The Life and Times of Malatesta


Malatesta was one of the famous anarchists of the 19th century. He lived 79 years. Not as much is known of him as for example Bakunin or Kropotkin for a few reasons. He never kept a diary, he was Italian, and he was very active and continually hopping from one country to another, which meant he never kept a store of his own writings. For these reasons he has not been an attractive person to study and write about, because the work would be too hard.

For nearly sixty years, Malatesta was active in the anarchist movement as an agitator and as a propagandist. He was one of the movements most respected members as well as remaining to the end one of its most controversial. He was active in many parts of the world, as well as the editor of a number of Italian anarchist journals including the daily Umanita Nova (1920-22). Nearly half his life was spent in exile and his impact is evidenced by the fact that he spent more than ten years in prison, mainly awaiting trial. The last six years of his life were spent under house arrest.
His health

Malatesta was a sick man. He had a weak respiratory system throughout his life and was subject to regular bronchial attacks. In the last few weeks of his life he developed bronchial pneumonia which finally finished him off, despite being given 1500 litres of oxygen in his last five hours. He died on Friday, 22nd July 1932.

Sixty years earlier, when Malatesta first met Bakunin, he had been so sick that he was spitting blood. He arrived at Bakunin's house with a feverish cough and Bakunin had put him to bed and told him to sleep. When Bakunin thought Malatesta was asleep, he said to his friends who were in the room "What a shame that he should be so sick: we shall lose him very soon; he won't last more than six months." (In, fact, Malatesta was to outlive Bakunin by over fifty years.)

His sickness was to remain with him throughout his life and finally kill him.

His birth

But to get back to the beginning. Errico Malatesta was born in Santa Maria Capua Vetere in the province of Caserta, Italy, on December 14, 1853. There are a number of sources which claim that he was of aristocratic descent, but my source, which is Freedom Press does not think this is true. He was, anyway, the son of a modest to rich landowner.

By the time of Malatesta's first meeting with Bakunin, which as I already said was in 1872, when Malatesta was 19, Malatesta's mother, father and a brother and sister had all died from chest complaints. So it was a sick family.

His first political act was at the tender age of 14, when he sent a "threatening and insolent" letter to the King, Victor Emmanuel II complaining about a local injustice. He was arrested, but his father got him out and sent him to a special school to cure him of his strange ideas.

At that time he was a republican and applied to join the Universal Republican Alliance. This was the Republican movement which was lead by Mazzini who was to create the new Italian Republic. Malatestas membership was turned down on the grounds that he was too socialistic and that he would probably not last long, but would leave and join the International.

Malatesta, who had not then heard of the International, (by the way this is the First International), went on to find out more about it.

Two years later when he was 16, he was again arrested at a demo and sentenced in Naples. He was kicked out of his college, the University of Naples for a year.

The year after was 1871, the year of the Paris Commune. Malatesta joined the International a few months later. He not only joined himself, but persuaded many of his friends to join, as well as a group of workers. He had a great capacity for work, but he also had a great capacity to inspire people around him, a gift he was to keep throughout his life.

His early years

In those early years, Malatesta and his mates threw everything into making a revolution which they believed to be just around the corner.They gave everything they had, time and money, even so far as selling their household possessions. To quote the great man himself;

"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"

Malatesta learnt some valuable lessons. One of the first was that you could not lead the workers soley by example. His anarchist group could get themselves arrested and persecuted over and over again and it was not going to make the working class as a whole rise up. Something more was needed.

He also learnt that the working class was not going so rise up spontaneously and create a revolution. Even though, at the time there was mass discontent and regular uprisings. Malatesta wrote that when an uprising does take place:

" the signori [ie, the aristos] if they have any sense can more easily control by distributing bread and throwing a few coppers to the clamouring 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."


Malatesta also became a Bakuninist, that is a follower of Bakunin's ideas within the First International. He was very clear on avoiding the cult of personality and would never agree with someone for what they were, but what they stood for. In fact, later on he criticised Bakunin for being too much of a Marxist.

Once he got over his initial learning, he continued throughout his life with three guiding points. He believed in the importance of propaganda in order to spread ideas and as he puts it, to push people to think and act for themselves. He was therefore an indefatigable propagandist of the written and spoken word. But he saw the limits of propaganda and viewed direct action as a vital component for preparing the environment for revolution. And the final ingredient was that he was an Internationalist.
Life in Exile

As I mentioned at the beginning, Malatesta spent nearly half his life in exile, 35 years to be exact. The first period in exile began in 1878, when he was 25 years old. He returned to Italy five years later, when he was 30, but left the year after for South America and did not come back until 1897 when he was 43.

