Today, terrorism seems ubiquitous to us. Our children don’t know a world without long security lines at airports. Bag checks at museums and theaters seem completely natural to them. Actually, security measures have become so pervasive, generally, that they now seem normal to all of us. Terrorism is in fact, a product of the modern world. Can we ever trace it origins?
Carlo Pisacane Justifying Violence
Perhaps the best place to start to understand the concept of revolutionary terrorism is with the impoverished duke and Italian patriot Carlo Pisacane, who argued the importance of what he called propaganda by deed. Pisacane contended that ideas result from deeds instead of the other way around.
As a result, violence, he argued, was an essential tool that could generate publicity for a political cause. Inspired by the 1848 revolution in the Italian states, which was part of a broader revolutionary wave sweeping Europe, Pisacane devoted himself to unifying the fractious Italian states though he died before realizing his goal.
A few years later, the Russian revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, became among the first to put Pisacane’s ideas into action. Founded in 1879, the group’s members were young, educated men and women who believed they owed a debt to the Russian peasants whose manual labor afforded them their material privileges.
Some of them ventured into Russian villages to provide schooling and medical care to the peasantry and spread messages about economic and social equality. But their efforts were met with police harassment and repression.
Government’s Hostile Response
The Russian state responded with ferocity to these young people’s populist activism. In an autocratic country with the remnants of a feudal hierarchical system, propaganda advocating equality and freedom was considered dangerously subversive. Young activists who worked for short stints in Russian villages or distributed radical literature to peasants and laborers often spent years or even decades in prison and exile.
This led some to conclude that peaceful agitation was impossible under the Romanovs. About two-dozen men and women constituting the People’s Will executive committee decided to embrace more drastic measures, with an immediate aim in mind. They decided to assassinate the Russian tsar, Alexander II.
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The Use of Theatrics
Accomplishing this, the group believed, would wrest political reforms from the government or provoke a rebellion among the people. Between August 1879 and March 1881, they conspired to kill the tsar and made it their goal to do so as dramatically as possible. Explosives, which were still in their infancy, were adopted as the weapon of choice.
The People’s Will understood the power of spectacle. Stabbing or shooting the tsar wasn’t dramatic enough. They needed to kill him with a literal and figurative bang. Their embrace of such theatrics would be adopted by terror groups to the present day.
The Tsar Was Killed
Over two years, the group laid mines under streets and railroad tracks, and placed dynamite in the tsar’s Winter Palace, killing palace guards but missing their intended victim. And then on March 13, 1881, another mine was laid in a street the tsar often traveled.
That Sunday afternoon, one set of terrorists waited to light the fuse while others stood along an alternative route, holding handheld incendiary devices, just in case the ruler came their way. The tsar bypassed the mined route and so the contingency plan went into action. The first bomb thrown damaged the tsar’s carriage and the second hit its mark. Alexander II, the emperor of Russia, was dead within the hour.
A state of emergency was declared and a frantic search for the terrorists was launched. But the People’s Will didn’t scatter and hide. For their act to gain political traction, they needed the propaganda value of the publicity associated with it.
The day after Alexander’s death, the group issued a manifesto celebrating the fact that in spite of Alexander’s wealth, weapons, and military, the sovereign of 80 million people had fallen at their hands in his own capital. And the group threatened that unless the sovereign’s heir and son, Alexander III, instituted constitutional reforms, more violence would ensue in “ever more alarming frequency and forms”.
In the weeks that followed, the ranks of the People’s Will were so decimated by arrests that the group was unable to carry through on its threats. But the longer they were able to maintain the threat of doing so, the longer they would remain a political force.
Reaction of the Masses
Now, although the group hoped that challenging the government would pave the way for the masses to rise in revolution, no revolution came to pass. Instead, as one of the People’s Will leaders, Vera Figner, sadly noted, the people were silent, and the village slept.
The assassination of the Russian tsar sent shock waves around the world. Even liberal states weren’t immune from terrorism’s threat. Even in the world’s oldest constitutional country, some subjects of the British crown felt as politically helpless as the subjects of the Russian tsar.
Pisacane’s Beliefs Adopted Elsewhere
In summer 1881, an anarchist conference convened in London where attendees publicly endorsed assassination as an appropriate method to achieve revolutionary change, including the recent attack against the Russian tsar. From this time forward, anarchists across Europe and the United States championed Pisacane’s notion of propaganda by deed.
Between 1892 and 1894, eleven bomb blasts in Paris killed nine people. In Spain, dozens died in dynamite explosions. And in the final decade of the century, terrorists killed the French president, Spanish prime minister, and the Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary. Other prominent targets who survived included King Umberto of Italy and the German kaiser.
Common Questions about Revolutionary Terrorism
Carlo Pisacane argued the importance of what he called propaganda by deed. Pisacane contended that ideas result from deeds instead of the other way around. Violence, he argued, was an essential tool that could generate publicity for a political cause.
The Russian revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, became among the first to put Pisacane’s ideas into action. Founded in 1879, the group’s members were young, educated men and women who believed they owed a debt to the Russian peasants whose manual labor afforded them their material privileges.
About two dozen men and women constituting the People’s Will executive committee decided to embrace drastic measures, with an immediate aim in mind. They decided to assassinate the Russian tsar, Alexander II.