Some Notes on Malatesta and Bakunin

By Vernon Richards
The raven #1

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Bakunin’s death in 1926, Malatesta, then in his seventieth year and publishing one of the most important of his many periodicals, Pensiero e Volontà, [1] commemorated the occasion with a short article in which he summarised Bakunin’s contribution to the anarchist cause, as he saw it, followed by a short statement of anarchist principles as formulated in 1872 at the congress og St Imier which was inspired by Bakunin, and finally a rare piece of autobiography, ‘My First Meeting with Bakunin’. [2] This last is a delightful, generous reminiscent piece which also contains reflections and statements of considerable interest in assessing the influence exerted by Bakunin on Malatesta as well as on the anarchist movement of that period.

Even more important in this connection, however, is Malatesta’s long introduction to Max Nettlau’s Bakunin e l’Internazionale in Italia published in 1928, [3] by which time Pensiero e Volontà had been suppressed by Mussolini’s Fascist government and its distinguished editor was living under house arrest in Rome, isolated from his friends and comrades in Italy and from the international movement until his death in 1932.

Arthur Lehning in the introduction to his volume of Bakunin selections [4] suggests that one of the reasons why ‘the philosophical depth and originality of Bakunin’s writings’ have not been fully appreciated is the ‘all too obvious’ one that, ‘especially in English speaking countries, few of the agencies which have had the responsibility of disseminating revolutionary ideas hav had much knowledge of Bakunin; and when they did have the knowledge they lacked the incentive to analyse or propagate his works’.

Assuming that I have understood the academic jargon in Lehning’s gentle but clear reproach, and that by ‘the agencies which have had the responsibility…’ he simply means ‘anarchist propagandist’ such as the Freedom Press in England and their opposite numbers in other English-speaking countries, then all I can say is that this ‘lack of appreciation’ is not limited to the English-speaking countries, and that in the circumstances it may now be argued that perhaps Lehning has overestimated the importance of Bakunin’s contribution to anarchist thinking. For instance, apart from a quotation from Bakunin in the best known of Malatesta’s pamphlets, l’Anarchia [5] I cannot recall having seen direct references to Bakunin in Malatesta’s writings. In view of the undoubted influence Bakunin exerted on him, this is surely significant, for I am convinced that Malatesta must have read all Bakunin’s published writings that were available in the languages with which he was familiar.

Perhaps Bakunin the thinker has been the victim of his public image – partly of his own creation – as the man of action. It is unfortunately only too apparent that the anarchist ‘movement’ in all countries, in common with other revolutionary minorities, rejects the Church but sanctifies its martyrs, denounces society’s war heroes but cherishes its men and women of action, and so tends to declare that propaganda by the deed is not only more ‘revolutionary’ but more positive than the propaganda of ideas. n this age of mass communications, with the emphasis on the visual through television, the fact that ‘action’ has a larger ‘captured’ audience than has the presentation of ideas, adds weight to the arguments of those professional revolutionaries who are ‘in a hurry’ and look to the sensational (kidnappings, hi-jackings, hold-ups, punch-ups with the police, bombs at Embassies, etc.) rather than the prosaic (meetings, journals, pamphlets) – i.e. propaganda in depth, continued with patience and without being what Bakunin called endormeurs or what romantics today call ‘quietists’.

In Malatesta’s recollections of his first meeting with Bakunin he writes: ‘In Naples Bakunin was a kind of myth. He had been there in 1864 and 1867 I think, and had created a deep impression. He was spoken of as an extraordinary personality and, as generally is the case, both his qualities and his faults were exaggerated.’ [6] ‘What is important’, writes Malatesta, ‘was the considerable discussion in all advanced circles, or those professing to be, of his ideas.’ For the majority of Neapolitan ‘intellectuals’ who were patriots and traditionalists Bakunin had come to shake things up. ‘For some he was the barbarian from the North, without God or country, without respect for anything held sacred, and was looked upon as a threat to the saintly Italian and Latin civilisation. For others he was the man who had brought to the Stygian marshes of Neapolitan traditionalism a breath of fresh air, and had opened the eyes of the youth who had approached him to new and broad horizons.’

And the Fanellis, de Lucas, Gambuzzis, Palladinos, were ‘the first socialists, the first internationalists, the first anarchists in Naples and in Italy’. Malatesta concludes: ‘And so, as a result of hearing so much about him, Bakunin had become for me too a legendary personage; and to know him, to approach him, to warm the spirit before his fire was for me a burning desire, almost an obsession. The dream was about to be realised.’

