Commentary

Bombing trains is nothing new - it is what 19th-century anarchists did. Moreover, their deeds were i

Following last month's terrorist bombings in London, commentators have searched for comparisons in history. Inevitably, many have turned to 11 September 2001, others to the IRA terror campaign. But an antecedent for these events can be found further back, in the anarchist bombings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which eventually were immortalised in fiction.

The anarchists sought to abolish the state and put in its place a society based upon the voluntary organisation of individuals. Like Marxism, anarchism was an international movement, with tentacles in a number of different countries. In the 1870s anarchists promoted the concept of "propaganda by the deed" - the belief that a mass uprising could be triggered by action. A spate of assassination attempts was made on European heads of state: in 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was killed. Soon, the anarchists began targeting civilians as well, and took to planting bombs in public places. Opera houses, stations, town halls, government offices and private clubs all came under attack.

The anarchists preferred bombs to firearms (perhaps because of their chaotic and unpredictable nature), and their explosive of choice was dynamite. Invented in 1866 by Alfred Nobel, dynamite was notable for being hugely powerful but also very stable. Far more destructive than black powder or gunpowder, it was the ideal weapon for those who wanted to make portable, deadly and easily concealed devices. When Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, they stashed 36 barrels - about two and a half tonnes - of gunpowder under the House of Lords. One man could easily carry enough dynamite to match the explosion they planned to set off. The attraction for the anarchists was obvious. Armed with home-made bombs, they conducted a sporadic campaign of terror across London.

The job of recording their activities fell to HM Inspector of Explosives, Colonel Vivian Dering Majendie. His accounts show how the anarchists' targets were not so very different from those of today's terrorists. Majendie records frequent attacks on stations, noting on 27 February 1884 "the discovery of a bag containing some Atlas Powder A, with clockwork and detonators, at Charing Cross Station". On the following two days, "similar discoveries" were made at Paddington and Ludgate Hill Stations. More eerily prescient, however, are the two attacks of 30 October 1883 on the then-named Metropolitan Railway. One explosion, "between Charing Cross and Westminster", was "unattended with personal or serious structural injury". The other was more serious. Majendie summarises it thus: "An explosion on the Metropolitan Railway, near Praed Street. Three carriages sustained serious injury, and about 62 persons were cut by the broken glass and debris, and otherwise uninjured."

These 19th-century terrorists achieved something their modern-day counterparts have not yet done: they captured the imagination of both writers and readers, giving rise to the now-forgotten genre of the "dynamite romance". The culture of the dynamitard - with its secret societies, code names and meetings by moonlight - appealed to the Victorians, who had such a taste for suspense and sensation. Today, such a genre would no doubt be criticised for trivialising a serious issue, or for offending the victims. Then, however, it was a way of channelling fear and uncertainty into a few hours' entertainment.

The slim fictions of the "dynamite romance" depicted shifty, intelligent young men in dark coats, darting about the city, smoking doctors' bags in hand. Most of these books are now out of print, and not without reason: they were the airport thrillers of their day. The genre had an influence on literature that did stand the test of time, however - notably through Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and G K Chesterton's surreal comedy The Man Who Was Thursday (both published in 1907). Conrad's book has a dark, satirical edge, while Chesterton plays up the more absurd elements of anarchism, parodying the conventions of passwords, disguises and secret meetings.

The anarchism of the 19th century seems far removed from the chaos that the word evokes today, but this is not to say that anarchists then did not understand what a powerful weapon the ability to cause chaos could be. Many of them were no doubt enthralled by the prospect of direct action, but perhaps lacked an understanding of the larger motives. As Chesterton writes in Thursday: "The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody."

For the high command, killing somebody is all that matters. It furthers the cause, but does so indirectly; Chesterton's "rank and file" cannot see beyond direct action. Today's terrorists, by contrast, seem entirely reconciled to the idea of furthering their cause by taking innocent lives. I doubt that we shall see a modern-day equivalent of the dynamite romance. However, there may be some value in returning to older texts - if only to appreciate that satire, surrealism and drama are worthwhile responses to terror.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Islam: the tide of change