“Degaev steals the ball!”

“Talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words.”  It is an old belief[1] and one that discomfits intellectuals.

From the later 18th through the later 19th Century, European societies faced immense turmoil unleashed by rapid population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and the ideas of popular sovereignty and civil rights.  Terrified by repeated revolutions that might one day finally succeed, conservatives shanghaied[2] the cause of nationalism from the left in a desperate effort to retain control of key aspects of their power by adapting to modern times in other regards.[3]  Subsequently, the nation-states had expanded government responsibilities and powers in a host of new areas.  They also expanded the instruments of social control: soldiers, policemen, civil “servants,” charity officials, and school teachers.  This combined with the power of rising business and industry and an often smug and heartless attitude toward the working classes on the part of the middle classes.

For some critics of the new order, slow progress within the established order appeared a delusion.  Johann Most (1846-1906) figures as one of the most influential alt-left thinkers.  “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,” wrote Most.  This doctrine came to be called the “Propaganda of the Deed.”

Between 1878 and 1932, propagandists of the deed attempted to kill the emperor of Germany, two kings of Italy, the tsar of Russia (twice), the king of Belgium, the king of Spain, the president of France, the Italian dictator Mussolini, an American senator, the attorney-general of the United States, John D. Rockefeller, the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, the judge in the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and the mayor of Seattle, Washington.  They actually did kill several tsarist officers of the secret police, Tsar Alexander II of Russia (after two failed attempts), the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, the king of Portugal, the king of Greece, the president of France, three prime ministers of Spain, the president of the United States, the prime minister of Russia, the chief of police of Buenos Aires, about sixty ordinary people killed in a wave of anarchist bombings in the United States between 1916 and 1920, and twenty Catalan Rossini enthusiasts.[4]

Most of the attacks took place in Russia or in Mediterranean Europe.  In these places, neither political liberty nor economic progress had advanced even as Western Europe and the United States had surged ahead.  Most of the attackers were people already unhinged who were driven over the edge by poverty and government brutality.  However, the chief effect of the attacks came in the expansion and intensification of government powers to combat dissidence.

It is worth asking whether this half-century-long wave of terrorism offers lessons for understanding and dealing with contemporary “jihadist” terrorism.  Both waves pose(d) a serious threat to lives, but neither pose(d) a threat to the existence of societies founded on “Western” values.  Of course, the earlier wave targeted societies with the means and the will to respond.

[1] “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.'”—St. Francis of Assisi.  Also, the Tsarina Catherine the Great instructed the “philosophe” Denis Diderot that “you write in paper while I must write on flesh.”

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGIQgjPklLw

[3] There is a useful analogy in Japan’s Meiji Restoration.

[4] For some serious books on this lurid subject, see Richard Pipes, The Degaev Affair (2005); John Merriman, The Dynamite Club (2009) and Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits (2017); and Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded (2010).

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