Sunday, September 07, 2014

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth

Why I Read This Book
          I’ve been interested in 19th Century radicalism for a long time now, so when I saw this new (relatively—pub. 2010) book on the shelves, I snatched it up.

The Review
          On the whole this is a very interesting and readable book.
            It’s not without its flaws, however, and I’ll start out by addressing the flaws.

           The primary problem with this book is that it’s juggling too many characters, and too many different stories.  As one Amazon reviewer put it, about every couple of pages a new character is introduced.  This is one of those books where you are constantly having to go back to the index to keep track of everyone.  (There is a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the book which lists all the major characters and summarizes their life, and this is a helpful resource to flip back to.  But the fact that it was necessary in the first place means the author is probably juggling too much.  There’s 103 names listed in the Dramatis Personae.)
            The second major problem, related to the first, is that it’s not at all clear what the focus of the book is.  If it is about anything, this book seems to be about anarchist terrorists during the period from 1870 to 1914.  But the problem is that during this period not all anarchists were terrorists, and not all terrorists were anarchists.  Some of the most prominent anarchists during this period, such as Kropotkin, were not connected to terrorism.  And many of the most infamous terrorists during this period, the Nihilists, the People’s Will, The Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Irish Fenians, were not connected to anarchism.  And yet all these stories and groups are included in the book.
            And then the book goes off on all sorts of other tangents—we get treated to the development of the democratic socialist parties in England—absolutely nothing to do with terrorism, and only a minor part of the international anarchist story—but the author apparently thought it was interesting.  Also we hear about religious utopian communities in the United States (and some of the Russian exiles who were attracted to them).  Victor-Henri Rochefort is one of the main characters in this book, even though he doesn’t really fit in to the terrorists or anarchists themes.  And the author also takes several digressions to focus on the life of notorious hoaxer and prankster Gabriel Jogand-Pages.
            As another Amazon reviewer put it, the focus of the book seems to have just been whatever the author personally found interesting
            To add to the frustration, there’s a lot of things that should have been included in the book, but weren’t.  The author goes into some detail about the rise of the early democratic socialist movement in England (something arguably not connected with his topic), but then completely neglects the most famous act of anarchist violence in England—The Sidney Street Shoot-out (W), something directly connected with his topic.  The book ends with the death of Malatesta in 1932, implying that this was the end of anarchism.  In fact, anarchism enjoyed tremendous support in Spain up through the end of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.  But the growth of anarchism in Spain is barely mentioned in this book.  The book is also Euro-centric.  Anarchism movements were flourishing in China, Korea and Japan during this period, but they are never once mentioned.  (Although the Communist Party eventually won out in China because of its superior organization, there was a period around 1900—1920 when anarchism was more of a dominant force than communism among young Chinese radicals). 

            So, all of that is on the negative—too many characters to keep track of, and an unclear focus.

            On the positive side, the book is decently well written, so if you can keep track of all the characters, it’s an enjoyable read. 
            Okay, so it’s not exactly perfect, but I found it readable enough.  I’ll quote from a section to illustrate my point. 
            A light drizzle was slanting down on the night of 4 May 1886, when Mayor Harrison arrived in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to reassure himself that the demonstration he had authorized was passing off in good order.  The city was on edge, but having satisfied himself as to the ‘tame’ character of the gathering, Harrison left at around half-past seven, advising the police to stand down. Ignoring the mayor’s instructions, Bonfield merely withdrew his men to positions of concealment in side streets nearby.  Throughout the evening a steady flow of informants and plainclothes policemen shuttled between the demonstration and Bonfield’s post, relaying updates on the speeches, right until the moment when the last speaker, Samuel Fielden, mounted the wagon that was being used as a podium. “Defend yourselves, your lives, your futures,” he urged those anarchists who remained.  “Throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything you can to wound it,” was his recommended treatment of the law and its protectors, who even as he spoke were lining up, 180 strong in rows four deep, just out of sight. (from p. 207).