This time he stayed for 2 years while he edited the paper L'Agitazione (Agitation). So in 1899 he went off again where he lived most of the time in London and did not return to Italy until 1913-14 for barely a year, at the tender age of 60.

His last return to Italy was in 1919, and he lived out his last remaining 13 years there.

Time spent in London

During his years of exile he was not necessarily active. For example the 19 years that he spent in London between 1900 and 1919 he did little apart from go to an Anarchist International Congress in Amsterdam in 1907 and an exciting period in Italy when he was 60 during the years of 1913-14, which culminated in Red Week, June 1914.

Perhaps his most famous influence, in England, was a criminal libel case in 1912 where he was sentenced to deportation and 3 months in prison. (not in that order). A strong campaign for his release in the radical press and a mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square resulted in the sentence being quashed.
Malatesta at 60

It is a sign of Malatesta's influence and inspiration, that he was able, at the age of sixty to start things going in Italy, from where he lived, in London WC1. At the time, the anarchist movement in Italy was more or less torn apart by internal and personal problems. Many ex-anarchists had joined bourgeois parties. Malatesta, though, decided that the time was ripe for a growth in anarchist activity. The Italians had just fought an unpopular war, the Tripolitanian war and there was growing unrest.

He contacted some anarchist buddies in Italy and set about editing an anarchist paper called Volonta from London which was to be distributed in Ancona, Italy.This was successful, but Malatesta could not keep himself from getting involved, and he came over to Italy.

What the police chief said

A good account of his activities is given by the police chief at the time. It is worth telling how we managed to get the account of the police chief. In the WWII, the Americans bombed an Ancona police station, which was destroyed. Two anarchists, while searching among the rubble found the police dossier on Malatesta which they then went and published. Here is a bit:

"Malatesta's return from London was the signal for a reawakening of the anarchist movement in Ancona....Malatesta immediately set about reorganising it. he made revolutionary propaganda at meetings and gatherings; by leaflets and through articles in the weekly journal Volonta of which he is the editor and which is the organ of the party.

.....In a short time in Ancona, anarchists and sympathisers number some 600 individuals consisting predominantly of dock porters, workers and criminal elements of the town.....

...he very frequently travels keeping in contact with the more prominent leaders and in constant touch with the other anarchist groups.. 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 sympathisers, never losing sight of his principle goal which is to draw together the forces of the party and undermine the bases of the State, by hindering its workings, paralyse its services and doing anti-militarist propaganda, until the favourable occasion arises to overturn and destroy the existing State"

What he was after was pretty clear, so clear that even the police chief understood it. At least 37 anarchist demos took place, that year, in the province, at which Malatesta took part.
Red Week

Agitatation had been going on elsewhere, and, after a proposal by the Trades Council of Ancona if was agreed to have a national demo, against disciplinary battalions, on the day commemorating the re-establishment of Italian unity and the Monarchy. The reason to have the demo on that day was because normally all the soldiers and police went on marches to celebrate that day. If they were all diverted because of the day of action it would have had a big impact and everyone would notice.

The relevant Minister, naturally, banned the demonstrations and, just as naturally, the demos went ahead. In Ancona the police over reacted and fired on a crowd going into the main square. 3 workers were killed and 20 injured.

After the massacre, the gendarmes shat themselves, and rushed back to the barracks for shelter. The people were left masters of the town. There was an immediate general strike which spread all over Italy. This was the beginning of the 'red week'.

The two main unions and the Railwaymens Union called a general strike. I will not go into this in much detail, but it could be a good subject for a talk sometime. The week involved strikes, and demos, which in turn led to conflicts with police and more killings. This pushed things further and in many places, autonomous communes were proclaimed.

As the situation developed, and people started reorganising society on socialist lines, the reformist union called the strike off. This split the movement and the government were able to move in and begin to restore order. Still it was pretty impressive.

World War I

When World War I broke out, Malatesta was back in London again. The anarchist movement split over whether or not to take sides. A small minority, but one which contained many influential voices, including Kropotkin, wanted to support the Allied side (France, Russia and Britain) against the Germans. Kropotkin, who had been an anti-militarist before the war, wrote:

"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 neighbour, whosoever the neighbour may be. Because, if the anti-militarists remain mere onlookers on the war, they support by their inaction the invaders; they help them to become still stronger, and thus to be a still stronger obstacle to the Social Revolution in the future"

Malatesta totally disagreed with this, and wrote that what anti-militarism means is that you never take up arms for your masters and that you only fight for the social revolution. He pointed out that it is impossible to work out who the aggressor is in a war such as World War I. If you ask people to fight against the aggressor in a war you are as good as asking them to just obey the orders of your respective governments, who will tell you that it is the other side who is the aggressor.

