Stumbledupon this interview with Mike Davis while searching for infos on los justicieros and thought I may as well re-publish it here. As far as I can tell, Davis’ Heroes transmuted into Buda’s Wagon. [See also : Daggers, Rifles and Dynamite: Anarchist Terrorism In Nineteenth Century Europe (January 4, 2011).]
Mike Davis Talks about the “Heroes of Hell”
Radical History Review
Jon Wiener: I’ve heard through the grapevine that you are working on a book about terrorism.
Mike Davis: My day job currently is a grassroots history of Los Angeles in the sixties [“Setting the Night on Fire”]. But I have also been busy on an extracurricular project entitled, after a poem in Mother Earth, “Heroes of Hell.” It aims to be a world history of revolutionary terrorism from 1878 to 1932.
Why did you choose those specific dates as bookends?
Eighteen seventy-eight was the inception of the “classical” age of terrorism: the half-century during which the bourgeois imaginary was haunted by the infamous figure of the bomb-throwing nihilist or anarchist. Beginning in 1878, in fact, Bakuninists of several nationalities and their cousins, the Russian Narodniki, embraced assassination as a potent, if last-ditch weapon in the struggle against autocracy. The calendar of that year is extraordinary. In January, Vera Zasulich wounds General Trepov, the sadistic jailer of the Narodniki. In April, Alexander Solovev makes his attempt on the czar, the beginning of the royal game hunt that will culminate in Alexander II’s assassination by Peoples’ Will in 1881. In May and June, there are the successive attacks on the aged kaiser in Berlin by the anarchists Holding and Nobiling, which provide Bismarck with his long-sought-after pretext for repressing the utterly innocent German social democrats. In the fall, meanwhile, Moncasi tries to kill Alfonso XII of Spain, and Giovanni Passannante, hiding a dagger in a red flag, slashes at the king of Italy. The year ends with a hysterical encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the “deadly pestilence of Communism.”
The debut of modern terrorism, I should emphasize, followed in the wake of defeated hopes for popular uprisings in Russia, Andalusia, and the Mezzogiorno. [The Italian Bakuninists did briefly established a Che-like guerrilla foco in the Matese mountains above Naples for a few weeks in 1877.] Terrorism, in other words, was one response to the double failure of old-style urban Blanquism and rural Garibaldeanism. There is an obvious parallel with the contemporary experience of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood: after the betrayal and suppression of the great Fenian conspiracy, a secret cadre turned from insurrection to individual assassination as well as the first dynamite campaign against English cities.
And 1932 as a finale?
Nineteen thirty-two was the last in a series of desperate but unsuccessful attempts by Italian anarchists, direct descendants of Passanante, to assassinate Mussolini. Fascism and Stalinism succeed-where previous regimes failed-in bringing anarchism, and in Russia, the powerful social revolutionary movement, to the brink of extinction. The classical attentat [assassination attempt] is rendered powerless in face of the modern totalitarian state, although members of the Spanish FAI [Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI, Iberian Anarchist Federation)] will persist through 1950s to help reignite “propaganda of the deed” with a blaze in the 1960s. But that is the story for another volume.
What put you on the track of Malatesta, Ravachol, and Durruti? Is this a political and intellectual response to 9/11?
Only after the fact. The real occasion of this project was reading Pierre Broue’s magnificent Histoire de l’internationale communiste (1997). Like Victor Serge and Isaac Deutscher, Broue writes in the almost extinct idiom of the left opposition. His history is a passionate-at times almost unbearably poignant-engagement with the Shakespearean tragedy of the revolutionary generation decimated by Stalin and Hitler. He rescues the memory-the courage and moral grandeur-of hundreds of extraordinary women and men.
Broue inspired me to look at an even more out-of-fashion and politically incorrect group: the avenging angels who stalked kings and robber barons with bomb or dagger in hand. They tend to be the pariahs of the left, even to “respectable” anarchism, as well as demons of the right. I want to understand the moral architecture of their universe as well as the repercussions of their acts. In doing so, of course, I am now unavoidably drawn into the periphery of debates about that sinister catchall category: Terrorism.
Are you hoping to revise previous historiography or is this breaking new ground?
