Anarchism as a Way of Life

In 1925 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote that,

Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force . . . (Malatesta 1995, 52)

In this passage Malatesta distinguishes between anarchy as a goal and anarchism as a method of achieving this goal. One of the interesting features of Malatesta’s theory is that he views anarchy itself as both a goal and an on-going process. He refers to anarchy as a “form of living together in society” which has to be continuously produced and reproduced over time, rather than a static unchanging utopia. This idea can be clearly seen in Malatesta’s earlier writings. In 1891 he wrote that,

By the free association of all, a social organisation would arise through the spontaneous grouping of men according to their needs and sympathies, from the low to the high, from the simple to the complex, starting from the more immediate to arrive at the more distant and general interests. This organisation would have for its aim the greatest good and fullest liberty to all; it would embrace all humanity in one common brotherhood, and would be modified and improved as circumstances were modified and changed, according to the teachings of experience. This society of free men, this society of friends would be Anarchy. (Malatesta 2014, 128)

Since anarchy is a society which will be continuously modified and improved over time it follows that “Anarchy” is “above all, a method”. This method is, according to Malatesta, “the free initiative of all”, “free agreement” and “free association”. (Malatesta 2014, 141, 142) These two claims come together in the view that,

Anarchy, in common with socialism, has as its basis, its point of departure, its essential environment, equality of conditions; its beacon is solidarity and freedom is its method. It is not perfection, it is not the absolute ideal which like the horizon recedes as fast as we approach it; but it is the way open to all progress and improvements for the benefit of everybody. (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 56. For a different translation see Malatesta 2014, 143)

What Malatesta means by this is as follows. Anarchy’s point of departure is a stateless classless society in which the means of production are owned in common and no person has the institutionalised power to impose their will on others via force. This not only creates a situation in which people are no longer subject to domination and exploitation by the ruling classes. It, in addition to this, establishes the real possibility for all people to do and be a wide variety of different things since their ability to act is no longer limited by poverty, borders, government bureaucracy, having to work for a capitalist to survive etc. This equality of conditions is the social basis from which people can engage in an open-ended process of striving towards the goal of universal human co-operation at a societal level and the formation of bonds of mutual support and love at the level of our day to day lives with friends, family, partners and so on.

People living under anarchy will move towards the goal of solidarity through the method of forming voluntary horizontal associations. These voluntary horizontal associations will then enter into free agreements with one another and establish a decentralised network capable of co-ordinating action over a large scale. Although violence may sometimes be necessary to defend spaces of co-operation from external attack or to overthrow the ruling classes, force cannot be used to establish co-operation among equals. If one tries to impose decisions on others through force then the result will not be solidarity but conflict, strife and relations of command and obedience. The achievement of genuine solidarity requires that people come to agreements which best suit everyone involved and must therefore be established voluntarily.

This process of striving for solidarity through the method of freedom will result in a wide variety of experiments in different forms of life. Through a process of trial-and-error people will over time establish new social structures and relations which do a superior job of maximising the equality, solidarity and freedom of humanity. These new social structures and relations will, in turn, lay the foundations from which future improvements can occur and so on and on. As Malatesta wrote in 1899, “Anarchist ideals are . . . the experimental system brought from the field of research to that of social realisation”. (Malatesta 2014, 302)

Malatesta does not think that the establishment of anarchy will occur automatically or that humans naturally create anarchy. Anarchy only exists if it is consciously produced and reproduced by human action. As he wrote in 1897,

The belief in some natural law, whereby harmony is automatically established between men without any need for them to take conscious, deliberate action, is hollow and utterly refuted by the facts.

Even if the State and private property were to be done away with, harmony does not come to pass automatically, as if Nature busies herself with men’s blessings and misfortunes, but rather requires that men themselves create it. (Malatesta 2016, 81)

This exact point was repeated by Malatesta in 1925. He wrote, “Anarchy . . . is a human aspiration which is not founded on any true or supposed natural law, and which may or may not come about depending on human will.” (Malatesta 1995, 46) If anarchy is a product of human will, then it follows that anarchy could be ended if humans choose to oppress others and establish relations of domination and subordination. This is a danger that Malatesta was aware of. He wrote in 1899 that, “if anyone in some future society sought to oppress someone else, the latter would have the right to resist them and to fight force with force”. Anarchy was therefore a society based on “freedom for all and in everything, with no limit other than the equal freedom of others: which does not mean . . . that we embrace and wish to respect the ‘freedom’ to exploit, oppress, command, which is oppression and not freedom”. (Malatesta 2019, 148, 149).

