Dynamite for the people

The La Dynamite pamphlet of 1 May 1892 included the official program of explosions organised to coincide with the May Day celebrations in Paris. Dawn would be greeted with a volley of dynamite over the police station at Clichy, followed by the gathering of the marchers. At nine o’clock, the procession would visit the home of magistrate Jules Quesnay de Beaurepaire, where they would give an ovation to nitro-glycerine. At 10:45, after allowing residents time to leave, the Luxor Obelisk at Place de la Concorde would be blown up. At midday, it would be time for the bombing of the Sun, followed by complete darkness.

The program continues in this vein for a full page, and includes activities such as the reconciliation of the classes – that is to say, ‘workers and feignantes’ (do-nothings) – before ending in block-letter calls for DEATH TO THE BOURGEOIS and the SUPPRESSION OF PROPERTY.

Few details are given to identify the authors of the mock newspaper. ‘Ravachol’ is listed as political director, ‘Mathieu’ as the editor. The sales bureau is supposedly at 20 rue du Croissant. On May Day 1892, Ravachol (real name François Claudius Koënigstein) was in prison, awaiting sentencing and his eventual execution by guillotine, so his role in the enterprise would have been entirely symbolic.

Mathieu is likely Gustave Mathieu, a fellow anarchist and supporter of Ravachol who contributed to the militant publication L’En-dehors. As for the address, it was the former offices of Le Grelot, a satirical magazine that had operated during the Paris Commune, the city’s short-lived revolutionary government of 1871. Other references are specific to then-contemporary events: the police station at Clichy, for instance, is the location where three anarchists had been tortured following the May Day demonstrations of 1891. Quesnay de Beaurepaire – known to history for his later involvement in the Dreyfus affair – was a magistrate implicated in the repression of anarchist activities.

Above all, the document is striking for its half-mocking, half-serious extolment of its titular subject. ‘If the revolver is the language spoken by Americans, dynamite has become the tongue of the French … Fi Fi fui! Poum! Pif! Paf, Patapoum! Crac!’


First patented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel, dynamite was the great leveller. By rendering nitroglycerine more stable, Nobel’s recipe made it possible to use this explosive far more safely in a variety of industrial applications, including mining and construction, and for the completion of the great tunnels needed by the burgeoning railway networks. Thus, dynamite accelerated progress in the gilded age of industrial capitalism. But it also furnished subversives in the century of insurrections and revolutions with a low-cost weapon that was easy to manufacture and carry.

The Fenians of Ireland were the first to intuit the power of this new weapon. For the bombing of Clerkenwell Prison in London, in 1867, they had used the much more unwieldy gunpowder. But for their five-year campaign against British government and police targets of 1881–1885, they turned to dynamite.

On 3 May 1886, the first anarchist bomb was thrown at police during a public meeting at Haymarket Square, in Chicago, resulting in the death of seven officers and four civilians (although some, if not all, of the victims were in fact gunned down by police after the explosion).

In the three decades to follow, the political use of dynamite became the almost exclusive preserve of anarchists for a series of actions that have drawn routine comparisons with present-day terrorism, and jihadi terrorism in particular. Writing for Le Monde diplomatique in 2004, Rick Coolsaet intoned:

Osama bin Laden is a 21st century Ravachol, a living symbol of hatred and resistance for his followers, a bogeyman for the police and intelligence services. Today’s jihadis resemble yesterday’s anarchists: in reality, a myriad of tiny groups; in their own eyes, a vanguard rallying the oppressed masses. Saudi Arabia has now taken the role of Italy while 11 September 2001 is the modern version of 24 June 1894 [the date of the assassination of French prime minister Sadi Carnot], a wake-up call to the international community.

And, even more provocatively:

The reasons for the rise of terrorism now and anarchism then are the same.

In his 2009 TV production The Enemy Within, British documentary filmmaker Joe Bullman dramatised the comparison by persuading young British Muslims to recite excerpts from courtroom speeches made by captured Jewish anarchists one century earlier, while pundits Garry Bushell and Nick Ferrari were asked to read antisemitic and xenophobic invectives from the same era.