            Granted, some of the sections of the book read smoother than others, and some of the sentences are a bit awkward.  But on the whole, I found the book highly readable.   In fact, I enjoyed this book enough that I’m going to add it to my list of my favorite narrative history books.

Agent Provocateurs and Conspiracy Theories
          After reading this book, it’s hard not to become a little bit paranoid about the police and governments.
            One of the main themes of this book is that a lot of the anarchist violence was actually organized by the police to either discredit the anarchist movement, or to manufacture an excuse to arrest known anarchists.
            This is not to say that all of the anarchist violence was police orchestrated.  There was, as the author makes clear, a genuine violent element within the anarchist movement itself.  But a number of the actual bomb plots in the 1880s and 1890s were actually the work of double agents and agent provocateurs in police pay.
            Much of this is now a matter of established history, as records have been declassified and former police agents have confessed.
            However, a fair amount of what went on in the secret world of conspiracies, spies, and provocateurs is still unknown and will probably never be known.  (As the author points out, many of the official police records from this period have been destroyed).  So there are many more points in the book where author Alex Butterworth suspects the police may have been involved in provoking violence, but can only hint at suspicious circumstances.

            How much of this is going on today is difficult to say of course.  But it’s hard not to feel a little bit paranoid after reading a book like this.
            (Of course, push this paranoia too far, and you get these ridiculous 9/11 conspiracy theories, which are surprising popular among large numbers of otherwise rational people.  At some point, there’s a discussion to be had about how to maintain a healthy skepticism of the government without completely losing your grip on reality.  But I’m not going to get into all of that right now—that discussion will have to be saved for another post.)

Connections with Other Books I’ve Read
(Warning: I always enjoy linking the books I’m reading with previous books I’ve read, but this is probably only of interest to me.  Feel free to skip this last section).

          Since 19th century radicalism has long been an interest of mine, this book connects with many other books that have been on my reading list.

* The first several chapters of this book were all about the - Paris - Commune, about - which - I’ve - read - several - books.  (Although the fact that the whole history of the Paris Commune is crammed into a few short chapters is emblematic of how this book is attempting to cover way too much material in way too short a space.)

* Louise Michel, one of the few leading figures of the Paris Commune lucky enough to survive and go on to take a leading part in radicalism for the remainder of the 19th Century, is one of the main figures in this book.  The details of Louise Michel’s life that I learned from Alex Butterworth largely match what I learned from the biography of Louise Michel by Edith Thomas.  (Somewhat curiously though, Edith Thomas’s biography of Louise Michel doesn’t show up on Alex Butterworth’s bibliography.)

* Victor-Henri de Rochefort is another leading figure of the Paris Commune lucky enough to survive bloody week. 
            Rochefort’s name has popped up in a number of books I’ve read on the Paris Commune, and as he was a friend of Louise Michel, he also figured as a minor character in her biography.  But I never really got a clear idea of who he was until I read The Fall of Paris by Alistar Horne.  (I mentioned this in my original review, but The Fall of Paris is the best book I’ve read on the Paris Commune in terms of helping the reader to keep track of who all the various players are.)
            Anyway, I’ve known more or less who Rochefort was ever since I read The Fall of Paris, but I never had any idea of his life after the Paris Commune until now.  Alex Butterworth follows Rochefort’s story and shows that although Rochefort was always controversial, he was not entirely politically consistent, and later in his life he sided with far right causes such as the becoming a Boulanger supporter and an anti-Dreyfusard. 
            Some Amazon reviewers have complained that the inclusion of Rochefort’s story is emblematic of the problem this book has with a lack of a clear focus, since Rochefort wasn’t even really an anarchist.  This is probably a valid criticism actually, but I have to confess I personally didn’t really mind.  I was curious to hear Rochefort’s story, so I forgave the fact that it probably didn’t fit the theme of the book.

