In Clandestine Political Violence, Donatella Della Porta aims to present what should be a comprehensive relational and dynamic explanatory model of political violence, weaving together environmental conditions (macro level), group dynamics and organizational behaviors (mezzo) with individual impetuses and motives (micro). Della Porta ushers her reader forthrightly through the mechanisms at stake within the realm of high-risk and high-cost political activism and its fatal conclusion.
Donatella Della Porta (2013) Clandestine Political Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 326pp, £21.99 – paperback – ISBN – 9780521146166
Since her comparative analysis of the development of German and Italian radical movements leading to the emergence in the 1960s of armed and clandestine forms of political contestation, Donatella Della Porta has produced numerous insightful analyses on German and Italian episodes of contentious politics. Her impressive body of research, embracing the richness and diversity of the latest social movement theories, is firmly anchored into one key epistemological principle that could be expressed in a simple and yet engaging way: because violence is dynamic, relational and multifaceted, it should understood and analysed as such. Isolating violence from its social and political backgrounds, or ignoring the organizational mechanisms at stake within small close-tied groups, or overlooking personal motives tend to reduce drastically our ability to understand the genesis and evolution of armed and clandestine forms of political contestation. The analysis of the socio-political sequences of action and contexts, of interrelationships between social structures, political contexts and biographical exposure in which violence is embedded is key to understand the processes that lead to extreme political violence, i.e. radicalization.
In Clandestine Political Violence, Donatella Della Porta aims to present what should be a comprehensive relational and dynamic explanatory model of political violence, weaving together environmental conditions (macro level), group dynamics and organizational behaviors (mezzo) with individual impetuses and motives (micro). Della Porta draws upon her previous research into the 1970s radical left in both Italy and Germany, the radical right in Italy and her cogent understanding of the complex ethno-nationalist Basque separatist movement. She also carefully uses a more topical strand of academic literature dedicated to contemporary religious extremism with a specific emphasis on Al-Qaeda. Della Porta ushers her reader forthrightly through the mechanisms at stake within the realm of high-risk and high-cost political activism and its fatal conclusion.
Clandestine political violence is divided in three main sections exploring either the mechanisms of radicalisation (Chapters Two, Three and Four), the logics of persistence of violence (Chapters Five, Six, Seven and Eight) or the causes of decline of political violence (Chapter Nine and Ten). In the first part, while stating that episodes of political violence tend to emerge within protest cycles, Della Porta recalls the impact of protest policing on social movements (Chapter Two, pp.32-69) highlighting how tough repression “increases the perception that there is no other way out” (p.68), before suggesting how internal competition within a clandestine organisation is also an important causal mechanism in radicalisation (Chapter Three, pp.70-112). In her chapter dedicated to militant networks (pp. 113-145), Della Porta offers her view on how the context and the organizational structure influence the type of individuals who are recruited. In the second section of clandestine Political violence focusing on the causes of perseverance of violence, Della Porta starts with the issue of organizational compartmentalization (Chapter Five, pp.146-173). When groups become more and more isolated and detached from a larger movement, violence arises more fiercely. Compartmentalization leads to what she calls a “spiral of encapsulation” which eventually leads to deadly factionalism. In chapter Six (pp.174-203), she comments on the choice of action and the transformation in the strategy deployed within a clandestine organization, while in the following chapter (pp.204-234) she focuses on the ideological production and the evolution of the narratives used within clandestine organisations and how it affects the militants’ understanding of their realities. In the final chapter dedicated to the understanding of the persistence of violence, Della Porta comes back on the thorny issue of solidarity within radical groups (Chapter Eight, “militant enclosure”, pp.235-262), highlighting how participation in violent activities creates affective and cognitive resources that link individuals to their organisations. The final section of Clandestine Political violence attempts to reverse the fatalistic direction of the previous chapters by showing how the same mechanisms that fuel violence can also trigger mechanisms of dis-engagement. The death of a comrade or the experience of jail can either push someone over the edge or, on the contrary discouraging someone else from taking any further action. It all depends on the larger situation (type of political regime, level of repression and degree of closure of the political system), the longevity, the type of support and the internal dynamics of the organization under consideration and what is happening at the level of the individual (social background, degree of participation to the organization and motives) where none of these explanations is sufficient in itself nor exclusive to each other. Bursts of extreme violence are a product of social, institutional and organizational circumstances strangely tangled together where, for Della Porta, the act of going underground (whether as an organization and/or as an individual) is a major causal explanation in the chain of interactions that leads to the persistence and escalation of ferocious violence.
