Errico Malatesta. Rough Outlines of His Life up till 1920

Dublin Core


Errico Malatesta. Rough Outlines of His Life up till 1920


Bibliographic Citation

Max Nettlau, “Errico Malatesta. Rough Outlines of His Life up till 1920,” Freedom 34 no. 375 (September 1920): 50-52; 34 no. 376 (October 1920): 58-59; 34 no. 377 (November 1920): 66-67.


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By M. N.


So many generations of Anarchists have passed away since in 1871 Malatesta, then about seventeen years of age, entered the International, that but very few keep a full record of the outlines of his history. His oldest comrades may all be gone now, and to gather the recollections of those who worked with him only during the last forty years a long, long journey among old forgotten comrades in several continents up to the youngest rebels of to-day who work with him would be necessary. Of properly arranged printed records there exists less, I believe, than about ever so many so-called public men of infinitely less importance. Only the Anarchist papers of many countries during half a century contain scattered items on his life, usually arrests, trials, imprisonments, escapes, expulsions, or scanty reports of meetings, congresses, etc., besides his not very numerous and infinitely scattered articles, some of which were reprinted and belong to the most widely spread Anarchist pamphlets. All these periods of meetings, movements, and arrests are usually the principal periods of revolutionary activity of this or that country, for wherever Malatesta worked there was a movement which soon confronted the whole State and bourgeois society, fighting openly and meeting repression or persecution, or repressed at an earlier stage. No man in our time so often challenged the whole of society. Thus, to understand his life the local history of each of these revolutionary periods or outbreaks would have to be studied from contemporary sources—and then in most cases only outside facts would be retraced; the inner history would remain buried in Malatesta’s memory and that of very few others. And he is the man to look constantly ahead, to begin afresh after ever so hard failures and not to lose time over the spilt milk of past events.

It was my happy lot sometimes to disturb his silence on the past. I never asked him about his own doings, but considered it an absolute necessity to turn him inside out, so to speak, on all connected with the Bakuninist period of his life (up to Bakunin’s death in 1876); and James Guillaume, who in his later life was as persistent as myself in collecting historical evidence (up to the end of his connection with the International, in the spring of 1878), asked me to extract Malatesta’s account of the Benevent insurrection of 1877. So my direct appeals to Malatesta’s really excellent memory reach up to that insurrection, after which he was imprisoned for a considerable time. I made complete notes of most of what he told me, but have not these notes to hand now, nor would their many details be essential here. Of later events I heard him speak here and there, but never made it my business to ask further questions; still, some facts are present to my mind. In 1887-88 I first met him, so to speak, in the files of old papers of the seventies, and was struck by his revolutionary audacity, tenacity, and ubiquity. He was at that time lost in the Argentine Republic, and I never expected to see him. So I was wonderfully surprised when, during the last months of 1889, at a meeting of the Council of the Socialist League, open to members, he made a silent appearance, being presented after the meeting to William Morris and others, and by V. Dave, who had told me who he was, to myself also, who was then, as now, interested in the early history of the movement. From that time I have known him and he has always been kind to me; but as he was a busy man and I could not be of use to him for the movements he had in hand, I made a point never to disturb him without good cause. I missed thus much of the charm of his more intimate acquaintance, but our occasional meetings on historical subjects were the more interesting, as no time was wasted. In later years I often tormented him by pressing him to write his memoirs, but somehow he never thought that he had yet reached the years of discretion which are usually allotted to such tasks; he was young and had so much action still before him—and this was really the case.

In a letter dated March 22, 1912, he wrote to me (in French):—


I am now engaged in writing a book which I shall call ‘The Social Revolution: Thoughts of an Anarchist,’ or something similar. This takes more of my time than I care, but I want to finish it at whatever cost After that I shall begin the ‘Recollections’ (Souvenirs). I shall perhaps choose the form of a collection of those of my old writings which appear to me to be of some interest, joining notes on the time and circumstances of their origin, the persons with whom I worked, etc.”


He added, with some; irony:—


“If this work may be of some value, I shall owe this to you, who push me onward with an insistence which I truly do not merit.”


I had proposed to him to publish an Italian book, “Bakunin’s Work in Italy,” which would have contained the very scarce and partly almost lost writings of Bakunin addressed specially to Italians and the Italian International, with a historical introduction and notes by Malatesta. He quite agreed with the idea and discussed the difficulty of finding a publisher. I do not know whether he continued to work on these books, but a little over a year passed and he was again in Italy, publishing Volonta in Ancona (June, 1913), and winding up with the general insurrection in the Romagna in the spring of 1914.

I write this to show the nature of my acquaintance with Malatesta’s life. I am unacquainted with many of the most elementary facts of his modest personal life, and I may have collected details on some events which might have passed into oblivion without my care, which anybody is free to call pedantic. Here I write to a great extent from memory, with the help of some historical and bibliographical notes.


Errico Malatesta, born in Santa Maria di Capua Vetere, Hannibal’s old Capua in one word, in 1853, attended the local lyceum and began to study pharmacology in Naples, where his political activity began in 1871 during or soon after the Paris Commune. His father had a copy of Mignet’s “History of the French Revolution,” which Errico read at an early age, receiving a lasting impression. Then he was advanced and Republican, like most young Italians of that time. But the Paris Commune first made him think for himself. He saw the Republican bourgeois, the glorious Mazzini and others curse and insult it as they would Revolutionary Russia in our times; he saw only the International stand up for the Commune, and under these impressions he and others joined the Naples section of the International Working Men’s Association (1871).