Fortunately, I have giant shoulders to stand on. Anarchism-including its violent denominations-has had superb national historians: Jean Maitron (France), Paul Avrich (United States), and Osvaldo Bayer (Argentina). Their work should be familiar to all radical historians, although Maitron’s History of the Anarchist Movement in France and Bayer’s Rebellion in Patagonia, like Broue’s Comintern book, have inexplicably failed to find English translations.
One must be extremely modest in face of such achievements. On the other hand, there is not yet any synoptic account that encompasses the world scope of anarchist and social-revolutionary terrorism. The key actors were fervent internationalists-sometimes claiming Esperanto as their first language!-who conceived themselves engaged in common combat against capital and state. A popular slogan, ascribed to a Russian who blew himself up in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, was “take revenge on the bourgeoisie wherever they are!” Chinese and Japanese anarcho-terrorists, for example, were directly inspired by Russian heroes, while veterans of the European underground ended up planting bombs or doing bank jobs in the New World. American anarchists, in turn, crossed the Atlantic to take revenge on the despots of the Old World. My project is a global audit, ranging from Chicago to Canton, Latvia to Patagonia. . .
What is the specific historical site of “classical terrorism”?
In a word, the Mur des Federes. This is the infamous wall in Père Lachaise cemetery against which the last Communards were executed. As Eugène Pottier, the author of the Internationale, put it in a contemporary poem: “Your history, bourgeoisie, is written on this wall. It is not a difficult text to decipher.” Thiers’s slaughter of 30,000 working-class and bohemian Parisians, to the almost universal approval of middle-class opinion, was the moral watershed in European labor history. As Mayer emphasizes, it was essentially a colonial massacre brought home to the metropolis. Together with other subsequent atrocities-like the mass executions in Russia, the murder of internationalists in Cádiz in 1873, the violent suppression of the 1877 strike wave, and the Haymarket hangings-it convinced many revolutionaries that terror had to be fought with terror. If victory seemed impossible, better then, vengeance.
If the escalation of class violence by republican as well as absolutist rulers was the necessary condition for this new terrorism, causal sufficiency, as I mentioned earlier, was provided by the frustration of Bakuninist and Narodnik hopes for large-scale uprisings in the Mediterranean and Russian countrysides. In the generation from the death of the Commune to the first international May Day in 1890, revolutionaries were vexed by the immaturity of social conditions to sustain large-scale class struggle. The European artisanate was in its final death agony from the Pale to Sicily, yet the modern industrial proletariat, except in England, was not yet fully born. Strikes were usually crushed or led to small violent cataclysms like that depicted by Emile Zola in Germinal. Gains in suffrage, meanwhile, were easily annulled by antisocialist laws or confiscated by corruption as in Spain and the United States. In this context, the social democratic strategy-Marx and Engels’s counsel of patient organizing and the slow accumulation of forces-seemed maddeningly slow, especially for young artisans forced to choose between starvation, emigration, or crime.
Terrorism, then, was a pathology of structural transition, of delayed modernization?
It is tempting to simplify matters and say that the anarcho-terrorism of the 1880-1900 period was the ghost dance of the European artisanate, with Ravachol as Wovoka or the Mahdi. Certainly this has been a traditional approach to understanding the popular, episodically violent, anarchism of Andalusia, yet as Temma Kaplan demonstrated in a major revisionist study, the millenarian interpretation collapses under careful scrutiny or, at least, yields to a more rational-actor model.
Similarly, traditional attempts to portray anarchists as criminal madmen or publicity-hungry meglomaniacs-beginning with the Italian criminologist Lombroso in the 1890s-are disproved by the sober, exemplary characters of such figures as Bresci [the assassin of King Umberto] or Durruti [whose Robin Hood-like feats defy credulity]. Even Czolgoscz, the killer of McKinley, who has always been portrayed as a lunatic by historians, was quite sane, as well as extraordinarily modest and dignified in bearing. As James Clarke has shown, Czolgoscz was seeking revenge for the massacre several years earlier of nineteen [some accounts say twenty-one] Slavic miners in Latimer, Pennsylvania. [When some of the wounded had asked for water, deputies replied, “We’ll give you hell, not water, hunkies!”]
