In the late 19th century, Europe (and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the world) experienced an unprecedented wave of political murders, assassination attempts and dynamite attacks that have often been regarded by political scientists as the prototype of modern terrorism. Mostly committed by anarchists as part of ‘propaganda by the deed’, these acts aimed to intimidate governments and social elites, and mobilise the working classes for the social revolution by showing them the fragility of the social and political order. They were always a challenge to governments and state institutions, for these had to prove their ability to preserve public peace, and give adequate answers to the calling into question of the monopoly on the use of force in order to maintain their legitimacy.
Anarchist terrorism failed as a mobilisation strategy. Yet, it proved quite effective as a provocation strategy and had important impacts on state politics and policies, legislation, policing, and public debates. Among the bourgeoisie and governments, it caused fears of an international anarchist conspiracy, which was fuelled by the expanding popular press. Most importantly for our purpose: many countries passed special laws that increased executive power, criminalised certain political views (anarchist and other), limited political and personal freedoms (of assembly and speech in particular), restricted the freedom of the press, and/or introduced special jurisdiction This was namely the case of France and Italy, where anarchist activism and a series of attentats led in the 1890s to a wave of repression taking recourse to special laws, in Italy also with the ‘state of siege’ being declared in some places. In both countries, the introduction and application of special laws gave rise to controversial debates about their commensurability, consistency with constitutional, liberal and/or democratic principles, as well as benefit and dangers for the political order.
Taking a comparative perspective, this paper explores the anti-anarchist laws and the debates about their introduction and application that took place in both parliaments and the press (two leading newspapers are examined per country). How were the special laws justified, how did the proponents and opponents of their introduction/application try to make their arguments plausible? To which extent was the situation framed, or explicitly referred to, as ‘state of emergency’ or ‘state of exception’? The paper will focus on the years 1893-94 when special laws were introduced in both countries, but also take into account the broader evolution of anarchist activism and its repression from the late 1880s to the turn of the century, and ask about the longer-term effects of the special laws.
As for the criterion of ‘established democracy’: the French Third Republic was the only big parliamentary democracy in Europe at that time. After the struggle between republicans and monarchist in the 1870s and the boulangiste danger of the late 1880s being adverted, the democratic regime can be considered as established. The Italian nation-state founded in 1861 was a constitutional monarchy and a liberal oligarchy rather than democratic; but from the 1880s onwards it underwent processes of de facto parlamentarisation (with governments asking the Chamber of Deputies for vote of confidence) and democratisation (through expansion of the electorate). The comparative approach will serve to carve out the peculiarities of each case, but is also intended to help us explain different practices – such as the broader recourse to special laws in Italy – and find out whether the difference of political regimes played a role.