For Jihadist, read Anarchist? The Anarchist Stereotype then and now

In 1893, a widely-read French newspaper called Le Matin pinpointed the importance of London as a harbour for anarchist terrorists of all countries, describing the city as „a hub of international propaganda, an anarchist Mecca where it is customary to go on a pilgrimage‟. Bombastic as it may seem today, this rant is an apt clue to the way anarchism was perceived at the time: it was equated with a dangerous fanatic cult, and its supporters were believed to be organised into international networks with terrorist intents. London, which became the main destination for exiled anarchists from European countries in the 1880s-1890s, was assumed to be the centre of this conspiracy.

As the quotation suggests, there are obvious similarities between portrayals of late-nineteenth century anarchists and today‟s Islamist terrorists, and it is not a coincidence that several articles in the general press as well as a number of academic studies have highlighted such similarities since 9/11 or the 7/7 attacks. This paper will investigate these possible parallels. However, rather than venturing into the perilous exercise of comparing complex and controversial ideologies, it sketches out the parallels between the way anarchists were perceived and represented in the late nineteenth century, and contemporary discourses on terrorists. It also seeks to discern a number of contextual factors which were conducive to such large-scale collective psychoses. In other words, this is an attempt to decipher the factors which, a century apart, have proved conducive to the emergence of transnational terrorist movements targeting „the West‟, and what discourses on these movements reveals about Western societies. Although this study could apply to most Western countries affected by anarchist terrorism, it focuses on the cases of France and Britain, which are representative of general attitudes towards anarchism.

The first part is a presentation of the nineteenth-century anarchist stereotype and the conditions of its emergence. It is followed by an exploration of the parallels which can be drawn between both terrorist campaigns. The third part insists more specifically on the role of the media and the development in communication as a key factor, not only for the expansion of terrorist networks, but also in the distorted perception of their activities.

1. The nineteenth-century Anarchists – realities and myth

Apart from the canonical example of Jack the Ripper, anarchists were among the best-known and most feared criminal figures at the end of the nineteenth century. Anarchism started off as a radical, yet fairly well-integrated branch within the international socialist movement which appeared after the collapse of the First Working Men‟s International, in the late 1870s. However, during the 1880s, a theory known as „propaganda by the deed‟ spread within anarchist ranks, based on the belief that acts of political violence should be used to publicise and further the anarchist cause, and therefore condoning all sorts of illegal gestures, from petty theft and robbery to political assassination. Propaganda by the deed was soon put to action, and a wave of bombings and assassinations hit most Western countries. Partly inspired by the Russian Nihilists‟ assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the „terrorist epidemic‟ spread from the late 1880s. In addition to semi-random attacks in which civilians died, propaganda by the deed culminated in a series of high-profile murders, with France, Spain and Italy being the worst hit countries: in France, a prominent figure was that of Ravachol, the young man who launched the era of propaganda by the deed when he carried out a series of anarchist explosions in 1892 and was sentenced to death for them. There were many similar attacks, causing about a dozen casualties, which climaxed when the French president Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death by Italian refugee Santo Caserio in 1894. In Spain, Angiolillo attacked Antonio Canovas, the president of the Spanish Council in 1897, while the Empress Elizabeth of Austria murdered by Luccheni in September 1898. King Umberto I of Italy was killed in 1900 by Gaetano Bresci, after several failed attempts. The president of the US, MacKinley, also died in the hands of an anarchist, in 1902. Britain seemed strangely immune from such violence, probably because it offered a precious asylum to anarchist refugees from all of Europe. Needless to say this triggered a flurry of hostile discourses accusing Britain of deliberately harbouring terrorists while they plotted against the rest of Europe. Britain was not absolutely untouched though, and there were a few accidents, with minor explosions in the 1880s and the high-profile cases of Walsall in 1892 and the Greenwich observatory in 1894.

