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The abolitionist John Brown. Freedom fighter? Terrorist? The choice is unsatisfying for any number of reasons, least of all for the anachronistic nomenclature and the moral obviousness of his cause. Of course Brown was right, we can easily say, to take up the fight against that “peculiar institution” of barbarous slavery. Insofar as the federal government stood in the way of historical progress, perhaps he also was justified in striking the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 as the first salvo of the American Civil War, demonstrating by his pitiful action that the Union would have to choose sides and fight. Yet no less clear today is the sheer difficulty of justifying such antistate violence. Since the 1970s and especially since September 11, 2001, with comparable moral obviousness, insurgent and terroristic violence have generally been condemned as threats to social stability and political coherence. The very liberal-democratic traditions that might otherwise superficially heroize someone like John Brown recoil at the disorder he personified. The truth of Brown's adventurism is clearly more complicated than the postcard version, and his crazed biblical prophetism, nasty 1856 murder spree in Kansas, and patronizing wish to play Moses to southern blacks must be read alongside successful efforts by the government and pro-slavery camp to brand him an incorrigible fanatic—a label that Brown himself and other abolitionists embraced as their own. What Brown represents, however, is an access point to the deep history of ideas about fanaticism and terrorism in the modern West, a history filled with paradoxes and ambiguities that nonetheless revolve around the basic fact—avoided with ease by contemporary pundits and prognosticators—that for the past several centuries we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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1 Fellman, Michael, In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History (New Haven, 2010), 1456.

2 Robin, Corey, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford, 2004).

3 Edelstein, Daniel, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2010).

4 Jensen, Richard Bach, The Battle against Anarchist Terrorism: An International History, 1878–1934 (Cambridge, 2014).

5 Negri, Cf. Antonio, “Kairòs, Alma Venus, Multitudo,” in Negri, Time for Revolution (New York, 2003), 139–261, 147–80. Badiou, Alain, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford, 2003).

6 La Vopa, Anthony J., “The Philosopher and the Schwärmer: On the Career of a German Epithet from Luther to Kant,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 60, 1–2 (1997), 85115.

7 Orsini, Alessandro, Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-Set of Modern Terrorists (Ithaca, 2011).

8 Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1973), 344. On state terror's anti-terrorism see Report of Court Proceedings: The Case of the Trotskyite–Zinovievite Terrorist Centre: Heard before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R., Moscow, August 19–24, 1936 (Moscow, 1936).

9 Derrida, Jacques, “The Ends of Man,” in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago, 1985), 109–36, 134, original emphasis.

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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