What contemporary historians call ‘charisma’ is again revealed in Malatesta’s introductory article where he recalls his last meeting with Bakunin in Lugano in 1875 when physically Bakunin was a mere shadow of his former self (‘My dear friend, I am present at my own dissolution,’ [7] he told his young admirer, half seriously, half jokingly) and yet the by then septuagenarian Malatesta adds nostalgically: ‘Only to think of him still warms my heart and fills it with youthful enthusiasm.’

He goes on to emphasise: ‘…this above all was Bakunin’s worth: to create enthusiasm, to encourage a faith in action and for sacrifice in all those who had the good fortune to approach him. He himself used to say that one had to have le diable au corps; and he really did have it, physically and spiritually, the rebel Satan of mythology, who knows no gods, recognises no masters and never pauses in the struggle against all that hampers thought and action.’

Arthus Lehning, [8] in seeking to explain the apparent contradiction in Bakunin’s career as summed up by E.H. Carr (‘There are few whose life and thought have exerted such immense influence on the world as Michael Bakunin and yet who left such an inadequate and confused account of their views’), points out that ‘the turbulent life of this revolutionary did not take place in the reading room of a great library’ but adds something which present day revolutionaries could well take to heart: ‘To a large extent, his influence was the result of his enormous epistolary activity. He could write some twenty-four letters in one day – many of them having the proportions of a pamphlet.’ And in a footnote Lehning states that ‘most of his correspondence from 1864 to his death in 1876 is lost’. Nevertheless he is confident that ‘when all his works are accessible, it should be evident that they constitute a coherent social philosophy, with a complementary theory of revolutionary practice’.

It should be noted that Lehning omits the word anarchism from his assessment, though in the opening paragraph of his introduction he does express the view that ‘Bakunin’s main historical achievement lies in his having linked the libertarian ideas of anarchism with the movement for the emancipation of the working classes, and in his having sown the seeds of anti-authoritarian Socialism and of the theory and practice of anarcho-syndicalism’.

Malatesta, however, is as uniequivocal when it comes to ideas as he is when describing the personality of his youthful hero. ‘I was a Bakuninist, as were all my comrades of, alas, those past generations. Now – and for very many years past – I would not describe myself thus.’ Indeed, Nettlau [9] records the fact that at the Eighth Congress of the International Working Men’s Association held in Berne in October 1876, only a few months after Bakunin’s death, Malatesta, who was one of the Italian delegates, protested against ‘the habit of calling themselves or of being known as Bakuninists’ for the reasons that ‘we are not [Bakuninists] since we do not share all Bakunin’s theoretical and practical ideas and because, above all, we follow ideas and not men and rebel against this habit of embodying a principle in a man’.

This is a telling statement for one so young (Malatesta was then twenty-three, and he never deviated from this position throughout his life. The fact that in his youth he had to ‘choose’ from a galaxy of ‘great men’ – Garibaldi, Mazzini, Marx and Bakunin – probably gave him at an early stage an awareness of the dangers that stem from associating ideas with personalities.

All these personalities were consciously ‘leaders of men’. Lehning [10] writes of Bakunin that ‘being primarily a man of action [he] always wrote for men and women he was trying to trigger into action or else to guide while they were acting’. He underlines Carr’s observation that it was ‘impossible to convey to posterity that sense of overwhelming power which was always present to those who knew him in life’ by adding his own that he ‘had the rare gift of persuading people to devote their lives to his cause, and of quickly forming intimate bonds with them if they seemed useful to him for his revolutionary purpose‘. (My emphasis.)

All these ‘powers’ were anathema to Malatesta. In spite of the sycophants who sought to build him up as the ‘Lenin of Italy’ who would ‘lead’ the anarchist revolution, [11] he directed his propaganda to the people at large, not because he had any special faith in their revolutionary responses, but because he had even less faith in revolutionary élites.

Malatesta [12] summed up his criticism of Bakunin’s position in these terms: ‘Ideas have developed and been modified. Today I find that Bakunin, in political economy and in the interpretation of history, was too Marxist; I find that his philosophy was conducted without possible issue in the contradiction between the mechanical concept of the universe and the faith in will over the faith of mankind. But all this is of no great importance. Theories are uncertain and changing concepts; and philosophy, consisting of hypotheses inhabiting the clouds, has little or no influence on life.’

