Tuesday, September 14, 2004


For all the other history majors out there

It's frustrating to have to turn to the foreign press to ever get any kind of historical context for world events. Still, it's worth it, as this fascinating article, Anarchist Outrages, by Rick Coolsaet from Le Monde Diplomatique illustrates. I am not sure if you need a subscription to read this article or not, but just in case you do, I have reproduced it below:
TERRORISM is ancient, found in every age, every continent, every religion. So why the current obsession with security, the suspicion that a monstrous hidden enemy is behind every attack in the world? History has had many eras when terrorism and fear were rife in events much like those of today.

On 24 June 1894 an Italian anarchist, Sante Jeronimo Caserio, assassinated the French president, Marie-François Sadi Carnot, the culmination of a series of anarchist attacks in France and elsewhere. The international community felt threatened by this.

The Russian Prince Kropotkin (1) had called for violent action, "propaganda through deeds", at the International Revolutionary Congress in London in 1881. And the first symbolic acts of violence had in fact been committed a few years earlier, with the assassinations of William I of Prussia, the King of Spain and the King of Italy. (There were seven attempts on Queen Victoria’s life during her reign.)

But the 1890s were different. It was the decade of the bomb: dynamite was the new weapon and kings, presidents, ministers and official buildings were the targets. In France, the attacks began in 1892. The French terrorist Ravachol (2), who was celebrated in folksong and legend, became the living symbol of hatred and resistance, according to historian Barbara Tuchman (3). Many intellectuals and young people from wealthy families flirted with violence.

That attacks had been launched in several countries at the same time encouraged the idea that a powerful anarchist Black International organisation was at work. Agitation was rife in Russia, and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and other acts of a band of revolutionaries, Narodnaya Volya (the Will of the People), inspired anarchists throughout Europe.

Even the United States did not escape. The president, William McKinley, was assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in September 1901 during a period of social unrest. The US authorities and public were convinced that the country faced an international threat.

It is difficult to realise over a century later the extent to which the world was haunted by the spectre of international terrorism. Paris lived in fear of further attacks. The ruling classes could not understand the reasons for the hatred and each act of violence increased their fear of revolt from below. Workers were seen as potential criminals and anarchists as mad dogs to be destroyed at all costs. President McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, described terrorism as a "crime against the human race" and in some countries armies were put on the alert.

The assassination of President Carnot of France in 1894 prompted governments and police forces to take action. The first proposal for international cooperation came from Italy, which was regarded as the seedbed of international terrorism and was therefore anxious to restore its tarnished reputation. Italians had been implicated in a number of attempts on heads of state and Italian immigrants had a bad name across Europe. Their large communities, regularly swelled by an influx of seasonal workers, were widely resented.

The International Anti-Anarchist Conference opened in Rome on 24 November 1898, with strict controls on all roads leading to the Palazzo Corsini. The 21 participating states decided unanimously that anarchism should not be regarded as a bona fide political doctrine and that attacks by self-proclaimed anarchists were extraditable criminal offences. But this strong expression of international unity had few real results. Police cooperation was intensified but governments retained their right to extradite foreign anarchists as they pleased.

The fine words were not acted upon because they were overtaken by events. By the 20th century, anarchism was already declining in most countries. The Black International, originally thought of as an elusive organisation with an aura of revolutionary power, was a myth and existed only in the imagination of the police and the press. Some terrorists did travel widely, some groups kept in contact and the acts of some inspired others. But there was no international network, no conspiracy and no plot. There was no central command, only individuals, acting independently in small cells, linked only by their hatred of the status quo under which large sections of society were marginalised.

Everything seemed in a state of flux. With the rapid increase in world trade and travel and technological change, it was possible for the first time in history to speak of a world market in which goods, services, capital and people moved freely. But what the French called the Belle Epoque was not a golden age for everyone. The chosen few prospered but most were untouched by the unprecedented growth in wealth and had no say in politics. Those in power regarded the working class as dangerous. Workers were despised and feared, confined to ghettos and marginalised in society.

The anarchist threat acquired mythic proportions. Barbara Tuchman describes it as a symptom of a sick society in which the working class was only seeking to play a full part. Assassins argued that they had taken up arms in a legitimate fight for justice; that their acts were merely self-defence for an oppressed and marginalised section of society. Terrorist cells claimed to be the vanguard of a stateless proletariat, although some people did realised they were only tiny and isolated groups. Prince Kropotkin once confided to Enrico Malatesta (4) that he feared they were the only two people in the world who believed that revolution was imminent.

The terrorists in fact represented nobody but themselves. Anarchism was never a coherent philosophical position or a political movement. Most anarchists were against violence. Those who did take action were often loners and the cells that planned the attacks resembled disorganised quasi-religious sects. But, as one action followed another, people began to imagine that anarchism was a powerful international machine and so it attracted more members. There was always some fanatic ready to take up the torch on behalf of the oppressed.

Anarchist violence died out around 1900. Leaders like Prince Kropotkin realised that terrorism did not produce change and that the strategy might be counter-productive. The anarchists claimed to act on behalf of the working class but the gap between anarchists and workers widened with every attack. Terrorism did not weaken the state but it did strengthen the powers of the police, the army and the government.

Also, importantly, the working class began to have another way to express its aspirations. Between 1895 and 1914 many anarchists turned to the labour movement and trade unions. Socialism offered workers personal dignity, a sense of identity and a full place in society. They no longer felt isolated and at war with society. The lawful and constitutional route proved to be a more effective way of winning political and social rights and bringing about economic improvements.

Terrorism continued to flare up sporadically in states on the borders of Europe. In Russia, Spain and the Balkans, attacks continued until the first world war. The system in those states encouraged a sense of overwhelming social and political exclusion, while constant repression left the working class no alternative but violence.

Muslims are often regarded now with the same mixture of fear and contempt as workers were in the 19th century. And the jihadi terrorist has the same feelings about America as his anarchist predecessor had about the bourgeoisie: he sees it as the epitome of arrogance and power. Osama bin Laden is a 21st century Ravachol, a living symbol of hatred and resistance for his followers, a bogeyman for the police and intelligence services. Today’s jihadis resemble yesterday’s anarchists: in reality, a myriad of tiny groups; in their own eyes, a vanguard rallying the oppressed masses (5). Saudi Arabia has now taken the role of Italy while 11 September 2001 is the modern version of 24 June 1894, a wake-up call to the international community.

The reasons for the rise of terrorism now and anarchism then are the same. Muslims worldwide are united by a sense of unease and crisis. The Arab world seems to be more bitter, more cynical and less creative than it was in the 1980s. There is a growing sense of solidarity with other Muslims, a feeling that Islam itself is in danger. This is fertile ground for a fanatical minority.

Osama bin Laden led the way with his famous fatwa declaration in1996: "The walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets." The similarities with anarchism are striking. Violence will probably be the undoing of jihadi terrorism, like anarchism before it, but terrorism will stop sooner if the Arab and Muslim worlds are offered an alternative hope to ease their sense of exclusion.

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