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Propaganda of the deed (or propaganda by the deed, from the French "propagande par le fait") 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 ruling class, but also had non-violent applications. These deeds were intended to ignite the "spirit of revolt" in the people by demonstrating the state was not omnipotent and by offering hope to the downtrodden, and also to expand support for anarchist movements as the state grew more repressive in its response. In 1881, the International Anarchist Congress of London gave the tactic its approval.
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."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." The concept, in a broader setting, has a rich heritage, as the words of Francis of Assisi reveal: "Let them show their love by the works they do for each other, according as the Apostle says: 'let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.'"
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." 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, although Most himself once boasted 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." 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. 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.
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."
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. In 1886, French anarchist Clément Duval achieved a form of propaganda of the deed, stealing 15,000 francs from the mansion of a Parisian socialite, before accidentally setting the house on fire. Caught two weeks later, he was dragged from the court crying "Long live anarchy!", and condemned to death. Duval's sentence was later commuted to hard labor on Devil's Island, French Guiana. In the anarchist paper Révolte, Duval famously declared that, "Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man... when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it... the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty".
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". 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."
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.
Anarchist historian Max Nettlau provided a more complex concept of propaganda when he said that,
Every person is likely to be open to a different kind of argument, so propaganda cannot be diversified enough if we want to touch all. We want it to pervade and penetrate all the utterances of life, social and political, domestic and artistic, educational and recreational. There should be propaganda by word and action, the platform and the press, the street corner, the workshop, and the domestic circle, acts of revolt, and the example of our own lives as free men. Those who agree with each other may co-operate; otherwise they should prefer to work each on his own lines to trying to persuade one the other of the superiority of his own method.
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. In "Weak Statesmen, Weaker People," he wrote that the state is not something "that one can smash in order to destroy. The state is a relationship between human beings... one destroys it by entering into other relationships." Errico Malatesta described "propaganda by the deed" as violent communal insurrections that were meant to ignite the imminent revolution. Though in the last analysis Malatesta considered violence a necessity, he considered it an anarchist's duty to warn of its dangers, writing:
Violence, i.e. physical force used to another's hurt, which is the most brutal form the 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...
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...also 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, sufficed 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.
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. 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. 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. 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".
Propaganda of the deed is also related to illegalism, an anarchist philosophy that developed primarily in France, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland during the early 20th century as an outgrowth of anarchist individualism. The illegalists openly embraced criminality as a lifestyle. Influenced by theorist Max Stirner's concept of "egoism", the illegalists broke from anarchists like Clément Duval and Marius Jacob who justified theft with a theory of individual reclamation. Instead, the illegalists argued that their actions required no moral basis - illegal acts were taken not in the name of a higher ideal, but in pursuit of one's own desires. France's Bonnot Gang was the most famous group to embrace illegalism.
Relationship to revolution
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.
Sociologist Max Weber wrote that the state has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force", or, in Karl Marx's words, the state was only the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois class. Propaganda by the deed, including assassinations (sometimes involving bombs, named in French "machines infernales" - "hellish machines", usually made with bombs, sometimes only several guns assembled together), were thus legitimized by part of the anarchist movement and the First International as a valid means to be used in class struggle. The predictable state responses to these actions were supposed to display to the people the inherently repressive nature of the bourgeois state, delegitimizing it (legitimacy being key). This would in turn bolster the revolutionary spirit of the people, leading to the overthrow of the state. This is the basic formula of the cycle protests-repression-protests, which in specific conditions may lead to an effective state of insurrection.
This cycle has been observed during the 1905 Russian Revolution or in Paris in May 1968. However, it failed to achieve its revolutionary objective on the vast majority of occasions, thus leading to the abandonment by the vast majority of the anarchist movement of such bombings. However, the state never failed in its repressive response, enforcing various lois scélérates which usually involved tough clampdowns on the whole of the labor movement. These harsh laws, sometimes accompanied by the proclamation of the state of exception, progressively led to increased criticism among the anarchist movement of assassinations. The role of several agents provocateurs and the use of deliberate strategies of tension by governments, using such false flag terrorist actions as the Spanish La Mano Negra, work to discredit this violent tactic in the eyes of most socialist libertarians. John Filiss and Jim Bell are two of the best known modern advocates, with the latter developing the concept of an assassination market--a market system for anonymously hiring and compensating political assassination.
