Advocates of propaganda by deed were aware that the killing of a tyrant would not end tyranny. Sometimes used to avenge a wrong, sometimes to show the vulnerability of the ruling class, it was hoped by its exponents that it would stir the spirit of revolt within the masses.
In 1876, at the Berne conference of the International Working Men's Association, the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued that the revolution "consists more of deeds than words", and that action was the most effective form of propaganda. In the bulletin of the Jura Federation he declared "the Italian federation believes that the insurrectional fact, destined to affirm socialist principles by deed, is the most efficacious means of propaganda".
The following year Malatesta and other anarchists put their theory into practice. As part of an armed militia they entered two villages in Campania, Italy. Declaring an end to the reign of King Emmanuel, they burned the parish records and distributed the funds in the tax collectors' safe to the poor. Troops soon arrived and the insurgents were captured. Although the exercise failed, the example was not missed by other anarchist revolutionaries.
In the following decades kings, queens, emperors and presidents were attacked. In 1884, August Reinsdorf attempted to blow up the Kaiser Wilhelm and his Princes as they opened the national monument at Rudesheim. In Paris, in 1892, August Vaillant threw a bomb into the chamber of deputies. Despite killing no one, he was himself executed. To avenge his death Santo Caserio killed the French president Carnot. 1897 and 1898 saw the deaths of the Spanish prime minister Del Castillo and Austrian empress Elizabeth at the hands of anarchists.
Johann Most, a German anarchist living in America, wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: a manual of instruction in the use and preparation of Nitro-Glycerine, Dynamite, Gun Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc, etc." In it he wrote, "In giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work…A pound of this stuff beats a bushel of ballots all hollow."
In Italy, with the peasants facing starvation due to famine, women brought their children to the palace of King Umberto to appeal for aid. His soldiers opened fire killing many of them. In 1900 a friend of Malatesta's, described as "one of the most tolerant (people) you could find" returned to Italy from America and killed the king.
At the time these acts were described as "the violent recoil from violence". Despite the attempts and killings being violent, their perpetrators were generally not cold-hearted murderers but as described by Emma Goldman, people "of too sensitive a social consciousness".
August Vaillant explained why he, an anarchist, who strove for a society of peace, would resort to acts of violence.
"I have seen capital come, like a vampire, to suck the last drop of blood of the unfortunate pariahs. Then I came back to France where it was reserved for me to see my family suffer atrociously. This was the last drop in the cup of my sorrow. Tired of leading this life of suffering and cowardice I carried this bomb to those who are primarily responsible for social misery".
The violence of the anarchists did not always land at the feet of tyrants. In France Theodore Meunier bombed a restaurant, believing all of the bourgeoisie to be legitimate targets. In 1891 twenty-two people where killed in a Barcelona theatre by the bomb of Santiago Salvador. In Paris a year later, Emile Henry hurled a bomb into the Cafe Terminus killing one and injuring twenty.
Malatesta, though a major exponent of propaganda by deed, wrote that "We do not believe in the right to punish; we reject the idea of revenge as a barbarous sentiment. We have no intention of being either executioners or avengers. It seems to us that the role of liberators and peacemakers is more noble and positive".
Propaganda by deed inherently failed in its purpose. It led to the public associating violence with the ideals of anarchism. People had difficulty relating to someone they viewed as a murderous fanatic. This in turn alienated people from the 'fanatic's' cause.
Another problem with the attentat (political assassination) is that many a time it has given governments licence to introduce further oppressive laws. Propaganda by deed was the result of frustration felt by anarchists at the lack of organisation of the masses. This lack of organisation left the masses prey to the reaction of the ruling class following in the aftermaths of attentats.
On September 6th 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot and killed the American president McKinley. "After the death of McKinley the campaign against anarchism and its adherents continued with increased venom"´1. Anti-anarchist laws were passed, intent on eliminating the movement. The New York Criminal Anarchy Law and other similar statutes were "a death-blow to social and political freedom in the United States"2. The new legislation severely curtailed the effectiveness of the anarchists.
During a lockout in 1892 eleven Pittsburgh steelworkers were murdered by strikebreakers. The Carnegie Steel Company, under the management of Henry Frick, then ordered the widows and children of the murdered workers out of the company houses. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, both authors of many anarchist books, decided that "it was the psychological moment for an attentat"3.
Goldman tried prostitution to raise money for a gun while Berkman travelled to Pittsburgh in preparation. Armed with a gun and a poisoned dagger, Berkman made an attempt on the life of Henry Frick, for which he received twenty-two years. Both were fervent supporters of propaganda by deed for years. But towards the end of his life, Berkman wrote to Goldman "I am in general now not in favour of terrorist tactics except in very exceptional circumstances".
Propaganda by deed was never likely to mobilise the masses. By the turn of the century those anarchists had learned their lesson, and turned their efforts towards building revolutionary unions. Mass workers unions were built in France, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Chile, and many other countries. A minority had gone down a cul-de-sac but were now out of it, and a lot wiser too.
Peter Kropotkin wrote "we have to be with the people , which is no longer calling for isolated acts but rather for men of action in its ranks". By working side by side with other workers in unions, anarchists began to show that anarchism was neither destructive nor abstract but a viable alternative.