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

Alex Butterworth's account of anarchists and their pursuers, The World That Never Was sweeps the reader through France, Russia, Britain, Italy, Germany and the United States. The well-known figures are all there: Louise Michel, incarcerated in New Caledonia after the 1871Paris Commune; Peter Kropotkin, the Russian prince who renounced privilege, and the Russian aristocrat turned revolutionary, Michael Bakunin. Many lesser-known figures flit through the pages too: Enrico Malatesta, who pinned his hopes on militant trade unionism; Sergei Kravchinsky, alias "Stepniak", who alerted liberal opinion in Britain to the oppression of Tsardom, and Elisee Reclus, veteran of the Commune, radical geographer and animal rights pioneer.

Butterworth shows how the background to the rise of violent direct action in the late 19th century lay in the terrible retribution faced by the defeated Communards of 1871. Some 17,000 were buried in mass graves, many more buried under the rubble of their shattered barricades, while others perished in the harsh conditions of New Caledonia. The autocratic rule of the Tsars in Russia similarly resulted in extreme forms of protest because mild dissent was punished so severely.

The Russian movement of resistance was remarkable for the numbers of women who became involved. During the early 1870s, Russian women, denied education in their own country, went to study in Switzerland, encouraging one another in groups which resembled the Women's Liberation consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s.

These intellectual exiles created an exalted milieu in which ideals were paramount. Indeed, it was a young Sofia Lavrova who reminded Kropotkin of his moral duty to resist. Among the students at Zurich was Vera Figner who, when peaceful attempts at agitation met with repression, would join the Peoples' Will which practised violent direct action.

Butterworth recounts how what Stepniak described as "an aspiration for moral perfection" turned into forms of violence which not only targeted political and military figures but the bourgeoisie in general. Imprisonment, garrotting, guillotining and hanging did not deter the idealists, who believed that propaganda by deed and their own martyrdom would provoke the somnolent masses to revolt. In some cases they died from their own bombs.

In their midst, however, were less lofty duckers and divers with an instinct for survival. Marquis Henri de Rochefort-Lucay was exiled to New Caledonia with Louise Michel after the Commune and later supported the anarchists. Yet his anti-Semitism would lead him to the right-wing Action Française, which adopted violent tactics in the early 20th century.

Internal feuds and disillusionment, which resulted from isolation and defeat, proved more sapping than outright persecution. Conflicts were fostered by the secret agents who infiltrated revolutionary and anarchist groups. The grand master of intrigue, Peter Rachkovsky, assiduously planted spies not only to report but to stimulate acts of violence in order to round up opponents to Tsardom.

Butterworth charts how his influence extended through Europe through an intelligence network that condoned forgery and murder in the cause of security. Demoted by Tsar Alexander III, he would soon return as chief of police. Indeed, the secret police have always displayed a capacity to survive regime changes.

Rachkovsky played a key role in the spread of international intelligence from the late 1880s, extending his influence to Britain - which had previously been a place of refuge for political exiles. Butterworth demonstrates how the secret agents who were rewarded with bonuses not only discovered but fomented plots, while their superiors needed an atmosphere of fear in order to prevent any reduction to their budgets.

Hence a bizarre symbiosis was created between pursuers and pursued. Rachkovsky himself had counterfeiting equipment planted at the libertarian school that Louise Michel set up in London. Sections of the British police force became obsessed with anarchist plots and used agent provocateurs. Some of the anarchists succumbed to paranoia, seeing spies everywhere. Others countered by infiltrating the secret police.

Butterworth expresses surprise at the resistance in the Metropolitan Police's Special Branch to historians looking at their records for this period. But the British state has a long-standing commitment to secrecy. In a world of instant communication, where history often seems irrelevant, intelligence agencies retain a recognition of the significance of what was done in the past. Hold over the dustiest of archives constitutes power.

The World That Never Was conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache. Butterworth takes us through dense fogs and introduces us to innumerable bushy beards. His book intimates plots for thrillers and settings for films, proceeding at a fast pace.

But he is less successful at conveying how his revolutionaries and anarchists came to hold ideals of a better world so profoundly that they were prepared to forego the ordinary delights of life, and even to accept death. They died, hoping that people they never knew might enjoy freedom and equality. In order to comprehend why they took such an extreme course, the pace would have had to be slowed down to explore motives, inspiration and visions. Instead, Butterworth leaves the reader puzzling over what exactly this world that never was actually meant to his protagonists.

Sadly, he has denied his readers the possibility of checking many mundane facts and graphic details. Though he includes "Notes on Sources" there are no endnotes in the text. These are meant to be available online but. owing to some technological hitch had yet to be added as I was writing this review. Far from this being a scholastic quibble, the lack of precise referencing makes it impossible for readers fully to assess his assertions and bars future researchers from following the fascinating tracks he has marked out. Dumping references is like destroying maps and closing public pathways. In a book packed with democrats and featuring, in Reclus and Kropotkin, two radical geographers, this is especially bad news.

Nevertheless, Butterworth has created an impressive work which will captivate those unfamiliar with anarchist history and teach even specialists much that they did not know before. It is to be hoped his notes appear online in the near future, and that the Special Branch opens its records! The race is on.

Sheila Rowbotham's life of Edward Carpenter is published by Verso; her 'Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century' appears from Verso in May

The anarchist and the children's classic

Russian anarchists who found exile in Britain have a curious link to a much-loved children's classic. The progressive household of Hubert Bland and Edith Nesbit welcomed revolutionary visitors such Prince Kropotkin and Sergei Stepniak. It was Stepniak, killer of Russia's police chief in 1878, who provided a model for the persecuted Russian praised in E Nesbit's 1905 novel 'The Railway Children' (left, filmed in 1970) as a champion of the poor. Stepniak died, probably a suicide, under a train in Chiswick.

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