A crucial aspect of reproducing anarchy as a social system is therefore ensuring that relations of domination and exploitation do not arise in the first place and that, if they do somehow arise, they are quickly defeated. Malatesta does not provide many details on how to do this because he thought this was a question which would be settled through large groups of people engaging in a process of experimentation with different forms of association. Modern anarchists can, however, look at anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves. They do not provide exact blueprints which we can follow like an instruction manual for creating a free society, but they can be useful sources of inspiration. It should, in addition to this, be kept in mind that some stateless societies are hierarchical in other ways, such as men oppressing women or adults oppressing children.

There is a tendency for people raised in societies with states to assume that the true or correct end point of human cultural evolution is the creation of a society with a state. Those who live in stateless societies are therefore viewed as inferior people who have failed to realise the best way of organising society. In response to this way of thinking, the anthropologist Pierre Clastres has suggested that stateless societies should not be viewed as societies without a state, but instead as societies against the state. That is to say, people do not live in stateless societies by chance. They have instead developed political philosophies about the kind of society they want to live in and consciously created social structures to ensure that a society without rulers is reproduced. Members of stateless societies have not failed to realise the possibility of a society in which a ruling minority imposes their will on everyone else through violence. They have instead deliberately chosen to create a different kind of society. (Clastres 1989, 189-218) Clastres writes, in what I consider to be outdated and problematic language, that,

primitive societies do not have a State because they refuse it, because they refuse the division of the social body into the dominating and the dominated. The politics of the Savages is, in fact, to constantly hinder the appearance of a separate organ of power, to prevent the fatal meeting between the institution of chieftainship and the exercise of power. In primitive society, there is no separate organ of power, because power is not separated from society: society, as a single totality, holds power in order to maintain its undivided being, to ward off the appearance in its breast of the inequality between masters and subjects, between chief and tribe. . . The refusal of inequality and the refusal of separate power are the same, constant concern of primitive societies. (Clastres 1994, 91)

This point has recently been made in much greater depth by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. He argues that egalitarian stateless societies are “the product of human intentionality” and that “the immediate cause of egalitarianism is conscious, and that deliberate social control is directed at preventing the expression of hierarchical tendencies”. (Boehm 2001, 12, 60) One of the main ways egalitarian stateless societies achieve this is through the use of horizontal decision-making processes in which the group make collective decisions through consensus between all involved. (Boehm 2001, 31, 113) Any leaders which do exist lack the power to impose decisions on others through coercion and must instead persuade others to act in a certain way through oratory skill alone. This usually goes alongside a variety of behavioural expectations which the leader has to conform to in order to remain in their position, such as the leader being modest, in control of their emotions, good at resolving disputes and generous. The emphasis on generosity can be so strong that leaders are expected to share large amounts of their possessions with others, especially those in need. This often results in leaders possessing the smallest number of things in the entire group due to them having to give so many items away. (Boehm 2001, 69-72)

Egalitarian stateless societies have, in addition to this, developed various mechanisms to respond to what Boehm labels ‘upstartism’. Upstartism includes any behaviour which threatens the autonomy and equality of the group, such as bullying, being selfishly greedy, issuing orders, taking on airs of superiority, engaging in acts of physical violence and so on. In order to implement the ethical values of the community, members of egalitarian stateless societies will respond to upstartism with a wide range of different social sanctions. This includes, but is not limited to, criticism, gossiping, public ridicule, ignoring what they say, ostracism, expulsion from the group and even, in some extreme cases, execution. Social sanctions are applied to all members of the group but leaders in particular. This is due to the fact that leaders are subject to a greater deal of public scrutiny and viewed as one of the main places where relations of domination and subordination could emerge. This, in turn, creates a situation where leaders will, in order to maintain their position and avoid being subject to sanctions, engage in the socially prescribed behaviour that is expected from them, such as sharing huge amounts of their belongings even if they would rather not do so. The system of sanctions therefore not only effectively counters acts of domination but also reproduces the horizontal structure of the group itself. (Boehm 2001, 3, 9-12, 43, 72-84)

