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Propaganda of the deed

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Propaganda of the deed (or propaganda by the deed, from the French propagande par le fait[1]) is specific political direct action meant to be exemplary to others and serve as a catalyst for revolution.

It is primarily associated with acts of violence perpetrated by proponents of insurrectionary anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th century, including bombings and assassinations aimed at the State, the ruling class, and Church arsons targeting religious groups, even though propaganda of the deed also had non-violent applications.[2] These acts of terrorism were intended to ignite a "spirit of revolt" by demonstrating the state, the middle and upper classes, and religious organizations were not omnipotent and also to provoke the State to become escalatingly repressive in its response.[3] In 1881, the International Anarchist Congress of London gave the tactic its approval.[4]

Anarchist origins[edit]

Various definitions[edit]

One of the first individuals to conceptualise propaganda by the deed was the Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane (1818–1857), who wrote in his "Political Testament" (1857) that "ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around."[5] Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), in his "Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis" (1870) stated that "we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda."[6]

Johann Most

Some anarchists, such as Johann Most, advocated publicizing violent acts of retaliation against counter-revolutionaries because "we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda."[7] It was not advocacy for mass murder, but a call for targeted killings of the representatives of capitalism and government at a time when such action might garner sympathy from the population, such as during periods of government repression or labor conflicts,[8] although Most himself once claimed that "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."[9] In 1885, he published The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, a technical manual for acquiring and detonating explosives based on the knowledge he acquired by working at an explosives factory in New Jersey.[10] Most was an early influence on American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman attempted propaganda by the deed when he tried in 1892 to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick following the deaths by shooting of several striking workers.[11]

Beverly Gage, professor of U.S. history at Yale University, elaborates on what the concept meant to outsiders and those within the anarchist movement:

To outsiders, the talk of bombing and assassination that suddenly pulsed through revolutionary circles in the late 1870s sounded like little more than an indiscriminate call to violence. To Most and others within the anarchist movement, by contrast, the idea of propaganda by deed, or the attentat (attack), had a very specific logic. Among anarchism's founding premises was the idea that capitalist society was a place of constant violence: every law, every church, every paycheck was based on force. In such a world, to do nothing, to stand idly by while millions suffered, was itself to commit an act of violence. The question was not whether violence per se might be justified, but exactly how violence might be maximally effective for, in Most's words, annihilating the "beast of property" that "makes mankind miserable, and gains in cruelty and voracity with the progress of our so called civilization."[12]

By the 1880s, the slogan "propaganda of the deed" had begun to be used both within and outside of the anarchist movement to refer to individual bombings, regicides and tyrannicides. In 1881, "propaganda by the deed" was formally adopted as a strategy by the anarchist London Congress.[3]

As early as 1887, a few important figures in the anarchist movement had begun to distance themselves from individual acts of violence. Peter Kropotkin thus wrote that year in Le Révolté that "a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of dynamite".[13] A variety of anarchists advocated the abandonment of these sorts of tactics in favor of collective revolutionary action, for example through the trade union movement. The anarcho-syndicalist, Fernand Pelloutier, argued in 1895 for renewed anarchist involvement in the labor movement on the basis that anarchism could do very well without "the individual dynamiter."[14]

State repression (including the infamous 1894 French lois scélérates) of the anarchist and labor movements following the few successful bombings and assassinations may have contributed to the abandonment of these kinds of tactics, although reciprocally state repression, in the first place, may have played a role in these isolated acts. The dismemberment of the French socialist movement, into many groups and, following the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune, the execution and exile of many communards to penal colonies, favored individualist political expression and acts.[15]

Later anarchist authors advocating "propaganda of the deed" included the German anarchist Gustav Landauer, and the Italians Errico Malatesta and Luigi Galleani. For Gustav Landauer, "propaganda of the deed" meant the creation of libertarian social forms and communities that would inspire others to transform society.[16]

