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The Terrorism Endgame: Lessons from the War on Anarchy (Part I)

How is the “war on terror” akin to the war on anarchy the West waged a little over a century ago?

October 12, 2011

How is the "war on terror" akin to the war on anarchy the West waged a little over a century ago?

The killing of Osama bin Laden represented the end of an era. But as we are reminded by daily news reports, it does not mean the end of the Al-Qaeda network or the end of radical Islamist terrorism generally.

This unsettling fact highlights one of the truly strange aspects of the asymmetrical struggle in which the United States is engaged: It is a battle that can never be definitively won. Even if the entire leadership structure of Al-Qaeda were to be destroyed, even if every known agent were apprehended, there would still be no assurance that some disgruntled individual in some corner of the globe would not take up the cause.

Three characteristics of the Al-Qaeda movement combine to make it so peculiarly menacing: It is violent, it is ideological, and it is decentralized. No barbed wire or censorship can prevent the spread of ideology — and if the ideology embraces violence, and authorizes adherents to engage in violent action on their own initiative, there is no telling who might respond to the call and strike the next blow in the ideology’s name.

Al-Qaeda is hardly the first group in history to combine these three qualities. For perspective, we might look at the rise — and especially the fall and the endgame — of another violent, ideological and decentralized movement, one that thrived a little over a century ago: revolutionary anarchism.

Anarchism was a utopian movement that emerged in the wake of the French revolution, at a time when it seemed reasonable to extrapolate from recent political history — the toppling of autocracies, the spread of norms of equality and fraternity — to predict a future with no government at all. (The history of anarchism is well told in Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, from which my account is largely drawn.)

Anarchism was a supremely optimistic ideology, taking as axiomatic that man is inherently good and just. All that he needs in order to be happy and peaceful is for the yoke of governmental authority and economic exploitation — coercion of man by man — to be removed.

The anarchist utopia to come would bring about a world of sharing, kindness and philanthropy. Some early anarchist thought leaders fairly exuded kindness and beneficence. Russia’s Prince Kropotkin, for example, enjoyed the reputation of a saint.

The utopian movement that espoused this ideology was necessarily a decentralized one, by virtue of its aversion to all authority. It gained its violent flavor in its impatient clash with the real world. Governments would not dissolve themselves voluntarily, and factory owners would not hand over the keys to the workers without a fight. Anarchists brought the fight with fists, guns and bombs.

But violent action was only the tip of the iceberg. The anarchists spent most of their energy on the fight for hearts and minds — writing pamphlets, holding meetings, giving speeches and otherwise strengthening their own resolve and gaining converts. They spent an extraordinary amount of time daydreaming over the details of the new world they were to fashion, and polemicizing against rival groups like Marxists and trade unionists. They corresponded and traveled throughout Europe and the Americas. They held international congresses, though they naturally didn’t establish permanent institutions.

To rationalize and justify the use of violence, anarchist thought leaders developed a doctrine called “the propaganda of the deed.” If anarchist theory were correct, and ordinary people yearned to be free of oppressive institutions, what they needed was a catalyst. One well-placed bomb could be that catalyst. It could jumpstart a revolution, lifting the eyes of the masses and showing them the way forward to a better world more eloquently than any pamphlet could, releasing their pent-up rage and channeling it in the direction of universal liberation.

The doctrine, it turned out, was fatally flawed. Ordinary people responded to news of violent acts with apathy, or interest, or revulsion, but they did not leap to arms themselves. During the period of anarchist activity in Europe and the Americas, the only spontaneous mass uprising of ordinary people against oppression was the Russian Revolution of 1905 — and the anarchists, like other Russian revolutionary parties, were caught by surprise and were nowhere near the vanguard.

But anarchists made the experiment of the “propaganda of the deed” repeatedly. Typically they struck at high-profile victims and symbols of authority. Over the course of two decades, anarchists succeeded in assassinating the Russian Tsar Alexander II (1881), the French president Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot (1894), Spanish Premier Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1897), Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1898), King Humbert I of Italy (1900) and the U.S. president William McKinley (1901). These were some of the successful attempts. Many more were unsuccessful.

Anarchist assassins typically acted alone. All anarchists believed violence was justified, but only a handful took the fateful step. Among these self-nominated heroes and martyrs, some belonged to anarchist clubs, while others were solitary readers of radical pamphlets and books. Some came from comfortable homes, others were common laborers or desperately poor. Some were motivated by a wish to politicize their desperate economic plight. Others sought to avenge particular repressive state actions. Still others were motivated by a desire to impress their radical peers, or simply to leave a mark on history.

The response of governments varied. Where enforcement was lax, as in Britain and Switzerland, anarchists congregated. Where governments cracked down repressively, as in Spain, the anarchists grew in numbers and militancy.

The French authorities tried to prosecute the fashionable anarchist intellectuals they thought were the root of the problem, and merely ended up looking foolish in the courtroom.

The United States toughened immigration laws, but this was a meaningless gesture. By the turn of the century, America had a thriving anarchist subculture and was re-exporting assassins back to Europe with one-way tickets.

In 1898, an international conference of law enforcement and home ministry officials was held in Rome to attempt to figure out how to deal with the anarchist problem. Nothing of consequence resulted from the meeting. Police action, intelligence gathering, suppression of anarchist newspapers — a great deal of money and man-power was thrown at the War on Anarchy, and it had demoralizingly little effect even when tactical objectives were met.

Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.

More on this topic


By the turn of the last century, America had a thriving anarchist subculture and was re-exporting assassins back to Europe with one-way tickets.

Anarchists typically struck at high-profile victims and symbols of authority. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated U.S. president William McKinley in 1901.

A great deal of money and man-power was thrown at the War on Anarchy, and it had demoralizingly little effect.

Where enforcement was lax, anarchists congregated. Where governments cracked down repressively, the anarchists grew in numbers and militancy.