The numerous editions and translations of this pamphlet by Errico Malatesta all over the world have already demonstrated that its importance and relevance have been recognized universally.
Fra Contadini shares the modest tone of Malatesta’s other writings, more obvious here through the use of dialogue. It is in fact a chat which two peasants, one more politicised than the other, could very well have had in the north of Italy at the end of the last century. It manages to avoid the affectation which often harms literary works which–like this one–do not conceal their intent to educate, because in reality this is a didactic piece of work. Malatesta’s intention is to supply the anarchist movement (then the international socialist anarchist revolutionary party) with an agile instrument of propaganda for the peasants, small artisans, groups at that moment in the phase of proletarianisation. In other words for the starving masses who swelled the major Italian cities at the end of the last century drawn by the mirage of work in developing industry.
The Florence of 1884 had not changed much from that which had known the revolutionary work of Bakunin twenty years previously. Urbanisation had become a visible phenomenon, with the whole store of indescribable miseries for the poor people emarginated by the mechanism of capitalist exploitation. The phase of the building of the monopolies which the young Italian bourgeoisie accomplished with ease immediately after the Unification, was followed by a period of deflation. Poverty increased and wealth assumed a demonic glare in the rebellious dreams of the hungry.
Of Malatesta’s aims not the least is that of insurrection. The study of particular problems is never an end in itself. It is not a question of a utopian vision of what anarchist society will be after the social revolution, but of violent expropriation, the recurring reason which Malatesta continually takes our attention back to: the taking of wealth by the poor and their management of it in common.
"... We shall kindle the fire that is smoldering among the masses, take advantage of the discontent, the movements, the revolts, and strike a vigorous blow. We are not afraid, and soon the bourgeois catastrophe will go up in smoke and the reign of wellbeing begin." These words mark the maximum point of Malatesta’s analyses contained in the present pamphlet. The individual arguments faced, the various theoretical questions take on a different meaning and perspective in the light of this phrase. Taken individually problems such as production, machinery, work, planning, price mechanisms, Government, the State, the revolution considered in abstract terms, can each be treated with that detached perspective which so many comrades have substituted for the true meaning of anarchism. Here these problems take on a different order. Malatesta’s intent is not to convince a bourgeois liberal in the throes of his guilty conscience, he is not interested in getting into a learned argument with an economist who is still suffering indigestion from Marx, just as he is not interested in putting a sociologist into difficulty concerning the possibility of. social organisation without government or State. His aim is to convince the peasant, the worker, the emarginated "lumpen" proletarian reader, of the mechanism of exploitation and repression, of the system of ideological and political swindling with the aim of pushing them to rebel in the struggle against the class enemies, and ultimately, to insurrection. Whoever does not bear this objective in mind falsifies the profound meaning of this pamphlet. It is not possible to read truly revolutionary literature in the same key as one would read a sociological treatise.
The importance of an argument based on the limitations of the solutions indicated by Malatesta diminishes in this way. Clearly his singularly acute and lucid analyses such of those of monopoly and deflation find themselves among others whose contradictions Malatesta could not overcome, such as those concluding with the inevitability of an anarchist society, or where he foresees the need for planning, etc.. To "update" Malatesta’s work would be senseless, as would be any attempts of those who would highlight its contradictions in order to declare it "out of date". Taken as a whole it is still functional and admirably suited to the aim for which it was written: to push the most backward strata of the exploited to insurrection. It is an instrument of struggle, not a manual of anarchist theory. The clarity of vision which emanates from this pamphlet should culminate therefore not in more fruitless theorising but in practical insurrection and expropriation.
3 May 1981