In the biography of Bakunin I gathered much material from Bakunin’s removal from Florence to Naples onward, which preceded and led to the foundation of this section, illustrating its earlier history. It appears that in 1871 the older members had retired more or less, and the joining of Malatesta and other young people gave new life to the section. A. Tucci, one of the earlier ones was left; also, of a somewhat later period, Carmelo Palladino (later on a lawyer), who had some influence on the development of Malatesta. Tnis goes to show that Malatesta did not enter a flourishing movement which carried people away, but that he was at once confronted with hard work. The most conspicuous member at that time was Carlo Cafiero, several years older than Malatesta, a man who had been in London and was persona grata with Marx and Engels of the General Council of the International, a rich man of boundless enthusiasm and devotion, but of somewhat capricious mentality. It became necessary to disentangle Cafiero from his Marxist relations, a task in which Malatesta participated, and which gave him an early insight in the struggle between Authority Bnd Anarchism which divided the Internationttl and the advanced workers—then as now. The young Anarchists succeeded, and Cafiero, with old G. Fanelli, travelled to Locarno to meet Bakunin. They stayed there a month (May 20 to June 18, 1872), and on May 21 Bakunin put down in his diary: “The whole day passed with Fanelli and Cafiero; alliance well accomplished”; on June 24: “Plan of organisation mapped out”; and so on.

Thus Malatesta and his friends had entered upon the closest relations with Bakunin. They arranged a conference of the Italian sections, which met at Rimini (August, 1872) and constituted the Italian Federation of the International Working Men’s Association. They refused to participate in the general congress held at the Hague and packed by the Marxists, but travelled to Zurich, where they met Bakunin, whom Marx had just managed to get expelled from the International by the majority of the Hague Congress. On September 4 Bakunin notes: “Letter by Benjamin”—which was Malatesta’s name in their intimate circle, where he may have been the very youngest; on September 7: “Malatesta arrives.” On September 11 Cafiero and the Spanish Internationalists arrived from the Hague. On September 12 and 13 the real constitution of the secret Alliance took place. After a journey to Neuchatel, etc., Bakunin returned to Zurich; and on September 23 notes the departure of Malatesta and the other Italians.

This fortnight or so in the closest intimacy with Bakunin and the most active and advanced Internationalists of Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, and a few others may have put the finishing touch on Malatesta’s revolutionary education. He was now in the inmost centre of Bakunin’s and the others plans and confidence, and these men thought of action and prepared real revolutions, at least in Italy and in Spain, not to speak of Russia. Malatesta’s rhythm for action at that time was the bayonet charge—keen, fearless attack. I have not heard him waste words over this later on in London, where words were easy and room for action was scarce; but I do not think that any later “coming of age” or so removed that notion of the bayonet charge from his mind and ma le him “wise.” He also used to tell—and this more frequently, as it was a useful lesson—how in those early days the Internationalists of each locality made themselves acquainted with all details about the stores of weapons, military preparations, public buildings, strategical points, etc., to be able at a moment’s notice to strike at the right point; they did not believe that this practical knowledge would come to them in the moment of action, all by itself in some spontaneous way.

To understand this historically, we must remember that the Paris Commune had then just given a world-wide example of revolutionary action, and that the Italians had conspired, formed bands, fomented insurrections^ etc., ever since the French Revolution; so the Italian International of Malatesta’s early .days stood at the close of a long revolutionary tradition, defended before the whole world by Mazzini, but cut short when Mazzini threw over the Paris Commune. They stood up for the Commune and the fighting traditions of their fathers. Bakunin understood and shared their feelings, and liberated them mentally by refuting the religious leanings of Mazzini, just as he put his foot on Mazzini’s pseudo-Socialism and Nationalism, proclaiming Internationalism, Collectivist Anarchism, and the Social Revolution. In this atmosphere, then, Malatesta grew up and developed, and it forms around him, wherever he goes, through all his life.


Malatesta, a member of one of the Commissions of the International nominated at Rimini (August, 1872), henceforth ceaselessly worked to spread the International in Italy. The next Congress (March, 1873^ comprised already 53 delegates for about 150 sections. These propagandists travelled about, agitating, organising, preparing everywhere, not yet with a definite plan of action. They closely resemble the early Nihilists, who at the very same time “ went among the people” (as the term goes), a resemblance which did not escape Bakunin, who often compared this entire devotion to the movement of the Italian and Russian youth of these years. It was not quite “the illegal life” of persecuted Russians, but they had to be quicker than the police when they wished to get along for some time. The Congress of March, 1873, had already to meet secretly in a factory at Bologna; on its second day Andrea Costa, Ciifiero, Malatesta, Alceste Faggioli, and others were arrested—maybe Malatesta’s first arrest; the Congress continued to meet in another place. The Government had intended to prosecute the Internationalists as malfaUori (members of a society of common criminals), but after 54 days Cafiero and Malatesta were released. Cafiero went home to Barletta to realise money for the cause; Malatesta joined Bakunin in Locarno, and found him absorbed by Spanish affairs. He sent long letters there, one of which at least Malatesta and Zamfir Ralli copied for him. Finally, Bakunin was urged to come to Barcelona to join a revolutionary movement. Money being deficient and correspondence not advisable, Malatesta was sent to Barletta, in the South of Italy, to arrange this matter with Cafiero; but upon arriving there he was very soon arrested, and remained in prison for five or six months (July to end of 1873 or later); then he was released without any charge or trial.

He was thus imprisoned arbitrarily for half or two-thirds of one single year, and the same was done to others. No wonder that the International at that period became more or less a secret society and that plans for action originated and ripened. Andrea Costa and Bakunin were the leading spirits; Cafiero, Malatesta, and others gave whatever help they could. The secret appeals of the “Comitato Italiano per la Rivoluzione Sociale” began to be circulated (January, 1874). Popular discontent provoked by the high cost of living led to riots in many places in the first half of that year. At the Berne General Congress of the International (October, 1876) Malatesta stated:—


“At the beginning of 1874 a very lively state of agitation prevailed in various parts of Italy, owing to the fall in wages and the exorbitant rise in the price of food. In many localities stores were invaded and plundered. . . . The International had thus either to disavow these popular acts entirely or to declare its solidarity with them. The latter alternative was chosen.”


