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Are Anarchists Revolting?

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, Alex Butterworth, Pantheon, 496 pages

To say that this book is a total fraud is not completely to discredit it, but to recognize that though it purports to be about the “schemers and anarchists” of its subtitle, it is really more about the “secret agents” of the national and municipal governments of the late 19th century and how they spied on and encouraged those subversives. This should come as no shock, given that the bulk of its research is based on the records of London’s Special Branch, the Hoover Institute’s Russian Okhrana archive, the Paris Prefecture of Police agents’ reports, and various records from spy agencies in Brussels, Moscow, London, Heidelberg, and Geneva.

Yet it does surprise because Alex Butterworth claims that his book examines various revolutionaries and radicals in the period between the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, all with the purpose of showing how they were so very like the terrorists of today. It is based on his feeling, looking back on the 19th century, “that the intervening century has somehow folded back upon itself” and that the “secret clockwork of intrigue and manipulation to protect the status quo” that operated back then is like the one operating today. Once stated in the introduction, however, that connection is never studied, never proved. Can we escape the conviction that it was tacked onto an academic examination of police agents and spies at some creative editor’s suggestion with a thought to boosting sales?

Worse still, in order to justify some connection between the quasi-revolutionaries of the 19th century and contemporary terrorists, the book is forced to call any act of violence and any march or meeting of malcontents the work of “anarchists.” Butterworth knows better, but he freely adopts the view of the establishment commentators of the day who often labeled as “anarchists” people that were nothing of the sort and who knew nothing of the distinctions between anarchists, revolutionaries, nihilists, socialists, Marxists, union agitators, subversives, iconoclasts, resisters, Irish revolutionaries, and anti-Tsarists. If the word “anarchist” today evokes images of dark Mad Magazine characters holding round bombs with burning fuses—and, alas, it too often does—it is because of the politically ignorant, ill-spirited, and propagandistic nonsense of that earlier time that Butterworth does nothing to challenge.

In fact, what the book proves, though hardly meaning to, is the truth that the anarchists of that day were so far from being terrorists in any sense of the word that they often failed to get their ideas across as forcefully as they wished. Butterworth spends a good deal of time on Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, for example, two men who would proudly bear the title of anarchist but, for all their hatred of the status quo and desire for an end to the evils of capitalism, had nothing intentionally to do with bomb-throwers or assassins. It’s a point that Butterworth, though he clearly knows it to be true, never acknowledges.

Kropotkin, though frequently a target of the spies and mercenaries of various countries’ secret police, gave the world the brilliant scientific theory of “mutual aid,” arguing that it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human. He did at one point say that “acts of illegal protest … by lonely sentinels” might be necessary from time to time to effect change in the political regimes of Europe, but he insisted that his argument stemmed from an adherence to a morality that stood in opposition to the immorality on which “today’s society is founded.”

And at one point Butterworth tells of a dinner between Kropotkin and the writer who became Ford Madox Ford:

‘There must be no destruction,’ he confided to Ford, in the softest of voices, as they sat in an alcove off the grand Grill Room of the Holborn Restaurant, the dishes clattering around them. ‘We must build in the hearts of men. We must establish a kingdom of God.’

Despite such plain evidence, Butterworth has no trouble commingling the words “anarchist” and “terrorist.”

He thus misses the special beauty of Kropotkin’s work in political theory. With Mutual Aid especially, and later with Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Kropotkin was able to move away from the absurdist limitations of individual anarchism and no-laws anarchism that had flourished during this period and provide instead a vision of communal anarchism, following the models of independent cooperative communities he discovered while developing his theory of mutual aid. It was an anarchism that opposed centralized government and state-level laws as traditional anarchism did, but understood that at a certain small scale, communities and communes and co-ops could flourish and provide humans with a rich material life and wide areas of liberty without centralized control.

As for Reclus, at this point he also had no taste for going around stirring up terrorists and in fact was busy writing his multi-volume Universal Geography, an examination of every continent and country in terms of the effects that geographic features like rivers and mountains had on human populations—and vice versa. He was involved in the sectarian wrangling between anarchists and varieties of socialists over who better championed what Marx saw as the working class and was adamantly against the kind of violence that some of the socialists advocated.

In seeing Reclus only in terms of terrorism, Butterworth completely neglects the role Reclus played in political theory during these years. His geographical work, thoroughly researched and unflinchingly scientific, laid out a picture of human-nature interaction that we today would call bioregionalism. It showed, with more detail than anyone but a dedicated geographer could possibly absorb, how the ecology of a place determined the kinds of lives and livelihoods its denizens would have and thus how people could properly live in self-regarding and self-determined bioregions without the interference of large and centralized governments that always try to homogenize diverse geographical areas.

So the book fails to understand the anarchism of the late 19th century that is its supposed subject and thus in its attempt to link that with modern-day terrorism. It is really unfair to ask readers to go through 500 pages of not very pliable (in some places downright impenetrable) prose to discover that. But it has a certain value in terms of its real if unstated subject, which is to show just how extensive, manipulative, and insidious the secret police of Europe’s governments and municipalities were. Indeed, one comes away with the distinct impression—which will not be unfamiliar to those knowing of our own government’s actions in the 1950s and ’60s (COINTELPRO, anyone?)—that a great deal of the overt violence at this time was caused directly by undercover secret agents or provocateurs paid by them.

To take just one example, Butterworth shows that a plot in 1887 by the Irish revolutionaries to blow up Queen Victoria and her ministers at a thanksgiving ceremony at Westminster Abbey was entirely invented by agents of the British police, abetted by the Conservative government then in power. They claimed that the scheme had been foiled by a delay in the ship carrying the militants and their munitions from America that allowed the police to thwart the plot and save her majesty from the dastardly violence that revolutionaries and terrorists habitually committed. More shameful still, the concocted plot was not aimed so much at the Fenian radicals in Ireland as at trying to discredit the great Irish statesman Charles Stewart Parnell and other moderates who were working legally through Parliament to advance Home Rule for Ireland. It was, in other words, an unscrupulous fraud that perpetuated the idea of a world of revolutionary terror for shameful, petty, Tory political ends.

After reading through this whole book, I never did figure out what the title means. Perhaps it refers to the world that the undercover agents and spies created and sold to the public about the dangerous revolutionaries in their midst, one that never really existed but served to enlarge and enrich the governments that created it. That could be, and would in itself make the anarchists’ case for them, but Butterworth never says so. 

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books, most recently After Eden: The Evolution of Human Dominance, and is the director of the Middlebury Institute

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