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propaganda of the deed

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Propaganda of the deed (or propaganda by the deed, from the French propagande par le fait) is a concept of anarchist origin, which appeared slightly towards the end of the 19th century, that promotes the decisive action of individuals to inspire further action by others.

There is no single definition of propaganda of the deed. Propaganda by the deed shares some similarities with the Marxist conception of praxis. Propaganda of the deed may take many forms. The only common definition is that any true propaganda of the deed must take the form of direct action. Although it may involve political violence, that is not necessarily the case, and many anarchists both coherently uphold pacifism and propaganda of the deed [1].

Although the anarchist movement has often been arbitrarily caricatured as a violent and even "terrorist" movement, due in particular to its conception of "propaganda of the deed" and several bombings and assassinations at the end of the 19th century, much direct action does not involve violence, although it may involve illegal activity (such as stealing and other forms of expropriation). In its most simple expression, propaganda of the deed advocates exemplary forms of direct action over wishful thinking and empty theories. As the anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin put it, a single "act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets." [2]

Anarchist origins[edit]

Various definitions of propaganda of the deed[edit]

An early proponent of propaganda by the deed was the Italian revolutionary, Carlo Pisacane (1818-1857), who wrote in his "Political Testament" (1857) that "ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around." Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), in his "Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis" (1870) stated that "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." [3]

The phrase "propaganda by the deed" was popularized by the French anarchist, Paul Brousse (1844-1912). In his article of that name, published in the August 1877 Bulletin of the Jura Federation, he cited the 1871 Paris Commune, a workers' demonstration in Berne provocatively using the socialist red flag, and the Benevento uprising in Italy as examples of "propaganda by the deed." [4]

Some anarchists, such as Johann Most, advocated publicizing violent acts of retaliation against counter-revolutionaries because "we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda." [5] Most was an early influence on American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman attempted propaganda by the deed when he tried in 1892 to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick in response to the shooting deaths of several Homestead Strike workers. [6]

By the 1880s, the slogan "propaganda of the deed" had begun to be used both within and outside of the anarchist movement to refer to individual bombings, regicides and tyrannicides. However, as soon as 1887, important figures in the anarchist movement distanced themselves from such individual acts. Peter Kropotkin thus wrote that year in Le Révolté that "it is an illusion to believe that a few kilos of dynamite will be enough to win against the coalition of exploiters" [7]. A variety of anarchists advocated the abandonment of these sorts of tactics in favor of collective revolutionary action, for example through the trade union movement. The anarcho-syndicalist, Fernand Pelloutier, argued in 1895 for renewed anarchist involvement in the labor movement on the basis that anarchism could do very well without "the individual dynamiter."[2]

State repression (including the infamous 1894 French lois scélérates) of the anarchist and labor movements following the few successful bombings and assassinations may have contributed to the abandonment of these kinds of tactics, although reciprocally state repression, in the first place, may have played a role in these isolated acts. The destructuration of the French socialist movement, divided into many groups, and, following the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune, the execution and exile of many communards to penal colonies, favored individualist political expression and acts. [8]

Other theorists advocating propaganda of the deed included the Italian anarchists Luigi Galleani and Errico Malatesta, although Malatesta was clear that by "propaganda by the deed" he did not mean terrorism, which he rejected as authoritarian, but rather communal insurrections that were meant to ignite a general uprising [9]. For the German anarchist Gustav Landauer "propaganda of the deed" meant the creation of libertarian social forms and communities that would inspire others to transform society [10]. In "Weak Statesmen, Weaker People," he wrote that the state is not something "that one can smash in order to destroy. The state is a relationship between human beings... one destroys it by entering into other relationships" [11]

In 1886, French anarchist Clément Duval achieved a form of propaganda of the deed stealing 15 000 francs from the mansion of a Parisian socialite, before accidentally setting the house on fire. Caught two weeks later, he was dragged from the court crying "Long live anarchy!", and condemned to death. His sentence was later commuted to hard labor on Devil's Island, French Guiana. In the anarchist paper Révolte, Duval famously declared that, "Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man... when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it... the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty".

