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Alex Butterworth's "The World That Never Was," a history of anarchism

By John Smolens
Sunday, August 29, 2010; B07

THE WORLD THAT NEVER WAS

A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents

By Alex Butterworth

Pantheon. 482 pp. $30

Arguably, no single act produces a more immediate and lasting effect on history than a political assassination. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, such deeds were frequently the work of the anarchist movement, which rose from the anger and frustration of the working class. However, as British historian Alex Butterworth demonstrates in "The World That Never Was," too seldom was it acknowledged that these killers were also moved by the highest ideals and dreams of utopia.

Beginning in 1871 with a popular uprising known as the Paris Commune and ending with the Bolshevik Revolution nearly a half-century later, Butterworth depicts the relentless war that anarchists waged against the ruling hierarchies in Russia, Europe and the United States. Their weaponry included guns, knives, poison and dynamite; their campaigns were spectacularly sudden and violent. As a means of defense, governments wielded the force of their secret service agencies, but anarchists frequently proved to be as elusive as they were determined, their mission as lethal as it was simple: Kill the elite, and you liberate the oppressed.

Anarchism's leaders repeatedly defined their attacks as "propaganda by deed," and many among the desperately impoverished working class deemed their cause necessary and courageous. Anarchists were often well educated and, at times, well-to-do, as in the case of Prince Peter Kropotkin, one of "Russia's most eminent young scientists." In books, articles, pamphlets and manifestos, they proclaimed their "right to flaunt the rules of a corrupt society, despite causing injury to others." French anarchist Louise Michel's speeches were often punctuated by the audience shouting "Long live dynamite!"; one essayist asked, "What do a few human deaths matter if the gesture is beautiful?"

Anarchy had dozens of patron saints -- Michael Bakunin, Johann Most and Errico Malatesta, to name a few -- who were constantly engaged in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with the governments they wished to overthrow. Russia's secret service, Okhrana, and its U.S. counterpart, the Pinkerton Agency, were every bit as devious and brutal as their revolutionary quarry. They used every legal (and often illegal) means of eliminating anarchists. Both sides employed agents and double agents, and not a few duplicitous mistresses. Anarchists were notoriously bad shots, and they were often killed (not infrequently by their own clumsiness with a bomb). If captured, they were imprisoned, executed or shipped off to languish for years on remote islands in the South Pacific. Despite the diligence of spymasters such as Germany's Wilhelm Stieber and Russia's Peter Rachkovsky, not to mention all the botched attempts, anarchists still succeeded in assassinating an alarming number of heads of state and industrial leaders, including Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose killing sparked World War I.

Butterworth argues that it would be a mistake to say that anarchism and today's terrorism are one and the same. Anarchists were stirred not by religious or nationalistic conviction, but by a fervent belief in utopia, which could be achieved only after all established institutions had been destroyed -- their dreams were as romantic as their acts were deadly. He recounts in exhaustive detail the nefarious plots and schemes of both the anarchists and the spies who were determined to stop them. At times, his attention tends to flit about nervously, yet he also writes vivid, sustained passages that render the desperation behind such incidents as Alexander Berkman's failed attack on American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, as well as the assassination of Italy's King Umberto I by Gaetano Bresci, which in turn inspired Leon Czolgosz to murder President William McKinley a year later.

In its thorough, compelling examination of anarchism, "The World That Never Was" is not a chronicle of isolated violent acts committed by deranged individuals. Rather, it convincingly portrays anarchism as the product of an inexorable human impulse. And it leads one to ask if anarchism might again (or, perhaps, still) be lurking at the fringes of society. Frequently, the author notes the tendency of anarchists to view themselves as martyrs and heroes, words we hear all too often today, overwhelmed with CNN's Situation Room angst. Is there any doubt that there are those among us who subscribe to the perverse logic that we may be just one assassination away from our dreams? Butterworth illustrates that anarchists and terrorists do have one essential trait in common: They are willing to kill -- and to die, if necessary -- for their convictions.

John Smolens teaches at Northern Michigan University. His most recent novel is "The Anarchist."

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