Comments on James L. Gelvin’s ‘‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology’’

Comments on James L. Gelvin’s ‘‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology’’
George Esenwein
Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.20, No.4, 2008 (597–600)

Because they have long been associated with bombing outrages and spectacular acts of violence, it is tempting to draw parallels between the anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and contemporary terrorists. However, as such recent studies on jihadist terrorism have shown, constructing a comparative model for such an analysis is fraught with difficulties. As Professor Gelvin intimates in his thought-provoking article, the ways in which Al Qaeda appears to overlap with anarchism, a comparative study demands a careful examination of both the beliefs and practices underlying distinct historical phenomena.1 But though he should be commended for bringing greater focus to a discussion that is too often couched in distorting generalities, Professor Gelvin never manages to defend satisfactorily his claim that the political and ideological strands of anarchism and radical jihadism are fundamentally compatible. This is true above all because Dr. Gelvin’s argument is predicated on a number of mistaken notions about both anarchists and the ideological content of their revolutionary doctrine.

Dr. Gelvin’s argument runs into trouble when he asserts that there is no commonly accepted definition of anarchism. Most scholars who have worked in the field, including myself, have a clear understanding of what is meant by the term.2 While it is true that anarchism has found expression in different theoretical currents—collectivism, communism, syndicalism, and individualism, to name the best known of these—the underlying values and beliefs which give coherence and meaning to the doctrine as a political ideology are recognizable in each of these variants. Nearly all exponents of anarchism, for example, have used the term to refer to a natural state of society in which people are not governed by submission to humanmade laws or to any external authority. They are also fundamentally in agreement over the belief that anarchism is above all a moral doctrine concerned with maximizing the personal freedom of individuals in society. Partly because he is not familiar with the core values and beliefs of anarchism and partly because he assumes that we cannot turn to the anarchists themselves (Emile Henry) or pro-libertarian scholars (Guerin) to provide us with a suitable definition of their creed, Dr. Gelvin feels compelled to develop his own working definition of the ideology. Drawing upon ‘‘the literature of history and political science’’ rather than the seminal writings of the movement’s most important and representative thinkers, Gelvin constructs a framework of analysis which aims to bring us closer to delineating ‘‘a distinct type of political phenomenon’’ (p. 2).

Unfortunately, his efforts to do so seem to be designed more to substantiate his claims about the shared ‘‘markers’’ between anarchism and radical jihadism than to deepen our understanding of a much-abused term. For example, because his contention that anarchism is an ‘‘episodic discourse’’ which is both ‘‘reactive’’ and ‘‘defensive in nature’’ is not sufficiently contextualized, it raises more questions than it answers. It would also have been helpful if the author had taken more time to explain some of the more provocative statements he makes in the course of defining anarchism. It was particularly startling to learn that anarchism is a discourse similar to racial anti-Semitism.3 Such a casual comparison demands further elaboration, which is not covered by his questionable assertion that these discourses are similar because both make for themselves the claim of being defensive in nature.

In his discussion of the violent tendencies of both anarchism and radical jihadism, Gelvin rightly criticizes scholars whose assumptions about anarchism have largely been shaped by popular stereotypes of anarchists, such as the shadowy, bomb-throwing sociopath depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent (1907). Viewed in this way, it is easier to demonize all anarchists—as so many scholars have done—than to provide a balanced explanation of a genuinely complex and subtle historical phenomenon. Even so, Professor Gelvin seems convinced that terrorism is one of the normative features of their doctrine. This is regrettable, not least because, by making this assumption, he misses the opportunity to place anarchism’s relation to violence into proper perspective. The fact is that terrorism has never been central to anarchist thinking and actions and the destructive and chaotic side of anarchism was only briefly and superficially ever a dominant feature of the movement. Having cited a recently published essay on anarchism dealing with this theme, Dr. Gelvin must know this. In this same article, the author points out that the ‘‘vast majority of anarchists, like the vast majority of Islamists, were not violent, and some of those who once believed in bloodshed, notably Kropotkin, were to turn against it in time.’’4

