The following biography appears in the Anarchist Communist Group edition of Carlo Cafiero's Compendium of Capital, which has just been published.
Carlo Cafiero was born into a rich family on September 1st, 1846 at Barletta in Puglia in southern Italy. They were landowners and grain merchants.
He attended a seminary in Mofetta and went on to obtain a law degree from the University of Naples. He then moved to Florence, apparently to join the diplomatic service. His contact with establishment politics soon put him off the idea of a diplomatic career. He frequented republican circles, moved to Paris in 1870, but left with the start of the Franco-Prussian War. He moved to London, where there was a sizeable number of followers of Mazzini and Garibaldi. He involved himself for a while with the free thought movement around Charles Bradlaugh, but it was visits to the East End that opened his eyes to social injustice and he started attending workers’ meeting. Irt was a speech by a shoemaker, probably George Odger, a founder of the First International, that moved him towards socialism. The Paris Commune then transformed him into a revolutionary. He met Marx and Engels and joined the International. He was appointed by Marx and Engels as the special agent of the General Council of the International in Italy, as they were impressed by his intelligence and commitment.
Returning to Florence in May 1871, Cafiero made contact with workers’ societies and then moved on to Naples to build the International. Bakunin’s influence was very strong among the local Internationalists, and they automatically distrusted him as an agent of the General Council which was under Marx and Engels’ influence. However, once again his commitment and sincerity won them over and he became a close friend of Errico Malatesta. He was arrested and imprisoned for the first time during the governmental repression of August 1871. He attended the Rome congress of the International where he combatted the positions of Mazzini and Garibaldi.
He met Bakunin in Locarno in Switzerland in 1872 and was eventually won over to his ideas, breaking with Marx and Engels.
He was near sighted, speaking little and listening intently, and always reflecting. He left a good impression on those he met. Tall and of an aristocratic bearing, he moved from the manners and style of a member of the aristocracy to those of an ascetic, wearing plain clothes, eating simply and giving up the pleasures of the flesh. That in truth was one of his flaws, as he always adopted intransigent positions and stood against compromise. When Bakunin counselled against a rupture with the General Council Cafiero pushed for a break with them at the Rimini congress on 4th August 1872, and did the same at the Hague Congress, against the views of James Guillaume, Bakunin’s closest associate.
He inherited a large fortune in landed property from his parents and used this to finance Internationalists’ travel expenses to congresses, the publishing of newspapers and pamphlets, as well as arms used in two insurrections. He financed Bakunin himself, and bought a country estate, the Baronata, for him in Switzerland.
Max Nettlau, a leading historian off anarchism, believed that Cafiero was the first in Italy to move towards anarchist communism, inspired by Guillaume’s pamphlet Idees Sur l’Organisation Sociale, which he translated into Italian. He refined these ideas in discussion with Malatesta and Emilio Covelli.
He was one of those involved in the Benevento insurrection of 1877. Imprisoned for over a year, he and the other participants were to be acquitted by a jury in August 1878. During his confinement he had prepared the texts for his Compendium of Das Kapital to be published the following year in Milan. It was praised by Marx himself. Cafiero had read the French translation by Joseph Roy, published in 1875, which Guillaume had sent to him in prison. Guillaume was to prepare a French translation of Cafiero’s abridgement in 1910 (it was later to be re-published by the Organisation Révolutionnaire Anarchiste in 1973 and again by Le Chien Rouge in 2008). In Italy it was republished in 1913 with a preface by the anarchist Luigi Fabbri.
Forced out of Italy by governmental repression, Cafiero worked as a cook and docker in Marseille. In October 1878 he was arrested with Malatesta, and deported to Switzerland. There he met up with Kropotkin and with Élisée Reclus promoted the publication of Bakunin’s God and the State.
Arrested again, he departed for London in 1881.
He now began to suffer from mental disorders, moving from delirious conditions to depression, undoubtedly exacerbated by imprisonment, harassment and deportations.
Max Nettlau, a leading historian off anarchism, believed that Cafiero was the first in Italy to move towards anarchist communism, inspired by Guillaume’s pamphlet Idées Sur l’Organisation Sociale, which he translated into Italian. He refined these ideas in discussion with Malatesta and Emilio Covelli.
In 1880 the anarchist paper Le Révolté , edited in Geneva by Petr Kropotkin, François Dumartheray and Georg Herzig, published Cafiero’s Anarchism and Communism, which attempted to synthesise the search for freedom with the need for equality, substituting the old collectivist positions of Bakunin, To each according to their work, with the communist one of From Each According to their Means, to each according to their needs.
Arrested again, he departed for London in 1881.
He now began to suffer from mental disorders, moving from delirious conditions and paranoid delusions to depression, undoubtedly exacerbated by imprisonment, harassment and deportations.
He returned to Italy in March 1882, and was arrested by the police on April 5th without charge and during his time in jail experienced a severe mental breakdown and attempted suicide. The scandal caused by this resulted in his release. Cafiero’s return to Italy and his increasing mental problems coincided with his approval of electoral tactics. It is debatable whether this conversion to electoralism can be assigned to mental deterioration.
Cafiero was released from prison with the choice of internal exile or external exile in Switzerland. He chose the latter. After another suicide attempt, Cafiero located to Locarno. He crossed the border in February 1883 and moved to Fiesole where he had a complete mental breakdown. From then on occasional interludes of lucidity alternated with frequent psychotic periods. He was institutionalised twice. In 1891 he was put into the insane asylum at Nocera Inferiore where he died of intestinal tuberculosis on July 17th, 1892 at the age of forty five.
As his old comrade Emilio Covelli was to write: “You know the misfortune that struck our Carlo. Do you know why Cafiero is crazy? Because not knowing how to bend, he had to break”.