And he concludes with the reflection that ‘Bakunin always remains, in spite of all possible disagreements, our great master and inspiration’. I think that we should take this remark and the two concluding paragraphs of that ‘commemorative’ article more as proof of Malatesta’s loyalty to the hero of his adolescence, and of his modesty so far as his own contribution to anarchist thought is concerned, than as his considered opinion of Bakunin’s contribution. After all, he ends his memorable ‘Recollections and Criticism of an Old Friend’ – about Kropotkin this time – with the words: ‘I do not think my strictures on him can diminish Kropotkin the person, who remains, in spite of everything, one of the shining lights of our movement.’ [13]

Of his Bakuninist period, Malatesta admitted that ‘though none of us had read Marx, we were still too Marxist’. [14] Luigi Fabbri, his closest comrade (and to my mind the most reliable interpreter of Malatesta’s ideas), considered that the period of transition between the anarchism of the First International and the anarchism that Malatesta expounded to the end of his life occurred during the seven or eight years from the publication of l’Associazione (Nice-London, 1889-1890) to l’Agitazione (Ancona1897-1898). But Fabbri observes that already in La Questione Sociale (Florence, 1884) ‘certain fundamental aspects of his development are fairly clearly revealed’. [15] Malatesta confirmed this view in a letter to Fabbri, adding that there was a greater difference between his ideas of 1897 and those of 1872-1874. ‘Then we were ”Kropotkians” even before Kropotkin (in fact Kropotkin found those ideas which he made his own, already widely held by us before he entered the ”Bakuninist” wing of the international movement).’ After 1897 he modified his views on small details only. At the time he had ‘more faith in syndicalism – or rather in the syndicalists – than I have now; and communism seemed then a more simple and an easier solution than it appears now.’

In a long and interesting comment on an equally long and interesting article by Max Nettlau on ‘The Collectivist International and Anarchist Communism’, [16] Malatesta is in agreement with his old friend that there cannot be one anarchist solution to the socio-economic problems, and that ‘perhaps it is true that a kind of narrowness of views, a kind of dogmatism can be included among the reasons – to my mind certainly not the main reasons – which have prevented a greater and more rapid development of our movement’. And one can imagine him adding with a smile: ‘But we are talking in historical terms, and Nettlau who is a scrupulous historian and a stickler for the truth will, I am sure, welcome my reminding him of certain facts, which might be of use in making a fairer assessment of the responsibilities of the older anarchist propagandists.’

And he points out things which the academic historians of anarchism simply refuse to face up to: ‘The International which emerged from its Congress in Basel in 1869 was collectivist but – even in its most radical sections – could hardly be said to be anarchist. It was collectivist in the sense given to this word at the time, that is, that the land and working tools – in other words the means of production – were collective property and that each worker, alone or in association, had the right to the integral product of his labour; but it had no clear and definite ideas about how each individual or each association would be allocated their share of the land, the raw materials and the tools to which they were entitled, or how to measure the work of each and how to establish a criterion for the measurement of value for purposes of barter. All this had to be run by the ”collectivity” and there was not too much concern about the danger that this ”collectivity” might ever in fact turn out to be another ”government”, meaning that some individuals having seized power would impose their will on others.’

It was out of concern with these kind of problems, and out of agreement with the Internationalists of all countries on the principle that ‘everybody should be workers, that no one should live by oppressing and exploiting others, and that universal brotherhood and solidarity should replace struggle and competition by which well-being is achieved at the expense of that of others’, that they went beyond collectivism and ‘after lengthy discussions and polemics’ came to the conclusion that ‘the only solution which can achieve the ideal of human brotherhood and eliminate all the insoluble difficulties of measuring the effort expended and the value of the resulting product, is a communistic organisation in which each one freely makes his contribution to production and consumes freely according to his needs – thinking that having thus eliminated all reasons for strife between people in one’s daily life, all reasons for power and all desires to dominate would also be eliminated’.

As a result of these discussions the Italian delegates of the International, assembled at a Congress in Florence in 1876 – the year of Bakunin’s death – voted almost unanimously with only one dissenting voice for a resolution in which the communistic would replace the collectivist programme that had been hitherto upheld. Malatesta adds that the Italian resolution was soon accepted with enthusiasm, first in Switzerland where Kropotkin and Elysée Reclus were living at the time and later by most anarchists in all countries ‘with the exception of the Spaniards, who by an overwhelming majority remained for many more years faithful supporters of the collectivist programme’. However, his conclusions are, as always, free from any dogmatic pronouncements: ‘So we were then, as we are still, communistic anarchists; but this does not mean that for us communism is a panacea or a dogma and that we do not realise that from our point of view communism cannot be achieved without first creating the right moral and material conditions.’

