter in a doorway during an exchange of shots between police and demonstrators.[280] Malatesta in spite of his rhetorical sortie to the jury at his trial in 1922 “though I am a man with a cause (un uomo di fede) I am not a hero. ‘The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak’ say the mystics. I love life, I love many people who love me …”[281] was playing his cards for one end only, acquittal in order to resume the struggle for revolution as the only answer to the threat of fascism. Had Malatesta and Borghi been free to continue their propaganda during those 10 vital months awaiting trial who knows how the political situation might have developed. It might well have ended in the way it did. But can anyone say that their imprisonment furthered the revolutionary cause?

Malatesta was neither a coward nor a hero; he was a courageous and determined man who used these qualities with intelligence. As it was this did not prevent him from spending more time in prison than he would have liked! To the jury at his trial in 1922 he said: “Though I have only served seven months of the sentences imposed on me—all the other sentences were either quashed or annulled by amnesties—yet Authority has managed to make me spend, in bits and pieces, more than ten years of my life in prison.”[282] That is, awaiting trial, which more often than not ended in acquittal. Those of us accustomed to British penal procedure will find it difficult to understand how, for instance Malatesta, should have been kept in prison in Italy in 1883 from May to November, awaiting trial and then when found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment, released pending appeal, during which time he edited an anarchist paper in Florence (and also tended the sick in the cholera epidemic in Naples). And then managing to escape in the nick of time when he learned that his appeal had failed! Instead of three years in an Italian prison Malatesta spent them in Argentina (1885–89) where he did much to help build up the anarchist and syndicalist movement in that country (the only one, apart from Italy, Spain, and Russia in very exceptional circumstances, which in later years managed to publish a daily anarchist paper for a number of years).[283]

Malatesta, the mature revolutionary, took “calculated” risks, that is, he was prepared to face imprisonment if he felt the revolutionary possibilities justified the risk and he had a chance of fulfilling his assignment before being arrested. Thus in 1897 after the fall of the Crispi government there were possibilities of doing anarchist propaganda openly in Italy, and though his three year sentence of 1883 could be executed until November of that year when it would then automatically lapse, Malatesta thought it worth taking the risk and returned secretly to Ancona in March where he lived in a room from which he edited the weekly anarchist journal l’Agitazione. To avoid capture by the Italian police who had been alerted of his disappearance from London he had to refrain from any public activities or appearance at propaganda meetings; the fact that the police suspected that he might be in Ancona also meant that all his contacts with the local comrades, many of them known to, or watched by, the police, had to be conducted with the utmost circumspection. Because he could not by force of circumstances be distracted from his editorial functions by meetings and demonstrations, Fabbri[284] considers l’Agitazione “historically and theoretically,” the most important publication edited by Malatesta. (I have unfortunately been unable to see a single copy of this journal though many of Malatesta’s articles have been included in the two volumes of selections published in Naples in the post-War years.[285])

Malatesta would have continued to live clandestinely even after his earlier sentence had automatically expired because he feared that the police would arrest him on any pretext just to keep him from his propaganda which was producing results, and was obviously not to the liking of the then Italian government. Through no indiscretion on his part the police came to know of his hideout and he was arrested but set free the same day. That was in November. Between then and January Malatesta now free to take part in public activities intensified his work, but, as he had expected, the authorities did not leave him alone for long. On the 18th January 1898, during a public demonstration he and eight other comrades including the manager of the weekly were arrested in the street and charged with “criminal association.”

One of the interesting aspects of this trial was that whereas in past trials most anarchists denied the charge on the grounds that they were opposed to organization, Malatesta and his friends not only declared that they were organized, but also demanded the right of anarchists to join a formal organization. This gave rise to agitation throughout Italy for “the freedom to organize,” promoted by the Anarchist Socialist Federation of Romagna, and supported energetically from the columns of l’Agitazione, which continued publication in spite of further arrests of those who had taken Malatesta’s place on the paper (among them Fabbri, a young man of 20). By the time the trial took place, four months later, over 3,000 anarchists, in the name of many groups and clubs had signed a public manifesto in which they declared their political beliefs, and affirmed that they were members of a “party,” and in complete agreement with the accused. More support came from all parts of the world.

