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Rebelling against the world

Book Review: Alex Butterworth, The World that Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents. New York: Pantheon Press, 2010.

James Heartfield

Platypus Review 24 | June 2010


THE TERRORIST IS NOBLE, irresistibly fascinating, for he combines in himself the two sublimates of human grandeur: the martyr and the hero” (127). The man who spoke these words was Sergei Kravchinsky, the Tsarist officer turned anarchist who went on to assassinate the chief of the Russia’s secret police and expose that country’s autocracy before the world in the best-selling book Underground Russia. Terrorism was not restricted to Russia’s early revolutionary movement. In Chicago, the Alarm told its readers in 1884 that ‘one man armed with a dynamite bomb is equal to one regiment of militia’ (203-4). German immigrant Johann Most went further with a call to “rescue mankind through blood, iron, poison and dynamite” (203). “Enough of organisation,” thundered Luigi Parmeggiani’s L’Internationale in London in 1892, “let’s busy ourselves with chemistry and manufacture: bombs, dynamite and other explosives are far more capable than rifles and ‘barricades’ of destroying the present state of things, and above all to save our precious blood” (309).

An 1893 portrait of François Koenigstein, aka Ravachol, by Charles Maurin.

In the later years of the nineteenth century there was a rise in terrorist outrages like the explosion at the Greenwich Observatory fictionalized by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, or the famous succession of bombings in Paris undertaken by François Koenigstein (“Ravachol”) in 1892. The geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus saw in Ravachol “a hero with a rare grandeur of spirit,” while the symbolist poet Paul Adam praised him as a “violent Christ” (304-5). The list of establishment figures the anarchists shot and bombed is remarkable: Nikolai Rysakov of the People’s Will killed Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881; the Pennsylvania industrialist Henry Clay Frick was shot by Alexander Berkman in 1892, but survived; the Chief of the Tsarist secret police Georgii Sudeikin was killed by Sergei Degaev for the People’s Will in 1883; Gaetano Bresci killed King Umberto I of Italy in 1900; inspired by Emma Goldman, Leon Czolgosz killed President McKinley on 6 September 1901 in Buffalo; Kropotkin fan Gavrilo Princip killed the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914, precipitating the First World War.

One could easily account for the rise in terrorism in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by pointing to the violence of the state, and in the broadest sense this is correct. Repression in Russia, Germany and France, and the use of private militias against strikers in America, all raised the political temperature. Still, a closer look at the terrorists, such as that Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was provides, shows that terrorism was taken up by people who were losing the argument with the mass of ordinary people. Violence, it was hoped, would be the shortcut to social change that was slipping from their grasp. The isolation of these small bands of would-be revolutionaries tempted them to see chemistry and dynamite as easier routes to social transformation than organization.

The political debate that foreshadowed the growth of terrorism took place amongst the radicals of the International Working Men’s Association, or First International, which had affiliated parties in most European countries. The event that sharpened the differences was the war Napoleon III launched, but quickly lost, against Prussia in 1870, leaving Paris under siege from Bismarck’s army. When Adolphe Thiers’s government offered to surrender a disarmed capital to the Prussians, the Parisians rose up, making their own Commune to resist Bismarck and the French government alike. The International supported the Commune, and Karl Marx wrote a pamphlet announcing the first workers’ government.

Marx’s rivals in the International, the anarchist followers of Mikhail Bakunin, also supported the Parisians’ revolution, but balked at Marx’s conclusion that the Commune showed the need for workers to seize state power and use it to put down the propertied classes. Bakunin even showed up with a decree to abolish the state at the Town Hall in Lyons, where there was support for the Commune. But, having refused on principle to gather any armed back-up, Bakunin had to beat a hasty retreat from the gendarmes.[1] In Paris, by contrast, the Commune fought to the last against Thiers’s army. The repression that followed was terrible, with thousands killed and thousands more deported to the Pacific colonies, while others fled to live as refugees in Britain, Switzerland, and America.

After the defeat of the Commune, the argument between Marx’s supporters and the anarchists took a definite turn. Bakunin, and his young acolyte Kropotkin, denounced Marx as a centralizing dictator, wedded to violence. Engels remonstrated that “a revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part.”[2] By contrast, Kropotkin put his faith in a spontaneous and instinctual revolution of the peasant masses, and here Butterworth speculates that Kropotkin’s fierce anti-intellectualism might have stemmed from a guilty conscience over his own education (125). But the irony was that it was the anarchists that turned to violence, and with it the dictatorial methods of conspiracy, as the masses drifted away from the Communards’ ideal.

In 1877, Bakunin’s disciple Errico Malatesta, with Carlo Cafiero tried to launch an insurrection among the peasants of Matese, in the Southern Italian highlands, ransacking government offices. “If you want to, do something,” shouted Cafiero, ”if not, then go fuck yourselves” (118); but the Matese peasants could not understand his dialect, let alone his point. In 1879, Russian populists met at Voronezh to debate a new path. Lev Tikhomirov demanded violence and the “formation of an organisational elite to coordinate the new strategy” (141), to which Georgi Plekhanov, who would go on to be Lenin’s mentor, responded, “you can count me out.” At the same meeting, the anarchist Andrei Zhelyabov argued that he should be made ‘Revolutionary Dictator’ once they had killed the Tsar (149). Two years later, at the anarchist international meeting in London in July 1881, Élisée Reclus convinced Kropotkin of the need for small conspiratorial groups (167).

