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. 

Consider, for example, his comments on the United States, hardly central to his story, but the locale for several anarchist adventures, since a number of believers either visited the country on speaking tours, spent time in exile here, or participated in the anarchist movement, most notably Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. (America was also the site of probably the largest number of utopian communities, many influenced by anarchist visions, in the world.) Butterworth mentions that veterans of the Commune were not welcomed in the United States, because a “brutal and ugly system .  .  . the monstrous, accelerating engine of unregulated capitalism” so feared the message of social revolution. If one of the earliest Russian anarchists, living in a utopian community in Kansas, had “known in full the miserable terms of their [U.S. workers’] employment, half starved and lacking legal protection of any kind, he might have thought the freed serfs of Russia almost fortunate by comparison.” 

Few historians would describe working conditions in the United States in the late 1800s as particularly good, but even fewer would credit a description that left them worse off than Russian serfs, either economically or politically. Apart from the wild exaggeration, Butterworth is prone to suggesting that various anarchist acts of violence might have been acts of provocation, implying without evidence that police agents threw the bomb in Haymarket Square, Chicago, in 1886 that killed a number of policemen and sparked a fierce attack on anarchists. Discussing Leon Czolgosz, anarchist assassin of President William McKinley, he seems to hint that since he was a “lone wolf” it was somehow unfair for the public to blame anarchist organizations for his actions, without recognizing that justifications of violence by people like Johann Most, Goldman, and Berkman could inspire bitter and ignorant men to lash out.

In fact, as many of the stories Butterworth tells make clear, the gentle souls of anarchism often found it hard to repudiate their more violent brethren. Goldman refused to condemn Czolgosz, and when Most criticized Berkman for his failed assassination attempt against the industrialist Henry Frick, Goldman leaped onto the stage where he was lecturing and attacked him with a bullwhip. European anarchists rushed to the defense of killers, reluctant to lend support to authority of any kind.

One of the subtexts of this book is the fierce conflict between Marxists and anarchists. Given the bloody legacy of Marxism and its frequent descent into authoritarianism, it is tempting to admire the anarchists’ suspicion of their penchant for centralization and control. Although often appealing to similar values and goals, Marxists and anarchists became bitter enemies as early as the 1870s, when Karl Marx moved the headquarters of the First International to the United States and helped destroy it rather than see it captured by adherents of Bakunin, the fiery Russian anarchist. While both looked forward to a world without government and its legacy of oppression, the anarchists’ resistance to centralization and their defense of individual revolutionary violence left them prey to just the sort of irrational and counterproductive violence that Butterworth catalogues. Marxists, at least, paid lip service to majority rule, while anarchists often refused to countenance any limit to individual self-expression.

Another peculiar tic of one segment of anarchism was its flirtation with anti-Semitism. To many anarchists, Marx was not only a tool of Otto von Bismarck’s centralizing regime in Germany but a Jew to boot. Ironically, Marx frequently expressed his own hatred of Jews, explaining that capitalism was simply the triumph of Judaism and its greediness. Marx’s own anti-Semitism did not deter many Jews from being attracted to his movement; particularly in Russia, the repression and pogroms of the czarist regime proved effective recruiting tools. And despite the prominence of Goldman and Berkman, far fewer Jews were attracted to anarchism. While Marxists dreamed of an industrialized society run by workers, anarchist yearnings often harked back to a preindustrial order populated by independent artisans, a Europe where Jews were largely invisible. 

Even though only one of the plotters convicted for killing Tsar Alexander II was Jewish, anti-Semitism was used as a pretext for the first widespread pogroms in Russia, beginning in 1881. Although Butterworth says little about its anti-Semitism, the People’s Will, whose campaign of terror sparked the repression, accepted peasant anti-Semitism as a mark of growing political consciousness. One of his main characters, the Marquis Henri Rochefort, a Communard who captured worldwide attention with his spectacular escape from a Pacific penal colony and remained a stalwart of the anarchist cause for decades, was an inveterate anti-Semite who inveighed against Jewish bankers and Alfred Dreyfus. Butterworth even suggests, without hard evidence, that Rochefort might have collaborated with Rachkovsky to produce the most infamous and influential work of European anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Unlike the Marxists, the anarchists could rarely agree on anything but their enemies. That left them prey to a wide variety of fanatics and schemers. While serious, if flawed, political thinkers like Prince Kropotkin, the famous Russian geographer, or William Morris, the British poet and artist who longed for a feudal-like community, grappled with issues of federalism and centralization, others praised assassins as martyrs “consecrated to death” or, like one anarchist thinker, were haunted by the injustice of their enjoying more than their share of sunlight. Many of the debates in which anarchists engaged—whether seizing the property of others was restitution or theft, whether killing innocent people was “propaganda by the deed” or murder—surely must have convinced most rational people that their movement was filled with crackpots.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, with John Earl Haynes, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.