Thus the trial, writes Fabbri, was converted into a battle for public rights, as well as being, as many others were, an excellent medium for anarchist propaganda. It lasted a whole week, at the end of which Malatesta was given a seven month sentence, seven other comrades received six months and one was acquitted. Nevertheless this was a victory in that from then on the right of anarchists to organize themselves was recognized, and though this did not prevent them from being arrested and charged with “subversive” activities, the penalties were less severe and the powers of arrest were less arbitrary. Or were they?

A month after Malatesta’s trial widespread popular riots in Milan took place which were violently put down with many dead and wounded among the demonstrators. l’Agitazione was banned and most of the members of the publishing group, who were still free, were arrested. Parliament approved emergency laws, and domicilio coatto (banishment to the penal islands) was reintroduced under worse conditions than before. So when Malatesta’s sentence expired in August (and his seven comrades, a month earlier) instead of being released they were held in prison and sentenced to five years domicilio coatto.


Malatesta was sent to Ustica and he soon decided that he would not willingly spend five years on this inhospitable island, and began laying his plans for escape. The Government having also guessed his intentions, had Malatesta transferred to the island of Lampedusa, a more difficult island from which to escape! What the government had overlooked was the sympathetic “governor” on Lampedusa who was so impressed by Malatesta and the other “politicals” that he gave them a free hand, “and closed his eyes to what was going on.”[286] Malatesta made his plans for escape carefully and unhurriedly. Not only did he find a way of establishing contact with those on the mainland, but Fabbri recounts that even the socialist Oddino Morgari, who visited the island, in his capacity of Parliamentary deputy, was privy to his plans. On the night of May 9, 1899, Malatesta, Vivoli, a comrade from Florence, and a civil detainee swam to a fishing boat anchored some way out (with a Sicilian socialist Lovetere aboard) boarded her and set sail for Malta. Their escape was discovered the next day because of the unexpected visit to the island of a government inspector sent to investigate rumors circulating in Rome about Malatesta’s escape plans! But they were too late. Malatesta reached Malta where he remained a week awaiting a ship to take him to England. A few days later he was back with the Defendi family in Islington. But within a matter of a few weeks he was on his way to Paterson, New Jersey, at the invitation of the Italian comrades there who wanted him to take over the editorship of their periodical La Questione Sociale. However, he remained in the United States only a few months, during which time as well as editing the paper he addressed many public meetings, in Italian and Spanish, throughout the continent. Before returning to London he spent ten days in Cuba where he had been invited to address a number of meetings. In spite of difficulties by the police who at first prohibited his meetings and then agreed to their being held so long as he didn’t use the word anarchy, Malatesta managed to address four meetings but then decided that it was not worth going on with the tour and returned to New York in March. In April he was back in London.

Fabbri writes that “personal reasons determined his decision to return to London” but gives no indication whether these were political or domestic. There was obviously no political reason for returning to London, but there might well have been for leaving the United States. Nettlau writes that Malatesta’s support for organization always met with strong opposition from the individualist anarchists.[287] His invitation to edit the anarchist journal in Paterson coincided with the announcement that the former editor Giuseppe Ciancabilla was starting another paper, Aurora, with the support of “all” the comrades. Though I, and readers of these notes, may see no point now in establishing the facts of Malatesta’s activities during those months, in detail, I referred to it in the first place in ordering to illustrate Malatesta’s practical attitude to the propaganda value of imprisonment. His arrest, trial and imprisonment in 1898, was in his opinion good propaganda, the culmination of long months of clandestine activity as editor of l’Agitazione. The prospect of five years in the penal islands was not. Hence his determination to escape at all costs. Perhaps those five years, with the exception of the months in the Americas, were not as rewarding as he might have wished, but I suggest that they were better spent both so far as he was concerned and the anarchist movement, than if he had served his five years in domicilio coatto.

