Writing by anarchist Errico Malatesta on defending a social revolution and preventing any group or party from taking power.
The revolution we want consists in depriving the present holders of their power and wealth and in putting the land and the means of production and all existing wealth at the disposal of the workers, that is of everybody, since those who are not, will have to become, workers. And the revolutionaries must defend this revolution by seeing to it that no individual, party or class finds the means to constitute a government and restore privilege in favour of new or old bosses....
To defend, to save the revolution there is only one means: that of pushing the revolution as far as it will go. So long as there are those who will be in a position to oblige others to work for them; so long as there are those who are in a position to violate the freedom of others, the revolution will not be complete, and we will be still in a state of legitimate defence and to the violence which oppresses we will oppose the violence that liberates.
Do you fear that the dispossessed bourgeoisie may hire soldiers of fortune to restore the old regime? Dispossess them completely and you will see that without money you can employ no one.
Do you fear a military coup? Arm all the population, ensure that they really are in possession of all wealth so that every person will have to defend his own freedom and the means which can ensure his well-being, and you will see whether the generals seeking adventures will find who to follow them: But if after that, the people in arms, in possession of the land, the factories and all the natural wealth were incapable of defending themselves, and allowed themselves once again to be brought under the yoke, it would mean that they were still not capable of enjoying freedom. The revolution would have failed and the work of education and preparation would have to be resumed for another attempt which would have greater chances of success because it would benefit from the seeds that had been sown at the previous attempt. (Fede, November 25)
The dangers with which a revolution is faced do not come solely or principally from the reactionaries conspiring for a restoration and calling for foreign intervention; they also come from the possibility of degeneration of the revolution itself; and from the arrivistes who, though revolutionaries, nevertheless retain a mentality and sympathies which are bourgeois and seek to direct the revolution towards ends which are anything but equalitarian and libertarian. (Umanità Nova, August 27, 1920)
Once the situation is reached whereby no one could impose his wishes on others by force, nor take away from any man the product of his labour, anarchists could then only act through propaganda and by example.
Destroy the institutions and the machinery of existing social organisations? Yes, certainly, if it is a question of repressive institutions; but these are, after all, only a small part of the complex of social life. The police, the army, the prisons and the judiciary are potent institutions for evil, which exercise a parasitic function. Other institutions and organisations manage, for better or for worse, to guarantee life to mankind; and these institutions cannot be usefully destroyed without replacing them by something better.
The exchange of raw materials and goods, the distribution of foodstuffs, the railways, postal services and all public services administered by the State or by private companies, have been organised to serve monopolistic and capitalist interests, but they also serve real needs of the population. We cannot disrupt them (and in any case the people would not in their own interests allow us to) without reorganising them in a better way. And this cannot be achieved in a day; nor as things stand, have we the necessary abilities to do so. We are delighted therefore if in the meantime, others act, even with different criteria from our own.
Social life does not admit of interruptions, and the people want to live on the day of the revolution, on the morrow and always. (Umanità Nova, October 7, 1922)
There are still many people who are fascinated by the idea of "terror." For them it seems that the guillotine, firing squads, massacres, deportations and jails are powerful and indispensable arms of the revolution, and observe that if so many revolutions have been defeated and have not produced the results hoped for, it is the fault of the goodness, and" weakness" of the revolutionaries, who have not persecuted, repressed and killed on a large enough scale.
It is a prejudice current in some revolutionary circles which had its origins in the rhetoric and historic falsification of the apologists of the Great French Revolution and has been revived in recent years by the Bolsheviks in their propaganda. But the truth is just the opposite; Terror has always been the instrument of tyranny. In France it served the grim tyranny of Robespierre and paved the way for Napoleon and the subsequent reaction. In Russia it persecuted and killed anarchists and socialists, and massacred rebellious workers and peasants, and has halted the development of a revolution which really might have ushered in a new era for mankind. Those who believe in the liberating and revolutionary efficacy of repression and savagery have the same kind of backward mentality as the jurists who believe that crimes can be prevented and the world morally improved by the imposition of stiff punishments.
The Terror, like war, awakens atavistic and bellicose sentiments, still barely covered by a cloak of civilization, and raises to the highest posts the worse elements of the population. And far from serving to defend the revolution it discredits it, makes it repellent to the masses and after a period of fierce struggles, gives rise, of necessity, to what they would today call "a return to normality," that is, to the legalisation and perpetuation of tyranny. Whichever side wins, one always arrives at the creation of a strong government, which assures peace to some at the price of freedom, and to others domination without too many risks....