He thought that it was impossible to have acted otherwise, since by a disavowal all practical partisans of the Revolution would have been lost, and also because he thought that “Revolution consists more in facts than in words, and whenever a spontaneous movement of the people takes place, whenever the workers rise in the name of their rights and their dignity, it is the duty of every revolutionary Socialist to declare himself solidary with the movement in question.”

It was decided that all the various factors of discontent, social and political, which Italy then contained should be made to co-operate in a general insurrection in the summer of 1874. When, mainly in 1899 and 1903, I tried to retrace the inner history of this last revolutionary effort of Bakunin and his friends, I scorned to consult Andrea Costa, as from 1879 onwards he had repudiated Anarchism and entered Parliament. I did so in the case of many others, and thus much information which I probably could have elicited was never recorded, and is lost now as far as I can see. Costa gave a short account in Bagliori di Socialismo (1900). Since Malatesta had been in prison during the second half of 1873 and Cafiero was dead, and others, like F. Natta, were inaccessible to me, Costa alone could have told to what extent the plan of 1874 originated with Bakunin or himself, or which other factors and considerations made this effort to bring about this general co-operation appear advisable or practical then. I feel somehow that the ambitious spirit of Costa was the prompter and that Bakunin, in spite of his very bitter experience in France (Lyons, 1870) and his clear insight into the inefficiency of Garibaldi and the Mazzinians for a social revolution, yielded to the persuasions of Costa. In any case, Malatesta’s long absence and his arrival, perhaps, when this course of action had already been resolved upon, indicate that it was not he who suggested these tactics. He did his share of work in the South by straightforward revolutionary action. So the efforts to interest Garibaldi in this movement, the Mazzinian conference arrested in the Villa Ruffi near Rimini (August 2, 1874), and the ill-fated outbreaks near Bologna and Florence and in other places cannot be discussed here. Bakunin had come to Bologna and shared all the anxiety and distress of the discomfiture. His own testimony was recorded by him day by day from July 13 to October 13, and Malatesta is not mentioned in these short notes, which, of course, I do not claim to be a complete record. He worked in Apulia, far away.

The rifles were sent to Tarent, and the custom house where they reposed as hardware or so was to be seized at the proper time This being impracticable, they were forwarded to another custom house, and so on—”a little all over Apulia,” as Malatesta expressed it; for failure was prevailing there also. What was to be done if of a hundred who had promised to seize these arms only two Or three would turn up at the time appointed 1 Finally, a handful of them seized Castel del Monte, a ruined castle of the mediaeval Emperor Frederick II., and addressed the peasants, who did not respond to their appeals. Gendarmes fired at long distance and retired; a regiment of soldiers then surrounded the castle, but the Internationalists, warned by a friend, passed through their ranks in a haycart hidden under the hay. Malatesta remained a few days in Naples, and was arrested at Pesaro, on his journey to Switzerland (August, 1874).

A year of preventive imprisonment, damaging his health, was followed by a great trial at Trani, leading to a triumphant acquittal (August 5, 1875).

The first trial for Internationalist “conspiracy” in 1874 took place at Rome (May, 1875), and ended with ferocious sentences, later on annulled. The trial at Trani gave the impulse to other acquittals (Florence, Bologna, etc.), after assizes of monstrous length, the Bologna trial lasting from March 15 to June 17, 1876. Until this last acquittal was secured, for over ten months then, those acquitted earlier had to keep quiet so as not to compromise the case of their comrades. This meant one of the rare periods of relative rest in Malatesta’s life.


(To be continued next month.)




By M. N.

(Continued from last month.)


I know nothing of his domestic ties; he had no occasion to speak to me of his mother; his father he mentioned with sympathy. When the latter died, large sums owing to him were outstanding; but the son, from principle, did not have them collected, and thus was about ruined. As he spent almost exactly half of each of the years 1873-74-75 in prison, his regular studies probably came to an end about 1872 or so, which does not mean, of course, that he would neglect intellectual activity from a given date. His few simple wants may have been met by occasional work, as they were later on by more continuous skilled work. He never held any paid or titled position in any Labour movement, nor did he sell his intellectual work in any journalist way; this made him independent and ready for action at any moment of his life.

After his release at Trani (August, 1875) Malatesta soon went to Locarno, staying a few days with Cafiero in the “Baronata” (Cafiero’s house), and making a last visit to Bakunin at Lugano. The very grave and painful dissensions which had arisen between Cafiero (whom James Guillaume and Ross joined in this) and Bakunin, beginning in July, 1874, and leading to a complete rupture (September 25), had then subsided into silent animosity; and Malatesta, the friend of both, was happily never drawn into these matters. Ho could but recognise Bakunin’s physical sufferings and depression, which had put an end to his revolutionary efforts. With Cafiero he consulted about the reorganisation of the Alliance. Both Bakunin and Cafiero desired Malatesta to go to Spain to liberate another member of the intimate group—Alerini, of Marseilles, in prison since 1873 (Barcelona movement), the same who had helped Bakunin to escape from Marseilles to Genoa in the late autumn of 1870. On this journey Malatesta also saw Morago at Madrid, the most advanced Spanish Internationalist of those years. All was rigidly suppressed on the surface, but the International continued as a secret body. In Cadiz he was admitted to the prison like to an hotel, and passed a day there with Alerini and thirty or forty of the Cartagena, Alcoy, and Cadiz prisoners of 1873. For a few gold pieces he visited the town with Alerini and two warders| who were made drunk; but Alerini would not go away, and they had the trouble of restoring the drunken warders to the prison. The next day a single gold piece and one warder sufficed, but Alerini once more would not go, so Malatesta gave it up; Alerini’s revolutionary days were over.