Theorization of propaganda of the deed as a way to accelerate the coming of revolution[edit]

Propaganda of the deed thus included stealing (in particular bank robberies - named "expropriations" or "revolutionary expropriations" to finance the organization), rioting and general strikes which aimed at creating the conditions of an insurrection or even a revolution. Direct actions, including violent ones, were justified as the necessary counterpart to state repression. As sociologist Max Weber had shown, the state has the "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force", or, in Karl Marx's words, the state was only the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois class. Propaganda by the deed, including assassinations (sometimes involving bombs, named in French "machines infernales" - "hellish machines", usually made with bombs, sometimes only several guns assembled together), were thus legitimized by part of the anarchist movement and the First International as a valid means to be used in class struggle. The predictable state repressive responses to such direct actions were supposed to display to the people the inherently repressive nature of the bourgeois state. This would in turn bolster the revolutionary spirit of the people, leading to the overthrow of the state. This is the basic formula of the cycle protests-repression-protests, which in specific conditions may lead to an effective state of insurrection.

This cycle has been observed during the 1905 Russian Revolution or in Paris in May 1968. However, it failed to achieve its revolutionary objective on the vast majority of occasions, thus leading to the abandonment by the vast majority of the anarchist movement of such bombings. However, the state never failed in its repressive response, enforcing various lois scélérates which usually involved tough clampdowns on the whole of the labor movement. These harsh laws, sometimes accompanied by the proclamation of the state of exception, progressively led to increased criticism among the anarchist movement of assassinations. The role of several agent provocateurs and the use of deliberate strategies of tension by governments, using false flags terrorist actions, achieve to discredibilize this violent tactic to the eyes of most socialist libertarians.

Regicides and other assassinations[edit]

Numerous heads of state were assassinated between 1881 and 1914 by members of the libertarian socialist movement. Regicides were for obvious reasons celebrated as popular victory over counter-revolutionary forces, which remained strong a century after the 1789 French Revolution. The first assassinations were carried out by Russian anarchists, which would lead to the creation of the term of "nihilism". For example, U.S. President McKinley's assassin Leon Czolgosz claimed to have been influenced by anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. This was in spite of Goldman's disavowal of any association with him, his registered membership in the Republican, and never having belonged to an anarchist organization. Bombings were associated in the media with anarchists because international terrorism arose during this time period with the widespread distribution of dynamite. This image remains to this day. Private media are typically hostile to anarchism. As a result, depictions in the press and popular fiction helped create a lasting public impression that anarchists are violent terrorists. This perception was enhanced by events such as the 1886 Haymarket Riot, where anarchists were blamed for throwing a bomb at police who came to break up a public meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

List of assassinated important figures and other propaganda by the deed acts[edit]

Later developments[edit]

The abandonment of bombings, and new forms of propaganda of the deed[edit]

Propaganda of the deed, as a violent form of direct action involving bombings and targeted assassinations, was abandoned by the vast majority of the anarchist movement after World War I (1914-18) and the 1917 October Revolution. There are various causes for this, but important factors include state repression (including the use of agent provocateurs and of what would later be called a "strategy of tension"), the level of organization of the labour movement (in particular the new importance of anarcho-syndicalism in European Latin countries such as France, Italy and Spain) and, of course, the influence of the October Revolution on revolutionary theory and means of organization. Although the Leninist thesis of an avant-garde party composed of professional revolutionaries didn't break that much with the Socialist-Revolutionary organization, it did make completely individual acts of propaganda of the deed less relevant. Despite this abandonment, the concept of propaganda of the deed remained popular in the anarchist movement, and thus influenced various social and cultural movements, including the Underground, during the 20th century.

