Sophie’s Masson’s compares the terrorism of 19th anarchists with that of Al-Qaeda today. Many of those sympathetic to anarchism object to this kind of comparison and I can understand why. But if you read her post carefully you’ll see that Sophie is also making a more interesting point about the practical consequences of anarchist ideas.
Many years ago anarchist Alexander Berkman argued that:
…many Anarchists who at one time believed in violence as a means of propaganda have changed their opinion about it and do not favor such methods any more. There was a time, for instance, when Anarchists advocated individual acts of violence, known as “propaganda by deed.” They did not expect to change government and capitalism into Anarchism by such acts, nor did they think that the taking off of a despot would abolish despotism. No, terrorism was considered a means of avenging a popular wrong, inspiring fear in the enemy, and also calling attention to the evil against which the act of terror was directed. But most Anarchists today do not believe any more in “propaganda by deed” and do not favor acts of that nature.
No one denies that people who called themselves anarchists engaged in terror. But as anarchists would argue, governments have also deliberately practised terror.
What were Hiroshima and the fire bombing of Tokyo if not attempts to inspire fear for political ends? Anarchists might argue that violence and oppression are essential features of the state while their opponents argue that terrorism is inseparable from the practice of revolution. Propagandists will always try to define their opponents in the most unflattering way possible. In Quadrant Stalin becomes the exemplar of leftism while in Arena classical liberalism is a precursor to fascism. Aside from the propagandists, most commentators would agree that the majority of today’s anarchists are non-violent – some to the point of vegetarianism.
Anarchists like Berkman did advocate revolutionary violence but also warned against senseless acts of destruction. Berkman argued that while existing social conditions would need to be swept aside: "conditions are not destroyed by breaking and smashing things. You can’t destroy wage slavery by wrecking the machinery in mills and factories, can you? You won’t destroy government by setting fire to the White House." I think this makes these anarchists different to groups like Al-Qaeda.
But returning to Sophie’s post, I think Sophie was interested in making a deeper point about the practical consequences of anarchist thought. Conservatives (like Sophie?) tend to see crime and violence as symptoms of a breakdown in authority. Conservatives believe that all human beings have evil and destructive desires. The fight against evil isn’t always a struggle against something alien – it’s a struggle we fight against our own natures. Evil needs to be controlled from the outside. Individuals need to learn discipline and restraint and societies need to set and enforce norms.
Anarchists see the world quite differently. For them crime and violence are the result of an oppressive social structure that warps a human nature which is essentially good. Without the destructive influence of oppressive corporations and governments human beings would live in harmony. Just as natural wilderness flourishes most when human beings interfere the least, anarchists argue that human beings and their communities will only be able to thrive when oppressive authority withers away.
For conservatives, this idea is naive and dangerous. If anarchists succeed in destroying structures of power and authority they create a vacuum which will be filled by something even more oppressive. I think that this may have been one of the points Sophie was trying to make. And even if you don’t agree, it’s an interesting argument don’t you think?