Publication information
view printer-friendly version
Source: American Catholic Quarterly Review
Source type: journal
Document type: article
Document title: “Anarchism”
Author(s): Neill, Charles P.
Date of publication: January 1902
Volume number: 27
Issue number: 105
Pagination: 160-79 (excerpt below includes only pages 170-79)

Neill, Charles P. “Anarchism.” American Catholic Quarterly Review Jan. 1902 v27n105: pp. 160-79.
anarchism; anarchism (criticism).
Named persons
Mikhail Bakunin [variant spelling below]; Gaetano Bresci; Paul Brousse; Leon Czolgosz; James A. Garfield; Emma Goldman; Jean Grave; Humbert I; Peter Kropotkin; Judas Maccabeus [identified as Judah below]; William McKinley; Louise Michel; Johann Most; Serge Netschajew; Sophia Perovskaya; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; George B. Wheeler; E. V. Zenker.
This portion of the article (below) includes one footnote. Click on the superscripted number preceding the footnote to navigate to the location in the text.
1 I have taken this quotation at second hand. I have not been able to get the original containing it, but it is given in a reliable treatise, and the reference is to Kropotkin’s work by title and page, “L‘Esprit de Revolte,” p. 7. [p177]


Anarchism [excerpt]

     Let us now pass from “philosophic Anarchy” to “practical Anarchy,” from the philosophy of Anarchism to the agitation for the spread of this philosophy and the inauguration of the actual revolution that is to usher in the new régime.
     This propagandism has two representatives, “the man with a book, and the man with a bomb.” Their respective activities may be described as a “campaign of education”—to borrow a phrase from “practical politics”—and a campaign of assassination.
     So far as the first sort of campaign is concerned, it does not materially differ from any other peaceful propaganda carried on for the dissemination of a theory; but the extent of the activity in it is, perhaps, little understood.
     The second method of propagandism, the campaign of assassination, is more novel; and its real nature and significance are, probably, not at all understood by “outsiders.” The list of crimes, which, during the past quarter of a century, have been perpetrated in the name of Anarchism, have not by any means been merely those mad and aimless acts of irresponsible individuals, such as mark every acute social agitation. They have not been aimless. On the contrary, they have a philosophy behind them. They represent one phase of a systematic propagandism, styled by the Anarchists themselves, “propaganda by deed,” or “propaganda by action”—which has been one of the distinguishing features of the later Anarchist [170][171] movement. It represents a policy borrowed from the Nihilist of Russia, and it was incorporated in the Anarchist movement when Anarchism, which, after a short celebrity, was passing into oblivion, was revived in Western Europe by Russian refugees. For it must be understood that it is the baleful and blasphemous influence of Michael Bakounine, and of his Russian disciples, and not the spirit of Proudhon, or his German contemporaries, that has given character to the modern Anarchist movement, and lent to it the sanction of the dagger and the bomb.
     The conditions in Russia were such that many of the Nihilist leaders felt that the great body of the Russian people was ripe for revolt; and that it only needed a few acts of daring on the part of individuals to awaken the masses to the fact that the revolution had begun and to inspire them with a sense of their own power. What was needed, they felt, was not so much to convert the people to the principles of revolution—thanks to the despotism, that was already done; it was only necessary to arouse the masses to action, by acts of personal revolt. “Words,” writes one of the Nihilist leaders, “have no value for us, unless followed at once by action. But all is not action that is so called; for example, the modest and too cautious organization of secret societies without external announcements to outsiders is in our eyes merely ridiculous and intolerable child’s-play. By external announcements we mean a series of actions that positively destroy something—a person, a cause, a condition that hinders the emancipation of the people. Without sparing our lives, we must break into the life of the people with a series of rash, even senseless, actions, and inspire them with a belief in their powers, awake them, unite them, and lead them on to the triumph of their cause.” (Netschajew: quoted by Zenker, “Anarchism,” p. 168.)
     Brousse, another disciple of Bakounine, and one of the leading spirits of the Bakounist revival of Anarchism, seized the idea of this “propaganda by action,” and advocated it for the spread of Anarchism in the Western world. “Deeds,” says he, “are talked of on all sides; the indifferent masses inquire about their origin, and thus pay attention to the new doctrine, and discuss it. Let men once get as far as this, and it is not hard to win over many of them.” (Zenker, p. 169.)
     It is to be noted, therefore, that assassination and outrage are counseled, not because they directly realize the aim of Anarchy; not that it is thought that the removal of a Czar or a King or a President will at once overturn the system of which he is the head; but they are counseled as a sort of “sanguinary advertisement” to attract the mass of the people to the study of Anarchism. The man with the bomb thus acts as advance agent for the man with the book. [171][172]
     In the light of this sort of philosophy, acts of outrage that had seemed wanton and aimless take on another complexion.
     Since the assassination of President McKinley it has been asserted on all sides, both by Anarchists themselves and by many who, while having no sympathy with their doctrines, have desired to deal with them in all fairness, that violence and murder are no essential part of the philosophy of Anarchism; and that these outrages, when perpetrated by individual Anarchists, should not be laid to the charge of Anarchism itself. Thus, Emma Goldman writes:

     “Having shown that violence is not the result of personal influence or one particular ideal, I deem it unnecessary to go into a lengthy theoretical discussion as to whether Anarchism contains the element of force or not. The question has been discussed time and again, and it is proven that Anarchism and violence are as far apart from each other as liberty and tyranny. I care not what the rabble says, but to those who are still capable of understanding I would say that anarchism, being a philosophy of life, aims to establish a state of society in which man’s inner make-up and the conditions around him can blend harmoniously together, so that he will be able to utilize all the forces to enlarge and beautify the life about him. To those I would also say that I do not advocate violence; government does this, and force begets force.”—Free Society, October 6.

     Another writer, not an Anarchist, takes up the cudgels for Anarchism, believing that it is being misrepresented, and hails it as a gospel of peace, and not “a message of blood:”

     “Anarchy aims to abolish government not by killing rulers, but developing thoughts in the minds of men, that government is not necessary, that there is room enough on earth for men to dwell in peace and plenty, without standing armies, police, jails and scaffolds. The Anarchist propaganda is not a message of blood, but of peace; it appeals to reason, to human sympathy. Study their literature and it will be found that there is no connection between Czolgosz’s act and the philosophy of Anarchy. Suppose Czolgosz was an Anarchist. It is cruel and inhuman to hold all Anarchists responsible for the act of one of their number. The slayer of Garfield claimed that he had a mission from God to kill the President, but did the world at large hold Christianity responsible for that bloody act?”—George B. Wheeler in the Freethought Ideal, quoted in Free Society, October 27.

     From London comes the assurance that Anarchism has dispensed with bombs, and that when murder is wrought it is at the wicked instigation of the enemies of Anarchism—the police. “Anarchists do not make plots in these days; they know that in every case where bomb throwing is advocated the suggestion comes from a police pupil or a police dupe.” (Freedom, London. Quoted in Free Society, October 20.)
     Another Anarchist leader assures us that the Anarchists themselves deprecated the act of Czolgosz, as likely to injure their cause with the public:

     “On September 7 last there was probably not an Anarchist in the United States who did not deprecate the act of Czolgosz, if as nothing else, then as probably a great blow to Anarchism.”—Free Society, October 27.

     And another Anarchist writer seeks to render “propaganda by deed” a mere statement of an old platitude:

     “‘Propaganda by deed’ is now often quoted as an interpretation of assassination. [172][173] In reality its advocates meant to convey nothing else than the carrying out of our beliefs into action. All theories are of little value unless they are applied to our daily life and conduct.”—Free Society, October 27.

