6. Finding True Freedom and Equality: The Heritage of Nihilism

It is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true that his glory is his capacity for damnation. The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned.

T. S. Eliot (1930)

The Lone Wolf and His Pack

On the morning of 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He had already lit two fuses, of five and two minutes each. Leaving the truck just below a day-care centre in the building he walked away as a large explosion behind him destroyed the north half of the building, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring 684 others.

It was the first large-scale attack by a ‘domestic’ terrorist in the United States. The list has radically expanded in recent years, but Oklahoma still dwarfs, in its malignity and scale, the killings at the Boston Marathon, Charleston, Chattanooga, Austin, Fort Hood, San Bernadino and Orlando.

Muslim terrorists were initially suspected of carrying out the attack on the federal building. A Kuwaiti-Pakistani man called Ramzi Ahmed Yousef had bombed the World Trade Center just two years previously. There was some surprise when McVeigh, a veteran of the First Gulf War, was arrested and charged with mass murder. Bewildered friends and relatives filled in his unremarkable middle-class suburban background. The son of divorced parents, and a devotee of Chuck Norris and Rambo movies, McVeigh seemed to be the victim of a fantasy of what Barack Obama in his memoir called ‘swaggering American manhood’. McVeigh’s reported opinions also made him seem a classic victim of white male ressentiment in a world where long-suppressed minorities look assertive.

He had railed against feminism: ‘In the past thirty years, because of the women’s movement, they’ve taken an influence out of the household.’ Political correctness had pampered African-Americans – or, ‘niggers’, as he called them. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was too weak to preserve the Second Amendment. The United Nations together with the government of the United States was taking over the world. Amassing guns, McVeigh had seen himself as a noble survivalist. But, as with all people we have examined so far, McVeigh’s identity exceeds his social background or any psychological classification. A simple picture of his motivations is immediately muddied by his contradictory views, many of which disturbingly converge with mainstream opinion.

*   *   *

McVeigh’s prosecutors depicted him as a lone and psychotic killer with no known connections to terrorist groups. It is a charge commonly brought against white perpetrators of mass violence in the United States, though quite a lot of slaughter is avowedly ideological and targeted at symbols of political power. (Jared Loughner, who murdered six people during a failed assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford in 2011, claimed to be on a crusade against ‘federalist laws’, while Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine people at a church in South Carolina attended mostly by African-Americans, said he had hoped to incite a race war.)

The accusation did not quite fit McVeigh, who had drifted through various loose networks of white men linked by their extreme hatred and suspicion of the federal government. During his trial and afterwards, he produced a laundry list of their grievances: the FBI raid on Waco, Texas, US military actions against smaller nations, no-knock search warrants, high taxation and gun-control laws.

McVeigh also presented himself as a besieged defender of the American Constitution. He placed himself in the tradition of the small band of patriots who wished to defend liberty and freedom from government oppression and took on the British army at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. He equated the tax-happy US federal government with the oppressive British government of pre-revolutionary America. He quoted Thomas Jefferson on liberty, and he copied out and left a quotation from John Locke in his getaway car: ‘I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else. Therefore, it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a “state of war” against me, and kill him if I can.’

Yet McVeigh was a ‘lone wolf’ in a more unnerving and revealing sense than the judicial definition of his pre-meditated killings conveyed. His getaway car had no registration plates; he seemed eager to be caught; and he surrendered easily. He showed no remorse over his act of mass murder. He appeared to have in his soul what Madame de Staël saw in the mass murderer of her own time: ‘a cold sharp-edged sword, which froze the wound that it inflicted’.

In his lack of emotional ties, and indifference to his fate, McVeigh appeared the archetype of the violent agitator defined in the first pages of the pamphlet ‘The Catechism of a Revolutionary’ that, apparently co-authored by Bakunin, has entranced many radicals since 1869. The affectless McVeigh seemed like the man who ‘has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property’ and who ‘has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.’

Like this nineteenth-century idealist murderer and loner, McVeigh turned out to possess an extended analysis of political and social repression – one that would seem persuasive to individuals on both the left and the right today. He had written as early as 1992 that:

the ‘American Dream’ of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week’s groceries. Heaven forbid the car breaks down. Politicians are further eroding the ‘American Dream’ by passing laws which are supposed to be a ‘quick fix’, when all they are really designed for is to get the official re-elected.

McVeigh spoke presciently of a middle class that, its wages stagnant, was sliding into the wrong side of a new social division appearing in America and across the world: the moneyed elite and the rest. Already in the 1970s rising extreme-right groups, the Minutemen, the American Nazi Party, the Aryan Nations, a revived Ku Klux Klan, and radical left organizations like the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army had manifested a loss of confidence in the American Dream.

Recoiling from the Crystal Palace of modernity, McVeigh came to seek an old American idea of autonomy and self-sufficiency. He spent much of his adult life fantasizing, just as Bakunin, who passed through the United States, once had, about being ‘in the American woods, where civilization is only about to blossom forth, where life is still an incessant struggle against wild men and against a wild nature, not in a well-ordered bourgeois society’.

Searching for Humanity

McVeigh is still not easily stereotyped as a white supremacist dreaming of an American past of unlimited freedom (or as a Christian fundamentalist: his religion, he claimed, was ‘science’). Claiming in a letter to a local newspaper in 1992 that democracy may be following Communism down the road to perdition, he startlingly lapsed into praise for the egalitarianism of America’s steadfast ideological foe:

Maybe we have to combine ideologies to achieve the perfect utopian government. Remember, government-sponsored health care was a communist idea. Should only the rich be allowed to live longer? Does that say that because a person is poor he is a lesser human being and doesn’t deserve to live as long, because he doesn’t wear a tie to work?

All his white-bread racism didn’t prevent McVeigh from developing, while serving abroad, compassion for those he had been trained to dehumanize and kill. He participated in the general ‘turkey-shoot’ by US-led Coalition forces in 1990 against Saddam Hussein’s bedraggled troops. He himself ended up murdering two Iraqis in cold blood during a globally televised war remarkable for its apparent absence of blood. Facing the death sentence, McVeigh would later remark on the irony of once having ‘got medals for killing people’. He also confessed to a deep unease over the fact that:

I didn’t kill them in self-defense … When I took a human life, it taught me these were human beings, even though they speak a different language and have different customs. The truth is, we all have the same dreams, the same desires, the same care for our children and our family. These people were humans, like me, at the core.

McVeigh’s proclamation of a common humanity now seems radical. For during the years since 9/11, war ceased to be the continuation of politics by other means; it took on a theological intensity, aiming at the extirpation of what Chris Kyle in American Sniper, a sniper’s personal account of the American war in Iraq, calls ‘savage, desperate evil’. ‘I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian,’ Kyle wrote, explaining his red Crusader-cross tattoo in his chronicle of exterminating the brutes.

The xenophobic frenzy unleashed by Clint Eastwood’s film of Kyle’s book suggested the most vehement partisans of holy war flourish not only in the ravaged landscapes of South and West Asia. Such fanatics, who can be atheists as well as crusaders and jihadists, also lurk among America’s best and brightest, emboldened by an endless supply of money, arms, and even ‘ideas’ supplied by terrorism experts and clash-of-civilizations theorists.

For McVeigh, however, the First Gulf War seems to have been as crucial in turning him against the American government as it was for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the impersonal, nearly abstract massacre of more than a hundred thousand Iraqis in 1990 determined his own murderous intent. As his biographers described McVeigh’s act of mimetic violence:

He needed to deliver a quantity of casualties the federal government would never forget. It was the same tactic the American government used in armed international conflicts, when it wanted to send a message to tyrants and despots. It was the United States government that had ushered in this new anything-goes mentality, McVeigh believed, and he intended to show the world what it would be like to fight a war under these new rules, right in the federal government’s own backyard.