It is worth repeating that anarchists who wanted to take sides in World War I were a minority, albeit a vocal one. After the war, Kropotkin returned to Russia and found himself alienated from the revolutionary left. In contrast, Malatesta returned to Italy in 1919, in triumph.

The remaining years that Malatesta spent in Italy after 1919 are regarded as his most productive, even though this period also marked the defeat of the working class of Italy by the steadily growing fascists under Mussolini.
Umanita Nova

As before, Malatesta edited a paper. This time it was an anarchist daily, called Umanita Nova . He travelled the country addressing meetings and trying to bring together all the revolutionary elements in the Socialist and republican parties, and in the Trade Union movement, to fight against fascism.

He tried to bring together a huge movement which had in its ranks anarchists of all sorts, including those types who are anti organisation. The object of the movement was to fight against fascism. They failed in this aim, of course, but so did the Socialists, communists and trades unions.

During this time anarchists were subject to regular attacks by young fascist thugs. Despite this, the paper sold 50,000 copies daily. The revolutionary syndicalist union had a membership of more than 500,000. They were also harassed by the new Communist Party, which tried to destroy all the the left wing that was not allied to it.
Rise of fascism

But the anarchists could not get it together and they slowly lost ground along with the rest of the working class. In July 1921 a general strike, which turned out to be a last gasp effort, was called by the anti fascist 'Workers alliance' - which the anarchist helped to set up. It was only partly effective.

It became harder and harder to sell the paper. Eventually the paper could only be sold in Rome, all other papers were seized or burnt by vigilantes. It became a weekly paper in August 1922 and Mussolini's march on Rome took place 2 months later in October 1922. It was around this time that the authorities closed down the paper for good.

Malatesta was now 70, he could not carry on in politics in that climate so he went back to his day job as an electrician mechanic.

A few years later he again tried publishing, this time the Pensiero e Volonta a which again lasted a few years. It was theoretical and fortnightly. But the censor banned theoretical magazines in 1926 and Malatesta was finally silenced in Italy for good.

Gruesome death

He now had six years to live and he spent them in Rome under house arrest. The police set up a permanent post in the porch of his house. Anybody who tried to visit him was arrested, and when Malatesta went out, anybody who tried to approach him was arrested. The bronchial problems which had dogged him all his life finally caught up on him in 1932 when he died slowly and painfully.
His Ideas

Malatesta was an anarchist communist. He was a supporter of Bakunin in the first International. He objected to Kropotkin on the First World War issue but also on Kropotkin's theory of a spontaneous revolution, ie that a revolution would happen spontaneously.

He believed in action as well as words and had a significant part in the conception and organisation of the general strike that led to "Red Week" in Italy in 1914, even though he had already left the country when it happened.

However, when the "Platform of the Libertarian communists" came out in 1926, Malatesta criticised it for being;

"one step away from Bolshevism"

and an attempt to;

"Bolshevise anarchism"

He also, as I mentioned before, criticised Bakunin for being too much of a Marxist.

On reading his pamphlet, "Anarchy" I find what is published to be very theoretical, wordy, but at the same time he makes interesting points. It may be that the only stuff that is translated into English is the theoretical writings, on the grounds that the rest would not be so relevant as time passes on.

The Freedom Book on Malatesta "Malatesta Life and Ideas" published in 1984 also contains soley theoretical articles, some of which are repeated in the pamphlet that I just mentioned as well. Typical subjects are "Anarchism and Science" and "Anarchism and Freedom" and "Anarchism and Violence" which you can predict by the titles what they are going to say. Still, articles like these make a good introduction to anarchism for the new reader.

In "An anarchist programme", which is another article in the book, Malatesta sets out what anarchists should do. He first gives a list of what we are against; capitalism; what we are for; anarchism; and how to get there. It is in how to get a revolution, and how to act in day to day politics that I would have most problems with him.

Malatesta wanted to work with all anarchists, anarchists that believe in organisation as well as those that did not. This obviously covers just about anybody who calls themselves an anarchist. For these reasons they would be very limited in the actions they could take. They would also be doomed to splits and disintegration in a short time as their real differences came to a head.

This happened in Italy where it seems that in the period 1913-14 and 1919-22 the main thing that stuck the anarchists together was Malatesta himself. The anarchist movement had been destroyed by splits and defections to bourgeois parties. He certainly re-started the movements at those times and seemed to be the driving force and main guru.

So in conclusion, Malatesta led an inspiring life, he was dedicated to the cause and he gave his life to it. He lived through exciting times; the Paris Commune, the First International, World War I and the rise of fascism.

He was the editor of numerous anarchist papers and was a prolific writer and agitator. And despite his antagonisms towards platformism he was a great organiser and was able to inspire and lead whole movements around him. I hope this talk has let people know more about him which in some way will contribute to keeping his memory alive.