On Thursday, September 16, 1920, at 12:01 PM EST, people were gathered on New York City’s Wall Street for lunchtime. A horse-drawn wagon made its way through the crowd and stopped across the street from the J.P. Morgan bank headquarters at 23 Wall Street – on the busiest corner of Manhattan’s Financial District. The wagon was carrying 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of heavy, cast-iron sash weights. A timer had been set, detonating the dynamite, sending the weights and glass from nearby windows flying through the air like shrapnel, and ripping the horse and wagon to pieces. The explosion caused over $2 million in property damage – the equivalent of over $27 million in 2020, with some damage still visible today – instantly killing 30 people, with eight more dying later from severe wounds, as well as injuring several hundred more, 143 of which severely so.
The Wall Street bombing was never solved, but it’s widely believed to have been perpetrated by an Italian anarchist named Mario Buda in response to the wrongful arrest of two of his colleagues, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. All three of them were Galleanists – followers of another Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani, a staunch proponent of a primarily anarchist political tactic called ‘propaganda by the deed,’ mainly associated with acts of violence such as bombings and assassinations aimed at the ruling class. It’s worth noting that J.P. Morgan, Jr. was traveling in Europe at the time and that most of the fatalities were young proletarians – part of the labor aristocracy, of course, but members of the working class nonetheless.
The concept of propaganda by the deed sprung from the recognition that the state and capitalism itself is perpetuated via coercion, what could be considered a latent form of violence, and active violence when threatened with even peaceful revolution, whether justified or not. Accepting that exposes poverty as a form of passive social violence and a manifestation of a heavily obscured class warfare in which moral considerations are perpetually set aside for the benefit of the bourgeoisie and at the proletariat’s expense. From this vantage point, inaction would also be a form of passive social violence since it directly or indirectly contributes to these circumstances’ propagation. From that mindset, virtually every action within a capitalist system would be violence in some form. With nonviolence not being seen as a currently viable option, the question would become how to efficiently leverage violence – precisely what violence they could utilize most effectively to entirely overthrow the capitalist system. Seeing attacks on the ruling class as the most potent means of garnering working-class support since the state’s backlash, in their minds, would enrage the workers, their line of march was clear.
There’s a kernel of truth in this line of thinking. The theoretical aspect of it holds water to some extent, but the practical side has at least two gaping holes. To be clear, I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that the capitalist system is kept intact through active and potential violence; I don’t even think a capitalist would disagree with that. I also agree that allowing millions per year to die from malnutrition, starvation, treatable diseases, etc. due to poverty is a form of social violence – what Friedrich Engels called ‘social murder’ in The Condition of the Working Class in England – and that any actions within the system that aren’t active attempts to overthrow it are at least passively upholding these social evils, qualifying nearly all actions within it as some form of violence. I even agree that the destruction of private property is theoretically justified in these circumstances since that’s the entire backbone of capitalism itself. The disconnect for me is that I don’t think this tactic’s practically sound.
All of these attacks, across the board, have failed to upend the capitalist system, invariably ending in one of two situations. It’s most commonly lead to the wholesale slaughter or suppression and immiseration of the rebels, their allies, and frequently even innocent citizens. The First Red Scare is a prime example. This happens because the state has the most artillery and won’t hesitate to trample on human rights to neutralize any threats, citing security as an excuse. On the rare occasions that insurrections weren’t quelled, the rebels have always become the new ruling class, leaving workers no better off once the smoke clears, with many of them dead in the crossfire.
Moreover, these attacks don’t usually radicalize proletarians, but more often turn them against the rebels. Class conscious workers may feel empowered, but those that aren’t don’t commonly see the struggle as liberating, but evil instead. With total control of the mainstream media and freedom to control the narrative via those outlets, it becomes much easier to paint rebels as terrorists and even frame them for attacks they never committed if they’re already engaging in violence beforehand. Once a movement’s been demonized, it becomes much harder to gain any amount of support. In this way, violence can inadvertently rob a movement of support they may otherwise have secured had it utilized peaceful means.
We can only realize a socialist revolution peacefully. A democratic society must be founded democratically. In the words of Friedrich Engels: “The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act.” The ruling class may attempt to use violence anyway, but it’s much harder to convince people that entirely peaceful movements are somehow evil. Suppressing peaceful rebels has always bolstered their support anyway.