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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 227-237

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Mike Davis Talks about the "Heroes of Hell"

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener: I've heard through the grapevine that you are working on a book about terrorism.

Mike Davis: My day job currently is a grassroots history of Los Angeles in the sixties ["Setting the Night on Fire"]. But I have also been busy on an extracurricular project entitled, after a poem in Mother Earth, "Heroes of Hell." It aims to be a world history of revolutionary terrorism from 1878 to 1932.

Why did you choose those specific dates as bookends?

Eighteen seventy-eight was the inception of the "classical" age of terrorism: the half-century during which the bourgeois imaginary was haunted by the infamous figure of the bomb-throwing nihilist or anarchist. Beginning in 1878, in fact, Bakuninists of several nationalities and their cousins, the Russian Narodniki, embraced assassination as a potent, if last-ditch weapon in the struggle against autocracy. The calendar of that year is extraordinary. In January, Vera Zasulich wounds General Trepov, the sadistic jailer of the Narodniki. In April, Alexander Solovev makes his attempt on the czar, the beginning of the royal game hunt that will culminate in Alexander II's assassination by Peoples' Will in 1881. In May and June, there are the successive attacks on the aged kaiser in Berlin by the anarchists Holding and Nobiling, which provide Bismarck with his long-sought-after pretext for repressing the utterly innocent German social democrats. In the fall, meanwhile, Moncasi tries to kill Alfonso XII of Spain, and Giovanni Passanante, hiding a dagger in a red flag, slashes at the king of [End Page 227] Italy. The year ends with a hysterical encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the "deadly pestilence of Communism."

The debut of modern terrorism, I should emphasize, followed in the wake of defeated hopes for popular uprisings in Russia, Andalusia, and the Mezzogiorno. [The Italian Bakuninists did briefly established a Che-like guerrilla focoin the Matese mountains above Naples for a few weeks in 1877.] Terrorism, in other words, was one response to the double failure of old-style urban Blanquism and rural Garibaldeanism. There is an obvious parallel with the contemporary experience of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood: after the betrayal and suppression of the great Fenian conspiracy, a secret cadre turned from insurrection to individual assassination as well as the first dynamite campaign against English cities.

And 1932 as a finale?

Nineteen thirty-two was the last in a series of desperate but unsuccessful attempts by Italian anarchists, direct descendants of Passanante, to assassinate Mussolini. Fascism and Stalinism succeed—where previous regimes failed—in bringing anarchism, and in Russia, the powerful social revolutionary movement, to the brink of extinction. The classical attentat [assassination attempt] is rendered powerless in face of the modern totalitarian state, although members of the Spanish FAI (International of Anarchist Federations) will persist through 1950s to help reignite "propaganda of the deed" with a blaze in the 1960s. But that is the story for another volume.

What put you on the track of Malatesta, Ravachol, and Durruti? Is this a political and intellectual response to 9/11?

Only after the fact. The real occasion of this project was reading Pierre Broue's magnificent Histoire de l'internationale communiste (1997). Like Victor Serge and Isaac Deutscher, Broue writes in the almost extinct idiom of the left opposition. His history is a passionate—at times almost unbearably poignant—engagement with the Shakespearean tragedy of the revolutionary generation decimated by Stalin and Hitler. He rescues the memory—the courage and moral grandeur—of hundreds of extraordinary women and men.

Broue inspired me to look at an even more out-of-fashion and politically incorrect group: the avenging angels who stalked kings and robber barons with bomb or dagger in hand. They tend to be the pariahs of the left, even to "respectable" anarchism, as well as demons of the right. I want to understand the moral architecture of their universe as well as the repercussions of their acts. In...