The experimental anarchist colonies - Errico Malatesta

Malatesta criticism of Anarchist Colonies as prove of the feasibility of anarchism

Submitted by Method of Freedom on December 31, 2017

The Experimental Anarchist Colonies

In our last issue, comrade Fabbri spoke to us of the Clousden Hill anarchist Colony in England and, in his enthusiasm, portrayed it as proof that anarchy is no utopia.1
Needless to say, we are convinced that anarchy is feasible since it is, as we see it, the form of social organization that best ensures freedom and well-being for all and therefore must eventually win everyone's support—and we believe that, with respect to social institutions, everything is practical and achievable as long as men agree in wanting it. But it does not seem to us that the English comrades’ Colony proves much as to the feasibility of our ideas; and we hasten to say so because, should that colony some day go to rack and ruin—which would displease but not surprise us—we want to be able to claim that the experiment’s failure is not an argument against us, just as its success is not an argument in our favor. Other colonies prospered for a time and were cited by enthusiasts as proof that anarchy is achievable, but now are the bourgeois’ laughing stock!
The Clousden Hill community is a fine and commendable example of what can be achieved by commitment, concord, and spirit of brotherliness… soundly assisted by a capitalist who put up the funding;2 but we deny that it possesses the experimental value that comrade Fabbri credits with and which, so far as we know, not even the colonists themselves attribute to it.
What we say of the Clousden Hill Colony we equally mean to say of all colonies, in which various schools of social thought have tried or try to apply their ideas.
In fact, what can be proven by fact that a few dozen comrades selected from all of England, who are in mutual sympathy, not just on account of shared ideas but also of their personalities, who are driven by a strong enthusiasm for the venture and stake their self-esteem on its success, and who hope to achieve an independence and well-being that could not be achieved working for wages under a master—what can be proven, as we say, by the fact that they manage to get along together and further their venture without needing to appoint a leader? And if those comrades, who by lucky circumstance are in the possession of land and of the instruments of labor, thrive and even grow rich, do they not owe that not only to their application and intelligence, but also to the status of privileged people and capitalists that they enjoy vis à vis the outside world? They do not exploit one another, they do not directly exploit anyone, but they unwittingly exploit the entire mass of proletarian workers, whether through trade, or availing of the public services and all the benefits of civilization that come cheap to the capitalist, because they are provided by underpaid workers. And so their case cannot serve to show what society founded upon equality and solidarity would look like.
Anarchy has quite different and considerably more serious issues to resolve. It must be feasible with men as they actually are and wherever they may be; it must equalize human conditions, despite natural differences in position; it must organize production and exchange for the benefit of all and without the stimulus of the individual or corporate interests; it must provide the great public services, railways, the postal service, the water service, public health, etc., without the need for authority; it must ensure public safety without police; in short, it must achieve harmony throughout the vast complexity of social life and not just in a small group’s domestic matters.
Saying that a group of workers lives in anarchy, when it is subject to all present and future civil and criminal laws, and when all its external relations must comply with the principles of commerce and competition, is like saying that anarchy exists inside a family wish one another well, have the good habit of forcibly imposing nothing on one another, and work together on a shared holding. As a figure of speech it may be acceptable, but not as proof that human society can live and thrive in the absence of private property and government.
And when, once the prosperity of the Colony has been assured, the exploited, the unemployed, and the persecuted comrades knock on its door, what will the colonists do? They cannot welcome everyone, for the Clousden Hill territory can only provide work and bread for a very restricted number of persons: so admission will have to be refused to all who were not the first arrivals. And then, will the Colony be anything other than an association’s private property? And will it not impact its members’ attitude and the propaganda of the idea in the same way as any capitalist enterprise?
Fabbri says it himself: in relations of interest with all those who do not belong to it, the Colony, if it wants to survive must behave in bourgeois fashion. And can one say that he is practicing anarchy when in so much of his life—that is, in all that lies outside of his personal labors and immediate relations with small group in which he lives—he is obliged to act like a bourgeois?
Besides, where inside the Colony is the freedom to which anarchists aspire? Outside of it, its members would again run up against wage slavery, poverty, and perhaps the inability to find work; and so, if they do not want to forgo the benefits the Colony guarantees, they are obliged to stay there.
Can a man call himself free when, on pain of falling into poverty and slavery, he is obliged to spend his entire life in a given place, in the company of certain given individuals’
And if for whatever reason, and possibly because of the very fact of being forced to stick together, the accord ceases, would it be strange if the dissenters—hitherto accustomed to comfortable, independent existence—rather than falling back into poverty after having spent their youth building up the Colony’s prosperity, were to request and demand the division of the collective assets?
Saints are not so commonplace… not even among anarchist colonists! Could it thus be said, though, that anarchy has failed badly?
Also, in Clousden Hill there are 27 males, nearly all youngsters, and 4 women. Can a community of bachelors, who are not advocates of either promiscuity or virginal chastity, be considered a stable form of society? One day or another, those youngsters will want to get married. Who can foretell what will happen then?
We understand anyone’s effort to start right now bettering his condition, and among the various ways in which one can succeed, we by far prefer egalitarian cooperation; this is why we cordially rejoice in the success of the Clousden Hill comrades. But Anarchy… is something else. 3

"Le colonie anarchiche sperimental," L'Agitazione (Ancona) 1,no. 33 (October 28, 1897)

This article whas translated by Paul Sharkey and appeared in The complete Works of Malatesta vol.3: A Long and Patient Work

  • 1Luigi Fabbri’s article, entitle “Una colonia anarchia sperimentale in Inghilterra. L’anarchia organizzata” (An experimental anarchist colony in England: Organized anarchy) was itself commentary upon a report carried by Corriere della Sera and reprinted in Il Messaggero
  • 2A certain William Key had advanced a loan for the purchase of tools and machinery
  • 3On Malatesta’s stance about anarchist colonies see also “La Colonia Rossi” (The Rossi colony, La Rivendicazione (Forlì) 6, no. 11 (March 1, 1891), as well as the short notes commenting upon articles about S. Maur’s milieu libre, as carried by Volontà of September 6 and October 4, 1913.