[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Anarchism and Terrorism.”]
As Alex Butterworth tells the tale, it was “in the early years of the twenty-first century,” when
a British Home Secretary recommended that those wishing to understand what at that time was still termed the “War on Terror” should look back to the 1890s. Parallels were widely drawn with the wave of bombings and assassinations that had swept Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century, perpetrated by anarchists and nihilists for whom London and Switzerland had provided refuge. Then, as now, it was remarked, disaffected young men from swollen immigrant communities had been radicalized by preachers of an extremist ideology and lured into violence.
Young Butterworth was intrigued. Could it be that history really was repeating itself in this way? He began looking into the 1890s, with particular reference to that “wave of bombings and assassinations … perpetrated by anarchists.” What he discovered he has now reported in a book called The World that Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents, published on this side of the Atlantic four months ago (in June 2010) by Pantheon Books. And what, precisely, did he discover? I doubt I could do better in one paragraph than this passage, which I quote from the publicity for a lecture Butterworth gave in London this past spring:
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the popular imagination was filled with fantasies of militant Anarchism: of airborne attack and viral plagues. International terrorism made its first, furious appearance. Anarchist cells carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations across Europe and in America — or so, at least, the governments of France, Britain and especially Russia liked their populations to believe. The truth, however, was far murkier. Infiltration and surveillance comprised one part of the armory of the security services, but equally important was the use of agents provocateurs and black propaganda.
In other words, not to put too fine a point upon it, but what Alex Butterworth learned from his research on the 1890s was that the wave of bombings and assassinations perpetrated by anarchists during this period was largely a fiction. To some extent, it was frankly invented by sensation-mongering writers for newspapers. In other cases, unscrupulous newspaper writers who did stop short of outright fictioneering failed nevertheless to display much discernment or professional judgment when it came time to decide whether to pass along rumors and unverified police reports as established fact. Together, these newspapermen had a sizable fraction of the literate public convinced of what Butterworth calls “the fanciful notion of an internationally coordinated anarchist revolution of which the isolated attacks with bombs, knives and revolvers marked the first skirmishes.”
Frank Harris discovered, when he researched the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago for The Bomb, the 1909 novel he wrote about the incident, that, with the connivance of most, though not all, the important newspapers,
the whole American population was scared out of its wits by the Haymarket bomb. Every day the Chicago police found a new bomb. I thought they had started a special manufactory for them, till I read in the Leader of New York that the same piece of gas-piping had already served as a new bomb on seven different occasions.
Harris learned that a similar hysteria had prevailed after one of the men falsely convicted of the Haymarket bombing, Louis Lingg, blew himself up in his jail cell the night before his scheduled execution.
The news of the explosion quickly spread beyond the prison walls, and a crowd collected, demanding information — a crowd which was soon swollen by reporters from every paper in the city. The news got out in driblets, and was published in a dozen prints. The city seemed to go mad; from one end of the town to the other men began to arm themselves, and the wildest tales were current. There were bombs everywhere. The nervous strain upon the public had become intolerable. The stories circulated and believed that afternoon and night seem now, as one observer said, to belong to the literature of Bedlam. The truth was, that the bombs found in Lingg’s cell and his desperate self-murder had frightened the good Chicagoans out of their wits. One report had it that there were twenty thousand armed and desperate anarchists in Chicago who had planned an assault upon the jail for the following morning. The newspaper offices, the banks, the Board of Trade building, the Town Hall, were guarded night and day. Every citizen carried weapons openly. One paper published the fact that at ten o’clock on that Thursday night a gun store was still open in Madison Street, and crowded with men buying revolvers. The spectacle did not strike any one as in the least strange, but natural, laudable. The dread of some catastrophe was not only in the air, but in men’s talk, in their faces.
Of course, not all the violence attributed to anarchists in the 1880s and 1890s was merely made up or uncritically publicized by the mass media of the time. Some of it was quite real, but it was perpetrated, not by anarchists at all, but by people who falsely called themselves by that name or were falsely called anarchists by the authorities, by the newspapers, or by both.
There were plenty of young men in the 1890s who longed to call attention to themselves, make a name for themselves, and show everyone how “daring” they were; they weren’t much for reading or political philosophy, these young men: to them, an “anarchist” was somebody who dressed all in black and liked to break things. There are still such young men. In more recent years, they’ve been breaking shop windows and vandalizing parked cars in cities where meetings of the World Trade Organization are being held.
Other young men, more intellectual in their tastes, call themselves anarchists for reasons that seem obscure at best. The Haymarket martyr Louis Lingg, for example, called himself an anarchist; Butterworth says he was accused of the Haymarket bombing, though there was no evidence he was even there in Haymarket Square that evening, because he was one of “the city’s leading anarchist speakers and journalists.” Yet, according to Frank Harris, Lingg supported “a minimum wage established by the State.” Excuse me? A minimum wage “established by the State”? An anarchist is supposed to be working to abolish the state, not give it new regulations to enforce. This would seem elementary — though, again, we see this same phenomenon today: self-professed “anarchists” who work to grow, rather than shrink, the state.
