Anarchism, Political Violence, and the London “March for the Alternative.”

“Anarchists on the rampage in London.”[1]

“Anarchists Siege England.”[2]

“Anarchists wreak absolute havoc in London.”[3]

“Riotous Anarchist Freeloaders Hijack and Rampage London.”[4]

“Anarchists Crash London Protest.”[5]

“Anarchists hijack London Protest.”[6]

“Anarchists Taint Peaceful Union Protest…”[7]

It is unwise to assume that the acts of destruction which elicited the opprobrium above were committed by anarchists. While such violence does find favor with some in the movement, quite often the perpetrators are law enforcement or intelligence agents masquerading as revolutionaries. During the uprising in Greece, several acts of violence were committed by police dressed in anarchist black. A video surfaced in which they were seen and heard planning the deception. When it aired on national television, the charges against the falsely accused were dropped. In Italy, a letter-bombing campaign was attributed to anarchists when an alleged splinter group, Federazione Anarchica Informale, claimed responsibility. The body from which the former insists it split, the Federazione Anarchica Italiana, denied that a schism had occurred and denounced the bombings. What followed is a point of much contention, but there are rumors that the case was quashed when the investigation began to trail back to the government. True or not, the affair has mysteriously vanished from the headlines and the police now glumly report that they don’t know who was responsible for the bombs.[8]

On the other hand, there has undeniably been a history of support for varying severities of violence, with which we contemporary anarchists, its legatees, have had to grapple. While the tendencies which go by the name of anarchism are diverse and defy easy generalizations, it is fair to say most anarchists accept that violence is justified under some circumstances. For instance, did the protesters in Tahrir Square have a right to violently repel those reactionary forces who tried to disperse them? One would be hard pressed to find a single anarchist to object. What about assassinating Mubarak? Here a smaller number would assent. A terror campaign targeting the Egyptian Army, Suleiman’s torturers, and the bureaucracy? Here again support would dwindle but not entirely disappear. Within the anarchist culture, there has always been a contingent, never a majority, which supported violence, so long as it was directed against those deemed to be oppressors of the people. Internally, this issue has been our most divisive. In relation to the wider world, our most inimical. The association of anarchism with bloodshed and chaos, while embellished grotesquely by the bourgeois press, is not entirely unjustified. In terms of propagation, it has been a disaster for us.

What follows will be a brief, frank look at the anarchist debate on violence, and my guess as to what took place in London. I confess that, like most anarchists, I have known the ambivalence of being inspired, even awed, by the elegance of the sentiments expressed by men who engaged in acts of inconceivable brutality. It is profoundly disconcerting for me, as it is for all anarchists, that a few who shared our analysis and our love of humanity, and who articulated that philanthropy so beautifully, could see in our longing a predicate for mass murder. There will be no attempt to resolve the paradox, it will merely be presented in its historical context. In the process we will deconstruct the myth of the anarchist as cynical, anti-social, bomb-tossing nihilist.

A great shiver of hope broke across Europe in 1871 when the people of Paris rebelled and organized themselves for democratic self rule. Sadly, the Paris Commune didn’t last long, and the heady euphoria of those days soon dissipated. Despairing of the lost opportunity, some radicals determined to revive the dormant revolutionary spirit by direct, insurrectionary action.The hope was to provide a spark that would spur the masses to rise in revolt.

This method had been championed before. The Italian revolutionary, Carlo Pisacane, credited with introducing anarchism to his homeland, wrote that “Ideas spring from deeds, not the other way around.” The Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, insisted “we must spread our principles not with words, but with deeds…” In the heightened sense of possibility which prevailed after the Commune, a spate of such provocative acts erupted across the continent. This effort was given its name in 1877 when the French anarchist, Paul Brousse, wrote “The Propaganda of the Deed.” Brousse later descended into authoritarian socialism and bottomed out in the ignominy of reformism, but his place in anarchist history, infamous as it is, was secured with the publication of this incendiary tract.