Malatesta then went to Naples, where he saw Stepniak, and soon after to Rome, where he met Cafiero, Grassi, and others. This private conference, held in the spring of 1876, received a last message from Bakunin (who died June 1), transmitted by Serafino Mazzotti. Here the reorganisation of tho International and a congress to bo held in the autumn (Florence, October) were decided upon. Malatesta was forced by Nicotera’s Government to leave Rome and had to Jive at Naples.

His idea, however, was to fight in Servia against the Turks. The impulse to join the Herzegovinian insurgents, in 1875, seized some Russian revolutionists liko Stepniak, Kleniens, and Ross, who went there, but soon returned disappointed. In Italy, Garibaldi encouraged this movement; Celso Cerrotti, the link between Internationalism and Garibaldianism, and others took part, also noted Internationalists like Alcesto Faggioli, etc. It was for the latter, I believe, to some extent a matter of prestige; since the Garibaldians fought, they would not stay at homo, and on the eve of the Russian War anti-Turkish sentiment ran high, from Gladstone to Garibaldi. So Malatesta also decided upon war on Turkey, though Bakunin had sent him a verbal message that such doings reminded him of the good people who made socks for the heathen negroes far away and forgot the half-naked poor at home. Malatesta—so S. Mazzotti told me—replied somewhat in the sense that wherever war is made on Carthage, Rome is defended—and set out for Trieste, was turned back; set out again and got as far as Neusatz (opposite Belgrade): thence he was sent back in about thirty-day instalments to Udine, where the Italians mistook him for a runaway custom officer, and, after keeping him for a fortnight, forced him to return to Naples.

In Naples (summer of 1876) he passed some time with Cafiero and Emilio Covelli, one of the best thinkers of the International: and there, in their walks on the seaboard, they discussed the economic theories of Collectivism and Communism (to each according to his deeds or needs), and concluded that whilst it was impossible to fix the exact value of the individual work of each person, and as the adoption of a uniform standard would imply authoritarian equalisation, the absence of any such system and free access of all to the products of labour according to the needs of each person, would best satisfy the claims of freedom. This was one of the beginnings of Communist Anarchism, another being a small pamphlet (1876) by a Lyons Anarchist, P. Dumartheray, then a refugee at Geneva, and with Perrare and others belonging to the advanced section, “L’Avenir”; another, Peter Kropotkin’s writings, which commenced not very long after.

The Italian International was the first body to accept Communist Anarchism (in place of Collectivist Anarchism), at their congress held under great difficulties on October 21-25, 1876, at Florence. Thence Malatesta and Cafiero visited the General Congress of the International, held at Berne, October 26-30, whero they met with comrades of various less advanced shades of opinion. The minutes of the Congress (Berne, 1876, 112 pp ) should be consulted here.

After the Congress, Cafiero, then very poor, having been cheated of a large sum of money, and Malatesta went all about Berne to look for work, and worked for some time in the building trade.


Fresh action, however, was their desire, and this time no general co-operation of advanced parties was looked for as in 1874. The prevailing idea had become that of propaganda by the revolutionary fact—that is, revolutionary acts, whatever their immediate success or sacrifice might be, were expected to act upon the people as an example and a stimulant, and were thus considered useful as such. This is the origin of a number of acts which so-called practical people never could understand, just as unselfishness always remains a mystery to some.

Between Florence and Berne Cafiero and Malatesta settled upon such an undertaking, the starting of a local insurrection in a mountainous Neapolitan province; they expected to hold out - for some weeks or longer, and thus to give an impetus to other local or more general revolts all over the country. Their means were very slender; a Russian female comrade, Mme. Sm----, gave some thousands of francs, and Cafiero gave almost the rest of his once fair fortune. -- In Naples their plans were furthered by Stepniak, who wrote an insurrectionary manual for them. About 300 local people were enrolled, and numbers of comrades arrived from more northern parts of Italy. The movement was only possible in May, when the snow was gone from the mountains and sheep would afford food. But the principal local agent, a quasi-revolutionary ex-Garibaldian, was a traitor, and all those whom he knew were arrested, save Malatesta and Cafiero, who kept in hiding. This prompted them to start at once, even in April, and with no Southern or local people among them, except Malatesta and Cafiero, which made the peasants mistrust and dislike them. However on April 6 the twenty-eight started and took to the mountains for Letino and Gallo, two villages where they burned the official records, gave confiscated goods to the people, and were, strange to say, made welcome by the local priests, who proved to them—one by unveiling the indescribable filth underneath his clerical garments—that they were as poor as anybody could be, and declared them to be very good young men, the true followers of Christ. But all round them the military gathered and nothing but snowy mountainous deserts were open to them, which led to their final surrender after great exhaustion.

They remained in preventive imprisonment at Capua, Malatesta’s birthplace, for one year (until April, 1878), when a political amnesty after the death of Victor Emanuel I abolished the main charges against them. But as two gendarmes had met with their death, it was proposed to indict them for manslaughter, and they passed four months more in the prison of Benevento. This scandalous distortion of the amnesty made the jury anxious to acquit them (August, 1878), after a week’s trial. F. S. Merlino was one of their counsel and wrote “A proposito del processo di Benevento” (1878). Details are most conveniently found now in J. Guillaume’s “L’Internationale.”

Cafiero while in prison wrote his abbreviation of Marx’s “Capital.” Malatesta explained to me that they all, Bakunin also, theoretically fully accepted the criticism of Marx applied to the capitalist system. At that time, after the Benevent attempt, fifty or more copies of the French translation of “Capital” were bought at Naples by the general public; previously hardly a single copy had been sold.