The manner in which members of egalitarian stateless societies respond to upstartism can be subtle. Boehm gives the example of the !Kung, who have developed various ways of dealing with the problem of successful male hunters coming to think of themselves as superior to everyone else and, as a result, becoming more likely to engage in domination, especially murder. Firstly, large-game meat is shared equally among the group by the person who is credited with killing the animal. The credit for the kill does not go to the person who loosed the actual killing arrow, but instead to the owner of the first arrow to hit the animal. This will often not even be someone who went on the hunt due to the male hunters regularly trading arrows with one another. This social system ensures that credit for the hunt is randomized, unskilled or unlucky hunters are less likely to be envious of other hunters, every member of the group has access to protein, and the most skilled or lucky hunters are not able to easily use this fact to develop power and influence over others. (Boehm 2001, 46)

Secondly, the !Kung actively use humour and social etiquette to ensure that successful hunters do not put themselves on a pedestal. An unnamed member of the !Kung explains this as follows,

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all . . . maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.

Even after the hunter has deliberately acted as if they haven’t been very successful, other members of the group will make jokes about them and express their disappointment. The unnamed member of the !Kung claims that when people go to collect the dead animal they will say things like,

You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.

The conscious motivation behind this behaviour is explained by a healer as follows,

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (Quoted in Boehm 2001, 45)

The !Kung have, in other words, intentionally developed a complex social system based on their political philosophy which ensures the reproduction of an egalitarian stateless society and actively prevents the rise of domination within their midst. It is important to note that Boehm’s account of the !Kung draws upon research conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their society has significantly changed since then. In 1975 the anthropologist Patricia Draper claimed that,

the great majority of !Kung-speaking people have abandoned their traditional hunting and gathering way of life and are now living in sedentary and semi-squatter status in or near the villages of Bantu pastoralists and European ranchers. A minority of !Kung, amounting to a few thousand, are still living by traditional hunting and gathering technique. (Draper 1975, 79)

Although people living in industrial societies do not have to develop social norms around successful hunters, we do have our equivalents. For example, successful influencers sometimes let the fame get to their head, come to think of themselves as superior to other people, and then treat others as inferior to them and engage in acts of domination. Think Jake Paul. It is of course the case that those of us currently living under the domination of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, ableism etc are most likely a long way away from achieving anarchy at a societal level. We are not confronted with the problem of reproducing anarchy as a stateless classless society. We instead face the challenge of living under oppressive systems, whilst attempting to implement the methods of anarchism within both our intimate relationships with friends, family, partners etc and social movements aimed at the abolition of all systems of domination and exploitation.

In order to do so we must establish horizontal social relations which are, as far as is possible, the same as those that would constitute anarchy. In so doing we can simultaneously (a) construct the world as we wish it was during our struggle against the world as it is and (b) develop through a process of experimentation in the present the real methods of organisation, decision-making and association that people in the future could use to achieve the states of affairs that characterise anarchy. If, as Malatesta argued, “tomorrow can only grow out of today” (Malatesta 2014, 163) then we must build organisations based “upon the will and in the interest of all their members” not only “tomorrow in order to meet all of the needs of social life” but also “today for the purposes of propaganda and struggle”. (Malatesta 2019, 63) We must, in other words, engage in prefigurative politics or, to use historical anarchist language, build “the embryo of the human society of the future”. (Graham 2005, 98. For more on prefigurative politics see Raekstad and Gradin 2020)

The pockets of freedom we manage to create within class society are of course not anarchy. Anarchy is a social system in which all forms of class rule have been abolished and socialism has been achieved. Anarchy cannot therefore be said to exist just because a horizontal association has been built within the cage of capitalism and the state. (Malatesta 2016, 358-60) Although horizontal associations within class society are not anarchy, they are the means through which anarchy can be achieved. That is to say, horizontal associations should be organs of class struggle which unite workers together in order to both win immediate improvements, such as higher wages or stopping the fossil fuel industry, and ultimately overthrow the ruling classes. Horizontal associations should, at the same time, be social structures which are constituted by forms of activity that develop their participants into the kinds of people who are both capable of, and driven to, establish and reproduce anarchy. For example, a group of workers form a tenant union, use direct action to prevent their landlord from evicting them, and at the same time learn how to make decisions within a general assembly. In changing the world, workers at the same time change themselves.

Given the insights of both historical anarchist theory and modern anthropology, a crucial aspect of laying the foundations from which anarchy could emerge in the future is establishing effective methods for maintaining the horizontality of a group. This includes at least,

(a) Deliberately structuring organisations so as to ensure that they are self-managed by their membership, such as making decisions through general assemblies in which everyone has a vote, co-ordinating action over a large scale via informal networks or formal federations, electing instantly recallable mandated delegates to perform specific tasks etc.