At the other extreme, the anarchist Luigi Galleani, perhaps the most vocal proponent of "propaganda by the deed" from the turn of the century through the end of the First World War, took undisguised pride in describing himself as a subversive, a revolutionary propagandist and advocate of the violent overthrow of established government and institutions through the use of 'direct action', i.e., bombings and assassinations.[17][18] Galleani heartily embraced physical violence and terrorism, not only against symbols of the government and the capitalist system, such as courthouses and factories, but also through direct assassination of 'enemies of the people': capitalists, industrialists, politicians, judges, and policemen.[18][19] He had a particular interest in the use of bombs, going so far as to include a formula for the explosive nitroglycerine in one of his pamphlets advertised through his monthly magazine, Cronaca Sovversiva.[19] By all accounts, Galleani was an extremely effective speaker and advocate of his policy of violent action, attracting a number of devoted Italian-American anarchist followers who called themselves Galleanists. Carlo Buda, the brother of Galleanist bombmaker Mario Buda, said of him, "You heard Galleani speak, and you were ready to shoot the first policeman you saw".[20]

Relationship to revolution[edit]

Propaganda of the deed thus included stealing (in particular bank robberies – named "expropriations" or "revolutionary expropriations" to finance the organization), rioting and general strikes which aimed at creating the conditions of an insurrection or even a revolution. These acts were justified as the necessary counterpart to state repression. As early as 1911, Leon Trotsky condemned individual acts of violence by anarchists as useful for little more than providing an excuse for state repression. "The anarchist prophets of the 'propaganda by the deed' can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses," he wrote in 1911, "Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise." Vladimir Lenin largely agreed, viewing individual anarchist acts of terrorism as an ineffective substitute for coordinated action by disciplined cadres of the masses. Both Lenin and Trotsky acknowledged the necessity of violent rebellion and assassination to serve as a catalyst for revolution, but they distinguished between the ad hoc bombings and assassinations carried out by proponents of the propaganda of the deed, and organized violence coordinated by a professional revolutionary vanguard utilized for that specific end.[21]

Notable actions[edit]

This timeline lists some significant actions that have been described as "Propaganda of the deed" since the 19th century.

