Sound Teachers: Reprinting Errico Malatesta
“Today more than ever anarchists, the romantics forever being vilified by every brand of realist, need to stake their proud claim to political far-sightedness and the cultural dignity of their tradition and to turn them into weapons, instead of tossing them overboard as jetsam.”
AK Press has just released the first of ten volumes (Volume III “A Long and Patient Work”) in the Complete Works of Malatesta. This interview with editor Davide Turcato about the Complete Works is from 2012. It first appeared in A Rivista Anarchica, and has been translated by Paul Sharkey.
During his recent stay in Italy we met up with Davide Turcato, who lives in Canada [now Ireland]; he is the supervising editor of the Complete Works of Errico Malatesta. Out of that meeting came this interview. —The editors of A Rivista Anarchica (Milan).
Q. Where did the plan to publish Malatesta’s Complete Works come from?
A. My long-term turning to Malatesta’s writings, initially in my youth, and then, more recently, my study of the three volumes of collected writings that Luigi Fabbri and Luigi Bertoni were going publish as Malatesta’s complete output, although their plans were interrupted. But this current plan proper goes back to a quiet evening in September 1999. I was just finishing my reading of Luigi Fabbri: Storia d’un uomo libero by Fabbri’s daughter Luce, when I stumbled upon a description of the outline of the project that Fabbri had had in mind. “Now is the time to see that plan through,” I said to myself. And so our plan was born. I am not the sort who makes decisions easily. And it still stuns me that it happened …
Q. For whom is the project intended? What sort of reader do you have in mind?
A. We have two types of reader in mind. First and foremost, we are aiming not merely at anarchists eager to deepen their knowledge of the thinking of one of their “greats,” but also at the young and at every educated person with an interest in political thought and keen to know what anarchism is from the mouth of one of its chief exponents. From that point of view, we need to produce books for reading rather than monuments. We are at pains to produce volumes that will not intimidate the reader and so we have, insofar as we can, eased up on the “encyclopedic” aspect of the series by publishing volumes that are self-contained and that can stand alone. We have kept notes to a minimum, confining ourselves to giving briefings on events and people that might not be familiar to contemporary readers or to cross-referencing articles that lend themselves to that. We have, however,tried to avoid notes that “explain” Malatesta to the reader. Malatesta’s writing is plain and meant for everybody and certainly requires no explanation. At the same time, we are also catering to the researcher and academic because we reckon that this somewhat stooped little man with perpetually dirty hands (in the literal sense rather than what Sartre’s Mains Sales had in mind) may be one of the towering figures of political thought worldwide, and his writings deserve a place in the university libraries around the globe. And so we have also sought to produce something that measures up to the current high standards of critical rigor and editorial accuracy.
Q. Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Don’t you think that the literature already available about Malatesta is enough with which to arrive at a proper understanding of his thought?
A. Malatesta’s thought is like a mine, much of which has yet to be explored. Existing anthologies tend to favor some of his newspapers—L’Agitazione, Umanità Nova, Pensiero e Volontà—to the detriment of other short-lived but very important ones such as L’Associazione and La Rivoluzione Sociale. Not to mention fundamental articles written in other languages and virtually unknown these days. Then again, it is in the nature of an anthology to adopt a thematic approach and thereby present a flattened and rather touched-up picture of Malatesta’s thought. But the time aspect is crucial when dealing with somebody active in the movement for sixty years. There is an exemplary consistency in Malatesta from start to finish. But he was also a cook who tried out his recipes and adjusted them in the light of experience. Capturing the evolution in his thinking opens the way to a much deeper understanding. Finally, the tendency to date has been to focus upon the “peaks” in Malatesta’s struggle, which is to say, during the times he was back in Italy. But in order to appreciate that evolution, it is important to study the transitional times, the intervals, the shadowy areas, and the isolated articles that mark turning-points.
Q. Still playing the devil’s advocate I ask: how much store do you place today by the tradition of so-called “classical” anarchism?
A. “Tradition” is one of those terms that have earned a bad name because of the bad company it has kept. “Tradition” is associated with “traditionalism,” the dogma that “we have to do this because it has always been done that way.” Interpreted that way, obviously the idea of tradition should be rejected. But in politics as well as in science and the arts nobody conjures anything up out of nothing. Anybody who tries to do so winds up reinventing the wheel. The important point is to understand the tradition one belongs to, in order to stand above it and take it further. In this regard, no one has done a better job than Malatesta of defining anarchism, that is, the mainstays of our tradition. Then again, being anti-authoritarians, anarchists often have to point out that they have no masters and traditions to be respected. Which is, to some extent, a sort of self-inflicted wound. If the passage of time has shown anything it is that the anarchists have always been in the right. Gramsci himself implicitly admitted as much back in 1920, yet urged anarchists to acknowledge dialectically “that they were in the wrong … in being in the right” And in a recent book on Malatesta, Vittorio Giacopini has rightly written that it is typical of anarchism to “lose whilst being in the right.” Today more than ever anarchists, the romantics forever being vilified by every brand of realist, need to stake their proud claim to political far-sightedness and the cultural dignity of their tradition and to turn them into weapons, instead of tossing them overboard as jetsam.