Then there were the terrorists and assassins of the 1880s and ’90s who were passed off as “anarchists” by the authorities and the newspapers, even when their connection to the anarchist movement was pretty tenuous. Consider, as Alex Butterworth does, the case of Leon Czolgosz, the “anarchist” who assassinated US president William McKinley in 1901. The members of the Chicago anarchist group whose meetings he did attend a few times earlier that year had found, on getting to know him a bit, that “he had read little anarchist literature.”
Little wonder, then, that, according to Butterworth’s account, “by late August, his colleagues had begun to suspect him as a police provocateur” and had arranged for his description to be published in the local anarchist press along with the information that he was probably a police spy. Other criminals were described by local police as “anarchists” merely because they were armed and swarthy and spoke like immigrants. And the word of the local police in such matters was invariably and unquestioningly accepted by both the newspapers and higher ranking government officials. Also, of course, the more widespread the popular belief became that anarchists were advocates and perpetrators of violence, the more young people with a taste for violence flocked to join the movement.
There was violence committed by police officers, too — police officers working undercover and posing as anarchists. Butterworth writes, for example, about the
belief, common among the working men of Chicago [just after the Haymarket bombing], that the true guilt for the bomb-throwing lay with a police agent. Subsequent investigations never settled the matter, though the corruption in the Chicago police and judiciary at the time was eventually laid bare and officially acknowledged. Foreign powers also had a hand in manipulating the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair, however, and the possibility of their prior involvement in provoking the bombing cannot be discounted; certainly the most vociferous calls for vengeance came from a certain Heinrich Danmeyere, a deep-cover agent of the Imperial German Police.
A decade later, in the mid-’90s, a bomb went off outside the Greenwich Observatory, killing the young man who was carrying it: he was, the police and the newspapers assured everyone, an “anarchist.” He had, however, been recruited for the job and supplied with his explosives by an undercover police officer. The basic details of this story are retold, with the names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, which was published about a decade after the events it describes. Indeed, Butterworth writes that The Secret Agent, at the same time that it presents “a rather schematic cross section of the anarchist world of the period,” also “may come closer to illuminating the truth [about the Greenwich bombing] than documentary sources that are so often partial and distorting.”
As Butterworth notes, the period around the turn of the 20th century was one in which “radical politics and cultural bohemia frequently rubbed shoulders” and “the art and literature of the period are uncommonly revealing about both the life of that milieu, and the ideas that informed it.” Yet he makes surprisingly little use of the fiction of the period, beyond his comments on Conrad’s “well-informed storytelling” in The Secret Agent.
He includes only a single passing reference, for example, to Henry James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima, in which a young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, becomes involved in radical politics and agrees to perpetrate an act of terrorist violence, only to discover that he hasn’t the stomach for it. He had been drawn to anarchism in the first place because it seemed to offer a means of ameliorating the human suffering he saw all around him. And now he is to create more suffering in the name of anarchism? Robinson turns the revolver he has been given on himself.
It is odd that Butterworth should pass over this novel so lightly, since one of his own favorite themes — one he dwells upon at length in his book and returns to over and over — is the idealism of the anarchists of a century ago and their devotion to a world of peace and harmony. He repeatedly stresses that anarchism “was premised on an optimistic view of human nature” and a belief in “mankind’s inherent perfectibility.” He repeatedly frets that the majority of people in Europe and North America in the last years of the 19th century “failed to differentiate between the political ideals [anarchists like Peter Kropotkin] espoused and the simpler impulse to destruction which so many younger colleagues in the movement were eager to indulge.”
There is not a single reference in Butterworth’s book to Frank Harris or to The Bomb, Harris’s 1909 novel about the Haymarket incident. Nor is there a single reference to G. K. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. And this is particularly extraordinary, since The Man Who Was Thursday comes closer to encapsulating in its central symbolism the main point of Butterworth’s study than any other work of fiction of the period. The Man Who Was Thursday is the story of a London undercover police detective named Gabriel Syme, who infiltrates an anarchist group and gets himself elected as the English representative to the European anarchist council.
There are seven members of this council, each code-named for a day of the week. Syme, by winning the election, has become the man who was Thursday. He travels to the continent to meet with the other members of the council, only to discover that all the other members are also, like himself, undercover police detectives who have “infiltrated” the organization.
Nonetheless, flaws and all, Alex Butterworth’s book, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents, is a welcome and readable reminder of why we need revisionist history — to fight the state’s never-ending efforts to promote an alternative version of history that makes it look good.