If the criminological approach is bankrupt in the study of anarchism, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t significant overlaps between terrorism and the late Victorian underworlds. But the violent anarchists of the 1880s and early 1890s represent less a criminalization of the labor movement than an unprecedented politicalization of the criminal strata of the urban proletariat. [There are interesting similarities to the Black Panthers’ orientation to the street proletariat in the late 1960s.] In post-1871 Montmartre and Belleville, as Maitron and others have shown, there was a fascinating continuum between anarchism, bohemia, proletarian subculture, and criminality. In the 1890s, one of the most popular songs in the cabarets was “La Ravachol”: “Lady Dynamite, that dances so fast, let us dance and sing … and dynamite!”
It was a very different articulation of class location and politics than the Parisian lumpens whom Marx denounced as shock troops of Bonapartism in 1848-50. The attentat-in the full sense that it was used in Père Peinard and the underground press of the period-encompassed both the act of revolutionary vengeance against the class oppressor and routine expropriations that allowed Ravachol, say, to wear new suits or purchase books. A common moral economy-apparently embraced by a significant minority of the Parisian working class-justified both assassination and theft on class grounds.
But can you generalize from this Parisian instance?
No, although it has fascinating counterparts in Berlin, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires, especially in the 1920s. My research is structured around a provisional typology and periodization. In my reading, revolutionary terrorism is largely retributive, although sometimes messianic. It is useful to distinguish four distinctive types of elitist revolutionary violence. Moral-symbolic terrorism was typically carried out by lone wolves [solitarios], like Ravachol or Bresci, with the support of a few friends; or by autonomous cells [groupuscules or grupitos] with never more than a score of members. On this scale there was no capacity to sustain long campaigns, so the terrorist sequence typically involved an act of revenge, the execution of the avenger, then further revenge for his death. Sometimes this cycle was repeated.
Thus in Paris in 1892, Ravachol avenges massacred workers in Fourmies with a series of bombings of prosecutors and judges. After he is executed, Meunier blows up the Restaurant Very, Leautheir stabs the first bourgeois he meets on the street-it turns out to be the Serbian minister-and Valliant bombs the chamber of deputies. When Valliant is
guillotined, he is avenged by Henry who blows up the Café Terminus and a police station. Henry’s arrest enrages the art critic Feneon, who plants a bomb in the chic Café Foyot, which ironically only wounds the anarchist Tailhade, who nonetheless approves of the attack. Finally Caserio, claiming justice for Vaillant and Henry, stabs to death the president of France, Sadi Carnot.
A similar cycle of vengeance-originally in response to the repression of the Jerez uprising in 1892-took place simultaneously in Barcelona. Both led to mass trials of anarchist sympathizers, including writers and editors, and repressive legislation. In Barcelona, the defendants were imprisoned in the infamous Montjuich fortress and hideously tortured. This, of course, only supplied more fuel for an almost infinite vicious circle of violence in Spain that, in some remote but real sense, is continued today by ETA [Euskadi ta Askatasuna]. It is key to remember, however, that state atrocities, which most recently include a “death squad” campaign against Basque militants conducted by the former Gonzales regime in Madrid, provide the oxygen without which terrorism cannot combust for very long.
This also sounds like the West Bank.
