Everything Is Just Dandy!

Glenn Wallis – The Story of Anarchist Violence

The Anarchist Library

2022 04 17

Author: Glenn Wallis
Title: The Story of Anarchist Violence
Date: 2020
Notes: This is an excerpt of a larger book An Anarchist’s Manifesto
Source: An excerpt from An Anarchist’s Manifesto provided by the author. Book is published by Warbler Press.

The main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. —Errico Malatesta

Anarchism names a quite specific species of social violence. This species, however, is radically distinct from the variety assumed by liberals and conservatives alike. In the literal sense of the term, it is more accurate to designate this species as “counterviolence,” or even, as Natasha Lennard puts it, “impossible nonviolence.” [1] In the figurative sense that I mainly intend, the “violence” perpetuated by anarchism involves an adamant refusal to acquiesce to an unjust status quo, and a corresponding vehement insistence of constructing just ways of organizing social life. Anarchist violence is thus more an issue of violation (of what it views as untenable norms, etc.) than it is of death and destruction. Given how large violence looms in discussions of anarchism, including, I assume, in many readers’ imaginations, it will be best to wind our way slowly toward this conclusion.

The reader should view what follows as a kind of litmus test for determining where you stand on the issue of the necessity of forceful action in bringing about change. It is not, of course, intended to incite you to violence. Neither is it intended to shame you into sympathizing with violent perpetrators. In fact, such perpetrators represent a small minority within the anarchist tradition, past and present. Far more typical is the attitude expressed in the epigram, which alludes to the very incompatibility of destructive violence and the anarchist principles of non-coercion, non-domination, and good will camaraderie. Yet, given the extent to which the reception and reputation of anarchism has been marked by its relationship to violence, I feel it is best to address that relationship in all of its contradictory, deeply problematic messiness.

More, perhaps, than any other figure, Errico Malatesta embodied the tensions inherent in the story of this relationship. We heard from him earlier, fierly advocating total revolution. Early in his life, he expressed the logic, and the justification, of anarchist violence as one of dire necessity.

It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers.

The general position of first and second wave anarchists (i.e., from roughly 1840–1920) was that violence was part of the solution for those who advocated for justice and equality because the privileged minority would otherwise never give an inch. As an explicit strategy, however, violent tactics were eventually dismissed as ineffectual. Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, and other major nineteenth century anarchist figures would eventually express views similar to Malatesta’s passionate plea against violence in Violence as a Social Factor. Given the fact that anarchism has been so deeply branded, in the public’s eye, as irredeemably violent, I cite Malatesta’s mature view at length before giving the reader a fuller account.

Violence, i.e., physical force, used to another’s hurt, which is the most brutal form that struggle between men can assume, is eminently corrupting. It tends, by its very nature, to suffocate the best sentiments of man, and to develop all the antisocial qualities, ferocity, hatred, revenge, the spirit of domination and tyranny, contempt of the weak, servility towards the strong. And this harmful tendency arises also when violence is used for a good end…How many men who enter on a political struggle inspired with the love of humanity, of liberty, and of toleration, end by becoming cruel and inexorable proscribers…Anarchists who rebel against every sort of oppression and struggle for the integral liberty of each and who ought thus to shrink instinctively from all acts of violence which cease to be mere resistance to oppression and become oppressive in their turn are also 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…In short it is our duty to call attention to the dangers attendant on the use of violence, to insist on the principle of the inviolability of human life, to combat the spirit of hatred and revenge, and to preach love and toleration. [2]

The heyday of anarchist violence was roughly the mid-1870s to the early 1900s. This era is marked by a tactic called “propaganda by deed.” [3] Like “propaganda by word” (an instance of which this manifesto aspires to be), propaganda by deed was seen as a “powerful means of awakening popular consciousness.” Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), an early advocate and later renouncer of this tactic, believed that particular acts of violence had a catalyzing capacity to “awaken boldness and the spirit of revolt by preaching by example.” [4] The “awakening” alluded to by Kropotkin involves critical awareness of the social, political, and economic forces held by the emerging socialist analyses to be at work in our collective oppression, as well as the capacity of each individual to strike against those forces. [5] The “example” being demonstrated in propaganda by deed concerns the necessarily transgressive manifestation of individual or collective autonomous power. [6] So, to whatever extent a person might be convinced in theory of the value of anarchism as an analysis of the structural causes of social suffering, it is only through immediate assaults on either the individual or collective perpetrators of those structures, this thinking goes, that meaningful change can come about. [7] For reasons that make sense within the late nineteenth-century context of the tactic, the gathering of activists agitating for working people globally, called the International Anarchists Conference, boldly declared in London on July 14, 1881 that “the time has come to…act, and to add propaganda by deed and insurrectionary actions to oral and written propaganda, which have proven ineffective.” [8] Ineffective toward what end? Toward, of course, the destruction of oppressive structures. Propaganda by deed aimed to add ballast to the spoken and written word. It did so by placing “the dagger, the rifle, and dynamite” in the anarchist’s arsenal of propagation. [9]