Claiming that he did not know of the presence of children in the federal building, McVeigh accused the US government of bombing Iraqi targets in full awareness of the proximity of children:

The administration has admitted to knowledge of the presence of children in or near Iraqi government buildings, yet they still proceed with their plans to bomb – saying that they cannot be held responsible if children die … When considering morality and ‘mens rea’ (criminal intent) in light of these facts, I ask: Who are the true barbarians?

Émile Henry, the bourgeois anarchist who bombed a café near the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris in 1894, killing one person and wounding twenty, also protested that his accusers had no right to charge him for murdering innocent people:

Are they not innocent victims, these children, who in the faubourgs slowly die of anemia, because bread is rare at home; these women who in your workshops suffer exhaustion and are worn out in order to earn forty cents a day, happy that misery has not yet forced them into prostitution; these old men whom you have turned into machines so that they can produce their entire lives and whom you throw out into the street when they have been completely depleted.

Many over-educated terrorists have made similar claims against the ‘system’. Theodor Herzl, who witnessed a notorious criminal-turned-anarchist called Ravachol on trial in Paris in 1892, concluded that ‘he believes in himself and in his mission. He has become honest in his crimes. The ordinary murderer rushes into the brothel with his loot. Ravachol has discovered another voluptuousness: the voluptuousness of a great idea and of martyrdom.’

In seeing himself as a saviour of humanity from arrogant and brutal government, McVeigh has many more surprising precedents than Baader-Meinhof and the Weathermen. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first man to call himself an anarchist, declared in Confessions of a Revolutionary(1849): ‘Whoever lays a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant. I declare him to be my enemy.’ Proudhon, appalled by public support of imperial despotism and militarist adventurism in France, came to believe that:

To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, hoaxed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

It is also true that McVeigh’s arguments against the state are by no means unfamiliar or exotic today. In America, it was never a sign of extremism to believe that the government is the greatest enemy of individual freedom. Several generations of conservative politicians have asserted the same, and have been hailed for their wisdom. Today, left-leaning admirers of Edward Snowden and critics of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Guantanamo believe this to be true as much as the NRA, white militias and survivalist groups. The libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel blames big government on the enfranchisement of women, and he issues such grandiloquent Nietzscheanisms as ‘The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.’

But, as his own last months before his execution in 2001 by lethal injection reveal, McVeigh’s rhetoric of freedom from arbitrary and opaque authority has a much wider resonance and appeal outside as well as inside the United States. He outlined, long before the recent epidemic of mass killings, the temptations and perils of privatized violence against the powers that be. He also affirmed early a now widespread view of society as a war of all against all, which has turned politics in even democratic countries into an existential struggle, a zero-sum game of all or nothing with few moral restraints, while inciting disaffected individuals worldwide into copycat acts of extreme violence against their supposed enemies. The beliefs and practices of this ‘lone wolf’ connect him to apparently very disparate and incongruous people, including the sworn enemies of the United States.

A Meeting of Minds

In the most illuminating coincidence of our time, at a ‘Supermax’ prison in Colorado, McVeigh befriended Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Born to a Pakistani man and Palestinian woman, and educated in Kuwait and Wales, Yousef came from the first generation of jihadis not tied to specific countries or regions. These were people ‘globalized’, willy-nilly, by their failed, failing, or – in the case of Palestine – non-existent states.

Yousef was not a devout Muslim, like many other terrorists who followed in his blood-splattered wake, including most recently Omar Mateen, who killed forty-nine people at a gay club in Orlando in June 2016. Yousef had learnt to make bombs in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. In 1993 he placed his explosives under the World Trade Center’s North Tower, hoping that it would collapse spectacularly into the South Tower, bringing the twin buildings down and killing 250,000 people. He flew back disappointed to Pakistan, where he planned and tried out various other prodigal schemes of mass murder, as much aimed at television ratings as a high kill-rate.

Yousef’s uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an engineer by training, completed what he had started: the twin towers’ destruction. Mohammed is now known as the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks. But it was his nephew who first gave modern terrorism its passion for grandiosity. Denouncing the United States at his trial, Yousef anticipated McVeigh’s justifications for his crime:

You killed civilians and innocent people – not soldiers – innocent people [in] every single war … You went to more wars than any country in this century, and then you have the nerve to talk about killing innocent people. Yes, I am a terrorist, and I am proud of it. And I support terrorism so long as it was against the United States Government and against Israel … You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.

The points of contact between radical Islamists and McVeigh may seem accidental. Yousef happened to be in a cell adjacent to McVeigh’s at their Supermax prison. But such chance encounters and coincidences have defined the global political arena since the 1840s; they constituted a kind of globalization from below, long before Osama bin Laden started to organize his band of African, Asian, European, Australian and American militants in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

*   *   *

Foreign radicals made up a large number of the radical Communards in Paris in 1871; the Indian Mutiny, French depredations in Algeria, the freeing of slaves and serfs in North America and Russia, and revolts in Ireland, Hungary and Poland were just some of the subjects discussed during the heady days of the Commune. The Communards were brutally crushed after a mere two months in power, but they portended a radical new attempt to rethink the fundaments of politics and culture on both local and global levels – one that would reach its apotheosis in the fin de siècle.

As the nineteenth century ended, more regions and regional causes were linked by the intensified circulation of capital, commodities and labour, as well as such modern infrastructure as railway networks, ports, canals (Suez and Panama in particular), steamship and telegraph lines, and financial services. This was the great age of immigration, which remains unparalleled to this day: Italy alone sent out an estimated fourteen million labourers between 1870 and 1914. Recently invented media everywhere – newspapers, periodicals and postal services – facilitated the flow of ideas challenging the inequalities and exploitations of the global economy. International radicalism entered the world conjoined with globalization. Then as now, it bore angriest witness to the latter’s crises.

In a globalized world there was something inescapably transnational to discussions about wealth redistribution, workers’ rights, mass education and the broader question of social justice. The tracks of Germans, Irish, Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Italians escaping political or intellectual oppression in their homelands crisscrossed Europe and the Americas; they were later joined by Japanese, Indians, Egyptians, Chinese and many peoples from colonized lands in Asia and Africa. The communist ‘Internationals’ were specifically aimed at fulfilling Marx’s programme of revolution across Europe. But the radical current that reached far outside Europe, deep into South America and Asia, and brought several diverse communities together in the late nineteenth century, was anarchism.

Errico Malatesta, the Italian disciple of Bakunin, joined Egyptian nationalists in their revolt against British imperialists in 1882. Syrian immigrants exposed to anarchist ideas in Brazil transmitted them to readers of the major Arabic magazines, al-Muqtataf and al-Hilāl. The date of 1 May, an international holiday, still commemorates the execution of immigrant anarchists in the US in 1886. In a remarkable instance of transnational solidarity in the 1890s, the ‘decade of regicide’, Italian anarchists avenged their martyred French and Spanish comrades by killing the French president (Carnot) and the Spanish prime minister (Canovas). The activist Li Shizeng formed a network of Chinese and European anarchists through his close friendship with the family of a famous French Communard, Élisée Reclus. The 1909 trial and execution of Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish anarchist, was turned, just weeks later, into a rousing play in Beirut.

Loosely defined, with only the hatred of authority at its basis, anarchism was more mindset than movement or consistent doctrine; it offered something to everyone, especially migrant labour in the first age of globalization. The anarchist idea of mutual aid was especially attractive among the labouring classes and immigrants as a counter to the pitiless Social Darwinism rampant among elites. And anarchists, unlike many European socialists and Marxists, did not condescend to anti-colonial activists from small countries.

