The Anarchist Revolution

Various publications and dates (see footnotes).
Published in Vernon Richards (ed.), Malatesta: Life and Ideas, Freedom Press, 1965.

The revolution is the creation of new living institutions, new groupings, new social relationships; it is the destruction of privileges and monopolies; it is the new spirit of justice, of brotherhood, of freedom which must renew the whole of social life, raise the moral level and the material conditions of the masses by calling on them to provide, through their direct and conscious action, for their own futures. Revolution is the organisation of all public services by those who work in them in their own interest as well as the public’s; Revolution is the destruction of all coercive ties; it is the autonomy of groups, of communes, of regions; Revolution is the free federation brought about by a desire for brotherhood, by individual and collective interests, by the needs of production and defence; Revolution is the constitution of innumerable free groupings based on ideas, wishes, and tastes of all kinds that exist among the people; Revolution is the forming and disbanding of thousands of representative, district, communal, regional, national bodies which, without having any legislative power, serve to make known and to coordinate the desires and interests of people near and far and which act through information, advice and example. Revolution is freedom proved in the crucible of facts—and lasts so long as freedom lasts, that is until others, taking advantage of the weariness that overtakes the masses, of the inevitable disappointments that follow exaggerated hopes, of the probable errors and human faults, succeed in constituting a power, which supported by an army of conscripts or mercenaries, lays down the law, arrests the movement at the point it has reached, and then begins the reaction.[1]

The great majority of anarchists, if I am not mistaken, hold the view that human perfectibility and anarchy would not be achieved even in a few thousand years, if first one did not create by the revolution, made by a conscious minority, the necessary environment for freedom and well-being. For this reason we want to make the revolution as soon as possible, and to do so we need to take advantage of all positive forces and every favourable situation that arises.[2]

The task of the conscious minority is to profit from every situation to change the environment in a way that will make possible the education and spiritual elevation of the people, without which there is no real way out.

And since the environment today, which obliges the masses to live in misery, is maintained by violence, we advocate and prepare for violence. That is why we are revolutionaries, and not because “we are desperate men, thirsting for revenge and filled with hate.”[3]

We are revolutionaries because we believe that only the revolution, the violent revolution, can solve the social question… We believe furthermore that the revolution is an act of will — the will of individuals and of the masses; that it needs for its success certain objective conditions, but that it does not happen of necessity, inevitably, through the single action of economic and political forces.[4]

I told the jury [at my trial] in Milan that I am a revolutionary not only in the philosophical meaning of the word but also in the popular and insurrectionalist sense; and I said so in order to clearly distinguish between my views and those of others who call themselves revolutionaries, but who interpret the world even astronomically so as not to have to bring in the fact of violence, the insurrection, which must open the way to revolutionary achievements. I declared that I had not sought to provoke revolution because at the time there was no need to provoke it; what was urgently needed instead was to bend all our efforts for the generally desired revolution to succeed and not lead to new tyrannies; but I insisted that I would have provoked it if the situation demanded then, just as I would in a similar situation in the future.[5]

I had said “we want to make the revolution as soon as possible”; Colomer replies that it would be wiser to say “We want to make anarchy as soon as possible.” A poor polemical expedient! Since we are convinced that anarchy cannot be achieved until after the revolution which will sweep away the first material obstacles, it is clear that our efforts must in the first instance be directed to making the revolution and in such a way that it is in the direction of anarchy…. I have repeated thousands of times that we would have to provoke the revolution with all the means at our disposal and act in it as anarchists, that is to say, opposing the constitution of any authoritarian regime and putting into operation as much as we can of our programme. And I would wish that, to take advantage of the increased freedom that we would have won, anarchists were morally and technically prepared to realise within the limits of their numbers, those forms of social life and cooperation which they consider best and most suitable for paving the way for the future.[6]

We do not want to “wait for the masses to become anarchist before making the revolution,” the more so since we are convinced that they will never become anarchist if the institutions which keep them enslaved are not first violently destroyed. And since we need the support of the masses to build up a force of sufficient strength and to achieve our specific task of radical change of the social organism by the direct action of the masses, we must get closer to them, accept them as they are, and from within their ranks seek to “push” them forward as much as possible. That is, of course, if we really intend to work for the practical achievement of our ideals, and are not content with preaching in the desert for the simple satisfaction of our intellectual pride.