After the trial Malatesta spent a month at Naples, and then travelled to Egypt. After Passanante’s attempt on the life of King Umberto, when a counter-manifestation against a patriotic outburst was being prepared, Malatesta, Parini, and Alvino were arrested, and Malatesta was transported by ship to Beyrout (Syria), where the Italian Consul and he strongly disagreed as to how he should be further disposed of. Finally, he worked his way, helping unloading, with a French ship from port to port, the captain, a brave man, refusing to hand him over to the Italian authorities, who bargained for this, at Smyrna, Castcllamare, and Leghorn, landing him safe at Marseilles, whence he travelled to Geneva.

At that time the Revolte (preceding the Temps Nouveaux) was about to be founded (No. 1 appeared February 22, 1879) by P. Kropotkin and others. Malatesta took part in the preparatory meetings. After a short time he and several other Italian Anarchists were perpetually expelled from Switzerland; the publication of a manifesto or some similar expression of their ideas (to be found in the contemporary papers) furnished the immediate pretext.

Malatesta went to Roumania, where he found some employment, but had to leave owing to fever. He then made his way to Paris, where Cafiero, after passing some time in Switzerland, had also gone (about 1879).

In Paris he witnessed and assisted at almost the origin and first growth of the Anarchist movement, which has since continued without interruption. It had been initiated about 1877 by secret relations with French Anarchist Internationalists in the Jura Mountains and at Berne ^Louis Pindy, of the Paris Commune, Paul Brousse, etc.), and Andrea Costa had gone to Paris as their confidential agent to spread the ideas and organisation of the International. Costa was soon arrested and kept rather long in prison, where his ideas underwent a change towards Parliamentarism. Cafiero and Malatesta were made of better stuff, and valiantly explained Anarchism to the rising French groups. V. Tcherkesov, after his years of Siberian exile dating from the Netchaev trial of 1871, was their friend and comrade; and Jean Grave also dates from this time. Needless to say, the Government soon weeded out the foreigners, and Cafiero and Malatesta were thus expelled from France (in 1880).

Cafiero left for Switzerland; Malatesta, who worked as a mechanic, changed his quarters and stayed until he was arrested at a Commune celebration. He had the passport of a Swiss comrade, under whose name he was expelled again and sent to London. He chose to return to Paris, for which he was sentenced to six months, which he exchanged for four and a half months of solitary confinement.

I have a vague recollection that after this he went to Brussels, and I believe that it was then he challenged Paul Lafargue to a duel, Lafargue having insulted Spanish Anarchist Internationalists, like Morago and others, then dead or in prison. Lafargue refused to fight, on principle, which was his right, but did not withdraw his insults. By the way, Lafargue, ever since 1872 the constant enemy and insulter of Bakunin and his comrades, was not sufficiently anti-Anarchist in the eyes of his father-in-law, Karl Marx. For on November 11, 1882, Marx cries out in a letter to Engels: “Longuet, the last Proudhonist, and Lafargue, the last Bakunist, may the Devil come to fetch them!” Marx haunted by the imagination that his two sons-in-law were—the last Anarchists!—in that enlightened spirit Anarchism was understood by Marx!—whilst Anarchists like Cafiero in prison put their soul into explaining and making accessible the work of Marx (see above).

Malatesta, therefore, was then or at a slightly different time in Belgium and unquestionably expelled, which made him finally settle in London some time in 1880 or 1881, where he remained for two or threo years.

He was a delegate at the International Revolutionary Congress (summer of 1881) with Kropotkin, Merlino, John Neve, and others, including the revolutionary and Anarchist initiators of the English movement, Joseph Lane, F. Kitz (I believe), and a few others. An article on Garibaldi (after his death) will be found in one of the three issues of Lothrop Withington’s Democratic Review (1882), almost the first one I can think of signed by Malatesta. Papers played a relatively small part in the Italian International from 1871 onwards, though very many were published. They were so constantly persecuted and suppressed, and the propagandists themselves hunted about or imprisoned, that there was little room or leisure for theoretical work or for large papers in general. Nevertheless, the two Martello, the Anarchia of Naples (by Covelli), the Avvenire of Modena, etc., had a little more stability, and in some of these Malatesta’s early writings are likely to be found. In London, in the summer of 1881, Cafiero, Malatesta, and Solieri issued the prospectus of L’Insurrezione, a paper that was never published.

In 1881-82 Malatesta must have undergone the most painful impressions, seeing at his side the intellect of Cafiero decline and almost vanish. Andrea Costa’s defection had been that of a viveur who has had enough of the meagre fare of Anarchism and goes over to the opulent table of Parliamentary power; a glance at Costa’s exterior (I saw him at the Paris Congress of 1889) settled that problem. Also Cafiero, in a letter printed in the Naples Grido del Popolo of July 21, 1881, speaks with utter contempt of Costa’s ambition, vanity, and hypocrisy. But somehow Cafiero’s mind got obscured, and whilst he publishes “God and the State” with Elisee Reclus (Geneva, 1882), and begins to prepare a biography of Bakunin (collecting valuable documents which then got lost or are hopelessly mislaid), he puts before Malatesta, Ceccarelli, and others the first outlines of a plan of Parliamentary tactics which nothing can dissuade him from. At the same time his friends saw by ever so many details of personal life that he was insane. In this state he hurried from London to Locamo (March, 1882), then to Milan, and openly proclaimed his new ideas in a letter published October 27, 1882. Almost at the same time he is placed in an asylum, and after several months in a terrible state conducted to the Swiss frontier, where he tries to commit suicide. After some improvement owing to the kind treatment of Bakunin’s Ticinese friend E. Bellerio, he insists on again entering Italy, where on February 13, 1883, the gates of the asylum closed behind him; he was discharged many years after, a wreck in health, and soon died.

