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The World That Never Was - Alex Butterworth

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Genre: History / Author: Alex Butterworth / Paperback / 544 Pages / Book is published 2011-03-03 by Vintage

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      30.06.2011 08:38
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      Terrorism in the Victorian era

      Anarchists these days summon up images of students throwing fire extinguishers at the police. Although there are people who define themselves as anarchists, it's largely used as a term of abuse by right-wingers looking to discredit any form of political protest they dislike. If you stand in Parliament Square shouting about your local library being closed, you're an anarchist; if you stand in Parliament Square shouting about how you should be allowed to drive at any speed that takes your fancy, you're bravely standing up for your rights as an individual against the Orwellian forces of political correctness. Or something.

      But anarchism wasn't always like that. Back in the Nineteenth Century, it was a left-wing revolutionary movement that was an alternative to Communism, and a rather nicer alternative at that. Hopelessly utopian, anarchists believed that sweeping away political oppression and capitalism would inevitably lead to a new type of society, in which everyone would have enough for their needs and want no more, and in which we'd all be able to devote our lives to more important matters, such as wholesome leisure activities and self-improvement. It seems incomprehensible now that anyone could actually believe that, as greed seems to be hard-wired into our nasty little ape brains, but believe it they did. Anarchists were like Communists, but without any desire for state control - they believed everything would happen because people were inherently nice, while the Communists at least accepted that people would need to be coerced into behaving 'correctly'.

      The political left has always been far better at fighting itself than any external enemies, and the Commies effectively forced the Anarchists out of the picture, especially after the Russian Revolution. But there was a time when Anarchists were seen as a much more serious threat to the Great Powers, as they became associated with terrorism. This book covers what you might call Anarchism's golden age and decline, from 1870 to the First World War and the Bolshevik victory.

      I expected it to start with 1848, when Europe was racked by revolutions, and to go more into the background of Mikhail Bakunin, the Anarchist movement's founding father. Instead, it begins with the Paris Commune, an ill-fated attempt at creating a Utopian socialist republic in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. Bakunin is an old man in exile in Switzerland, about to finally lose leadership of the international socialist movement to Marx and Engels. Anarchism was a reaction against brutally repressive regimes in Russia and France, and the book mostly covers those two countries. A lot of Anarchists fled to London, which was more politically liberal in those days, or America, the New World, so there's also a lot about goings-on there. And events in Italy and Spain are important, but not dwelt on as much.

      Although the movement's leading intellectuals - Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus - came to realise that violence was counter-productive, it was the terrorist acts, so-called 'propaganda by deed', carried out by fanatical Anarchists that inevitably coloured their public image. The culmination of the first wave of Anarchist violence was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The various governments, understandably enough, clamped down hard on Anarchism. Unfortunately, by denying it a voice in any legitimate outlet, they unwittingly spurred it on to more terrorist outrages. Executions of perpetrators and increasingly repressive laws were met by further attacks from new generations of terrorists, and both sides were locked into a cycle of retaliation. The author in his introduction cautions against drawing easy parallels with modern events, but it's difficult not to. Here's an example of increasingly illiberal measures taken to defeat terrorism having the effect of radicalising young people who might otherwise never have considered a life of violence. On the other hand, disturbed people intent on causing harm can always find some ideological reason for it if they want to. The assassin of US President William McKinley was obsessed with Anarchist literature but wasn't really part of any group.

      The most interesting stuff in the book is about the ways in which the Russian secret service in France, led by the diabolical Rachkovsky, dealt with all this. Determined to harry any Russian émigrés suspected of links to Anarchist groups, his activities were often as despicable as those of the people he pursued. His chief tactic was to use agents provocateurs to infiltrate groups and incite them to acts of violence, so as to persuade the French and British governments to cooperate with his crusade. This was responsible for at least one fatal bombing in Belgium, although the use of double agents could backfire, as when one of them assassinated the Russian police chief. Britain's Special Branch played along happily; there wasn't so much terrorism in Britain (and at least one major incident was the work of Rachkovsky's men), but radicalism had taken hold, even if it was gentler than on the Continent.

      Rachkovsky seems to have had his fingers in lots of pies, and had a hand in bringing about the alliance of France and Russia that helped cause the First World War. He very probably helped forge the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda that influenced Hitler. He supported the Bolsheviks over other groups in an attempt to split the revolutionary Left, so allowing Lenin to become far more influential than he may have done otherwise. And he may have been involved in the notorious Dreyfus Affair, which divided French society and stirred up a lot more anti-Semitism. Not bad going for one man. If only he'd been Jack the Ripper as well.

      I didn't think I knew much about this, but it's fascinating to realise the ways in which it touches on a lot of stuff I do know about. It also helps shine a light on certain other bits of history - for instance I now understand a bit more why fascists and right-wing nationalists believed Jews, revolutionaries and Freemasons were all part of the same giant conspiracy. All manner of interesting characters and events make cameo appearances, from Jack the Ripper to Jules Verne, and this does feel like the esoteric underbelly of late Nineteenth Century history. Occasionally some of the facts that are thrown in to add background or colour feel a bit awkward, like they've been shoehorned in because the author wants them there rather than because they really help the story.

      But on the whole the book does very well at keeping control of its large cast of characters without getting bogged down in the theory behind what they believed, nor getting too tangled up in minute detail. There's an awful lot in here that I didn't know, and it would have been easy to lose track of it all, especially since so many of the people involved are Russian, and I can never remember Russian names. It's a shame there aren't more pictures, as I'm curious to know what some of these people looked like (well, I've googled them since, obviously, but would have been nice if I hadn't had to.) All in all this is very impressive.

      The only stuff I knew about Anarchism before this came from a turgid series of plays by Tom Stoppard, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, and some of Hitchcock's early films. Now I feel a lot better informed. It's also difficult not to be at least a bit wistful about Anarchism. An anarchist revolution would no doubt have ended in chaos. But it couldn't have been much worse than the revolutions that actually happened after the War, in Russia and Italy, and later in Germany and Spain. Maybe the world would be nicer. Probably not, but since it never had a chance of happening, we can always pretend.

      This is only about £7 on amazon in paperback.

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