Attentats

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

I remember that on the occasion of a much-publicised anarchist attentat a socialist of the first rank just back from fighting in the Greco-Turkish war, shouted from the housetops with the approval of his comrades, that human life is always sacred and must not be threatened, not even in the cause of freedom. It appeared that he excepted the lives of Turks and the cause of Greek independence. Illogicality, or hypocrisy? [1]

Anarchist violence is the only violence that is justifiable, which is not criminal. I am of course speaking of violence which has truly anarchist characteristics, and not of this or that case of blind and unreasoning violence which has been attributed to anarchists, or which perhaps has been committed by real anarchists driven to fury by abominable persecutions, or blinded by over-sensitiveness, uncontrolled by reason, at the sight of social injustices, of suffering for the sufferings of others.

Real anarchist violence is that which ceases when the necessity of defence and liberation ends. It is tempered by the awareness that individuals in isolation are hardly, if at all, responsible for the position they occupy through heredity and environment; real anarchist violence is not motivated by hatred but by love; and noble because it aims at the liberation of all and not at the substitution of one’s own domination for that of others.

There is a political party in Italy which, aiming at highly civilised ends, set itself the task of extinguishing all confidence in violence among the masses … and has succeeded in rendering them incapable of any resistance against the rise of fascism. It seemed to me that Turati himself more or less clearly recognised and lamented the fact in his speech in Paris commemorating Jaurès.

The anarchists are without hypocrisy. Force must be resisted by force: today against the oppression of today; tomorrow against those who might replace that of today.[2]

McKinley, head of North American oligarchy, the instrument and defender of the capitalist giants, the betrayer of the Cubans and the Philippinos, the man who authorised the massacre of the strikers of Hazleton, the torturer of the workers in the ‘model republic’; McKinley who incarnated the militaristic, expansionist and imperialist policies on which the fat American bourgeoisie have embarked, has fallen foul of an anarchist’s revolver.

If we feel at all distressed it is for the fate in store for the generous-hearted man, who opportunely or inopportunely, for good or tactically bad reasons, gave himself in wholesale sacrifice to the cause of equality and liberty…

[It might be argued by those who have condemned Czolgosz’s act] that the workers’ cause and that of the revolution have not been advanced; that McKinley is succeeded by his equal, Roosevelt, and everything remains unchanged except that the situation for anarchists has become a little more difficult than before. And they may be right; indeed, from what I know of the American scene, this will most likely be the case.

What it means is that [as] in war there are brilliant as well as false moves, there are cautious combatants as well as others who are easily carried away by enthusiasm and allow themselves to be an easy target for the enemy, and may even compromise the position of their comrades. This means that each one must advise, defend and practise the methods which he thinks most suitable to achieve victory in the shortest time and with the least sacrifice possible; but it does not alter the fundamental and obvious fact that he who struggles, well or badly, against the common enemy and towards the same goals as us, is our friend and has a right to expect our warm sympathy even if we cannot accord him our unconditional approval.

Whether the fighting unit is a collectivity or a single individual cannot change the moral aspect of the problem. An armed insurrection carried out inopportunely can produce real or apparent harm to the social war we are fighting, just as an individual attentat which antagonises popular feeling; but if the insurrection was made to conquer freedom, no one will dare deny the socio-political characteristics of the defeated insurrectionists. Why should it be any different when the insurrectionist is a single individual? …

It is not a question of discussing tactics. If it were, I would say that in general I prefer collective action to individual action, also because collective action demands qualities which are fairly common and makes the allocation of tasks more or less possible, whereas one cannot count on heroism, which is exceptional and by its nature sporadic, calling for individual sacrifice. The problem here is of a higher order; it is a question of the revolutionary spirit, of that almost instinctive feeling of hatred of oppression, without which programmes remain dead letters however libertarian are the proposals they embody; it is a question of that combative spirit, without which even anarchists become domesticated and end up, by one road or another, in the slough of legalitarianism… [3]

Gaetano Bresci, worker and anarchist, has killed Humbert, king. Two men: one dead prematurely, the other condemned to a life of torment that is a thousand times worse than death! Two families plunged into sadness!

Whose fault is it?…

It is true that if one takes into consideration such factors as heredity, education and social background, the personal responsibility of those in power is much reduced and perhaps even non-existent. But then if the king is not responsible for his commissions and omissions; if in spite of the oppression, the dispossession, and the massacre of the people carried out in his name, he should have continued to occupy the highest place in the country, why ever then should Bresci have to pay with a life of indescribable suffering, for an act which, however mistaken some may judge it, no one can deny was inspired by altruistic intentions?

But this business of seeking to place the responsibility where it belongs is only of secondary interest to us.

