Anarchy and the Violent turn of the Propaganda of the Deed

In an earlier post on the site of Paris’s last guillotine, I mentioned the executions of Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry.  Then I tried, maybe ambitiously, to describe the early thinking behind some of the pacifist ideas in anarchist thinking.  In another vain attempt, I’m going to write about some of the thinking behind the approach to violence in bringing about revolution and in attacking the established order.

As mentioned in the last post, the anarchist has long been stereotyped as a bearded, bomb carrying terrorist. Given the points already covered concerning the basic dislike of violence and exertion of power, how did anarchy become so closely associated with violence?

The earliest and perhaps most influential of the anarchist thinkers to have taken a stance that supported violent acts and insurrection was Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian born into an aristocratic family in 1814. It is difficult to easily define Bakunin; from his works he both abhors violence but yet refuses to condemn it and could only see the mechanism of creating a truly free society through destruction. Bakunin finished an article with the lines

Let us therefore trust the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion too! 

This can be contrasted with the thinking of Tolstoy, Proudhon and Landauer who wanted to see society undergo a cultural transformation which would see the institutions of repression replaced with those of equality and freedom. Although Bakunin did, at times, express a desire for peace and freedom he is more remembered for the violence of his revolutionary worldview.


Mikhail Bakunin

Bakunin became involved with the socialist movement and began to see revolution and freedom as a calling. He identified the liberation of the Slavs as a first step to a cataclysmic reformation of Europe and began to use the language of an apocalyptic revolution

I await my…fiancée, revolution. We will be really happy – that is, we will become ourselves, only when the world is engulfed in fire 

In 1848, the first of the revolutions to sweep Europe that year began in Paris and Bakunin rushed to the city to become involved. He preached on the barricades of

communism, permanent revolution and war until the defeat of the last enemy

In the late 1860s, Bakunin became involved with a young revolutionary called Sergei Nechaev and it the relationship is perhaps the defining point at which the anarchist movement became involved in violent revolution and terrorist action. Whilst with Bakunin in Geneva, Nechaev wrote a publication “Catechism of a Revolutionary” which declared that anything that contributed to the future triumph of the revolution was moral and anything that hinders it is immoral and criminal. The work calls on the revolutionary to break all ties with past society and to adopt the aim of “pitiless destruction” in order to eradicate the state, its institutions and classes. The revolutionary is defined as a doomed man with no attachments, no sentiments and no personal interests except that of the revolution.  The pamphlet goes onto to recommend the creation of lists of people to be exterminated and that the central committee of any secret revolutionary society may regard all other members as expendable “revolutionary capital”. This pamphlet, whilst not only influencing anarchist terrorist action was also assimilated into the thinking of Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther movement.

Bakunin, whilst disappointed in the brutality of Nechaev’s work became associated with it and did little to disassociate himself from it. He did call for the selective killing of certain people as a preliminary stage to social revolution and he did feel that revolution was essentially a war against the state and that, in wars, people and property are destroyed. However, he did feel that the violent phase of the revolution, no matter how bloody and vindictive initially, would not last long and would never degenerate into terrorism.

Bakunin’s work should be seen in the context of the revolutionary lifestyle he had adopted and the Europe in which he lived. Whilst there is no denying that he already had a passion for destructive revolution, Europe itself was undergoing significant change. These were the years the Franco-Prussian war and the mass exodus of people from the countryside to the cities as the Industrial Revolution created large slums in major cities. Marx’s work was becoming more commonly understood as a critique of capitalism and there had been, as already mentioned, widespread revolution across Europe.

It should not be forgotten that these were violent and brutal times and people’s day to day lives were ones in which they were at risk of death, injury or disease on a daily basis, especially within the slums and in the factories, where people were considered expendable resources like any other raw materials and there was little or no protection from exploitation.  Violence against the poor or the proletariat was something that could be seen as being sanctioned by the state in its disinterest in their living conditions and its support of the capitalists, the industrialisation of Europe and the exploitation of the empires.

Following the violent crushing of the Paris Commune in April 1871 and the clampdown on political dissidents across Europe, anarchists began to become frustrated with the very gradual reform brought about through instruction and education as promoted by Proudhon. The concept of “Propaganda by the deed” became popular among anarchists. Propaganda of the Deed was a concept that suggested that the clear and obvious action of individuals would inspire further action by others, creating a snowball effect. It was thought that spectacular actions, such as a bombings and the assassination of important people, would help the working class see the opportunity for revolution and to seize it.

The deed need not, of course be a violent one. An early action, led by Italian anarchists Errico Malatesta and Carlo Cafiero saw them take over two villages in Southern Italy and burn the tax registers. Perhaps unsurprisingly this was welcomed by the local peasants but the revolutionaries were arrested after leaving one of the villages and held for 16 months.

