Cloaks, Daggers and Dynamite
A century ago international anarchists were causing public outrage and panic with their terror tactics. Matt Carr considers the parallels with al-Qaeda today.
It has become something of a cliché to claim that the world has changed irrevocably in response to the unique and deadly threat of al-Qaeda. But if the current crisis appears unprecedented, its essential parameters are not entirely new. The spectre of violent nihilists intent on the destruction of civilization and established order; a hidden hand conducting acts of mayhem across national frontiers; draconian anti-terrorist legislation and the official use of torture – all these formed part of the ‘anarchist terror’ that began in the last decades of the nineteenth century and ended with the First World War. In these years anarchism became indelibly associated with violence in the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic, as presidents and royalty, policemen and ordinary civilians were shot, stabbed and blown up.
President Carnot of France (1894), King Umberto of Italy (1900) and US President McKinley (1901) were among the ‘illustrious corpses’ claimed by anarchist assassins. Anarchist ‘infernal machines’ exploded in cafés, restaurants, opera houses and even the French Chamber of Deputies. The scale of violence was magnified by sensationalist press coverage that at times reduced whole cities to a state of psychosis. The ‘anarchist terror’ constituted the world’s first international terrorist emergency.
On the surface, there is no obvious connection between the Islamic holy war pursued by Osama bin Laden and a secular ideology that regarded organized religion as a reactionary superstition. It is true that transnational jihadists are sometimes inspired by the utopian promise of a stateless society, albeit one in which sovereignty is divine rather than human. But the real connection between the two movements can be found in their strategic conception of violence. In the period after the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, with the European left subjected to severe official repression and the revolutionary movement at a low ebb, a number of anarchists began to advocate acts of conspiratorial violence by small underground groups as an alternative policy to failed insurrections and absent revolutionary armies. The new strategy was called ‘propaganda of the deed’, a term borrowed from a socialist follower of the Italian republican leader Giuseppe Mazzini and which, for anarchists, essentially meant that political homicide could transmit an inspirational message to a wider audience: by targeting the highest representatives of the bourgeois state, the propagandists of the deed sought to demonstrate the vulnerability of their enemies and to rouse the dormant proletarian masses from their passivity.
A similar philosophy underpinned the decision by al-Qaeda to attack American civilian and military targets in the early 1990s. These attacks were intended to mobilize a wider political constituency at a time when the jihadist offensive had stalled across the Middle East. The 9/11 hijackers combined technology and the mass media in ways that were obviously not available to nineteenth-century anarchists, but the choice of symbolic targets belonged to the same tradition. Unlike al-Qaeda, the anarchists tended to concentrate their attacks on high-ranking individuals rather than anonymous civilians. Such assassinations were seen as a form of ad hoc revolutionary justice in response to specific actions carried out by the State. The Italian who stabbed to death French president Marie François Carnot was protesting against the death sentence imposed on Auguste Vaillant for his failed bomb attack on the French parliament. When Italian-American anarchist Giovanni Breschi shot King Umberto of Italy, it was in retaliation for the killing of hundreds of workers in Milan during bread riots two years before.
The assassinations were intended to demonstrate the implacable power of the anarchist movement. Anarchists did not invoke the quasi-religious concept of martyrdom that underpins the modern tactic of suicide bombing, but the perpetrators of these assassinations generally expected to die in the process, or face execution afterwards. In 1897 an Italian named Michele Angiolillo travelled from London to shoot dead the Spanish prime minister Antonio Canovas in a Basque spa resort. Afterwards Angiolillo waited calmly with his victim’s wife until the police arrived and was subsequently executed by garrotte, showing the exemplary calmness and fortitude that was expected of these anarchist avengers. To their supporters, this willingness to die imbued the assassination with moral grandeur. Some anarchists condemned to death delivered impassioned courtroom speeches explaining their actions. Others let their deeds speak for themselves.
