The World That Never Was: The True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents
By Alex Butterworth
The Bodley Head £25, 482 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
Alex Butterworth’s exhilarating book is a headlong gallop through the history of anarchism from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Russian revolution in 1917. Almost any paragraph packs more action than an entire Dan Brown novel, though one suspects that even he might reject many of the incidents and characters as too outrageous to be credible. Errico Malatesta, a teenage disciple of Mikhail Bakunin, ended up as the mentor of another rogue elephant, the young Benito Mussolini, having in the intervening decades been jailed in Italy, expelled from Egypt, shot in New Jersey and exiled in London, where he scraped a living as an electrician, sherbet-vendor and salesman of chicken incubators. If such a man hadn’t existed, would anyone dare invent him?
Novelists gave up the imaginative struggle and settled for life-drawing. Souvarine, the Russian anarchist in Zola’s Germinal, is a hybrid of Bakunin and Prince Peter Kropotkin; the nihilistic fury of Sergei Nechaev inspired Dostoevsky to write The Devils. The demonic personality of the German insurrectionist Johann Most, who popularised the idea of “propaganda of the deed”, was so overwhelming that Henry James split his attributes among three characters in The Princess Casamassima. The identification of Henri de Rochefort with “Comrade X” in Conrad’s The Informer is so obvious that Butterworth suggests it “surely came close to breaching Britain’s libel laws”.
The globe-girdling energy of these itinerant schemers is dizzying. Like Marx before them, most fetched up in England sooner or later. “Oh great metropolis of Albion,” Rochefort’s secretary, Charles Malato, wrote in The Delights of Exile, “your atmosphere is sometimes foggier than reason allows, your ale insipid and your cooking in general quite execrable, but you show respect for individuality and are welcoming to the émigrés.”
More hospitable than the Russians or French, perhaps, but the welcome wasn’t all that warm. William Melville of Special Branch recruited so many spies and agents provocateurs that most of the editorial team on the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, may well have been police informants.
Fear of the enemy within begat a repressive and often counter-productive reaction. In 1893, three days after a bomb was hurled into their chamber, French parliamentarians made it a capital offence to “promote, publicise, encourage or exonerate the anarchist idea”. But how could one define that idea? Like Marxists, anarchists came in 57 varieties: there were romantic dreamers, federalists, mystics, commune-dwellers and death-cultists.
What brought the age of anarchy to an end was not the Parisian Sureté or Scotland Yard but a force of fellow insurrectionists in the land of Bakunin and Kropotkin. “The majority of anarchists think and write about the future without understanding the present,” Lenin wrote in 1918. “That is what divides us communists from them.” Wary of accepting or imposing authority, anarchists never stood a chance against men for whom authoritarianism was the sine qua non of revolution. “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at,” Oscar Wilde had written, “for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Not so, alas. While the anarchists explored paths to spiritual fulfilment, Lenin headed for the only destination on his route-map: political power.
That way, as Butterworth writes, lay only shipwreck and servitude. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right. Does the world that never was – one ignoring borders, and divisions of class and religion – resemble the world as it might one day be?
Francis Wheen’s latest book is ‘Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia’ (Fourth Estate)