Explosion of Liceu of Barcelona by the anarchist Santiago Salvador in the cover of the newspaper Le Petit Journal, 7 November 1893
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
April 4, 1866 - Dmitry Karakozov makes an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II of Russia at the gates of the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg. As the Tsar leaves the Summer Garden, Dmitry rushes forward to fire his weapon. However, the attempt is thwarted by Osip Komissarov, a peasant-born hatter's apprentice, who jostles Karakozov's elbow just before he fires his shot.
November 17, 1878 - Giovanni Passannante attempts to assassinate with a dagger King Umberto I of Italy. It is the first attempted murder against the monarch and the first in the history of House of Savoy. Passannante is sentenced to death but his penalty is commuted to prison for life. While in jail, he goes insane and is taken to the asylum.
April 20, 1879 - Alexander Soloviev attempts to assassinate TsarAlexander II of Russia. The monarch spots the weapon in his hands and flees, but Soloviev still fires five shots, all of which miss. He is captured and hanged on May 28.
February 17, 1880 - Stepan Khalturin successfully blows up part of the Winter Palace in an attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Although the Tsar escapes unharmed, eight soldiers are killed and 45 wounded. Referring to the 1862 invention of dynamite, historian Benedict Anderson observes that "Nobel's invention had now arrived politically." Khalturin is hanged on the orders of Alexander's son and successor, Alexander III, in 1882 after the assassination of a police official.
November 7, 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.
December 9, 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 February 4, 1894, shouting "Death to bourgeois society and long live anarchy!" (A 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.
February 12, 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 May 21.
November 3, 1896 - In the Greek city of Patras, Dimitris Matsalis, an anarchist shoemaker, attacks banker Dionysios Fragkopoulos and merchant Andreas Kollas with a knife. Fragkopoulos is killed on the spot; Kollas is seriously wounded.
April 23, 1902 - Luigi Galleani speaks to striking silk workers at a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, urging all American workers to declare a general strike and overthrow U.S. capitalist society. Galleani, who is wounded in the face when police open fire on the striking workers, is later indicted for inciting a riot. He flees to Canada, where he is apprehended and returned to the US by Canadian authorities.
November 15, 1902 - Gennaro Rubino attempts to murder King Leopold II of Belgium as he returns in a procession from a memorial service for his recently deceased wife, Marie Henriette. All three of Rubino's shots miss the monarch's carriage, and he is quickly subdued by the crowd and taken into police custody. He is sentenced to life imprisonment and dies in prison in 1918.
May 31, 1906 - Catalan anarchist Mateu Morral tries to kill King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg after their wedding by throwing a bomb into the wedding procession following the ceremony. The monarchs are unhurt, but 24 bystanders and horses are killed and over 100 persons injured. Morral is apprehended two days later and commits suicide while being transferred to prison.
March 28, 1908 - Anarchist Selig Cohen aka Selig Silverstein tries to throw a bomb in New York City's Union Square. A premature explosion kills a bystander named Ignatz Hildebrand and mortally wounds Cohen, who dies a month later. Several contemporary pictures taken after the explosion show the mortally wounded Silverstein with his victim next to him.
November 12, 1912 - Anarchist Manuel Pardiñas shoots Spanish Prime Minister José Canalejas dead in front of a Madrid bookstore. Pardiñas then immediately turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
February 9, 1913 - The farmers Mulatilo Virgilio, Fermin Perez and Fabian Graciano assassinate Salvadoran President Manuel Enrique Araujo with machetes.
October 13 and November 14, 1914 - Galleanists - radical followers of Luigi Galleani - explode two bombs in New York City after police forcibly disperse a protest by anarchists and communists at John D. Rockefeller's home in Tarrytown.
May 25, 1926 - Sholom Schwartzbard assassinates Symon Petliura, head of the government-in-exile Ukrainian People's Republic, in Paris. After an eight-day trial, he is acquitted by the jury, who has been convinced of Schwartzbard's just cause: the core of his defense was that he was avenging the deaths of victims of pogroms by Petlura's forces.
October 8, 1969 - The U.S. group Weatherman's first event is to blow up a statue in Chicago, Illinois, dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket Riot. The "Days of Rage" riots then occur in Chicago during four days. 287 Weatherman members are arrested, and one of them killed.