Perhaps because he is preoccupied with establishing the links between anarchism and radical jihadism, Dr. Gelvin presupposes that past examples of anarchist violence can be likened to the atrocities being perpetrated by Al Qaeda and other fanatical Islamist groups in the twenty-first century. But while it is true that their passionate hatred of their class enemies and their belief in the purifying effects of violence bring anarchist criminals, like Emile Henry, close to the jihadist’s apocalyptic temperament, it is nevertheless misleading to suggest, as Gelvin does, that violence-prone anarchists were representative of the anarchist movement as a whole and that the outrages for which they were responsible some one hundred years ago are comparable to the terrorist acts of Al Qaeda. The fact is that the anarchists’ conception of violence and how it was to be used to further their cause bears very little resemblance to the way in which violence is being defined and employed by presentday religious extremists. This can be seen by comparing the overarching structural features of the two movements. Unlike the operatives of Al Qaeda, anarchist devotees of the cult of violence did not belong to a wider network of organizations which were collectively committed to the idea of using bombings and political assassinations as the main means of achieving their goals. Nor, in further contrast to today’s terrorists, did the anarchist bomb throwers belong to hierarchical groups’ which were under the strict control of authoritarian figures. Moreover, when they did employ terrorist tactics, anarchists had different objectives in mind than do modern-day religious warriors. While the latter uses violence or the threat of violence to intimidate or coerce Western governments/societies to end their interventionist policies towards the Muslim world, most anarchists resorted to terrorism as a means of undermining the prevailing socio-economic structures they saw as irredeemably oppressive. (Thus, Al-Qaeda’s war against citizens of Western society would presumably end once their governments disengaged from Middle Eastern affairs. But the anarchist terrorist would not abandon his violent struggle against the capitalist system until it was completely overturned.)

The kinds of methodological and practical differences referred to here have a direct correspondence to the profound ideological gulf which separates anarchism from militant jihadism. As an offshoot of the Enlightenment, anarchism is grounded in rationalism, and, because of this, it has little in common with the irrational and highly subjective belief system that both informs and justifies the violent actions of Al Qaeda. Anarchists also tend to be deeply anti-religious and strongly opposed both to metaphysics in general and to dogmas of any kind. Yet the opposite can be said of the renegade Muslim groups which are currently waging war with the West.

By giving primacy to the violent and/or ‘‘defensive’’ dimension of anarchist doctrine, Gelvin’s definition overlooks its positive ideological attributes. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, when the term anarchy increasingly formed a part of established political vocabulary, and continuing right down to the twenty-first century, anarchism commonly referred to such things as the self-discipline of rational individuals, cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity, and a deep and abiding respect for nature (ecology). Because the author does not take into account the non-violent elements of anarchist thinking, the reader gains no sense of the many constructive projects with which anarchists have been identified in the scholarly literature of the movement. For example, during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), anarchists sought to build communities rather than destroy them. During the short time they were able to run their own collectives they were instrumental in setting up educational centers for the poor and illiterate peasants and workers, developing social welfare associations, and generally providing the voluntary structures necessary for a functioning self-governing society. Clearly, this is a historical side of anarchism which does not fit comfortably into the analytical framework Professor Gelvin has constructed.

In taking issue with the main points of Professor Gelvin’s argument that anarchism and Al-Qaeda share a number of key ideological ‘‘markers,’’ my intention is not to dismiss the value of making such comparisons. However, I am not convinced that it is in the realm of ideology that we should be looking for links between these two disparate phenomena. In the cases of Al-Qaeda and the violent-prone anarchists of the past, it is clear that both share some notable traits. For example, each group has exerted an influence on society that is wholly disproportionate to their overall numbers. Both have also gained international recognition through their sensational acts of violence and both have inspired fear and dread among the wider public which has been identified as the ‘‘enemy’’ of their respective movements. And, finally, like the anarchist bombers and assassinations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Islamist extremists are universally regarded as the harbingers of an era of chaos and uncertainty. If what happened to the anarchists is any guide, however, we can safely assume that this predictive judgment has been formed prematurely.


1. This is not to say that I share his contempt for the so-called ‘‘terrorologists’’ who have sought to shed light on modern-day events by invoking the past in their comparative studies.
2. See, for example, my essay entitled ‘‘Anarchism,’’ in The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Editor-in-Chief (New York: Scribners, 2004), 66–70.
3. The author also does not make the case for assuming that anarchism is a monolithic ideology which remains essentially fixed over time. Here he seems to be closely following the political scientist David Apter, who, in an effort to make sense of the relevance of anarchism to the radical protest movements of the late sixties and early seventies, characterized anarchism as a normative force for which there has been ‘‘no consistent accumulation of ideas and theories’’ (p. 2, ‘‘The Old Anarchism and the New – Some Comments,’’ in David E. Apter and James Joll, eds., Anarchism Today (London: MacMillan, 1971). But while it is true that anarchism, like all other political ideologies, possesses some transcendent features, this does not preclude the possibility that it can be shaped or conditioned by historical circumstances. Nor does it necessarily mean that the ideology itself has not evolved over time.
4. The Economist (London), 18 August, 2005. This fact is also emphasized by the scholar, David Miller, who reminds us that the anarchists were no more inclined towards terrorism than other radical groups (nihilists, republicans, Marxist socialists) which sprang up in Europe from the late nineteenth century on. See David Miller, Anarchism (London, 1984), 109.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2021 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in Anarchism, History, War on Terror. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Comments on James L. Gelvin’s ‘‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology’’

  1. Pingback: Edinburgh Anarchists » Blog Archive » TV documentary airs 100 years late

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.