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Malatesta on War and National: Self-Determination Lessons for Anarchists Considering the Ukrainian War

By Wayne Price

Lessons for Anarchists Considering the Ukrainian War

Introduction

There is a debate among anarchists in the U.S. and internationally about the proper approach to the Ukrainian war with the Russian state. Some (such as myself) express solidarity with the Ukrainian people against the invasion by the Russian Federation. (The “Ukrainian people” are mostly the working class, lower middle class, farmers, and the poor.) Others reject support for the Ukrainians. Ukraine, they point out, has a capitalist economy, has a state, is a nation, and gets aid from U.S. imperialism and its NATO allies (all of which is true).

Both sides have been known to cite the Italian anarchist, Errico Malatesta (1853-1932). He was a younger friend and comrade of Bakunin and Kropotkin, regarded as “founders” of anarchism. “Malatesta, whose sixty-year career is little known outside of Italy, stands with Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin as one of the great revolutionaries of international anarchism.” (Pernicone 1993; p. 3)

Since the Russian military invaded Ukraine, I have engaged in many Internet debates with opponents of support for the Ukrainian people (not the state but the people). Some arguments have been with state socialists who are essentially on the side of the Russian invaders. Virtually no anarchists, however, have illusions in Putin’s Russia. (Nor do they have illusions in the benevolence of U.S. imperialism, unlike most liberals.) Yet many anarchists reject any support for the Ukrainian people, treating them as no better than the Russian invaders. (For my view, see Price 2022.)

A few writers have posted references to Malatesta’s opposition to World War I, claiming that this shows that a leading anarchist was opposed to “war” as such. During the First World War, most anarchists opposed both sides, but a minority supported the Allies. This minority included Kropotkin, the most respected anarchist thinker of his time! Malatesta wrote rebuttals to these pro-war anarchists. (See “Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles,” and “Pro- Government Anarchists,” in Malatesta 2014.)

He wrote, “[Anarchists] have always preached that the workers of all countries are brothers, and that the enemy—the ‘foreigner’—is the exploiter, whether born near us or in a far-off country…..We have always chosen our…companions-in-arms, as well as our enemies, because…of the position they occupy in the social struggle, and never for reasons of race or nationality. We have always fought against patriotism…and we were proud of being internationalists….Now…the most atrocious consequences of capitalist and State domination should indicate, even to the blind, that we were in the right….” (Malatesta 2014; p. 380)

But in the same work, he wrote, “I am not a ‘pacifist.’… The oppressed are always in a state of legitimate self- defense, and have always the right to attack the oppressors….There are wars that are necessary, holy wars, and these are wars of liberation, such as are generally ‘civil wars’—i.e., revolutions.” (same; p. 379)

In other words, all sides of a war among oppressors were to be opposed—such as the First World War between blocs of imperialist states (France-Britain- Russia-and later the U.S. vs. Germany-Austria- Turkey). But wars of the oppressed against oppressors were wars of liberation, to be supported. Nor did Malatesta limit this to class wars, such as revolutions by slaves, peasants, or modern workers. (This is sometimes expressed as “No War but Class War!”) He also included wars by oppressed nations.

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