Della Porta’s invitation to focus on the interrelationships between social and political contexts and biographical exposure, between organizational structures and individual perceptions is to be praised as a commendable and sophisticated move toward a more integrated analysis of how words, acts, spaces, time, actors and logistic of violence perform, interact, interpret and interrupt at the micro, macro and mezzo levels. Two interlocking problems mar Clandestine Political Violence, however. The first is found in the use of conceptual categories. Terrorism is certainly an equivocal and controversial word that carries a load of negative representations and infamous narratives about disruption of ordinary politics. Donatella cautiously reminds her reader about the necessity to avoid the term for these reasons, and suggests why the concept of clandestine political violence should be favored instead (pp.6-7). But does it capture a more coherent set of practices and situations? Clandestine political violence is presented and used all the way through as a specific form of violence or a particular repertoire of violence (p.176) used by oppositional groups (p.6) or political groups active in the underground (p.282). The two defining elements – extreme violence and underground – reciprocally warrant one another in a process of circular reasoning: clandestine violence is an extreme form of violence perpetrated by clandestine groups. This functional (and tautological) definition might be a merely logical consequence of researching violence within the context of contemporary currents of political radicalisation. If one accepts the view that radicalisation always precedes violence, it becomes more difficult to describe and interpret violence otherwise.
The second issue is that the book’s central term, underground, remains very slippery. Dissimulation or insulation from ordinary public politics does not necessarily mean violence, as the Soviet catacomb culture in Moscow or the Prague underground in the 1960s and 1970s suggest. Furthermore, it is not because a group is going off the grid that violence emerges automatically and immediately. Forced into exile and to hide in the Basque mountains after the first arrests in 1961, it took nearly eight years for ETA to finally embrace armed struggle and it mainly came from militants who were actually living in plain sight on the other side of the Spanish border, in France. Finally, going underground is not always synonymous with isolation. Even if the FLNC in Corsica used the clichéd image of the scrubland (maquis) in its communication and in its representations, going off the grid in Corsica meant mostly being protected by the unquestioned rule of hospitality. There is no doubt that the term underground is a rather elusive topological notion. It certainly calls for conceptual clarification. Perhaps a first step would be actually to question rather than to accept the 1960s counterinsurgency view of the underground as the initial stage of insurgency. Della Porta’s use of memoirs and life stories to flesh out the experience of going underground is compelling and could provide an exciting foray into a sociology of the underground. Unfortunately, there is a degree of unevenness in the evidence provided. Furthermore, these documents are complex materials to be handled with great care. The storytelling abilities of their authors – both in terms of reliability and literary quality – needs to be evaluated and the conformity one might find across them is not necessarily hard evidence but more stylistic narrative. Had Donatella done so, her argument would have been perhaps different but strengthened.
These two interlocking issues – radicalization as an inescapable framework of analysis and underground as a distinctive causal mechanism – are linked into a sometimes misleading and premature closure of the subterranean insistence of time on making, reconfiguring and breaking habits, views and justification of violence. Put differently, it is of significance that for example the Baader-Meinhof gang found a few months underground hard to cope with whereas for the Basque separatists and the IRA years of subterranean existence came to be the norm. clandestine political violence is certainly a welcome, ambitious political and sociologically-oriented work but one that unfortunately does not deliver on all its promises.
 Della Porta, D. (1995). Social movements, political violence, and the state: A comparative analysis of Italy and Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 Della Porta, D. (2008). “Research on social movements and political violence”, Qualitative sociology, 31(3): 221-230
 Della Porta, D., & LaFree, G. (2012). “Processes of radicalization and de-radicalization”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 6(1): 4-10
 Baker-Beall, C., Heath-Kelly, C. and L. Jarvis (eds.) (2014). Counter-radicalisation: Critical Perspectives, London: Routledge
 Rohde, J. (2013). Armed with Expertise. The militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War, Ithaca: Cornell University Press