Last modified on 17 September 2011, at 23:16

Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.18

A.2.18 Do anarchists support terrorism?

No. This is for three reasons.

Terrorism means either targeting or not worrying about killing innocent people. For anarchy to exist, it must be created by the mass of people. One does not convince people of one's ideas by blowing them up. Secondly, anarchism is about self-liberation. One cannot blow up a social relationship. Freedom cannot be created by the actions of an elite few destroying rulers on behalf of the majority. Simply put, a "structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives." [Kropotkin, quoted by Martin A. Millar, Kropotkin, p. 174] For so long as people feel the need for rulers, hierarchy will exist (see section A.2.16 for more on this). As we have stressed earlier, freedom cannot be given, only taken. Lastly, anarchism aims for freedom. Hence Bakunin's comment that "when one is carrying out a revolution for the liberation of humanity, one should respect the life and liberty of men [and women]." [quoted by K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, p. 125] For anarchists, means determine the ends and terrorism by its very nature violates life and liberty of individuals and so cannot be used to create an anarchist society. The history of, say, the Russian Revolution, confirmed Kropotkin's insight that "[v]ery sad would be the future revolution if it could only triumph by terror." [quoted by Millar, Op. Cit., p. 175]

Moreover anarchists are not against individuals but the institutions and social relationships that cause certain individuals to have power over others and abuse (i.e. use) that power. Therefore the anarchist revolution is about destroying structures, not people. As Bakunin pointed out, "we wish not to kill persons, but to abolish status and its perquisites" and anarchism "does not mean the death of the individuals who make up the bourgeoisie, but the death of the bourgeoisie as a political and social entity economically distinct from the working class." [The Basic Bakunin, p. 71 and p. 70] In other words, "You can't blow up a social relationship" (to quote the title of an anarchist pamphlet which presents the anarchist case against terrorism).

How is it, then, that anarchism is associated with violence? Partly this is because the state and media insist on referring to terrorists who are not anarchists as anarchists. For example, the German Baader-Meinhoff gang were often called "anarchists" despite their self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninism. Smears, unfortunately, work. Similarly, as Emma Goldman pointed out, "it is a known fact known to almost everyone familiar with the Anarchist movement that a great number of [violent] acts, for which Anarchists had to suffer, either originated with the capitalist press or were instigated, if not directly perpetrated, by the police." [Red Emma Speaks, p. 262]

An example of this process at work can be seen from the current anti-globalisation movement. In Seattle, for example, the media reported "violence" by protesters (particularly anarchist ones) yet this amounted to a few broken windows. The much greater actual violence of the police against protesters (which, incidentally, started before the breaking of a single window) was not considered worthy of comment. Subsequent media coverage of anti-globalisation demonstrations followed this pattern, firmly connecting anarchism with violence in spite of that the protesters have been the ones to suffer the greatest violence at the hands of the state. As anarchist activist Starhawk notes, "if breaking windows and fighting back when the cops attack is 'violence,' then give me a new word, a word a thousand times stronger, to use when the cops are beating non-resisting people into comas." [Staying on the Streets, p. 130]

Similarly, at the Genoa protests in 2001 the mainstream media presented the protesters as violent even though it was the state who killed one of them and hospitalised many thousands more. The presence of police agent provocateurs in creating the violence was unmentioned by the media. As Starhawk noted afterwards, in Genoa "we encountered a carefully orchestrated political campaign of state terrorism. The campaign included disinformation, the use of infiltrators and provocateurs, collusion with avowed Fascist groups . . . , the deliberate targeting of non-violent groups for tear gas and beating, endemic police brutality, the torture of prisoners, the political persecution of organisers . . . They did all those openly, in a way that indicates they had no fear of repercussions and expected political protection from the highest sources." [Op. Cit., pp. 128-9] This was, unsurprisingly, not reported by the media.

