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Rob Hardy: The World That Never Was


Rob Hardy



If we had had a better-trained bomber a few months ago, we would have had a terrorist disaster in New York City when his car bomb exploded. That one didn''t go off, but plenty do in many parts of the world. The international terrorist bombers now tend to be religious.  


The ones in the 19th century tended to say they opposed religion, but as anarchists they didn''t really have a science-based philosophy on how the world ought to work, but rather a faith that humanity was perfectible and that oppression by governments could end. Like many minority (or even majority) members of religions, they viewed themselves as oppressed heroes who were struggling for human progress, and they had a martyrology to prove it.  


They wanted "to usher in a society of perfect beings; a heaven on earth in which harmonious coexistence was achieved without coercion or the impositions of distant authority, but rather arose out of each individual''s enlightened recognition of their mutual respect and dependency," says historian Alex Butterworth in his huge history of the first international terrorist campaign, "The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, & Secret Agents" (Pantheon Books). Going through these dense pages of almost impossibly complex plotting of both the anarchists and the national and international agencies that tried to control them, a reader can''t help but think about the bombers of our own time with their prophetic passions. Those times were different, though, and national and personal alliances shifted so that Butterworth''s account is some very strange reading; it is good that he has packed it with the sort of detail a novelist deploys. 


The Russian anarchist Andrei Zhelyabov said, "History moves too slowly. It needs a push." Even their ideological cousins, the communists, were too slow for the anarchists. In their riotous meetings (you can''t expect a bunch of anarchists to respond to a call to a point of order), they would yell, "Long live dynamite."  


They proposed a terrorist ideology of "propaganda by deed," assassinations and bombings that, along with their own martyrdom if need be, would push history in the right direction. Butterworth takes pains to show that the terrorist branch of the movement was a small subset of anarchism. The ideologists who wrote about the philosophy of the movement had some idea of the drawbacks of using violence and often opposed it, though those that caught the destruction bug were wildly enthusiastic about it. They were convinced that the bombs and martyrdom if necessary would finally rouse those sleeping masses to an uprising that would bring forth Utopia.  


There were quiet anarchists, like Oscar Wilde, whose "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" presents a form of anarchism which would have nothing to do with dynamite. There was the arts-and-crafts icon William Morris, who envisioned "the capacity to inhabit, in prospect, a better world of spiritual and artistic fulfillment." Morris''s quiet approach was resented by the more headstrong anarchists, one of whom, instead of using a bomb against him, put a red pepper on the stove during one of his meetings, causing him to flee with violent sneezes. 


Butterworth traces the leadership of the anarchists back to the Communards in Paris, who in 1871 briefly ruled the city. The Commune was, however ephemerally, able to make as policy such laudable goals as an official separation of church and state, women''s rights, and universal education, though it could not last long enough to make them practical. When the Commune fell, the furious French government undertook horrific reprisals, killing thousands; 17,000 were officially buried by the overtaking municipality. The ruthless suppression only gave the leaders a desperate strength that inspired them in the succeeding decades. Among them were the journalist Henri Rochefort, who would be sent to imprisonment exile in New Caledonia. He would be released only to continue writing and publishing articles that became increasingly anti-Semitic. Elisée Reclus was a brilliant geographer (19 volumes in his Universal Geography) and an animal rights pioneer.  


The "Red Virgin of Montmartre" was Louise Michel, who despite her label had a love affair with Victor Hugo. She also was deported to New Caledonia, but had a lifelong and selfless commitment to the movement, spiced with her visions of a "globally federated society inhabiting underwater cities." Add to these the idealistic and almost saintly Peter Kropotkin, another radical geographer and a former Russian prince who had renounced privilege. Johann Most, like many profiled here, found refuge in London where he founded an anarchist journal, and in its pages he praised the assassination in 1881 of Tsar Alexander II.  


Britain, which often was surprisingly welcoming to anarchists and socialists, was at the time worried about its own terrorism threats from Ireland, and arrested him for such ideas. The angry Errico Malatesta, expelled from his medical studies, traveled to spread the anarchist message to London, Italy, Egypt, and New Jersey, and was imprisoned, expelled and shot for his pains. He became a mentor to young Benito Mussolini. He had also sold chicken incubators. 


The underground''s expert on police spies was Vladimir Burtsev, but he became the target of a honey-trap operation run by Pyotr Rachkovsky, who emerges as the main anti-anarchist cop on the international beat. Rachkovsky ran the Tsar''s intelligence service in Paris and became chief of police for the entire Russian empire. He promoted the view that the anarchists, most of whom were harmless fantasists, were really a vast international conspiracy; he even arranged bombings to increase the worry. (He also seems to have had his greatest influence in bringing out the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which became one of the favorite books of Adolph Hitler.)  


Rachkovsky''s men infiltrated the anarchist movement for decades, and there are many hall-of-mirror episodes described here. William Morris''s journal Commonweal, for instance, had an editorial team that, unbeknownst to one another, were all informants. It is surprising that Butterworth describes anarchists who were the direct inspiration for works by Joseph Conrad or Zola, but does not mention the novel that most often resembles the skullduggery described here. It''s G. K. Chesterton''s weird The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) whose Anarchist Council has members sequentially exposed by Scotland Yard to be agents of Scotland Yard. 


The anarchists posed a real threat; there were bombings in which famous people as well as random onlookers were killed. The conspiracy, however, was never as united as the government agents against it tried to make it seem (what do you expect of anarchists?), and it never had much of a chance against the governments of the time. In Butterworth''s lengthy, sprawling account that ranges from one continent to another and has an enormous number of major and minor characters (the seventeen pages at the front devoted to Dramatis Personae is a huge help), the effect of the anarchist movement is shown, quite appropriately in this mirror-image underworld, to be just the opposite of what the anarchists wanted. They proved to be a useful bogeyman, sometimes powerful, sometimes not, against which standing forces of governments and police organizations could solidify and unite.


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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