We are accused of a “reconstructive mania”; we are told that to speak of the “morrow of the revolution” as we do, is a meaningless phrase because the revolution is a profound change in the whole of social life, which has already started and will go on for centuries to come.

All this is simply a misuse of words. If one takes revolution in that sense, it is synonymous with progress, with a historic view of life, which through a thousand and one vicissitudes will end, if our wishes come true, in the total triumph of anarchy throughout the world. In that sense all kinds of people are revolutionary. When you introduce the centuries into the argument, everyone will agree with everything you say.

But when we speak of revolution, when the masses speak of it, as when one refers to it in history, one simply means the insurrection triumphant. Insurrections will be necessary as long as there are power groups which use their material force to exact obedience from the masses. And it is only too clear that there will be many more insurrections before the people win that minimum of indispensable conditions for free and peaceful development, when humanity will be able to advance towards its noblest objectives without cruel struggles and useless suffering.[7]

By revolution we do not mean just the insurrectionary act, which is nevertheless indispensable (except in the most unlikely event that the existing regime collapses without the need for a push from outside), but would be sterile if it served to replace one state of coercion by another.[8]

One must dearly distinguish between the revolutionary act which destroys as much as it can of the old regime and puts in its place new institutions, and government which comes afterwards to halt the revolution and suppress as many of the revolutionary conquests as it can.

History teaches us that all advances that are the result of revolutions were secured in the period of popular enthusiasm, when either a recognised government did not exist or was too weak to make a stand against the revolution. But once the government was formed, so reaction started which served the interest of the old and the new privileged classes and took back from the masses all that it could.

Our task then is to make, and to help others make, the revolution by taking advantage of every opportunity and all available forces: advancing the revolution as much as possible in its constructive as well as destructive role, and always remaining opposed to the formation of any government, either ignoring it or combatting it to the limits of our capacities.

We will no more recognise a republican Constituent than we now recognise the parliamentary monarchy. We cannot stop it if the people want it; we might even occasionally be with them in fighting attempts to bring about a restoration [of the monarchy]; but we will want and will demand complete freedom for those who think as we do and who wish to live outside the tutelage and oppression of the State, to propagate their ideas by word and deed. Revolutionaries, yes; but above all anarchists.[9]

  1. Destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.
  2. Any organisation of an allegedly provisional revolutionary political power to achieve this destruction cannot be other than one trick more, and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as are all present governments.
  3. In refusing every compromise for the achievement of the social revolution, workers of the world must establish solidarity in revolutionary action outside the framework of bourgeois politics.

These [anarchist] principles [as formulated in 1872 at the Congress of St. Imier under the inspiration of Bakunin] continue to point to the right road for us. Those who have tried to act in contradiction to them have disappeared, because however defined, State, dictatorship and parliament can only lead the masses back to slavery. All experience so far bears this out. Needless to say, for the delegates of St. Imier as for us and all anarchists, the abolition of political power is not possible without the simultaneous destruction of economic privilege.[10]

The conviction, which I share, of those who see the need for a revolution to eliminate the material forces which exist to defend privilege and to prevent every real social progress, has led many of them to believe that the only important thing is the insurrection, and to overlook what has to be done to prevent an insurrection from remaining a sterile act of violence against which an act of reactionary violence would be the eventual reply. For these comrades all practical questions, of organisation, of how to make provisions for the distribution of food, are today idle questions: for them these are matters which will solve themselves, or will be solved by those who come after us…. Yet the conclusion we come to is: Social reorganisation is something we must all think about right now, and as the old is destroyed we shall have a more human and just society as well as one more receptive to future advances. The alternative is that “the leaders” will think about these problems, and we shall have a new government, which will do exactly as all previous governments have done, in making the people pay for the scant and poor services they render, by taking away their freedom and allowing them to be oppressed by every kind of parasite and exploiter.[11]