*   *   *

Back in the late nineteenth century, intellectual circles quickly formed around journals, reading rooms and cafés. As the Italian novelist Enrico Pea, confrere of anarchists in Alexandria, wrote, the city’s restaurants and libraries were ‘frequented by excommunicated and subversive people from all parts of the world, who would meet there with their discourses in rebellion from God and society’. The possibilities of such transnational networks could only multiply with the rise of mass air travel. In 1970 German members of the Baader-Meinhof gang travelled to Jordan to receive military training from the Palestinian militant organization al-Fatah before launching their long career in terrorism.

In the age of the internet, people with diverse historical and political backgrounds only have to exchange Snapchat videos in order to initiate new journeys: using online outreach the cyber-propagandists of ISIS have managed to seduce thousands of foreign novices into making a perilous journey to the Middle East and North Africa. The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, the first of the mass murderers spawned by the internet, sought a common front with Hindu fanatics, among many others, in his worldwide campaign against multiculturalist governments; he in turn inspired the German-Iranian teenager who shot dead nine people in Munich in July 2016. Anwar al-Awlaki did not kill anyone but managed to provoke terrorist attacks in Boston and Paris with his internet sermons alone.

Compared to such virtual meeting places as Instagram, there is something drably nineteenth century about the Supermax prison in Colorado that hosted an encounter between two like-minded people with vastly different histories. There seems to have been an immediate recognition of spiritual and political affinity between the atheistic American and the Muslim radical. Yousef said after McVeigh’s execution: ‘I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his.’

McVeigh went to his death defending Yousef and Osama bin Laden; they were, he said in his last interviews, people merely responding to the crimes of the United States against the rest of the world. Had he lived, McVeigh might have followed, in his mind at least, the trajectory of many militants of white Caucasian origins – from John Philip Walker Lindh (the Californian captured fighting with the Taliban against the US in Afghanistan in 2001) to the numerous American and European devotees of ISIS.

In one of his last recorded messages to the West in 2006, Osama bin Laden himself appeared to have moved on in his bookish exile from his grievances with US foreign policy and Islamic theology to anxieties about global warming, and the inability of a Western democracy hijacked by special interests to avert it. Anwar al-Awlaki seemed to be channelling Noam Chomsky, and baiting authentically Salafi preachers (who recoil from un-Islamic texts and references), when in his hugely influential lectures he denounced a:

global culture that is being forced down the throats of everyone on the face of the earth. This global culture is protected and promoted. Thomas Friedman, he is a famous writer in the US, he writes for The New York Times. He says the hidden hand of the market cannot survive without the hidden fist. McDonald’s will never flourish without McDonnell Douglas – the designer of F15s.

Awlaki, exhorting DIY jihad to his listeners, also invoked the example of ‘African-Americans’, who ‘had to go through a struggle; their rights were not handed to them … that’s how slavery ended, and the struggle has to continue’. Abu Musab al-Suri, al-Qaeda’s leading strategist, quoted Mao as frequently as he did the Prophet Mohammed in The Global Islamic Resistance Call. He ridiculed Jihadis who did not learn from Western sources for their failure to ‘think outside the box’. He stressed that most of his arguments did not derive from Islamic ‘doctrines or the laws about what is forbidden (haram) and permitted (halal)’ in Islam, but from ‘individual judgments based on lessons drawn from experience’: ‘Reality,’ not God, he insisted, ‘is the greatest witness.’

Such ideological eclecticism only became possible because all these ‘lone wolves’ – Nidal Hasan, who killed thirteen people at Fort Hood in 2009, Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, and Omar Mateen – possessed a will to violence and mayhem untrammelled by any fixed doctrine, Islamic or otherwise. Mateen could not tell the difference between such bitterly opposed groups as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; his most significant ideological act during his killing spree was checking his Facebook pages and Googling himself. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the spiritual father of ISIS, had been a small-town pimp and drug-dealer before he set out to establish a Caliphate in Iraq in double-quick time through theatrical displays of extreme savagery. Such exponents of Gangsta Islam hope to eradicate the manifold evils of self and society with a few great strokes; above all, they believe, in Bakunin’s words, in the ‘passion for destruction as a creative passion’.

*   *   *

In the recent past, several individuals and groups – from the IRA in Ireland and Hamas in Palestine to Sikh, Kashmiri and Baloch insurgents in South Asia, Chechens in the Caucasus – have used terrorist violence as a tactic. In an almost forgotten atrocity in 1985, a bomb planted by Sikh militants fighting for Khalistan, or ‘Land of the Pure’, brought down a Boeing 747 travelling from Montreal to Delhi, killing 329 people. The Sri Lanka Tamils, who were fighting for a separate homeland, pioneered suicide attacks. One of them, a woman suicide bomber, assassinated the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Their Sinhalese opponents, officially Buddhist, responded with ethnic cleansing.

There is a much longer history of fanaticism and zealotry in the defence of a traditional society threatened with extinction by a modern power. The first jihad of the modern era, as we have seen, began in Germany in 1813 against a military and cultural imperialism embodied by Napoleon, or ‘the Devil’ as he was widely called by Germans. Two subsequent centuries showed how the kind of imperialism that seeks to reshape a whole society, makes people subordinate, morally and spiritually, and often goes under the name of a ‘civilizing mission’, can provoke ferocious backlashes in the name of culture, custom, tradition and God.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Mahdist revolt in Sudan in the 1880s and the Boxer Rising in China in 1900 all signified a desperate desire to resurrect a fading or lost socio-cultural order. Tolstoy was one appalled witness to Muslim resistance to the barbaric mid-nineteenth-century Tsarist wars of expansion in the Caucasus Mountains. As he wrote in a draft of his great novella Hadji Murat (1902), extreme violence was ‘what always happens when a state, having large-scale military strength, enters into relations with primitive, small peoples, living their own independent life’.

Over time, the local defence of autonomy against invaders and colonizers tends to be radicalized, and linked to global battles, as has happened in both Chechnya and Kashmir, where Salafi-style Islamism overwhelmed traditional Sufi Islam. Still, secessionists and separatists, and such holy warriors defending their nomos as the American Sniper, seem much easier to figure out, even at their most psychotic. Many of them refer to their interests explicitly while offering a justification for their actions and motives. They seem to possess a minimum of rationality even while engaged in irrational acts of violence, attempting to demonstrate that the pursuit of specific interests can legitimately involve killing and subjugating other human beings.

Many nation-builders and imperialists from the Jacobins to the regime-changers and democracy-promoters of today have arrogated to themselves the monopoly, once reserved to God, of creating the human world, and violently removing all obstacles in their way. The Jacobin politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat wondered why those accusing him of a reign of terror ‘cannot see that I want to cut off a few heads to save a great number’. ‘Proletarian violence,’ Sorel argued, serves the ‘immemorial interests of civilization’ and may ‘save the world from barbarism’. Stalin notoriously justified his carnage with the claim that ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’. In 2006, as Israel pulverized Lebanon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered a Bush administration spin on Marat’s, Sorel’s and Stalin’s revolutionary amoralism: the bombs were part of ‘the birth pangs of a new Middle East’.

However, men like McVeigh, Yousef and Mateen challenge the assumption that a freely willing human subject is motivated by certain desires, beliefs and perceived benefits, and has an omelette in mind – a New Man, or a New Middle East – when he breaks eggs. For them the act of violence is all; they have no vision of an alternative political reality on a global or even local scale, like the one of a classless society or an Islamic nation state offered by communist and Iranian revolutionaries in the past and cultural supremacists and ethno-nationalists in the present. As Proudhon once defined this particular kind of revolutionary:

Neither monarchy, nor aristocracy, nor even democracy itself, insofar as it may imply any government at all, even though acting in the name of the people, and calling itself the people. No authority, no government, not even popular, that is the Revolution.

