Anarchist Violence

Matthew S. Adams, Gemma Clark & Michael Finn

Anarchist Violence: Myth and Memory

Small Group Project 2021

Anarchism is at the centre of contemporary news coverage; US President Donald Trump has branded states opposed to him ‘anarchist jurisdictions’, whilst UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has accused the Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer of being in hock to ‘anarchist union bosses’, simultaneously decrying environmental protestors Extinction Rebellion (XR) as ‘left-wing anarchists’. Central to these characterisations is the spectre of anarchism-as-violence; the rhetorical construction of anarchism-as-violence which has bedevilled anarchism since the era of propaganda of the deed in the 1890s, here mobilised as part of a right-wing, populist, ‘culture war’ against left-wing and progressive politics in general, rather than anarchism in particular.

Whilst anarchist partisans are right to claim that there is nothing especially violent about anarchism – the rejoinder that liberal democracies kill more people than anarchists ever will is surely true – what is the nature of anarchism’s relationship with violence? Debate has traditionally fractured into dichotomous viewpoints; the popular construction of anarchism-as-violence, and the anarchist partisan defence of anarchism as a non-violent, non-hierarchical ideology free of compulsion. Anarchists, as with adherents of most other political ideologies, have engaged in violent acts, but the ways in which they have historically legitimised such activity – and, indeed, constructed conceptions of legitimate/illegitimate political violence – ranges far beyond crude characterisations offered either by hostile political actors or (at times) defences offered by contemporary anarchist apologists. Anarchist violence has therefore been of increasing interest to scholars across disciplines, including history and criminology, with Bach Jensen’s work emphasizing historical comparisons between anarchist ‘terrorism’ and later forms of political violence. This project historicises discussions of anarchist violence in order to elucidate the ways in which anarchism both offers substantive reflections on the nature of political violence more generally, and how ‘violence’ is constructed in political space to delegitimise political standpoints.

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