When in the 1920s Fabbri wrote to Malatesta urging him to formulate ‘a practical and possible anarchism which marks a step forward from Bakunin and Kropotkin’, his old friend had replied that he ‘did not despair of one day satisfy that wish’. [17] Yet to my mind malatesta’s writings from 1913 to 1932 had done just this. His common-sense approach to anarchism is always informed by a deep understanding of human behaviour and an acute political awareness, and though he may seem a ‘quitist’ to some noisy anarchists, nobody could accuse him of being either a reformist or a politician. He remained to the end an ‘insurrectionist’, inspired by Bakunin but without either his romantic and élitist approach or his dubious choice of ‘causes’. What also distinguishes the insurrectionism of Malatesta from that of Bakunin is that, apart from the rather ridiculous youthful attempted uprising at Benevento in 1877 (which no popular historian of anarchism seems able to forget, in spite of Malatesta’s own assessment of it), malatesta spent more than fifty years propagating anarchist ideas directed at no specific ‘class’, with the aim of creating both an understanding of, and a desire for, the anarchist social revolution among as many people as possible. This the historians have apparently not yet discovered.

[1] Pensiero e Volontà: Rivista quindicinale di studii e di cultura generale (Rome, 1924-1926). Most of Malatesta’s contributions were reprinted in E. Malatesta, Scritti, Vol. 3 (Geneva 1936; reissued in an offset reprint in 1976 by ‘The Italian Anarchist Movement’).
[2] Pensiero e Volontà a. 3 no. 11, 1 July 1926 (first edition); reprinted in Scritti, Vol. 3 (1936/1976).
[3] Geneva 1928; since 1970 reprinted several times. Malatesta’s introduction akso in Scritti vol. 3.
[4] Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, edited by Arthur Lehning (London, 1973). All citations are from the Introduction.
[5] London, Biblioteca dell’ Assoziazione, No. 5, March 1891. The most recent English edition was published by Freedom Press in 1984.
[6] ‘Il mio primo incontro con Bakunin’, Pensiero e Volontà, 1 July 1926, and Scritti vol. 3.
[7] ‘Michele Bakunin (20 maggio 1814-10 luglio 1876)’, ibid.
[8] op. cit.
[9] In Errico Malatesta: La Vida de un Anarquista (Buenos Aires, 1923). The previous, incomplete, Italian edition has been reprinted by offset.
[10] op. cit.
[11] Shortly after his ‘triumphal’ return to Italy after the First World War he published a short statement in the journal Volonta (16 January 1920; reprinted in Scritti, Vol. 2 (Geneva, 1935), which sumd up his whole life style. It includes the following trenchant remarks: ‘During the agitation for my return and during these first days since my return to Italy things have been said and done which offend my modesty and my sense of proportion. Comrades should bear in mind that hyperbole is a figure of speech which must not be abused. They should above all bear in mind that to shower a man with praise is politically a dangerous thing and morally unhealthy for the one praised no less than for the one praising him. And anyway my make-up is such that I find applause and acclamation unpleasant, and they tend to inhibit rather than inspire me to work. I want to be a comrade among comrades, and if I have the misfortune of being older than everybody else, I cannot be expected to enjoy being constantly reminded of it by the deference and the concern with which comrades surround me. Have I made myself clear?´ Fabbri also describes a youth meeting at which Malatesta was the speaker and at which the young chairman presented him as the ‘Lenin of Italy’, when Malatesta was at pains to explain why not only was he not but that they should not want him to be!
[12] In ‘Michele Bakunin (20 maggio 1814-10 luglio 1876)’, op. cit.
[13] ‘Pietro Kropotkin: Ricordi e critiche di un vecchio amico’, written on the demand of Max Nettlau and published numerous times, for example in Studi Sociali, 15 April 1931; English translation in Vernon Richards, Malatesta: Life and Ideas (Freedom Press, 1965; reprinted 1977).
[14] In the introduction to Max Nettlau’s Bakunin e l’Internationale…, op. cit.
[15] Luigi Fabbri, Malatesta: l’Uomo e il Pensiero (Naples 1951). Also following citations; Malatesta’s letter is dated 11 July 1931.
[16] Pensiero e Volontà a. 3 No. 13, 16 August 1926; reprinted no. 14, 25 August 1926, and in Scritti, Vol. 2 (1935/1976); also following quotations.
[17] 1925; referred to in Scritti, Vol. 3.