The Cycle of Anarchist Movements

NOTE: This is a long read – 2,481 words… I got carried away.

Some patterns throughout history are more subtle than others. In a recent post, I mulled over the ideas that the McCarthyism of the 1950s bears some similarity to the current issues with Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, as well as other contemporary movements. While this is one possible example of the challenges of providing context between the past and the present, other seemingly forgotten events and movements might offer a disconcerting of how cyclical human history can be. The 1919 Anarchist bombings and associated social movement lends such a fine example to the October 2018 mail bombings and the contemporary problems of activism.

Prior to the First World War, global social movements were typically regional. Though the increase in print media presented a convenient means to publish factual accounts of the news of the time as well as ideological theories concerning economy, society, and governance, the relatively slow speed of maritime and land-based lines of communication prohibited coherent narratives and ideas from propagation and manifestation. Similarly, the existing political and editorial control over both how and what ideas were deemed proper and permissible; while these efforts were both problematic and beneficial, they offered a form of situational moderation for social movements deemed potentially disruptive prior to such movements becoming destructive.  

The massive migration during the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, circumvented the official channels of ideology. The influx of both people and ideas to major cities brought the mechanisms for improved efficiency and capability along with the potential for exploitation and subsequent discontent when the frustrations of reality dampened the hopes of prosperity.

The First World War and increasing availability of the rapid transmission of information across great distances and natural obstacles played a considerable role in shaping the conditions for large-scale social movements. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war which followed until 1923, the German Revolution of 1918-19, and the civil unrest which rocked Italy from 1919 to 1926 all proved to be – in hindsight – precursors for the things to come in the following decades. More importantly, though, these events indicate a template of the urban dissatisfaction with the motivations and execution of the First World War and a study of those who sought to take advantage of the situations for their own means.[1]

In the case of the Anarchists in the United States during the early 20th century, the movement was the result of many different and interdependent problems. Initially, the idea of anarchism taking root in the U.S. was deemed unlikely:

But the fundamental principles of anarchism, or rather its fundamental confusions, have so little hope of influencing the conservative ideas of the Americans, that there need be no fear of anarchism creeping into the national mind.[2]

However, the end of the war brought a sense of disillusionment with some of the political systems which continued with the growth of labor movements which originally served to protect and advocate on the behalf of the diverse and abundant workforce. Socialism – and, to an extent, communism – presented an idealistic version of equality and justice which by 1919 had become more of a functional reality in Russia.

Anarchists in the U.S. had previously shown their ability and desire to affect change in political leadership. The 1901 assassination of President William McKinley (1843-1901) was by Leon Czolgosz (1873-1091), an anarchist inspired by the murder of King Umberto I (1844-1900) of Italy a year earlier and motivated by hopes that his actions would be a “good thing for the country.”[3] By 1919, the movement was an amalgamation of a wide variety of social causes: anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-femisim, individualist… socialist… collectivist… all under the general idea of resistance to governance and authority. Their overall motivations remained the same, regardless of their specific adjectives: to take advantage of the perceived shaky national leadership and fragile economic and social environments which were managing the reverberations of the First World War.

Class war is on, and cannot cease but with a complete victory for the international proletariat! [4]

The 1919 Anarchist bombings marked the most significant events of their movement while proving the impetus for reactionary legislation designed to prevent similar acts of domestic terrorism from occurring. The bombings were committed by Galleanists – a dispersed group of Italian anarchists who were influenced and indirectly led by Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), and their justification was to bring about an “anti-capitalist revolution.”[5] Their preferred weapons were rudimentary: bombs – both mailed and emplaced – containing dynamite to be detonated either on time delay or by a simple trigger which were activated upon opening the wooden box which contained the entire device.[6] Starting in April, around 36 bombs were mailed to specific political, media, and business figures, with several actually detonating; by June 1919, the use of larger emplaced explosives indicated an evolution in the bombers’ tactics. While the overall number of casualties of these attacks were far lower than what the anarchists probably intended – two people who were not directly targeted were killed and another two were seriously injured – the nationwide fear led to the detention of 3,500 suspects and deportation of 556 foreign insurrectionists.[7]

Less than a year later, the Galleanists possibly struck again – this time in New York City on September 16, 1920. Only the motive – a potential targeting of the financial magnate J.P. Morgan, and potentially in a symbolic effort to underscore an anti-capitalist message – remained the same. Using a wagon-borne explosive device, 38 assorted staff members were killed and 143 were wounded when the improvised fragmentation bomb ripped through the people outside the headquarters for the bank.[8] No definite resolution to the investigations of either attack has been made to this date; research years later, possible direct links could be extrapolated to suggest that the Wall Street bombing was in retaliation by Mario Buda (1884-1963) for the arrests of Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) and Nicola Sacco (1891-1927)  – suspects in armed robbery ties to the Galleanists.[9] Though many bombings preceded and followed these two attacks, 1919 and 1920 marked the high point in the anarchist movement in the U.S. for the 20th century.