Two men are sitting at a desk while a third man enters the office carrying a gun
Alexander Berkman's attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick, as illustrated by W. P. Snyder for Harper's Weekly in 1892.[22]
Artist's rendition of the bomb thrown by the anarchist Auguste Vaillant into the Chamber of Deputies of the French National Assembly in December 1893[4]
Explosion of Liceu of Barcelona by the anarchist Santiago Salvador in the cover of the newspaper Le Petit Journal, 7 November 1893[25]
  • 7 November 1893 – The Spanish anarchist Santiago Salvador throws two Orsini bombs into the orchestra pit of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona during the second act of the opera Guillaume Tell, killing some twenty people and injuring scores of others.[25]
  • 9 December 1893 – Auguste Vaillant throws a nail bomb in the French National Assembly, killing nobody and injuring one. He is then sentenced to death and executed by the guillotine on 4 February 1894, shouting "Death to bourgeois society and long live anarchy!" (À mort la société bourgeoise et vive l'anarchie!). During his trial, Vaillant declares that he had not intended to kill anybody, but only to injure several deputies in retaliation against the execution of Ravachol, who was executed for four bombings.[4]
  • 12 February 1894 – Émile Henry, intending to avenge Auguste Vaillant, sets off a bomb in Café Terminus (a café near the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris), killing one and injuring twenty. During his trial, when asked why he wanted to harm so many innocent people, he declares, "There is no innocent bourgeois." This act is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that propaganda of the deed targets only specific powerful individuals. Henry is convicted and executed by guillotine on 21 May.[4]
  • 15 February 1894 – A chemical explosive carried by Martial Bourdin prematurely detonates outside the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in Greenwich Park, killing him.[26]
  • 24 June 1894 – Italian anarchist Sante Geronimo Caserio, seeking revenge for Auguste Vaillant and Émile Henry, stabs Sadi Carnot, the President of France, to death. Caserio is executed by guillotine on 15 August.[4]
Assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo by Michele Angiolillo in August 1897.[27]
An artist's rendition of the stabbing of Empress Elisabeth of Austria by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni in Geneva, 10 September 1898.[28]
A sketch of Leon Czolgosz shooting McKinley in New York, 6 September 1901.[29]
The attempted regicide of Alfonso XIII of Spain and Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg by Catalan anarchist Mateu Morral, 31 May 1906.[33]
Assassination of George I of Greece by Alexandros Schinas in 1913 as depicted in a contemporary lithograph.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Houen, Alex (1998). "The Secret Agent: Anarchism and the Thermodynamics of Law". ELH. 65 (4): 995–1016. doi:10.1353/elh.1998.0031. S2CID 159570078. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  2. ^ Anarchist historian George Woodcock, when dealing with the evolution of anarcho-pacifism in the early 20th century, reports that "the modern pacifist anarchists, ...have tended to concentrate their attention largely on the creation of libertarian communities – particularly farming communities – within present society, as a kind of peaceful version of the propaganda by deed." George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962), page 20.
  3. ^ a b Merriman, John M. (2016). The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror. Yale University Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-0300217926 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b c d e Abidor, Mitchell (2016). Death to Bourgeois Society: The Propagandists of the Deed. PM Press. ISBN 978-1629631127.
  5. ^ a b Smith, Paul J. (2010). The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge. p. 22. ISBN 978-0765619884.
  6. ^ Bakunin, Mikhail (1870). Letter to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis – via Marxists Internet Archive.
  7. ^ "Action as Propaganda". dwardmac.pitzer.edu.
  8. ^ Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0199759286 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Ketcham, Christopher (16 December 2014). "When Revolution Came to America". Vice. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
  10. ^ Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0199759286 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ "Chapter 4". dwardmac.pitzer.edu.
  12. ^ Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0199759286 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ quoted in Billington, James H. 1998. Fire in the minds of men: origins of the revolutionary faith New Jersey: Transaction Books, p. 417.
  14. ^ "Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One | Robert Graham". Black Rose Books. Archived from the original on 29 September 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2010.
  15. ^ Historian Benedict Anderson thus writes:

    In March 1871 the Commune took power in the abandoned city and held it for two months. Then Versailles seized the moment to attack and, in one horrifying week, executed roughly 20,000 Communards or suspected sympathizers, a number higher than those killed in the recent war or during Robespierre's 'Terror' of 1793–94. More than 7,500 were jailed or deported to places like New Caledonia. Thousands of others fled to Belgium, England, Italy, Spain and the United States. In 1872, stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left. Not till 1880 was there a general amnesty for exiled and imprisoned Communards. Meanwhile, the Third Republic found itself strong enough to renew and reinforce Louis Napoleon's imperialist expansion—in Indochina, Africa, and Oceania. Many of France's leading intellectuals and artists had participated in the Commune (Courbet was its quasi-minister of culture, Rimbaud and Pissarro were active propagandists) or were sympathetic to it. The ferocious repression of 1871 and thereafter, was probably the key factor in alienating these milieux from the Third Republic and stirring their sympathy for its victims at home and abroad. Anderson, Benedict (July–August 2004). "In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel". New Left Review. II (28). New Left Review: 85–129.