Certainly the revolution must be defended and developed with an inexorable logic; but one must not and cannot defend it with means which contradict its ends.
The most powerful means for defending the revolution remains always that of taking away from the bourgeoisie the economic means on which their power is based, and of arming everybody (until such time as one will have managed to persuade everybody to throw away their arms as useless and dangerous toys), and of interesting the mass of the population in the victory of the revolution.
If in order to win it were necessary to erect the gallows in the public square, then I would prefer to lose. (Pensiero e Volontà, October 1, 1924)
And after the revolution, that is, after the defeat of the existing powers and the overwhelming victory of the forces of insurrection, what then?
It is then that gradualism really comes into operation. We shall have to study all the practical problems of life: production, exchange, the means of communication, relations between anarchist groupings and those living under some kind of authority, between communist collectives and those living in an individualistic way; relations between town and country, the utilisation for the benefit of everybody of all natural sources of power and of raw materials; distribution of industries and. cultivation according to the natural resources of the different regions; public education, care of children and the aged, health services, protection against common criminals and the more dangerous ones who might again try to suppress the freedom of others for the benefit of individuals or parties -and so on. And in every problem [anarchists] should prefer the solutions which not only are economically superior but which satisfy the need for justice and freedom and leave the way open for future improvements, which other solutions might not.
In the event justice, liberty and solidarity should override economic advantages. One must not think of destroying everything in the belief that later things will look after themselves. Present civilisation is the result of development extending over thousands of years, and has solved, in a way, the problem of large concentrations of population, often crowded into small territories, and of satisfying their ever-increasing and complex needs. Its benefits have decreased-because development has been taking place under the pressure of authority in the interests of the ruling classes; but even if one takes away authority and privilege, the advantages acquired, the triumphs of man over the adverse forces of nature, the accumulated experience of past generations, sociability learned through cohabitation throughout the ages and by the proven benefits of mutual aid-all these advantages will remain, and it would be foolish, and in any case impossible, to give up all these things.
We must therefore fight authority and privilege, but take advantage of all the benefits of civilisation; and nothing must be destroyed which satisfies, even badly, a human need until we have something better to put in its place. We must be intransigent in our opposition to all capitalist imposition and exploitation, and tolerant of all social concepts which prevail in different human groupings, so long as they do not threaten the equal rights and freedom of others; and content ourselves with advancing gradually in step with the moral development of the people and as the available material and intellectua1 means increase--doing all we can, of course, by study, work and propaganda to hasten the development towards ever more advanced ideals. (Pensiero e Volontà, October I, 1925)
But after the successful insurrection, when the government has fallen, what must be done?
We anarchists would wish that in every district the workers, or, more accurately, those among them who are more socially conscious and have a spirit of initiative, should take possession of all the means of production, of all the wealth--land, raw materials, houses, machines, food stocks, etc... and to the best of their ability, initiate new forms of social life. We would wish that the land workers who today work for masters should no longer recognise the landowners' property rights but continue and intensify production on their own account, establishing direct contacts with workers in industry and transport for the exchange of goods and services; that industrial workers, including engineers and technicians, should take possession of the factories and continue and intensify production for their own benefit and that of the whole community; immediately switching production in those factories which today turn out useless or harmful goods to supplying the articles most urgently required to satisfy the needs of the public; that the railwaymen should continue to operate the railways but in the service of the community; that committees composed of volunteers or elected by the people should take over, under the direct control of the population, all available accommodation to house, as well as is possible in the circumstances, those most in need; that other committees, always under the direct control of the people, should deal with provisioning and the distribution of consumer goods; that all the members of the bourgeoisie should of necessity have to "muck in" with those who were the proletarian masses and work like everybody else in order to enjoy the same benefits as everybody else. And all this must be done immediately, on the very day, or the morrow of the successful insurrection, without waiting for orders from central committees or from any other kind of authority.
This is what the anarchists want, and it is in fact what would naturally happen if the revolution were to be a truly social revolution and not just a political change, which after a few convulsions would lead things back to what they were formerly. For, if one did not deprive the bourgeoisie of its economic power at once, it would in a short time recapture the political power which the insurrection had torn from its grasp. And in order to take away economic power from the bourgeoisie, it is necessary to organise immediately a new economic structure based on justice and equality. Economic needs, at least the most essential ones, cannot be interrupted; they must be satisfied immediately. "Central Committees" either do nothing or act when their services are no longer required. (Umanità Nova, August 12. 1920)
Taken from "Malatesta: His Life & Ideas" ed. Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press, 1993.