Fighting Dirty: Should Anarchists Do What Moderate Leftists Can’t – or Won’t?



“LET THE ANARCHIST fight the dirty fight”, writes Adam. “It’s what we do best.”  Responding to yesterday’s “Fighting Fire With Fire” posting on The Daily Blog he makes the case for a movement operating outside the norms of bourgeois democracy.

Anarchism’s gift to the Left, argues Adam, is its distance from the world of formal political parties and organizations. Anarchists operate at such vast ideological distances from the traditional institutions of the Left that the latter are able to plausibly deny any association, or sympathy, with their ideas. Or, as Adam puts it: “we are outside your political parties and organizations – you can’t be tarred with the same brush”.

This outsider status gives the anarchist the freedom to say and do the things that others on the Left dare not say or do. Others on the Left have reputations to protect, but the only reputation the anarchist values is Anarchy’s unparalleled reputation for direct and often outrageous action against the institutions and the official representatives of the state.

In the final quarter of the nineteenth century anarchism became a by-word for extreme political violence. The popular notion of the anarchist as a bearded bomb-thrower or assassin dates from this time. The association is pardonable, and hardly surprising, given the number of incidents in which Emperors, Kings, Presidents and Prime-Ministers fell victim to the bombs and bullets of anarchist cells committed to “the propaganda of the deed”.

Not for the anarchists the patient building up of trade unions and socialist parties. They looked at the German Social-Democrats – a party legally debarred from ever assuming the reins of power – stoically soldiering on, even though, with every passing year, it was becoming more and more bureaucratic, sclerotic, and intolerant of anything that smacked of practical – as opposed to theoretical – revolutionary fervor.

Why waste all that time fighting elections you can never win, when one well-thrown bomb, one well-aimed bullet, can remove from the scene a political leader the ruling-class can ill-afford to lose, and who they can only replace with the greatest difficulty and disruption?

It was hard to argue against the beneficial political consequences that flowed from some of these anarchist outrages.

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For example, when the anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot the US President, William McKinley, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on 6 September 1901, he set in motion the sequence of events which led to McKinley’s Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, becoming President of the United States. Roosevelt belonged to the progressive wing of the Republican Party (yes, there once was such a thing!) and let loose the political forces which would, for the first time in American history, attempt to put a regulatory brake on the worst excesses oflaissez-faire capitalism.

Unfortunately, the opposite was also true. Anarchist outrages could just as easily lead the ruling-class to retaliate by unleashing a full-scale repression of the Left.

When a frankly terroristic anarchist cell launched a synchronized assault on the administration of President Woodrow Wilson and other members of the American ruling-class on 30 April and 2 June 1919, the United States Government’s response was vicious. It authorised a wholesale attack upon the American Left that saw hundreds of union organisers, socialist politicians, progressive journalists – as well as many leading anarchists who had nothing to do with the attack – rounded up and jailed. Many were tried under the 1918 Espionage Act (the same law that sent the Wikileaks whistleblower, Private Bradley Manning, to prison).

Organised by the US Attorney General, Alexander Palmer, the so-called “Palmer Raids” were coordinated by a young, ambitious Justice Department official called J. Edgar Hoover, who went on to become the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Essentially the US Government’s political police force, the FBI spent the next sixty years surveilling, disrupting and (when possible) prosecuting the entire American Left. Practically every progressive movement in recent US history, from the Congress of Industrial Organisations to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Black Panther Party was made to suffer for the actions of those anarchists in 1919.

So, you’ll have to forgive me, Adam, if I decline your kind offer to do the things that moderate old lefties like me dare not do.

To be sure, there are a few people I can think of who might benefit from a well-aimed bomb or bullet; and its possible that the latter could open the way for a style of politics that would never flourish otherwise; but the judgment of history, when it comes to anarchists “fighting the dirty fight”, is very clear.

Those who benefit from violent political interventions, even when they are not responsible for them, will always find themselves tarred with same brush as the people who are.

History also suggests that citizens are seldom convinced by bomb-throwers, and that the long-term benefits of the ballot almost always outweigh the short-term effects of the bullet.



  1. Maybe violent anarchists could start targeting the moderate left, after all, it is the moderate left who are sustaining the system

  2. In all due respect, Chris, do you understand “anarchism”, as it does in its “purer” form really not condone aggression of any form at all.