I say that in order to abolish the “gendarme” and all the harmful social institutions we must know what to put in their place, not in a more or less distant future but immediately, the very day we start demolishing. One only destroys, effectively and permanently, that which one replaces by something else; and to put off to a later date the solution of problems which present themselves with the urgency of necessity, would be to give time to the institutions one is intending to abolish to recover from the shock and reassert themselves, perhaps under other names, but certainly with the same structure.

Our solutions may be accepted by a sufficiently large section of the population and we shall have achieved anarchy, or taken a step towards anarchy; or they may not be understood or accepted and then our efforts will serve as propaganda and place before the public at large the programme for a not distant future. But in any case we must have our solutions: provisional, subject to correction and revision in the light of experience, but we must have our solutions if we do not wish to submit passively to those of others, and limit ourselves to the unprofitable role of useless and impotent grumblers.[12]

I believe that we anarchists, convinced of the validity of our programme, must make special efforts to acquire a predominating influence in order to be able to swing the movement towards the realisation of our ideals; but we must acquire this influence by being more active and more effective than the others. Only in this way will it be worth acquiring. Today, we must examine thoroughly, develop and propagate our ideas and coordinate our efforts for common action. We must act inside the workers’ movement to prevent it from limiting itself to, and being corrupted by, the exclusive demand for the small improvements possible under the capitalist system, and seek to make it serve for the preparation of the complete social transformation. We must work among the mass of unorganised, and possibly unorganisable, workers, to awaken in them the spirit of revolt and the desire and hope for a free and happy existence. We must initiate and support every possible kind of movement which tends to weaken the power of the State and of the capitalists and to raise the moral level and material conditions of the workers. We must, in a word, get ready and prepare, morally and materially, for the revolutionary act which has to open the way to the future.

And tomorrow, in the revolution, we must play an active part (if possible before, and more effectively, than the others) in the necessary physical struggle, seeking to make it as radical as possible, in order to destroy all the repressive forces of the State and to induce the workers to take possession of the means of production (land, mines, factories, transport,etc.) and of all existing goods, and themselves organise, immediately, a just distribution of food products. At the same time we must arrange for the exchange of goods between communities and regions and continue to intensify production and all those services which are of use to the public.

We must, in every way possible, and in accord with local conditions and possibilities, encourage action by workers’ associations, co-operatives, groups of volunteers — in order to prevent the emergence of new authoritarian groups, new governments, combating them with violence if necessary, but above all by rendering them useless.

And if there were not sufficient support among the people to prevent the reconstitution of the State, its authoritarian institutions and its organs of repression, we should refuse to co-operate or recognize it, and rebel against its demands, claiming full autonomy for ourselves and for all dissident minorities. In short, we should remain in a state of open rebellion if possible, and prepare the way to convert present defeat into a future success…

I do not think that what matters is the triumph of our plans, our projects and our utopias, which in any case will need the confirmation of experiment, and may as a result have to be modified, developed or adapted to the true moral and material conditions of time and place. What matters most of all is that the people, all people, should lose their sheeplike instincts and habits with which their minds have been inculcated by an age-long slavery, and that they should learn to think and act freely. It is to this great task of spiritual liberation that anarchists must especially devote their attention.[13]

Once the government has been overthrown, or at least neutralised, it will be the task of the people, and especially of those among them who have initiative and organising ability, to provide for the satisfaction of immediate needs and to prepare for the future by destroying privileges and harmful institutions and in the meantime seeing to it that those useful institutions which today serve the ruling class either exclusively or principally, shall operate in favour of all.