While some of these “deeds” were not particularly violent, others were lethally so. The argument one invariably heard from the apostles of revolutionary terrorism went like this: The state is the greatest promulgator of violence, therefore  it is just and necessary to respond in kind. As Bakunin obdurately put it: “The nature of Russian [terrorism] is cruel and ruthless, yet no less ruthless is that governmental [power] which has brought this kind of [terrorist] into being…Governmental cruelty has engendered the cruelty of the people and made it into something necessary and natural. But between these…two cruelties..there is a vast difference; the former strives for the [subjugation] of the people, the other endeavors to set them free.”

Johann Most is anarchism’s greatest proponent of political terror. Born in Germany in 1848, his childhood was Dickensian. His mother, a domestic who bore him out of wedlock, died shortly after his birth. He suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of his father and schoolmasters which resulted in disfigurement. Once mercifully free of his family, he was forced to work long hours to support himself. Despite these hardships, Most, largely an autodidact, managed to familiarize himself with socialist theory so thoroughly that he penned a summary of Marx’ work.

Most advocated the violent overthrow of the government. This got him exiled from Germany. He then migrated to France where he was no more popular with the authorities. He moved on to London where he launched his newspaper Freiheit (Freedom). Along the way he abandoned Marxism in favor of anarchism. Eventually he made his way to the US where he and his paper would come to have great influence.

Violence never had a better friend. Most exhorted would-be assassins to “Murder the murderers…Rescue mankind through blood, iron, poison and dynamite.” He declared expropriations (bank robberies etc) to be “anarchist revenge.” He published a pamphlet entitled The Science of Revolutionary Warfare,  which offered instruction on the proper manufacture of explosives (which he gleefully dubbed “revolutionary chemistry”).

Most cheered in 1881 When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. His editorial lauded the murderers and reveled in the violence. There ought to be consequences to calling oneself Tsar (Russian for Caesar), Autocrat of all the Russias, he warned.

Twenty years later, again Most roared his approval when President McKinley was slain. “It is no crime to kill a ruler.”

The statement which best captures Most’s militancy, and for which he is justly notorious, is his Attentat (assassination/attempt): “The existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion.”

If Most was terror’s greatest comrade in anarchism, then Emile Henry was its most eloquent defender. While others targeted state functionaries, Henry stressed that “There was no such thing as an innocent bourgeois.”[9] In 1894, Henry threw a bomb in an upscale, Parisian cafe which killed one and injured many. On the witness stand he was uncontrite:

It is not a defence that I present to you. I am not in any way seeking to escape the reprisals of the society I have attacked. Besides, I acknowledge only one tribunal – myself, and the verdict of any other is meaningless to me. I wish merely to give you an explanation of my acts and to tell you how I was led to perform them.

I have been an anarchist for only a short time. It was as recently as the middle of the year 1891 that I entered the revolutionary movement. Up to that time, I had lived in circles entirely imbued with current morality. I had been accustomed to respect and even to love the principles of fatherland and family, of authority and property.

For teachers in the present generation too often forget one thing; it is that life, with its struggles and defeats, its injustices and iniquities, takes upon itself indiscreetly to open the eyes of the ignorant to reality. This happened to me, as it happens to everyone. I had been told that life was easy, that it was wide open to those who were intelligent and energetic; experience showed me that only the cynical and the servile were able to secure good seats at the banquet. I had been told that our social institutions were founded on justice and equality; I observed all around me nothing but lies and impostures.

Each day I shed an illusion. Everywhere I went, I witnessed the same miseries among some, and the same joys among others. I was not slow to understand that the grand words I had been taught to venerate: honour, devotion, duty, were only the mask that concealed the most shameful basenesses.

