You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: France’s Other Wave of Terror

Mitchell Abidor
November 18, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

ravacholAS PARIS RECOVERS from the latest terrorist attacks, and as France bombs ISIS-held cities and its president and legislature threaten its democracy, it is perhaps a good time to remember that Paris and France were once before the targets of a wave of terrorism — one that lasted several years, counted innocent bystanders as its victims, and to which the government’s reaction was the curbing of democracy. This was the wave of attacks by the anarchist “propagandists of the deed” of the 1890s, men like Ravachol (François Claudius Koenigstein), Emile Henry, Auguste Vaillant, and Sante Caserio, the Italian who assassinated France’s President Carnot.

I’ve been led to think about this period, these men, and their comrades because Death to Bourgeois Society, my anthology of their speeches and writings, is about to appear. The tone of the book and my introduction are, if not sympathetic to the bombers, clearly understanding of their motives. The book also includes articles written by highly regarded literary figures who wrote and spoke in support of these anarchists and their bombs. So the first question I’ve had to ask myself is why I would think there could be any justification for throwing a bomb into a café, as Emile Henry did, or for finding it... I don’t know if admirable is the word, but worthy of respect that at his trial he defended his acts unflinchingly. (I leave aside any discussion of Vaillant’s 1893 attack on the Chamber of Deputies, into which he tossed a device that killed no one, but for which he was nevertheless guillotined. Anyone who watches the spectacle of our Congress today can’t help but dream of a Vaillant.)

Mainly, I think, it is that I understand the motivation of the anarchists, their rage at a society eaten up by egotism and greed, where the wealthy live cossetted lives and the poor strain to get by. I share their anger and disgust, which was also to some extent directed at the poor who accepted their pitiful lot. This was one of the paradoxes of the propagandists of the deed: they had contempt for the weakness of the people in whose name they fought. The other was their belief that blind terror could bring about a radiant tomorrow.

Today’s killers can’t make this latter claim. They are odious in every way, seeking nothing by their acts but death, since they know they won’t convert France into a caliphate. However shabby humanity’s betterment is as an excuse for killing, ISIS can’t offer even that.

I KNOW, OF COURSE, that for the dead the motivation of the killer is of no consequence, and that those killed by anarchists were no less dead, their families no less afflicted, than those killed at Bataclan. So I know I’m wrong to depict them in a positive light, as misguided martyrs to a glorious cause — but I also know that I’m helpless against the urge to do just that.

And if someone like me, who has never even lit a firecracker, can feel an attraction to the propagandists of the deed, one can almost see why those young Muslims in France who hate everything about France, about the West, feel an attraction to the murderers in ISIS. In my defense, my attraction is all academic and I’m aware of how wrong it is — a knowledge that seems to have entirely escaped those who killed 129 people last week in Paris.

The French government in the 1890’s, going much further than anything even dreamed of today against the Islamists, went on a rampage against the anarchists, passing a law a mere two days after Vaillant’s bomb that banned all anarchist activity. They even staged a monster trial in 1894, the “Trial of the Thirty,” in which all the leading lights of the era’s anarchist movement, including Kropotkin, were put on trial. Despite its showiness, only three defendants were found guilty. Here is where we perhaps have a lesson to learn. Did repression work? Did the infringement on democratic freedoms put an end to anarchism, which was the goal? Of course not. The anarchist movement survived the repression and came out of the period stronger than when it began. Different schools of anarchism flourished, from those living a communal existence, to syndicalists, to communist anarchists, to the individualists.

But the bombings stopped.

Not because of repression, though: All you need to be a terrorist is a gun and a crowd into which to fire. (This is perhaps the place to quote the pope of Surrealism, André Breton, from the Second Surrealist Manifesto: “The simplest Surrealist act consists in walking down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly into the crowd as much as you can.”) No government, however repressive it might be, can stop the lone killer. No, what ended the wave of terror was something far larger: the growth of a real working class movement. The bomb throwers were the fruit of the weakness of the left. Twenty years after the crushing of the Paris Commune, and with the union and socialist movements still weak, these men elected themselves vanguard parties of one. But then a mass socialist and even anarchist left grew, and the tactic of the lone killer was no longer needed. So it withered and died (though it did appear in another form in the 1910s in the wave of anarchist banditry, whose viciousness all but killed the anarchist movement). The government had nothing to do with this. It was when the people took their destiny into their own hands and joined in the fight behind figures like Jean Jaurès that terror ended.

A final word, though, on the words “terror” and “terrorist.” Both of these words have French origins. They come out of the French Revolution, and terror was La Terreur, what we call the Great Terror. It was the government, that of Robespierre, guillotining enemies of the Revolution in order to inspire terror in any who might back the counter-revolution. Those who supported the terror, the far left of the Revolution, called for, as a song of the time called it, “The Permanent Guillotine” (the title of my collection of their writings, which will appear in late 2016). They proudly called themselves terrorists. Terrorists in support of their government. Which was itself terrorist. So let us never forget that terror was originally a weapon in the hands of the state. Let us hope it isn’t on the way to becoming one again.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.