(b) Consciously developing a system of social sanctions which effectively and proportionally respond to situations where a member engages in what Boehm terms upstartism. This is especially necessary for when people attempt to establish themselves in positions of power at the top of an informal hierarchy or engage in an act of domination. One of the most important situations which a group must effectively respond to is when a member emotionally, physically or sexually abuses another person. It is, in addition to this, very important than any sanction system which is implemented is not itself a new form of domination disguised as mere opposition to the domination of others.

In summary, anarchy is a form of living together in society which must be consciously and intentionally produced and reproduced by human action. A crucial part of doing so is developing social structures and relations which maintain the horizontality of groups and prevent new forms of domination and exploitation from arising. Given modern anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves, this will include developing social sanctions to respond to what Boehm terms upstartism. Although we do not currently live under anarchy, we must establish horizontal associations which engage in class struggle against the ruling classes and prefigure the methods of organisation, decision-making and association which would exist in a free society. This includes developing effective sanction systems which proportionally respond to behaviour that threatens the horizontality of the group. Doing so will, just like under anarchy, require a process of experimentation with different forms of life in order to figure out which solutions actually work and are compatible with anarchist goals and values.

In 1899 Malatesta wrote that “Anarchy cannot come but little by little – slowly, but surely, growing in intensity and extension. Therefore, the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchy today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk toward Anarchy today, tomorrow and always.” (Malatesta 2014, 300) Through the process of walking towards anarchy we must learn how to live as equals within a free horizontal association and in so doing become fit to establish a society with neither masters nor subjects. I am sure that we will make mistakes along the way, but these mistakes must be treated as opportunities to learn and develop, rather than reasons to abandon the march towards anarchy. In the words of the Spanish anarchist Isaac Puente,

Living in libertarian communism will be like learning to live. Its weak points and its failings will be shown up when it is introduced. If we were politicians we would paint a paradise brimful of perfections. Being human and being aware what human nature can be like, we trust that people will learn to walk the only way it is possible for them to learn: by walking. (Puente 1932)

Bibliography

Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clastres, Pierre. 1989. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

Clastres, Pierre. 1994. Archeology of Violence. Semiotext(e).

Draper, Patricia. 1975. “!Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931. Edited by Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Puente, Isaac. 1932. Libertarian Communism.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raekstad, Paul, and Gradin, Sofa Saio. 2020. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

When Malatesta Got Shot

During the 1890s there was an intense debate in the Italian anarchist movement between organisationalists, who advocated formal organisations like federations, and anti-organisationalists, who only advocated affinity groups and thought formal organisation was incompatible with anarchist values and strategy. In the United States the main debate occurred between Errico Malatesta, who edited La Questione Sociale and advocated formal organisation, and Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who edited l’Aurora and rejected formal organisation. (Turcato 2012, 190-7)

Prior to this debate with Ciancabilla occurring, Malatesta attended a meeting of anarchists at the Tivola and Zucca Saloon in West Hoboken, New Jersey on 3rd September 1899. West Hoboken was one of the main areas where anti-organisationalist anarchism was popular. During the meeting Malatesta explained his organisationalist ideas and this greatly angered an anarchist barber called Domenico Pazzaglia, who was an anti-organisationalist. According to Armando Borghi, Pazzaglia was “unknown to most of the comrades and ignored by the few who knew him.” (Quoted in Malatesta 2015, 238) Pazzaglia became so enraged during Malatesta’s speech that he drew his revolver and shot Malatesta in the leg. Pazzaglia was then disarmed by Gaetano Bresci, who would go onto assassinate the king of Italy in 1900. The police arrived on the scene and decided to arrest Malatesta, the victim of the shooting. Malatesta responded in a truly anarchist fashion and refused to tell the police who had shot him. Upon being released from police custody, Malatesta decided to not publish an account of the shooting in the paper he edited, La Questione Sociale. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii. Nettlau claims the shot missed Malatesta but both Fabbri and Borghi claim he was shot in the leg)

The newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano published an article on September 6th in which they claim that,

Enrico Malatesta has proven he is a great soul again on this occasion. Not only has he refused to name the assailant, but he has also declared that he has forgiven him from the bottom of his heart.