There are certainly similarities on the supply-and-demand side. Indeed, from the 1890s, every ruling-class crime seems to summon a “hero from hell” to avenge dead strikers or executed revolutionaries. The relentless slogan of Russian anarchists was “smert za smert,” death for death. Thus Frick was shot for Homestead; Canovas del Castillo, the Spanish prime minister, was killed in revenge both for dead anarchists and the executed Filipino patriot Rizal; King Umberto was assassinated for the women and children killed by his troops during the 1898 bread riots; McKinley was killed for Latimer; the prince of Wales was sniped at in Brussels in 1900-an anarchist response to the deaths of thousands of Boer women and children; likewise King Leopold was shot at in 1902 for his Congo atrocities; ex-Idaho governor Stuenenberg was blown up for the Coeur d’Elene outrages; a Spanish anarchist took aim at General Renard who slaughtered 2,500 Chilean nitrate miners in 1907; Colonel Falcon, who killed May Day demonstrators in Buenos Aires in 1909, was punctually given an anarchist send-off as was, thirteen years later, General Varela, the butcher of Patagonia; four New York anarchists blew themselves up with the bomb they intended to use against Rockefeller for the Ludlow massacre; Count Sturgkh was shot in Vienna [by the son of a leading socialist] as an antiwar protest; Australian IWWs fought conscription with arson, while the Galleanisti in the United States used letter bombs; in 1920 Wall Street was bombed for the Palmer raids; Petlura, the butcher of Ukranian Jews, fell before an anarchist bullet in Paris in 1926; and a year later, the Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires was blown up in retaliation for the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
This is only a partial declension. Anarchists also killed the empress of Austria, several more Spanish prime ministers, and made innumerable attempts on other monarchs, including the Persian shah and the Japanese mikado. In the Russian Empire, the eye-for-an-eye spiral became almost uncountable. If tens of thousands of insurgents were cut down by cossack sabers or died on the scaffold, then several thousand czarist officials, from lowly policemen to grand dukes, were shot, stabbed, or blown up in an estimated 20,000 separate terrorist acts between 1902 and 1917. European and American anarchist terrorism was craft work; Russian social-revolutionary terrorism was mass production. But for this reason it clearly constitutes a separate type.
Strategic terrorism in Russia, which was also emulated by the Chinese anarchists in 1907-12, sought to cripple the autocratic state: either to force liberal reforms from the top down (the aim of Narodnaya Volya in 1879-82) or to open a breach that could be stormed by revolutionary peasants and workers [the goal of the SRs and their splinter groups, as well as various Polish, Latvian, and Armenian revolutionary formations, in 1902-1908]. Symbolic justice was an integral dimension, but the true goal was the systematic decimation of the human infrastructure of despotism. Although the struggle was carried out by small cells, the ties to truly mass parties gave Russian terrorism a formidable stamina that distinguished it from the amateurish and episodic attentats of European and American anarchists. On the other hand, as the Social Democrats constantly pointed out, the SR’s combat organization became the tail that wagged the dog. Terrorism became an end unto itself: a veritable “theodicy of violence,” in the words of one historian.
What were the other two types of classical terrorism?
Expropriatory terrorism consisted of two subspecies. On one hand, there were the celebrated bands of anarcho-outlaws like Jacob’s “Workers of the Night” and the Bonnot Gang, which included the young Victor Serge, in Paris, and Severino Di Giovanni’s desperados in Buenos Aires. They thrived as much from notoriety as from loot and self-consciously “performed” in the gaze of the popular press. The Bonnot Gang added to their fame by pioneering the use of the newfangled automobile in their heists. They preferred to die young in a heroic blaze of gunfire than end up in Cayenne [Devil’s Island], the green hell that devoured generations of French anarchists. Likewise the handsome Severino-the original “man in black” who was sometimes compared to dead silent-screen idol Valentino-thrilled Argentinians with his insouciance before a firing squad in 1931. [The famous actor José Gomez, according to Bayer, had won admission to Severino’s last scene by pounding on the prison gates and demanding: “Open up in the name of Art!”]
More anonymous, although no less legendary, were the groups who robbed banks on behalf of their left-wing parties or unions. The most famous example was the mixed cell of Lettish SRs, anarchists, and Bolsheviks-under the leadership of the mysterious “Peter the Painter”-who perpetrated the Tottenham Outrage in 1909, the Houndsditch Murders in 1910, and then blasted away with their Mausers at Winston Churchill and the Scots Guards during the Sidney Street Siege in 1911. But there were other notable instances: Russian SRs and anarchists did bank jobs all over Europe, and Durruti and Ascaso were Spanish anarchism’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as they blazed a trail across Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina in the early 1920s.
