The anti-anarchist spirit of individual violence within peaceful protests

John is tired of participating in peaceful protests against global warming, military-industrial complex, racism and capitalist state. He thinks these mobilizations are pointless, the enemy is not afraid of protesters, and something should be done to make the status quo tremble. He has an outstanding idea: preparing a homemade bomb! He will go to the next protest and will throw that bomb against a random public building. Likely, he thinks, many protesters will support his radical initiative and add their part to this revolutionary violence. Then, many other individuals, which are not currently in the march, might look at that violent spectacle on TV or the internet and understand that nothing could be changed without some destruction.

There is a potential John in every protest around the globe. They are not bad people. The problem is that many of them consider themselves as anarchists and I think this self-consideration is wrong. More clearly, their violent attitude cannot be addressed as being anarchist.

Let’s start by saying that anarchism has a historical connection with violent means. Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Buenaventura Durruti, Nestor Makhno are just some examples from a long list of anarchists that contributed, directly or indirectly, to the realization of violent activities. Certainly, there is also a less known tradition within anarchism that rejects violence as a revolutionary tactic but it has been silenced and forgotten ( I am referring to activists like Dorothy Day, Geoffrey Ostergaard or Bart de Ligt).

It is not my aim to defend anarcho-pacifism (though I agree to a large extent with De Ligt´s dictum: “the more violence, the less revolution”), but to evaluate critically the use of individual violence within peaceful protests.

I believe that it is not necessary to endorse pacifism in order to reject an attitude like John’s.   You only have to be committed with a basic principle of anarchism: no one can impose his particular will to another person.

This is the core of anarchist criticism against Bolshevism and authoritarian left schools. The basis for any decision in a just society is a free agreement between equals and not the imposition of an individual will. Of course, one of the major challenges of anarchism is to imagine how that kind of deliberative ambits could be developed in mass societies, but that’s a different issue.

Nor (insert your favorite dictator) nor communist parties could have legitimate authority to decide over the fate of individuals which didn’t give up that power voluntarily.

I think this basic principle of no imposition, which could be traced back to Proudhon’s Federative Principle can help us to understand why John’s attitude is far from being an anarchist one.

John is making a decision that could produce a repressive reaction against the protest from the police. Throwing the bomb could also discourage other people to join the mobilization. None of these possible outcomes has been decided collectively by the protesters. It is John (or maybe a minority that supports him) who determines that every member of the protest will bear the costs of his violent action. Just like a dictator, he assumes the role of an interpreter of collective needs and defines the best tactic to follow. I am not saying he wants to be a dictator; maybe he is well inspired in many past anarchists that promoted terroristic attacks as a mean to publicize their ideas. He is just acting like one.

Anarchists should avoid the temptation of considering themselves as interpreters of others. Anarchism is mainly about organization among equals and it assumes that the risk of a decision must be faced by those who participated in that decision. If you think that a peaceful protest should turn into a violent one, organize an assembly and try to convince other protesters about your point of view. Nothing about us without us is (really) for us. Keep that in mind, good John!

Federico Abal


Photo credit: Pi Chon