Anarchism and Violence

Anarchists are opposed to every kind of violence; everyone knows that. The main plank of Anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. For this reason we are enemies of capitalism.

by Errico Malatesta

Originally published in Umanita Nova (New Humanity), December 1921

Anarchists are opposed to every kind of violence; everyone knows that. The main plank of Anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. It is life based on the freedom of the individual, without the intervention of the gendarme. For this reason we are enemies of capitalism which depends on the protection of the gendarme to oblige workers to allow themselves to be exploited – or even to remain idle and go hungry when it is not in the interest of the bosses to exploit them. We are therefore enemies of the State, which is the coercive, violent organisation of society.

But if a man of honour declares that he believes it stupid and barbarous to argue with a stick in his hand; that it is unjust and evil to oblige a person to obey the will of another at pistol point, is it, perhaps, reasonable to deduce that that gentleman intends to allow himself to be beaten up and be made to submit to the will of another without having recourse to more extreme means for his defence?

Violence is justifiable only when it is necessary to defend oneself and others from violence. It is where necessity ceases that crime begins…

Gold Diggers, Brazil, by Sebastiao Salgado

The slave is always in a state of legitimate defence and consequently, his violence against the boss, against the oppressor, is always morally justifiable, and must be controlled only by such considerations as that the best and most economical use is being made of human effort and human sufferings.

There are certain other men, other parties and schools of thought which are sincerely motivated by the general good as are the best among us. But what distinguishes the Anarchists from all the others is in fact their horror of violence from human relations… But why, then, it may be asked, have Anarchists in the present struggle [against Fascism] advocated and used violence when it is in contradiction with their declared ends? So much so that many critics, some in good faith, and all who are in bad faith, have come to believe that the distinguishing characteristic of Anarchism is, in fact, violence. The question may seem embarrassing, but it can be answered in a few words. For two people to live in peace they must both want peace; if one insists on using force to oblige the other to work for him and serve him, then the other, if he wishes to retain his dignity as a man and not be reduced to abject slavery, will be obliged in spite of his love of peace, to resist force with adequate means.

Source: Howard Zinn, Slavery and Slave Rebellions in the US

The struggle against government is, in the last analysis, physical, material. Governments make the law. They must therefore dispose of the material forces (police and army) to impose the law, for otherwise only those who wanted to would obey it, and it would no longer be the law, but a simple series of suggestions which all would be free to accept or reject. Governments have this power, however, and use it through the law, to strengthen their power, however, as well as to serve the interests of the ruling classes, by oppressing and exploiting the workers. The only limit to the oppression of government is the power with which the people show themselves capable of opposing it.

Conflict may be open or latent; but it always exists since the government does not pay attention to discontent and popular resistance except when it is faced with the danger of insurrection. When the people meekly submit to the law, or their protests are feeble and confined to words, the government studies its own interests and ignores the needs of the people; when the protests are lively, insistent, threatening, the government, depending on whether it is more or less understanding, gives way or resorts to repression. But one always comes back to insurrection, for if the government does not give way, the people will end by rebelling; and if the government does give way, then the people gain confidence in themselves and make ever increasing demands, until such time as the incompatibility between freedom and authority becomes clear and the violent struggle is engaged. It is therefore necessary to be prepared, morally and materially, so that when this does happen the people will emerge victorious.

Riot police in Athens in March 2010 during a 24-hour general strike protesting austerity plan

This revolution must of necessity be violent, even though violence is in itself an evil. It must be violent because a transitional, revolutionary, violence, is the only wayto put and end to the far greater, and permanent, violence which keeps the majority of mankind in servitude.

The Bourgeoisie [the Upper Middle Class – the capitalist class] will never allow itself to be expropriated without a struggle, and one will always have to resort to the coup de force, to the violation of legal order by illegal means.

We too are deeply unhappy at this need for violent struggle. We who preach love, and who struggle to achieve a state of society in which agreement and love are possible among men, suffer more than anybody by the necessity with which we are confronted of having to defend ourselves with violence against the violence of the ruling classes. However, to renounce a liberating violence, when it is the only way to end the daily sufferings and the savage carnage which afflict mankind, would be to connive at the class antagonisms we deplore and at the evils which arise from them.

