Seeking a new world disorder

A history of European anarchists, fascinating if a bit thin

By the late 19th century, anarchists were viewed in the popular imagination as murderous maniacs bent on destruction, a view reflected in this illustration from a novel of the period titled “Hartmann the Anarchist.’’ By the late 19th century, anarchists were viewed in the popular imagination as murderous maniacs bent on destruction, a view reflected in this illustration from a novel of the period titled “Hartmann the Anarchist.’’
By Matthew Price
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2010

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Karl Marx famously said that the specter of communism was haunting Europe. But in the late 19th century, the rival spirit of anarchism also spooked the continent. From Moscow to London to Paris, a myriad of anarchist factions took aim at the established order. Like communists, anarchists sought the destruction of capitalism and the state; but they also ferociously opposed authority of any kind. Hungering after a kind of absolute freedom, these figures took different paths in their attempts to realize their goals. Some established alternative communities; others penned political tracts or took to the barricades; and a murderous handful resorted to assassination and bombing.

In “The World that Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents,’’ the English writer Alex Butterworth charts the odyssey of these European revolutionaries as they fought to build a new society, and the furious maneuvers by security services to thwart them. Not quite a political history, Butterworth’s book is more a historical pot boiler, long on personalities and dramatic set pieces but skimpy on intellectual context. His narrative ranges from fevered study circles in St. Petersburg to the Paris of the Commune to London’s radical fringe, and beyond. The dramatis personae proliferate in bewildering order and require close attention from the reader (Butterworth provides a useful list of the cast of characters).

Butterworth, if glibly, sees parallels between the social conditions that inflamed the anarchist movement and our own time: “the obscene discrepancies of wealth between the rich and poor were painfully obvious in the last decades of the nineteenth century, existing cheek by jowl in cities such as London, but they are scarcely less troublesome now, and still more extreme in the global village.” Though Butterworth cautions against making too many neat analogies between anarchist violence and Al Qaeda’s campaign against the West, he argues that “a silent, secret clockwork of intrigue and manipulation was in operation to protect the status quo, just as it is today, yet then as now the risk of unforeseen consequences was not to be underestimated.’’

The revolutionary underworld spawned a fascinating cast of characters. Some were poor, marginal students; others hailed from well-to-do families. Peter Kropotkin, one of the movement’s most illustrious figures was even a prince. If Kropotkin’s theories about Mutual Aid — “By working together, rather than striving for dominance, a particular group or species might win an advantage in the search for resources, and, thereby, in the perpetuation of their genes’’ — had a noble grandeur, other anarchist ideas resounded with a terrible fury. “The revolutionary is a dedicated man,’’ Sergei Nechaev wrote in “The Revolutionary Catechism.’’ “He has no personal interest, no business, no emotions, no attachments, no property, not even a name. . . . In his innermost depths he has broken all ties with the social order, not only in words but in actual fact.” Such rhetorical gales swept up followers, but Nechaev himself met a grave end: He was found to be complicit in the murder of a fellow radical, and jailed in the forbidding Peter and Paul fortress, where he died in 1883.

Indeed, the ultimate destination for many of the figures on Butterworth’s pages would be jail or exile. Kropotkin was hounded and harassed in his journeys around Europe. In the popular imagination, anarchism became synonymous with violent deeds, yet Kropotkin had a peaceable enough vision: “We must build, we must build in the hearts of men. We must establish a Kingdom of God,’’ he told the writer Ford Madox Ford. For others in the movement, such sentiments were a lot of gauzy nonsense. In Russia, a faction called the People’s Will used ruthless tactics, and targeted police chiefs, generals, and other authorities. But their most shocking accomplishment by far was the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881.

The other part of Butterworth’s story, a counter-narrative of sorts, is his account of various secret police agents and intelligence officers who tried to undermine the movement from within. Among these were Wilhelm Stieber, a Prussian lawyer turned policeman who advised Russia’s Third Section, and Peter Rachkovsky, “the foremost intelligencer of his era.” A master of the black arts of spying and infiltration, Rachkovsky was a kind of evil genius who was recruited from St. Petersburg’s demimonde. He disseminated forged memoirs purportedly authored by ex-revolutionaries denouncing the movement and sent agents to keep tabs on London’s bustling Russian émigré community. But his most perverse act was his role in the creation of The Protocols of the Elder of Zion. One of the most sinister frauds in history, the Protocols told of a vast conspiracy of Jews, socialists, and anarchists and their plans for worldwide domination. Its toxic legacy remains to this day.

For all the mayhem — alleged and actual — of the anarchists, they existed on the fringe. They experienced very little of what it was actually like to rule. It was their foes in the communist movement that actually took power — Lenin did not abolish the state, but rather created one even more powerful than the czars could ever dream of. The NKVD, the murderous Soviet police force, could count itself as Rachkovsky’s true heir.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in New York. He can be reached at

CORRECTION: Because of a reviewer's error, an earlier version of this review mispelled the author's last name in several places. The author's name is Alex Butterworth.

THE WORLD THAT NEVER WAS: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents
By Alex Butterworth
Pantheon, 482 pp., illustrated, $30