Malatesta, Errico

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MALATESTA, ERRICO (1853–1932), Italian anarchist.

One of the most influential figures in the anarchist tradition, Errico Malatesta was born in 1853 at Santa Maria Capua Vetere near Naples, Italy. After enrolling in the faculty of medicine at the University of Naples, Malatesta soon devoted himself entirely to politics, abandoning his studies and medical career.

Initially, Malatesta was drawn to the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini, the radical revolutionary and father of Italian nationalism. The Paris Commune of 1871, however, decisively transformed Malatesta's political direction. For Malatesta, the Commune seemed to embody the ideals of Italian radicals. It was a revolutionary movement of ordinary men and women who attempted to liberate themselves and to build a democratic and egalitarian society. It was profoundly disillusioning, and indeed somewhat surprising, therefore, that Mazzini condemned the Commune and welcomed its suppression.

Immediately after the events in Paris, therefore, Malatesta turned to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. In those years Bakunin was active in Naples, where he founded an Italian section of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) established by Karl Marx. Malatesta accepted Bakunin's critique of the authoritarianism of Marx's leadership. He also agreed with Bakunin that the social and economic structures of Italy precluded a revolution based on the Marxian notions of an industrial proletariat. ln an agrarian society like Italy, the social groups likely to lead a revolution were peasants in the countryside and artisans in the cities. The actions of Parisian craftsmen in 1871 and of southern Italian peasants during the 1860s revolt, known as "banditry," suggested that Bakunin had provided a more realistic assessment of Italian revolutionary possibilities than Marx. Furthermore, Malatesta opposed the elaboration of a complex theory such as Marx's on the grounds that a doctrine beyond the grasp of the movement's members was inherently authoritarian. He also anticipated that the precise structures of the future egalitarian society would be determined spontaneously after the revolution. Thus, with the establishment of the IWA, the first form of organized socialism in Italy was anarchism rather than Marxism.

Although the anarchists had many initial advantages over Marxism in attracting a popular following, their dominant role in Italy proved fleeting. One problem was the overly simple anarchist theory of revolution itself—that all that was needed was the example of selfless intellectuals who practiced the "propaganda of the deed." The masses, the theory held, would follow. In keeping with this perspective, Malatesta and his comrades attempted to ignite insurrections in 1874 and 1877. Unfortunately for them, the masses remained indifferent on both occasions. The only enduring result was that the police unleashed a lasting campaign to suppress the anarchist movement, outlawing the International and targeting its members for mass arrests, the dissolution of party branches, a ban on meetings, and administrative banishment. Malatesta suffered imprisonment and then fled abroad. For most of the remainder of his life—from his first exile in 1879 until his definitive return to Italy in 1919—Malatesta lived outside of his native country.

Within the anarchist cause, Malatesta established a distinctive and coherent current of thought. Malatesta was committed to building a broad base for revolution, and for that purpose he accepted the necessity for organization and for anarchist participation in party structures, chambers of labor, trade unions, and newspapers. For that reason, too, he rejected the temptations of libertarian individualism in the manner of Max Stirner, and of the practice of terrorism, which he thought alienated the masses and dehumanized revolution. The anarchist cause, he argued, was not the property of individuals or even of the working class. Anarchy—the abolition of coercive state power—was the means to liberate all of humanity. At its height, Italian anarchism attracted a following variously estimated at between eight thousand and twenty thousand members concentrated primarily in central Italy.

With the foundation of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in 1892, the anarchists permanently lost their leadership of the workers' movement. The establishment of the PSI formalized a permanent split in Italian socialism between legalitarian social democrats and anarchists, and the anarchists failed to keep pace with the PSI in competing for mass support. In the course of this schism, some anarchists defected to the cause of legalitarian socialism, the most clamorous example being that of Andrea Costa. Malatesta, however, never wavered in his commitment to the anarchist cause. For three decades after 1892 he tirelessly preached the cause of antiauthoritarian communism, arguing for the rejection of elections, parliaments, and any approach to socialism that involved the use of state power for its realization.

A sworn enemy of militarism, Malatesta opposed World War I and Italian entry into the conflict. After the war he returned to Italy in 1919 and played an active role in the political ferment marking the "Red Years" in Italian history—1919 and 1920—even founding an anarchist newspaper, Umanità Nuova. With the fascist seizure of power in 1922, however, Malatesta again faced rigorous repression. His paper was closed, and he himself, by now in failing health, was placed under house arrest from 1926 until his death in Rome in 1932.

See alsoAnarchism; Bakunin, Mikhail; Italy; Mazzini, Giuseppe.


Berti, Giampietro. Errico Malatesta e il movimento anarchico italiano e Internazionale: 1872–1932. Milan, 2003.

Levy, Carl. "Italian Anarchism, 1870–1926." In For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, edited by David Goodway, 25–78. London and New York, 1989.

Nettlau, Max. "Errico Malatesta: Vita e pensieri." New York, 1922.

Pernicone, Nunzio. Italian Anarchism, 1864–1892. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. New York, 1962.

Frank Snowden