The Utopian Realism of Errico Malatesta

If realism is the idea that political philosophy should orient itself towards really existing
politics1, then radical realism is, in my view, the idea that the best kind of realism is one
which aims for and works to bring about fundamental social change, such as abolishing
capitalism, prisons, or white supremacy. Radical realism therefore seeks to instantiate
Raymond Geuss’s view that political philosophy “has to be both fully realistic and fully
utopian”.2 The idea being that we should accept the existence of the grim reality which
surrounds us and not be subject to wishful thinking, while also aspiring for and trying to
achieve a radically different world from the one we find ourselves in. Radical realists are
therefore utopians in the sense of advocating social arrangements which are impossible to
implement under existing conditions and so can only actually be realised if existing
conditions are transformed.

What is of course not immediately clear is what utopian realist political theory would actually
look like and so how realism and utopianism would be combined in practice. When
utopianism is discussed in the contemporary literature the focus is generally on whether or
not one can be a utopian and a realist at the same time, as opposed to actual attempts at
utopian realist theory.3 Thankfully, the radical realists of today are not the first people to
attempt to combine utopianism with realism. Utopian realism has in fact been a core
component of one of the largest and most influential mass movements in human history,
anarchism. Anarchism is a kind of anti-state socialism which first emerged in late 19th
century Europe and sought to abolish capitalism and the state, alongside other forms of
hierarchy such as sexism and racism, in favour of a stateless classless society organised
through networks of directly democratic workplace and community assemblies.4 One of the
main theorists of anarchism was an Italian called Errico Malatesta and it is his ideas which
concern me today.

To understand Malatesta’s approach to political theory we must first understand what
Malatesta was trying not to do. Malatesta repeatedly attacks two wrong ways to approach

1
Enzo Rossi and Matt Sleat, “Realism in Normative Political Theory,” Philosophy Compass 9, no. 10 (2014), 2.
2
Quoted in Prinz, Janosch. “Raymond Geuss’ Radicalization of Realism in Political Theory.” Philosophy &
Social Criticism 42, no. 8 (2015), 785-6.
3
Rossi, “Being Realistic and Demanding the Impossible”, Work in Progress Paper Presented at “What Is
Realism?” Conference National University of Singapore 2015.
4
Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland,
CA: AK Press, 2009), 71.

on pains of remaining sterile dreamers. an idealist is someone who loses sight of reality and instead focuses on abstract ideals which are disconnected from the real world. The Method of Freedom. which I term. who regard anarchy not so much as a beautiful dream to be chased by the light of the moon.”10 Malatesta’s critiques of conformism and idealism come together in his remark that.politics. 2014). Politics and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press. Davide Turcato (Oakland. “we are forced to struggle in the world as we found it. 6 Raymond Geuss. but as an individual and social way of life to be brought about for the greatest good of all… is to so conduct our activities as 5 Errico Malatesta.6 In contrast to a conformist. 13. A conformist is someone who rejects the idea that things can or should change in any substantial fashion and at best seeks minor alterations to existing structures. ignore them. 9 Malatesta.7 For example. As a result. 8 Malatesta. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898 (Oakland CA: AK Press. 425. according to Malatesta. 5 Malatesta therefore. and defer to everything because this is the situation in which history placed us”. anarchists who reject all forms of violence due to abstract moral principles are ignoring a crucial fact of reality: the ruling classes have and will continue to use violence to crush dissent and perpetuate the capitalist social order. 2012) 22. 2016).8 In a similar fashion.9 As Malatesta writes. To not do so is to condemn popular movements to defeat at the hands of the police and army. 10 Quoted in Davide Turcato. and do good to no one. ed. 188-9. 7 Malatesta. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. the problem facing us anarchists. recognizes the fact that political action is characterised by its ability to not conform to existing rules and instead violate them. 451. 2009). who leave untouched all the existing evils. for fear of doing wrong to anyone. While Malatesta accepts that we are “besieged and buffeted on every side by hostile realities” he thinks that “[t]he whole of human progress has been made up of battling against natural facts and social facts”. like Geuss. Under such conditions one must use violence in self-defence in order to achieve anarchist goals. rather than “accept everything. “we have to combat these realities”. 41. . The Method of Freedom. CA: AK Press. 450. 420. conformism and idealism. anarchists who focus on describing in detail what an anarchist utopia would look like or imagining how an ideal revolution would occur are so caught up in their ideas that they ignore the real political situation on the ground and the need to develop theory which guides action in the present. or change what the rules are. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

