by Adriana Dadà


The Role of Malatesta

The return of Malatesta at the end of 1919 was a turning point in the development of the Italian anarchist movement. Exiled for the umpteenth time after the "red week", he had been vainly attempting to return to Italy since 1917, even declaring himself willing to stand trial for charges outstanding against him just so he could be present in the place where he believed a favourable situation for revolutionary action was developing. However in November 1919, after the government had been forced into giving him a passport due to a series of protests (especially by the USI), the authorities continued to place innumerable obstacles in his path (49). He was only able to return thanks to the help of Giuseppe Giulietti and the Federazione dei Lavoratori del Mare (50). He thus arrived clandestinely in Taranto aboard a Greek cargo ship and headed by train to Genoa where he pretended to have disembarked.

"Our dear comrade Errico Malatesta has finally joined us. The Genoese proletariat gave him a warm and enthusiastic welcome. On Saturday at 1.00pm the sirens sounded giving the signal for work to stop. The workers thronged to Via Milano whence they marched towards Piazza Carignano, where a public meeting was due to take place. The impressive rows of marchers with hundreds of flags flying crossed the city singing our anthems. In the huge square and the adjoining streets over 60,000 people were crammed in. The enthusiasm was indescribable. The untiring president of the Co-operativa Facchini (Porters' Cooperative), Ravaschio, spoke to the crowd and introduced our dear Errico Malatesta who in turn spoke a few, short words and was loudly acclaimed" (51).

His prestige among the masses raised hopes and enthusiasm. He was testimony to the continuity of the Italian proletariat's struggle for emancipation. The steadfastness and consistency of his work made him the natural leader of a huge section of the workers. Furthermore, this old internationalist's ability to unify the whole anarchist movement and his unchallenged fame facilitated (as in 1897 and 1913) this unity which, as would be seen in the following months, was based on the enthusiasm of the movement's various components and agreement between them. His ideas for maintaining unity (52) was mostly based on his optimistic reading of the situation in Italy - a view which, though shared by a good portion of the masses at the time, was perhaps overly influenced by personal factors which are useful to examine.

Malatesta, the revolutionary par excellence, lived a large part of his life and most of the recent years in exile, with links to the international revolutionary socialist and anarchist movement (53). His returns to Italy coincided with upturns in the class movement which could be described as insurrectional uprisings. As a result of these, he understood that "despite their differences in tendencies and parties, the masses were willing to act for a common goal" (54). These hopes, however, were followed by periods of repression, forcing him back into exile. The insurrectionalist experience of the First International, of the Matese band, were critically re-examined after 1894 (55) with the development of the strategy for anarchist action within the organizations that the masses were building. It was something that Gori, Fabbri and many others would develop and put into practice with their activity not only in the Labour Clubs and trade federations but also through the re-organization of the anarchist party (56). But Malatesta was not in Italy between the end of the century and 1914 and it was only from abroad that he could keep track of the process and experiences that were causing the Italian anarchist movement and its ideology to develop. And a significant indicator of his "detachment" from the latter was the position he took at the international congress in Amsterdam in 1907, where his opposition to Monatte differed (marked as it was by humanistic anarchism) from that of Fabbri, who better than any other expressed the growth in the Italian anarchist movement in the awareness of the need for the party and a presence within the mass organizations, thereby returning to the genuine Bakuninist tradition (57).

In 1914, Malatesta was still bound to this optimistic, humanistic and insurrectionalist conception. His vision of anarchist action principally as propaganda and vigilance while waiting for those occasions "which can occur when least expected" (58) and his trust in the "spontaneous drive" of the masses for revolution (59) certainly gave impetus to anarchist agitation in that year, though he himself would come to understand that the main limit on revolutionary action was the lack of coordination before, during and after the insurrectionalist outbursts. In fact, while still in exile in London in 1919, he warmly welcomed the proposal for a daily newspaper (which had only minority support at the April convention in Florence), which he considered as an essential instrument for propaganda, agitation and pre-insurrectional preparation. Like other militants, mostly involved with mass activity, Fabbri displayed "an opinion which was at the time rather contrary" to the newspaper (60), in the belief that the growth of the movement had to be more gradual and complex, bound to precise organizational structures and with a solid rooting in the proletariat's grassroots organizations. Putting all one's energies into the creation of a single unifying grouping of all the various tendencies seemed to him to be a waste. He therefore remained "from the start one of the few who looked at the initiative with few illusions" (61). Malatesta, instead, "found [his] practical and principled objections well-enough founded for normal times, but [...] completely surpassed by the current conditions and by the greater need for an imminent revolution" (62).