Even the Parliamentary Socialists could not gain much by this tragedy, but the case of Costa was very much more exploited. Costa, to make himself valuable and to escape from the shameful isolation of a renegade, did all he could to induce others to join him. Then the elections of protest, to rescue the imprisoned Cipriani, whose election would not be valid, drew another red herring across the path of the revolutionary movement. And many Anarchists had been crushed, ruined, silenced by ten years of constant persecution.

It was then that Malatesta came forward and for the first time took the principal weight of the struggle on his shoulders, fighting this time not with arms but with arguments to maintain revolutionary Anarchism and to dispel the fallacies and allurements of Parliamentary tactics.


(To be concluded next month.)




By M. N.

(Concluded from lost month.)


I cannot say whether he expected an amnesty to allow him to return to Italy, or what made him choose Florence for the publication of his paper La Questione Sociale (1884-85).* It is long since I looked over, with the greatest interest, the collection of that paper kept in the British Museum, and all I could say on this, the first real propagandist paper—all the others were more fighting papers, I should say—would be taken from its columns. It contains a magnificent campaign against Parliamentary Socialism. From its columns is also taken the most widespread of Malatesta’s pamphlets, the “Talk about Anarchist Communism between Two Workers” (Freedom Pamphlets, 3; 1891), first issued as: “Propaganda Socialists (Fra Contadini),” Firenze, September, 1884. By the way, a Chinese translation of this, printed in Paris in 1907 or 1908, is the most diminutive Anarchist publication I have seen. From Norwegian to Armenian, there are translations of this popular tract.

This propaganda, the first continuous propaganda on a large scale in Anarchist Italy, was cut short, as usual, by the persecution of Malatesta for press or speech offences. He stayed until the house was never free from observation by the police, who shadowed him wherever he went; then, thinking he had sacrificed years enough of his youth to the prisons of these people, he left the house under their noses inside a large case supposed to contain a sewing machine, I believe.

‘A condemnation pronounced at Rome was pending against him (1885), and this time he left Europe altogether and lived in South America, the Argentine Republic, until 1889. I believe that some Anarchist papers at Buenos Aires and the local movement, which had then just begun, got his support. At one time he and others of his little group were transported in a summary way to the far South, to be landed in a desert port on the Patagonian coast. Malatesta (I heard him tell this) strongly protested and to emphasise his protest jumped into the sea, challenging the captain to leave him there in the icy water. This shamed the captain, who had him rescued and did not land him as ordered. When we asked him whether the water was not very cold, Malatesta said he never thought of that, he was boiling with indignation and felt hot even in that icy ocean.

What brought him back to Europe I do not know, but on September 6, 1889, L’Associazione, a large paper similar to the Questione Sociale, began to be published at Nice. At that time the most impudent spy of the Italian Government, Carlo Terzaghi, exposed as early as 1872 by Cafiero, had again laid his nets, corresponding under an assumed name with ever so many Italian and other comrades by poste restante letters. Malatesta recognised at a glance the handwriting of Terzaghi and exposed him in the new paper. No wonder that after one or two issues he and the paper had to leave Nice and France, and so he came once more to London (about October, 1889), where I first saw him in the Socialist League, as mentioned previously. The paper continued publication at Fulham, and a good sum of money was in hand to expand it and to print pamphlets. All at once that money was stolen by one of the publishing group, and the paper came to an end; seven numbers (until January 23, 1890) and a proof slip telling of the disaster were issued.

The propaganda was, however, slowly continued by the publication of excellent pamphlets—(Biblioteca dell’ Associazione): “La Politica Parlamentare nel Movimento Socialista” (1), 1890; “In Tempo di Elezioni” (2), 1890; “Fra Contadini” (3), December, 1890; April, 1891 ; “L’Anarchia” (5), March, 1891 (“Anarchy,” Freedom Pamphlets, 1892); all by Malatesta.

We find him henceforth writing occasionally in the Revolte (at least I believe so) and the Temps Nouveaux, always only when he has something to say, to state his opinion on a given controversial question. No author ever less imposed himself by useless repetitions or amplifications of known things; he would

In 1883 or 1884 he went to Naples to nurse in a hospital the victims of a terrible epidemic of cholera. Many Anarchists and Socialists (Costa included) did the same then, and the editor of the Anarchist Proximus Tuns, if I remember rightly, met his death in this way.

He prepared to use the utmost patience in elementary propaganda, but he would not inflict a line upon the reader when he had no definite object in view.

“Un Peu de Theorie,” in the Paris Endehors (August 21, 1892), may also be mentioned, reprinted in pamphlet form in Brussels, 1899.

Ten years later he wrote another popular propagandist pamphlet, “Al Caffe: Conversazione sul Socialismo Anarchico” (Paterson, N.J., 1902), at least this is the earliest edition I am awareofnow. “II Nostro Programma,” 1903 (ib.); “NonVotale!” (Mantova, 1904); and “II Suffragio Universale” {ib., 1904 or 1905), are less well known, and may be reprints of passing articles.

From London, where he probably stayed until the first months of 1897, he went over to Paris occasionally,’ on the eve of expected great revolutionary days, Firsts of May or so, to be on the spot for the revolution which was not forthcoming.—He had learned Spanish in Spain and South America, and suddenly made a wonderful tour of meetings and lectures all over Spain in 1891 or 1892. The Xeres revolt occurred just after Malatesta had gone (he had to go), and no further chance was given him to enter Spain again.—The Italian movement was reorganised by the Congress held at Capolago (Ticino, Switzerland) in the beginning of the nineties, Malatesta being present. It was then he was arrested in Lugano, threatened with extradition to Italy, which raised a general outcry, and meanly put in prison for some weeks or months for transgressing the expulsion decree of 1878 or 1879.