* Interestingly enough, one of the little historical asides in this book ties in with the events of The Three Musketeers. When describing Rochefort’s imprisonment in the city of La Rochelle, Butterworth writes on page 71 that Rochefort must have been “imagining himself the romantic heir of the Calvinist rebels three centuries earlier, who had held out there against an interminable Catholic siege.  (The siege of La Rochelle is one of the historical events described in The Three Musketeers ).

* Another former radical turned arch conservative is Georges Clemenceau, who is also a minor figure in this book.  He started out as a friend (and financial supporter) of Louise Michel, but ended up becoming a conservative Prime Minister of France who crushed labor and socialist movements.  Much of the information presented in this book was in line with the mini-biography I read of Clemenceau some years back.

* The book starts out in 1870, when the generation of 1848 were approaching their twilight years.  So Marx and Bakunin are in this book, but only as old men approaching the end of their lives.
* The portrait of the elderly Bakunin in this book—as an old, washed-up, tired revolutionary—is very similar to the picture of Bakunin painted in Bakunin, An Invention by Horst Bienek, and further seems to cement the idea that being a anarchist revolutionary is a young man’s game.

* Marx also appears near the end of his life, and Alex Butterworth draws from Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx, which I’ve also read.  (Bakunin’s virulent anti-Semitism, which does much to discredit Bakunin in his battles with Marx, is also recorded by Francis Wheen, and Butterworth cites Wheen’s research on this.)

* Allan Pinkerton, who founded the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, is a character in both this book, and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. 
            The ironic thing about Allan Pinkerton is that he was a radical leftist unionist back in England, but when he fled to the United States he founded an agency which would become famous for suppressing unions.  The impression I got from Flashman and the Angel of the Lord was that the Pinkerton detective agency only became horribly repressive after Pinkerton’s death, but as Alex Butterworth shows in this book, this was not the case.  Allan Pinkerton himself was very active in his detective agency’s anti-union campaigns.
            What caused Allan Pinkerton to suddenly change sides is never explained at all in this book.  But then this book is filled with so many stories of people changing sides (aristocrats becoming radicals, and radicals becoming conservatives) that I suppose it would be impossible to try to analyze every single instance.

* Another major anarchist figure in this story is Emma Goldman.  The story of Emma Goldman presented in this book (and some of her associates: Alexander Berkman, Johann Most) is very much in line with what I learned from Emma Goldman’s autobiography.

* The story of the People’s Will and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II is also included in this book, and it was something I had previously read about, in a slightly fictionalized form, in Andrew William’s To Kill a Tsar.  

* The time frame of this book (largely 1870-1914, with an epilogue to the end of the 1930s) is concurrent with another historical event—The Scramble for Africa.  Although the rise of radicalism and the colonization of Africa are not directly connected, both stories take place against the background of each other and there are occasional references to what was going on in Africa at the time.
            Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta’s possible involvement with the Egyptian nationalist movement is mentioned briefly.  Gordon at Khartoum is mentioned a couple of times, as well as one incident when anarchists heckled the famous explorer and colonizer of Africa Henry Morton Stanley.  Thus this book ties in somewhat with The Scramble for Africa and Three Empires on the Nile.  

* Vera Zasulich was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party with Lenin in 1903, and she was one of the main characters in the first few chapters of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile before her split with Lenin.  From Alex Butterworth’s book, however, I got a bit better picture of her during her early days.

* The works of Jules - Verne are referenced frequently in this book, making me much more curious to track down and read some other Jules Verne books.  From Alex Butterworth, I learned that Jules Verne collaborated with radicals such as Paschal Grousset (the ex-foreign minister of the Paris Commune) on some books like The Begum’s Millions. 

            Alex Butterworth mentions Fathers and Sons only in passing, but he claims that the label of Nihilist was meant to be satirical when Ivan Turgenev wrote the novel, but afterwards was adopted by Russian youths after the publication of the novel.

Link of the Day 
Noam Chomsky (2014) on "Scottish Independence"

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