    I hate to refer to Wikipedia, but they sometimes offer fairly good summaries:

    “Many anarchists oppose all forms of aggression, supporting self-defense or non-violence (anarcho-pacifism), while others have supported the use of some coercive measures, including violent revolution and propaganda of the deed, on the path to an anarchist society.”

    Self defence is justified in the eyes of many anarchists, but to bomb and kill, that is really a view or interpretation of anarchism, that may represent extremist fringe groups, that are atypical of true anarchism, and that may also rather be a construct of a Bourgeois mindset, often used and abused by modern day western media, to discredit those that are against state authority and their perceived forms of “order”.

    I now must read Adam’s comment, to see what he really meant.

  3. What a great piece…
    Disobey them, stall them, derail them, lock them in, block them up but the moment that you smash it down the fist of the the state comes back to take you out(and I don’t mean for a romantic dinner). Net gain -1000 as the state has the villain it needs, you are dead or locked up, discredited with all the sheeple firmly propagandized into hating you. Responsible individualism and community tightness proves to the elite that we don’t need their ‘rulers’. We dont need them when the are on holiday or elecshameering, show we don’t need them when they come back. Promote all the leaders to admin positions and abolish the pack rule mentality from the left and the right that supposes the right to rule(but not lead).
    Doing good garden maintenance by growing good roots then pruning the sun hungry leaves might evolve these parasites right out of the game.
    But that would require a shift in the consciousness and action of a lot more people than currently bother to vote. A feat I feel highly unlikely on a grand scale.

    There is a saying ” anyone who aspires to be a politician should be automatically disqualified from becoming one.”

  4. Chris, it would be a far reach to equate what Cameron and Slater have done to acts of political anarchy such as terrorism and assassination but the reality is, the Left should not be surprised by this. Nor should it remain on it’s high horse and think that such acts are beneath it. When you play the game of thrones, you need to start channelling Niccolo Machiavellian pragmaticism. Naive noble goodness is only going to get your head chopped off like Ned Stark. I have no doubt that Machiavelli would suggest that in order for good to prevail, sometimes it is necessary for good people to be ruthless and do what is necessary to win in order to avoid the greater evil, which is bad people winning the day. In politics, there has never been such a thing as a line that defines public from personal. There is only winning and not getting caught. The Right understand this reality and play the game accordingly. It’s time for the Left to get off the high horse and play by same rules. You can’t impart goodness when you’re not in power.

  5. Well said Chris
    I feel that this is where the anarchists fell down
    “When one well-thrown bomb, one well-aimed bullet, can remove from the scene a political leader the ruling-class can ill-afford to lose, and who they can only replace with the greatest difficulty and disruption? ”
    Because the thing is the ruling class has never had a problem replacing its-self
    Take the UK royals, you would run out of ammunition trying to shoot the lot

  6. Chris this is a very well written article and yes I agree with your points. However, the right have declared war on us and we in god zone now have two classes of people. The rich and the working poor, that’s the reality of it. As you see in Christchurch given the state that people have been living in I am somewhat amazed that there has not been an assassination, or at least riots we saw in the 1920s. Conditions now are far worse than the great depression. We see unlawful seizure of land, people living in garages and people paying insane rents. Now, you say violence is not the answer, I say to you that there is a point where people become so desperate that something has to give. The ruling class, the political elite keep wanting more and more, and squeezing the rest of us dry. If we don’t change politically, than my friend, it’s a sad fact but I do see no other solution than a violent one.

    We say this in the UK where conditions were far less worse than what we are seeing here in some parts in NZ.

  7. I’m a student of History too Chris. And when was the last time an anarchist threw a bomb or shot someone? I’ll tell you, the Spanish civil war – we lost BAD. Real bad and we took a long hard look at everything that was done up to that point. All the losses and the loss of almost everything in the United States, the wholesale destruction by totalitarians all across Europe and the death of all leading anarchist in Japan and south east Asia. The movement was all but wiped out. And I’d say, almost rightly so – violence begot violence and the spaces for democracy were shut down by the actions of the anarchist themselves.

    Move forward a few years to the late 1960’s and anarchism makes a come back – with a few major changes. Anarchy-Feminism is a real part of the movement, Free though is up held, and the influence of thinkers like Tolstoy and Gandhi are on the ascendancy. This movement suffers for it’s past – and many ascribe it with the unrelenting violence of the past.

