Malatesta and Violence

If, to win, we have to set up the gallows in the public square, I would prefer to lose.

Errico Malatesta, “Revolutionary Terror”, October 1924.

Discussing Malatesta’s views on violence can be interesting because of the privileged perspective he had, writing in the 1920s in Italy, during the advent of Fascism. However, it can lead to some misunderstandings. Even if everyone works on the same text, “Anarchy & Violence” (September 1924) they can get quotes which range from its opening line “Anarchy means non-violence” to “anarchist violence is the only violence that can be justified”. So it seems necessary to look at this text a bit closer, as a whole rather than as a set of independent quotes, as Malatesta’s taste for short, efficient sentences can mask the complexity of his thought. He is not using style to build some artificial unity between opposites, as his text is precisely against what he calls “illogicality or hypocrisy”.

Firstly, we need to note that the use of the term “non-violence” can be misleading since, as far as we can ascertain, it does not refer to the doctrine of non-violence, as we can see not only from the fact that it is used conjointly with “non-domination” and “non-imposition”, but also from the words Malatesta does use when he refers to what we usual call non-violence: he writes, describing issues alive in the anarchist movement: “There are the partisans of non-resistance or passive resistance, who shrink from violence even where it serves to repel violence, and there are those who admit to the necessity for violence but who are in turn divided as to the nature, scope and boundaries of legitimate violence”.

The text opens, as often, with a definition of anarchism. A negative one at first: it is non-violence, it does not tolerate any system of domination, and it is neither Fascism nor democracy (“non-imposition by force of will of one or more over others”). Anarchism’s only distinctive characteristic, compared with other doctrines which claim to fight systems of dominations, is its relationship to violence: “what distinguishes the anarchists from all the others is precisely the horror of violence, the desire and the proposal to eliminate violence”.

The word “non-violence” no longer appears and Malatesta goes on to explain this shift by talking about being “forced to resist with all possible means”, which he illustrates with his first practical example. This example is chiefly interesting because it is truly a terrible one. I speak here as someone with little experience of violence, and I expect a large part of the people reading this today not to be regular street fighters or guerrilla strategists either. Personally, I read his example as if he were the DM of a role-playing game: “You come into conflict with some Dumini-type gangster and he is armed and you are unarmed; he is surrounded by a big gang and you are alone or with just a few companions; he is confident of going unpunished and you fear the eruption on the scene of the carabinieri, who will arrest and maltreat you and throw you into jail for an indefinite time…” As a player, those are all clear hints that you should look for a way out of this situation which does not involve fighting, or it will immediately result in the tragic death (or, at best, imprisonment) of your character. Malatesta, however, happily concludes “Then tell me if you could escape from your predicament by persuading the Dumini-type with good arguments to be just, good and gentle!” Well, I wouldn’t normally count on pity from a Fascist assassin, but it seems almost sensible when the alternative is to attack him, his mates and their guns, alone with my bare hands, knowing that even if the commotion attracts the police I’m screwed all the same. Even in Assassin’s Creed this does not sound like a wise move.

We can therefore assume that this example is not an illustration of when it could be necessary to use violence. It is an illustration of why, despite their best wishes and their horror of violence, anarchists must take into consideration that they live in a society where some people want to and can kill them with relative ease and impunity. Therefore, we can imagine Malatesta is advocating, or excusing, carrying weapons (which were common, legal or at least widely tolerated in the early 20th century), acting in groups and cop watching: all these things which give anarchists the appearance of a violent organization, as a way to protect themselves from violent situations. He also realizes that this will create the opportunity of unjustifiable acts of violence on the part of anarchists as we will see later.

To Malatesta, the discourse on violence is profoundly hypocritical, even if it comes from the oppressed. For him, “there is no cause to draw distinctions between sides” (“arrogant bullying, injustices, ferocious oppression on one hand, rebellion on the other”) “while finding it necessary and right to use force to defend their own liberty, their own interests, their own class, their own country, every faction has, in the name of their own particular code of values, gone on to condemn violence when this is turned against them by others, who seek to defend their freedom, their interests, their class and their country.” How does such an accusation of hypocrisy then directly leads to “Yet anarchist violence is the only violence that can be justified, the only violence that is not criminal”?

Once again, the definition is mostly negative: anarchist violence is not violence perpetrated by anarchists in reaction to the insufferable. Although Malatesta seems quite resigned that it should keep happening (as anarchists are persecuted and armed), he does not try to justify it. The violence he deems justifiable on the other hand is a type of violence which has “anarchist characteristics”:

  1. It is limited in time and is reactive: it “ceases where the need for defense and liberation ceases”.
  2. It is limited in whom it targets: “It is tempered by the awareness that individuals, taken in isolation, are hardly, if at all, responsible for the positions which heredity or environment have bestowed on them”.
  3. It is sacred. “It is inspired not by hatred but love, and it is sacred because its goal is the liberation of all and not the substitution of one form of domination with another.”

He then proceeds to explain the importance to keep the possibility of violence as a means of action: to fight the rise of fascism. This also can explain the term “sacred” as it denotes the idea that violence can be a duty. He also hints here at who can carry out these acts of violence when he talks about “the mass of the people”, something which will be highlighted further in Emma Goldman’s writings on violence in the Spanish Revolution.

In this text, Malatesta tries to stir a course which is neither absolute non-violence, nor a comfortable justification of violence. Above all, he seems concerned with the tendency of violence to become institutionalized, and that is why he does not spell out precise circumstances which could be used to judge the actions of everyone, but rather gives some moral cautionary tales against our baser tendencies and presents anarchist violence as insurmountably ambiguous, a violence “inspired not by hatred, but love”, which is both a horror and a duty.

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