Occupy Oakland 2011 Source: Occupy Oakland
Oakland 2011 Source: Occupy Oakland

We neither impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition.

We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjugation by government. We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest.

We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. We would resist any force any ‘dictatorship’ or ‘constituent’ [Communist or Fascist] that attempted to impose itself on the masses in revolt. And we will fight the republic as we fight the monarchy, if by republic is meant government, however it may come to power, which makes laws and disposes of military and penal powers to oblige the people to obey.

With the exception of these cases, it which the use of force is justified as a defence against force, we are always against violence, and for self-determination.

“Fall in Love, Not in Line” – Arthurs Hill Area, Fenham
“Fall in Love, Not in Line” – Arthurs Hill Area, Fenham

I have repeated a thousand times that I believe that not to ‘actively’ resist evil, adequately and by every possible way is, in theory absurd, because it is in contradiction with the aim of avoiding and destroying evil, and in practice immoral because it is a denial of human solidarity and the duty that stems from it to defend the weak and the oppressed. I think that a regime which is born of violence and which continues to exist by violence cannot be overthrown except by a corresponding and proportionate violence, and that one is therefore either stupid or deceived in relying on legality where the oppressors can change the law to suit their own ends. But I believe that violence is, for us who aim at peace among men, and justice and freedom for all, an unpleasant necessity, which must cease the moment liberation is achieved – that is, at the point where defence and security are no longer threatened – or become a crime against humanity, and the harbinger of new oppression and injustice.

We are on principle opposed to violence and for this reason wish that the social struggle should be conducted as humanely as possible. But this does not mean that we would wish it to be less determined, less thoroughgoing; indeed we are of the opinion that in the long run half measures only indefinitely prolong the struggle, neutralizing it as well as encouraging more of the kind of violence which one wishes to avoid. Neither does it mean that we limit the right of self-defence to resistance against actual or imminent attack. For us the oppressed are always in a state of legitimate defence and are fully justified in rising without waiting to be actually fired on; and we are fully aware of the fact that attack is often the best means of defence…

Revenge, persistent hatred, cruelty to the vanquished when they have been overcome, are understandable reactions and can even be forgiven, in the heat of the struggle, in those whose dignity has been cruelly offended, and whose most intimate feelings have been outraged. But to condone ferocious anti-human feelings and raise them to the level of a principle, advocating them as a tactic for a movement [as the Fascists do], is both evil and counter-revolutionary.

Homs, Syria, 2012.
Homs, Syria, 2012.

For us revolution must not mean the substitution of one oppressor for another, of our domination for that of others. We want the material and spiritual elevation of man; the disappearance of every distinction between vanquished and conquerors; sincere brotherhood among all mankind – without which history would continue, as in the past, to be an alternation between oppression and rebellion, at the expense of real progress, and in the long term to the disadvantage of everybody, the conqueror no less than the vanquished.

It is abundantly clear that violence is needed to resist the violence of the adversary, and we must advocate and prepare it, if we do not wish the present situation of slavery in disguise, in which most humanity finds itself, to continue and worsen. But violence contains within itself the danger of transforming the revolution into a brutal struggle without the light of an ideal and without possibilities of a beneficial outcome; and for this reason one must stress the moral aims of the movement, and the need, and the duty, to contain violence within the limits of strict necessity.

We do not say that violence is good when we use it and harmful when others use it against us. We say that violence is justifiable, good and ‘moral’ as well as a duty when it is used in one’s own defence and that of others, against the demands of those who believe in violence; it is an evil and ‘immoral’ if it serves to violate the freedoms of others…

We are not ‘pacifists’ because peace is not possible unless it is desired by both sides.

We consider violence a necessity and a duty for defence, but only for defence. And we mean not only for defence against direct, sudden, physical attack, but against all those institutions that use force to keep people in a state of servitude. We are against Fascism and we would wish that it were weakened by opposing to its violence a greater violence. And we are, above all, against government, which is permanent violence.