We do not believe in the right to punish; we reject the idea of revenge as a barbarous sentiment. We have no intention of being either executioners or avengers. It seems to us that the role of liberators and peacemakers is more noble and positive. To kings, oppressors and exploiters we would willingly extend our hand, if only they wished to become men among other men, equals among equals. But so long as they insist on profiting from the situation as it exists and to defend it with force, thus causing the martyrdom, the wretchedness and the death through hardships of millions of human beings, we are obliged, we have a duty to oppose force with force…

We know that these attentats, with the people insufficiently prepared for them, are sterile and often, by provoking reactions that one is unable to control, produce much sorrow, and harm the very cause they were intended to serve.

We know that what is essential and undoubtedly useful is not just to kill a king, the man, but to kill all kings – those of the Courts, of parliaments and of the factories – in the hearts and minds of the people; that is, to uproot faith in the principle of authority to which most people owe allegiance.[4]

I do not need to repeat my disapproval and horror for attentats such as that of the Diana, which besides being bad in themselves are also stupid; because they inevitably harm the cause they would wish to serve. And I have never failed to protest strongly, whenever similar acts have taken place and especially when it has turned out that they have been committed by authentic anarchists. I have protested when it would have been better for me to remain silent, because my protest was inspired by superior reasons of principles and tactics, and because I had a duty to do so, since there are people gifted with little personal critical sense, who allow themselves to be guided by what I say. But now it is not a case of judging the fact, and discussing whether it was a good or bad thing to have done, or whether similar actions should or should not have been repeated. Now it is a question of judging men threatened with a punishment a thousand times worse than the death penalty; and so one must examine who these men are, what were their intentions and the circumstances in which they acted.[5]

… I said that those assassins are also saints and heroes; and those of my friends who protest against my statement do so in homage to those whom they call the real saints and heroes, who, it would seem, never make mistakes.

I can do no more than confirm what I said. When I think of all that I have learned about Mariani and Aguggini; when I think what good sons and brothers they were, and what affectionate and devoted comrades they were in everyday life, always ready to take risks and to make sacrifices when there was urgent need, I bemoan their fate, I bemoan the destiny that has turned those fine and noble beings into assassins.

I said that one day they will be praised – I did not say that I would praise them; and they will be praised because, as has happened with so many others, the brutal action, the passion that misled them will be forgotten, and only the idea which inspired them and the martyrdom that made them sacrosanct will be remembered.

I don’t want to get involved in historical examples; but I could if I wished find in the history of all conspiracies and revolutions, in that of the Italian Risorgimento as well as in our own, a thousand examples of men who have committed actions as bad and as stupid as that of the Diana and yet who are praised by their respective parties, because in fact one forgets the action and remembers the intention, and the individual becomes a symbol and the event is transformed into a legend.

Yes, there are saints and heroes who are assassins; there are assassins who are saints and heroes.

The human mind is really most complicated, and there is a disequilibria between what one calls heart and what is called brain, between affective qualities and the intellectual faculties, which produces the most unpredictable results and makes possible the most striking contradictions in human behaviour. The war volunteer inebriated by patriotic propaganda, convinced of serving the cause of justice and civilisation, and prepared for the supreme sacrifice, who raged against the ‘enemy’ – Italian against Austrian, or vice versa – and died in the act of killing, was undoubtedly a hero, but a hero who was unconsciously an assassin.

Torquemada who tortured others as well as himself to serve God and to save souls, was both a saint and an assassin…

It could easily be argued that the saint and the hero are almost always unbalanced individuals. But then everything would be reduced to a question of words, to a question of definition. What is a saint? What is a hero?

Enough of hair-splitting.

What is important is to avoid confusing the act with the intentions, and in condemning the bad actions not to overlook doing justice to the good intentions. And not only on the grounds of respect for the truth, or human pity, but also for reasons of propaganda, for the practical repercussions that our judgement may have.

There are, and, so long as present conditions and the environment of violence in which we live last, there will always be generous men, who are rebellious and over-sensitive, but who lack sufficient powers of reflection and who in certain situations allow themselves to be carried away by passion and strike out blindly. If we do not openly recognise the goodness of their intentions, if we do not distinguish between error and wickedness, we lose any moral influence over them and abandon them to their blind impulses. If instead, we pay homage to their goodness, their courage and sense of sacrifice, we can reach their minds through their hearts, and ensure that those valuable storehouses of energy shall be used in an intelligent and good, as well as useful, way in the interests of the [common] cause.[6]


  1. Pensiero e Volontà, September 1, 1924
  2. Pensiero e Volontà, September 1, 1924
  3. l’Agitazione, September 22, 1901
  4. ‘Causa ed Effeti’, September 22, 1900
  5. Umanità Nova, December 18, 1921
  6. Umanità Nova, December 24, 1921

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