Workers and Intellectuals

By Errico Malatesta (1925)

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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, ....)
• "...all history shows that the law's only use is to defend, strengthen and perpetuate the interests and prejudices prevailing at the time the law is made, thus forcing mankind to move from revolution to revolution, from violence to violence." (From : "Further Thoughts on the Question of Crime," by Er....)
• "Our task then is to make, and to help others make, the revolution by taking advantage of every opportunity and all available forces: advancing the revolution as much as possible in its constructive as well as destructive role, and always remaining opposed to the formation of any government, either ignoring it or combating it to the limits of our capacities." (From : "The Anarchist Revolution," by Errico Malatesta.)


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Workers and Intellectuals

The origin of this division of men into “intellectuals” (who often are simply idle people without any intellectuality) and “workers” can be found in the fact that at times and in circumstances when to produce enough to amply satisfy one’s needs demanded excessive and unpleasant effort, and when one ignored the advantages of solidarity and cooperation, the strongest or the more fortunate, found a way of obliging others to work for them. This manual work, apart from being more or less exhausting, also became a symbol of social inferiority; and thus the seigneurs willingly tired themselves and killed each other in equestrian exercises, dangerous and exhausting hunts, and wore themselves out in competitions, but would feel dishonored at having to dirty their hands doing even the lightest productive job. Work was something for slaves to do; and such is still the case today in spite of greater knowledge and the advances in applied mechanics and science, which make it easy to provide in abundance for the needs of all by pleasant work, reasonable in its duration and in the physical effort demanded.

When everybody will have the free use of the means of production and no man will be able to oblige others to work for him, then it will be in the interests of all to organize work so that it is as productive and pleasant as possible—and then everybody will be able to pursue their studies, useful or useless, without thereby becoming parasites. There would be no parasites, firstly because no one would want to keep parasites and then because everybody would find that by giving their share of manual labor towards production they would at the same time satisfy their body’s need for physical activity.

All would work, including the poets and the transcendental philosophers, without any ill effects to poetry or philosophy. On the contrary….[162]

We have no “working class” prejudices, no preferences for the manual worker because he is a manual worker, and above all no admiration for the uneducated and the illiterates, who, nevertheless, have the valid excuse, that their condition is not their fault.

We are revolutionaries, and know that a revolution made without the participation of forces and values which cannot be acquired without an intellectual background, could well appear to be radical, but in fact would be no more than an explosion of anger without significance and without a future. And for this reason we always welcome with open arms the support of writers, artists, scientists, engineers, technicians, and others who can offer the concourse of intellects rich in ideas and informed by facts.

But on the other hand we know that most of the so-called intellectuals are, by reason of their education, their family background, their class prejudices, tied to the Establishment, and tend to want the subjection of the mass of the people to their will. Whereas the mass of workers, even if they are ignorant or illiterate, constitute, because of their needs and their passion for justice which comes to them from the injustice to which they are subjected, the principal force behind the revolution and the guarantee that it will not resolve itself into a simple change of masters.

Therefore we accept the intellectuals with pleasure and without suspicion when they fuze with the working class, when they join the people without pretensions to command; without a patronizing air of condescension, but with the open mind of someone who comes in the midst of brothers to repay them the debt he has contracted in educating himself and cultivating his intellect which, in most cases, is at the expense of the children of those whose manual work has produced the means.[163]

Emma Goldman [in “My further Disillusionment in Russia”] gives as among the main causes for the failure of the Russian revolution the hostility, the hatred that workers felt for the intellectuals, and their contempt for science and the things of the mind.

This doesn’t seem to me to be quite correct.

Workers have even too much respect and admiration for educated people … who very often have very little education. And this attitude is both a good thing as well as bad. For there are all kinds of intellectuals, revolutionary and reactionary, good ones and bad ones, and above all harmful ones as well as useful ones, depending on the subject to which they have directed their studies and their activities. There are scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, and teachers, but there are also priests, lawyers, politicians, and militarists.

Thus it is in Italy, and I imagine it must be the same in Russia, since one observes that all, or at least almost all, the leaders of the Russian revolution, are intellectuals; indeed one can say that the struggle has taken place between intellectuals while the mass, as is usual, has served as the instrument [in their struggle].

Surely so long as science and higher education will be a privilege of the few (and it will be so so long as existing economic conditions prevail) it is inevitable that those who have knowledge will predominate over those who haven’t; but to prevent this preponderance from being a reason and a means to perpetuate present evils or to create new privileges and new tyrannies, one must at the same time stress the glory of science and the usefulness and the need for technical direction, and inspire those who are ignorant with the desire to educate and raise themselves, but one must also make them feel and understand that ignorance is not a reason for being oppressed and ill-treated, but rather gives one a right to greater consideration by way of compensation for being deprived of those things that are among the best in human civilization.

And “intellectuals,” who have had the good fortune of receiving an education, if they take part in a revolution through a sincere love for the good of others, must put themselves at the level of the least fortunate to help them to raise themselves, and not look upon the mass as a flock to lead … and to fleece, depriving them thereby of the chance of educating themselves in responsibility and freedom, and even worse, obliging them to obedience by recourse to the gendarmes.[164]

What we would call the natural tendency of intellectuals, is to keep apart from the people, and to form themselves into coteries; to give themselves airs and end up by believing themselves protectors and saviors who the masses should worship … and maintain. To separate them from the masses, to give them the illusion of fighting for the general good while they enjoy advantages and different standards of life, will encourage just what the drafters of the Appeal [for an International of Intellectuals] so rightly deprecate: the formation of “a harmful and dangerous caste” inside the working-class movement.

And in any case, what could be the activity and the mission of this special International?

If it were a question of an association, such as already exist, to help in the study of science, history and literature, or in order to disseminate a general culture among the people, the project might be possible and useful. And all enlightened people irrespective of party and class could play a part in such a venture. The truth, science, is neither bourgeois nor proletarian, neither revolutionary nor conservative, and everybody can feel interested in its progress.

But what is proposed is an organization for struggle, an organization which wants to take its place in the social struggle. And in that case how could men be held together and work usefully, who, even if they more or less share equal final objectives, pursue different means, belong to rival political parties and who in every practical issue would find themselves lined up against each other? How can pacifists and war supporters, revolutionaries and legalitarians, democrats and totalitarians, authoritarians and anarchists be made to agree?

In practice this is what must happen to every Intellectual International, which is neither a purely scientific and a political institution nor an organization closely linked to one party. A few pompous manifestoes, the decorative support of a few “big names,” of those who through vanity or laziness always say yes … followed by a fictitious, rickety and useless existence. And even this mere preteens of life would not continue without creating a bureaucracy interested in the continuation of the organization … and in its salaries. This bureaucracy, once the founders tire and withdraw, would manage for a long time to fill the members lists with the names of thousands who knowing how to read and write more or less well, enjoy giving themselves airs of being writers.

But in what way would this be useful to the cause?

For these reasons I believe that our friends who have got caught up in this venture would do well to repeat, at a distance of fifty years, Michael Bakunin’s gesture when having declared at a Congress of the Association for Peace and Liberty, that peace and liberty could not be secured except by struggle among the workers for social justice, he abandoned that Association, which was also a kind of International of intellectuals, and, with the revolutionary socialist minority attending the Congress, joined the International Workers’ Association….[165]

[162] Umanità Nova, August 10, 1922

[163] Umanità Nova, October 20, 1921

[164] Pensiero e Volontà, May 16, 1925

[165] Umanità Nova, October 20, 1921

(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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