‘I am sure – Malatesta said – that by now he regrets his actions.’ (Malatesta 2019, 258)

Shortly after the shooting Ciancabilla began the publication of l’Aurora on 16th September and launched a polemical campaign against Malatesta’s organisationalists ideas. Malatesta responded to this by writing a series of articles critiquing his opponents’ arguments. Even though Ciancabilla did not express public regret over the fact that Malatesta had been shot by an anti-organisationalist, Malatesta did not bring up the incident during the debate and focused on the arguments for and against formal organisation. Although it should be noted that Ciancabilla does appear to have been privately opposed to Pazzaglia’s actions. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii; Malatesta 2015, 238)

The one-time Malatesta did mention the shooting occurred when news of it spread from America to Italy. In response to the coverage of the events in the Italian socialist press, Malatesta published a brief note in La Questione Sociale on October 28th. It said,

Comrade Errico Malatesta – considering the protests being published in the Italian newspapers, as well as others that have reached us directly, regarding the slight accident that happened to him and which we believe is not even worth talking about – thanks the friends who have in such a manner expressed their sympathy with him, but begs them… to let that be the end of it. (Malatesta 2019, 120)

I have been unable to find many details about what happened to Pazzaglia after he shot Malatesta. According to Luigi Fabbri, the paper “L’Adunata dei Refrattari of New York (no. 5 of January 28, 1933) clarifies that Malatesta’s shooter had been an outcast who was not given any consideration among comrades; some Pazzaglia, who disappeared immediately after the movement and died a few years later.” (Fabbri 1936)

Malatesta could have used him being shot by an anti-organisationalist to wage a polemical war against his political opponents within the anarchist movement. He could have sought revenge and attempted to shoot Pazzaglia in retaliation. He instead chose to forgive his assailant and move on from these events. In other words, Malatesta killed the cop in his head. Have you?

Bibliography

Fabbri, Luigi. 1936. Life of Malatesta.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

How Would Anarchism Work?

I’m an anarchist which means I want to abolish capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. In response to this people often ask me questions about how an anarchist society would solve all kinds of different social problems. People in the comment section be like hey anarchopac how will anarchism organise healthcare? How would an anarchist society respond to people who go drunk driving? How would an anarchist society deal with scientology or other dangerous cults? What would happen to murderers? And so on and on.

All these are very sensible questions and raise problems any society will have to overcome if it is function and guarantee human well-being. But I can’t answer these questions by myself. I’m just a nerd who has spent far too much time reading books on anarchism. If you want to know what anarchists historically argued on a certain topic I can tell you but I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you how people in the 21st century should solve all kinds of really complex problems like how to effectively organise public infrastructure because I myself know basically nothing about public infrastructure. These are the kinds of question which can only really be answered in practice by lots of different people with different kinds of expertise and life experiences who are organised on the ground. They’re not going to be solved by an anarchist youtube philosopher sitting in their room thinking about the topic. To suggest otherwise is to put myself on the pedestal and act as if everyone else should just listen to me.

Anarchist theory doesn’t tell you exactly how to solve social problems. Instead anarchism advocates a system of self-organisation through which people come together to solve the problems which arise in their specific situation. It proposes that people horizontally associate as equals and make decisions as a group through a system of direct democracy in which everyone has a vote and an equal say in decisions which affect them. These groups then associate with other groups to form federations at a regional, national and international level in order to co-ordinate action over a large area through regular congresses. These congresses would be attended by instantly recallable mandated delegates that councils had elected to represent them. Crucially, delegates would not be granted the power to make decisions independently and impose them on others. Decision making power would remain in the hands of the group who had elected them. This system of decision making isn’t something I invented in a study. It’s how anarchists and syndicalist trade unions with memberships in the hundreds of thousands actually organised in real life since the 19th century to the present. We know it works because it already has.

What decisions these groups make isn’t something anarchist theory can give you all the answers to. Instead they’ll have to work things out for themselves and decide on what they think the best course of action is. In other words, anarchist theory doesn’t tell you what decisions to make. It only indicates a method through which to make decisions yourselves and the values which these decisions should seek to promote, such as freedom, equality and solidarity.