Subsequent protests have seen the media indulge in yet more anti-anarchist hype, inventing stories to present anarchists are hate-filled individuals planning mass violence. For example, in Ireland in 2004 the media reported that anarchists were planning to use poison gas during EU related celebrations in Dublin. Of course, evidence of such a plan was not forthcoming and no such action happened. Neither did the riot the media said anarchists were organising. A similar process of misinformation accompanied the anti-capitalist May Day demonstrations in London and the protests against the Republican National Congress in New York. In spite of being constantly proved wrong after the event, the media always prints the scare stories of anarchist violence (even inventing events at, say Seattle, to justify their articles and to demonise anarchism further). Thus the myth that anarchism equals violence is perpetrated. Needless to say, the same papers that hyped the (non-existent) threat of anarchist violence remained silent on the actual violence of, and repression by, the police against demonstrators which occurred at these events. Neither did they run apologies after their (evidence-less) stories of doom were exposed as the nonsense they were by subsequent events.

This does not mean that Anarchists have not committed acts of violence. They have (as have members of other political and religious movements). The main reason for the association of terrorism with anarchism is because of the "propaganda by the deed" period in the anarchist movement.

This period -- roughly from 1880 to 1900 -- was marked by a small number of anarchists assassinating members of the ruling class (royalty, politicians and so forth). At its worse, this period saw theatres and shops frequented by members of the bourgeoisie targeted. These acts were termed "propaganda by the deed." Anarchist support for the tactic was galvanised by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 by Russian Populists (this event prompted Johann Most's famous editorial in Freiheit, entitled "At Last!", celebrating regicide and the assassination of tyrants). However, there were deeper reasons for anarchist support of this tactic: firstly, in revenge for acts of repression directed towards working class people; and secondly, as a means to encourage people to revolt by showing that their oppressors could be defeated.

Considering these reasons it is no coincidence that propaganda by the deed began in France after the 20 000-plus deaths due to the French state's brutal suppression of the Paris Commune, in which many anarchists were killed. It is interesting to note that while the anarchist violence in revenge for the Commune is relatively well known, the state's mass murder of the Communards is relatively unknown. Similarly, it may be known that the Italian Anarchist Gaetano Bresci assassinated King Umberto of Italy in 1900 or that Alexander Berkman tried to kill Carnegie Steel Corporation manager Henry Clay Frick in 1892. What is often unknown is that Umberto's troops had fired upon and killed protesting peasants or that Frick's Pinkertons had also murdered locked-out workers at Homestead.

Such downplaying of statist and capitalist violence is hardly surprising. "The State's behaviour is violence," points out Max Stirner, "and it calls its violence 'law'; that of the individual, 'crime.'" [The Ego and Its Own, p. 197] Little wonder, then, that anarchist violence is condemned but the repression (and often worse violence) that provoked it ignored and forgotten. Anarchists point to the hypocrisy of the accusation that anarchists are "violent" given that such claims come from either supporters of government or the actual governments themselves, governments "which came into being through violence, which maintain themselves in power through violence, and which use violence constantly to keep down rebellion and to bully other nations." [Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader, p. 652]

We can get a feel of the hypocrisy surrounding condemnation of anarchist violence by non-anarchists by considering their response to state violence. For example, many capitalist papers and individuals in the 1920s and 1930s celebrated Fascism as well as Mussolini and Hitler. Anarchists, in contrast, fought Fascism to the death and tried to assassinate both Mussolini and Hitler. Obviously supporting murderous dictatorships is not "violence" and "terrorism" but resisting such regimes is! Similarly, non-anarchists can support repressive and authoritarian states, war and the suppression of strikes and unrest by violence ("restoring law and order") and not be considered "violent." Anarchists, in contrast, are condemned as "violent" and "terrorist" because a few of them tried to revenge such acts of oppression and state/capitalist violence! Similarly, it seems the height of hypocrisy for someone to denounce the anarchist "violence" which produces a few broken windows in, say, Seattle while supporting the actual violence of the police in imposing the state's rule or, even worse, supporting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. If anyone should be considered violent it is the supporter of state and its actions yet people do not see the obvious and "deplore the type of violence that the state deplores, and applaud the violence that the state practises." [Christie and Meltzer, The Floodgates of Anarchy, p. 132]