The manufacturer who created a colossal fortune out of the toil of workers who lacked everything was an honest gentleman. The deputy and the minister, their hands ever open for bribes, were devoted to the public good. The officer who experimented with a new type of rifle on children of seven had done his duty, and, openly in parliament, the president of the council congratulated him! Everything I saw revolted me, and my intelligence was attracted by criticism of the existing social organization. Such criticism has been made too often for me to repeat it. It is enough to say that I became the enemy of a society that I judged to be criminal.

Drawn at first to socialism, I was not slow in separating myself from that party. I have too much love of freedom, too much respect for individual initiative, too much repugnance for military organization, to assume a number in the ordered army of the fourth estate. Besides, I realized that basically socialism changes nothing in the existing order. It maintains the principle of authority, and, whatever self-styled free-thinkers may say about it, that principle is no more than the antiquated survival of faith in a superior power…

It was at this moment that I came into contact with a group of anarchist comrades whom I consider, even today, among the best I have ever known. The character of these men immediately captivated me. I discerned in them a great sincerity, a total frankness, a searching distrust of all prejudices, and I wanted to understand the idea that produced men so different from anyone I had encountered up to that point.

The idea – as soon as I embraced it – found in my mind a soil completely prepared by observation and personal reflection to receive it. It merely gave precision to what already existed there in vague and wavering form. In my turn I became an anarchist…

I brought with me into the struggle a profound hatred which every day was renewed by the spectacle of this society where everything is base, everything is equivocal, everything is ugly, where everything is an impediment to the outflow of human passions, to the generous impulses of the heart, to the free flight of thought.

I wanted to strike as strongly and as justly as I could. Let us start then with the first attempt I made, the explosion in the Rue des Bon-Enfants. I had followed closely the events at Carmaux. The first news of the strike had filled me with joy. The miners seemed at last to have abandoned those useless pacific strikes in which the trusting worker patiently waits for his few francs to triumph over the company’s millions. They seemed to have entered on a way of violence which manifested itself resolutely on the 15th August 1892. The offices and buildings of the mine were invaded by a crowd of people tired of suffering without reprisals; justice was about to be wrought on the engineer whom his workers so deeply hated, when the timorous ones chose to interfere.

Who were these men? The same who cause the miscarriage of all revolutionary movements because they fear that the people, once they act freely, will no longer obey their voices; those who persuade thousands of men to endure privations month after month so as to beat the drum over their sufferings and create for themselves a popularity that will put them into office: such men – I mean the socialist leaders – in fact assumed the leadership of the strike movement.

Immediately a wave of glib gentlemen appeared in the region; they put themselves entirely at the disposition of the struggle, organized subscriptions, arranged conferences and appealed on all sides for funds. The miners surrendered all initiative into their hands, and what happened, everyone knows…

I wanted to show the bourgeoisie that henceforward their pleasures would not be untouched, that their insolent triumphs would be disturbed, that their golden calf would rock violently on its pedestal until the final shock that would cast it down among filth and blood.

At the same time I wanted to make the miners understand that there is only one category of men, the anarchists, who sincerely resent their sufferings and are willing to avenge them…

So I prepared a bomb…

We will not spare the women and children of the bourgeois, for the women and children of those we love have not been spared. Must we not count among the innocent victims those children who die slowly of anaemia in the slums because bread is scarce in their houses; those women who grow pale in your workshops, working to earn forty sous a day and fortunate when poverty does not force them into prostitution; those old men whom you have made production machines all their lives and whom you cast on to the waste heap or into the workhouse when their strength has worn away?

At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate…

So much for the anarchist bomb-tosser as nihilist!

Many anarchists, myself included, find resonance, even succor, in Henry’s words. He gives voice to the disgust we feel about this foul, loveless world of barbarism and injustice in which we are condemned to live. He expresses perfectly what it means to be an anarchist. He is our poet, our Aeschylus, our Shelley. It is difficult for us to understand his determined fidelity to violence. We are puzzled that so much humanity, and so much inhumanity, can co-exist within the heart of a single man, particularly one of our men. What he did was savage and indefensible! We cannot and do not forgive what revulsion led him to do, yet his indignation is ours. We feel his pain, share his anger. And it is now our sober task to ascertain how it is that a comrade who so exquisitetly conveyed our ideals could transgress them so carelessly.