Point in case. Seargent Pepper Spray, 2011
Case in point. Sergeant Pepper Spray, 2011

To my mind if violence is justifiable even beyond the needs of self-defence, then it is justified when it is used against us, and we would have no grounds for protest.

To the alleged incapacity of the people we do not offer a solution by putting ourselves in the place of our former oppressors [like the Communists and Socialists]. Only freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school for freedom. But, you say, to start a revolution and bring it to its conclusion one needs a force which is also armed. And who denies this? But the armed force, or rather the numerous armed revolutionary groups, will be performing a revolutionary task if they serve to free the people and prevent the re-emergence of an authoritarian government. But they will be tools of reaction and destroy their own achievements if they are prepared to be used to impose a particular kind of social organisation or the program of a particular party…

Revolution being, by the necessity of things, violent action, tends to develop, rather than remove, the spirit of violence. But the revolution as conceived by the Anarchists is the least violent of all and seeks to halt all violence as soon as the need to use force to oppose that of the government and the Bourgeoisie ceases. Anarchists recognize violence only as a means of legitimate defence; and if today they are in favour of violence it is because they maintain that slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence. But the Anarchist ideal is for a society in which the factor of violence has been eliminated, and their ideal serves to restrain, correct and destroy the spirit of revenge which revolution, as a physical act, would tend to develop.

In any case, the remedy would never be the organisation and consolidation of violence in the hands of a government or dictatorship, which cannot be founded on anything but brute force and recognition for the authority of police – and military – forces.

… An error, the opposite of the one that the terrorists make, threatens the anarchist movement. Partly as a reaction to the abuse of violence during recent years, partly as a result of the survival of christian ideas, and above all, as a result of the mystical preaching’s of Tolstoy, which owe their popularity and prestige to the genius and high moral qualities of their author, Anarchists are beginning to pay serious attention to the party of passive resistance, whose basic principle is that the individual must allow himself and others to be persecuted and despised rather than harm the aggressor. It is what has been called passive anarchy.

Since there are some, upset by my aversion to useless and harmful violence, who have been suggesting that I display Tolstoyanist tendencies, I take the opportunity to declare that, in my opinion, this doctrine however sublimely altruistic it may appear to be, is, in fact the negation of instinct and social duties. A man may, if he is a very good … christian, suffer every kind of provocation without defending himself with every weapon at his disposal, and still remain a moral man. But would he not, in practice, even unconsciously, be a supreme egoist were he to allow others to be persecuted without making any effort to defend them? If, for instance, he were to prefer that a class should be reduced to abject misery, that a people should be down-trodden by an invader, that man’s life or liberty should be abused, rather than bruise the flesh of the oppressor?

There can be cases where passive resistance is an effective weapon, and it would then obviously be the best of weapons, since it would be the most economic in human suffering. But more often than not, to profess passive resistance only serves to reassure the oppressors against their fears of rebellion, and thus it betrays the cause of the oppressed.

It is interesting to observe how both the terrorists and the tolstoyans, just because both are mystics, arrive at practical results that are more or less similar. The former would not hesitate to destroy half of mankind so long as the idea triumphed; the latter would be prepared to let all mankind remain under the yoke of great suffering rather than violate a principle.

For myself, I would violate every principle in the world in order to save a man: which would in fact be a question of respecting principle, since, in my opinion, all moral and sociological principles are reduced to this one principle: the good of mankind, the good of all mankind.

AntiNote: Malatesta was an anarchist communist. He was a supporter of Bakunin in the first International. He objected to Kropotkin on the First World War issue but also on Kropotkinʼs theory of a spontaneous revolution…He believed in action as well as words and had a significant part in the conception and organization of the general strike that led to “Red Week” in Italy in 1914.

Egypt 2011
Egypt 2011

Featured Image: Peace, Love, Anarchy by The-High-End-Of-Low

Scroll to Top