But how far can we really take these parallels?


Ravachol was born in abject poverty in a village of the Loire region of France. His early exploits included grave-robbing and murdering a hermit monk in Montbrison for the money he had stashed away in his hut, as well as three more killings for the purpose of robbery. Having joined the swelling number of the destitute in Belle Époque Paris – a metropolis marked by appalling levels of social inequality – Ravachol started frequenting the local anarchist circles, and was responsible in 1892 for three actions of little apparent consequence but which had vast psychological impact. Following the previously mentioned abuse of anarchist prisoners at Clichy and the gunning down by police of nine workers marching for the eight-hour day at Fourmies, Ravachol placed bombs near the apartments of two members of the judiciary, and outside a police station. There were no victims, and Ravachol was soon arrested upon returning to a restaurant he had visited the night of his last bombing, where he was recognised by a waiter.

The arrest of Ravachol was the subject of the leading full-page, full-colour illustration in Le Petit Journal of Saturday 16 April 1892, where he is depicted as a modern-day Hercules, struggling with three policemen – one holding him by the arm, another struggling to hold onto his leg, the third grabbing him by the shoulders from behind – while a fourth points a gun to his face. It’s easy to see how such a depiction in the most popular mass-circulation medium of the era might have made an instant folk hero out of Ravachol, whose bombings – while missing their targets – generated a psychosis among the bourgeois of Paris. It is that psychosis that the May Day issue of La Dynamite tried to both exploit and amplify, while fellow anarchists delivered minatory missives similar in tone to Parisian slum lords and their caretakers. Indeed, we cannot understand the beginnings of modern-day terrorism without regard for the advances in communications of this period, and the lowering of the cost of printing pamphlets, such as La Dynamite, alongside the unprecedented spread of illustrated newspapers like Le Petit Journal, which by 1899 boasted a readership of five million – ‘the largest audience in the entire world’, according to its editors.

Eighteen months after the arrest of Ravachol, the Petit Journal illustrated supplement devoted its front page to the depiction of a far bloodier event: the bombing of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona during the season premiere of Rossini’s William Tell, which left twenty members of the Catalan high society dead and fifty more seriously injured. The act was ostensibly a reprisal for the execution of anarchist Paulino Pallás following an attempt on the life of a member of the Catalan military. What set it apart from earlier bombings, including those of the Fenian campaign, was not just the number of victims but also the nature of the targets: no longer direct representatives of the state’s authoritarian apparatus such as gaolers, policemen or magistrates, but civilians. However, the bomber, Santiago Salvador, did not have a theory to offer in support of this shift. For that, we must wait another year, and return to France to meet a fellow by the name of Émile Henry.

But first, a couple of words on the ‘propaganda by the deed’.

Every discussion of anarchist terrorism ought to be prefaced or heavily qualified by the observation that anarchism is at heart a peaceful ideology, whose principal aims are human emancipation and social justice. To say, as referenced earlier, that ‘the reasons for the rise of terrorism now and anarchism then are the same’ is a gross mischaracterisation, a non sequitur that leaves no room for critique or debate. Anarchism, quite simply, is not and never was a form of terrorism. Experimenting in alternative communal forms of living and contributing to give shape and strength to the union movement are infinitely more representative of the history of anarchism than bombings or assassinations.

However, it is also true that for a time – in the latter part of the nineteenth century – some of anarchism’s most important thinkers expanded their theories on how to bring about a new society of equals to include what we would now regard as acts of terrorism.

The revolutionary Carlo Pisacane, considered by some Italy’s first anarchist, blazed this particular trail through his short-lived ‘Sapri expedition’ of 1857, the foiled attempt to seize a small port town in the south of Italy that was to become the base for incursions in the neighbouring region. Pisacane and his band were hoping that the populace of Sapri would rise up in their support, which they did not. In fact, he and his lieutenants were killed by villagers while fleeing Bourbon troops to nearby Sanza, having been mistaken for common bandits.

