The World That Never Was
A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists
and Secret Agents
by Alex Butterworth
Pantheon, 528 pp., $30
Entering the world of idealists, lunatics, killers, double agents, triple agents, and religious fanatics who populate Alex Butterworth’s book is a bewildering experience, not least because an ordinary reader will likely get lost in the maze of plots, counterplots, and speculation, some of it plausible and some of it unprovable. An account of the frenetic and fractious world of anarchism from the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this long and often jumbled book both entertains and infuriates.
Butterworth’s major theme is that the first war on terror was that directed against anarchists from the days of the Paris Commune to the Bolshevik Revolution because of the threat they were perceived to pose to European civilization. Anarchism has always had two faces. Many of its idealistic, scientific leaders envisioned an earthly paradise and a peaceful, cooperative world, based on human beings’ natural inclination to cooperate with each other. Along with this picture of a Garden of Eden, however, there were the hundreds of its practitioners, motivated sometimes by anger at the repression and violence used by government authorities, and other times by a zealous belief that striking down symbols of authority would convince the masses that the world could be organized anew—the so-called propaganda of the deed—who carried out shocking acts of murder and terror.
For decades these two images of anarchism have persisted. On the one hand, there are the peaceful utopian communities (that rarely overcame internal bickering) and on the other the assassinations of heads of state (Russian czars, American presidents, French prime ministers, Austrian royalty, and others). Many of the worst excesses of the anarchists, Butterworth charges, were fomented by agents of government, most notably the Russian Okhrana, charged by the czars with neutralizing opposition to their feudal and brutal rule, which tracked the international wanderings of its foes, inserted agents provocateurs into their ranks, carried out disinformation operations, and even sanctioned murders to discredit anarchism. One of the most striking portraits is that of Peter Rachkovsky, recruited by the Okhrana in 1882, who infiltrated radical groups, was exposed and became the Okhrana’s chief agent in France, worked tirelessly to convince French authorities to crack down on Russian exiles, orchestrated the killings of right-wingers in order to blame anarchists, published forgeries, and survived bureaucratic intrigue to rise to chief of police for all of Russia before being fired in 1906.
Butterworth also dutifully chronicles the excesses of the anarchists themselves and explores the resentments and fantasies that inspired many of their dubious schemes. Even the more rational anarchist thinkers were prone to peddling conspiracy theories, often cooked up by the security agencies of both repressive and democratic states. Without any prompting from Rachkovsky, French anarchists in the early 1890s did their best to discredit the doctrine. An anarchist known as Ravachol exhumed the corpse of a noblewoman, murdered a 95-year-old hermit, raided an arsenal, and launched a bombing campaign against judges, aristocrats, and army troops. Eventually captured after a tip from a waiter, Ravachol was quickly turned into a martyr. His friends promptly blew up the café where the waiter worked, killing and maiming several people. Élisée Reclus, one of the grand old men of anarchism, found in Ravachol “goodness,” “greatness of soul” and “generosity.” And a heroine of the Commune, Louise Michel, could only gently criticize these acts of terror.
Filled with an enormously large cast of characters, and written in a breathless, novelistic style, this ambitious book ultimately exhausts its readers with its level of detail, much of it imaginatively re-created with Butterworth imagining how his characters must have felt or reacted to events. But in immersing himself in the world of anarchism, and the oft-times deluded mentality of people who imagined that killing a government official would expose the weakness of authority, or bombing a restaurant strike a blow against the bourgeoisie, Butterworth sometimes seems to have forgotten that their delusions did not reflect reality.