This idea was explained in-depth by the Italian anarchist theorist Malatesta in his 1891 pamphlet anarchy, which you should read if you haven’t already. According to Malatesta,

All that you have said may be true, say some; Anarchy may be a perfect form of social life; but we have no desire to take a leap in the dark. Therefore, tell us how your society will be organised. Then follows a long string of questions, which would be very interesting if it were our business to study the problems that might arise in an emancipated society, but of which it is useless and absurd to imagine that we could now offer a definite solution. According to what method will children be taught? How will production and distribution be organised? Will there still be large cities? or will people spread equally over all the surface of the earth? Will all the inhabitants of Siberia winter at Nice? Will every one dine on partridges and drink champagne? Who will be the miners and sailors? Who will clear the drains? Will the sick be nursed at home or in hospitals? Who will arrange the railway time-table? What will happen if the engine-driver falls ill while the train is on its way? And so on, without end, as though we could prophesy all the knowledge and experience of the future time, or could, in the name of Anarchy, prescribe for the coming man what time he should go to bed, and on what days he should cut his nails!

Indeed if our readers expect from us an answer to these questions, or even to those among them really serious and important, which can be anything more than our own private opinion at this present hour, we must have succeeded badly in our endeavour to explain what Anarchy is. We are no more prophets than other men, and should we pretend to give an official solution to all the problems that will arise in the life of the future society, we should have indeed a curious idea of the abolition of government. We should then be describing a government, dictating, like the clergy, a universal code for the present and all future time. (Malatesta 2014, 139-40)

Anarchists can instead only indicate a method through which society would be organised and decisions would be made. For Malatesta the method of anarchism is

the free initiative of all and free agreement, when, after the revolutionary abolition of private property, every one will have equal power to dispose of social wealth. This method, not admitting the reestablishment of private property, must lead, by means of free association, to the complete triumph of the principles of solidarity.

Thus we see that all the problems put forward to combat the Anarchistic idea are on the contrary arguments in favor of Anarchy; because it alone indicates the way in which, by experience, those solutions which correspond to the dicta of science, and to the needs and wishes of all, can best be found.

How will children be educated? We do not know. What then? The parents, teachers and all, who are interested in the progress of the rising generation, will meet, discuss, agree and differ, and then divide according to their various opinions, putting into practice the methods which they respectively hold to be best. That method which, when tried, produces the best results will triumph in the end. And so for all the problems that may arise. (ibid, 142)

What Malatesta said was true in the 19th century and I think its only become more true in the 21st century. Society is larger and more complex than it used to be. I can’t create a detailed blueprint for how an anarchist society would function but I don’t need to. Anarchism isn’t about me telling you exactly how you will live in my ideal society. Its you and everyone else deciding for yourselves how you shall live through a decentralised system of self-management, rather than doing what a tiny minority of rulers, like bosses or politicians, tell you to do. I don’t have all the answers but collectively we can pool our shared knowledge, skills and experiences to solve the problems which we will have to overcome in an anarchist society. We won’t always make the best or the right decisions but it doesn’t have to be perfect, only better than what we currently have – which is an oligarchy that is currently driving all 7 billion of us towards total environmental collapse in order to make short term profits.

Bibliography

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Anarchism and Love

Something which doesn’t get enough attention is the role of love in anarchist politics. Love is a recurring theme in the writings of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta.

Firstly, love is integral to Malatesta’s vision of an anarchist society and so the goal which anarchists are struggling for. Malatesta claims that anarchists “seek the triumph of freedom and of love.” (Malatesta 2015, 60) He writes that anarchists “aim at the good of all, the elimination of all suffering and the extension of all the joys that can depend on human actions; we aim at the attainment of peace and love among all human beings; we aim at a new and better society, at a worthier and happier mankind.” (ibid, 15)

Malatesta argues that,

Since all the present ills of society have their origin in the struggle between men, in the seeking after well-being through one’s own efforts and for oneself and against everybody, we want to make amends, replacing hatred by love, competition by solidarity, the individual search for personal well-being by the fraternal cooperation for the well-being of all, oppression and imposition by liberty, the religious and pseudo-scientific lie by truth. (ibid, 19)

Secondly, Malatesta says that he is an anarchist because it furthers his desire for a society based on love. He writes,

I am an anarchist because it seems to me that anarchy would correspond better than any other way of social life, to my desire for the good of all, to my aspirations towards a society which reconciles the liberty of everyone with cooperation and love among men. (ibid, 18)

Thirdly, Malatesta argues that love is essential to anarchist politics because it is the emotion that motivates us to not oppress others and to act for the good of others. He writes,

By definition an anarchist is he who does not wish to be oppressed nor wishes to be himself an oppressor; who wants the greatest well-being, freedom and development for all human beings. His ideas, his wishes have their origin in a feeling of sympathy, love and respect for humanity: a feeling which must be sufficiently strong to induce him to want the well-being of others as much as his own, and to renounce those personal advantages, the achievement of which, would involve the sacrifice of others. If it were not so, why would he be the enemy of oppression and not seek to become himself an oppressor? (ibid, 16)

