The World That Never Was

Mike Rapport looks at a history of Europe’s 19th- and 20th-century anarchists

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Reviewed by: Mike Rapport
Author: Alex Butterworth
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £20

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Mussolini once declared: ‘‘Every anarchist is a baffled dictator”. The anarchists of the 19th–20th centuries were among the great losers in the struggles from which emerged the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. What he meant was that anarchists naïvely believed in the perfectibility of humanity and in a society where state oppression did not exist, but were always confronted by the possibility (for Mussolini it was a fact) that authoritarianism was essential to complete the social transition which they so ardently desired. Alex Butterworth’s book, subtitled A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents has done much to rescue anarchists from the condescension of posterity.

He generally treats his subjects sympathetically as he disentangles them from the web of secrecy, repression and double-dealing in which they operated. They provided an alternative to the ‘scientific socialism’ of the Marxists – and some of the solutions they envisaged to society’s problems, Butterworth proposes, have resonance today, including a decentralised federal Europe, women’s emancipation, universal education and social security through mutual aid and cooperation.

There are plenty of colourful characters: the bitter French journalist Henri Rochefort, who eventually abandoned the cause and finished by supporting the ultra-royalist and anti-Semitic Action Française; indomitable feminist street fighter Louise Michel; the geographer and renegade Russian nobleman Peter Kropotkin; and the revolutionary underground’s prickly expert against police spies, Vladimir Burtsev. The movement wavered between, on the one hand, education and propaganda in preparation for the revolution and, on the other hand, violence which included acts of terror.These actions, such as the bombing which slaughtered 29 music-lovers in the opera house in Barcelona in 1893, repelled most people from anarchism, but also had the effect of ratcheting up the state’s repressive response and deepening the movement’s sense of grievance. 

Butterworth elicits some sympathy not for the terrorists, but for some of the anarchist ideologues, driven underground by the heavy-handed reactions of the governments. Yet, while the political poison ran as deeply in the repressive organs of the state as they did within the veins of the anarchists, it is not always easy to disentangle the ideals from the acts of violence committed against innocent bystanders. Some anarchists were impatient at the very inertia of society: for the militants, their utopia was so right and the current state of society so wrong, that all who acquiesced in the latter by their mere apathy were legitimate targets. Émile Henry, perpetrator of the 1894 Café Terminus bombing in Paris, explained that his victims – random strangers enjoying a post-work drink – were complicit in the corrupt state of society.

Intriguing, provocative and written with a novelist’s eye for detail, this book is an engrossing journey into a murky, subterranean world – the dark underbelly of the Belle Époque.  

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Mike Rapport is the author of 1848: Year of Revolution (Abacus, 2009)