A hundred years ago, anarchists were the scourge of civil society. In the 20th century’s adolescence, the American brand of anarchism proselytized by immigrants from Europe like Emma Goldman took on a violent strain — President William McKinley was assassinated, Wall Street was bombed, Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (allegedly) robbed a bank in Massachusetts and were eventually electrocuted in 1921, mail bombs wrapped in brown paper were sent politicians all over the country.
In Europe, anarchism ascended as a counterweight to the rise of fascism and far-right-wing politics, and the movement thrived for a time before World War II as various leftist radical organizations fought for their place in the rebuilding of the continent.
But during and after the radical 1960s, anarchism and its perceived threat to the social order gave way to other fears. Politicians were no longer afraid of mail bombs, but first missiles from Russia and later of jihadists and white powder in envelopes. But today, with a tidal wave of protests flooding the world in the past year and the weight of a four-year-old economic crisis still crushing millions, if not billions, of people, anarchism seems to be again finding traction.
On Wednesday, Italian authorities beefed up security around high-profile figures after a group called the Informal Anarchist Federation claimed responsibility for shooting Roberto Adinolfi, a senior executive of the Italian nuclear engineering company Ansaldo Nucleare, in the kneecap last month. National police also arrested a number of the organization’s members, saying this week that it was responding to an “anarcho-revolutionary threat” after a campaign of package-bomb attacks against banks and tax-collection agencies. In Greece, anarchists are blamed for hurling Molotov cocktails at police, and in the United States it was widely reported that anarchists shouted “What do we want? Dead cops!” during a rally in Chicago in May.
But despite these events, anarchism and violence are not synonymous. In broad terms, anarchism is the ideology of self-organization and voluntary mutual aid. Anarchists reject the ruling order and the principle of hierarchy because, according to the New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists, those enforced social orders inevitably create systematic inequality and injustice.
“Anarchism is a lot of things,” explained Shawn Carrié, an anarchist active in the Occupy Wall Street movement, “but anarchism has been repressed like so many other alternative social ideologies for decades. It’s apparent, because when you think ‘anarchism,’ you think bomb-throwing and people in black masks. But anarchism has nothing to do with that.”
The black masks have become, unfairly or not, the face of the modern anarchist movement. They are the trademark of something called the Black Bloc, which stems from a three-decades old tactic of wearing black clothing and masks during protests, but has arguably grown into its own offshoot movement in the past year. Not only are they present at Occupy marches across the United States, the Black Bloc has also appeared at the NATO summit in Chicago, and at protests in Rome, Athens and Berlin.
Their clothes and fearlessness have given the Black Bloc a terrifying image, as has the occasional broken Starbucks window in the U.S. or masked youths’ penchant for throwing rocks at police in Europe. That image, the left-wing activist journalist and author Chris Hedges believes, is hurting the radical cause and the type of anarchism that Carrié espouses.
“Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment. They confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution,” Hedges said in February. “It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. … It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators.”
But some in the movement scorn Hedges’ position as old-fashioned. Radical activist Zakk Flash, writing for the Trial By Fire blog, called his statement “intellectual dishonesty” and “knee-jerk liberalism,” adding that the Black Bloc, and more importantly the anarchist movement as a whole, is not only a system that openly embraces all types of people as equals, but that anarchism can be nonviolent as well. Like the European anarchists of the 1930s, Flash’s anarchism is the antithesis of “fascism, authoritarianism, militarism and the like.”
“When I see anarchists in the news, 99 percent of the time it’s for something violent,” said Carrié. “But did [the reporters] interview all those people about their political beliefs? There is almost nothing there that can be actually attributed to ‘Anarchism’ with a capital A.”
Regardless of the forms that are being portrayed, anarchists hope their ideology will find a place as unemployment figures continue to fester and austerity measures cut education and social services budgets across the globe.
“People’s options are getting more and more limited,” said Nicole Capobianco, an activist who runs the Radical Education Collective in New York. “People are getting pushed more and more. The system is taking a little more. Eventually you will be pushed too far. At that point, it’s up for us to ask if we want to repeat the past, or move forward.”
“People are becoming conscious. They are awakening,” Carrié said. “It’s about being aware and starting to feel. Anarchism is a system that calls out violence. … Foreclosures are violent. Class war is violent. Taking away access to education is class warfare, and that’s violence.”
While their community is small, it is international. The beliefs of today’s anarchists cannot be easily summarized, and they are a diverse group politically, with different prescriptions for change and visions of the future. But they are hopeful that, eventually, more will join them.
“People are being exposed to the word ‘anarchy.’ The fact that people are hearing the word and saying ‘what does this mean,’ is getting people to look into what it is,” said Capobianco. “A failed political and economic system has contributed to that. Things don’t always work out when you play the game that’s been set up for you.”