Recalling anarchist terrorism in the 1800s and 1900s: Stephen Mihm


In the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge.  It quickly spread to America.

In the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. It quickly spread to America.

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The bombings and attempted bombings in New York and New Jersey have raised legitimate fears that the United States is entering a dangerous era of local terrorism. It is worth remembering how the country suffered similar hardships in the past.

The busiest period of bombings and other terrorist tactics occurred during the Golden Age, when anarchists resorted to violence, aimed at destroying both capitalism and the State.

The movement started in Europe. Thanks to Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1864, a weapon was readily available, and the first generation of anarchists studied bomb-making with the same dedication as they read esoteric tracts on political radicalism.

In the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. An 1883 New York Times article denounces what it calls the “dynamite distribution” that has taken hold. “Random and seemingly capricious dynamite plots are being organized in all directions,” he said.

Most historians trace the first shot of anarchist terrorism on American soil to May 4, 1886, when someone threw a bomb at police during a union protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. A riot and shooting ensued, leaving at least 11 dead and many more injured. A brutal crackdown on anarchists led to the conviction of eight people; four eventually went to the gallows.

In the wake of Haymarket, newspapers and politicians seized on the idea that the country could be undermined by a domestic enemy made up almost entirely of foreign-born anarchists.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchists in the United States became much more aggressive. In 1901, Leon Czolgosz sent shockwaves around the world when he assassinated President William McKinley. In 1908, the New York Times observed that, on average, anarchists and others detonated one bomb per month in New York.

To complicate matters, another more diffuse radical group has also adopted bombing as a tactic. The Iron Workers Union, seeking to break the power of US Steel, used dynamite to force employers to negotiate with the union. He detonated more than 100 bombs between 1906 and 1911 in industrial factories. The violence peaked in 1910, when two union organizers blasted up the offices of the pro-leadership Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people.

An increasing number of radicals adopted the terrorist toolkit over the following years. Anti-war activists, for example, reportedly detonated a bomb in San Francisco in 1916 that killed 10. But anarchists remained the most visible supporters of terrorism. In the late 1910s, they attempted (but failed) to kill Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with a bomb; a plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral was also unsuccessful.

As hysteria over local terrorists mounted, Palmer embarked on a series of raids that flouted civil liberties. Palmer, put on the defensive, claimed that the Labor radicals planned to overthrow the government on May 1, 1920. His fears were proven to be unfounded.

More precisely, the repression did not put an end to the anarchist bombings. On September 2, 1920, a huge bomb exploded on Wall Street, killing 38 people. The police never arrested the perpetrators.

Perhaps it was the creation of the Soviet Union that did the most to put an end to the anarchist bombings of the 1920s. When the Communists took power, they consolidated their control over the international radical labor movements. Anarchism has become discredited.

While epidemics of domestic terrorism continued to occur throughout the twentieth century, these were never more than singular episodes: The Weathermen in the 1960s, Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s. But now we are. faced with a problem that is much more reminiscent of what author Beverly Gage has described as America’s “first age of terror”.

We survived that time. And with luck, we’ll survive this one too.


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