When in 1893-94 the discontent in Italy was at its height, the Sicilian peasants on the verge of revolution, etc., several of the old exiled Anarchists secretly returned to Italy, and were hunted after like wild beasts. Merlino was chased over the park of Naples, and arrested in an utterly exhausted condition. Malatesta was the bugbear of the press—he was seen hidden everywhere, so to speak. Many versions were printed then, but I had no reason to question him since on these matters, so I have nothing clear before my mind on his adventures of 1893-94, only that he baffled them all and was never captured.

Dr. Merlino had been to the United States in 1892, where the Grido degli Oppressi and Edelman’s Solidarity (started respectively on June 5 and 18, 1892, at New York) bear witness to his propagandist energy and helpfulness. Malatesta could not publicly support the English-speaking propaganda; what he wrote for Freedom was always written in French and translated. So in the United States (in 1895, I think) he had to restrict himself to rousing the Italian propaganda in many places and possibly the Spanish also, represented by the Despertar of his friend P. Esteve. If I am not quite mistaken, the Questione Sociale, of Paterson, N.J. (July 15, 1895, seq.), owes much initial help to him; but my memory may fail me. Several excellent propagandists went to the States in the nineties, as Pietro Gori, E. Milano, G. Ciancabilla, who are all dead, and Luigi Galleani, of the Cronaca Sovversiva, who after so many years has now returned to Italy to be as active as ever.

In August, 1896, L’Anarchia (a single issue) was published in London by Malatesta or the group to which he belonged.


At last in 1897 an amnesty or the withdrawal of an early condemnation enabled Malatesta to return to Italy, where he at once became the life and soul of a more intense propaganda than ever before and also of the third of his series of large papers; the whole Anarchist press, by the way, had expanded since on their lines. If I say he at once became the life and soul of a large movement, the truth is that he had never ceased to be this, that he had kept up all his relations, kept in touch with everything, however long his absence lasted; so the moment he touched his native soil again he reaped what he had patiently sown; he was up to date every hour of his life.

L’Agitazione, published at Ancona (March 14, 1897) afterwards at Rome, with ever so many new names when numbers had been seized (Agitatore, Agitiamoci, Agitatevi, Pro Agitazione, etc.), lasted until 190G, if not longer. But Malatesta had been driven from Italy again by a prosecution started in 1898. The “Resoconto del Processo Malatesta e Compagni” (Tunis, 1898, 119 pp.), his Autodifesa, etc., must here be consulted. I cannot state from memory the time he had to pass in prison then; from the prison he was transported to one of the penitential islands in the Mediterranean From there he departed, to make his way back to his third long London exile, which lasted from about 1899 or 1900 to the early part of 1913.


Again this man who has always worked unselfishly for the common good was deprived, at the height of his development, of his native soil, sun, and sky for twelve long years or more by the tyrant of the hour. Most of us know how he lived in London, in a small room in the house of his excellent friends and old comrades, the family Defendi. He acquired also a workroom (I have never seen it) and executed electrical installations and repairs. About the end of 1894, in the building which is now Freedom office, he helped to put together the venerable printing machine on which the Rossettis printed the Torch, and on which afterwards Freedom was printed for many years; and in later visits to London he improved the lighting and other fittings of the stately offices of this journal. Once a nail pierced his palm, causing a frightful wound; how he escaped blood-poisoning is a mystery. Another time exposure at work brought on inflammation of the lungs, which made all despair of his life. His health declined so much owing to living in London that a winter in Portugal, the only Southern country where the native of Capua could have gone then, seemed advisable; but he could not be persuaded to go. So the years pass away, so many die or disappear; he turns grey just a little and appears unchanged, always patient, cheerful, friendly. He speaks some English now, and I assisted at what he declared to be his first English speech; he writes it very much better. His closer friends in these years are V. Tcherkesov, Tarrida del Marmol, S. Nacht—Kropotkin also, of course, though they seldom find time to meet.

He is ferociously detested by the authors of numbers of leaflets, Italian and French, who oppose his views on organisation with an insistence alleged to be Individualist, but which to me appears as authoritarian and intolerant as anything could be. His views on organisation may be open to challenge, in theory before all; in practical matters his clear judgment and experience always demand the fullest consideration.

In looking back on this, I feel that I was moved always by the consideration that his too great intellectual superiority and personal prestige would make it difficult for others to exist beside him in the same movement except in a position of voluntary subordination of their proper will. Such a time when he filled the whole movement, so to speak, did exist; before, there were others with whom he himself had felt able to co-operate without quarrel or ambition, on the basis of perfect equality, from his earliest beginnings. It was not his fault, but his great merit, that for some time he almost alone filled the gap, and appeared to be quite overwhelming then. Since that time the movement, I believe, has grown so immensely that this danger of personal preponderance is over now for all those who will not recognise it and go their own way, thinking for themselves. Life is stronger and larger than the most superior personality. So to my mind the situation has changed, and after years, or an age almost, of isolation he is fortunate to pass his later days now within a large, growing, and hopeful movement, just as his early life, say up till 1877, was passed within such a movement. What storms has he weathered between these dates and what may still be before him, the most exposed Anarchist of our time (a general remark which is not meant to underrate the value and energy of so many other comrades less in view, in Spain, in the United States, and everywhere).

His life in London did not pass without a few adventures or dreary new experiences. Thus, during the Houndsditch affair of 1910 11 it became evident that one of the most compromised persons had worked at his shop and made use of his name and good faith; even the police knew him too well to try to implicate him further in this affair. Not so the judge at the Old Bailey, who on May 20, 1912, sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment, with a recommendation for his deportation afterwards, for having drawn attention to the suspicious behaviour of an Italian named Bellelli, saying he was a spy. The leaflet on which the charge of criminal libel was based was entitled “Errico Malatesta alia Colonia Italiana di Londra,” dated April 22, 1912. The

Italian comrades in London, believing that justice would be done to Malatesta by a higher court, lodged an appeal; but the judge, an old Tory reactionary, refused to grant it. “An Appeal to the Men and Women of London,” by the Malatestw Release Committee; Malatesta,” an editorial in the Manchester Guardian, May 25; “Why we Demand Malatesta’s Release: Memorandum on the Malatesta Scandal” (Italian Defence Committee); a special issue called La Gogna (July); Kropotkin’s note in the Nation, etc., bear witness to the indignation roused by that sentence; and as a sop to public opinion the Home Secretary declined to sign the order for deportation. So Malatesta also saw the inside of an English prison!