Some of these ‘statements’ bore a closer resemblance to the atrocities of today. In 1893, two bombs thrown into the Liceo Opera House in Barcelona during a performance of William Tell killed twenty-two and wounded many more. In 1894 a young French anarchist named Emile Henry threw a bomb at the Terminus café in Paris and killed two customers. At his trial Henry coolly expressed a philosophy that bin Laden would have understood, when he informed the court that ‘there are no innocents’. Bombs and dynamite were essential weapons in the anarchist arsenal and often had a psychological impact beyond the actual murder of their victims. To the propagandists of the deed, Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite was a transforming event in the class struggle, which democratized the means of violence. Fringe anarchist publications in various countries praised ‘giant powder’ in lyrical terms and provided homemade bomb recipes.
The belligerent language and gleeful exaltation of violence contained in the ‘dynamite press’ tended to promise far greater carnage than was actually delivered. To late-nineteenth-century society, violent anarchism was an alarming but faintly exotic novelty, embodied in the popular stereotype of the ‘anarchist bomber’ with glittering eyes and a smoking bomb concealed beneath his cloak. The roots of such violence lay in the absence of working-class political representation and the vast disparities of wealth, but this was often obscured by press depictions of anarchists as ‘mad dogs’ and satanic agents of universal destruction. Popular journals and newspapers routinely terrified and titillated their readers with artists’ impressions of bomb-making laboratories and the sinister assemblages of test tubes, dynamite sticks and other infernal devices produced by the prosecution at trials. Then as now, real plots and bombings were accompanied by hypothetical catastrophes, in which anarchists were supposedly plotting to exterminate whole cities by poisoning rivers or blowing up reservoirs. Such fantasies were fuelled by popular fiction, like the sci-fi novel Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), in which a gang of anarchists devastate London by bombing the city from an airship.
These apocalyptic scenarios reflected an awareness of the destructive potential of modern science, coupled with a sense of the vulnerability of the modern metropolis. Such fears tended to give anarchists capabilities that they did not possess. Just as contemporary jihadists tend to be described as terrorist supermen, so the public perception of anarchists as malign monsters often concealed a more prosaic and often pathetic human reality. Most anarchist assassins were semi-educated and alienated solitaries from the fringes of society. Some were close to insanity, like the French shoemaker who murdered the Serbian ambassador in a Parisian restaurant and informed a policeman that he had just ‘stabbed a bourgeois and eaten a good meal’. Others like Auguste Vaillant discovered the utopian promise of anarchism after a lifetime of bitter deprivation, and attempted to fuse social protest and vengeance into a single grandiose act of violence.
Whatever the motives that led to their ‘radicalization’, these ‘dynamitards’ and attentateurs shared an ideology rather than an organization, and they generally acted on their own volition. At a time when access to public figures was often surprisingly easy, even kings and presidents could be killed by men with little expertise and low technological means. To governments and law enforcement agencies, however, anarchist violence was the visible manifestation of subversive currents lurking beneath the surface of society. The similarity in its targets and the fact that some assassinations were carried out as acts of revenge for events that had happened in other countries fuelled perceptions of a covert ‘hidden hand’ orchestrating events internationally. This was a misconception which recalls the current tendency to attribute every act of international jihadist violence to al-Qaeda, regardless of the evidence.
To its proponents, the advantage of propaganda by the deed was the fact that it did not require central organization but could be emulated by anyone without logistical support. Yet for years the authorities searched in vain for a ‘Black International’ behind anarchist violence without finding evidence that such a conspiracy existed. The closest to reality this imagined anarchist cabal ever came was in July 1881 when forty-five anarchist delegates from various countries met in a London tavern to discuss the possible formation of an international anarchist organization. Though resolutions were passed to seek greater coordination between different anarchist groups, there is no evidence that these ever bore fruit.
The attempt to establish nebulous ‘linkages’ behind anarchist violence had political advantages that reactionary governments did not fail to exploit. In 1878 the German Chancellor Bismarck used two failed attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I as a pretext for pushing through anti-socialist laws that resulted in a wave of arrests of anarchists and socialists. Similar measures were enacted in other countries, above all in Spain where the authorities routinely responded to anarchist bombings with mass arrests, torture and executions, and the devolution of judicial powers to military tribunals. A bomb attack on a Corpus Christi procession in Barcelona in 1896 was followed by the arrests of hundreds of anarchists, liberals and political dissidents. The majority of these prisoners were brutally tortured in the city’s Montjuïc fortress in procedures that brought widespread condemnation throughout Europe.