Or, as Musab al-Suri wrote, ‘Al-Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be … It is a call, a reference, a methodology.’ Unlike white terrorists, who tend to be accused of being psychopathic lone wolves, or African-American militants charged with racial hatred, the violence of Muslim militants is commonly linked to a history of Islam that goes as far back as its seventh-century origins. But such ambitious accounts of doctrinal coherence and continuity are muddied by the fact that today’s militants, coming from different social backgrounds, fit no profile. Many of them are recent converts to Islam. Radicalized quickly, some are deradicalized just as rapidly. And all of them attest to the sheer velocity of a homogenizing globalization, which makes a settled religious tradition or politics impossible while making violence unpredictable and ubiquitous.

Even the most devout radicals remain circumscribed by their context of the worldwide Crystal Palace, mirroring or parodying, like McVeigh, their supposed enemies, but at an accelerated rate: they obey the logic of reciprocity and escalating mimetic violence rather than any scriptural imperative. The words and deeds of al-Qaeda’s chieftains clarified that the global terrorist, moving through the West’s networks of war, economics and technology, also regards the whole planet as his theatre of action, where he will, as Osama bin Laden said repeatedly, ‘kill your innocent people since you kill ours’.

The West’s ‘Just War’ then proliferated around the world, resembling global jihad in its ability to communicate through awesome violence alone and its total inability to build any political order, where war and peace are clearly defined and distinct. Its pursuit of an absolute, uncompromising enmity – along the lines specified in McVeigh’s quotation from Locke – ended up generating many more mortal enemies worldwide with a vengeful craving for emulation, such as the killers of ISIS, who dress up their victims in Guantanamo’s jumpsuits.

ISIS, born during the implosion of Iraq, owes its existence more to Operation Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom than to any Islamic theology. It is the quintessential product of a radical process of globalization in which governments, unable to protect their citizens from foreign invaders, brutal police, or economic turbulence, lose their moral and ideological legitimacy, creating a space for such non-state actors as armed gangs, mafia, vigilante groups, warlords and private revenge-seekers.

ISIS aims to create a Caliphate, but, like American regime-changers, it cannot organize a political space, as distinct from privatizing violence. Motivated by a selfie individualism, the adepts of ISIS are better at destroying Valhalla than building it. Ultimately, a passion for grand politics, manifest in ISIS’s Wagnerian-style annihilation, is what drives the Caliphate, as much as it did D’Annunzio’s utopia. The will to power and craving for violence as existential experience reconciles, as Sorel prophesied, the varying religious and ideological commitments of its adherents. The attempts to place them in a long Islamic tradition miss how much these militants, feverishly stylizing their murders and rapes on Instagram, reflect an ultimate stage in the radicalization of the modern principle of individual autonomy and equality: a form of strenuous self-assertion that acknowledges no limits, and requires descent into a moral abyss.

The suicide killers of ISIS, who simultaneously break two fundamental prohibitions of suicide and murder, represent what Herzen, speaking of Russian extremists, called the ‘syphilis of the revolutionary passions’. In all cases, they move from feelings of misery, guilt, righteousness and impotence to what Herzl called, admiringly, the ‘voluptuousness of a great idea and of martyrdom’: a grand vision of heroic self-sacrifice in which a life of freedom can finally be achieved by choosing one’s mode of death.

A recent example is Ahmed Darrawi, one of the most visible young leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt, who disappeared in 2013 and then resurfaced months later in Syria as a jihadist. ‘I found justice in jihad, and dignity and bravery in leaving my old life for ever,’ he wrote on Twitter before blowing himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq. These self-overcoming men might manufacture religious sanction, as in this call to global jihad by Awlaki, who found in violence an escape from a self tainted by sexual excess:

People will say that to fight the Israelis you have to go to Filistine [Israel/Palestine] and fight them, but it is not allowed for you to target them anywhere else on the face of the earth. Now this is absolutely false, it doesn’t stand on any Shariah foundation. Who said that if a particular people are in a state of war with you that this war needs to be limited to the piece of land that they occupied? If a particular nation or people are classified as ahlul harb [people of war] in the Shariah, then that applies to them on the whole earth.

But such desperately improvised exegeses of Shariah law only show how disconnected a second and third generation of Muslim terrorists are from the Islamic faith practised by their parents and grandparents. Osama bin Laden and his deputy showed, even through their distortions, some elementary first-hand knowledge of Islamic tradition and history. Zarqawi seemed to know nothing at all about them. Almost all of the young men involved in recent terror attacks in Europe and America have no religious education, and have rarely visited a mosque. Their knowledge of Islamic tradition and theology does not exceed the pages of Islam for Dummies. Nearly all have an extensive background in petty criminality, not to mention banal but nonetheless un-Islamic levels of drunken carousing and drug-taking.

Liberated from the past, and its moral constraints, these wandering outlaws of their own dark mind are free to dream up new forms of self-definition; their seemingly uncontrollable energy is manifested as much in intensified individualism as in political avant-gardism. Moving through the mundane places and practices of everyday life – motels, bars, gyms, internet chat rooms, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, Twitter timelines, private car rentals and, in Awlaki’s case, glamorous escort services – global jihadists as well as ‘domestic’ terrorists are unmistakably a product of the modern era: its technologies of communication and advertising, its fears of the loss of will and energy, its stifling of individuality and its paradoxical imperatives to assert a singular, manly and energetic self.

It is safe to say that there will be many more such men and women in the future, made and unmade by globalization, unmoored to any specific cause or motive, but full of dreams of spectacular violence – men and women who will bring to politics, life itself, a sense of imminent apocalypse.

The Last Men

To understand their promptings, and the perils they pose, we have to examine the specific conditions – inequality, the sense of blocked horizons, the absence of mediating institutions, general political hopelessness – in which an experience of meaninglessness converted quickly into anarchist ideology; and we have to return to the man from a backward country who gave political revolt its existential and international dimension.

Mikhail Bakunin has always been less well known than Marx and Mazzini, his compatriots in theorizing, conspiracy and intrigue during some long decades of failed revolutions and uprisings in Europe. But it was the Russian who with his notion of unfettered individual freedom anticipated an era beyond street barricades, armed insurrections, the idolatry of the nation state and hedonistic self-fulfilment.

The idea of free self-development, exalted by the Romantics, had gone steadily mainstream in the ideologies of the nineteenth century, reformulated by figures as various as Marx and Stirner. Even John Stuart Mill, the theorizer of a rich empire of commerce and inheritor of the utilitarian tradition, had placed personal growth, and the necessity of diverse experiences, at the centre of his liberal philosophy. Mill warned against the spiritual entropy induced by democratic societies, and their suppression of rich and vigorous individuality.

Men everywhere in the nineteenth century longed, out of a deep fear of emasculation, for a new Napoleon, who would show, as Nietzsche wished, the businessman, the philistine and women their place. Disgust with bourgeois routines of moneymaking, and the search for distinction, also provoked in the late nineteenth century artistic manifestos of art for art’s sake, and a broad notion of culture defined against anarchy.

Baudelaire promoted the cult of the cool, fastidious, narcissistic dandy, who feels at ease only among criminals and outcasts. Flaubert, Rimbaud and Oscar Wilde elevated into the realms of philosophy an unquenchable thirst for new forms of feeling. The eclectic experience and individual singularity sought in this manner included wilful self-degradation abroad; and it was spectacularly achieved in literature by Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (1898), the representative of progressive, civilizing Europe, who dies whispering ‘The horror! The horror!’, aghast at the savagery caused by his own insatiable need for novel experiences.