Anti-anarchist psychosis swept over the Western world and, just like today, as one commentator put it in a 2005 article, populations became obsessed with „bombs, beards and fizzing fuses‟. In fact, anarchists were divided as to propaganda by the deed: most of them disapproved of such violent acts, and anarchist terrorists are most likely to have acted alone. Yet, in public opinion, the whole anarchist movement soon became the absolute embodiment of otherness, „the principle and the essence of crime itself‟, as pointed out by the historian Dominique Kalifa. Slander and sensationalism were the norm, conveyed through a flurry of publications. The dominant genres were the press, journalistic essays and novels. Prominent novelists like Emile Zola in France, Joseph Conrad, Henry James or G.K. Chesterton in Britain, wrote stories centred on anarchists, or set against the dramatic background of their terrorist campaign. There were also a number of first-person testimonies about the movement and its mores, with more or less understated titles like The Anarchist Peril, The Backstage of Anarchy, or A Girl among the Anarchists. The most dramatic work came in 1896, when the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso published his „scientific‟ essay The Anarchists, in which, among a number of rather sympathetic comments, the followers of the anarchist cause were described as dangerously imbalanced creatures, governed by the impulse to kill, having succumbed to „social, economic and political fanaticism‟. Their physiognomy was studied at length, in an attempt to track down the signs of „congenital criminality‟. In other words, anarchism was on the side of instinct and animality, a recurring trait also in visual representations of the movement, in which anarchists were commonly depicted with very coarse and unappealing features, or even deformities.

London, where many anarchists found shelter in the 1890s, fleeing persecutions in their own countries, was described as the centre of all conspiracies. A repented anarchist thus announced in his Confessions of an Anarchist that „many of the outrages which have taken place on the Continent were arranged beforehand here in London, within the four walls of the Club Autonomie [which was indeed the gathering place for the London groups]‟, while the French press described on a daily basis „the London conspiracy‟ and the meetings of „The anarchists of London and Panama‟, bringing together „the crème de la crème of dynamite socialism‟. Clever puns were invented to create shock effects, for instance when L‟Autorite referred to „les anarchimistes‟ (the anarchemists) who wanted to „ravacholise civilisation‟. Reporters were sent to Britain to report on the so-called „anarchist peril‟, often to be victims of anarchist pranks aimed at scaring them off and giving an inflated image of the movement‟s importance.

2. Parallels

As London stood accused of heedlessly harbouring international terrorist networks in both instances, commentators have been quick to pick up on the possible similarities between anarchism and today‟s terrorism. On a rather factual level, one article pointed to the fact that „in common with recent bombing and assassination campaigns by Islamic militants, anarchism claimed a mastery of the technology of destruction‟. There were fears of bacteriological wars initiated by anarchists, which have numerous contemporary echoes. But the parallels reach deeper. A study published in The Economist a week after the London attacks in 2005 pointed to numerous common features in the goals and philosophy of both terrorist movements: the idea of destruction as the path to regeneration, the ideological justification of civilian murders, the use of „indiscriminate acts of terror‟, the central role of immigration and contact with foreign countries in the spread of terrorist ideology. This last point was soon taken up as a matter for controversy: some drew parallels between Britain‟s asylum for the anarchists and today‟s immigration policy, seeing last century‟s anarchist asylum in Britain as an „ominous anticipation of the delusional laxities of contemporary „Londonistan‟. For argument‟s sake, however, it should be stressed that this was an exaggeration, as the danger posed by the London anarchists was greatly over-stated – and often for very illiberal political purposes. The more liberally-inclined pointed out that in both cases, the very harsh laws passed to repress terrorism were likely to be misused in order to criminalise innocent people and immigrants, an excuse for instance to pass very restrictive immigration laws and infringe on human rights.

More relevantly, studies also point to the recurring link between terrorism, poverty and a lack of integration. In both cases – and as for most terrorist movements – the conversion to radical and violent politics is believed to be generated or accelerated by social deprivation. Last century‟s anarchist scares took place against a backdrop of social change, in the aftermath of a century of intense industrialisation and urbanisation, leading to widening gaps between the social classes, in societies where wealth became ever-more ostentatious. Most anarchists came indeed from poor backgrounds, or were faced with unemployment and blatant social inequalities. Even at the time, where moral or pseudo-scientific explanations prevailed over socioeconomic analysis, the spread of anarchism was often blamed on the breakdown of the family, the loss of religious values and lack of moral and physical hygiene. Similarly, poverty and the lack of integration are also systematically put forward as an explanation for contemporary terrorism. The idea of a complete alienation from and rejection of the values of the society they belong to is often referred to, suggesting a nihilistic element in all acts of terrorism, especially as they usually lead to the death of the perpetrator. As a commentator put it, this was another parallel since „alienated‟, „disaffected‟ and „un-integrated‟ young men have been said to provide a recruiting ground for both anarchism and Islamist terrorism, about a century apart. Moreover, as another contemporary observer summarised, „Jihadists are similar to anarchist terrorists: while they are only a myriad of tiny groups, they regard themselves as the avant-garde capable of rousing the oppressed masses through spectacular actions‟.

