Propaganda of the Deed

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents BY Alex Butterworth. Pantheon. Hardcover, 528 pages. $30.
How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism BY Eric Hobsbawm. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 480 pages. $35.

The cover of The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents The cover of How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism

The financial meltdown of 2008 had at least one silver lining: Amid the foreclosures and antibank protests, stock in Karl Marx rose sharply. The past year or two have seen a miniboom in books demonstrating why despite Communism’s failure, Marx remains indispensable for understanding the shortcomings of capitalism. One cannot help wondering whether this revivalism has not been overdone. After all, the hurried reminders issued lately about capitalism’s intrinsic instability were basically a consequence of our having bought into the complacent idiocies of what passes for contemporary mainstream economics. And this does not mean that Marx is the only, or indeed the best, alternative. Yet a great writer will always repay close reading. And if we stop treating Marx and his writings as guides to eternal economic truth and set them in their time and place, other lessons for our times emerge.

In Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was, the Marxists are sidelined in favor of their more colorful—and for a time more successful—anarchist confreres. Some superb histories of anarchism had appeared before Butterworth’s, but none has shown as effectively as the chronicle by this British historian just how critical the decades between 1870 and 1914 were for our modern ideas of leftist activism and terror—and for counterrevolutionary repression. In Butterworth’s account, the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871 is the real beginning of the story. It was then, while Paris was besieged by the German army, that a radical council briefly ran the city on a program of radical political and social reform. Before the Commune, Marx (1818–1883) was unknown, and so was the International Working Men’s Association that he was effectively running, which had been set up to coordinate working-class activism across the continent. By definition, there was no Marxism yet, or anything popularly known as anarchism—although the French politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had already become among the first people to declare himself an anarchist publicly, and figures such as the legendary Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin were active. Finally, before the 1870s the state policing of revolutionaries—like policing in general—was poorly resourced and badly coordinated.

The events of 1871 thus did three things. They made Marx famous—one of many historical ironies, given that he had been deeply ambivalent about the Commune before it collapsed (his classic essay on the subject appeared only after its demise)—and turned the International into a bourgeois bogeyman. After the Commune’s defeat at the hands of fellow Frenchmen, the foreign minister blamed the International for the whole episode and urged other countries to help suppress the socialist organization, raising for the first time in the minds of governments the idea of an internationally coordinated revolutionary conspiracy. Second, the memory of the Commune gave anarchists a cause to rally around and a model of future action that was local and bottom-up, not dependent on the capture of state institutions, as Marx’s more evolutionary approach seemed to mandate. Third, anarchists inaugurated the era of internationally coordinated antiterrorism, as Russian, French, and English secret policemen established contacts, sent their agents undercover, and developed often deeply dubious modes of combating the threat of the revolutionary left. Among the least savory such methods were smear campaigns, guilt by association, the fomenting of anti-Semitism, and the use of agents provocateurs.

What exactly was anarchism, and why should it matter to us today—more, perhaps, than Marxism itself? With hindsight, some basic distinctions are relevant. All revolutionaries disliked the state in the form in which they found it; some nevertheless acknowledged the necessity for working through it to get to the utopia they envisaged. Only the followers of Bakunin, Proudhon, and those who thought like them resisted any engagement with the state on principle. That said, hostility toward the state was in itself not enough for coherence. Some anarchists favored the self-mobilization of workers or peasants in their own unions, guilds, or cooperatives; others looked instead to form small conspiratorial cells to carry out assassinations and bombings that would cause existing institutions to collapse; and some took individualism even further and embraced a highly aestheticized philosophy of “propaganda by the deed”—acts of terror as self-expression.

If anarchists, then, were split among themselvesincreasingly over the issue of violence—they were also part of a broader revolutionary left rather than a distinct movement of their own. A split between Marxists and Bakuninists, for instance, erupted even within the ranks of the International Working Men’s Association over modes of organization, the need for centralization, and the role of violence in accelerating revolution. This schism was clear in its implications, but too much can be read into it. Many of Butterworth’s protagonists, including such leading anarchists as Pyotr Kropotkin, saw themselves as members of the revolutionary left but did not see a sharp divide between themselves and those who found Marx’s influence especially powerful—at least not until socialists were able to pursue a parliamentary path to power in the 1890s in countries such as Britain and Germany. Marx was still not as important an inspiration as others—Proudhon in France, Darwin in Russia and the Middle East. As for the term anarchist, it did not really take off until scaremongering conservative journalists picked it up as a widely used pejorative in the 1880s.

Bakunin in particular stood for the idealization of community—especially among working men and peasants—and a readiness for insurrection and violence. Marx could seem deliberate, bloodless, overintellectual, and almost fatally quiescent. Many anarchists shared his willingness to appeal to the authority of science to back his findings, and to use science to support his ethical and political goals—but this affinity did not necessarily warm them to him. Both Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, for instance, were geographers of some renown, who scorned Marx’s scientific pretensions but themselves saw science as demonstrating man’s essential unity.