Bakunin went much further than the anti-conformist liberal-aristocrats, the Marxist revolutionaries, the self-martyring aesthetes, the abyss-loving coxcombs, the seekers of dereliction, and other existential heroes of his time. He not only saw through commercial society and its ideology of bourgeois liberalism; he looked beyond the antidotes of nationalism, imperialism, universal suffrage and even revolutionary socialism.

‘Ultimately,’ he lamented, ‘we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority.’ Refusing the palliative of working-class revolution or rule by a technocracy, he insisted that human dignity in nations and peoples manifests itself only in ‘the instinct of freedom, in the hatred of oppression, and by the force of revolting against everything that has the character of exploitation and domination in the world’.

An itinerant member of a rootless Russian intelligentsia, and the pioneer of secret societies and cells, Bakunin formulated a transnational, moveable mode of politics as an interconnected world came into being in the late nineteenth century. While he never himself resorted to acts of terror, he did outline its temptations for unmoored men exposed to misery and suffering, and convinced that there was not enough scope for collective action to change history.

Identifying freedom with a joyful passion of destruction, Bakunin took to a new extreme the Romantic-liberal notion of individual autonomy: beyond the hatred of the businessman, the philistine and women. He revealed that such lethal individualism is not a break from modernity. Rather, it is as much its integral part as liberal individualism and such collectivist projects as nationalism and fascism. All of these tendencies arise at particular moments from within a still ongoing experiment, which, starting in eighteenth-century Europe, is now worldwide in scope.

*   *   *

We saw Bakunin with Wagner, fleeing the failed revolution in Dresden in 1849. Wagner went on to become the icon of German nationalism in Bismarck’s Second Reich. He made it his task to rework heroic myths from Germany’s ostensible medieval Christian and primeval pagan past in order to restore spiritual wholeness to a society evidently corrupted by materialism.

Bakunin, arrested and exiled to Siberia for over a decade, spent the rest of his life organizing and indoctrinating groups of revolutionaries from Europe and Russia, who then took his ideas even further afield, to the United States and India. It was a journey that went on to define a whole new pattern of politics worldwide – one whose complexity and originality has become more apparent in our own close-knit societies.

In retrospect, it seems clear that a figure like Bakunin could only flourish in the new intellectual and spiritual climate into which the failure of the 1848 revolutions had ushered Europe. The ‘greatest event of recent times’, as Nietzsche put it, had already occurred: the ‘death of God’. With God dead or dying, man was free to create his own values in a valueless universe. Hegel claimed to see history as a rational dialectical process – the ‘algebra of revolution’ as Herzen called it – that ends with the reconciliation of individual and collective freedom in the context of the rational Prussian state (of which Hegel was conveniently an employee). Marx projected the rational end of history into the future, turning it into a political goal. His Communist Manifesto, written on the eve of the 1848 revolutions, proclaimed ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’

Marx and Hegel posited a new meaning and purpose to life. The failure of 1848, however, caused as much damage to the quasi-theological German idea of development as the discoveries of natural sciences had inflicted on faith in God. The quick collapse of working-class uprisings in 1848, and the triumphs of the bourgeoisie, made historical development seem neither rational nor progressive. Reason did not rule the world; the real was plainly not the rational.

With neither God nor the spirit of history able to explain disastrous events, the pessimism of Schopenhauer, first aired and ignored during the springtime of secular modernity, made a triumphant return. It impressed many with its conviction that the world was directed by a demonic will that determined all human action. In Schopenhauer’s view, individual freedom is an illusion. At best, human beings can deny a malicious will to life by ceasing to strive and act, and dwell in a state of resignation, or non-striving (what Schopenhauer mistakenly thought was Buddhistic Nirvana).

Baudelaire was among those whose God died young in 1848 (if largely because his stepfather, a general whom he loathed, managed to survive the revolution in Paris). He started to see Satan, symbolizing the human capacity for self-destruction, as the only real supernatural presence. Herzen came to sneer at the ‘naive people and revolutionary doctrinaires, the unappreciated artists, unsuccessful literary men, students who did not complete their studies, briefless lawyers, actors without talent, persons of great vanity but small capability, with huge pretensions but no perseverance or powers of work’, who had tried to make a revolution. Flaubert immortalized these losers and no-hopers in his greatest novel, Sentimental Education (1869).

But it was Nietzsche who sensed, with especial acuteness, the debilitating post-1848 mood – what he called ‘nihilism’ – while also recoiling from what he saw as counterfeit attempts to deny it. ‘What will not be built,’ he argued, ‘any more henceforth, and cannot be built any more, is – a society in the old sense of that word; to build that, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come.’ As he saw it, Europeans were far from facing up squarely to the death of God, and its radical consequences; they had sought to resurrect Christianity in the modern ideals and ideologies of democracy, socialism, nationalism, utilitarianism and materialism. Stressing humanitarianism and pity, they had embraced the ‘slave morality’ of the first Christians in Rome.

Nietzsche denounced these weaklings, the banal last men of history, who pursue their pathetic invention: a bovine happiness. ‘The earth has become small,’ he wrote, ‘and on it hops the last human being, who makes everything small.’ In this shrunken world, mediocrity is the rule: ‘Each wants the same, each is the same.’ What Nietzsche hoped for was the emergence of noble and strong spirits, a new caste of aristocrats: supermen, such as Napoleon, the true anti-Christ whose will to power is uncontaminated by ressentiment and its pseudo-religions, who creatively use their freedom from false gods and deceptive ideals, and who transcend their fate of passive nihilism to become active nihilists.

Nihilism, then, was both a dismal fate, and a necessary condition for a ‘new race of “free spirits”’, as Marinetti called them, who, ‘endowed with a kind of sublime perversity … will liberate us from the love of our neighbour’. It is hard to imagine what Nietzsche would have made of the free-spirited neighbour-haters that did emerge in every corner of the world: fin de siècle revolutionary ideologues, who, as we have seen, were fired with a Promethean zeal, committed to creating a New Man on the ruins of the old, and restarting stalled history with superhuman effort and a kind of perpetuum mobile. In his own time, Nietzsche witnessed only some ‘active’ and ‘complete’ nihilists from a backward country who appeared to be destroying the old order and its feeble-minded morality rather than preserving it. Although Nietzsche largely knew them only from the novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, he was much attracted by the Russians who proved his belief that the incorrigible human will would rather will nothingness and destruction than not will at all.

*   *   *

The Russians experienced with particular intensity the general shattering of faith in a purposive universe. As we saw briefly in the pages on the Iranian Revolution, members of an uprooted Russian intelligentsia injected a messianic fervour into their desire for freedom and progress. This was largely because there was little modernization going on in Russia for much of the nineteenth century. The Russian economy stagnated while even the Italians started to industrialize. Political oppression often increased. All through the post-1789 European-wide challenges to the Old Regime and the universal outcry for reason, fraternity, liberty and equality, Russia, under its despotic rulers, remained mute. Russian intellectuals were excruciatingly aware of belonging to a country derided as the ‘gendarme of Europe’ for its repressiveness.

Their anguish at being left behind, or at experiencing modernity in abortive forms, anticipated the political and spiritual struggles of many African, Asian and Latin American peoples. One trait their educated representatives all seemed to share is brisk movement from one intellectual passion to another, each more radical than the previous one, in a quest for truly transformative modes of action.

Bakunin, along with Belinsky, had been desperate enough to glorify, much to the dismay of their friend Herzen, the Tsarist autocracy, interpreting the Hegelian formula – the ‘real is the rational and the rational is the real’ – to mean acceptance of the status quo. It brought him in ideological proximity to the conservative Slavophiles with whom he violently disagreed on many issues. Moving on from this tawdry reconciliation with reality (i.e. the establishment), Bakunin (and Herzen) then invested throughout the 1840s their deepest hopes in a revolution in the West that would in turn emancipate Russia, and indeed all of humanity. Their disappointment over the defeat of the working classes and the consolidation of bourgeois power in 1848 was therefore extreme.