The other reason for referring to the months in the States is to state the facts concerning an incident in which Malatesta was the central figure. At a meeting he was addressing in West Hoboken (now Union City, New Jersey) heated discussion followed in which one member of the audience challenged the speaker, and when Malatesta “put him in his place” he was obviously so incensed that he drew out a revolver and fired at him hitting him in the leg. He was disarmed by a man “one of the most tolerant you could find, and a member of Malatesta’s group”[288] the man, who months later was to return to Italy to assassinate King Humbert: Gaetano Bresci.

The false rumor was circulated that Malatesta’s assailant was another anarchist, and one can understand with what relish this tit-bit of political scandal was repeated by the anarchists’ detractors on every possible occasion. Some thirty years after the shooting it was revived with the publication of Max Nomad’s Rebels and Renegades and the anarchists in the United States through their journals had to repeat the true facts, but they could never delete the falsehoods committed to print in Nomad’s book. Indeed thirty years after Nomad, George Woodcock (who should have known better than to rely on Nomad for source material) in his history of anarchism (American edition) repeats the lie, naming Ciancabilla as Malatesta’s would-be assassin.

In itself the shooting incident is a minor incident in a long and full life and it is as such that it is treated in these Notes. But from the point of view of anarchist propaganda the Nomad-Woodcock version could do great harm even now, and for this reason the facts of the shooting incident are presented as an Appendix,[289] because I hope that English historians who may want to include Malatesta in their magnus opus, and are barred from consulting the original sources by language problems, will at least consult this work rather than Nomad’s concoction of half-truths and pure invention!


At the beginning of these notes I quoted a passage from Woodcock’s History in which he describes Malatesta and other young Internationalists as “the Italian equivalent of the conscience-stricken Russian noblemen” who in the same decade felt the burning urge to go to the people, and produced evidence to try to show that the analogy was not a correct one. I return to it now because Malatesta’s character was so unlike this generalization, and his approach to the social problems so different, that only by fully appreciating this can one put his sixty years militancy in proper perspective.

All the evidence points to the fact that Malatesta did not have a sheltered youth, even though it is clear that his family had the means to allow him to pursue his studies without having to worry about his next meal. His entry into politics was typical of a normal, impulsive “teenager” and just as so many young people in this country were drawn into some kind of political commitment by the enthusiasm that surrounded the first Aldermaston March, so many in Malatesta’s time must have felt the same way as a result of the daring exploits of Garibaldi and his “liberators.” (And according to Nettlau it is possible that Malatesta as a young boy actually witnessed the liberators in action when Santa Maria and Capua were the centers of fierce struggles.) But what is surely significant in Malatesta’s case is that in a matter of three or four years he had “seen through,” as well as sympathized with, the Garibaldians and the Mazzinians, and also “discovered” Bakunin and the International. And his mental development took place in the course of political activities of all kinds which gave him an early taste of Authority and government. By contrast both Bakunin and Kropotkin entered the struggle following a relatively long intellectual preparation. Kropotkin was in his 30th year when he made his “first journey abroad” and began reading all the “socialistic literature” he could lay hands on. In his Memoirs he writes:

I spent days and nights in reading, and received a deep impression which nothing will efface…. The more I read the more I saw that there was before me a new world, unknown to me, and totally unknown to the learned makers of sociological theories—a world that I could know only by living in the Workingmen’s Association and by meeting the workers in their everyday life. I decided accordingly to spend a couple of months in such a life….[290]

For Bakunin it was in Dresden in 1842—when he was 28—that, to quote Carr, he “was ready to proclaim to the world his conversion to the cause of revolution.”

