In articulating the theory of what became known as the "propaganda of the deed" anarchist Mikhail Bakunin insisted that "we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda." The "deed" would shock, inspire, enrage and provoke, notionally drawing others into action through the power of exemplary daring as much as through its message.
The brutal attack in Woolwich on Monday was never regarded primarily by its instigators as a military strike against the British state. Their outrageous killing of one soldier was of no strategic significance. Its entire meaning lay in the deliberate, calculated theatricality of the attack, the choice of a particularly shocking, almost medieval method of execution, guaranteed to attract attention, and in the "actors" staying around to take their bow.
Their success – in their own terms, at least – was to be measured in the extent to which the killing reverberated uncontrolledly through the country through the new social media. It was a sounding box that amplified and spread with enormous rapidity the sort of images and message that much of the traditional media would have hesitated to transmit, or at least muted, either on taste grounds, or in the hope not to assist the dissemination of the propaganda. Nor does the new media have any “news values” judgment or filter, the volume is set permanently full on. And for the jihadists there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Yet, taking the long view, the propaganda of the deed has to be seen in its historical context as an expression not of the strength of the social forces who turn to it as a tactic, but of their marginalisation and weakness. It receded as an anarchist tactic after the first world War at a time when mass action became a real alternative to them, and returned to favour in the 1970s in Latin America as the forces of the left were driven from their strongholds by military regimes.
The political response of the Cameron administration to the attack has been driven largely by the media storm and public outrage that the killing has generated, and by the need to be seen to do something even if, in truth, there is relatively little to be done. And hardly at all by any sober analysis of what real threat Woolwich represents.
And so a meeting of the dramatic sounding emergency planning committee Cobra has been convened. Cameron rushes back from abroad. There is talk of stepping up security at barracks, of increasing the supervision of home-grown radical groups ... all grist to the mill of those, like the jihadists, or the noxious Islamophobes of the English Defence League, who want to represent this brutal murder as more than it is. A sordid, disturbed killing, not the beginning of a revolution.