We look at the macabre history of revolutionary terror acts and compare them to the terror acts of Nobel Peace laureates. If they do it to us, should we do it back?
Nobel Prize winning acts of terror. In the topsy-turvy world of politics, almost everything has been skewed to make evil acts appear to be correct. ‘Peace’ for example. Four US presidents to date have been Nobel Peace laureates. Teddy Roosevelt invaded half of Mexico and instigated a separatist uprising in Colombia to ‘create’ Panama. All for the ‘good of humanity’. Woodrow Wilson bagged a Nobel too. Presumably they overlooked his barbaric invasions and sacking of resources in Haiti, Dominican Republic and Mexico, amongst other crimes. Jimmy Carter’s administration oversaw one of the blackest periods of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Carter fully supported one of the most heinous military dictatorships in the 20th century as Samosa turned his forces on his own population in Nicaragua, while the U.S. funded and trained the Contras to quell rebel forces in the country. Hardly peace. A few years ago they gave Barack Obama a Nobel Peace Prize too. Obama’s drone programmes killed thousands and his military budget was the highest on record.
Peacemakers. We have got some seriously warped ideas about what constitutes peace. A ‘Peacemaker’ you would imagine, makes peace. Simple, right? Actually it’s a gun for killing. A ‘peace keeper’, as you know, is a solder, one of whose main tasks is ‘state building’. You get the idea.
Selective assassinations. Yet in the nineteenth century Obama, or any other high-powered president, monarch or statesman would have feared for their lives as their peer group were being annihilated at an alarming rate.
The reasoning behind the killings was simple: ‘A tiny minority of rulers are consolidating then misusing state power and - as the state is really the manifestation of institutionalized coercive violence - so it follows that we should eliminate the rulers and bring about peace.’ Sounds wacky? It’s the same selective assassination, but just the inverse of the Obama model above.
The hidden history of propaganda of the deed. In the obscured annals of recent history, Propaganda of the Deed is a story seldom told. Lest we restart the practice. Or usually because the storytellers are either directly or indirectly on the state payroll. Try and find a history book publisher that doesn’t belong to some state-supporting conglomerate, quango or propagandist organization, or, try finding perhaps, a school that receives no state funding. Good luck to you. But the historical milieu of the mid-to-late nineteenth century is a fascinating testament to the powers of humans to take control of their own destiny.
History time. From the mid-nineteenth century to the time of the world wars, the full effects of the industrial revolution could be seen everywhere. The world was getting considerably wealthier, for most at least. America was experiencing solid growth in real terms. The classical gold standard kept bankers and inflation more or less in check, with workers’ pay often mirroring increases in production.
The Long Depression or the Belle Époque? There is much debate about this – in fact neo-liberal historians prefer, apocryphally, to refer to this period as the ‘Long Depression’ whereas others refer to it as the ‘Belle Époque’. But you can check it out for yourselves. Take a look at any important city. Prague, Budapest, Milan, St. Petersburg or even NYC and Chicago, which were all experiencing their heyday. The glorious European city architecture of Paris, the Eiffel tower, the parks, the monuments or even much of the period’s domestic housing, so sought after today, were all built in that period. Still not convinced? Check out the lengthy list of inventions and discoveries banged out in the latter half of the nineteenth century: penicillin, motorcycles, photographs, telephones, fridges, jeans, shampoo, record players, underground trains, lifts, light bulbs, cars, movies, aspirins, torches and Coca Cola. (They hadn’t even invented income tax.) The world was experiencing a productive spike like never seen before.
Belle Époque – the bad side. So amid such production and prosperity, why did we find it necessary to selectively wipe out our leaders? One of the reasons was that the distribution of this new affluence was highly uneven. The working conditions for many were bleak with seven-day working weeks, child labour and exploitation in a world yet to benefit from the recent developments in medicine. Life expectancy for workers in the early 1800s was barely over thirty. This backdrop served to produce a revolutionary undercurrent which slow-boiled for decades, before exploding in the second half of the century.
Bombs away. All over the world the ruling class began dropping like flies or narrowly escaping assassination attempts. No Russian Tsar was safe. Grenades were being hurled at Italian and German monarchs. Stiletto blades were all the rage. Bombs were exploding in crowded cafes and theatres. There were dozens of high-profile political fatalities: Prince Dmitri Kropotkin, the Governor of Kharkov in Russian , Alexander II, Sadi Carnot the President of France, the Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, King Carlos I of Portugal, King Umberto of Italy. And the list goes on.
Handsome devils. But the practitioners were no marginalized wackos. They were, most often, young good-looking anarchists who dressed like dandies and kept the company of intellectuals in Parisian cafés. Ravachol, one of many hundreds of illegalists and a good-looking revolutionary icon in France, cut a superb figure and it’s easy to see why the public so often sided with the glamorous subversives.
