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Davide Turcato, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900

New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 288, $ 95

Davide Turcato, an Italian-Canadian historian and computational linguist, has emerged in the last few years as a leading scholar of Italian anarchism. Drawing on his doctoral dissertation, Making Sense of Anarchism is the fruit of the research that he has been conducting for more than a decade on one of the most prominent figures of international anarchism, the Italian Errico Malatesta. As a testament to his long fascination with Malatesta, Turcato is also editing Malatesta’s complete works for a ten-volume project currently underway in Italy.

Although Malatesta is widely acknowledged as one of the giant figures of the anarchist movement, Turcato makes a good case for still closer analysis of his actions and thoughts as a way to better understand anarchism, or, as the title of his book puts it, to make sense of it. Focusing on the critical period 1889-1900, when Malatesta resided abroad, mostly in London, Turcato unveils the organization, ideas, and actions of a significant segment of Italian and international anarchism. But his goal is not simply to shed light on Malatesta and the diasporic dimension of the Italian anarchist movement; he also wants to vindicate the rationality of anarchism against traditional interpretations that emphasize instead its presumed spontaneity, utopianism, futility, and the abysmal inadequacy of its means to its intended ends. Ever since its beginnings, many scholars have dismissed anarchism as naïve, absurd, odd, removed from reality, and doomed.  Conservative, liberal, and even Marxist historiography have all attributed to it an element of irrationality and obsolescence.

Challenging these stereotypes, Turcato presents anarchism instead as a self-conscious, sophisticated and coherent movement characterized by both continuity and change – an «open road» rather than a «dead end». Anarchism, he argues, has appeared irrational because it has been interpreted as inherently flawed or judged simply on the basis of its shortcomings. But while there is no doubt that anarchism failed to achieve its goals, «it is one thing to attribute its ineffectiveness to exogenous factors or overpowering circumstances, and another to attribute it to endogenous factors or inherent, inexorable flaws» (p. 5). And at any rate, failure does not necessarily imply irrationality.

In order to comprehend anarchism for what it really is – «a sensible and rational strategy of action» – scholars, according to Turcato, need a more empathic approach or, in the words of philosopher Donald Davidson, «a policy of rational accommodation». Known also as «the principle of charity», such a policy requires that we suspend our own beliefs and make a real effort to understand others, trying to be open and receptive, rather than judgmental. So for Turcato, to make sense of anarchism we must study it from an internal perspective and really understand its «language». Anarchists, he clarifies, «are to be understood on their own terms. Their actions are to be related to their own desires, beliefs and their own perception of the world» (p. 9).

Focusing on Malatesta’s career as a case in point and using a charitable approach as his guiding principle, Turcato offers a compelling reappraisal of nineteenth-century transnational anarchism not just as a generic rejection of government but as a «collective, conscious revolutionary project» (p. 35) rooted in the broader struggle for social change that began in the second half of the nineteenth century.

To a large extent, the focus on Malatesta to study anarchism makes perfect sense. Born in 1853, Malatesta was one of the first, most brilliant, and most prolific theoreticians of anarchism. A child of the Risorgimento, he became politically active very young, embracing first Republicanism and then Socialism. Inspired by the events of the Paris Commune, he joined the Italian section of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1871 when he was still 18 years old. The following year he attended the St. Imier Congress of the First International, where he emerged as a leading propagandist of the anti-authoritarian branch out of which the anarchist movement was born. An indefatigable agitator, for the next sixty years, until his death in 1932, he remained at the center of the movement, helping spread anarchism both within and outside of Italy.

Malatesta’s transnationalism – a central theme of Turcato’s work – is indeed paradigmatic of how anarchism functioned as a movement. Like many other anarchists, Malatesta spent half of his life in exile. Those years, as Turcato shows, were central to his political evolution. Malatesta, in fact, did not «disappear» in the face of political repression, as analyses of national scope often suggest. Rather, he simply shifted his sphere of action. But far from casual, his movements were part of «the same, large anarchist map» (p. 47), reflecting high levels of organization, careful planning, and cross-national collaborations amongst militants worldwide. By bringing attention to this informal but complex transnational network of peoples and ideas, Turcato effectively demonstrates the continuity, both geographical and chronological, of the Italian anarchist movement, thereby dispelling the standard images made of spontaneity, lack of organization, and discontinuity that have dominated previous historiography.

Turcato’s thorough discussion of Malatesta’s thought offers a departure from other anarchist clichés as well. In contrast to stereotypes of anarchism as static and incoherent, Malatesta’s ideas and tactical principles illustrate both continuity and change over time. While preserving the basic tenets of his anarchist outlook, he constantly redefined his strategies in light of past experiences and changing circumstances. For example, his earlier views emphasizing violent revolution and direct insurrection were eventually replaced by a «gradualist» approach, the belief that anarchy could not be achieved in one sudden leap, but required careful organization and propaganda. Malatesta’s anarchism was also inclusive and pragmatic; he believed that, while remaining distinct from other movements and striving for the realization of their ideal, anarchists should participate in the wider labor struggle and cooperate with all progressive forces committed to bringing forth equality and social change.

But to what extent was Malatesta’s outlook representative of the anarchist movement as a whole? Turcato devotes a full chapter to the theoretical divide between organizational and anti-organizational anarchists, showing that contrasting currents of anarchism coexisted within a broader project. While making a strong case for the importance of Malatesta to anarchism’s intellectual history, his legacy remains a bit more obscure, leaving readers, for example, wondering whether his distinctive ideas had more influence than those of admired anti-organizational anarchists such as Luigi Galleani.

Stylistically, while generally a good read, Turcato’s writing is at times too esoteric and his arguments a little overworked. Despite a comprehensive reference list included at the end of the book, the choice of not including notes, particularly given the broad scope of the research and the author’s theoretical challenges, is also a bit frustrating. Yet, this volume is an essential read not only for anarchists eager to deepen their knowledge of one of their greatest men, but also for intellectual historians interested in nineteenth-century political thought and socialist history. Indeed, the most important lesson to be learned from Turcato’s book, and one that deserves more attention, is that anarchism is, as he puts it in his concluding chapter, «a complex, rational business» (p. 239) that defies easy categorizations and broad generalizations.


Marcella Bencivenni

(Hostos Community College of The City University of New York)


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