Q. Getting down to the specifics of the project, how are the volumes laid out and in what order are they being published?
A. Ten volumes are projected. Of these, eight stick to chronological order, from the First International through to Pensiero e Volontà and his last writings. Besides articles, each volume will contain interviews, reports on talks and cross-examinations, most of it hitherto unpublished material. The remaining two volumes, by contrast, take a thematic approach: one containing correspondence and the other his pamphlets, manifestos, programs, and other miscellaneous writings, such as, say, a play written by Malatesta. As to order of publication, this will be done by fits and starts, but there will be a certain rationale to it. We did not want to begin at the beginning because the first volume is one of the most demanding, in terms both of the traceability and of the attribution of texts. Nor did we want to start at the end because that is what Fabbri and Bertoni did, whereas we wanted to break new ground with something new rather than merely reprinting materials already available. So we start from the middle, from the volume that covers the years 1897–1898, which is to say the L’Agitazione years. Another reason for kicking off with that volume is that by our reckoning it is the one most likely to attract non-anarchists as well, in that it is the one in which Malatesta places the greatest emphasis on partial gains rather than upon a new departure ushered in by insurrection. From there, we shall proceed in chronological sequence right to the end after which we will jump back to the very first volumes in the sequence. The volume containing his correspondence will almost certainly be the final one because it too involves a lot of hard work, whereas the volume containing the pamphlets, manifestos, and the like represents a sort of a “jolly” and we have yet to decide where in the sequence it should be inserted.
Q. From what you say, as the volumes see publication, your research is still ongoing?
A. Yes, that’s it. Let me state first and foremost that the title Complete Works is a lie. The real title should be Works As Complete As Possible. Especially as regards his correspondence, the completeness of which is an unattainable ideal. Let me seize the occasion here to put out an appeal to your readers. If anyone knows of or possesses notes or letters by Malatesta, we would be profoundly grateful if you would let us know about them. That said, we should say that I have already gathered about 95% of our materials. But if there is one thing that I have learned from the experience of the first volumes, it is that that final 5% demands nearly as much time as it took to gather all the rest together.
Q. And to finish, what can you tell me about the latest volume to be published?
A. The title is (in English) Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America, 1899–1900. It deals mainly with Malatesta’s time in the United States at the turn of the century, during which time he took over from the anti-organisationist Ciancabilla as editor in chief of La Questione Sociale in Paterson [New Jersey]. Since it deals with America, we asked the top US expert in Italian anarchism, Nunzio Pernicone, to write the introductory essay. The volume covers one of the periods of which an understanding might bring the greatest benefit to an anthology of all his writings. If we look at his writings one by one, separately, that period is a sort of a puzzle. Within the space of just a few months, we find Malatesta writing, on the one hand, a pamphlet like Against Monarchy in which he calls, as a top priority, for an alliance between revolutionary factions with an eye to an insurrection to overthrow the Savoyard monarchy, and also touches upon the subject of military tactics. Which has prompted some critics to talk about a sort of 1848-style regurgitation on Malatesta’s part. On the other hand, he was writing an article such as “Towards Anarchy,” in which he asserts that “any victory, no matter how slight […] will be a step forwards, a step along the road to anarchy.” And thereby seems to be hinting at the theme of gradualism that he was to develop completely a quarter of a century later. Yet, reading these writings together, one can detect a coherence in them. Now, do not ask me what the solution to the puzzle is because, as I said earlier we are not out to explain Malatesta to the reader, and I do not want to contradict myself even before this interview finishes. Essentially, the beauty of Complete Works is that one should no longer borrow the interpretations of “experts,” i.e. the few people who have hitherto been privileged to have access to all of Malatesta’s writings. Now everyone can come up with his own interpretation, now that we have all the resources at our disposal.
A Rivista Anarchica (Milan) Year 42, No 375, November 2012
The English-language volumes will be:
The Complete Works of Errico Malatesta
“Whoever is Poor is a Slave”: The Internationalist Period and the South America Exile, 1871–89
“Let’s Go to the People”: L’Associazione and the London Years of 1889–97
“A Long and Patient Work”: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione, 1897–98
“Towards Anarchy”: Malatesta in America, 1899–1900
“The Armed Strike”: The Long London Exile of 1900–13
“Is Revolution Possible?”: Volontà, the Red Week and the War, 1913–18
“United Proletarian Front”: The Red Biennium, Umanità Nova and Fascism, 1919–23
“Achievable and Achieving Anarchism”: Pensiero e Volontà and Last Writings, 1924–32
“What Anarchists Want”: Pamphlets, Programmes, Manifestos and Other Miscellaneous Publications
“Yours and for Anarchy…”: Malatesta’s Correspondence