December 6, 1969 - Several Chicago Police cars parked in a Precinct parking lot at 3600 North Halsted Street, Chicago, are bombed. The Weather Underground Organization (WUO) later stated in their book Prairie Fire that they had perpetrated the explosion to protest the shooting deaths of the Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark two days earlier by police officers.
1970-1972 - The British Angry Brigade group carries out at least 25 bombings (police numbers). Almost all property damage, although one person was slightly injured.
September 11, 1974 - Bombing of Anaconda Corporation (part of the Rockefeller Corporation) in retribution for Anaconda's involvement in Pinochet's coup exactly a year before.
December 1975 - Greek organization Revolutionary Organization 17 November allegedly responsible of the assassination of CIA station chief in Athens Richard Welch. According to a December 2005 article by Kleanthis Grivas, journalist in Proto Thema, Sheepskin, Gladio's branch in Greece, was in fact behind the killing. US State Department denied Grivas' allegations in January 2006.
June 8, 2000 - Assassination of British military attache Stephen Saunders in Greece. Members of 17N are arrested. In December 2005, Kleanthis Grivas, journalist in Proto Thema, claims that Sheepskin, Gladio's branch in Greece, was in fact behind the killing, along with the first violent act of 17N, Richard Welch CIA station chief's assassination in 1975. US State Department denied Grivas' allegations in January 2006.
The United Nations Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter defined the term "terrorism" as consisting of "Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."
The use of political violence is understood by its proponents in the frame of a general conception of the state as the control apparatus of the bourgeoisie, and of class struggle as a form of effective civil war. Thus, as anarchists often put it, "peace without justice isn't peace", but war between exploited and exploiters. In their eyes, this "social war" morally legitimizes the use of violence against broader "social violence." This view, of course, is not shared by pacifist libertarians. Rioting is thus justified as a means to enhance class consciousness and prepares the objective conditions for a popular uprising (Georges Sorel, 1906).
Even those who are not opposed to the political use of violence for theoretical reasons (as pacifist anarchists are) may consider it unnecessary or strategically dangerous, in certain conditions. Many note that the events of 1970s showed clearly how terrorism may be used to influence politics in the frame of the "strategy of tension" by a state and its secret services, through agents provocateurs and false flag terrorist attacks. In Italy and other countries, the Years of lead led to reinforced anti-terrorism legislation, criticized by social activists as a new form of lois scélérates which were used to repress the whole of the socialist movement, not just militant groups. Many also note that the rare cases in which terrorism has achieved its revolutionary aims are mostly in the context of national liberation struggles, while the urban guerrilla movements have all failed (Gérard Chaliand).
Armed propaganda is a type of propaganda used by revolutionary organizations that uses destructive, but ideally not lethal violence to make a political point known to the public and eventually gain supporters for its cause. The term was used in the United States by the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party to describe some of their bombings. Although armed propaganda can use guns or bombs, its proponents argue that its goal is debatably different from that of pure terrorism.
Dan Berger, in his book about the Weatherman organization, Outlaws in America, describes the planning section for a townhouse bombing by the group, describing the action as "armed propaganda".
The term has been applied to guerillas in Latin America in their revolutionary literature.
Bizhan Jazani used a translation of the term to describe armed struggle in Iran, particularly the Fadai guerrillas.
^Revolutionäre Kriegswissenschaft: Eine Handbüchlein zur Anleitung Betreffend Gebrauches und Herstellung von Nitro-Glycerin, Dynamit, Schiessbaumwolle, Knallquecksilber, Bomben, Brandsätzen, Giften usw., usw. (The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, Etc., Etc.). New York: Internationaler Zeitung-Verein, 1885; Desert Publications, 1978 (reprint). ISBN0879472111
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. New Left Review. II (28): 85-129.
^"Violence as a Social Factor", Errico Malatesta. The Torch, April, 1885. Reprinted in edited form in Graham, Robert (ed.) (2005) Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One From Anarchy to Anarchism (300 CE to 1939). Montreal: Black Rose Books. pp. 160-163.
^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.
^ abGalleani, Luigi, Faccia a Faccia col Nemico, Boston, MA: Gruppo Autonomo, (1914)
^ abAvrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), pp. 51, 98-99
^Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996), p. 132 (Interview of Charles Poggi)
^Acting under Chapter VII means the Council is speaking with its mandatory authority in matters of world security to set the world's policy around this issue. (Comparable to the Pope speaking ex cathedra.)