The winter of 1841–42 which he spent alone in Berlin seems to have been the decisive period of Bakunin’s conversion. He devoured greedily the mass of pamphlets and dissertations with which the young Hegelians under the very nose of the censors, were flooding Germany…. By the time he settled again in Dresden in the summer of 1842, Bakunin was a full-blown young Hegelian. Ruge discovered that he had “outstripped all the old donkeys in Berlin.”[291]

For Malatesta, “going to the people” involved total identification with the working people as one of them. And this he did early in life. As soon as he came into his inheritance he handed the properties to his working tenants and what money came to him was used for propaganda. In his early twenties he learned the trade of mechanic in the workshop of a friend and Internationalist, one Agenore Natta of Florence.[292] Throughout his long life Malatesta earned his living as a mechanic-electrician, except when the political situation demanded, and the anarchist movement could afford to keep him, while he devoted his activities full time to the political struggle. Just as he was always opposed to permanent Union officials and organizers, so was he opposed to revolutionaries, being “kept” by the movement. It was not only a matter of principle, that is a rule based on experience, of the harmful effects that inevitably accrued from full-time officials, but also an expression of his own independent spirit, which could not be free unless he were also financially independent of the anarchist movement.

This is why it is wrong to portray Malatesta as the professional agitator and revolutionary, in fact, as well as in the interest of the anarchist movement. For if his life is as important to the anarchist movement as are his ideas, it is just because he was neither the professional revolutionary nor “the saint,” neither the “prophet” nor the “man of destiny.” Malatesta was always a comrade among comrades, ever seeking to forward his point of view but never seeking to dominate an argument with the weight of his personality. In this connection it is significant that as a speaker he never used oratorical tricks, just as in his writings he was always concerned with convincing readers by the clarity, the logic, and sheer commonsense of his arguments. And because of this approach, rather than in spite of it, all his writings, and I am sure his speeches too, are full of real human warmth for they are based on understanding of the problems (as well as the difficulties in overcoming them) that face all those who are willing and anxious to do something to radically change society.

Malatesta was fully aware of the dangers, as well as the advantages, that the “eminence” or “notoriety” he and a few others enjoyed in the international anarchist movement and in the world of Left politics. It is probably true to say that he went out of his way to underestimate his worth so far as the anarchist movement was concerned, but to exploit his standing in the working class movement whenever he thought it imperative to bring together all the movements and parties of the so-called revolutionary Left to accept an Entente on specific issues. Malatesta was always very “politically conscious,” without ever becoming, however, a politician. He explored every political opening—as some of his political enemies were to remind him years later, without however adding the important point, that Malatesta the anarchist emerged unscathed from his excursions along “the paths of political evil”! His anarchism was not in his head but in his heart, or to quote his words “This feeling is the love of mankind, and the fact of sharing the sufferings of others….” But in order to achieve his ends he was always guided by his “head”—that is by his observation and understanding of the human and material problems to be overcome.


In a much publicized recent work on The Anarchists, the author,[293] from his cloistered university outpost pronounces sentence on “a disappointed life” when he declares that at the end of Malatesta’s life (1932) “The Italian State was … a stronger and more formidable adversary than it had ever been.” But surely, Malatesta’s life was full, and rich, and satisfying; his ideas still stimulating, and informed by the kind of common sense and humanity millions of our fellow beings have yet to discover.

And is there no lesson to be learned about what matters in our lives, as individuals, and as a civilization, when, more than thirty years after his death, Malatesta the man and his ideas, are being presented to the English speaking public more or less for the first time, while at the same time the world is desperately trying to forget that Mussolini and the other sordid actors in that “age of disgrace” ever existed? A thought surely, which those historians who are now so busily writing the obituary notices of anarchism might do well to ponder over!