Herzen declared that the pitiless science of economics had triumphed over the universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Western bourgeois, Herzen wrote, ‘is selfishly craven and is capable of rising to heroism only in defence of property, growth and profit’. Western civilization itself was a ‘civilization of a minority … made possible only by the existence of a majority of proletarians’, breeding a cult of power on one side and servility on the other.

Herzen spoke of Europe at large consisting of a ‘passive mass, an obedient herd’, and made his own prophecy of the last men: ‘Bourgeois Europe will live out her miserable days in the twilight of imbecility, in sluggish feelings without convictions.’ Bakunin, too, found extensive evidence of a spiritual rot: ‘Wherever one turns in Western Europe one sees decadence, unbelief and corruption, a corruption which has its roots in unbelief. From the uppermost social level down, no person, no privileged class, has the faith in its calling.’

Both Herzen and Bakunin flirted with the idea that there was a special Russian Sonderweg (special path) to modernity – one that was shorter than all other paths. In their idealized vision, the Russian peasant was already socialist; all that was needed was the people’s wrath to sweep away the autocracy and dispossess the parasitical gentry. Russia could thus bypass the degrading and corrupting bourgeois phase suffered by Europe; the peasant commune, self-sufficient and moral, could even show the world the correct path to a free and equal society. Like Marx and Engels, and many thinkers, past and present, Herzen and Bakunin managed to discover in their own country a promise of universal redemption. They also found, as befitting impatient people from a belated nation, short cuts to its fulfilment.

*   *   *

Marx, scientifically defining the many stages to revolution in industrializing Western Europe, mocked the notion of peasant socialism for much of his life, and belittled Russians in particular as a barbarous people. He developed, in his later years, a bitter suspicion of Herzen and a virulent dislike of Bakunin (who, no slouch at anti-Semitism, called Marx the ‘Teutonic-Judaic worshipper of state power’). But Russia’s politically hopeless situation, which engendered such dreams as peasant socialism, had a deeper and wider significance and broader appeal than Marx realized.

Political stagnation, as we saw, had driven many Germans to develop new forms of inwardness. German Idealism went on to inspire many frustrated intellectuals in the East, including in Japan and Russia. But, as the nineteenth century advanced, many of them felt, long before they had heard of Marx, that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’

The Russians were at the forefront of this new and intensely political Sturm und Drang. Energetic, intelligent men like Bakunin grew into a class of professional revolutionists because their repressive states left no place for constructive action at home while the world seemed to change speedily around them. They could find fulfilment only in borderless intrigue, a politics of the rejection of politics, and a Romantic myth of the rebel-hero, if not violence.

They had much baggage from the past to abandon. As Herzen wrote to his son, ‘We do not build, we destroy; we do not proclaim a new revelation, we eliminate the old lie.’ He wrote again and again of his vision of an uprising of unspoilt, virile barbarians who would destroy a decrepit Europe and Russia – the corrupt Rome of the nineteenth century. In 1863, Dostoyevsky, attending a conference of exiled radicals in Geneva where Bakunin was present, described how:

They began with the fact that in order to achieve peace on earth the Christian faith has to be exterminated; large states destroyed and turned into small ones; all capital be done away with, so that everything be in common, by order, and so on … And most importantly, fire and sword – and after everything has been annihilated, then, in their opinion, there will in fact be peace.

Bakunin was typical of his age in fully imbibing the militantly atheistic mood of the 1840s – the view of God as a human creation – and also incorporating recognizably Christian elements in his messianic faith in the freedom of the spirit. As he wrote:

I had only one confederate: Faith! I told myself that faith moves mountains, overcomes obstacles, defeats the invincible and makes possible the impossible; faith alone is one half of victory, one half of success; complemented by powerful will it creates circumstances, makes men ripe, collects and unites them.

By the end of the century, faith complemented by acts of powerful will would lead to a continuously escalating campaign of violence and terror across modernizing Europe and America. Bakunin, moving beyond peasant socialism in Russia, came to have significant disciples and colleagues in Europe, such as Malatesta, the Italian anarchist, and Élisée Reclus, the French geographer, who played an important role in the Paris Commune.

But Bakunin’s spiritual influence over generations of anarchists and nihilists was even greater. He bequeathed to them his conviction that heroic acts of freedom could transform the world from an authoritarian cage into an arcadia of human freedom. Those who followed Bakunin were liberated from not only belief in God but also the shibboleths of German Idealism. Man’s freedom did not have to be the result of a long dialectical process; it could be created ex nihilo. It may not be clear where humanity would go next. But imagining the new world was less important than abolishing the old one. As Herzen wrote, inadvertently echoing Baudelaire’s Dandy and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘the future does not exist’ and the ‘truly free man creates his own morality’.

Visions from the Underground

The young Russians who came after 1848 possessed in even greater quantity this spirit of contradiction and negation, and the urgency to remake history. Turgenev captured the garish negativism of these ‘nihilists’ through his portrait of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons (1862). A medical student of humble origins, Bazarov scornfully dismisses morality and art as superfluous, and praises the utility of mathematics and science, much to the chagrin of the liberal landed gentry. A character in the novel defines a nihilist as ‘a person who does not bow down before authorities of any kind, who does not accept a single principle on faith, however much respect surrounds such a principle’.

The Russian, whom Lev Shestov defined as ‘hanging in the void’ after being ‘torn from the community’, replaced the German in the second half of the nineteenth century as the boldest explorer of spiritual and political dilemmas among late-modernizing peoples. The Russian radical in particular anticipated the appeal of apocalyptic goals, and the disembodied ideal of freedom, found among the angry young men of our own times.

For Dostoyevsky, the ‘Nechaev affair’ underscored the dangers of an intellectual radicalization that goes with a near-total absence of political and economic reform and near-total political impotence. Sergei Nechaev, an educated provincial from the lower middle-class who, lacking talent and charm, and feeling marginalized by the cosmopolitan city, develops a penchant for violence, was a classic example of the sick, spiteful and unattractive Underground Man he had already described. Nechaev’s hatred, as a contemporary of his wrote, ‘was directed not only against the government and exploiters, but against society as a whole and against educated society’. Arriving in Saint Petersburg in 1866, the same year as an attempted assassination of the Tsar, Nechaev moved very quickly to form his own radical group. He presented himself to Bakunin in Geneva in early 1869 as the leader and delegate of a revolutionary movement of students. Bakunin took a great liking to the young man: an exemplar, he seemed, of Russia’s ardent young generation, who had the will to destruction. He helped the Russian to get some money from Herzen (who himself would have nothing to do with the young firebrand).

The new friends then co-authored various pamphlets, advocating an elemental violence and terror. Herzen, who came down to Geneva to see his old friend, was alarmed. He wrote in a letter, ‘The mastodon Bakunin roars and thunders … Everywhere he preaches universal destruction. Meanwhile the Russian youth take his programme au pied de la lettre. Students are beginning to form bands of brigands. Bakunin is advising them to burn all documents, destroy property and not to spare people…’

Nechaev returned to Russia late in 1869 to establish secret cells. All seemed to be going well for Bakunin until the Moscow press revealed some months later that Nechaev had murdered a student on the grounds of the Agricultural Academy in Moscow (where Dostoyevsky’s brother-in-law was a student). Bakunin himself was mentioned, along with his advice to the younger generation to nurture that ‘fiercely destroying and coldly passionate fervour that freezes the mind and stops the blood in the veins of our opponents’.