    Then we should move on some more, to the 1990’s and the re-introduction of anarchy via popular culture and it is seen as a youth rebellion thing – a phase we should go through. This wave of anarchist see that violence gives them nothing – they look to the past and see the mistakes. The influence of thinkers like Rocker, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Louise Michel, sit at the top of the heap. And things like dancing, free thought, love, respect and working together are dominating the thinking. Did I say dancing.

    Forward a few years, and my anarchist friends across the globe are being attacked – we don’t throw bombs, we don’t shoot people. “We take the piss”, “we tell it like it is” we look for spaces of democracy, rather than shut them down with violence.

    We fight dirty – The dancing in Churches, The occupation of public space, the defiance officials and officialdom. The breaking of windows and hacking of networks – yeap the modern anarchist – don’t have to use bombs or guns anymore – they didn’t work and we’ve know that for some time.

    My offer still stands – this is the now, the present, not the past. Our political system has fallen into corruption. We have a over zealous and everywhere state. I think the very least the social democrats could do is see we are the ones who love freedom, free thought, community and togetherness. We are the ones who are being attacked because of our past. Sad really when you think, the only terrorism done with bombs in this country was done by our own government and the French state.

  8. wish you wouldn’t associate all anarchism with assassination attempts and terrorism, I find it hard enough to make friends as it is. Some of us are rather lovely..

  9. What about peaceful protests, not all anarchists are violent? The Ocupy movement is an as example of peaceful anarchy simply recognizing 99% principle – things can really change when 99% refuse to cooperate, consume and obey.

  10. “Those who benefit from violent political interventions, even when they are not responsible for them, will always find themselves tarred with same brush as the people who are.”

    Umm… Nelson Mandela.

  11. I think anarchists understood that violence detracted from mass movements by the time of the spanish revolution.

    As an anarchist i think throwing bombs and shooting people is just about the dumbest idea. What would it accomplish? You dont need to kill anyone, all you need to do is tell the truth to people and make them understand that the enemy is corporations.

    Once enough population understand you can engage in a pretty peaceful revolution, since cops wont be willing to kill peaceful protestors for long in any developed country.

  12. Kia ora Chris, when in doubt attack your allies huh? All I can add to Adam’s reply is that those who live in glass houses should not be throwing stones.

    Even the Zapatistas, who are nominally an armed movement, and somewhat anarchist aligned, use their weapons almost entirely for show, never for aggression, and instead use mass civil disobedience and direct action as their main revolutionary tactics. As Adam says, what group of anarchists has used assassination or civil war since Spain? I could give you a shopping list of marxist armies like the Shining Path who were actively killing people in the name of the revolution far more recently than that.

    How many millions of people have lost their lives trying to seize the state for socialism? How many more caught up in bloody pogroms like those of Pinochet and Suharto, or going back to the earlier part of last century, as you do, Franco and Hilter, which began in response to or in fear of marxist-inspired revolutions? Yet I don’t use that as fodder to write off my marxist friends, attack them on blogs, or reject their ideas on strategy and tactics with crude misrepresentations.

    Come to think of it, how many people were killed in wars fought by “social democratic” governments like Labour under Tony Blair, or the neo-liberal and more recently neo-con fightbacks the provoke? Social democratic wars are usually fought overseas as proxy wars in poorer countries, using weaker allies as cannon fodder, rather than openly as the marxists have done by fighting civil wars. That doesn’t make those people any less dead, or the (highly profitable) managed violence any less deplorable.

    If you seize a state, either by the ballot box or by the gun, what you are fundamentally seizing is a monopoly on violence and intimidation, the institutionalization of violence as an principle of social organisation. Do this or I’ll thump you. It’s the politics of the school bully, where the biggest, meanest kids get all the candy.

    The reason anarchists don’t set out to seize the state, either by the ballot box or the gun, is because we detest bullies. The only excusable reason for being involved with a state is to tie it up in its own bureaucracy, and reduce its efficiency at managed violence.

  13. There are so many types of anarchism, each with its own prefix or suffix, that debating the merits of anarchism per se is pretty meaningless. You can only really debate the merits of a particular strand of anarchism.

    Interestingly, Jim Bolger was breifly talking about divesting more power down to councils just before he was replaced as Prime Minister – could these potentially anarchist sensibilities have been the catalyst? The truth may never be known.

    ?:- { )

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