Errico Malatesta

Federalism and Anarchy




Errico Malatesta clarifies in this short text his ideas about federalism. They are quite similar to those who are in favour of non territorial voluntary communities (panarchy).

This article appeared in La Questione Sociale, Paterson, New Jersey, 6, new series, n.20, 20 january 1900

From a suggestion by Daniele Leoni



In the past, at the time of the International, people frequently used the word federalism as synonymous with anarchy. And the anarchist fraction of the Great Association (which opponents, imbued with authoritarian spirit and keen to lower matters of ideas to bitter personal issues, called the Bakunist International) was by friends referred to indifferently as the Anarchist International, or the Federalist International.

It was the time in which "unity" was fashionable in Europe; and not just among the bourgeois.

The most popular representatives of the authoritarian socialist idea preached centralization in all, and thundered against the federalist idea, which they qualify as reactionary. And in the very inner core of the International, the General Council, made up of Marx, Engels and democratic socialist comrades, tried to impose its authority on workers in all countries, concentrating in its hands the supreme direction of all the life of the association. They sought to reduce to obedience, or to expel, the rebel Federations, who did not want to recognize any ruling attribution, and proclaimed that the International was to be a confederation of autonomous individuals, groups and federations linked to each other by the solidarity pact in the fight against Capitalism.

At that time, therefore, the word federalism, though rather equivocal, was fairly good, in the sense given to it by the opposition of the authoritarians, i.e. the idea of free association between free individuals, which is, at the bottom, the anarchist concept.

But now things have changed a lot. The authoritarian socialists, already fiercely unitarian and centralistic, pushed by anarchist criticism, are willing to be federalists, and as federalists begin to call themselves, the majority of them, Republicans. And so you have to open your eyes, and do not be fooled by a word.

Logically, federalism, brought to its ultimate consequences, applied not only to the different places people inhabit but also to the various functions they perform in society, right to the commune, to whatever association, up to the individual, means the same thing as anarchy - free and sovereign units that associate for the common benefit.

But this is not the way in which federalism is intended by non-anarchists.

There is no need to deal with bourgeois republicans, now. They, unitarians or federalists, want to preserve individual property and the division of society into classes; And therefore, in whatever way their republic is organized, freedom and autonomy would always be a lie for the greatest number: the poor always dependent, slaves of the rich.
Bourgeois federalism would simply mean a greater sphere of action, greater privileges for the masters of the various regions, but no less force to oppress the workers, since federal troops would always be ready to intervene to keep the workers subdued and defend the masters.

We talk about federalism as a political form whatever the economic institutions.
For non-anarchists, federalism is simply a more or less wide regional and municipal administrative decentralization, keeping always the supreme authority of the "Federation". To belong to the Federation is mandatory. And it is compulsory to obey federal laws, which should regulate "common" affairs for the various confederate entities. Who then decides which are the affairs that are to be left to the autonomy of the different places, and those common to all, that must be subject to federal laws, is still the Federation, that is the central government itself, who decides about it. A government that must limit its authority! ... it is already clear that it will limit it as little as possible and that it will tend to go beyond the limits that at the beginning - when it was weak - it had to comply with.

Moreover, this more or less autonomy, concerns the various municipal, regional and central governments in their reciprocal relationships. The individual, the human being, remains always an entity subject to be ruled and exploited at discretion, with the right to say who he/she would like to be ruled by, but with the duty to obey any parliament that will come out of the electoral magic hat.
In this sense, that is the sense in which it exists in some countries and which the most progressive amongst Democrats and Democratic Socialists accept it, federalism is a government that, like all of them, is founded on the denial of the individual's freedom. And it tends to become increasingly oppressive, finding no limit to its authoritarian claims except in the resistance of the governed. We are therefore opponents of federalism as any other form of government.

We would instead qualify as federalists if it was understood to mean that every locality, every group, every association, every individual is free to associate himself with whomever he or she would like or not to associate at all; that everyone is free to leave when he likes the federation which he/she has entered; that a federation is a union of strength for the benefit of its associates and that, as a whole, it has nothing to impose on each individual and that each group like each individual must reject any collective resolution except if he/she finds it appropriate and likes it. But in this sense federalism is no longer a form of government: it is just another word for anarchy.

And this is true for the federations of future society, as well as for the federations of the anarchist comrades in the pursuit of the diffusion of the idea and the struggle.


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