It turned out that Nechaev had ordered a member of his radical cell, who disagreed with him, to be killed on suspicion of being an agent of the Russian police. He himself had strangled the young man to death. It also came out later that he had invented the accusation merely in order to get rid of a rival.

Bakunin had refused to believe the rumours circulating in émigré circles about the murder, and Nechaev’s basic dishonesty. To friends, he tried to justify Nechaev as someone forced to seek short cuts by a desperate political situation: someone who wanted to strike a great blow for freedom in order to jolt people out of their ‘historical backwardness’, ‘apathy’ and ‘sluggishness’. In public, however, he angrily repudiated his collaborator. Nechaev was guilty, he wrote in a long epistle, of a ‘fanaticism bordering on mysticism’.

*   *   *

The modern terrorist tradition has many such instances of zealous pupils exceeding their masters’ brief: most recently, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who, radicalized in a Jordanian prison by a radical Salafist scholar, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, went on to win the label ‘sheikh of slaughterers’ in Iraq. Zarqawi’s brutishness provoked his spiritual guide to issue several censorious disavowals on Al Jazeera; he complained in particular about Zarqawi’s ignorance of Islam.

Maqdisi now issues fatwas against Zarqawi’s offspring, ISIS, depicting it as a den of Saddam Hussein’s secular and socialist Baathists, who have ‘just discovered Islam’. He has been denounced in turn by ISIS’s chief propagandist, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, as one of ‘the donkeys of knowledge’. ‘The only law I subscribe to is the law of the jungle,’ Adnani asserts, and Nechaev would have agreed. The means do not matter so long as they achieve the desired end of universal destruction. In many ways, figures like Zarqawi and Adnani represent the death of traditional Islam rather than its resurrection.

Certainly, for Dostoyevsky, a ruthlessly egocentric and unscrupulous partisan of action like Nechaev embodied the consequences of the death of God. In his novel Demons (1872) he famously used the ‘Nechaev affair’ as a salvo against the phenomenon of active nihilism. But Dostoyevsky also admitted that he himself might have become ‘a Nechaevist … in the days of my youth’. What he had tried to show in Demons, he explained, was that ‘even the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn into committing such a monstrous offence’. He believed that:

no ant-heap, no triumph of the ‘fourth estate’, no abolition of poverty, no organization, will save humanity from abnormality and, consequently, from guilt and transgression. It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human beings than our socialist-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it has always been; that abnormality and sin arise from the soul itself; and finally that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there cannot be either physicians or final judges.

The First Phase of Global Jihad

Responding to critics who had condescendingly labelled him ‘poet of the Underground’, Dostoyevsky said ‘Silly fools, it is my glory, for that is where the truth lies … The reason for the Underground is the destruction of our belief in certain general rules: “Nothing is sacred.”’ Certainly – and this accounts for the swift and deep popularity of Dostoyevsky in Europe – this ‘underground’ world of demonic will was not something confined to Russia or what Joseph Conrad called the ‘Russian temperament’, whose ‘moral and emotional reactions’ could be ‘reduced to the formula of senseless desperation provoked by senseless tyranny’.

It is true that rigidly autocratic Russia had developed a degree of repression whose counterpart was insane rebellion. In a country without a public sphere, where educated young men were trapped between an oppressive elite and a peasantry they had no contact with or means of knowing, violence came to seem attractive – the only available form of self-expression. But many intelligent young men elsewhere, too, were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies.

In that sense, Dostoyevsky’s literary recognition of active nihilism in Russia anticipated later acts of destructive violence. Beginning in the late 1870s, these kept erupting on the orderly surface of modern, rational civilization across Europe until it was consumed by the great conflagration of the First World War.

The radical intelligentsia did not give up in Russia itself, despite severe repression. A movement called the People’s Will launched a campaign of terror, and in 1881 it managed to assassinate the Tsar, Alexander II. The deed, planned by a twenty-six-year-old female revolutionary, Sofia Perovskaya, was comparable in its boldness and implications to the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. And such was its infectious quality that a wave of assassinations washed over Europe and America in the next three decades.

King Umberto I of Italy, who survived an attempt on his life made by an anarchist in 1878, considered assassination to be a ‘professional risk’. He was murdered twenty-two years later by an Italian silk worker, a member of an anarchist group from New Jersey. Attacks were also directed at institutions that seemed to represent the deceitful values of bourgeois society. An attack on a disreputable music hall in Lyons in 1882 seemed to have been provoked by the anarchist newspaper that said ‘You can see there, especially after midnight, the fine flowers of the bourgeoisie and of commerce … The first act of the social revolution must be to destroy this den.’

An anarchist attacked the Paris Stock exchange in 1886; another hurled a bomb at the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893. An Italian anarchist then stabbed to death the president of France, Carnot, for refusing to pardon the murderer. The European states responded with brutal police repression: torture became common again, along with summary trials and executions and crackdowns. Governments started to cynically use the threat of terrorism to shore up domestic support and ensure compliance: Bismarck blamed assassinations and bombings on the Social Democratic Party, and eventually banned it.

The anarchist terrorists came to be depicted gaudily by a sensationalistic press as a powerful conspiratorial force spanning the globe. The radicals also began to make their way into literary fiction outside Russia. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about a bomb-throwing Russian, depicting her, in a Baudelairean touch, as an expression of satanic beauty. In The Princess Casamassima (1886), Henry James ventured into London slums with an unusual cast of anarchist conspirators. In Émile Zola’s novel Germinal (1885), a Russian anarchist called Souvarine blows up a mine. The French novelist warned:

the masters of society to take heed … Take care, look beneath the earth, see these wretches who work and suffer. There is perhaps still time to avoid the ultimate catastrophe … [Yet] here is the peril: the earth will open up and nations will be engulfed in one of the most appalling cataclysms in history.

Literature, in turn, incited acts of terror. One of the readers of Germinal, and greatly inspired by its Russian anarchist, was Émile Henry. Henry bombed a mining company and a much-frequented café near the Gare Saint-Lazare. He defiantly spoke in court of ‘a deep hate, each day revived by the revolting spectacle of this society … where everything prevents the fulfilment of human passions and the generous tendencies of the heart, and the unimpeded growth of the human spirit’. Henry claimed to have acted so that the ‘insolent triumphs’ of the bourgeoisie were shattered, and ‘its golden calf would shake violently on its pedestal, until the final blow knocks it into the gutter and pools of blood’.

In monarchical Spain, Mateo Morral Roca, the son of a Catalonian industrialist, directed his murderous rage at King Alfonso XIII in 1906. A student of Nietzsche and chemistry, he fabricated a bomb in his Madrid hotel room and threw it from his fifth-floor balcony at a royal procession, killing dozens of soldiers and bystanders and injuring nearly one hundred people. It was the Spanish king’s third escape from assassination during his reign. Barcelona, where a series of bombs exploded from 1903 to 1909, causing widespread terror and panic, became known as the ‘city of bombs’. The random attacks caused a precipitate decline in the tourist trade and provoked the city’s affluent class to flee to safer locations.

*   *   *

Anarchists were not always responsible for this unprecedented carnage across Europe prior to the First World War, even if it was inspired by anarchist techniques. The violence was aimed at different political ends. But it was inspired by the belief – fundamental to much modern terrorism – that assaults on symbols of political and social order, and the self-sacrifice of individuals, had a propaganda value that far exceeded any immediate political ends.

Revolts against the dehumanization imposed by industrial society gave to anarchist movements in the 1880s and 1890s an international dimension. In one estimate, there were some ten thousand anarchists residing in Buenos Aires by the early years of the twentieth century. A German follower of Bakunin, Johann Most, found harshly industrializing America a fertile soil for his mentor’s ideas. He discovered adherents among the large number of German and Bohemian workers in Chicago. ‘Let us rely,’ he wrote, ‘upon the unquenchable spirit of destruction and annihilation which is the perpetual spring of new life.’