For example, the concept of direct action itself continued to be central in the socialist libertarian movement, in particular in the anarcho-syndicalism movement through the concept of the "revolutionary strike" inspired by French theorist Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1908). In the 1950s, the Situationist International's conception of creating "situations" may be related quite easily to propaganda of the deed (which is not surprising, given the influence of council communism on Guy Debord). The autonomist movement and urban guerrilla group then took on the concept in the 1970s (See next section). It is also during this period that the concept of culture jamming, spass guerrilla, guerrilla communication and other kinds of non-violent and sometimes simultaneously artistic and political acts become popular as a new form of direct action.

The importance of riots and rebellions in the creation of the conditions of an insurrection has never been abandoned, going through anarcho-syndicalism to autonomism and today's anti-globalization mediatic Black blocs.

Urban guerrilla groups of the 1970s and the autonomist movement[edit]

The concept of "propaganda of the deed" received renewed attention in the 1970s-1980s, especially among "urban guerrilleros" and the Italian autonomist movement, which had a large part in the creation of the squatting and Social Center movement.

Since some of the most radical autonomist or other far-left activists engaged not only in direct action (stealing, squatting, bank robberies - called expropriations - etc.) but also in assassination and bombing, "propaganda of the deed" again became synonymous (especially in the mainstream media) with terrorism. However, if "terrorism" is defined as the spreading terror among the civilian population in order to influence state policies, in particular through indiscriminate bombings, such bombings would not be classed as terrorist, since they targeted specific important individuals (heads of state - monarchs or presidents - , government officials, military commanders or major business figures). For example, the German Red Army Faction (RAF) kidnapped and murdered Hanns Martin Schleyer, who was president of the German Employer's Association and a former high-ranking SS member during the Third Reich, and targeted NATO centers. In contrast, right-wing Italian terrorist groups such as Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale engaged in indiscriminate bombings against civilians.

Many of Italy's bombings during the years of lead were false flag attacks that were at first attributed to far-left militant groups such as the Red Brigades. Especially after Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti's October 24, 1990 public revelation of the existence of the Gladio "stay-behind" secret army, it was incrasingly accepted that terrorist attacks such as the May 1972 Peteano attack (carried out by far-right activist Vincenzo Vinciguerra), the December 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing and the 1980 Bologna massacre had actually been carried out not by far-left groups, but by members of Ordine Nuovo or Avanguardia Nazionale, protected by elements within the Italian secret services, who also cooperated with Propaganda Due masonic lodge, the mafia and the CIA in Operation Gladio [13]. It might be argued that this "strategy of tension", starting with the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing, achieved its aim of terrorizing the civilian population (even though no state of emergency was declared, defeating the plans of Vincenzo Vinciguerra and other neofascists).

Context of 1970s urban guerrilla groups[edit]

The appearance in developed countries during the 1970s of leftist militant groups - such as the Red Brigades, the RAF or the less important French Action Directe - which (although they did not claim to be specifically anarchist) did engage in propaganda of the deed, carrying out selective assassinations, must be understood in context. Firstly, these groups were part of a larger social movement, including the autonomist movement in Italy, which practiced various types of direct action other than assassinations (in Italy, shootings in the legs was more often used). Secondly, these groups explicitly theorized their actions from a global point of view, in order to link them with world struggles, whether with the Vietnam War (1965-75) or with South American struggles against military juntas (see for example the RAF's actions against NATO and its ideological relations with Uruguayan Tupamaros). Thirdly, at least in Italy, the general context of a "strategy of tension" (strategia della tensione) can not be ignored. Figures such as Italian right-wing terrorist Stefano Delle Chiaie, involved in Gladio's strategy of tension, didn't mind occasionnally helping South American dictators. Delle Chiaie was in contact with the Chilean DINA and prepared Christian-Democrat Bernardo Leighton's 1975 failed assassination in Rome. Della Chiaie participated in Luis García Meza Tejada's cocaine coup in Bolivia; in 1995. Klaus Barbie, a Nazi Party member, despite his war crimes as the 'Butcher of Lyon' was recruited by a variety of secret services including the Office of Strategic Services (WP) and the Bolivian secret service before he too joined in the 'cocaine coup'. Italian attorney general Giovanni Salvi even accused the Italian secret services of having concealed proofs of DINA's involvement in the terrorist attack on Bernardo Leighton.

