Understanding anarchism and the radical left in Southern Europe

When we talk about 21st century radicalization there are a few specific ideologies that dominate conversations. We hear about the radical right and related movements, such as neo-Nazis and the so-called ‘Incels’. We also hear a lot about religious radicalization. Particularly Islamic extremism.

But we hear less about left-wing radicalization. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because left-wing radicals use different tactics. Perhaps it’s something to do with their worldview? Or the way they are radicalised.

In our times it’s hard to think of a radical left-wing terrorist planting an explosive device to harm hundreds of people indiscriminately. It’s easier to think of radicals like the recent Extinction Rebellion movement, for example, which, although designated an extremist group, uses largely peaceful tactics.

In our minds, left-wing radicalization often falls into a different category of extremism from what we are used to thinking about. But in one part of Europe, radical left and anarchist politics are a very real feature of the political spectrum and there have been eruptions of violence by left-wing agitators.

In this interview with Andrianna Retzepi of KEMEA, we dive into the dynamics of left-wing radicalization in Southern Europe and how processes of radicalization and the tactics of those groups are different from right-wing or religious radicals.

What form does left-wing radicalization take in Southern Europe? What tactics do recruiters and radicals use?

In the last few years left-wing and anarchist attacks have been reported in Greece, Spain and Italy. The tactics groups have used are similar and familiar. Their preferred methods are urban guerilla attacks. Recent attacks have not been very well-coordinated and not lethal. The modern evolution of far-left and anarchist extremism arose during the 70s when the so-called third wave of terrorism began to fade out in Europe. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a more nihilistic approach to violent action has prevailed.

The tactics of radical left and anarchist groups are relatively similar. They tend to form unstructured groups and operate in and around specific urban areas. They participate in rallies and protests, during which they have attempted violent acts. They also run fundraisers for people like them who have been imprisoned.

Violent actions are usually justified as a reaction to police activities or squat evictions. Operationally speaking, their main weapons are improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However, the targets of IED attacks are usually material ones, such as symbolic buildings of the considered enemy, including law enforcement premises and personnel, the judiciary, banks and other financial institutions, the (far) right-wing parties, and media headquarters.

What about notable groups or movements on the radical left? Do they share common ideologies?

One of the most notable violent groups is the Italian FAI/FRI (Informal Anarchist Federation/International Revolutionary Front), whose ideology is a synthesis of different radical fields, including anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, anti-clericalism, radical environmentalism and fighting against the judicial and prison system.

The group supports the theory of insurrectionary anarchism, encouraging violent “direct action” and rejecting any struggle for reforms, formal organization, or issue-based activism. FAI/FRI is also trying to internationalise its activities by building strong bonds with other anarchist groups operating in southern Europe. This is likely inspired by the proposal of Alfredo Maria Bonanno — one of the most influential ideologues of contemporary insurrectionary anarchism – for more coordinated action between Mediterranean insurrectionary anarchists, especially from Italy, Greece and Spain. FAI/FRI is also affiliated with the Greek revolutionary anarcho-nihilist group Conspiracy of Cells of Fire (CCF).

On the other hand, there are groups and movements coming from a similar ideological pool, but using different tactics. For example, anarcho-syndicalists, such as the Spanish CGT (Gneral Confederation of Labour), that promotes strike action as tool for social revolution, or the Italian ICL (International Confederation of Labour), that declares itself to be “an international working class organisation” that unites many anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary unions from around the world. Their ultimate goal is to trigger deep social and economic transformations across the world.

Another notable example of radical activism that became more relevant during the refugee crisis in Europe is the No Border Network, a loose association of autonomous organisations, groups, and individuals, acting mostly in Europe. They oppose border camps that control human migration by holding demonstrations, engaging in direct action, and conducting anti-deportation campaigns. Their slogan is “No Border, No Nation, Stop Deportations!” and rheir ultimate goal is to create linkages among migrant labourers and refugees.

Are left-wing radicals informed by a common worldview somehow? What is that worldview?

We could say that the basis of left-wing radicals is anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and structural change of the prevailing social order. The ultimate vision is often of a classless or communist society, and this end is timeless. They find commonalities in their attempts at self-organization, through national liberation/independence movements, gender equality, or protection of vulnerable minorities such as migrants and refugees, standing against what are considered imperialistic “attacks”, state repression and social control, ecological disasters, the “destruction” of living space in cities and (hyper-) consumerism. All the above are often seen as manifestations of a capitalist social complex.

One profound change we have seen over the last few years, is the strengthening of anti-fascist motives. Since the issue of migration has become central to much anarchist rhetoric, the rivalry between anarchists and the far right has grown.

On the other hand, among the far-left there are a huge range of causes, differentiations, ideological sects and sub-divisions. The classic Marxist-Leninist ideology is not dominant anymore. For example, FAI/FRI speaks of “Marxist cancer” since “it crushes the possibility of a free society and just substitutes one dominion with another.”

Post-left anarchism, for example, is gaining more and more ground. Currently the most violent groups/schemes in Europe – the ones that are designated as terrorist groups – claim to be anarchists. Among them are many “autonomous” anarchists, such as the so-called black bloc.