    According to some analysts, in post-war Germany, the prohibition of the Communist Party (KPD) and thus of institutional far-left political organization may also, in the same manner, have played a role in the creation of the Red Army Faction.
  16. ^ Landauer, Gustav (1895). Anarchism in Germany. Black Rose Books. Archived from the original on 29 September 2008. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  17. ^ Galleani, Luigi, La Fine Dell'Anarchismo?, ed. Curata da Vecchi Lettori di Cronaca Sovversiva, University of Michigan (1925), pp. 61–62: Galleani's writings are clear on this point: he had undisguised contempt for those who refused to both advocate and directly participate in the violent overthrow of capitalism.
  18. ^ a b Galleani, Luigi, Faccia a Faccia col Nemico, Boston, MA: Gruppo Autonomo, (1914)
  19. ^ a b Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), pp. 51, 98–99
  20. ^ Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996), p. 132 (Interview of Charles Poggi)
  21. ^ Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 263. ISBN 978-0199759286 – via Google Books.
  22. ^ a b Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0199759286.
  23. ^ Anderson, Benedict (July–August 2004). "In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel". New Left Review. II (28). New Left Review.
  24. ^ a b Jun, Nathan (2011). Anarchism and Political Modernity. Continuum. p. 109. ISBN 978-1441166869.
  25. ^ a b Law, Randall D. (2009). Terrorism: A History. Polity. p. 107. ISBN 978-0745640389.
  26. ^ "Propaganda by Deed - the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894". Archived from the original on 17 February 2013.
  27. ^ a b Esenwein, George Richard (1989). Anarchist Ideology and the Working-class Movement in Spain, 1868–1898. University of California Press. p. 197. ISBN 978-0520063983.
  28. ^ a b Newton, Michael (2014). Famous Assassinations in World History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 134. ISBN 978-1610692854.
  29. ^ a b Weir, Robert E. (2013). Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 39. ISBN 978-1598847185.
  30. ^ Hill, Rebecca (2009). Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History. Duke University Press. p. 167. ISBN 978-0822342809.
  31. ^ Van Ginderachter, Maarten (2017). "Edward Joris: Caught Between Continents and Ideologies?". In Alloul, Houssine; Eldem, Edhem; Smaele, Henk de (eds.). To Kill a Sultan: A Transnational History of the Attempt on Abdülhamid II. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 77. ISBN 978-1137489319.
  32. ^ Van Ginderachter, Maarten (2017). "Edward Joris: Caught Between Continents and Ideologies?". In Alloul, Houssine; Eldem, Edhem; Smaele, Henk de (eds.). To Kill a Sultan: A Transnational History of the Attempt on Abdülhamid II. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 67–97. ISBN 978-1137489319.
  33. ^ a b Sánchez, Pablo Martín (2018). The Anarchist Who Shared My Name. Deep Vellum Publishing. p. 218. ISBN 978-1941920718.
  34. ^ Weeks, Marcus (2016). Politics in Minutes. Quercus. ISBN 978-1681444796.
  35. ^ Ćorović, Vladimir (1992). Odnosi između Srbije i Austro-Ugarske u XX veku. Biblioteka grada Beograda. p. 624. ISBN 978-8671910156.
  36. ^ Kuny Mena, Enrique (11 May 2003). "A 90 años del magnicidio Doctor Manuel Enrique Araujo" [90 Years after the Assassination of Doctor Manuel Enrique Araujo]. Vértice (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 17 June 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  37. ^ a b Apoifis, Nicholas (2016). Anarchy in Athens: An ethnography of militancy, emotions and violence. Oxford University Press. pp. 73–75. ISBN 978-1526100634.
  38. ^ a b Morgan, Ted, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Random House, ISBN 978-0679443995 (2003), p. 58
  39. ^ Humanities, National Endowment for the (5 July 1914). "New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]) 1866-1924, July 05, 1914, Image 1" – via chroniclingamerica.loc.gov.
  40. ^ Loadenthal, Michael (2017). The Politics of Attack: Communiqués and Insurrectionary Violence (Contemporary Anarchist Studies MUP Series). Manchester University Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-1526114440.
  41. ^ Delzell, p. 325; Roberts, p. 54; Rizi, p. 113
  42. ^ New York Times: "Bomb Menaces Life of Sacco Case Judge", September 27, 1932, accessed 20 December 2009
  43. ^ Cannistraro, Philip V., and Meyer, Gerald, eds., The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, ISBN 0-275-97891-5 (2003) p. 168
  44. ^ Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), pp. 58–60