Defiant to the end, his last words as he lay under the guillotine were “Courage comrades! Long live anarchism.” He was twenty-one.

Fortunately, the notion that you could intimidate the ruling class into abdication died with Henry, and the era of anarchist terror came to an end soon thereafter when it was reproved by leading theorists. Perspective came, as it so often did, from the Italian anarchist, Errico Malatesta. On Henry and terrorism he wrote:

Anarchists who rebel against every sort of oppression…ought thus to shrink instinctively from all acts of violence which cease to be mere resistance to oppression and become oppressive in their turn…[they] are liable to fall into the abyss of brutal force…The excitement caused by some recent explosions and the admiration for the courage with which the bomb-throwers faced death, suffices to cause many anarchists to forget their program, and to enter on a path which is the most absolute negation of all anarchist ideas and sentiments.[10]


There is no such thing as an innocent bourgeois? Malatesta:

Real anarchist violence is that which ceases when the necessity of defence and liberation ends. It is tempered by the awareness that individuals in isolation are hardly, if at all, responsible for the position they occupy through heredity and environment.[11]

Malatesta’s view triumphed, especially as Henry’s hubris proved to be as counterproductive as it was wicked. Terrorism is authoritarian. This was always the majority opinion in the anarchist world, now it is nowhere disputed. The brief, horrific era of anarchist violence receded as quickly as it arose, with its only lasting effect the fodder it has provided its enemies. Henry is not admired for his courage, his selflessness, or his stirring empathy; instead he is renown for his reprehensible cruelty, and rightly so.

Syndicalism and the direct action of boycotts, occupations, and sit-ins have replaced bombs as the favored weapons of anarchism, but there are still a recusant few who engage in a program of property destruction.[12] So were the men in black seen crashing through bank windows in London comrades? Or imposters whose aim was to discredit the marchers and their grievances?

To answer that question it is necessary to determine whether the besieged properties would be suitable quarry for destructivists (as I like to call them). In Greece, a fatal detonation in a working-class schoolyard was absurdly attributed to anarchists. Thankfully, there has never been advocacy for the murder of proletarians, let alone their children. Even the likes of Most and Henry would be outraged. If in the case of London the defaced institutions were inappropriate targets, or of no symbolic value, then it was the work of agents provocateur.

In 2008, the British government created United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd. It is the majority owner of The Royal Bank of Scotland. It is, in effect, an organ of the state. On UKFI’s board sits Glen Moreno, who is the chair of the Pearson Group. The latter is the world’s largest education company and majority owner of The Economist magazine. A subsidiary of the Group publishes the Financial Times. In the gilded web of which RBS is part, one finds the all-too-familiar incestuous union of state and capital; and with it those purveyors of camouflage–the schoolhouse and the media–to which it owes its survival.

The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) has been called the Opium Bank. It was founded after the Second Opium War when the ruling family, the Qing, weakened by a lengthy civil war, capitulated and gave Britain a free hand in China. The East India Company had been smuggling drugs into China for a long time, under the new treaty, the sordid trade became legal. The Brits and her allies also gained the power to conscript Chinese men (those who had eluded drug addiction presumably) for use as unpaid labor. China also reluctantly granted carte blanche to Western traders and Christian missionaries. HSBC was launched by the British imperial predators to process the wealth extorted from the humiliated Chinese.

The bank’s subsequent history is just as squalid. Of late its American operation is involved in a new scandal. A few weeks ago it instituted a moratorium on real estate foreclosures when US regulators discovered “deficiencies” in the bank’s affidavits. The lender has expressed its regret for those who had their homes illegally confiscated.

