History of Terrorism: Anarchism and Anarchist Terrorism

Anarchists employed "Propaganda of the Deed"

A symbol of anarchism
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Anarchism was a late 19th-century idea among a number of Europeans, Russians, and Americans that all government should be abolished, and that voluntary cooperation, rather than force, should be society's organizing principle. The word itself comes from a Greek word, anarkos, which means "without a chief." The movement had its origins in the search for a way to give industrial working classes a political voice in their societies.

By the turn of the 20th century, anarchism was already on the wane, to be replaced by other movements encouraging the rights of dispossessed classes and revolution.

Propaganda of the Deed

A number of late 19th century thinkers argued that actions, rather than words, were the best way to spread ideas. The concept was adopted by anarchists. For some, it referred to communal violence, while for others it referenced assassinations and bombings carried out by anarchists.

"Anarchist Terrorism"

The late 19th century saw a wave of political violence inspired by anarchist ideas which were subsequently labeled anarchist terrorism:

  • 1881: the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II, by the group Narodnaya Volya
  • 1894: the assassination of the French president Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot
  • 1894: Bombing of Greenwich Observatory in London
  • 1901: the assassination of American president William McKinley in September 1901, by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz.

These assassinations led to fear among governments that there existed a vast international conspiracy of anarchist terrorists. In fact, there never was one.

Anarchists Today: No Connection to Religious Terrorism or War on Terror

Anarchists themselves argue that they should not be considered terrorists, or associated with terrorism. Their claims are reasonable: for one thing, most anarchists actually oppose the use of violence to achieve political aims, and for another, violence by anarchists was historically directed at political figures, not civilians, as terrorism is.

On a different note, Rick Coolsaet suggests there is an analogy to be made between the past and the present.

Muslims are often regarded now with the same mixture of fear and contempt as workers were in the 19th century. And the jihadi terrorist has the same feelings about America as his anarchist predecessor had about the bourgeoisie: he sees it as the epitome of arrogance and power. Osama bin Laden is a 21st century Ravachol, a living symbol of hatred and resistance for his followers, a bogeyman for the police and intelligence services. Today’s jihadis resemble yesterday’s anarchists: in reality, a myriad of tiny groups; in their own eyes, a vanguard rallying the oppressed masses (5). Saudi Arabia has now taken the role of Italy while 11 September 2001 is the modern version of 24 June 1894, a wake-up call to the international community.
The reasons for the rise of terrorism now and anarchism then are the same. Muslims worldwide are united by a sense of unease and crisis. The Arab world seems to be more bitter, more cynical and less creative than it was in the 1980s. There is a growing sense of solidarity with other Muslims, a feeling that Islam itself is in danger. This is fertile ground for a fanatical minority.