Eco-anarchist groups and individuals are also a feature of the radical left. Their causes include defending the environment, animal rights, moral vegetarianism/veganism, and so on. Some of these groups include the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) and the ALF (Animal Liberation Front).

The extent of violence depends on the group and their ideology. But one thing all radical left and anarchist groups seem to have in common is the overarching goal of social liberation and a classless society.

How does geopolitics fit in? Are there events or movements around the world they empathise with? Or world powers they take the side of?

One point of solidarity among actors of the revolutionary far-left is the Palestinian issue. Generally speaking national liberation or independence movements garner support across the left-wing. Other examples include the famous Mexican Zapatistas (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), or the First Nation – the indigenous habitants of Wetʼsuwetʼen in Canada, who are fighting for their land against the planned construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.

Nowadays, the Syrian issue has become the focus in terms of actual solidarity. The conflict has attracted a number of European left-wing and anarchist extremists who travelled to the country to fight alongside Kurdish militias, honouring the state experiment of Rojava – the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Do radical left-wing groups threaten the values of the EU in the same way radical right and religious radicals do?

When we consider that values of the EU are Liberal Democratic values, then yes, all these extremes are considered a serious threat. But it’s important to make a distinction. Far-left ideologies fundamentally look forward to seek utopian futures, whereas the radical right look back to a lost but glorious past. Radical right views are often a backlash against modernity. The third group – religious radicals – look neither to the future or past, but to the afterlife.

In the case of leftist non-violent activists, their radical demands often aim to create a more “European” Europe. Many of their ideas seek to radically advance European values concerning humanitarianism, human rights or social equality. The extreme right, on the other hand, are fundamentally opposed to many of the EU’s fundamental values, such as social inclusion, social or gender equality, multiculturalism, etc.

Many scholars consider far-right views as a “normal pathology” of liberal industrial societies, as a “potential” that was born within the western modern world, and at the same time opposes to its values. In the last few years, radical right or even extreme right populist parties were elected in national parliaments across Europe in the past years, which creates a more structural threat. Regarding Islamist extremists, the threat is even greater because they not only reject EU values, but also carry out massive indiscriminate attacks aiming to damage, among other things, the daily lifestyles of Europeans.

Violent radicalisation on the left seems to take a different form to right wing radicalisation. Why do you think that is? Left wing radicals in our current time are rarely seen to plan the sort of co-ordinated attacks we see on the radical right or by religious extremists.

It’s misleading to say that co-ordinated attacks by the far-left are rare in Southern Europe. In fact, if we take into account the numbers in the EU’s 2019 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report by Europol, only one far-right attack was reported in the region in 2018, while 19 were reported by the far-left/anarchist scene.

But as we know the tactics on the left and right are rather different. On the far-left, we commonly see that groups are made up of loose networks of people and autonomous cells. Far-right groups tend to be structured more like paramilitary organizations, with rigid hierarchies, while they also tend to internationalize their actions. One crucial paradox to these organizational formations is that although the far-left are more likely to form loose or autonomous units, the phenomenon of lone-wolves is observed to a much greater extent in right-wing extremists and not at all in the far-left.

This doesn’t mean that far-left extremism is less threatening. It’s just that the outbreak of extreme right-wing feelings across Europe in the last decade, the increase of racism, xenophobia, and anti-migration rhetoric pose a more eminent threat. The threat posed by such actors is compounded by the fact that political parties sometimes have relationships with violent paramilitary groups.

Another thing we must take into serious consideration is reciprocal violent radicalization. In the past few years the acceptance and intensity of violence in the far-left scene has noticeably increased, mostly due to the appearance of violent far-right groups. For example, In Greece, the main targets of right-wing extremists are anarchist/anti-authoritarian individuals and groups. And this relationship works both ways. In that sense, the threat posed by both extremes is multiplied.

Do you think there is a double standard in how left-wing radicals and right-wing radicals are treated in popular discourse?

In general, mainstream media condemns the violent actions of both extremes. In the last 10 years, we have experienced a “cultural backlash” across Europe. Fears about globalization, immigration, ethnic minorities or losing our identity have enhanced a (far-) right rhetoric that has prevailed in dominant discourse. Indeed, the far-right have managed to awaken sentiments of fear, insecurity or lost pride. They have offered a coherent identity opposing to the fragmented identities of the modern western world. In that sense, it’s not quite right to speak about double standards. It is clear that (far-) right ethics are obvious and persistent in popular discourse. This trend has created fertile ground for acts of violence towards perceived enemies of the nation/cultural heritage/social integrity to be justified.


Andriani Retzepi is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Political Science & Public Administration, University of Athens. Her doctoral thesis is “Conflict and coexistence in Greek Political Changeover. Social perception of political violence through the example of the terrorist group Revolutionary Organization 17 November”. She holds a MSc degree in International Security and Global Governance, Birkbeck College, University of London (2013) and a BSc degree in Political Science and Public Administration, University of Athens (2010). Her research interests focus on political violence and terrorism within Greece and Europe. Since 2017 she is Research Associate at the Hellenic Center of Security Studies (KEMEA) in the field of Radicalization, Violent Extremism and Terrorism.

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