     These extracts assert: first, that there is no necessary connection between the philosophy of Anarchism and violence or assassination; and, second, that Anarchists do not, as a matter of expediency, counsel violence, and that “propaganda by deed” has no such sinister signification as is claimed by those who identify it with assassination. As to the first position, it is entirely beside the particular point that is of concern to us. The speculative philosophy of Anarchism may or may not be entirely separable in theory from violence, or murder; our concern is not with the philosophy of Anarchism, but with the present Anarchist movement. It may, in turn, be urged that violence and murder are, carefully speaking, not an essential part of the Anarchist movement. But this, too, is beside the point; the question of real interest to us is, does it actually form a part of that movement? We have little concern with a possible, or an imaginary, or an “expurgated” Anarchist movement; but we have much concern with the actual movement that is going on about us—and with that movement in its entirety. As to the contention that the Anarchists do not advocate violence, and that “propaganda by deed” does not mean assassination—all this is simply not true. It will be seen from what follows that the Anarchist movement has, as a matter of fact, incorporated within itself both the philosophy and the practice of the assassination feature of this diabolical “propaganda by deed.” In proof of this, let us place in contrast to the disclaimers already quoted the following unequivocal statements, taken from writings at the present time current in Anarchist circles, and written by leaders whose influence is, admittedly, strongly felt in the movement now going on in the United States.
     Let us first understand, from an accepted Anarchist source, just what is the interpretation of the phrase “propaganda by deed.” We shall find it clearly interpreted in “Moribund Society and Anarchy,” a work written in French by Jean Grave, and much esteemed by Anarchists. It was translated into English about two years ago, and has had much circulation in American Anarchist circles. Grave does not mince matters; he is sufficiently explicit for the most exacting. On pages 125-6 we find:
     “‘Propaganda by deed’ is nothing more than thought transferred into action; and in the preceding chapter we observed that to feel a thing profoundly is to want to realize it. This is a sufficient reply to detractors. But, per contra, there are some Anarchists more incensed than enlightened who have, in turn, been more anxious to relegate everything to propaganda by deed; to kill the capitalists, to knock employers on the head, set fire to the factories and monu- [173][174] ments, that was all they could think of; whoever failed to talk about burning and killing was unworthy to call himself an Anarchist!
     “Now, as to action our position is this: We have already said that action is the flowering of thought; but furthermore this action must have an aim, we must know what it is about, it must tend towards an end sought and not turn against itself. Let us take for example, the incendiary burning of a factory in full operation; it employs a large number of workmen. The director of this factory is an average employer, neither too good nor too bad, of whom nothing in particular is to be said. Evidently if this factory is set afire, without either rhyme or reason, it can have no other effect but to throw the workmen into the streets. These latter, furious at the temporary access of misery to which they are thereby reduced, will not hunt for the reasons which prompted the authors of the deed; they will most certainly devote all their anger to the incendiaries and the ideas which led them to take up the torch. Behold the consequences of an unreasonable act! But let us, on the other hand, suppose a struggle between employers and workmen—any sort of strife. In a strike there surely are some employers more cruel than others, who by their exactions have necessitated this strike or by their intrigues have kept it up longer by persuading their colleagues to resist the demands of the strikers; without doubt these employers draw upon themselves the hatred of the workers. Let us suppose one of the like executed in some corner, with a placard posted explaining that he has been killed as an exploiter, or that his factory has been burned from the same motive. In such a case there is no being mistaken as to the reasons prompting the authors of the deeds, and we may be sure that they will be applauded by the whole laboring world. Such are intelligent deeds, which show that actions should always follow a guiding principle.”
     With equal explicitness, Grave tells his Anarchist brethren of other lines of “action” besides assassination:
     “At the outset Anarchists must renounce the warfare of army against army, battles arrayed on fields, struggles laid out by strategists and tacticians manœuvring armed bodies as the chess player manœuvres his figures upon the chess-board. The struggle should be directed chiefly towards the destruction of institutions. The burning up of deeds, registers of land surveys, proceedings of notaries and solicitors, tax collectors’ books, the ignoring of the limits of holdings, destruction of the regulations of the civil staff, etc.; the expropriation of the capitalists, taking possession in the name of all, putting articles of consumption freely at the disposal of all—all this is the work of small and scattered groups, of skirmishes, not regular battles. And this is the warfare which the Anarchists must seek to [174][175] encourage everywhere in order to harass governments, compel them to scatter their forces; tire them out and decimate them piecemeal. No need of leaders for blows like these; as soon as some one realizes what should be done he preaches by example, acting so as to attract others to him.” (P. 123.)
     But we need not go so far from home, nor a year or more back, to find the principles of warfare that are recommended by those on the “inside” as proper to the Anarchist movement. A California exponent of principles—a woman—writing in a recognized organ of the Anarchists, under date of the past April, explicitly urges on her comrades a carnival of “looting,” in which bank, church, government treasuries, shop, and private household, shall alike be the object of indiscriminate attack. For her text she takes, “The strong, from the beginning, have stolen their bread;” and then proceeds: “But, I would ask, why do those of us who recognize the thieves, hesitate, from ‘principle,’ to appropriate, ‘without money and without price,’ anything they ‘own’ which we want whenever it is handy for us to do so? . . . Courage is required to run the risk of detection and detention by the ‘authorities,’ but is the need for fearlessness greater than that demanded for the expression of revolutionary ideas, or to defy Grundy in everyday life? . . . Many conventional people excuse theft from vampires if the deed be done to ward off starvation. Is mere capacity for breathing life? To the lover of beauty it is hardship if prevented from having beautiful things. The hindering is, without question, the starving of the part of the individual. If ‘self preservation is the first law of nature,’ who shall blame a poverty pinched person from pilfering a privileged parasite?
     “Do I advocate theft as part of an economic system of society? By no means. In a FREE society theft would be impossible. In an authoritarian society it cannot be avoided. What I advocate is disobedience to authority, and I maintain that thwarting its schemes in any measure or by any means is estimable—it is revolutionary. . . .
     “When a rebel refuses to pay rent or tax, or beats a railroad corporation out of the customary fare, the acts are commended by every genuine revolutionist. In my opinion the deed is not less deserving of praise if it be the looting of a bank, or church moneybox, or government treasury, or if shoplifting, common burglary, or petty larceny, be practised. . . .