55. 449-50. These states of affairs will be actualised through general anarchist methods of organisation and association. The Method of Freedom. prescribe for the coming man what time he should go to bed. If the idea is the beacon. . people not being oppressed. 14 Malatesta. as more generally in life. 12 Quoted in Turcato. 141. or on what days he should cut his nails!”14 Such specific practical questions are for the people in the future society to answer themselves. Instead we can do no more than “indicate a method” through which people can act and determine the nature of society. the method is the helm.” It is for this reason that “we are anarchists in our goal… but we are anarchist in our method too”. If this real political practice is to be effective it must be guided by strategy and ways of organising which are both appropriate to the situation in which we are acting and capable of actually bringing about an anarchist society. These anarchist methods of organisation and association provide the parameters in which an open ended project of experimentation can occur whereby people develop and refine ways of being which achieve the states of affairs that characterise an ideal 11 Malatesta. The Method of Freedom. if we aspire to a fundamentally different world then we must engage in real political practice which tries to bring about a different world. 13 This is similar to Marx’s opposition to so called ‘utopian socialism’ because of its incredibly detailed models of what a future society would look like. As Malatesta writes. smaller groups federating together to form larger groups.11 In other words. 15 Malatesta. such as each person in a group having a vote. such as people having a say in decisions which affect them.15 By this Malatesta means that we should think of an anarchist society as one which successfully instantiates certain states of affairs. For Malatesta we should not conceive of the goal as a set of detailed blueprints about how exactly an anarchist society would work. Making Sense of Anarchism. In parties. One must not ignore reality. resorting to every means made available to us by reality itself. the questions of method are predominant. 140.12 Malatesta thus conceives of anarchism as both an ideal society and as a method of political action. or organisations electing instantly recallable mandated delegates to perform administrative tasks. or social relations being infused with a sense of solidarity. to be able to contribute to the realization of one’s cherished ideas. to achieve the greatest useful effect in the various circumstances in which history places us. but if reality is noxious. The Method of Freedom. one has to choose one’s own path.13 After all we are not able to “in the name of Anarchy. “to be able to act. one must fight it.

”17 This march towards Anarchy must begin in the present with anarchist movements prefiguring the future anarchist society and therefore attempting. as far as it is possible. if one really wants it adequate means must be used to secure it.anarchist society. . Malatesta provides two main reasons why anarchists must prefigure the future anarchist society. it is not enough to desire something. 302. In so doing anarchists are developing through experimentation in the present the real methods of organisation and association that people in the future will use to achieve the states of affairs that characterise an ideal anarchist society. For example. the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchy today. but that we walk toward Anarchy today. The Method of Freedom. The means you use to pursue a goal determine where you actually end up and so where you want to go imposes limits on how you can get there. 300. And these means are not arbitrary. to construct the world as they wish it was during their struggle against the world as it is. Therefore. tomorrow or within ten centuries.”16 On such a view the point is not that we are one hundred percent successful at instantiating the states of affairs which characterise an ideal anarchist society but that we are constantly engaging in action which attempts to do so and thereby brings reality closer to our ideals. . Anarchists organisations generally do this in two ways. Second. The Method of Freedom. As Malatesta writes. or a co-op managing a workplace democratically. The first reason is that means and ends are not separate from one another. are the experimental system brought from the field of research to that of social realization. but surely. growing in intensity and extension. but instead cannot but be conditioned by the ends we aspire to and by the circumstances in which the struggle 16 Malatesta. First. or an anarchist school providing free education to children. In Malatesta’s words. tomorrow and always. “Anarchist ideals. by embodying the kinds of organisational structure and methods of deliberation and decision-making that a future society is to contain. Malatesta writes. To prefigure an anarchist society is to build the kinds of non-hierarchical and democratic social relations and practices that would exist in such a society. 17 Malatesta. by performing the kinds of functions that organisations in a future society will do. making decisions through direct democracy or creating affinity groups which are formed for specific purposes and dissolve when they are no longer needed. such as a community assembly enabling locals to run their own affairs. “Anarchy cannot come but little by little – slowly. .

” While during and after a revolution workers must take control of the economy and produce to satisfy people’s needs. Making Sense of Anarchism. 281-2.19 The second reason is that it is only through experience within prefigurative spaces that people can develop into the kinds of people capable of both overthrowing capitalism and the state and building a functioning anarchist society. . for example. a revolution will need bread and 18 Malatesta. “learn to cooperate with others in the defence of shared interests”. then the anarchist movement that builds such a society must itself be organised through these same methods of anarchist action. 64. while a revolution marks a dramatic shift in social life there is no such dramatic shift in anarchist methods of organisation and association. takes place. As Malatesta writes. When a worker is active within a militant union. Whoever sets out on the highroad and takes a wrong turning does not go where he intends to go but where the road leads him. Instead it would produce an authoritarian society in which the authoritarianism of the movement would come to characterise society as a whole. In order to do this effectively workers must already be able to collectively self-manage their lives and so must have developed this skill prior to the revolution.18 Therefore. “how could workers be expected to provide for pressing needs unless they were already used to coming together to deal jointly with their common interests”. Were the anarchist movement to fail to embody its principles and. possibly diametrically opposed to those we aspire to. be organised in an authoritarian top down manner then its revolution would not produce an anarchist society. if we want to achieve an anarchist society. such as the former leadership of the movement becoming the new ruling class. 19 Turcato. and come to understand “that bosses and governments are useless parasites and that the workers could run the apparatus of society on their own. battle against “the bosses and the boss-supporting government”. which is a free stateless and non- hierarchical society that is organised through federated democratic assemblies. and this would be the obvious and inevitable consequence of our choice of means. What changes is the context and the conditions under which these methods are applied and so the extent to which they can be fully put into practice. for example. In the case of food production. for if we ignore the choice of means we would achieve other ends. for example. they develop a sense of “fellowship that binds him to his comrades”. For Malatesta. The Method of Freedom. The methods remain the same.

Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (London: Pluto Press. which was first published in 2011 20 Malatesta. The experience of a thousand. which is a kind of direct democracy.“[w]ho is going to see to that. human life. like Malatesta had argued in 1897.”20 Despite the fact that Malatesta produced political theory for 19th and early 20th century radicals. . 2013). 243-4. The famous Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Method of Freedom.23 Parallel to this. Since 2012 the Kurdish PKK. his ideas remain highly relevant in the modern world. Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street (Winchester: Zero Books. the district and West Kurdistan as a whole. for example. people making collective decisions without a leadership structure. 21 Mark Bray. This was done in order to prefigure the non-hierarchical and democratic society the organisers aimed to create. northern Syria. 87-91. 22 David Graeber. or for that matter. revolutionaries in the rest of Syria have created 800 democratic councils after the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz proposed this strategy in his article ‘The Formation of Local Councils’. A Movement (London: Allen Press. We all knew it was practically impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society was possible through rhetoric. can change one’s most fundamental assumptions about what politics. its transformative effect on participants. Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga. was primarily organised by people who either self-identified as anarchists or listed anarchism as an influence on their thinking. established a system of democratic self-management known as Democratic Confederalism within Rojava. A Crises. PYD and YPG have. could actually be like. For participants of Occupy one of the key reasons behind engaging in prefigurative politics was. or two thousand. It is composed of democratic councils which begin at the level of face to face democracy in local communes and federates upwards through delegation to form co-ordinating councils at the level of the neighbourhood. whilst also fighting ISIS.22 Prefigurative politics has also been incredibly important to the actions of progressive forces within the Syrian Civil War. To quote the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. if the baker workers are not already associated and ready to manage without bosses. motivated only by principle and solidarity. Occupy made decisions through general assemblies and consensus decision making. 23 Michael Knapp. The prefigurative politics which he advocated is in fact central to the practices of a large number of contemporary social movements. The Democracy Project: A History. 2013).21As a result. But it was possible to show them. 89. 2016).

Utopian realism is a really existing political force within the political practices of ordinary people transforming their lives and the world around them through their own direct action. moral slippage. the more able these deep social bonds will be to defend themselves and others against . follow Malatesta’s lead by offering theoretical assistance in realistically building utopia.25 From these examples it is clear not only that Malatesta’s ideas are relevant to the modern world. . and against the risk that the use of arms will slowly make the revolution and society as a whole hostages of the gun. “Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition Controlled Areas in Syria.noblogs. If realism is to successfully orient itself towards the real world then it must study these radical social movements and. 24 Agnés Favier. “The Formation of Local Councils.24 Aziz justifies the creation of local councils in part because they ensure the revolution remains genuinely revolutionary.” Accessed 13/06/17: https://isqatannizam.and later expanded in 2012.org/the-formation-of-local-councils-by-omar-aziz/ . .com/2016/07/09/local-governance-dynamics-in-opposition-controlled-areas-in- syria/ 25 Omar Aziz. but also that utopian realism does not exist only in the writings of great theorists.” Accessed 13/06/17: https://borderedbysilence. Blending life and revolution is the necessary condition for the revolution to continue until the regime is destroyed. the more self-organizing grows in power.wordpress. in my view. He writes.

2009. London: Pluto Press. https://www. Rossi. CA: AK Press. no. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Janosch. Knapp. Lucien. Turcato. Edited by Davide Turcato. “The Formation of Local Councils. The Method of Freedom.noblogs. 8 (2015). and Ercan Ayboga. Graeber. Agnés. Anja Flach. “Being Realistic and Demanding the Impossible. “Local Governance Dynamics in Opposition Controlled Areas in Syria. A Movement. and Matt Sleat. 2017. Michael. Enzo. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897- 1898. Errico. Edited by Davide Turcato. 2012. Malatesta. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Errico. 2017. 2014. “Realism in Normative Political Theory. David.academia. Davide. 2013. 10 (2014). .” Accessed June 13. 2013.” In Work in Progress Paper Presented at “What Is Realism?” Conference National University of Singapore 2015. Malatesta. Bray.wordpress. 2009.edu/10140242/Being_Realistic_and_Demanding_the_Impossible. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution. Oakland. 2016.org/the-formation-of-local-councils-by-omar-aziz/. Geuss. “Raymond Geuss’ Radicalization of Realism in Political Theory. no.” Accessed June 13. 1889-1900. Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. n. Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Oakland. Mark. CA: AK Press. 2016. Favier. Enzo. London: Allen Press. Raymond. Prinz.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 42. Bibliography Aziz. van der Walt. Politics and the Imagination. https://borderedbysilence. Winchester: Zero Books. Rossi. https://isqatannizam. Omar.” Philosophy Compass 9. The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. CA: AK Press. Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan.d.com/2016/07/09/local-governance- dynamics-in-opposition-controlled-areas-in-syria/. Oakland.