4-Propaganda By Deed



On the night of October 22 1882 a bomb exploded in the restaurant of the Bellecour Theater in Lyon, killing a waiter and causing considerable damage. The next day another bomb went off at an army recruitment center but resulted only in material damage. The investigation was naturally focused on the anarchists. Fearing a huge conspiracy by the “anti-authoritarian” International, the government rounded up the “leaders” all over France and brought them to Lyon to face the law. This famous Trial of the Sixty Six began on January 8 1883 against defendants who were divided into two categories: the first “to have, for 3 months, in Lyon or other parts of the French territory, been affiliated with or performed acts affiliated with an international society and with the goal of provoking the suspension of work, the abolition of the rights of property, family, country and religion, and having thus committed an attack against the public peace”; the second group for supporting and instigating such acts by publishing and circulating propaganda in favor of them. Stiff sentences ranging from six months to several years in prison were handed down to the likes of Peter Kroptkin, Elisée Reclus, Emile Gautier (who would later abandon anarchism) and many others. Antoine Cyvoct, a young anarchist journalist was sentenced to death for the Bellecour bomb[1] based solely on circumstantial evidence—in fact, they never even established that it was an anarchist attack. Nevertheless, thus began the Era of Dynamite and the government’s absolute intolerance of the anarchist movement.

In that same year of 1883 Karl Marx died in London and Jules Vallès launched Le Cri du Peuple in Paris. In following his dream to have a newspaper open to all cries of revolt, not just to one school or one theory, Vallès had welcomed Jules Guesde onto the editorial staff. Guesde would brag that he had met Karl Marx in person and was the guardian of orthodox revolutionary dogma. Séverine, being deeply, thoroughly libertarian[2], felt an immediate, instinctive dislike of him. She feared that with Guesde the authoritarians had set up house at Le Cri. Her distrust was well founded. For a while Séverine and the doctrinaires lived a difficult co-existence—a great big family that may not have liked but tolerated each other—until the question of anarchy came between them. And it was Clément Duval who caused the rupture.

Clément Duval was in court in January 1887 for robbing and setting fire to an affluent house and later stabbing (not fatally) the police sergeant Rossignol who tried to arrest him. The incident would likely have been relegated to the police blotter if Duval had not defended his act as an anarchist attack—he did not steal but put into action the theory of individual reclamation of capital, a “just restitution made in the name of humanity”. He stole not for his own benefit but to support the Revolution. It earned him a death sentence. The anarchist companions got to work right away to save him from the guillotine. Louise Michel spoke at one meeting where Séverine had the opportunity to meet her, the heroine of the Commune, the legend, who had written for the original Le Cri du Peuple. Today, however, the new staff of Le Cri (save Séverine) thought the anarchists were too damaging to the cause. The conflict that would last for decades to come was waging between propaganda by word and propaganda by deed, which not only pitted socialists against anarchists but also anarchists against each other.

“I have the conviction that the time of grand theoretical discourse, printed or spoken, is over… The time for ideas is over. It is the time now for deeds and action,” Mikhail Bakunin had said in his farewell speech in 1873[3]. Paul Brousse, in his article “Propaganda by Deed” in 1877, tried to show how much more effective action was compared to theoretical propaganda—it is the realization, the materialization of the idea. As the government became more repressive and corrupt and the workers became more downtrodden and poorer, many revolutionary militants became more radical and violent. When the Communards returned to France under the amnesty of 1880, so too did a renewed energy for anarchy, fiercer than ever. And it inaugurated a new era in the struggle against oppression.

There was no official anarchist party in France at the time. The anarchists called each other “companion” and formed only local groups with little or no links between them, adopting such provocative names as the Rebels, The Outraged, The Gun in Hand, The Starved, The Terrible, The Hatred. One group founded in 1886 was called the Anti-Owners: it was made up of “Midnight Movers”, who would skip out on rent; it had no rules, no statutes, no office, no headquarters; it counted around fifty active members who helped anyone who wanted to relocate without paying their debts. Another group was The Panther of Batignolles. On the agenda of its first meeting was the item “How to fabricate homemade bombs.” The soon to be famous Clément Duval was one of its founding members.