     “Theft from the rich spongers is honorable, not only when committed to slay the wolf of hunger, but also when an artistic taste can be gratified or cultivated, a mechanical faculty developed, work and worry lessened, pleasure gained—in short, whenever the comfort of the oppressed can be enhanced thereby.” [175][176]
     And this is the stuff that is preached in the name of the Anarchist movement!
     Kropotkin probably stands foremost amongst the living prophets of modern Anarchism, and he is usually regarded as a “philosophic Anarchist,” as one who would give no countenance to a campaign of violence, and who rejects the “propaganda of action.” But I find him quoted very directly to the contrary. The following is given as his reply to the question of “how words must be translated into deeds:”
     “The answer is easy; it is action, the continual, incessantly renewed action of the minority that will produce this transformation. Courage, devotion, self-sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, subjection, and terror. What form is action to take? Any form—as different as are circumstances, means, and temperaments. Sometimes arousing sorrow, sometimes scorn, but always bold; sometimes isolated, sometimes in common, it despises no means ready to hand, it neglects no opportunity of public life to propagate discontent, and to clothe it in words, to arouse hatred against the exploiter, to make the ruling powers ridiculous, to show their weakness, and ever to excite audacity, the spirit of revolt, by the preaching of example. If a feeling of revolution awakes in a country, and the spirit of open revolt is already sufficiently alive among the masses to break out in tumultuous disorders in the streets, émeutes and risings—then it is ‘action’ alone by which the minority can create this feeling of independence and that atmosphere of audacity without which no revolution can be completed. Men of courage who do not stop at words, but seek to transform them into deeds, pure characters for whom the action and the idea are inseparable, who prefer prisons, exile, or death, rather than a life not in accordance with their principles, fearless men, who know what must be risked in order to win success—those are the devoted outposts who begin the battle long before the masses are sufficiently moved to unfurl the standard of insurrection, and to march sword in hand to the conquest of their rights. Amid complaints, speeches, theoretical discussions, an act of personal or general revolt takes place. It cannot be otherwise than that the great mass at first remains indifferent; those especially who admire the courage of the person or group that took the initiative will apparently follow the wise and prudent in hastening to describe this act as folly, and in speaking of the fools and hot-headed people who compromise everything. These wise and prudent ones had fully calculated that their party, if it slowly pursued its objects, would perhaps have conquered the world in one, two, or three centuries, and now the unforeseen intrudes! The unforeseen is that which was not foreseen by the prudent. But those who know his- [176][177] tory and can lay claim to any well ordered reasoning power, however small, know quite well that a theoretical propaganda of revolution must necessarily be translated into action long before theorists have decided that the time for it has come. None the less, the theorists are enraged with the ‘fools’ and excommunicate and ban them. But the fools find sympathy, the mass of the people secretly applaud their boldness, and they find imitators. In proportion as the first of them fill the prisons, others come forward to continue their work. The acts of illegal protest, of revolt, of revenge increase. Indifference becomes impossible. Those who at first only asked what on earth the fools meant, are compelled to take them seriously, to discuss their ideas, and to take sides for or against. By acts which are done under the notice of the people the new idea communicates itself to men’s minds and finds adherents. One such act makes in a few days more proselytes than thousands of books.”¹
     In his work, “Anarchist Morality” (pp. 14-15), Kropotkin unequivocally, and quite coolly, concedes the right of theft and assassination to those who, in his jargon, “have conquered the right.” Here are his words:
     “Perhaps it may be said—it has been said sometimes—‘But if you think you must always treat others as you would be treated yourself, what right have you to use force under any circumstances whatsoever? What right have you to level a cannon at any barbarous or civilized invaders of your country? What right have you to dispossess the exploiter? What right to kill not only a tyrant, but a mere viper?’
     “What right? What do you mean by that singular word, borrowed from the law? Do you wish to know if I shall feel conscious of having acted well in doing this? If those I esteem will think I have done well? Is that what you ask? If so, the answer is simple.
     “Yes, certainly! Because we, we ourselves, should ask to be killed, like venomous beasts, if we went to invade Burmese or Zulus, who have done us no harm. We should say to our son or our friend: ‘Kill me, if I ever take part in the invasion!’
     “Yes, certainly! Because we, we ourselves, should ask to be dispossessed if, giving the lie to our principles, we seized upon an inheritance, did it fall from on high, to use it for the exploitation of others.
     “Yes, certainly! Because any man with a heart asks beforehand that he may be slain, if ever he becomes venomous; that a dagger may be plunged into his heart, if ever he should take the place of a dethroned tyrant. . . . [177][178]
     “Perovskaya and her comrades killed the Russian Czar. And all mankind, despite the repugnance to the spilling of blood, despite the sympathy for one who had allowed the serfs to be liberated, recognized their right to do as they did. Why? Not because the act was generally recognized as useful; two out of three still doubt if it was so; but because it was felt that not for all the gold in the world would Perovskaya and her comrades have consented to become tyrants themselves. Even those who know nothing of the drama are certain that it was no youthful bravado, no palace conspiracy, no attempt to gain power; it was hatred of tyranny, even to the scorn of self, even to the death.
     “‘These men and women,’ it was said, ‘had conquered the right to kill;’ as it was said of Louise Michel, ‘she had the right to rob;’ or again, ‘they have the right to steal,’ in speaking of those terrorists who lived on dry bread, and stole a million or two of the Kishineff treasure, taking, at their own peril, all possible precaution to free the sentinel, who guarded the wealth with fixed bayonet, from all responsibility.
     “Mankind has never refused the right to use force to those who have conquered that right, be it exercised upon the barricades or in the shadow of a cross-way. But if such an act is to produce a deep impression upon men’s minds, the right must be conquered. Without this, such an act, whether useful or no, will remain merely a brutal fact, of no importance in the progress of ideas. Folks will see in it nothing but a displacement of force, simply the substitution of one exploiter for another.”
     In view of utterances like these, all general disclaimers, all assertions that Anarchism, as it actually exists here and now, is purely a gospel of peace, a serene and beautiful philosophic ideal, that involves no theory of violence and neither encourages nor justifies pillage or assassination, simply become empty rhetoric. Not only do Anarchists encourage the ill balanced to acts of murder, but they applaud the actual commission, and accept the perpetrator as one of their heroes. In an Anarchist lecture delivered in Philadelphia last April, and republished in Chicago within a month after the assassination of the President, we find the following “as to methods” of propagandism:

