In the popular imagination anarchism is synonymous with violence. But what do anarchists actually think about violence? In this video I’ll be examining what the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who wrote during the late 19th and early 20th century, had to say about violence.
Malatesta held that the “main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations” (Malatesta 2015, 45) because violence is “the essence of every authoritarian system” (Malatesta 2014, 188). For example, Malatesta advocates the abolition of the state because it is in practice “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” (Malatesta 2014, 115) and so is based on the “coercive, violent organisation of society” (Malatesta 2015, 45). Malatesta likewise critiques capitalism because private property was historically established through “violence, robbery and theft, legal or illegal” (Malatesta 2005, 47), such as the English enclosure movement, and is still to this day protected by the violence of the legal system and the police.
If anarchism aims for a non-violent society then one might expect that Malatesta opposes violence completely. This is, however, not the case. Malatesta of course understands that a free non-violent society cannot be violently imposed on people. As he writes,
it would be ridiculous and contrary to our objectives to seek to impose freedom, love among men and the radical development of human faculties, by means of force. One must therefore rely on the free will of others, and all we can do is to provoke the development and the expression of the will of the people. (Malatesta 2014, 282-3)
But Malatesta is not naive and realizes that “those who benefit from existing privileges and who today dominate and control all social life” will oppose the creation of a free society “with brute force”. The ruling classes “have police forces, a judiciary, and armies created for the express purpose of defending their privileges; and they persecute, imprison, and massacre those who would want to abolish those privileges and who claim the means of life and liberty for everyone” (Malatesta 2014, 283) Not only is contemporary society “underpinned by force of arms”, it is also the case that “[n]o oppressed class has ever managed to emancipate itself without recourse to violence; the privileged classes have never surrendered a part, the tiniest fraction, of their privileges, except because of force or fear of force.” (Malatesta 2014, 201)
It is because of this that in order to achieve an anarchist society the masses must rise up and “get rid of the armed force which defends existing institutions”. This decision to engage in violent action “is not the result of our free choice, but is imposed upon us by necessity in the defence of unrecognized human rights which are thwarted by brute force.” (Malatesta 2014, 189) As Malatesta summarizes,
We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition. We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government. We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest. We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. (Malatesta 2015, 47)
In short, “violent revolt . . . [is] a factor of progress in a society based on violence . . . [and is] a necessary means of resolving the social question when the privileged have the guns on their side and are, as they demonstrate day by day, determined to use them.” (Malatesta 2016, 384)
For Malatesta, the violence of revolution is not only a necessity, but also moral, since “slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence” against “those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude.” (Malatesta 2015, 50, 49) Revolutionary violence must therefore not be ethically evaluated in the abstract, but instead be judged relative to the violence perpetuated by those institutions which revolutionaries seek to abolish. He writes that,
There is no doubt that the revolution will cause much misfortune, much suffering. But it might cause a hundred times more and it would still be a blessing compared to what we endure to-day. It is a well-known fact that in a single battle more people are killed than in the bloodiest of revolutions. It is a well-known fact that millions of children of tender age die every year for lack of care, that millions of workers die prematurely of the disease of poverty, that the immense majority of people lead shunted, joyless, and hopeless lives, that even the richest and most powerful are much less happy than they might be in a society of equals, and that this state of things has lasted from time immemorial. Without a revolution it would last indefinitely, whereas one single revolution which went right to the causes of the evil could put humanity for all time on the road to happiness. So let the revolution come! Every day that it delays means an enormous mass of suffering inflicted on mankind. (Malatesta 2014, 157-8)
Malatesta not only defended revolutionary violence but also critiqued three other main perspectives on violence which were held at the time. Firstly, Malatesta is opposed to the idea that we should be “opposed to all violence whatever, except in cases of personal defense against direct and immediate attack.” This is because doing so “would mean the renunciation of all revolutionary initiative, and the reserving of our blows for the petty, and often involuntary agents of the government, while leaving in peace the organizers of, and those chiefly benefited by, government and capitalist exploitation.” (Malatesta 2014, 187) In other words, if we should only engage in immediate self-defence then we should only use violence against the police or soldiers who are attacking us and not the members of the ruling classes who, while not personally attacking us with their bodies, do control the means of violence and have it deployed in their interests. Therefore,
as Anarchists, we cannot and we do not desire to employ violence, except in the defence of ourselves and others against oppression. But we claim this right of defence – entire, real, and efficacious. That is, we wish to be able to go behind the material instrument which wounds us, and to attack the hand which wields the instrument, and the head which directs it. (Malatesta 2014, 189)
The second view on violence Malatesta rejects is strict pacifism. According to this view “we must endure oppression and degradation in our own cases and in those of others rather than do harm to the oppressor” and so not use “every available means to defend” ourselves or others. Malatesta is opposed to strict pacifism because someone who engages in it would “in practice and much against his will. . . be simply terrifically selfish. . . to let others suffer oppression without trying to come to their defence”, such as preferring to rather “see some class ground into misery, some people downtrodden by the invader, some man suffer trespass against his life and liberty . . . than that a hair on the head of the oppressor be harmed”. Therefore, “Tolstoyans . . . [are] those who would let the whole of humanity be ground down by the weight of the greatest suffering rather than trespass against a principle.” (Malatesta 2014, 203-4)
Against this highly abstract view of morality, Malatesta holds that our morals must be grounded in the actual conditions that we are acting in. He writes that “[t]he means we employ are those that circumstances make possible or necessary. It is true that we would prefer not to hurt a hair of anybody’s head; we would like to wipe away all tears and not to cause any to be shed.” (Malatesta 2014, 156-7) But we are unfortunately “forced to struggle in the world as we found it, on pains of remaining sterile dreamers, who leave untouched all the existing evils, and do good to no one, for fear of doing wrong to anyone.” (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 22)
The third view on violence Malatesta rejects is one in which violence is celebrated and transformed into an end in and of itself. Malatesta rejects “needless, harmful violence” because, “anarchists should not and cannot be avengers; they are liberators. We bear hatred towards none; we are not fighting to avenge ourselves or to avenge anyone else; we seek love towards all, liberty for all.” As a result,
let us have no unnecessary victims, not even in the enemy camp. The very purpose on behalf of which we struggle requires us to be kind and humane even in the heat of battle; so I fail to understand how one can fight for a purpose like ours without our being kindly and humane. And let us not forget that a liberating revolution cannot be born of massacre and terror, these having been – and ever so it shall remain – the midwives to tyranny. (Malatesta 2014, 203)
Instead of viewing violence as an end in and of itself anarchists “must be like the surgeon who cuts when he must but avoids causing needless suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 159) Given this, while Malatesta is in favour of violence when it is necessary, he does prefer “passive resistance” when it is an “effective weapon” because “it would be the most sparing one in terms of human suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 204)
Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Cafe. London: Freedom Press.
Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.