The anarchists became more ardent the less support they had. They loathed the masses for letting down the revolution: as if the world ought to bend to their will. Octave Garnier, a leader of the anarchist “Bonnot Gang”—the first stick-up crew to use a getaway car—wrote in 1911, “Why kill workers?—they are vile slaves without whom there would not be the bourgeoisie and the rich.”[3] The difference between the anarchists and the Marxists was not that one side preferred violence: the use of violence in and of itself is not necessarily a matter of principle. The difference was that the anarchists could not accept that the revolutionary tide had ebbed, thinking that it was a failure of will alone. Their answer to the retreat was more and more aggressive actions. This left them waging war against the masses as much as the elite. “Long live anarchy and death to society!” cried Luigi Lucheni, the assassin of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth in September 1898 (369). Terror was a substitute for the harder work of winning over mass support.

As they got older, leading anarchists were dismayed to find that the path they had cleared led to the cult of the bomber Ravachol. Kropotkin rued that “a structure built on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosive” (303). This time Malatesta agreed, writing of Ravachol’s followers, “It is no longer a love for the human race that guides them, but the feeling of a vendetta joined to the cult of an abstract idea, of a philosophic phantasm” (313).

Louise Michel, “the Red Virgin,” whose bravery on the barricades and at trial made her into a heroine for many, expressed the frustration that many exiled Communards felt at the time. Returning from exile in the Pacific, Michel drew massive crowds and threatened retaliation against the oppressors. Michel was accompanied on her speaking tours by an equally remarkable figure of Victor Henri Rochefort, the Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay, who had become a member of the Commune government despite his aristocratic background. Like Michel, Rochefort had been exiled to the Pacific, though unlike her he had the finances to influence French public life, even founding his own newspaper, L’Intransigeant. Rochefort organised meetings for Michel to condemn the corruption of the Republic, though increasingly these took on a scripted or theatrical air. At the time, Louise’s mother warned her, “you’ve become their pet exotic animal on the end of the leash, and they’re making you dance to amuse the crowds.”[4]

Having lost touch with the masses in the post-Commune years, the anarchists were shocked, when the Left began to recover and the Socialist International met in London in 1896, to find that they were not welcome. “What we advocate is free association and union, the absence of authority, minds free from fetters, independence,” anarchist Gustav Landauer pleaded to the delegates: “it is we who preach tolerance for all—whether we think their opinions right or wrong—we do not wish to crush them by force or otherwise” (354-5). Landauer had changed records, and put Bakunin’s old tune back on the turntable, asking that the issue not be put to the vote for fear of losing. Even Michel promised that “the bombs are past history.” But the socialists had been too often derided as cowards for failing to start the revolution, had struggled too often to pick up the pieces after anarchist bombings, and had had to cope too often with the resultant police repression and popular disgust while the bombers themselves melted into the background. They voted to exclude the anarchists. Louise Michel protested that the Marx’s followers had founded “a new Papacy.”[5]

Reforms that extended the franchise and the growth of the socialist vote left the anarchists even more isolated than had the preceding decline in working class militancy, such that they more confused than ever about what to do. Louise Michel dismissed democracy, saying, “it does not matter who emerges from that false-bottomed trunk known as the ballot-box.” Whoever wins, “he’ll always be one of the bourgeoisie, one of your exploiters.”[6] Rochefort’s paper rallied to the cause of military government under General Georges Boulanger, and to anti-Semitic campaigns: first against the Jewish financiers of the Panama Canal Company, and then later joining in the denunciations of Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. For her part, Louise Michel refused to condemn Rochefort’s proto-Fascist Boulangism, insisting that the fight between democracy and military government “is not the moment for me to choose one side over another in a factionalist struggle.”[7] She similarly refused to take sides in the Dreyfus Affair, declining to attend pro-Dreyfus meetings. But then the anarchists had been long accustomed to playing the anti-Semitic card: Years before, Bakunin denounced the London Congress of the International as “a dire conspiracy of German and Russian Jews” who were “fanatically devoted to their dictator-Messiah Marx” (64).

Kropotkin, too, disappointed his supporters in later years, rallying to the Allied cause in the First World War and returning to Russia to join the fight against “Bismarckism.”[8] Malatesta returned to be detained under house arrest in Italy, where Il Duce graciously spared the life of the man who had once been his mentor when he was a young anarchist (409-11).

Butterworth’s book is fascinating in its treatment of the many undercover agents and agents provocateurs in the anarchist movement. But he is generous to a fault, repeating many anarchist slanders against the Marxists. Nevertheless, he does not fail to make the critical point: that the anarchists’ rage was impotent, their terrorism a sign of weakness, not strength. The story of the anarchists shows how destructive it is to make revolution into a moral imperative outside of its historical grounding. Years ago, the philosopher Hegel characterised the beautiful soul that “lives in dread of besmirching the splendor of its inner being by action…[T]o preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world and…is reduced to the extreme of ultimate abstraction.”[9] That was the psychology of the anarchists’ love of “the two sublimates of human grandeur: the martyr and the hero” or the “violent Christ.” Their insurrection turned from being a war to free the masses from repression into a war against the masses, dissolving in the end into the worst kind of opportunism. |P

[1]. “Marx to Beesley, 10/19/1870,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, ed. and trans. Dona Torr (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1941), 306.

[2]. Frederick Engels, “On Authority,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 379.

[3]. Quoted in Richard Parry, The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists (London: Rebel Press, 1987), 125.

[4]. Edith Thomas, Louise Michel, trans. Penelope Williams (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 187.

[5]. Ibid., 344.

[6]. Ibid., 298.

[7]. Ibid., 289.

[8]. Leon Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 687. For Kropotkin on Bismarckism, see Butterworth, 135.

[9]. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 400.