Some special issues or small London Italian papers represent his opinions; I will mention all those I possess of that period, though they may not all belong to his group—which I cannot verify just now: Cause ed Effetti (September, 1900), L’Internazionale (1901, four numbers), La Rivoinzione Sociale (1902, nine numbers), Germinal (May 1, 1903), L’Insurrezione (July, 1905), La Guerra Tripolitana (April, 1912).

Of course, for all these years the principal Italian and French papers have to be consulted for articles and letters, also the files of Freedom. Contributions to daily papers, magazines, etc., on the other hand, do not exist at all, I think; and the news which London correspondents by and by began to circulate about Malatesta, who, for Italy, began to mean “copy,” must not be believed.

The Tripolitan War brigandage brought Malatesta to the front in London meetings held in opposition. He aho saw clearly through Herve, whose evolution I was foolish enough not to foresee in what I once wrote in Freedom on his London meeting.

Malatesta had one great fault, in my opinion (besides his leaning towards organisation)—that of not writing the teal story of his life and times. This is the more to be regretted, as by a fire in 1893 in the house in Islington where he lived for so many years most of his papers, many old documents which he had carefully kept, were destroyed. He was still for making not for writing history, and he was right; he was one of the latent forces of Anarchism, and is still at work when so many others are resigned to slumber, if not to sleep.

I forgot to remark that he gave his hearty support to the Anarchist International founded by the Congress held at Amsterdam in August, 1907.


In 1913 the time for another Italian campaign had come at last. Malatesta published Volonla at Ancona (June 8, 1913, to June, 1914). After a lively anti electioneering propaganda in 1913, the career of this paper culminated in, and was cut short by, a real popular movement in Ancona and the smaller towns of the Romagna, where Anarchists, Socialists, revolutionary Republicans, and Anti-Clericals cooperated for some days in a way the originators of the combination of 1874 (see above) could not have dreamed better. This time ther e was hard fighting, a final defeat, but no discomfiture, rather a very quick recovery. But Malatesta had to leave Italy once more, after adventures which the press so grossly distorted or misstated that the more we read about them the less we know. I know only that one fine day he arrived safely at Geneva and very soon after in London.

Here the war overtook him like all of us. The readers of Freedom know his opinions from articles like “Anarchists have Forgotten their Principles” (November, 1914), “Italy Also!” (June, 1915), “Pro Government Anarchists” (April, 1916), circulated in France as a pamphlet (“Anarchistes de Gouvernement”). Other means of information fail me; the Geneva Reveil and the Cronaca Sovversiva ought to be consulted before all.

For many months after 1916 Malatesta to a far away blockaded outsider at least, as I am now, appears to have remained silent. In 1919 lie saw the time had come to return to Italy. But to escape from England in 1919 was a harder task for him than to escape from Italian persecutions ever so many times during his long career of nearly fifty years of a rebel’s life. For although the Italian Consul gave him a passport for Italy, the French Government refused to allow him to travel through France. However, the captain of a ship was persuaded to grant him a passage to Genoa, where he landed in December, and was welcomed enthusiastically by the Italian workers. This time, when he was arrested in Toscana, a threatened general strike liberated him; when his daily paper, Umanita Nova (Milan; No. 100 is dated June 24, 1920) was refused printing paper, the miners threatened to strike, and the paper was forthcoming. Just now the Public Prosecutor tries to bury him in prison after a trial—we shall see what kind of strike will paralyse this proposed new blow.

These, then, are some very bare outlines of Malatesta’s life. Good luck to him!

June 28, 29. 1920. M. N.


(1) We wish to say that, owing to our comrade Malatesta’s well-known dislike of publicity, we refrained from asking his consent to the publication of this article; but the desire of comrades to read his history has often been expressed, and we thought that the approaching 50th anniversary of his entrance into the Anarchist movement was a fitting occasion for a review of his activities, which all comrades will join with us in hoping may long continue.—Ed. Freedom.


(2) Bakunin in 1869 had given similar advice to some Bulgarian revolutionists who had consulted him at Geneva. This fact was no doubt unknown to the Italians of 1876, who above all wanted to avoid the mistakes made in 1874.


(3) A manuscript copy of this little handbook was given to me by Z. Ralli, an old Bakunian, at Bucarest in 1893, to be returned to his old friend Stepniak. When in 1894 I consulted Stepniak about his impressions of Bakunin (1875), lie was in a somewhat moderate mood, and began to combat Anarchist violence. This was or was not the right moment to hand him back his old handbook for Anarchist bands—anyhow, there it was before his eyes, and he slowly but surely recognised it. His face then underwent some wonderful changes, from blank wonder to a peculiar kind of smile, and somehow his denunciation of violence was adjourned. I did not then know the precise history of the manuscript or I should have copied it. It may still repose among Stepniak’s papers.


Max Nettlau, “Errico Malatesta. Rough Outlines of His Life up till 1920,” Freedom 34 no. 375 (September 1920): 50-52; 34 no. 376 (October 1920): 58-59; 34 no. 377 (November 1920): 66-67.



Nettlau, Max, 1865-1944, “Errico Malatesta. Rough Outlines of His Life up till 1920,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed August 24, 2019,