1 November 2011 **** Published also on ZBlogs **** Front Page

Insurrections past and present

By Tapani Lausti

Alex Butterworth, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents. Vintage Books 2011.

The blurb on the back cover of Alex Butterworth's book informs the reader that his story has “uncanny resonances for today.” This probably refers mainly to today's acts of terrorism. Indeed, in the introduction Butterworth notes that Al-Zawahiri, the ‘brains' of Al-Qaeda, had studied the writings of Mikhail Bakunin. But more interestingly, he reminds the readers how obscene were the discrepancies of wealth between the rich and the poor in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Butterworth's description of the social and political scene of those decades could have been written by the Spanish M15 activists or Occupy Wall Street protestors: “… the industrial exploitation of labour and the greed of the few generated social injustice and economic instability; the unwillingness of politicians to confront malign corporate and financial powers led to disillusionment, even in purported democracies; and all was set against a background of economies staggering from crisis to crisis, uncertain how to tame a rampant, savage capitalism.” (pp. xxv-xxvi)

Butterworth furthermore observes that even if the anarchists of the day were reviled as utopian dreamers, they actually had a vision which today's radicals would recognise: “… their espousal of autonomous federated communities as the basis for a new form of society prefigures the ideas of localism and sustainabiliy that many believe must now be implemented to preserve the health of the planet.” (p. xxvii)

The Paris Commune of 1871 ended in bloody repression but the experience of those eight amazing weeks of freedom lived on in the memories of the participants. Again, the descriptions make one think of current protest movements around the world. The French capital during the Commune days was described as an “immense open-air club which filled the boulevards from one end of Paris to the other. Everyone talked about public affairs; all mere personal preoccupations were forgotten; no more thought of buying and selling; all felt ready to advance towards the future.” (p. 6)

Butterworth's book is rich with personalities whose politics have been widely ridiculed and whose limited achivements have been laughed at. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, according to Butterworth, had an “unblemished record of failed insurrections.” (p. 112) However, a measure of his reputation was in the crowds who greeted him on his return to Italy in late 1919. The workers in Genoa “turned out in their tens of thousands to greet him, and when he arrived in Turin four days later, the crowd was estimated to be more than 100,000 strong...” (p. 407) Similarly, when one of the leading ex-Communards, Louise Michel, died in 1905, tens of thousands people followed her funeral cortège in Paris.

The Paris Commune created huge interest in the United States where the social conditions made masses of people ready for revolutionary ideas. The media coverage was mainly negative but the working classes showed little interest in newspapers' distortions. When one leading Communard, Victor-Henri Rochefort, travelled through the States, big crowds in New York gathered around to see him. The propertied classes feared the possibility of radical convulsions. Butterworth writes: “With unemployment soaring and wages plummeting, the Commune appeared to offer the burgeoning ranks of America's social malcontents a dangerous example.” (p. 80)

Today interest in anarchism, also in the United States, is once again growing. The media, however, confuse anarchism with hooded youngsters who throw petrol bombs and break shop windows. It is probably also true that many people see anarchism's history in the light of those radicals who at the turn of the 19th and 20th century turned to violence. Assassinations of European rulers created big headlines but sowed disagreement among the anarchist ranks as most leading anarchists distanced themselves from the violence. In addition to Michel and Malatesta, Pyotr Kropotkin and Emma Goldman spoke critically about violence. Kropotkin insisted that a “structure built on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives.” (p. 303)

The authorities and their secret agents worked hard to make anarchism and terrorism seem synonomous. Butterworth's book is rich in descriptions of undercover police agents and agents provocateurs. Among the big names were the Russian Pyotr Rachkovsky, the head of the foreign Okhrana, based in Paris, and the Irish-born William Melville, superintendent of the British Special Branch, whom anarchists called “Le Vil Melville” for his ruthless policing of them. Indeed, the anarchists of the time lived in a world where one could never be sure who was a comrade and who was a spy or secret agent. Louise Michel once complained: “There is nothing so terrible as to feel oneself surrounded by enemies, without being able to guess either their identity or purpose.” (p. 299)

Butterworth's book is not an anarchist text book but a history of those turbulent decades when the phenomenon of anarchism sowed fear among the minds of European and American monied classes. At the same time societies seemed to be in danger of collapsing into chaos as unregulated capitalism seemed to be near self-destruction.

Sounds familiar? The ideologues of today's capitalism may not have noticed it, but the reality of a corporate coup d'etat is there for everyone to see. More and more people have had enough of humiliation by unaccountable financial sharks. And when they look around, what do they see? Masses of fellow citizens who have grabbed the freedom to dream of another kind of society. Once the idea of a horizontally self-managed society travels from various city squares to institutions of everyday life, new visions will emerge. As Amy Goodman writes: “The winds of change are blowing across the globe. What triggers such change, and when it will strike, is something that no one can predict.” (Globalizing Dissent, from Tahrir Square to Liberty Plaza, truthdig, 25 October 2011)

See also:

Visit the archive: Social thinking, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky


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