Malatesta makes this same point in more detail when he writes,

Apart from our ideas about the political State and government. . . and those on the best way to ensure for everybody free access to the means of production and enjoyment of the good things of life, we are anarchists because of a feeling which is the driving force for all sincere social reformers, and without which our anarchism would be either a lie or just nonsense. This feeling is the love of mankind, and the fact of sharing the sufferings of others. If I . . . eat I cannot enjoy what I am eating if I think that there are people dying of hunger; if I buy a toy for my child and am made happy by her pleasure, my happiness is soon embittered at seeing wide-eyed children standing by the shop window who could be made happy with a cheap toy but who cannot have it; if I am enjoying myself, my spirit is saddened as soon as I recall that there are unfortunate fellow beings languishing in jail; if I study, or do a job I enjoy doing, I feel remorse at the thought that there are so many brighter than I who are obliged to waste their lives on exhausting, often useless, or harmful tasks.

Clearly, pure egoism; others call it altruism, call it what you like; but without it, it is not possible to be real anarchists. Intolerance of oppression, the desire to be free and to be able to develop one’s personality to its full limits, is not enough to make one an anarchist. That aspiration towards unlimited freedom, if not tempered by a love for mankind and by the desire that all should enjoy equal freedom, may well create rebels who, if they are strong enough, soon become exploiters and tyrants, but never anarchists. (Ibid, 17)

Fourthly, Malatesta claims that love motivates anti-authoritarian people in general. He speaks of non-anarchists possessing an anarchist spirit, by which he means:

that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind. (ibid, 110)

From this I hope it’s clear that Malatesta loves love. As radicals we must remember that love isn’t the exclusive domain of hippies and ‘spiritual’ people. Love for 19th century radicals was primarily about building communism and we need to make love about communism again.

Bibliography

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland CA: PM Press.

What Do Anarchists Think About Violence?

In the popular imagination anarchism is synonymous with violence. But what do anarchists actually think about violence? In this video I’ll be examining what the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who wrote during the late 19th and early 20th century, had to say about violence.

Malatesta held that the “main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations” (Malatesta 2015, 45) because violence is “the essence of every authoritarian system” (Malatesta 2014, 188). For example, Malatesta advocates the abolition of the state because it is in practice “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” (Malatesta 2014, 115) and so is based on the “coercive, violent organisation of society” (Malatesta 2015, 45). Malatesta likewise critiques capitalism because private property was historically established through “violence, robbery and theft, legal or illegal” (Malatesta 2005, 47), such as the English enclosure movement, and is still to this day protected by the violence of the legal system and the police.

If anarchism aims for a non-violent society then one might expect that Malatesta opposes violence completely. This is, however, not the case. Malatesta of course understands that a free non-violent society cannot be violently imposed on people. As he writes,

it would be ridiculous and contrary to our objectives to seek to impose freedom, love among men and the radical development of human faculties, by means of force. One must therefore rely on the free will of others, and all we can do is to provoke the development and the expression of the will of the people. (Malatesta 2014, 282-3)

But Malatesta is not naive and realizes that “those who benefit from existing privileges and who today dominate and control all social life” will oppose the creation of a free society “with brute force”. The ruling classes “have police forces, a judiciary, and armies created for the express purpose of defending their privileges; and they persecute, imprison, and massacre those who would want to abolish those privileges and who claim the means of life and liberty for everyone” (Malatesta 2014, 283) Not only is contemporary society “underpinned by force of arms”, it is also the case that “[n]o oppressed class has ever managed to emancipate itself without recourse to violence; the privileged classes have never surrendered a part, the tiniest fraction, of their privileges, except because of force or fear of force.” (Malatesta 2014, 201)

It is because of this that in order to achieve an anarchist society the masses must rise up and “get rid of the armed force which defends existing institutions”. This decision to engage in violent action “is not the result of our free choice, but is imposed upon us by necessity in the defence of unrecognized human rights which are thwarted by brute force.” (Malatesta 2014, 189) As Malatesta summarizes,

We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition. We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government. We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest. We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. (Malatesta 2015, 47)

In short, “violent revolt . . . [is] a factor of progress in a society based on violence . . . [and is] a necessary means of resolving the social question when the privileged have the guns on their side and are, as they demonstrate day by day, determined to use them.” (Malatesta 2016, 384)