Anarchists will have the special mission of being the vigilant custodians of freedom, against all aspirants to power and against the possible tyranny of the majority.[14]

We are agreed in thinking that apart from the problem of assuring victory against the material forces of the adversary there is also the problem of giving life to the revolution after victory.

We are in agreement that a revolution which were to result in chaos would not be a vital revolution.

But one must not exaggerate; it should not be thought that we must, and can, find, here and now, a perfect solution for every possible problem. One should not want to foresee and determine too much, because instead of preparing for anarchy we might find ourselves indulging in unattainable dreams or even becoming authoritarians, and consciously or otherwise, proposing to act like a government which in the name of freedom and the popular will subject people to its domination…. The fact is that one cannot educate the masses if they are not in a position, or obliged by necessity, to act for themselves, and that the revolutionary organisation of the workers, useful and necessary as it is, cannot be stretched indefinitely: at a certain point if it does not erupt in revolutionary action, either the government strangles it or the organisation itself degenerates and breaks up—and one has to start all over again from the beginning.[15]

I would be unable to accept the view that all past revolutions though they were not anarchist revolutions were useless, nor that future ones which will still not be anarchist will be useless. Indeed, I incline to the view that the complete triumph of anarchy will come by evolution, gradually, rather than by violent revolution: when an earlier or several earlier revolutions will have destroyed the major military and economic obstacles which are opposed to the spiritual development of the people, to increasing production to the level of needs and desires, and to the harmonizing of contrasting interests.

In any case, if we take into account our sparse numbers and the prevalent attitudes among the masses, and if we do not wish to confuse our wishes with the reality, we must expect that the next revolution will not be an anarchist one, and therefore what is more pressing, is to think of what we can and must do in a revolution in which we will be a relatively small and badly armed minority. . . . But we must, however, beware of ourselves becoming less anarchist because the masses are not ready for anarchy. If they want a government, it is unlikely that we will be able to prevent a new government being formed, but this is no reason for our not trying to persuade the people that government is useless and harmful or of preventing the government from also imposing on us and others like us who don’t want it. We will have to exert ourselves to ensure that social life and especially economic standards improve without the intervention of government, and thus we must be as ready as possible to deal with the practical problems of production and distribution, remembering, Incidentally, that those most suited to organise work are those who now do it, each in his own trade…. If we are unable to prevent the constitution of a new government, if we are unable to destroy it immediately, we should in either case refuse to support it in any shape or form. We should reject military conscription and refuse to pay taxes. Disobedience on principle, resistance to the bitter end against every imposition by the authorities, and an absolute refusal to accept any position of command.

If we are unable to overthrow capitalism, we shall have to demand for ourselves and for all who want it, the right of free access to the necessary means of production to maintain an independent existence.

Advise when we have suggestions to offer; teach if we know more than others; set the example for a life based on free agreement between individuals; defend even with force if necessary and possible, our autonomy against any government provocation… but command — never.

In this way we shall not achieve anarchy, which cannot be imposed against the wishes of the people, but at least we shall be preparing the way for it.[16]

  1. Pensiero e Volontà, June 15, 1924
  2. Umanità Nova, October 28, 1921
  3. Umanità Nova, September 30, 1920
  4. Umanità Nova, April 22, 1920
  5. Umanità Nova, August 30, 1921
  6. Il Risveglio, December 30, 1922
  7. Umanità Nova, November 25, 1922
  8. Pensiero e Volontà, June 15, 1924
  9. Pensiero e Volontà, June 1, 1926
  10. Pensiero e Volontà, July 1, 1926
  11. Pensiero e Volontà, June 16, 1926
  12. Pensiero e Volontà, August 1, 1926
  13. Il Risveglio, December 14, 1929
  14. Il Risveglio, November 30, 1929
  15. Vogliamo, June, 1930
  16. Vogliamo, June, 1930

Various publications and dates (see footnotes).
Published in Vernon Richards (ed.), Malatesta: Life and Ideas, Freedom Press 1965.