Defensive terrorism arose in conditions of semi-civil war, when employers and the state engaged in the systematic murder of union or radical leaders while maintaining a facade of electoral democracy. This was the situation in Barcelona from 1917 to 1921 and in parts of Germany during 1919-23. Thus the pistoleros of the Catalan employers were countered by Durruti, the Ascaso brothers, and other fearless CNT [Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Labour] justicieros; while in Saxony, Max Hoelz led a famous band of anarcho-communist fighters-the Red Army of Vogtland-which robbed banks, sacked noble estates, drove the paramilitary police out of factories, kidnapped bosses, liberated political prisoners and, finally, fought the Reichswehr from barricades during the insurrectionary March Action. Similarly, there were instances, both during the 1905 revolution and the civil war, when Jewish revolutionaries-bundists, anarchists, and so on-used assassination or a well-placed bomb to deter pogromists. [A sympathetic French jury, incidentally, acquitted the Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard after he shot Petlura, the ataman of the Ukranian Whites, outside a Latin Quarter bistro in 1926.]
This sounds very romantic, but surely the balance sheet of each of these types of terrorism must be negative. Didn’t every bomb and bullet ultimately ricochet against the mass workers’ movements?
As Debray pointed out years ago, “The revolution revolutionizes the counterrevolution.” Terrorism, by analogy, revolutionizes state repression, and, indeed, in some cases was instigated by the secret police for the express purpose of legitimizing a state of emergency. The mass left, indeed the working class as a whole, was repeatedly victimized for the “heroic” deeds of a few. And despite the traditional disclaimers of its theoreticians, terror substitutes the messianic role of the self-sacrificial individual-or the magical totemism of the attentat-for the conscious movement of the masses. This is why Lenin called the terrorism of the SRs the “opium of intellectuals.” Likewise, Trotsky-perhaps the first true sociologist of the phenomenon-warned that terrorism was too “absolutist,” too messianic a form of struggle to coexist with the democratic workers’ movement.
Yet the classical socialist critique of anarchist and populist terrorism was never simplistic or completely consistent. Marx, for example, excoriated the Bakuninists, yet deeply admired Narodnaya Volya [as did many European liberals] and believed that the assassination of the czar might actually speed history in the right direction. Lenin, despite the ferocity of his attacks on the SRs [whom Kautsky, by the way, supported], was relentless in urging social democrats to adopt terrorist methods to resist the pogroms and cossack terror that followed the defeat of the Moscow insurrection in December 1905. And Trotsky, while scornful of the “minister after minister, monarch after monarch, Ivan after Ivan” agenda of the SRs, argued that revenge was a powerful and positive revolutionary emotion. “Whatever moral eunuchs and Pharisees may say,” he wrote, “the feeling of revenge has its right. The working class has greater moral probity because it does not look with dull indifference at what is happening in this, the best of all worlds.”
Moreover, if one attempts to draw up a coolly objective balance sheet, not all terrorist acts in the nineteenth and early twentieth century end up in the debit column. Some historians of the first Chinese revolution, for example, credit the anarchist Eastern Assassination Corps, built on the model of the SR’s combat organization, with accelerating the decomposition of Qing power. In the same period, the killing of the Portuguese king and crown prince in Lisbon in 1908 by anarcho-republican Carbonari undoubtedly cleared the path for the October Revolution of 1910. And the assassination of notorious warmongers and murderers of the poor sometimes resonated fully with popular demands for revolutionary justice: as in the celebrated deeds of Zasulich, Bresci, Spiridonova, Radowitzy, Adler, Durruti, and Schwartzbard. One might also regret that the Italian anarchists did not succeed in killing Mussolini or that the KPD after 1933 was so dogmatically opposed to assassination.
The problem, of course, is that such methods are-forgive me-literally “hit and miss” and most likely to boomerang against the revolutionary groups that authorize their use. Consider the most “successful” single terrorist action in European history: the bombing of the Sveta-Nedeia Cathedral in Sophia in 1925. A joint team of communists and left-wing agrarians managed to plant a bomb during the funeral service for a general killed a few days before in an anarchist ambush. Although King Boris did not attend, most of the Bulgarian ruling class gathered in the cathedral. The huge explosion killed 11 generals as well as the mayor of Sophia, the chief of police, and 140 other eminent people. It was the only example of classical terrorism I can think of that was carried out by a member party of the Comintern. And its aftermath was debacle: a renewed reign of terror that decimated the Bulgarian left.