Brief timeline of modern propaganda of the deed acts[edit]

  • April 20 1963. Gabriel Hudon, member of the Front de libération du Québec (FLB - National Liberation Front of Quebec) kills a night watchman in a bombing.
  • May 1968. Riots in Paris. The New-York based group "Black Mask" becomes Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and carry out propaganda of the deed, excluding assassinations and bombings.
  • October 8, 1969. The U.S. group Weatherman's first event is to blow up a statue in Chicago, Illinois, dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket Riot. The "Days of Rage" riots then occur in Chicago during four days. 287 Weatherman members are arrested, and one of them killed.
  • December 6, 1969. Several Chicago Police cars parked in a Precinct parking lot at 3600 North Halsted Street, Chicago, are bombed. The Weather Underground Organization (WUO) later stated in their book Prairie Fire that they had perpetrated the explosion to protest the shooting deaths of the Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark two days earlier by police officers.
  • December 12, 1969. Piazza Fontana bombing (carried out by neofascists), beginning of Italy's lead of years. In 1998, David Carrett, officer of the U.S. Navy, was put under investigations on charge of political and military espionage and his participation to the Piazza Fontana bombing, among other events. Judge Guido Salvini also opened up a case against Sergio Minetto, Italian official for the US-NATO intelligence network, and pentito Carlo Digilio, who was suspected as a CIA informant. La Repubblica newspaper underlined that Carlo Rocchi, CIA's man at Milan, was surprised in 1995 searching for information concerning Operation Gladio, thus demonstrating that all was not over [14].
  • 1970-1972. The British Angry Brigade group carries out at least 25 bombings (police numbers). Almost all property damage, although one person was slightly injured.
  • September 12, 1970. The WUO helps Dr. Timothy Leary, LSD scientist, break out and escape from the California Men’s Colony prison.
  • October 8, 1970. Bombing of Marin County Courthouse (US) in retaliation for the killing of Black activists Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas, and James McClain.
  • October 10, 1970. The Queens Courthouse is bombed to express support for the New York prison riots.
  • October 14, 1970. The Harvard Center for International Affairs is bombed to protest the war in Vietnam.
  • May 1972. Peteano attack. Although the Italian Red Brigades were accused of it, it would be later discovered that neofascist Vincenzo Vinciguerra was the true responsible of it.
  • September 28, 1973. The ITT headquarters in New York and Rome, Italy are bombed in response to ITT's role in the September 11, 1973 Chilean coup.
  • November 6, 1973. The U.S. group Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) assassinates Oakland, California superintendent of schools Dr. Marcus Foster and badly wound his deputy Robert Blackburn.
  • September 11, 1974. Bombing of Anaconda Corporation (part of the Rockefeller Corporation) in retribution for Anaconda’s involvement in Pinochet's coup exactly a year before.
  • 1975. The German group Movement 2 June kidnaps Peter Lorenz, CDU candidate for mayor in Berlin, who is exchanged against four emprisonned comrades.
  • January 28, 1975. Bombing of the U.S. State Department in response to escalation in Vietnam.
  • April 21, 1975. The remaining members of the SLA rob the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California and kill Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer, in the process.
  • September 1975. Bombing of the Kennecott Corporation in retribution for Kennecott's involvement in the Chilean coup two years prior.
  • 1977. Hanns-Martin Schleyer, president of the German Employer's Association and a former high-ranking SS member, is executed by the Red Army Faction (RAF).
  • May 1978. Italian prime minister Aldo Moro and leader of the Christian Democracy was murdered by the Second Red Brigades, led by Mario Moretti, in obscure circumstances, involving a specific context of strategy of tension deliberately followed by Gladio, NATO's secret paramilitary "stay-behind" organization.
  • May 1, 1979. French group Action Directe carries out a machine gun attack on the employers' federation headquarters.
  • 1980. Bologna massacre. Licio Gelli, head-master of Propaganda Due masonic lodge, would eventually be convicted of a sentence for investigation diversion, while Italian intelligence agents are also involved. Two neofascists are found directly responsible of the bombing (more than 80 killed).
  • May 30, 1982. The Canadian group Direct Action (aka "Squamish Five") set off a large bomb at an electricity transmission project. Four transformers were wrecked beyond repair, but no one was injured.
  • 1984-1993. Bomb-attacks of the Dutch terrorist organisation RaRa (Radical Anti-Racist Action). 1984: Van Heutsz monument (Van Heutzsch was the Dutch commander during the Aceh War); 1985-1987: several bomb-atacks on the Makro, which was active in South Africa; 1991: the house of state secretary of justice Aad Kosto was blown up; 1993: bomb-attack on the Dutch ministery of social affairs and employment.
  • 1985. Action Directe assassinates René Audran, in charge of the state's arms-dealing.
  • July 10, 1985. The French DGSE secret service sinks the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior flagship to prevent her from interfering in a nuclear test in Mururoa. Fernando Pereira, a photographer, dies.
  • 1986. Georges Besse, CEO of Renault but before leader of Eurodif nuclear consortium (in which Iran had a 10% stake), is allegedly assassinated by Action Directe (although this thesis would be questionned, in particular by investigative journalist Dominique Lorentz).
  • November 30, 1999. Black blocs destroy the storefronts of The Gap, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other multi-nationals with retail locations in downtown Seattle during the anti-WTO demonstrations.
  • 2000. An Italian parliamentary report from the Olive center-left coalition concluded that the strategy of tension had been supported by the United States to "stop the PCI [Italian Communist Party], and to a certain degree also the PSI [Italian Socialist Party], from reaching executive power in the country". It also stated that "Those massacres, those bombs, those military actions had been organized or promoted or supported by men inside Italian state institutions and, as has been discovered more recently, by men linked to the structures of United States intelligence." [15]
  • 2001. After the July Genoa G8 summit, the Publixtheatre Caravan, part of the No Border network, is accused of being part of a "criminal organization" called "Black blocs", although such "Black blocs" are not organized and only form themselves on a spontaneous manner during demonstrations, as in the older autonomist movement.
  • May 6 2002. Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who got millions of Dutch followers by stating that muslims are backward, that the anti-discrimination laws should be terminated and who was in favour of fur, was killed by veganist and left-wing activist Volkert van der Graaf.