Malatesta fundamentally believed that violence was a necessary part of the revolution and wrote in an Italian anarchist journal that

It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers

Errico Malatesta

Following Malatesta’s failed revolt, Paul Brousse, a French anarchist and perhaps the first to use the phrase “propaganda of the deed”, suggested that deeds could be committed by individuals as well as by groups. Peter Kropotkin, by this time one of anarchy’s foremost thinkers also published support for violent action by praising ‘acts of illegal protest, of revolt, of vengeance’ carried out by ‘lonely sentinels’. ‘By actions which compel general attention’, Kropotkin claimed, ‘the new idea [of revolution] seeps into people’s minds and wins converts’. Each act of these so-called ‘madmen’ could ‘in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets’.

Shortly after his claims above, Kropotkin went on to call for the greater study of chemistry, so that bombs could be made for both attack and defence. This kind of language was all that profoundly violent anarchists, such as Johann Most, nicknamed “the Wild Beast” and “Dynamost” for his violent ways and love of dynamite, needed. Whilst Kropotkin and Malatesta were intending for violence to be used in the name of the revolution, Most needed little encouragement to use bombs, poison and arson against the bourgeoisie. At this point, it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of anarchists were not of a violent persuasion and many still adhered to their pacifist principles.

The concept of propaganda by deed’s most significant impact was felt between 1881 and 1901, starting with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and probably ending with the assassination of United States President William McKinley. At this time, the populist, tabloid press was being developed and the public were keen to read the stories of the terrorist attacks, not all of which were attributable to the anarchist movement but were, for the sake of having someone or something to blame, attributed nonetheless. It was at this time, and with the publication of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad in 1907, that the popular view of anarchists as suspicious, bearded men in cloaks carrying bombs entered the popular imagination. The police and the state imagined that there was an enormous underground movement of anarchists and other radicals and thousands of people were rounded up and labour unions were dissolved. Such repression only fuelled further resentment.

In the early 1890s, Kropotkin and Malatesta condemned murders which did not appear to be directly linked to any revolutionary stance but seemed to be vendettas and grudges, most notably those murders and attacks carried out in Paris by the anarchist bomber Ravachol and by Emile Henry. An anarchist movement, of course, has little in the way of formal structure so the words of its recognised thinkers do not necessarily have any great influence over those who consider themselves to be anarchists and also, there is no easy way of contacting anarchists – there was no central register of members or subscribers to the anarchist doctrine and if someone said that they were an anarchist then they were; who was to deny it?  This problem of structure meant that there was no way of coordinating anarchist attacks to actually create some semblance of a united front or strategy. The attacks may well have been inspired by common thought and approaches but generally appeared to be random.

Arguably it was in this period that modern-day international terrorism was born. The invention of dynamite, and its widespread distribution the 19th century, gave enormous power to anyone able to obtain it. The widespread use of bombs by assassins often caused indiscriminate death. For example, an anarchist attempted to assassinate Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906, but succeeded only in killing a number of innocent bystanders. The Wall Street bombing, which killed 40, was also, perhaps erroneously, blamed on anarchists. Following the killing of McKinley, the new president Theodore Roosevelt condemned anarchy and anarchists and urged, in a speech to Congress, “all mankind [to] band against anarchists”. New laws were introduced in the US preventing the movement of anarchists and anyone who refused to recognise organised government. Many anarchists, including the Wild Beast, Johann Most, realised that the use of violence as a means of propaganda had completely the reverse effect on public reaction to that intended. Indeed, the philosophy of “propaganda of the deed” had such crushing effects on the anarchist movement that it may well still be recovering from them.

There are still elements of anarchist violence in protests in current times. The Angry Brigade carried out a number of attacks in Britain in the early 1970s. Using a slightly different approach to those in earlier times and perhaps guided by the anarchist opposition to property, their attacks were directed at the property of those people and institutions such as banks and embassies rather than directly at the people themselves.

More recently, animal rights campaigners and anti-capitalist activists protesting against the G8 and the World Trade Organisation have begun using many different tactics to help them achieve their goals. This is mirrored by Ward Churchill’s belief that revolutionaries should never rule out any tactics.  And of course, the same frustrations exist with the lack of progress of peaceful intervention.  If the establishment remains intransigent and seeks to maintain its own position through its own monopoly on power and violence to the detriment of the population, where must you eventually turn but towards violence and revolution?




2 thoughts on “Anarchy and the Violent turn of the Propaganda of the Deed

  1. nonviolentconflict says:

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

  2. […] and the French anarchists Ravachol, Émile Henry and Auguste Vaillant developed the concept of Propaganda of the Deed.  This movement sought to attack the edifices of the establishment and at the same time encourage […]

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