So the bank-crashers may have been anarchists, but if so why were they allowed to “rampage”?

There were 4,500 uniformed police on duty. How many undercover police and intelligence agents were present is not known, but hundreds certainly. According to media accounts, a small cadre of anarchists peeled off from the main body of the march and, as planned on Facebook and Twitter, descended upon their predetermined targets and wreaked their havoc. It is impossible that the authorities didn’t know precisely what was about to occur, yet they made no more than a token effort to intervene. They could have stopped it, but they didn’t.

If pressed, the police would probably claim that a confrontation might have led to even greater violence. In an effort to avert a riot, they made a tactical decision to stand down. Perhaps so, but this extraordinary, unprecedented diffidence on their part is strongly suggestive that, at the very least, there was tacit approval for the mayhem. If anarchists or other activists were involved, then they must have sought a showdown as they could have no hope of catching the police unawares when the whole affair was organized on social media. We know this was not their intent as the hypothetical contrived clash did not occur.

One might speculate that the government lay behind the Facebook/Twitter campaign in the hope of entrapping would-be instigants. Certainly any real destructivist would be deeply suspicious of these indiscreet posts. In any event, this too did not transpire. The people bashing in bank windows met with police indifference.

Here are the facts: People identifying as anarchists used social media to organize an action against a high-end retailer and a couple of elite banks. As planned, they proceeded to their targets and ransacked them as police stood idly by. The activists were taped committing their crimes and these videos were broadcast repeatedly by international media. The activists were universally denounced in the press.

I don’t believe anarchists would be quite that brazen, and if they were the police would not voluntarily suffer such public flouting of their authority. It seems more likely that these incidents were staged by agents of the government or people in their employ. The purpose was to cast the protests in a negative light, and to justify ever more repressive crowd-control measures should the groundswell of protest come to threaten the state and those whose interests it serves.[13]








[8] Some more examples:

[9] A very loose translation. Here’s the original: “Je ne frapperai pas un innocent en attaquant le premier bourgeois qui passe.”

[10] Violence as a Social Factor

[11] Anarchism and Violence

[12] To let them speak for themselves, here’s a link to an article written by the Seattle Black Bloc in which they describe their rationale, and relate some of what occurred during the WTO riots in 1999:

Here’s a relevant discussion from the comment section of the Daily Kos (

“If by that you mean a disorganized mass of people.  We are interested in the opinions of people rather than ‘the people’.  Mass society is a myth.  To anyone other than a party apparatchik or a labor bureaucrat, these direct attacks on the possessions of the scumbag plutocrats are empowering, because they strike fear into the hearts of those who are trying to destroy us.

“We are not going to sit back and wait for “our” politicians to backstab us again, and again, and again.  An Anarchist is just a person with pattern recognition.

“Tell me, which is violence- smashing inanimate objects (windows) and spraypainting walls, or firing 20,000 medical personnel, which will certainly result in widespread misery and death?  Property destruction is not violence.

“Police protecting private property while attacking actual human beings simply reveals the primary function of the police: The are the bodyguards of capital in its domination of humanity.”

by RanDomino on Sat Mar 26, 2011 at 04:56:41 PM EDT

The response:

“Also, re: ‘public opinion’:

“If 50,000 people work hard, organize and network among their constituencies for months to mobilize a mass demonstration, and in the course of the many meetings and consultations they have with their constituencies and each other they decide, democratically, by consensus, to eschew “violence”, including property damage and fighting the police…

“On what basis does a small group of 50, say, defy that consensus, to deliberately fuck shit up, just to divert all the media from the huge peaceful demonstrations, onto a burning cop car, some smashed windows, and a contrived street riot, feeding directly into right wing media memes and the known tactics of police provocateurs?

“Democracy is the most fundamental revolutionary principle. Information is the ultimate key.”

by Radical def on Sat Mar 26, 2011 at 10:37:53 PM EDT

[13] It has happened before:

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