Errico Malatesta (December 14, 1853 July 22, 1932) was an Italian anarcho-communist and Insurrectionary anarchist. He spent much of his life exiled from his homeland of Italy and in total spent more than ten years in prison. He wrote and edited a number of radical newspapers and was also a friend of Mikhail Bakunin.
Malatesta was born in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the province of Caserta (southern Italy). The first of a long series of arrests came at just fourteen, when he was apprehended for writing a letter to King Victor Emmanuel II that complained about local injustice.
Malatesta was introduced to Mazzinian Republicanism while studying medicine at the University of Naples; however, he was expelled from the university in 1871 for joining a demonstration. Partly via his enthusiasm for the Paris Commune and partly via his friendship with Carmelo Palladino, he joined the Naples section of the International Workingmen's Association that same year, as well as teaching himself to be a mechanic and electrician. In 1872 he met Mikhail Bakunin, with whom he participated in the St Imier congress of the International. For the next four years, Malatesta helped spread Internationalist propaganda in Italy; he was imprisoned twice for these activities.
In April 1877, Malatesta, Carlo Cafiero, the Russian Stepniak and about 30 others started an insurrection in the province of Benevento, taking the villages of Letino and Gallo without a struggle. The revolutionaries burned tax registers and declared the end of the King's reign, and were met by enthusiasm: even a local priest showed his support. After leaving Gallo, however, they were arrested by government troops and held for sixteen months before being acquitted. After a number of terroristic attacks on the Italian royal family and their supporters, the radicals were kept under constant surveillance by the police. Even though the anarchists claimed to have no connection to the attacks, Malatesta, being an advocate of social revolution, was included in this surveillance. After returning to Naples, he was forced to leave Italy altogether because of these conditions, beginning a long period of exile.
He went to Egypt briefly, visiting some Italian friends but was soon expelled by the Italian Consul. After working his passage on a French ship and being refused entry to Syria, Turkey and Italy, he landed in Marseille where he made his way to Geneva in Switzerland then something of an anarchist centre. Here he befriended Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, helping the latter to produce La Révolte. However, he was soon expelled from Switzerland, and eventually travelled to London in 1880, passing through Romania, Paris and Belgium.
He went to fight the British colonial troops in Egypt in 1882, then secretly returned to Italy the following year. In Florence he founded the weekly anarchist paper La Questione Sociale (The Social Question) in which his most popular pamphlet, Fra Contadini (Among Farmers), first appeared. Malatesta went back to Naples in 1884—while waiting to serve a three year prison term—to nurse the victims of a cholera epidemic. Once again, he fled Italy to escape imprisonment and went to South America. He lived in Buenos Aires from 1885, where he resumed publication of La Questione Sociale, and was involved in the founding of the first militant workers' union in Argentina, the Bakers Union, and left an anarchist impression in the workers' movements there for years to come.
Returning to Europe in 1889, he published a newspaper called L'Associazione in Nice until he was forced to flee to London. For the next eight years Malatesta was based in London, but made clandestine trips to France, Switzerland and Italy and went on a lecture tour of Spain with Tarrida del Marmol. During this time he wrote several important pamphlets, including L'Anarchia. Malatesta then took part in the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam (1907), where he debated in particular with Pierre Monatte on the relation between anarchism and syndicalism (or trade-unionism). The latter thought that syndicalism was revolutionary and would create the conditions of a social revolution, while Malatesta considered that syndicalism by itself was not sufficient. Malatesta thought that trade-unions were reformist, and could even be, at times, conservative. Along with Christiaan Cornelissen, he cited as example US trade-unions, where trade-unions composed of qualified workers sometimes opposed themselves to non-qualified workers in order to defend their relatively privileged position. In 1912, Malatesta appeared in Bow Street Police Court on a criminal libel charge, which resulted in a 3 month prison sentence, and his recommendation for deportation. This order was quashed following campaigning by the radical press and demonstrations by workers organisations.
After the First World War, Malatesta eventually returned to Italy for the final time. Two years after his return, in 1921, the Italian government imprisoned him, again, although he was released two months before the fascists came to power. From 1924 until 1926, when Benito Mussolini silenced all independent press, Malatesta published the journal Pensiero e Volontà, although he was harassed and the journal suffered from government censorship. He was to spend his remaining years leading a relatively quiet life, earning a living as an electrician. After years of suffering from a weak respiratory system and regular bronchial attacks, he developed bronchial pneumonia from which he died after a few weeks, despite being given 1500 litres of oxygen in his last five hours. He died on Friday, 22 July 1932.
Malatesta was a principled anarchist he would always adhere to anarchist principles no matter what the situation. He always rejected party politics and political revolution, preferring social revolution; he was even suspicious of the use of revolutionary trade unions, as anarcho-syndicalists advocate.
His constant work as an organizer and speaker embodied his ideals of free association: for Malatesta, it was useful to join an organization only for the purpose of doing something with that group of people. There was no sense in belonging to a group simply to belong.
Malatesta was a committed revolutionary: he believed that the anarchist revolution was coming soon, and that violence would be a necessary part of it since the state rested ultimately on violent coercion. As he wrote in his article "The Revolutionary 'Haste'":
Malatesta, then, advocated violence as a "necessary" part of the emancipation of the working class.