However, despite the prevalence of this image of the segregated terrorist, in both cases, the figure of the well-off and educated terrorist is also potent. In the late nineteenth century, there were many stories about upper-class champions of anarchism – with even, at one point, a rumour that anarchist terrorism was funded by the Rothschild family. A corollary image is therefore that of the well-integrated terrorist – for instance through the idea that the anarchists exiled in London had „joined the chemistry classes established by the various organisations in and around London‟, as one witness put it at the time. Similarly, one of the most famous anarchist terrorists of the 1890s was Emile Henry, an outstanding student almost admitted into France‟s very prestigious engineering school Polytechnique. In the case of contemporary terrorism, this proved to be a reality, when a British-born doctor was shown to have been involved in the 2008 attack on Glasgow airport. In both cases, the theme of the „enemy within‟, utterly undecipherable and ready to strike at any time, has also increased the sense of collective danger and incomprehension.

Above all, anti-anarchist moral panics betrayed a widespread fear of modernity, in pretty much all shapes and forms, and it is hardly a coincidence that both the anarchist movement and its detractors rose to prominence as the century of the Industrial Revolution drew to a close. Anarchism, as a radical offshoot of the organised socialist and labour movement, was the product of the Industrial Revolution, a proletarian movement devoted to fighting industrial capitalism. But the fear of anarchism also betrayed the awareness of the social consequences of unbridled capitalism, as well as the nostalgia of a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial golden age, which was of course unduly idealised. The anarchists thus appeared as the ugly head of modernity, representing everything from the loss of a direct contact with nature, mass urbanisation, to the ambiguity of technology. The emphasis on the anarchists‟ „weapons of mass destruction‟ was thus ominous and mainly reflected public fantasies about such scientific breakthrough. And actually, in the flurry of popular fiction staging dangerous anarchists or Russian nihilists about to take over the world, Bernard Porter has found a story which focused on a hijacked aircraft loaded with dynamite destroying the highest sky-scraper in the world, in New York.

However, establishing such parallels has obvious limits: it soon leads to comparing widely different ideologies and periods, obliterating the fundamental realisation that, as emphasised by Walter Laqueur, „there are so many kinds of terrorists that generalizations are almost bound to be misleading‟. For instance, anarchism was an ideology of the extreme left, a product of intensified class conflict, whereas the right-left political divide is not very relevant to contemporary terrorism, where religious motives are predominant. However, there remains a questioning on a contextual element which, in both cases, has proved conducive to collective scares – the development of communication, which highlights the fact that terrorism is very often the offspring of „information societies‟.

3. A phenomenon of information societies

Both terrorist campaigns took place in a new technological context, and both anarchist scares and contemporary terrorism were amplified by media which greatly accelerated the circulation of information. This proved important for terrorists as actors (through the increased circulation of people and the press in anarchist circles, and through the use of the internet and mobile phones for Islamist terrorists). Maybe more importantly however, breakthroughs in communication have proven pivotal for the reception of terrorism – and, just as anarchist-related psychosis was linked to the explosion of the popular press, contemporary terrorism has gained great resonance through the internet and media culture in general.

Anarchist terrorists and contemporary bombers all found their powers increased by the development of improved technological tools. As the historian Michael Burleigh put it – rather bluntly – in his recent book Blood and rage. A Cultural History of Terrorism, the circulation in anarchist circles of recipes to fabricate bombs „anticipated the ease with which contemporary terrorists can access information about explosives on the internet‟. Indeed, contemporary terrorism is closely connected with the development of the internet, with widespread fears of cyber-terrorism and, more commonly, the use of the internet for recruiting purposes or simple transmission of information. Similarly, anarchists were very aware of the central importance of efficient communication to propaganda. They did circulate instructions for the fabrication of bombs, and especially the notorious French booklet L‟Indicateur anarchiste. There were also complex anarchist networks for smuggling newspapers and thus carrying out propaganda. For instance, in the early 1890s, when most of the French anarchists were exiled in Britain, they found ways of sending their often very radical publications to their home countries by using all sorts of tricks – especially the use of fake titles (Le Rothschild) or by wrapping them in fake covers. These groups had correspondents all over France, and thus ensured a good geographical coverage for their readership. They communicated through their press, since most of their papers had correspondence columns, and also benefitted from the development of cheaper transports, which enabled them to circulate in person too. These networks reinforced the belief that anarchism was organised as a powerful conspiracy – a motto reminiscent of the often simplistic understandings of „Al Qaeda‟ as a tight global conspiracy. However, in the case of anarchism, even when such networks existed, they were rudimentary and not very powerful, in comparison with today‟s terrorist organisations, and they failed to represent a serious threat to the regimes they sought to undermine. However, in a modernising society and increasingly socially polarised, such nuances were lost on public opinion; as summarised out in a 2004 article devoted to parallels between anarchist terrorism and contemporary Islamist terrorism, in the late 19th century, „in these days already, everything seemed to be in motion. Thanks to a fast-paced globalisation and the progress of technology, for the first time in history, it was possible to talk of a global market where goods, services, capitals, and people could move freely in every direction‟.