Both bombings had immediate and long-term consequences. National paranoia was stoked by the newspapers, which referred to the unknown perpetrators with every imaginative descriptor possible – to include a presently familiar modification: “dynamitards.”[10] May Day riots and civil unrest which was loosely associated with International Labor Day and other ties to socialist and communist movements rocked major cities throughout 1919 and 1920. The U.S. Justice Department increased their efforts to track down and dismantle radicals, while Congress considered various legislation designed to outlaw any and all acts of sedition. Indeed, the short-lived Sedition Act of 1918 built upon the Immigration Act of 1903 in relation to anarchists and offered a valid route of persecution and prosecution of those suspected of:

 “…[B]y word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States…”[11]

Finally, the Johnson Reed Immigration Act of 1924 drastically reduced the number of immigrants entering into the U.S. and stopped over 90% of Italian immigration and incentivized assimilation into American society, thereby reducing the anarchists’ ability to proselytize their ideology.

In comparison, the 2018 mail bombing attempts – while initially stoking the fires of national debate and attention – are but a mere ghost of a memory in today’s abbreviated attention span. As of this writing, a little over a year has passed since Cesar Sayoc Jr. (1962- ) sent the first of 16 pipe bombs to various political, media, entertainment, and business figures in October, 2018.[12] Fortunately none of the devices detonated, but the subsequent discussion about political motives ranged from Sayoc being a white nationalist to him being a possible agent of either American political party. With Sayoc’s case being resolved on August 5, 2019 when he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for 65 separate felonies associated with explosive devices, justice would appear to have been served.[13] However, this case is only one highly visible example in a growing trend:

April 12, 2019 – “Justice in Kansas Three Men Sentenced in Conspiracy to Bomb Somali Immigrants”  

The three men—members of a Kansas militia group that espoused anti-government and anti-immigrant beliefs—first tried recruiting other members of that group to help them carry out their murderous plan targeting Muslims. No one took them up on their offer, so they formed their own group, calling themselves the Crusaders.

…[I]investigators learned that the June 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, spurred the men to carry out a similar attack somewhere against Muslim refugees in Garden City.[14]

May 22, 2019 – “Federal Grand Jury Charges San Fernando Valley Man with Planning Long Beach Terror Attack in Plot to Cause Mass Casualties”

…[C]alled for another event similar to the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas to give Americans “a taste of the terror they gladly spread all over the world…”[15]

August 23, 2019 – “Two Queens Women Plead Guilty in Connection With Plan to Build Explosive, Destructive Devices Similar to Those Used In Prior Terrorist Attacks in the United States”

“In an effort to implement their violent, radical ideology, the defendants studied some of the most deadly terrorist attacks in U.S. history, and used them as a blueprint for their own plans to kill American law enforcement and military personnel…”[16]

Combined with the current political environment where protests have become routine enough to be skimmed over in the one’s news feed, cases like those cited above would appear to suggest that the foundation of the anarchists’ ideology from a century ago – the idea that the current form of government might be displaced by singular acts of violence – lives on in a different form.

Contemporary Galleanists could possibly be seen in other forms. Antifa, a grassroots movement with origins in post First World War Italy, Germany and Spain, has risen to popular attention following the 2016 elections. While their intent is to counter a perceived increase in far-right influence and activities, their public appearances have been marked with violence, riots, suppression of First Amendment rights of their opposition, and other actions which are oddly reminiscent of the Blackshirts, Brownshirts, and Blueshirts of Italy, Germany, and Spain, respectively.[17] Like those Axis nations, the opposition against the politicians and their advocates has fueled their increasingly agitated causes which is increasingly resembling a self-assembled powder keg of angst and discontent.


This post ended up being much longer than anticipated. I started with one simple idea and my research caused one idea to morph into something akin of an academic paper. It is my opinion that there is a cycle to movements throughout our history and that some of our current events bear some proof to that theory. In “Apocalypse Near? A brief primer on Accelerationism,” Nicole Matejic discusses the concept of accelerationism in terms of political and ideological extremism:

…[T]he belief that their actions will herald the collapse of society as we know it – or be yet another step toward making that revolution come to pass.[18]

Much like the Anarchists and Galleanists of the early 20th century, these present-day movements seek to be the instigators of major and rapid governmental and societal change with little regard to the deliberate and gradual processes which are often much more successful.