[220] Pensiero e Volontà, July 1, 1926

[221] Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta—La Vida de un Anarquista (Buenos Aires, 1923)

[222] Armando Borghi, Errico Malatesta (Milan, 1947)

[223] Errico Malatesta, Scritti Scelti Vol. 2 (Naples, 1954)

[224] George Woodcock, Anarchism—A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (London, 1963)

[225] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[226] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[227] Luis Fabbri, Malatesta (Buenos Aires, 1945)

[228] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[229] Armando Borghi, Mezzo Secolo di Anarchia (Naples, 1954)

[230] Pensiero e Volontà, July 1, 1926

[231] Pensiero e Volontà, September 16, 1925

[232] Max Nettlau, Bakunin e l’Internazionale in Italia dal 1864 al 1872 (Geneva, 1928) preface by Malatesta

[233] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[234] Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta—El Hombre, el Revolucionario, el Anarquista (Barcelona 1933)

[235] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[236] Angiolini quoted Nettlau, Errico Malatesta—La Vida de un Anarquista (Buenos Aires, 1923)

[237] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[238] Questione Sociale (Florence, 1884) quoted Nettlau op. cit.

[239] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[240] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[241] Malatesta in preface to Nettlau op. cit.

[242] Malatesta in preface to Nettlau op. cit.

[243] Questione Sociale, quoted Nettlau, Errico Malatesta

[244] Questione Sociale, quoted Nettlau, Errico Malatesta

[245] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[246] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[247] Malatesta, in preface to Nettlau op. cit.

[248] Umanità Nova, March 11, 1922

[249] Pensiero e Volontà, July 1, 1926

[250] Malatesta in preface to Nettlau, op. cit.

[251] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[252] Errico Malatesta, Scritti Vol. 3 (Geneva, 1936)

[253] Umanità Nova, August 24, 1921

[254] op. cit.

[255] James Joll, The Anarchists (London, 1964)

[256] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[257] Errico Malatesta, Scritti Scelti (Naples, 1954)

[258] op. cit.

[259] Armando Borghi, Errico Malatesta (Milan, 1947)

[260] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[261] Freedom, July 1914

[262] James Joll, op. cit., see Appendix I

[263] Freedom, April 1916, see Appendix II

[264] Freedom, December 1914

[265] l’Adunata dei Refrattari (Newark, NJ, September 3, 10, 17, 24, 1932)

[266] See Ugo Fedeli, Errico Malatesta—Bibliografia (Naples, 1951)

[267] Luigi Fabbri, Malatesta l’Uomo e il Pensiero (Naples, 1951)

[268] Trento Tagliaferri, Errico Malatesta, Armando Borghi e Compagni davanti ai Giurati di Milano (Milan n.d. 1921?)

[269] Il Libero Accordo (Rome, 1920–1926), Fede! (Rome, 1923–1926)

[270] Pensiero e Volontà (Rome 1924–1926)

[271] Max Nettlau, op. cit. (Barcelona, 1933)

[272] Max Nettlau, in Freedom Bulletin, December 1932

[273] See Appendix IV

[274] Max Nettlau, op. cit. (Geneva, 1928)

[275] A proposito della Piataforma in Risveglio (Geneva, December 14, 1929)

[276] Freedom Bulletin, December 1932

[277] See Borghi, Fabbri, Nettlau, op. cit.

[278] See Nettlau, Errico Malatesta Vita e Pensiero (New York, 1921) Chapter 11

[279] Only quite recently a Spanish syndicalist of mature years expressed to me his admiration for Malatesta’s ideas but repeated as a fact that Malatesta always managed to get away when things were getting “too hot.” He was most surprised when I told him that Malatesta had spent some ten years in the various prisons of the world!

[280] Umanità Nova

[281] Trento Tagliaferri, op. cit.

[282] op. cit.

[283] La Protesta was a daily paper for 25 years. See Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism (London, 1938)

[284] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[285] Errico Malatesta, Scritti Scelti Vol. 1 (Naples, 1947), Vol. 2 (Naples, 1954)

[286] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[287] Max Nettlau, op. cit.

[288] Armando Borghi, op. cit.

[289] See Appendix III

[290] P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (London, 1899) Vol. 2, pp.59–60

[291] E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (London, 1937)

[292] Luis Fabbri, op. cit.

[293] James Joll, op. cit.

(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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