In fact, in the case of anarchism, the most decisive role of the media concerned the reception of terrorism. Anarchist terrors were greatly fanned by the rise of „new journalism‟: in the 1860s, the falling price of dailies enabled workers to buy them easily, leading to a huge expansion in readership, through lower prices and a more inviting format. The term „New Journalism‟ is associated with the subsequent heavier emphasis on crime, scandal, disaster, and sports, along with bolder and more lurid headlines and subheads. Anarchism provided a great opportunity for this new industry, offering sensationalism and shock headlines galore for this sort of press. For instance, in 1897, The Evening News ran a series on anarchism, multiplying colourful titles day after day, starting with „8,000 anarchists in London – where these enemies of society live in the great metropolis‟, then „The Man of Doom – a stirring description of a „Ravachol‟ night at a London club‟, then „Murder and Pillage – the motto of an anarchist journal printed in London‟, and also „Morality and Marriage – the Inner Views of the Professed Enemies of Society‟. Papers complacently fanned the fears of their readers through „investigation‟ pieces dwelling on the details of their sordid dwellings, meetings attended by shady characters calling for bloodsheds etc.

It made it possible for information to resonate immediately and indefinitely, and also created a market for this sort of „information‟. Similarly, the speed of information nowadays creates a similar demand for shock titles and gives added impact to every news item – through the endless medium interplay between the paper press, the internet and TV. The importance of images in today‟s media culture has opened new vistas for the demonization of terrorists, just like, a century ago, the most cutting-edge papers printed catchy images – in colour – of rabid-looking anarchists being arrested by muscular police agents, in an implicit plea for „law and order‟. The impact of images in anarchist scares remains hard to determine. For a start, it is clear that while the printed image represented a striking and powerful way of impressing readers and influencing public opinion, it does not compare with today‟s media frenzies. However, the power of the image should not under-estimated, especially as it was a new phenomenon, and these illustrations had a strong ideological content, divided as they were between two categories, two types of „messages‟: either a celebration of law and order, or a more disturbing staging of the threat posed by anarchist „converts‟.


We can only hope that today‟s terrorism will eventually come to be regarded in the same way as the 19th century anarchist movement is today – as a colourful, yet harmless and even slightly quaint movement, and that it will slowly ebb away, just as anarchism did when other modes of expression and integration for the working-class took over. The great analyst of terrorism, Walter Laqueur, has emphasised the collective forgetfulness about the historical antecedents of terrorism. The use of violence as a means of political expression dates back, at least in theory, to Antiquity, therefore opening great vistas for comparison between today‟s and yesterday‟s events and ideas. However, despite structural similarities between these movements, it is clear that the main similarities between both movements are to be found in the representation, reception, and perhaps instrumentalization of both movements.

Beyond the case of Islamist terrorism, there seems to be a tremendous topicality of anarchism, from both the point of view of its champions and its detractors. In France in recent months there have been cases of sabotage on the tracks of the SNCF, the national railway company. These have been followed by a police crackdown whose arbitrary character sadly has nothing to envy to that of the 19th century policemen who chased anarchists. Historical parallels tell us that the temptation not to play by the rules of expression remains great, especially at times when the system appears increasingly closed off.

Emneord: anarkisme, terrorisme, moralsk panikk Av førsteamanuensis Constance Bantman
Publisert 17. mars 2011 10:59 - Sist endra 17. mars 2011 11:19
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