Propaganda by the Deed
Anarchism in Revolution
From 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin to today’s hacktivist collective Anonymous, political and social radicals have endorsed “propaganda by the deed”—the promotion of disruptive, often violent, acts for their power to draw attention to a cause. This map follows the anarchic revolutionary spirit from Franco-era Spain to 1960s America to the World Wide Web, looking at the range of propaganda employed, from high-energy rock music to free love to precisely targeted homemade bombs.
To anarchists, the state—even the utopian workers’ state imagined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848)—is always corrupt, laden with hierarchy and oppression. The ultimate alternative, anarchy, implies total disorganization and radical individualism. As a societal organizing principal, how can it work?
In the 19th century, Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin pioneered a brand of anarchism that rejected both communism and radical individualism. Under Bakunin’s so-called collective anarchism, the ownership of factories and other production was put in the hands of the workers, as opposed to the state owning all productive resources. Bakunin’s collectivist ideal had its moment in the sun during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). As General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist troops overran the country, anarchists supported by labor unions briefly created a worker utopia in and around Republican-held Barcelona. Trading in the city was collectivized, as was agricultural production in the countryside—all without state oversight. “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” British author George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia. “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”
In September 1870, as it became clear Prussia would prevail in the Franco-Prussian War, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin composed “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis,” arguing that only the people (not the state) could save France and that they must do it not with ideas but with action: “All of us must now embark on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment 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 following spring brought the brief flowering of the anarchist-minded Paris Commune, in which anticapitalist workers self-organized and acted without the support of any established authority.
“Propaganda by the deed” is an idea that has run through nearly all anarchist-leftist movements since Bakunin’s time. In the U.S. it was advocated by the Italian-born anti-government author and orator Luigi Galleani, who wrote a bomb-making manual deceptively titled “La Salute è in voi!” (“Health Is in You!”). He published it, he explained, “to eliminate the vulgar objection that subversives who continually preach individual and collective revolt to the oppressed, neglect to give them the means and weapons for it.”
The homemade bomb that prematurely exploded on March 6, 1970, killing three and destroying a townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Manhattan, was intended to make an even greater impact. The three dead were members of the Weather Underground, an American radical left group bent on the destruction of the “imperialist” U.S. government. The bomb—dynamite, nails, alarm clock, pipe—was supposed to have been detonated at a noncommissioned officers’ dance in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Radicalized by the ongoing atrocities of the Vietnam War and impatient with the results of peaceful student actions, the Weather Underground intended the bomb to “bring the war home.” The explosion shook the organization to the core; the remaining members subsequently changed course and pledged to avoid human casualties in future actions.
Luigi Galleani, Italian insurrectionist and publisher of the anarchist Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), who lived in the U.S. from 1901 to 1919 and wrote the bomb-making manual “Health Is in You!,” lacked such reservations. He and his followers (Galleanists) launched several bombings in the 1910s and 1920s, including one on Wall Street that killed 38. They targeted scores of officials, politicians and businessmen—all under the banner of “war, class war.”
In December 1969, in a ballroom in Flint, Michigan, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) National War Council brought together the Weathermen and like-minded radical groups. Among the approximately 300 participants were members of the local White Panther Party, though not its founder John Sinclair, who was in jail on a marijuana charge. The year had seen a steady amplification of militant rhetoric, with the Black Panther Party claiming to be the “vanguard of the revolution,” and other groups vying for prominence. The Weathermen became the Weather Underground, an organization dedicated to a campaign of violent guerilla action against the U.S. government.
Formed as a sympathetic white counterpart to the Black Panther Party and promising a “total assault on the culture,” Sinclair’s White Panthers focused more on music as revolutionary propaganda—Detroit’s energetic rock group MC5, famous for the slogan “Kick Out the Jams!,” was the party’s “house” band. Nonetheless, the White Panthers also talked up their game, threatening to “off the pigs” and “smash the state.” Jail time sobered Sinclair, however, and in 1971, seeking to put an end to the “mindless spiral of empty threats,” he and his cohorts transformed the WPP into the Rainbow People’s Party.
“Our program of rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets is a program of total freedom for everyone,” wrote John Sinclair in 1968 in the “White Panther Party State/meant.” His group advanced cultural revolution as a necessary first step to a greater political revolution in which people would unite in total freedom against all forms of oppression and authority. Sinclair considered “fucking in the streets” to be “the most important and the most misunderstood aspect of [the WPP’s] program.” America’s sexual mores, he wrote, are “based on the ridiculous misconception that one person can ‘belong’ to another person.”
Within the anarchist tradition, so-called individualist anarchists have long advocated free love and nudism (a.k.a. naturism) as part of their libertarian program. During the Spanish Civil War in anarchist Catalonia, the radicals who collectivized much of the economic and social activity in and around Barcelona promoted the role of sexual freedom in political revolution. Men and women alike embraced the idea of individual rights in a sexual context. They devalued institutionalized marriage, and it became a fashion to have a legal wedding ceremony as a celebration, only to tear up the marriage document as meaningless.
In the 1960s, in protest against established cultural mores and the Vietnam War, young people seeking alternative ways of living dropped out of conventional American society and into new lives that promised to be hip, peaceful and free. Spahn Ranch near Los Angeles was a quasi-commune similar to many others—except it housed the Manson Family cult, and leader Charles Manson didn’t have peace in mind. With the gruesome mass murders orchestrated over two nights in August 1969, Manson and his followers hoped to incite an apocalyptic race war. By staging the crimes to appear to have been perpetrated by militant African Americans—“[showing] blackie how to do it”—Manson intended to speed up the revolution he was convinced was inevitable.
The Weather Underground’s logic was less warped than Manson’s, but the group’s appeal to militancy as the best way to move the revolution forward was similar. The December 1969 Students for a Democratic Society National War Council crystallized the American left’s impatience with peaceful actions and marked the Weather Underground’s official turn to violence as propaganda for their cause. Member Bernadine Dohrn went so far as to praise Manson: “They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!”
After the accidental explosion that killed three members, the Weather Underground targeted its bombing attacks to avoid casualties. It issued warnings or timed bombs to go off in the middle of the night or in out-of-the-way places, such as bathroom vents. The group followed each bombing with a communiqué, a letter bearing its logo and explaining its rationale. A 1972 bombing of the Pentagon was in retaliation for a U.S. bombing run on Hanoi; in 1974 a Pittsburgh Gulf Oil office was targeted because of the company’s actions in Angola and elsewhere.
The pattern of dramatic destruction followed by an explanation of cause is also the strategy of the affiliation of hacktivists (activist Internet hackers) known as Anonymous. The collective targets the internet property of organizations and governments that censor online speech or attempt to limit the “open internet.” A 2012 attack that disabled three British government sites, for instance, was in retaliation for online surveillance plans Anonymous considered invasive. A group without a recognized authority structure and that employs disruptive actions to further its causes, Anonymous might be seen as a virtual world manifestation of the collectivist, action-oriented principles conceived 150 years ago by Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.