Errico Malatesta (December 14, 1853 - July 22, 1932) was an anarcho-communist with an unshakable belief, which he shared with his friend Peter Kropotkin, that the anarchist revolution would occur soon. He spent a large part of his life in exile from his homeland of Italy and altogether spent more than ten years in prison. He wrote and edited a number of radical newspapers and was a friend of Mikhail Bakunin.
Malatesta was born in Santa Maria Capua Vetere in the Caserta province of southern Italy. The first of a long series of arrests came at just fourteen, when he was apprehended for writing a letter to King Victor Emmanuel II, complaining about local injustice.
Malatesta was introduced to Mazzinian Republicanism while studying medicine at the University of Naples — however, he was expelled from those studies in 1871 for joining a demonstration. Partly via his enthusiasm for the Paris Commune and partly via his friendship with Carmelo Palladino, he joined the Naples section of the International Workingmen's Association that same year, as well as teaching himself to be a mechanic and electrician. In 1872 he met Bakunin and participated with him in the St Imer congress of the International.
For the next four years, Malatesta helped to spread Internationalist propaganda in Italy; he was imprisoned twice for these activities.
In April 1887, Malatesta, Carlo Cafiero, the Russian Stepniak and about 30 others started an insurrection in the province of Benevento, taking the villages of Letino and Gallo without a struggle. The revolutionaries burnt tax registers and declared the end of the King's reign, and were met by enthusiasm — even a local priest showed his support. After leaving Gallo, however, they were arrested by government troops and held for sixteen months before being acquitted.
After a number of terroristic attacks on the Italian royal family and their supporters, the police began to keep radicals and revolutionaries under constant surveillance. Even though the anarchists claimed to have no connection to the attacks, Malatesta, being an advocate of social revolution, was included in this surveillance. After returning to Naples, he was forced to leave Italy altogether because of these conditions, beginning a long period of exile.
He went to Egypt briefly, visiting some Italian friends, but was soon expelled by the Italian Consul. After working his passage on a French ship and being refused entry to Syria, Turkey and Italy, he landed in Marseille where he made his way to Geneva in Switzerland -- then something of an anarchist centre. Here he befriended Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, helping the latter to produce La Révolte. However, he was soon expelled from Switzerland, and eventually travelled to London in 1880, passing through Romania, Paris and Belgium.
In London Malatesta worked as an ice cream seller and a mechanic, and participated in the 1881 congress of the International, which gave birth to the Anarchist International.
He went to fight the British colonialists in Egypt in 1882, then secretly returned to Italy the following year. In Florence he founded the weekly anarchist paper La Questione Sociale (The Social Question) in which his most popular pamphlet, Fra Contadini (Among Farmers), first appeared. Malatesta went back to Naples in 1884 -- while waiting to serve a three year prison term — to nurse the victims of a cholera epidemic. Once again, he fled Italy to escape imprisonment and went to South America. He lived in Buenos Aires from 1885, where he resumed publication of La Questione Sociale, and was involved in the founding of the first militant workers' union in Argentina, the Bakers Union, and left an anarchist impression in the workers' movements there for years to come.
Returning to Europe in 1889, he published a newspaper called L'Associazione in Nice until he was forced to flee to London. For the next eight years Malatesta was based in London, but made clandestine trips to France, Switzerland and Italy and went on a lecture tour of Spain with Tarrida del Marmol. During this time he wrote several important pamphlets, including L'Anarchia.
In 1912, Malatesta appeared in Bow Street Police Court (see picture) on a criminal libel charge, which resulted in a 3 month prison sentence, and his recommendation for deportation. This order was quashed following campaigning by the radical press and demonstrations by workers organisations.
After the First World War, Malatesta eventually returned to Italy for the final time. Two years after his return, in 1921, the Italian government imprisoned him, again, although he was released two months before the fascists came to power. From 1924 until 1926, when Benito Mussolini silenced all independent press, Malatesta published the journal Pensiero e Volontà, although he was harassed and the journal suffered from government censorship.
He was to spend his remaining years leading a relatively quiet life, earning a living as an electrician. After years of suffering from a weak respiratory system and regular bronchial attacks, he developed bronchial pneumonia from which he died after a few weeks, despite being given 1500 litres of oxygen in his last five hours. He died on Friday, 22nd July 1932.
Malatesta was a principled anarchist — he would always adhere to anarchist principles no matter what the situation. He always rejected party politics and political revolution, preferring social revolution; he was even suspicious of the use of revolutionary trade unions, as anarcho-syndicalists advocate.
His constant work as an organizer and speaker embodied his ideals of free association: for Malatesta, it was only useful to join an organization for the purpose of doing something with that group of people. There was no sense in belonging to a group simply to belong.
Malatesta was a committed revolutionary: he believed that the anarchist revolution was coming soon, and that violence would be a necessary part of it since the state rested ultimately on violent coercion. As he wrote in his article "The Revolutionary 'Haste'":
It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers. (Umanità Nova, number 125, September 6, 1921)
Malatesta, then, advocated violence as a necessary part of the emancipation of the working class.
- La Révolte (with Kropotkin and others)
- La Questione Sociale
- Umanità Nova
- Pensiero e Volontà
- Errico Malatesta -- His Life And Ideas, compiled and edited by Vernon Richards (Freedom Press, 1984)
- Fra Contadini -- A Dialogue On Anarchy, Errico Malatesta (originally published 1884; republished by Bratach Dubh Editions, 1981)
- Anarchy, Errico Malatesta, translated by Vernon Richards (Freedom press 1974)
- Life of Malatesta, Luigi Fabbri, unfinished translation by Adam Wight (originally published 1936)
- San Michele aveva un gallo, loosely based on Malatesta's life