Courtroom showcases. But the most striking aspect of the Propaganda of the Deed phenomena was its sheer openness. Today, the perpetrators of direct revolutionary action, or acts of terrorism, conceal themselves behind masks, anonymous groups or engineer elaborate multi-layer JFK-style conspiracy theories to disguise their motives. The acts of outrage of the 1800s were direct, starkly honest and easily attributable. Anarchist nailed their (black) colours to the mast. The protagonists seldom hid their identity, revelling in their celebrity, then, when captured, pleaded guilty to their crimes. They then turned their subsequent trials into showcases, manifesting their beliefs, counter-accusing the authorities and the states themselves. It made for superb drama and raised some very serious points.
Revolutionary fervour. The resonance was huge. Far from deterring potential assassins it stirred up revolutionary passion. The state responded with brutal public executions involving guillotines, newly-invented electric chairs or posthumous public humiliation, for example, openly displaying the naked corpses of libertarian rebels in their coffins. But the popularity of the movement increased even more. Everywhere, the world seemed in the grip of revolutionary fervour until its ultimate culmination with the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Revolution and, later, the Spanish Revolution.
Militarization of everything. Things looked increasingly grim for the ruling class by the early years of the 20th century. Yet heads of state, world leaders and the wealthy elites who supported them, would yet devise an effective method to curtail the rise of socialism and anarchism: war!
War serves as the perfect premise to suspend a gold standard which acts as a natural constraint on military spending. Deficit spending on war enriches banks who fund governments on all sides… and weapons manufacturers too. It was little coincidence that the exact year before the First World War also saw the invention of America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, and the introduction of income tax. It’s an obvious scam. The political-banking nexus had realized that the militarization of citizens and industry was the only thing to quell the increasingly popular revolutionary spirit.
Taking sides. So if we were forced to side with one or other of these violent groups, who would it be? Which are the real baddies? Worker or ruler assassins? To answer this conundrum we need only look at the power struggle going on during the period between the chief power players - the factory and land owners, the mafia, the workers and state power.
But the first thing to emerge is that each of these four protagonists don’t necessarily rely on each other. Factories need workers. State power needs workers. The mafia needs factory owners, etc. But workers don’t need anyone but themselves. And this is precisely the autonomy that statists feared.
Rights. Belle Époque was a period of attempts at state consolidation. Many European nation states had recently unified and other states were in nascent phases having recently gained independence. Workers were beginning to organize themselves and had clear plans to run industrial production and govern local communities for themselves. Communism existed in everything but name and anarchism was a household term and had yet to have its meaning soiled by state propagandist journals. Syndicalism and unions were springing up everywhere. Movements such as the Suffragettes, calling for equal rights to vote, were gaining serious traction. The entire world was demanding more rights, less hours and better conditions. Most people would wonder what there was to complain about.
Repression. But the ultra-wealthy minority of agricultural estate owners and factory owners, fearing and empowerment of their labourers certainly had gripes. They often practiced the most underhand violence to crush it. This was the period where the mafia formed an allegiance with the newly-unified Italian state. It was the period of vicious henchmen and strike-breakers and the attempts by factory owners to smash the worker’s greatest tool for bargaining power – the general strike. Peasants were rising up against latifundists, but as always, any attempts at insubordination or insurrection were repressed with far more grotesque violence. For example, when Spanish anarchist peasants killed a landowner in Loro del Rio in Seville, local landowners retaliated by killing 300 anarchists.
Blood in the streets. The International Workers Day came into existence due to similar violent repressions. It is the yearly commemoration of an act of terror carried out on 4th May 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago. A bomb was thrown, ostensibly by an anarchist (but by later police admissions, probably an agent provocateur). The slaughter saw seven different people condemned to death for a bomb thrown by one person. In time honoured fashion, the police and judiciary were doing their job of serving and protecting… the ruling class. Individual acts of violence against vicious oppression were countered with hugely exaggerated aggressions and bloodshed, with both parties labelling each other ‘terrorists’.
Explosive end. But in the end it may be an irresolvable conundrum. We might never be able to rid the world of the kind of state-sponsored terrorism which the U.S and the U.K. are currently so proficient at. But we will probably never rid the world of acts of revolutionary anti-state terrorism either. Nevertheless, dishing out Nobel Peace prizes to just one of these terror factions skews the discussion and appears to legitimize and endorse war criminals. As the old adage goes, ‘If you want to rid the world of terrorists, stop creating them.’ Because they might come back to terrorize you. And they might come back with Nobel’s greatest invention… not the peace prize, but the stick of dynamite.