We could say, then, that the romantic notion that all it would take to ignite a peasant or worker revolution was a ‘spark’ died at the very moment of its inception. Pisacane formulated this idea in his political testament.

It is my profound belief that the propagation of ideas is a chimera, and the notion that we should educate the people an absurdity. Ideas result from deeds, not the other way around, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.

He continued:

The only thing a citizen can do to be useful to their country is to patiently await the opportunity to take part in a material revolution. Conspiracies, plots and attempted insurrections are, to my mind, the chain of facts by means of which Italy marches towards its aim, unification.

Never mind that last bit: Pisacane’s goal was not to help unify the country in order to gift it to the house of Savoy – the unfortunate upshot of the Italian Risorgimento – but had his sights firmly set on libertarian socialism. His formulation of the propaganda by the deed, echoed later by Mikhail Bakunin in his Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, and by Errico Malatesta at the Berne congress of 1876, still called for organised insurrection – in however broad a formulation – as opposed to what we would now recognise as terrorism. It was perhaps Peter Kropotkin who came closest to the latter, when in 1880 he advocated in the anarcho-communist journal Le Révolté for

permanent revolt through word of mouth, in writing, by the dagger, by the rifle, by dynamite … anything, provided it is not within the bounds of legality.

The doctrine of the propaganda by the deed was adopted at the London congress of 1881, which sanctioned it as a legitimate course of action for anyone who identified as an anarchist – nothing more, but also nothing less.

Pausing only to acknowledge the work of historian John Merriman, whose book The Dynamite Club is a wonderfully engaging and insightful account of the turmoil of these years and of the events I am about to summarise, we come to the individual who perhaps more than anyone else deserves the title of modernity’s first terrorist: Émile Henry.

In his brief life – he was executed at 21 – and even shorter political militancy, Henry was responsible for two actions: the bombing of the police station in rue des Bons-Enfants in November of 1892, which cost the lives of five officers; and the bombing of the Café Terminus on 12 February 1894, which left one person dead and injured twenty.

The first of these bombs was not aimed at the police, but had been left outside the offices of the Carmaux Mining Company, which had recently succeeded in breaking a three-month strike of its workforce. A gendarme was alerted to the presence of the suspicious package, which was then transported into the nearby commissariat, where it exploded. In the Petit Journal illustration published a week later, the energy radiating from the blast in the form of visible shockwaves invests six gendarmes in a style that resembles a superhero comic from the Jack Kirby era.

Henry repaired to England for some time, and managed to escape police questioning – although the list of suspects included well over one hundred names, so he was hardly a prime target. Soon after returning to Paris, he set out to avenge the execution of fellow anarchist Auguste Vaillant, the first person to go under the guillotine without being guilty of murder since the Revolution. On 9 December 1893, Vaillant had thrown into the French Chamber of Deputies a bomb loaded with shrapnel designed to hurt, rather than to kill. Its effects were so minor that the speaker allowed the session to continue.

For his response, Henry packed a deadlier bomb, which he initially intended to detonate at the grand new opera theatre. Having judged security to be too tight, he wandered down the street, discarding a series of alternative targets before settling on the upmarket Café Terminus. He entered, ordered a beer and a cigar, spent some time in quiet contemplation, then used the cigar to light the fuse of his bomb.

This time, instead of depicting the bombing, Le Petit Journal presented its readers with an illustration of the man’s arrest in which Henry – revolver in hand – cuts a more genteel and far less heroic figure than the moustachioed giant Ravachol. This is precisely what set Émile Henry apart: he did not hail from the working class, but from a family of some means, and had received a good education, to the point of gaining admission to the prestigious École Polytechnique (although he never enrolled). This education made him a much more eloquent advocate than Ravachol, Vaillant or Salvador for the propaganda by the deed, and for why it should not shy away from targeting civilians. Speaking to the jurors of his first crime, to which he had confessed after this arrest, he recounted:

For a moment the accusation which had been thrown at Ravachol came to my mind. What about the innocent victims? But I quickly answered the question. The house where the offices of the Carmaux company were located was inhabited only by the bourgeois. There would be no innocent victims. The whole bourgeoisie lives on the exploitation of the unfortunate, and must atone for its crimes.