They practiced propaganda by deed, the idea first justified by Proudhon and then encouraged by Bakunin: “to destroy is to construct”. Everything from insurrection to explosives, from riding the train without a ticket to counterfeiting money, all forms of revolt, as insignificant as they might seem, were worth the effort. But substituting deeds for words, action for speech gave the anarchist movement a bad reputation and was not welcomed by all companions and certainly not by their socialist comrades, especially because of the crackdown by the law like in Lyon following the bomb attacks. With Duval’s defense, however, a new “crime” was being given significant attention. Later, Vittorio Pini, an Italian anarchist in France, with his better education would defend the theory of individual reclamation better than Duval[4], but with Duval’s death sentence, completely disproportionate to the crime—the government wanted to make an example of him—the libertarian theorists were forced to take a stand.

See, Clément Duval was making noise, a lot of noise. And the people, the workers were not unaware that he, at least, had not stolen from them. While a number of rebels were trying to create unions to help the unemployed and injured, others like him acted alone. Exasperated by misery, they could not wait for the future revolution. They cried out their desperation and struck. They put theory into practice. Some anarchists like Jean Grave, while justifying the action, denied any real value to theft. Others, like Sébastien Faure and Elisée Recluse, approved of the right to steal. To some he was just a criminal; to others he was a hero; to others again he became a martyr. No one could just stand on the sidelines.

Séverine took up the cause and championed Duval. She did not justify his action but rather decried the reaction. Justice was not equitable. There was one for the rich and another for the poor—it did not judge the facts, it judged the classes. And worse than this, who were all these socialists who judged him? Where did they get their right to condemn him without his right to appeal? She did not condone the theft, but she sympathized with the convicted. For her, the individual always took precedence over the category—humanity trumped doctrine. As Montaigne (3.2) said, “Man regards theft as a dishonest deed; and he hates it… but less than he hates poverty”.

Jules Guesde considered her articles a declaration of war. The staff rose up against her. Who was this woman who pretended to give lessons to the holders of the correct political line, who dared to contradict their dogma? It was the break. Marxists, blanquists, republicans, independents, all left en bloc. They quit, Séverine said. We were fired, they said. And the paper would die. Was it worth it?

Duval was defended by Fernand Labori, a young lawyer committed to his office, making his first appearance before the high court. He would go on to defend (along with his own life) Pini and Auguste Vaillant and the famous Captain Dreyfus, along with Emile Zola. All the uproar and popular support saved Duval’s head: his sentence was commuted to life of hard labor in the dry guillotine, as they called the penal colony. After fourteen years in hell and countless failed escape attempts Clément Duval (“one of the most dangerous men that anarchy ever unleashed against our social state”[5]) finally managed to reach New York in 1901 to die there at the age of 85 in 1935.


At the same time across the Atlantic the Haymarket Affair in Chicago was causing shock waves : A bomb exploded during a labor demonstration for the eight-hour workday on May 4 1886 and the police reacted by firing indiscriminately into the panicked crowd, killing and injuring a number of people. No bomber was ever found, but eight anarchists were arrested and convicted despite no proof of a conspiracy. Four of them were sent to prison and the four others sentenced to death: one of them committed suicide in jail and the three remaining were hanged on November 11 1887. The injustice was an international scandal. In commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs, it was first proposed in 1890 at the Second International in Paris and then formally recognized internationally in 1891 that May 1st be celebrated as International Workers Day. Today May Day continues to celebrate the Labor Movement all over the world except in the USA and Canada, which officially celebrate Labor Day in September so as to forget its origins.

[1] His sentence was commuted to hard labor on Devil’s Island in French Guiana until he was finally pardoned in 1898.

[2] Libertarian understood in the traditional, European sense, i.e. nearly equivalent to anarchist, and not in the American sense, i.e. free-market capitalist.

[3] Bulletin de la Fédération jurasienne, n. 27, October 12 1873.

[4] The two became friends in the hellish penal colony of French Guiana. See Outrage: An Anarchist Memoir of the Penal Colony by Clément Duval (translated by Michael Shreve), PM Press, 2012.

[5] Flor O’Squarr, Les coulisses de l’anarchie, 1892.


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