The examples you cite, even if forgotten today, all generated lurid headlines in their time. I am sure they must add up to an impressive pile of illustrious corpses. But how about more anonymous, less reported forms of violence? Say, the murder of factory foremen? Were the famous attentats just the tip of the iceberg-or its bulk?
I think radical historians are more willing than in the past to focus on popular retaliation and proletarian self-defense. There is a growing recognition, for instance, that black folk in the Jim Crow South fought back frequently, guns in hand, against racist terror, and that not all the bodies in the bayou were African American. Likewise, Chicano historians are beginning to appreciate the importance of the Plan de San Diego and the insurrectionary tradition of South Texas. But we are still a long away from understanding the extent or role of working-class counterviolence in workplace struggles. Certainly the intransigenti who considered Ravachol a holy figure and subscribed to Galleani’s bloodthirsty Cronaca Sovversiva deemed killing the boss a highly admirable act. And during strikes, American workers-especially-have hardly needed any ideological instigation to shoot back at Pinkertons or the militia. But, not surprisingly, we have few testimonies from the workers’ side about these illegal and violent aspects of the labor movement. This is still largely terra incognita, although Paul Avrich’s brilliant excavation of the secret history of the American Galleanisti [Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background] is an inspiration.
Where do you draw the line between revolutionary terrorism per se and the various violent national liberation movements in contemporary Ireland, the Balkans, East Asia?
There is, of course, a considerable overlap in ideology and cadre, as well as plentiful instances of practical collaboration. The Irish, to be sure, were scarcely anarchists, but their expertise, courage, and tenacity were admired from Catalonia to China. On the other hand, the Armenian Dashnaki and Pilsudski’s OSB [the Polish socialist combat organization that could mobilize more than 5,000 fighters] are clearly part of my story. Their nationalism, like that of the revolutionary Letts and Finns, had not yet overridden their anticapitalist politics. More difficult to arbitrate, because of their ideological hetereodoxy, are such groups as the Portuguese Carbonari, which seem to have alloyed Mazzinian republicanism with elements of Spanish anarchism, the Bosnian terrorists who
assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, Serbian nationalism again spiced with anarchism, and-most feared of all-the Macedonians. IMRO [the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization] is perhaps a sui generis phenomenon, but repeatedly demonstrated its solidarity with the Russian SRs and social democrats. No one built a better bomb, not even the Irish.
How big was the political base of classical terrorism? Do we have any way of ascertaining the popularity of your “heroes of hell”?
The anarchists themselves, not to mention the secret police, were very interested in such a census and produced several estimates. In Spain in the 1890s, for example, there were probably 25,000 active anarchists and 50,000 sympathizers who occasionally attended a meeting or subscribed to a newspaper. Almost all were in Catalonia, Valencia, or Andalusia. Only 10 percent of these, according the writer Gil Maestre, were actually anarquistas de accion, that is, propagandists of the deed. There were probably a similar number in Buenos Aires, the Barcelona of the southern hemisphere. In fin de siècle Paris, meanwhile, connoisseurs of the attentat certainly didn’t number more than 500 in a score of groupuscules with perhaps 10,000 sympathizers. In North America, a few hundred violent immigrant anarchists cut down whole forests as represented by the newsprint devoted to their largely hypothetical “menace.” On the other hand, the terroristic Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party in 1907 claimed 45,000 members and 300,000 serious sympathizers.
Beyond this it is hard to know how to measure contemporary working-class opinion. Certainly the social democrats, and later the anarcho-syndicalists, waged relentless propaganda warfare against terrorism [although seldom to the repressive extremes of the Communist and Socialist Parties in Western Europe in the 1970s]. But I wager that many of their members had emotional sympathies with the terrorists, or, at least, agreed with Severine, the editor of Le cri du peuple, when he declared-in the course of a bitter polemic with the anarchist “pope” Jean Grave who had come to denounce “revolutionary crime”-that he was “with the poor always, despite their errors, despite their faults, despite their crimes.”
Mike Davis is the author of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño, Famines, and the Making of the Third World (2001) and the forthcoming Dead Cities. He lives in San Diego.
Jon Wiener teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and he is a contributing editor of the Nation. He served as book review editor of the Radical History Review from 1989 to 1996.