Propaganda of the Deed

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post attempts to rewrite history:

Since the days of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, radicals have talked of the “propaganda of the deed” — the use of dramatic, usually violent, acts to inspire the masses and topple the existing order. The method — targeting symbolic landmarks to create powerful images — is now familiar. The killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The first World Trade Center attack. The Oklahoma City bombing. And 9/11 itself.

In one short paragraph he ties anarchism to just about every major terrorist attack in history. This will, of course, be read by millions of people who will never give it a second thought, but is it true?

Interestingly the phrase “propaganda of the deed” has often been attributed to Bakunin, but it appears nowhere in his writings and appears in anarchist literature only after his death. We do find the phrase used once in a letter Bakunin wrote in 1873 to his comrades in the Jura Federation, an organization of workers and anarchists that argued for direct action: “I am convinced that the time of grand theoretical discourse, written or spoken, is past,” Bakunin wrote:

“Over the last nine years, the international has developed more than enough ideas to save the world–if ideas alone can save the world–and I defy anyone to invent a new one. It is no longer the time for ideas but for deeds and acts.”

What were these deeds and acts to consist of? Not terrorism or violence, but “the organization of the forces of the proletariat.” Subsequent anarchists such as Errico Malatesta, Paul Brousse, and Peter Kropotkin built on Bakunin’s argument that action, not theory, was needed, and developed the doctrine of propaganda by the deed. Their argument was that workers and peasants would not be convinced by words, for they did not have the time to read and  so needed practical proof that revolt was possible. Propaganda by the deed meant demonstrations, burning of deeds, titles, and mortgages and other forms of collective action extending even to insurrections. Only later did it denigrate into terrorism and assassination, and by then it bore no resemblance to Bakunin’s tactic. For him, propaganda by the deed could be a bridge between theory and practice, between intellectuals on the one hand and workers and peasants on the other, for it provided concrete examples of how to organize and fight.


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