Most published The Science of Revolutionary Warfare – A Manual of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc., etc. Printed in Chicago and Cleveland in 1885 and 1886, it sang the glories of the then newly discovered dynamite. The explosive could:

be carried in the pocket without danger … a formidable weapon against any force of militia, police, or detectives that may want to stifle the cry for justice that goes forth from the plundered slaves … It is a genuine boon for the disinherited, while it brings terror and fear to the robbers … Our lawmakers might as well try to sit down on the crater of a volcano or on the point of a bayonet as to endeavor to stop the manufacture and use of dynamite.

This wasn’t just talk. Dynamite played a central role in the Haymarket affair in Chicago as labour militancy peaked among immigrant groups in the United States. On 3 May 1886, Chicago policemen shot dead six strikers outside the McCormick Reaper Works, and beat others with their clubs. At a mass meeting the next day, amid fiery speeches denouncing the atrocities, a dynamite bomb was thrown in the direction of the police. Four policemen died in the ensuing riot. During the resulting ‘red scare’, and general clamour for revenge from big business and the media, anarchist speech-makers and journalists, including Most, were rounded up. Despite appeals for clemency from such eminent writers as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, four men were hanged.

The image of the bodies of four men hanging in turn radicalized many young men and women, including Emma Goldman, an immigrant from Russia who had experienced the brutality of working-class life. A young man of Polish origin assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. He had no connections to any anarchist groups, but he had been to a lecture by Goldman. He was executed and Goldman was arrested; the American Congress passed a law excluding from the country any one ‘who disbelieves in or is opposed to all organized governments’. Theodore Roosevelt launched an international crusade against terrorism, anticipating George W. Bush’s war on terror by more than a century.

But the fear of terrorism did not go away. Nor did the attraction of propaganda by the deed diminish. Transatlantic cable telegraph and mass-circulation newspapers provided the right technological circumstances for it. Anarchist spectacles were meat and drink to the newspapers, which reported them at length with many lurid illustrations, titillating their readers, but also confirming the militants’ own high sense of their value and potency. In the late nineteenth century, as in the early twenty-first century, blunderingly repressive governments together with a sensationalist media made anarchist militancy seem more widespread than it was.

*   *   *

One of anarchism’s more extraordinary manifestations was the Ghadar Party, composed of members of the Indian diaspora, and led by peripatetic intellectuals and immigrant labourers in early twentieth-century California. Its intellectual mentor was an Oxford-educated Indian called Lala Hardayal, who taught Indian philosophy at Stanford University.

Hardayal kept his distance, physically and intellectually, from the kind of Hindu racial-religious rhetoric about the nation in which Savarkar and others were beginning to indulge. He emphasized his knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian over Sanskrit. While still a student at Oxford, Hardayal met Kropotkin, while one of his closest friends, a British radical, was a biographer of Bakunin and edited many of his writings. Hardayal later set up a Bakunin Institute in Oakland. The topic of discussion at a meeting he held in 1912 in the Bay Area was ‘Heroes who have killed rulers and dynamited buildings’. Thousands of Indians abroad joined his group, encouraging Hardayal to plan an anti-British insurrection in India.

Alexandria in Egypt with its large Italian immigrant population concealed a hard-core group of anarchists fleeing the crackdown on them by European governments. Their magazines extolling Bakunin and Kropotkin were read in faraway Buenos Aires and New Jersey. Such global networks crystallized as an immigrant workforce linked its immediate grievances of exploitation and racial discrimination to its position within a global political-economic structure.

In general, the worldwide expansion of industrial and commercial society made more people aware of its ineradicable inequalities and injustices. The rich, growing richer and more acquisitive, seemed to flaunt their remoteness from the working class. The idea of a total revolt against the social and political order grew even more attractive as attempts at assassination failed. As Émile Henry wrote:

You have hanged us in Chicago, decapitated us in Germany, garroted us in Xerez, shot us in Barcelona, guillotined us in Montbrison and in Paris, but what you can never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep, born in a poisonous society which is falling apart; [anarchism] is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents the egalitarian and libertarian aspirations which are opening a breach in contemporary authority. It is everywhere, which makes anarchy elusive. It will finish by killing you.

The Underground Man Emerges

Bakunin had been dead for five years when, in 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Bakunin’s place in the anarchist pantheon was taken by Peter Kropotkin, another Russian exile in London (described by Oscar Wilde as ‘a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia’). But Bakunin’s influence endured longer.

He had significant followers in Italy: one of them, the Italian feminist Anna Kuliscioff, campaigned vigorously against the exploitation of women workers in Italy’s nascent industry (and even attacked the Socialist Party for its failure to fight for women’s right to vote). Bakunin, however, achieved his greatest triumphs in Spain, where anarchism became a mass movement and revolutionary force for nearly seven decades. In countries where the political system still seemed capable of delivering justice, Bakunin’s creed of all or nothing was unlikely to take hold. But economic backwardness, weak government, uneven modernization, and a massive gap between the rich and the poor made Bakunin’s ideas potent.

The Russian has been depicted as a misguided romantic with a bent for destruction and secret societies. ‘He is not a serious thinker,’ Isaiah Berlin wrote. ‘There are no coherent ideas to be extracted from his writings of any period, only fire and imagination, violence and poetry.’ George Lichtheim was more to the point when he wrote that ‘Bakunin had translated into words what the Russian peasant – or the landless Italian and Spanish laborer – dimly felt about the civilization erected at his expense.’

Bakunin would have surely understood why tens of thousands of young men recoiling from dysfunctional nation states and crooked elites have rushed to join ISIS. He possessed in full an insight into the nature and function of the destructive instinct in a society whose political arrangements fail to accommodate the growing aspirations to justice and equality of its masses. As the political thinker Eric Voegelin pointed out:

In the lives of nations and civilizations, situations arise in which through delay of adjustment to changed circumstances the ruling groups become evil to the point that the accumulated hatreds of the victims break the impasse through violence … The new factor that becomes manifest in Bakunin is the contraction of existence into a spiritual will to destroy, without the guidance of a spiritual will to order.

Bakunin makes it possible to understand a puzzle about the contemporary partisans of violence: men who concern themselves with none of the problems that exercise both liberal reformers and radical revolutionaries. Their idea of political action assumes the irrelevance of nations and states as determining forces in history. They seem to follow the logic outlined by Souvarine in Zola’s Germinal:

All the reasonings about the future are criminal, because they stand in the way of pure and simple destruction and thus of the march of the revolution … Don’t talk to me about evolution! Raise fires in the four corners of cities, mow people down, wipe everything out, and when nothing whatever is left in this rotten world perhaps a better one will spring up!

Or, in Awlaki’s words, ‘Jihad is not dependent on a time or a place.’ It is ‘global … not stopped by borders or barriers’. Al-Suri, who established al-Qaeda in Europe and linked it to radical jihadis in North Africa and the Middle East, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, and South and East Asia, exhorted a decentralized, nomadic, nearly anarchist jihad. The ‘lone wolves’ of ISIS, killing randomly in Tunisia, Paris and Orlando, have taken up his call.

In anticipating these disconnected and unrelated figures, Bakunin, one of the socially derailed and self-exiled figures of the nineteenth century, saw further than his contemporaries: to the waning of developmentalist and collectivist ideologies, a broader scope for the individual will to power, an existential politics and ever-drastic and coldly lucid ways of making or transcending history. This homeless revolutionary foresaw significantly large parts of the world – our world – where the ideologies of socialism, liberal democracy and nation-building would lose their coherence and appeal, giving way to mobile and dispersed political actors creating violent spectacles on a global stage.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!