Other governments also succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. In France, Vaillant’s failed bomb attack on the French parliament was followed by the ‘scoundrelly laws’ that proscribed publications engaging in direct or ‘indirect’ incitement to violence. Four anarchists were hanged in Chicago in 1887 for their alleged role in a bomb attack on the Chicago police the previous year, largely on the basis of their articles and speeches. Again and again, anarchist violence became a justification for repressive legislation and crackdowns on the left in general, to the point that some elements amongst the European left believed that anarchists were actually working for the governments they intended to overthrow.
These allegations were not entirely unfounded. Between 1905 and 1907, thousands of explosions took place in Barcelona, which enjoyed the dubious reputation of being the ‘city of bombs’. Most of these bombings were unclaimed, though generally attributed to anarchists. In 1907, however, police investigations resulted in the arrest of a former police informer called Juan Rull, who confessed to having staged a fake bombing campaign to convince his former employers to keep him in employment. Rull went to the garrotte protesting his innocence, amid allegations of a wider chain of official collusion that stretched all the way up to the civil governor of Catalonia.
Other anarchist groups were infiltrated by police spies and agents provocateurs. The Paris prefect of police Louis Andrieux controlled an extensive network of informers and even financed the first anarchist journal in France, La Révolution Sociale, which he described in his memoirs as ‘a telephone line between the conspiratorial centre and the office of the Prefect of Police’. Often police provocateurs presented themselves as strident advocates of violence in order to flush out potential assassins and conspiracies. There was a thin line between uncovering conspiracies and creating them. One notorious provocateur, Frenchman Auguste Coulon, infiltrated the foreign anarchist community in London on behalf of the bitterly anti-anarchist Scotland Yard detective, Chief Inspector Melville.
Coulon played a pivotal role in the 1892 trial of the so-called Walsall Anarchists, in which an English anarchist was accused of conspiring with French and Italians living in London, one of whom was Coulon himself, to plan a bomb attack abroad. The prosecution’s main evidence consisted of a bomb cast, a sketch of a bomb found in the house of one of the accused and some violent publications, including The Anarchist Feast at the Opera, a typically rabid piece that cheerfully explained how to slaughter bourgeois opera-goers by cutting gas pipes and planting slow-burning incendiary devices in the seat covers until the gas exploded and roasted the pampered audience. Many anarchists believed that The Feast was a fake, but it was nevertheless used as circumstantial evidence. The defendants received ten-year prison sentences in a trial that recalls some of the more dubious ‘al-Qaeda’ conspiracies of recent years.
In nineteenth-century Britain, the authorities took a more sanguine view of anarchist violence than their counterparts do today. To the government, anarchism was a consequence of illiberal government and its generous asylum policy made London a refuge for anarchists fleeing repression on the continent. In 1898 a conference of European governments in Milan attempted to develop a common response to anarchism, but failed to agree on any concrete recommendations, largely because of Britain’s refusal to abandon its liberal asylum policy. By this time the strategy of propaganda by deed was being questioned and rejected by influential anarchists such as the Russian Kropotkin, who argued that it had brought only repression and isolation for the anarchist movement. By the end of the First World War, propaganda by the deed had been largely abandoned in favour of revolutionary syndicalism and the spread of new political organizations amongst the working classes.
Today, the anarchist bomber with his infernal machine appears like a quaint relic from a bygone age. It is not unreasonable to hope that al-Qaeda will one day similarly fade into the past. But that outcome will not be achieved by reducing a complex phenomenon of violence to a stereotype of nihilistic wild men motivated by bloodlust and an insane appetite for destruction. Such presentations obscure more than they reveal, as do endless worst-case hypotheses and misleading analogies between Islamism and Nazism. Politicians and securocrats like to make such comparisons to justify pseudo-military paradigms and permanent states of emergency. If history has anything to teach us about the current terrorist emergency and how we should respond to it, we would do better to look not at Hitler and Stalin, but at Ravachol, Vaillant, Emile Henry and the other anarchists who transfixed nineteenth-century society in a doomed attempt to start a revolution.
Matt Carr is an author and journalist. He is author ofThe Infernal Machine: a History of Terrorism from the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II to Al-Qaeda.
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