On my dry-erase board, my daughter has smudged a simple note from earlier this summer:

            Static = stable / dynamic = unstable

Perhaps this is what is missing – an understanding that processes result in disruption of sorts. For those systems which change little, there is a continuity which comes from well-grounded interactions and expectations; there is no rocking of the boat, therefore, there is little likelihood of capsizing and any gradual changes can be accommodated. On the other hand, with rapid and drastic changes comes unpredictability and overcorrection; fast movement reduces reaction time and ability and any change will have compounding ramifications.

Folks need to not only read more, but they also – desperately – need to think independently more. As I have written before in the past – specifically, in “Political Red Shoes,” “They Started It…,” and “…A Primer” – and  the current rhetoric needs to be toned down before something worse comes along and leaves the commentators wondering how things progressed beyond the breaking point.


[1] Nick Shepley, Palmer Raids and the Red Scare: 1918-1920: Justice and Liberty for All. Luton: Andrews UK Ltd., 2011, accessed October 28, 2019, ProQuest Ebook Central, 18-19.

[2] Hugo Münsterberg, “Internal Political Problems,” in The Americans; the Americans., 185-200, Chapter xiv, 619 Pages: McClure, Phillips & Co, McClure, Phillips & Co, 1904, accessed October 24, 2019, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1037/13691-009. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/917601670?accountid=8289, 185.

[3] Ellen Przepasniak, “Leon Czolgosz on trial: Confessions of an anarchist, secret tunnels and more,” The Buffalo News, September 26, 2018, accessed October 24, 2019, https://buffalonews.com/2018/09/26/leon-czolgosz-on-trial-confessions-of-an-anarchist-secret-tunnels-and-more/.

[4] James M. O’Neill, “Anarchist Bombs in 1919 Launched Red Scare,” Asbury Park Press, Jun 05, 2019, accessed October 24, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/2234927323?accountid=8289.

[5] Eli Lehrer, “Learn from the 100-Year-Old ‘Palmer Raids’ for a Safer, More Secure Country,” The Examiner, Jun 02, 2019, accessed October 24, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/2234514886?accountid=8289.

[6] Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955, accessed October 28, 2019, ProQuest Ebook Central. 69-70.

[7] James M. O’Neill, “Anarchist Bombs in 1919 Launched Red Scare.”

[8] “Havoc Wrought in Morgan Offices,” The New York Times, September 17, 1920, accessed October 28, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20120719183255/http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C05E5D61E31E433A25754C1A96F9C946195D6CF.

[9] Andrew Cornell, Unruly Equality: U. S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century, Berkerley: University of California Press, 2016, accessed October 28, 2019, ProQuest Ebook Central, 76.

[10] Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920, 72.

[11] “The Sedition Act of 1918,” digitalhistory.uh.edu., 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=3903.

[12] “Florida Man Sentenced in Manhattan Federal Court to 20 Years in Prison for Mailing 16 Improvised Explosive Devices in Connection with October 2018 Domestic Terrorist Attack.” Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/2268770108?accountid=8289.

[13] “Cesar Sayoc Pleads Guilty To 65 Felonies For Mailing 16 Improvised Explosive Devices In Connection With October 2018 Domestic Terrorist Attack,” justice.gov, March 21, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/cesar-sayoc-pleads-guilty-65-felonies-mailing-16-improvised-explosive-devices.

[14] “Justice in Kansas Three Men Sentenced in Conspiracy to Bomb Somali Immigrants,” fbi.gov, April 12, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/three-sentenced-in-plot-to-bomb-somali-immigrants-041219.

[15] Ciaran McEvoy, “Federal Grand Jury Charges San Fernando Valley Man with Planning Long Beach Terror Attack in Plot to Cause Mass Casualties,” justice.gov, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/federal-grand-jury-charges-san-fernando-valley-man-planning-long-beach-terror-attack.

[16] John Marzulli, “Two Queens Women Plead Guilty in Connection With Plan to Build Explosive, Destructive Devices Similar to Those Used In Prior Terrorist Attacks in the United States,” justice.gov, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/two-queens-women-plead-guilty-connection-plan-build-explosive-destructive-devices.

[17] Pyrooz, David C. and James A. Densley. “On Public Protest, Violence, and Street Gangs.” Society 55, no. 3 (06, 2018): 229-236, accessed October 28, 2019, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1007/s12115-018-0242-1. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/2035944590?accountid=8289, 232-233.

[18] Nicole Matejic, “Apocalypse Near? A brief primer on Accelerationism,” nicolematejic.com, 2019, accessed October 28, 2019, https://nicolematejic.com/2019/08/30/apocalypse-near-a-brief-primer-on-accelerationism/.

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