For Malatesta, the violence of revolution is not only a necessity, but also moral, since “slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence” against “those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude.” (Malatesta 2015, 50, 49) Revolutionary violence must therefore not be ethically evaluated in the abstract, but instead be judged relative to the violence perpetuated by those institutions which revolutionaries seek to abolish. He writes that,

There is no doubt that the revolution will cause much misfortune, much suffering. But it might cause a hundred times more and it would still be a blessing compared to what we endure to-day. It is a well-known fact that in a single battle more people are killed than in the bloodiest of revolutions. It is a well-known fact that millions of children of tender age die every year for lack of care, that millions of workers die prematurely of the disease of poverty, that the immense majority of people lead shunted, joyless, and hopeless lives, that even the richest and most powerful are much less happy than they might be in a society of equals, and that this state of things has lasted from time immemorial. Without a revolution it would last indefinitely, whereas one single revolution which went right to the causes of the evil could put humanity for all time on the road to happiness. So let the revolution come! Every day that it delays means an enormous mass of suffering inflicted on mankind. (Malatesta 2014, 157-8)

Malatesta not only defended revolutionary violence but also critiqued three other main perspectives on violence which were held at the time. Firstly, Malatesta is opposed to the idea that we should be “opposed to all violence whatever, except in cases of personal defense against direct and immediate attack.” This is because doing so “would mean the renunciation of all revolutionary initiative, and the reserving of our blows for the petty, and often involuntary agents of the government, while leaving in peace the organizers of, and those chiefly benefited by, government and capitalist exploitation.” (Malatesta 2014, 187) In other words, if we should only engage in immediate self-defence then we should only use violence against the police or soldiers who are attacking us and not the members of the ruling classes who, while not personally attacking us with their bodies, do control the means of violence and have it deployed in their interests. Therefore,

as Anarchists, we cannot and we do not desire to employ violence, except in the defence of ourselves and others against oppression.  But we claim this right of defence – entire, real, and efficacious. That is, we wish to be able to go behind the material instrument which wounds us, and to attack the hand which wields the instrument, and the head which directs it. (Malatesta 2014, 189)

The second view on violence Malatesta rejects is strict pacifism. According to this view “we must endure oppression and degradation in our own cases and in those of others rather than do harm to the oppressor” and so not use “every available means to defend” ourselves or others. Malatesta is opposed to strict pacifism because someone who engages in it would “in practice and much against his will. . . be simply terrifically selfish. . . to let others suffer oppression without trying to come to their defence”, such as preferring to rather “see some class ground into misery, some people downtrodden by the invader, some man suffer trespass against his life and liberty . . . than that a hair on the head of the oppressor be harmed”. Therefore, “Tolstoyans . . . [are] those who would let the whole of humanity be ground down by the weight of the greatest suffering rather than trespass against a principle.” (Malatesta 2014, 203-4)

Against this highly abstract view of morality, Malatesta holds that our morals must be grounded in the actual conditions that we are acting in. He writes that “[t]he means we employ are those that circumstances make possible or necessary. It is true that we would prefer not to hurt a hair of anybody’s head; we would like to wipe away all tears and not to cause any to be shed.” (Malatesta 2014, 156-7) But we are unfortunately “forced to struggle in the world as we found it, on pains of remaining sterile dreamers, who leave untouched all the existing evils, and do good to no one, for fear of doing wrong to anyone.” (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 22)

The third view on violence Malatesta rejects is one in which violence is celebrated and transformed into an end in and of itself. Malatesta rejects “needless, harmful violence” because, “anarchists should not and cannot be avengers; they are liberators. We bear hatred towards none; we are not fighting to avenge ourselves or to avenge anyone else; we seek love towards all, liberty for all.” As a result,

let us have no unnecessary victims, not even in the enemy camp. The very purpose on behalf of which we struggle requires us to be kind and humane even in the heat of battle; so I fail to understand how one can fight for a purpose like ours without our being kindly and humane. And let us not forget that a liberating revolution cannot be born of massacre and terror, these having been – and ever so it shall remain – the midwives to tyranny. (Malatesta 2014, 203)

Instead of viewing violence as an end in and of itself anarchists “must be like the surgeon who cuts when he must but avoids causing needless suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 159) Given this, while Malatesta is in favour of violence when it is necessary, he does prefer “passive resistance” when it is an “effective weapon” because “it would be the most sparing one in terms of human suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 204)

Bibliography

Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Cafe. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.