The debate between the two confirmed their different viewpoints. While Fabbri (who not even in January 1920 let himself fall victim to the "general giddiness" of the left) (63) sought to convince his opposite of the need for a detailed, long-term strategy, Malatesta maintained the impossibility of "following that path. He had not thought he would find such effervescence. It was no longer a case of preparing the terrain, which was ready. Instead, it was essential to do what could be done as soon as possible, because the revolution was on the way, nearer than he had thought [...] I agreed with him and it was only later that doubts struck me about the revolutionary character of that impressive popular enthusiasm and that this might have made him blind to the real state of affairs" (64).

Fabbri's perplexities between late 1919 and early 1920 seem to have been overcome by events, by the expectations Malatesta inspired among anarchist ranks and further afield, so much so that in order to avoid the overly-personalized manifestations of esteem and trust endowed on him, he felt the need to publish a letter which said, amongst other things: "Thank you, but that's enough" (65).

With the birth of the daily newspaper, Umanità Nova, in February 1920, the role of Malatesta of "understanding and reconciling all the anarchist tendencies" (66) became all encompassing. Fabbri closed down Volontà that summer as "all its contributors, from then on, had to dedicate their attention to the newspaper" (67). Umanità Nova did, however, meet with great success. It had a network of correspondents and contributors covering the whole peninsula and a distribution which reached 50,000 copies a day with a turnover of over a million lire" (68). One unbiased witness of its importance among the masses was Anna Kuliscioff, who in August 1920 wrote to Turati:

"The working class is going through a bad period of anarchist contagion. By now Avanti! is almost being boycotted and the workers are reading only Umanità Nova [...] This is confirmed by members of the Labour Clubs and the passengers on the morning trams where one can no longer see workers without a copy of Umanità Nova in their hands" (69).

Next section: The Struggles & Strategy Of The Anarchists



49. See: L. FABBRI, Prefazione to E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, p. 49.
50. On the return of Malatesta to Italy, see: ACS, Casell. Pol. Centr., b. 288 Malatesta, fasc. 31568 sottofasc. 6; L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., pp. 9-10; and A. BORGHI, ½ secolo cit., pp. 199 ff.
51. "Il Libertario", 29 September 1919.
52. These ideas were already to be seen in the first issue of "Umanità Nova" (see: E. MALATESTA, I nostri propositi, in "Umanità Nova", 27 February 1920, now in E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, pp. 29-33).
53. On Malatesta see: U. FEDELI, Bibliografia Malatestiana in L. FABBRI, Malatesta, l'uomo e il pensiero, Naples 1951, pp. 261-304; L. FABBRI, La vida y el pensamiento de Errico Malatesta, Buenos Aires 1945; M. NETTLAU, Errico Malatesta. Vita e Pensieri, New York 1922 (revised edition: Errico Malatesta. El Hombre, el Revolucionario, el Anarquista, Barcelona 1933); A. BORGHI, Errico Malatesta in 60 anni di lotte anarchiche, Paris undated (later, Milan 1947); G. CERRITO, Sull'anarchismo contemporaneo, Introduzione to E. Malatesta, Scritti scelti, Rome 1970.
54. G. CERRITO, Sull'anarchismo cit., pp. 51-52.
55. In particular see: E. MALATESTA, Andiamo al popolo, in "L'Art. 248", Ancona 4 February 1894.
56. A positive contribution to this process came from the magazine "Il Pensiero" which was edited by Fabbri and Gori from 1903 until 1911; G. CERRITO, Dall'insurrezionalismo cit.; G. CERRITO, Il movimento anarchico dalle sue origini cit.; M. ANTONIOLI, Introduzione to L. FABBRI, L'organizzazione cit.; M. ANTONIOLI, Il movimento anarchico italiano nel 1914 cit.
57. At the Amsterdam congress (1907), though a signatory of the Monatte motion, Fabbri also voted for Malatesta's, later declaring: "In the Monatte motion there was an explicit affirmation of the concept of class struggle which was lacking in Malatesta's; on the other hand, Malatesta's motion contained a statement of the insurrectional nature of anarchism which was lacking in Monatte's" (see: L. FABBRI, Il Congresso di Amsterdam, in "Il Pensiero", 1 October 1907). On the congress, see: Dibattito sul sindacalismo cit.
58. E. MALATESTA, E ora? in "Volontà", 20 June 1914.
59. E. MALATESTA, Movimenti stroncati, in "Umanità Nova", 22 June 1922 (now in E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, pp. 101-105).
60. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 9.
61. U. FEDELI, Luigi Fabbri, Turin 1948, p. 55.
62. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 9.
63. L. FABBRI, La controrivoluzione cit., pp. 18 ff.
64. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 11-12
65. "Umanità Nova", 16 January 1920.
66. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 14.
67. U. FEDELI, Luigi Fabbri cit., p. 55.
68. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 13.
69. F. TURATI-A. KULISCIOFF, Carteggio, IV, Turin 1953, p. 386.