Justifications for the political use of violence and "illegalism"[edit]

Anarchists and similar radicals often distinguish between their use of political violence and terrorism, arguing that there is a fundamental distinction between indiscriminate bombings carried out against a civilian population, and targeted assassinations carried out against people in positions of political, military or economic power. They emphasize that many scholars define terrorism as the attempt to spread terror in the population through indiscriminate bombings, thus excluding anarchist propaganda of the deed from the definiton of terrorism.

However, even though propaganda of the deed may be distinguished from terrorism, it still often takes the form of violent and illegal actions, which have been theorized as "illegalism". This political use of violence is understood by its proponents in the frame of a general conception of the state as the control apparatus of the bourgeoisie, and of class struggle as a form of effective civil war. The historic conditions of the Cold War and the strategy of tension are also taken into account. Thus, as anarchists often put it, "peace without justice isn't peace", but war between exploited and exploiters. In their eyes, this "social war" morally legitimizes the use of violence against broader "social violence." This view, of course, is not shared by pacifist libertarians. Rioting is thus justified as a means to enhance class consciousness and prepare the objective conditions for a popular uprising. This view of rioting may be one of the most permanent aspect of propaganda of the deed, which runs like a thread from the end of the 19th century and Georges Sorel's theory of the "revolutionary strike" through anarcho-syndicalism and even through surrealist and situationists' provocations, the autonomist and the anti-globalization Black Blocs.