It must be noted that the majority of anarchists did not support this tactic. Of those who committed "propaganda by the deed" (sometimes called "attentats"), as Murray Bookchin points out, only a "few . . . were members of Anarchist groups. The majority . . . were soloists." [The Spanish Anarchists, p. 102] Needless to say, the state and media painted all anarchists with the same brush. They still do, usually inaccurately (such as blaming Bakunin for such acts even though he had been dead years before the tactic was even discussed in anarchist circles or by labelling non-anarchist groups anarchists!).

All in all, the "propaganda by the deed" phase of anarchism was a failure, as the vast majority of anarchists soon came to see. Kropotkin can be considered typical. He "never liked the slogan propaganda by deed, and did not use it to describe his own ideas of revolutionary action." However, in 1879 while still "urg[ing] the importance of collective action" he started "expressing considerable sympathy and interest in attentats" (these "collective forms of action" were seen as acting "at the trade union and communal level"). In 1880 he "became less preoccupied with collective action and this enthusiasm for acts of revolt by individuals and small groups increased." This did not last and Kropotkin soon attached "progressively less importance to isolated acts of revolt" particularly once "he saw greater opportunities for developing collective action in the new militant trade unionism." [Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, p. 92, p. 115, p. 129, pp. 129-30, p. 205] By the late 1880s and early 1890s he came to disapprove of such acts of violence. This was partly due to simple revulsion at the worse of the acts (such as the Barcelona Theatre bombing in response to the state murder of anarchists involved in the Jerez uprising of 1892 and Emile Henry's bombing of a café in response to state repression) and partly due to the awareness that it was hindering the anarchist cause.

Kropotkin recognised that the "spate of terrorist acts" of the 1880s had caused "the authorities into taking repressive action against the movement" and were "not in his view consistent with the anarchist ideal and did little or nothing to promote popular revolt." In addition, he was "anxious about the isolation of the movement from the masses" which "had increased rather than diminished as a result of the preoccupation with" propaganda by deed. He "saw the best possibility for popular revolution in the . . . development of the new militancy in the labour movement. From now on he focussed his attention increasingly on the importance of revolutionary minorities working among the masses to develop the spirit of revolt." However, even during the early 1880s when his support for individual acts of revolt (if not for propaganda by the deed) was highest, he saw the need for collective class struggle and, therefore, "Kropotkin always insisted on the importance of the labour movement in the struggles leading up to the revolution." [Op. Cit., pp. 205-6, p. 208 and p. 280]

Kropotkin was not alone. More and more anarchists came to see "propaganda by the deed" as giving the state an excuse to clamp down on both the anarchist and labour movements. Moreover, it gave the media (and opponents of anarchism) a chance to associate anarchism with mindless violence, thus alienating much of the population from the movement. This false association is renewed at every opportunity, regardless of the facts (for example, even though Individualist Anarchists rejected "propaganda by the deed" totally, they were also smeared by the press as "violent" and "terrorists").

In addition, as Kropotkin pointed out, the assumption behind propaganda by the deed, i.e. that everyone was waiting for a chance to rebel, was false. In fact, people are products of the system in which they live; hence they accepted most of the myths used to keep that system going. With the failure of propaganda by deed, anarchists turned back to what most of the movement had been doing anyway: encouraging the class struggle and the process of self-liberation. This turn back to the roots of anarchism can be seen from the rise in anarcho-syndicalist unions after 1890 (see section A.5.3). This position flows naturally from anarchist theory, unlike the idea of individual acts of violence:

   "to bring about a revolution, and specially the Anarchist revolution[, it] is necessary that the people be conscious of their rights and their strength; it is necessary that they be ready to fight and ready to take the conduct of their affairs into their own hands. It must be the constant preoccupation of the revolutionists, the point towards which all their activity must aim, to bring about this state of mind among the masses . . . Who expects the emancipation of mankind to come, not from the persistent and harmonious co-operation of all men [and women] of progress, but from the accidental or providential happening of some acts of heroism, is not better advised that one who expected it from the intervention of an ingenious legislator or of a victorious general . . . our ideas oblige us to put all our hopes in the masses, because we do not believe in the possibility of imposing good by force and we do not want to be commanded . . . Today, that which . . . was the logical outcome of our ideas, the condition which our conception of the revolution and reorganisation of society imposes on us . . . [is] to live among the people and to win them over to our ideas by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings." [Errico Malatesta, "The Duties of the Present Hour", pp. 181-3, Anarchism, Robert Graham (ed.), pp. 180-1] 

Despite most anarchists' tactical disagreement with propaganda by deed, few would consider it to be terrorism or rule out assassination under all circumstances. Bombing a village during a war because there might be an enemy in it is terrorism, whereas assassinating a murdering dictator or head of a repressive state is defence at best and revenge at worst. As anarchists have long pointed out, if by terrorism it is meant "killing innocent people" then the state is the greatest terrorist of them all (as well as having the biggest bombs and other weapons of destruction available on the planet). If the people committing "acts of terror" are really anarchists, they would do everything possible to avoid harming innocent people and never use the statist line that "collateral damage" is regrettable but inevitable. This is why the vast majority of "propaganda by the deed" acts were directed towards individuals of the ruling class, such as Presidents and Royalty, and were the result of previous acts of state and capitalist violence.

So "terrorist" acts have been committed by anarchists. This is a fact. However, it has nothing to do with anarchism as a socio-political theory. As Emma Goldman argued, it was "not Anarchism, as such, but the brutal slaughter of the eleven steel workers [that] was the urge for Alexander Berkman's act." [Op. Cit., p. 268] Equally, members of other political and religious groups have also committed such acts. As the Freedom Group of London argued:

   "There is a truism that the man [or woman] in the street seems always to forget, when he is abusing the Anarchists, or whatever party happens to be his bete noire for the moment, as the cause of some outrage just perpetrated. This indisputable fact is that homicidal outrages have, from time immemorial, been the reply of goaded and desperate classes, and goaded and desperate individuals, to wrongs from their fellowmen [and women], which they felt to be intolerable. Such acts are the violent recoil from violence, whether aggressive or repressive . . . their cause lies not in any special conviction, but in the depths of . . . human nature itself. The whole course of history, political and social, is strewn with evidence of this." [quoted by Emma Goldman, Op. Cit., p. 259] 

Terrorism has been used by many other political, social and religious groups and parties. For example, Christians, Marxists, Hindus, Nationalists, Republicans, Muslims, Sikhs, Fascists, Jews and Patriots have all committed acts of terrorism. Few of these movements or ideas have been labelled as "terrorist by nature" or continually associated with violence -- which shows anarchism's threat to the status quo. There is nothing more likely to discredit and marginalise an idea than for malicious and/or ill-informed persons to portray those who believe and practice it as "mad bombers" with no opinions or ideals at all, just an insane urge to destroy.

Of course, the vast majority of Christians and so on have opposed terrorism as morally repugnant and counter-productive. As have the vast majority of anarchists, at all times and places. However, it seems that in our case it is necessary to state our opposition to terrorism time and time again.

So, to summarise - only a small minority of terrorists have ever been anarchists, and only a small minority of anarchists have ever been terrorists. The anarchist movement as a whole has always recognised that social relationships cannot be assassinated or bombed out of existence. Compared to the violence of the state and capitalism, anarchist violence is a drop in the ocean. Unfortunately most people remember the acts of the few anarchists who have committed violence rather than the acts of violence and repression by the state and capital that prompted those acts.