February 3, 2012


A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents
by Alex Butterworth
416 pages, Vintage

Review by Marc Nash

I'd booked a ticket to a panel discussion on the roots of anarchism, but by the time the event came round, it was shunted over into a discussion on the Occupy protest. Three of the quartet of panellists were able to slide over easily enough to address the new slant. The fourth, a writer rooted more in history than journalistic contemporary culture, proved to be more reticent. He was Alex Butterworth and so I bought his book.

The book certainly demonstrates its depth of research, profiting from a relatively new resource of the Okhrana's (Tsarist Secret police) files which turned up in suitcases in Paris when they had been assumed to be lost forever. Being a tome on anarchism, on covert cells who didn't tend to document their extra-legal activities, the corroborating evidence does tend to emanate from the forces of government. This lends the book an inclination to greater detail and authenticity when considering those combating anarchism, than those fomenting it. The involvement of the authorities in many anarchist acts might appear mind boggling, supplying depleted dynamite sticks or acting as paymasters, had I not years ago read the wonderful novel by GK Chesterton, "The Man Who Was Thursday," which satirises this tendency with great humour.

But the anarchists were not a standing joke. They assassinated a US President, a Tsar and an Italian king amongst other acts, but nowhere in Butterworth's book are we really given an idea of why. Other than laying out the notion of "propaganda by deed", an anticipation of spreading the anarchist message through the audaciousness or multiplicity of anarchist terror acts, but we are not informed of what that message was. The book opens with the theorist exemplar Peter Kropotkin, who along with veteran of the Paris Commune Louise Michel (whose own highly moral propaganda by exemplary deed eschewed violence) stride throughout the whole period covered by the book, but nowhere are Kropotkin's ideas given anything but cursory consideration.

For me The World That Never Was reads like a Who's Who of anarchism, but one reduced to the lives of 'celebrity' anarchists. It's personal rather than political in its study of individuals, as perhaps is suggested by the book's subtitle "A true story of dreamers, schemers, anarchists and secret agents". And yet as comprehensive a dragnet as the book appears to offer, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the most significant of US anarchists, are given scant treatment. Moreover, perhaps collective anarchism's greatest expression, that of the Ukraine's Nestor Makhno in the wake of the chaos in revolutionary Russia, is given no treatment whatsoever. Even if Butterworth felt that Ukrainian anarchism's actual flowering fell outside his period, it must have been developing its ideas and structures throughout his chosen period, since it didn't spring into the fully anarchist Free Territory fully formed. Just as criminal an oversight was the devoting of a mere two single line references to anarcho-syndicalism, the arranging of anarchist structures along the lines of industry-wide trade unionism. Any sort of collective anarchism is strangely overlooked in this book, which again returns me to the sense that the interest is with the personalities rather what lay beneath.

There are good sections of the book, particularly the opening setting of the Paris Commune in which Butterworth demonstrates a keen historian's ability to bring a past event alive. The Commune is a period well documented and covered by many historians, so I feel he fares less well when he delves into the murky and poorly illuminated world of individual activists. His small picture is very small indeed. Never did I get a sense of just how widespread, influential and current anarchism was throughout Europe in the last decades of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries. I can't help feeling that this book is a great opportunity missed, especially in the current climate as we reconsider just how we protest and oppose our governments.

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