A heated controversy concerning the use of violence continues to take place inside the anarchist movement. Even those who are not opposed to the political use of violence for theoretical reasons (as pacifist anarchists are) may consider it unnecessary and even dangerous strategically speaking, in certain conditions. Many note that the events of 1970s showed clearly how terrorism may be used to influence politics in the frame of the "strategy of tension" by a state and its secret services, through agents provocateurs and false flag terrorist attacks. In Italy and other countries, the years of lead led to reinforced anti-terrorism legislation, criticized by social activists as a new form of lois scélérates which were used to repress the whole of the socialist movement, not just militant groups. Many also note that the rare cases in which terrorism has achieved its revolutionary aims are mostly in the context of national liberation struggles, while the urban guerrilla movements have all failed.


  1. It should be noted, however, that most anarchists are not strictly speaking pacifists but rather antimilitarists. This is easily explained by the conception, shared by Marxists, of the state has a repressive bourgeois apparatus and of political domination as a form of violence. See also Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of "symbolic violence" for more discussions about various types of violence.
  2. "Spirit of Revolt" by Kropotkin
  3. "Letter to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis" (1870) by Mikhail Bakunin
  4. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas
  5. "Action as Propaganda" by Johann Most, July 25, 1885
  6. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912) by Alexander Berkman
  7. Dynamite had been invented in 1862 by Nobel, who gave his name to the eponymous prize and... to the Nobel peace prize.
  8. Historian Benedict Anderson thus writes:
    "In March 1871 the Commune took power in the abandoned city and held it for two months. Then Versailles seized the moment to attack and, in one horrifying week, executed roughly 20,000 Communards or suspected sympathizers, a number higher than those killed in the recent war or during Robespierre’s ‘Terror’ of 1793–94. More than 7,500 were jailed or deported to places like New Caledonia. Thousands of others fled to Belgium, England, Italy, Spain and the United States. In 1872, stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left. Not till 1880 was there a general amnesty for exiled and imprisoned Communards. Meantime, the Third Republic found itself strong enough to renew and reinforce Louis Napoleon’s imperialist expansion—in Indochina, Africa, and Oceania. Many of France’s leading intellectuals and artists had participated in the Commune (Courbet was its quasi-minister of culture, Rimbaud and Pissarro were active propagandists) or were sympathetic to it. The ferocious repression of 1871 and after was probably the key factor in alienating these milieux from the Third Republic and stirring their sympathy for its victims at home and abroad." (in Benedict Anderson (July-August 2004). "In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel". New Left Review. </small> </blockquote> According to some analysts, in post-war Germany, the prohibition of the Communist Party (KDP) and thus of institutional far-left political organization may also, in the same manner, have played a role in the creation of the Red Army Faction.


  9. "Violence as a Social Factor," (1895) by Malatesta
  10. Gustav Landauer, "Anarchism in Germany," 1895[1]
  11. Der Sozialist, 1910)
  12. Benedict Anderson (July-August 2004). "In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel". New Left Review. </li>
  13. See Vincenzo Vinciguerra's testimony about the help received from Italian secret services; See also Daniele Ganser, "Terrorism in Western Europe: An Approach to NATO's Secret Stay-Behind Armies" in Winter/Spring 2005 Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations , and Operation Gladio for more information
  14. Template:it icon "Strage di Piazza Fontana spunta un agente USA". La Repubblica. February 11, 1998. ("A U.S. agent appears in the Piazza Fontana bombing") </li>
  15. "Sennato della Repubblica. Commissione parlamentare d'inchiesta sul terrorismo in Italia e sulle cause della mancata individuazione dei responsabiliy delle stragi: Stragi e terrorismo in Italia dal dopoguerra al 1974." Relazione del Gruppo Democratici di Sinistra l'Ulivo, Roma, June 2000. Quoted by Daniele Ganser in NATO's Secret Armies - Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, 2005, Frank Cass, London. ISBN 0714685003. See Operation Gladio for more details
  16. </ol>


See also[edit]

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