     “A few words as to the methods. In times past Anarchists have excluded each other on these grounds also; revolutionists contemptuously said ‘Quaker’ of peace men; ‘savage Communists’ anathematized the Quakers in return. This, too, is passing. I say this: all methods are to the individual capacity and decision.”

     The lecturer then goes on to describe the favorite methods of propagandism adopted by “John Most,” “Peter Kropotkin,” and other lights, and approves each for adopting the method best suited [178][179] to his temperament; and then, passing on to Bresci, the assassin of Humbert, acknowledges him as an Anarchist propagandist, and accepts his “method” as entirely proper:

     “And over there in his coffin cell in Italy lies the man whose method was to kill a king and shock the nations into a sudden consciousness of the hollowness of their law and order. Him, too, him and his act, without reserve I accept, and bend in silent acknowledgment of the strength of the man. For there are some whose nature it is to think and plead, and yield, and yet return to the address and so make headway in the minds of their fellowmen; and there are others who are stern and still, resolute, implacable as Judah’s dream of God; and those men strike—strike once and have ended. But the blow resounds across the world. And as on a night when the sky is heavy with storm some sudden great white flare sheets across it and every object starts sharply out, so in the flash of Bresci’s pistol shot the whole world for a moment saw the tragic figure of the Italian people, starved, stunted, crippled, huddled, degraded, murdered; and at the same moment that their teeth chattered with fear, they came and asked the Anarchists to explain themselves. And hundreds of thousands of people read more in those few days than they had ever read of the idea before.”

     In conclusion, the lecturer speeds her parting hearers with this significant suggestion: “Each choose that method which expresses your selfhood best, and condemn no other man because he expresses his Self otherwise.” And the obvious interpretation of this is, simply, that if any of her auditors have a murderous bent, let them not hesitate to give it sweep.
     Here, then, is the real content, the true significance, of Anarchism as it exists about us to-day; and it is important for us to discuss the subject in a practical sense, and not from an academic viewpoint that regards a theoretical Anarchism which has little real likeness to the actual thing.

Washington, D. C.



top of page