Propaganda by the deed

Theory of political tactics within anarchism.

Selectively violent acts against government, by provoking a more violent repressive response, can reveal to people at large the ‘true’ nature of the state as a coercive institution.

Such propaganda ‘by the deed’ achieves results which more conventional persuasion cannot.

David Miller, Anarchism (London, 1984)

Anarchist origins

Various definitions

One of the first individuals to conceptualise propaganda by the deed was the Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane (1818–57), who wrote in his “Political Testament” (1857) that “ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around.”[4] Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), in his “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis” (1870) stated that “we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”[5] The concept, in a broader setting, has a rich heritage, as the words of Francis of Assisi reveal: “Let them show their love by the works they do for each other, according as the Apostle says: ‘let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.'”

Johann Most

Some anarchists, such as Johann Most, advocated publicizing violent acts of retaliation against counter-revolutionaries because “we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda.”[6] It was not advocacy for mass murder, but a call for targeted killings of the representatives of capitalism and government at a time when such action might garner sympathy from the population, such as during periods of government repression or labor conflicts,[7] although Most himself once boasted that “the existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion.”[8] In 1885, he published The Science of Revolutionary Warfare,[9] a technical manual for acquiring and detonating explosives based on the knowledge he acquired by working at an explosives factory in New Jersey.[10] Most was an early influence on American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman attempted propaganda by the deed when he tried in 1892 to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick following the deaths by shooting of several striking workers.[11]

Beverly Gage, professor of U.S. history at Yale University, elaborates on what the concept meant to outsiders and those within the anarchist movement:

To outsiders, the talk of bombing and assassination that suddenly pulsed through revolutionary circles in the late 1870s sounded like little more than an indiscriminate call to violence. To Most and others within the anarchist movement, by contrast, the idea of propaganda by deed, or the attentat (attack), had a very specific logic. Among anarchism’s founding premises was the idea that capitalist society was a place of constant violence: every law, every church, every paycheck was based on force. In such a world, to do nothing, to stand idly by while millions suffered, was itself to commit an act of violence. The question was not whether violence per se might be justified, but exactly how violence might be maximally effective for, in Most’s words, annihilating the “beast of property” that “makes mankind miserable, and gains in cruelty and voracity with the progress of our so called civilization.”[12]

By the 1880s, the slogan “propaganda of the deed” had begun to be used both within and outside of the anarchist movement to refer to individual bombings, regicides and tyrannicides. In 1881, “propaganda by the deed” was formally adopted as a strategy by the anarchist London Congress.[2] In 1886, French anarchist Clément Duval achieved a form of propaganda of the deed, stealing 15,000 francs from the mansion of a Parisian socialite, before accidentally setting the house on fire. Caught two weeks later, he was dragged from the court crying “Long live anarchy!”, and condemned to death. Duval’s sentence was later commuted to hard labor on Devil’s Island, French Guiana. In the anarchist paper Révolte, Duval famously declared that, “Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man… when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it… the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty”.

As early as 1887, a few important figures in the anarchist movement had begun to distance themselves from individual acts of violence. Peter Kropotkin thus wrote that year in Le Révolté that “a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of dynamite”.[13] A variety of anarchists advocated the abandonment of these sorts of tactics in favor of collective revolutionary action, for example through the trade union movement. The anarcho-syndicalist, Fernand Pelloutier, argued in 1895 for renewed anarchist involvement in the labor movement on the basis that anarchism could do very well without “the individual dynamiter.”[14]

State repression (including the infamous 1894 French lois scélérates) of the anarchist and labor movements following the few successful bombings and assassinations may have contributed to the abandonment of these kinds of tactics, although reciprocally state repression, in the first place, may have played a role in these isolated acts. The dismemberment of the French socialist movement, into many groups and, following the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune, the execution and exile of many communards to penal colonies, favored individualist political expression and acts.[15]

Anarchist historian Max Nettlau provided a more complex concept of propaganda when he said that,

Every person is likely to be open to a different kind of argument, so propaganda cannot be diversified enough if we want to touch all. We want it to pervade and penetrate all the utterances of life, social and political, domestic and artistic, educational and recreational. There should be propaganda by word and action, the platform and the press, the street corner, the workshop, and the domestic circle, acts of revolt, and the example of our own lives as free men. Those who agree with each other may co-operate; otherwise they should prefer to work each on his own lines to trying to persuade one the other of the superiority of his own method.[16]

Later anarchist authors advocating “propaganda of the deed” included the German anarchist Gustav Landauer, and the Italians Errico Malatesta and Luigi Galleani. For Gustav Landauer, “propaganda of the deed” meant the creation of libertarian social forms and communities that would inspire others to transform society.[17] In “Weak Statesmen, Weaker People,” he wrote that the state is not something “that one can smash in order to destroy. The state is a relationship between human beings… one destroys it by entering into other relationships.”[18]

In contrast, Errico Malatesta described “propaganda by the deed” as violent communal insurrections that were meant to ignite the imminent revolution. However, Malatesta himself denounced the use of terrorism and violent physical force, stating in one of his essays:

Violence (physical force) used to another’s hurt, which is the most brutal form of struggle between men can assume, is eminently corrupting. It tends, by its very nature, to suffocate the best sentiments of man, and to develop all the antisocial qualities, ferocity, hatred, revenge, the spirit of domination and tyranny, contempt of the weak, servility towards the strong. And this harmful tendency arises also when violence is used for a good end. … Anarchists who rebel against every sort of oppression and struggle for the integral liberty of each and who ought thus to shrink instinctively from all acts of violence which cease to be mere resistance to oppression and become oppressive in their turn are also liable to fall into the abyss of brutal force. … The excitement caused by some recent explosions and the admiration for the courage with which the bomb-throwers faced death, suffices to cause many anarchists to forget their program, and to enter on a path which is the most absolute negation of all anarchist ideas and sentiments.[19]

At the other extreme, the anarchist Luigi Galleani, perhaps the most vocal proponent of “propaganda by the deed” from the turn of the century through the end of the First World War, took undisguised pride in describing himself as a subversive, a revolutionary propagandist and advocate of the violent overthrow of established government and institutions through the use of ‘direct action’, i.e., bombings and assassinations.[20][21] Galleani heartily embraced physical violence and terrorism, not only against symbols of the government and the capitalist system, such as courthouses and factories, but also through direct assassination of ‘enemies of the people’: capitalists, industrialists, politicians, judges, and policemen.[21][22] He had a particular interest in the use of bombs, going so far as to include a formula for the explosive nitroglycerine in one of his pamphlets advertised through his monthly magazine, Cronaca Sovversiva.[22] By all accounts, Galleani was an extremely effective speaker and advocate of his policy of violent action, attracting a number of devoted Italian-American anarchist followers who called themselves Galleanists. Carlo Buda, the brother of Galleanist bombmaker Mario Buda, said of him, “You heard Galleani speak, and you were ready to shoot the first policeman you saw”.[23]


Propaganda of the deed is also related to illegalism, an anarchist philosophy that developed primarily in France, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland during the early 20th century as an outgrowth of anarchist individualism. The illegalists openly embraced criminality as a lifestyle. Influenced by theorist Max Stirner’s concept of “egoism”, the illegalists broke from anarchists like Clément Duval and Marius Jacob who justified theft with a theory of individual reclamation. Instead, the illegalists argued that their actions required no moral basis – illegal acts were taken not in the name of a higher ideal, but in pursuit of one’s own desires. France’s Bonnot Gang was the most famous group to embrace illegalism.

Relationship to revolution

Propaganda of the deed thus included stealing (in particular bank robberies – named “expropriations” or “revolutionary expropriations” to finance the organization), rioting and general strikes which aimed at creating the conditions of an insurrection or even a revolution. These acts were justified as the necessary counterpart to state repression. As early as 1911, Leon Trotsky condemned individual acts of violence by anarchists as useful for little more than providing an excuse for state repression. “The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses,” he wrote in 1911, “Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise.” Vladimir Lenin largely agreed, viewing individual anarchist acts of terrorism as an ineffective substitute for coordinated action by disciplined cadres of the masses. Both Lenin and Trotsky acknowledged the necessity of violent rebellion and assassination to serve as a catalyst for revolution, but they distinguished between the ad hoc bombings and assassinations carried out by proponents of the propaganda of the deed, and organized violence coordinated by a professional revolutionary vanguard utilized for that specific end.[24]

Sociologist Max Weber wrote that the state has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”, or, in Karl Marx’s words, the state was only the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois class. Propaganda by the deed, including assassinations (sometimes involving bombs, named in French “machines infernales” – “hellish machines”, usually made with bombs, sometimes only several guns assembled together), were thus legitimized by part of the anarchist movement and the First International as a valid means to be used in class struggle. The predictable state responses to these actions were supposed to display to the people the inherently repressive nature of the bourgeois state, delegitimizing it (legitimacy being key). This would in turn bolster the revolutionary spirit of the people, leading to the overthrow of the state. This is the basic formula of the cycle protests-repression-protests, which in specific conditions may lead to an effective state of insurrection.

This cycle has been observed during the 1905 Russian Revolution or in Paris in May 1968. However, it failed to achieve its revolutionary objective on the vast majority of occasions, thus leading to the abandonment by the vast majority of the anarchist movement of such bombings. However, the state never failed in its repressive response, enforcing various lois scélérates which usually involved tough clampdowns on the whole of the labor movement. These harsh laws, sometimes accompanied by the proclamation of the state of exception, progressively led to increased criticism among the anarchist movement of assassinations. The role of several agents provocateurs and the use of deliberate strategies of tension by governments, using such false flag terrorist actions as the Spanish La Mano Negra, work to discredit this violent tactic in the eyes of most socialist libertarians. John Filiss and Jim Bell are two of the best known modern advocates, with the latter developing the concept of an assassination market—a market system for anonymously hiring and compensating political assassination.

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