Drawing a comparison with the mass repression of anarchists organised to punish the actions of isolated individuals such as Vaillant and Ravachol, he explained that he too would not discriminate in his choice of victims. In the future, anarchists would not spare either women or children of the bourgeois, since the women and children of the working class, who died of anaemia because the bread was scarce or worked themselves to death in the workshops, were also not spared.

This was a declaration of (civil) war in which those searching for parallels may find warped echoes of the fatāwā issued by Osama bin Laden in 1996 and 1998. However, unlike those letters, which ushered in a long and ongoing season of transnational terrorism, Henry’s impassioned speech to his executioners bore very little fruit. There would be no more bombings targeting civilians in France. Spain remained the powder keg of Europe, with the Corpus Christi procession bombing of 1896 (eight victims) and the collateral carnage of the failed assassination attempt against Alfonso XIII in 1906 (twenty-three dead). Nearly a decade later, the action shifted to the United States, during the ‘Red Scare’, which culminated in the Wall Street bombing of 1920. This intended to assassinate banking tycoon JP Morgan, whom anarchists regarded as the principal beneficiary of the business generated by the First World War, but missed him by an entire continent – he was in Scotland at the time – and killed thirty-eight mostly junior workers instead. Finally, in 1921, a bomb at the Teatro Diana in Milan punctuated the dying stages of the Italian ‘Red Biennium’, killing 21 people but again missing its intended target, a local police superintendent.

By the time Émile Henry harangued the jurors at his trial, Bakunin had died, and Krapotkin and Malatesta had either renounced the propaganda by the deed or softened its tones. Nonetheless, anarchists remained remarkably successful in killing heads of state. The final list would read: Russian Czar Alexander II, King Umberto I of Italy, French President Marie François Sadi Carnot, Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain, US President William McKinley. But the bombings with which they remained associated for generations in the popular imaginary were few and far between. And while some contend that gradual concessions to the demands of the union movement were instrumental in containing insurrectionary anarchism, it could equally be said that the movement’s turn towards syndicalism came from within.

If the anarchist networks were geographically dispersed – another apparent historical parallel – it was in no small part because anarchists were chased from nation to nation by discriminatory laws and expulsion orders. Gaetano Bresci, a skilled textile worker, did not emigrate from Italy because of deprivation, but because of political persecution. He moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where the Italian community comprised a great number of anarchists and produced its own Italian-language newspapers and political magazines. (The influence of exiled or migrant Italian anarchists, which reached its apogee in the media furore that surrounded the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, may explain the otherwise puzzling comparison between Italy and present-day Saudi Arabia drawn above.) It was here that Bresci heard that Umberto I had awarded the Kingdom’s highest honour to General Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris, the butcher of the Milanese workers who marched against the rising cost of bread in 1898. So Bresci, without saying a word to his partner, his comrades or his friends, bought a one-way ticket back to Italy, travelled to the city of Monza to meet the royal entourage and shot the king. Today there is a street in his native Prato that honours his name.

From the Paris Commune of 1871, which was drowned in the blood of 25,000 insurgents, to the Spanish civil war of 1936–39, where the fascist program of executions may have resulted in as many as 400,000 deaths, whatever fears anarchism might have inspired were dwarfed by the machinery devoted to its destruction. Between those years, it is in the forms that the repression took that we find closer analogies to our present moment. For instance, through the proceedings of the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists of 1898, the first international anti-terror pact; or the Anarchist Exclusion Act signed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, a precursor to Donald Trump’s abortive travel bans; or the Palmer Raids and the deportation of foreign political dissidents overseen by a young J Edgar Hoover from 1919 to 1920.

Ultimately, the story of the political use of dynamite is but a chapter in the much longer history of violence for and against the state. For the first time, ordinary people found themselves capable of wielding an instrument of terror. It is not surprising that briefly, to some, it seemed an instrument of liberation.




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Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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