Kropotkin and Reclus, and others like them, were critical, too, of Marx’s claim to be the only genuine kind of internationalist—chiefly because they were internationalists themselves. How could they not be, when education and experience alike forced them into this position? Their studies, but even more their political activism, had led them to rely on networks of support, on far-flung communities of the like-minded. The life of the political radical in the late nineteenth century was increasingly one of persecution, flight, and dependence on the kindness of strangers. After 1871, the government of the new French Republic exiled to New Caledonia most of the Communards who survived the bloody massacres that crushed their movement. Other surviving Communards chose to exile themselves, by fleeing abroad. Bismarck’s government in Germany, meanwhile, pushed refugee German labor leaders out of London; they then moved onward to Chicago and Pittsburgh, where they played leading roles in the founding of utopian communes and labor mobilizations. After fighting for Slavic independence against the Ottomans in the Balkans, and assassinating the chief of the Saint Petersburg police, the leading Russian revolutionary Sergey Kravchinsky fled to England and ended up, as Kropotkin would, in bourgeois respectability in the London suburbs. Sergey Degayev, perhaps the most remarkable Russian of all, was a police double agent before he was turned by his revolutionary comrades, forced to kill his former paymaster, and obliged to flee Europe. He ended up as professor of mathematics at the University of South Dakota and founding dean of its college of engineering under the name Alexander Pell; undergraduate recipients of the university’s Alexander Pell prize remain in his pseudonymous debt even today.

As these stories indicate, the internationalism of the revolutionary terrorists arose largely out of repression and persecution rather than from anything willed or worked out; it was, in other words, an expression of their powerlessness and even their failure rather than a strategy. Whenever they actually met for one of their international congresses—usually above some seedy central London pub or Parisian club—their inability to cooperate on anything became inescapably clear. In the words of one: “We are anarchists because we can’t agree.” This lack of internal cohesion or centralization was not accidental. It was a choice, and some of the reasons behind it were good ones. Clearer thinkers such as Kropotkin might have seen a more centralized apparatus as a means of controlling the hotheads, but the extreme elements correctly feared that innovations such as a proposed central bureau of information would only make the police’s job easier.

Which brings us to the police themselves. Butterworth is at least as interested—and interesting—in this parallel story of international police coordination and repression of revolutionary activity as he is in the story of the anarchists; he tells it well and milks it for all its contemporary resonances and then some. The crackdown in Russia that followed Kravchinsky’s successful killing of the Saint Petersburg chief of police contributed to the rise of “the greatest spymaster of his age,” Pyotr Rachkovsky. The antihero and centerpiece of Butterworth’s riveting account, Rachkovsky professionalized antiterrorist policing, especially once he had been recruited into the Okhrana in 1882 and got himself sent to Paris. The mid-1880s were his heyday. His cooperation with the French Sûreté helped the reorientation of European diplomacy by bolstering the rapprochement between czarist Russia and republican France: Tracking down revolutionaries of the left was one cause the French and the Russians could share. Then, with Kropotkin and Kravchinsky both exiled in London—still the center of asylum for Europe’s revolutionaries—he extended his contacts across the channel, hooking up with Scotland Yard just as Jack the Ripper was leaving his bloody trail across eastern London.

Butterworth teases us with the suggestion that perhaps the Ripper’s murders were the work of one of Rachkovsky’s agents—but the truth about the agents is astonishing enough, and Rachkovsky had plenty of blood on his hands. Agents provocateurs had been used to penetrate revolutionary groups before him, but no one else took their use to such lengths or sailed so close to the wind. Together with his equally unscrupulous British counterpart William Melville, Rachkovsky saw it as part of his job to entrap revolutionaries by urging them on to acts of terror they might not have otherwise committed. There were bombings with Rachkovsky’s fingerprints all over them in Paris, Walsall, and London. His star agent moved from impersonating revolutionaries to assuming a new identity in Liège as the Baron Ernest Ungern-Sternberg (thanks to an aristocratic passport stolen and forged, presumably on Rachkovsky’s orders), under which name he appears to have orchestrated a bombing on Belgian soil.

Butterworth sees the parallels between this foundational Victorian war on terror and our own. The story of half-mad secret-police chiefs going their lawless ways while keeping their parliamentary paymasters in the dark gives one pause. And what is one to make of the British police’s seeming eagerness, even at this late date, to hush the whole thing up? Files from the era that remain closed should be open by now. It appears that someone in Whitehall really does believe that there is a connection between the events of the early 1890s and those of a century later or, at the least, worrying parallels of the kind Butterworth unnervingly illuminates. Perhaps the governing fear in officialdom is that the revelation of the Special Branch’s willingness to pull the wool over the eyes of its political masters will alert the last remaining innocents to what secret policemen can do; perhaps the keepers of British state secrets worry that we will start feeling just a little too sympathetic to the “terrorists” of the past, or that the revelations of skullduggery will muddy the pure moral dichotomies of our own war on terror.

Maximilien Luce depicted his recollections of Bloody Week in A Paris Street in May 1871.
Maximilien Luce depicted his recollections of Bloody Week in A Paris Street in May 1871.

In any case, Rachkovsky’s own personal contacts were merely the start. In 1898, the Rome Anti-Anarchist Conference took place (it was a kind of precursor to the UN’s efforts to internationalize the policing of the war on terror), and six years later his colleagues drew up a protocol for an international war on anarchism. There was thus more than one kind of internationalism at the fin de siècle, and the anti-leftist strand appeared to be just as effective as—and longer-lived than—the one it was combating. For out of these early contacts grew the interwar Vienna-based International Criminal Police Commission—quickly turned into an anti-Bolshevik coordinating mechanism for national political police forces in the 1920s—and from that, once it had been cleansed of its Nazi associations (Heydrich took the ICPC over after the Anschluss), the group turned into Interpol and is very much with us down through today.

In reconstructing the battles over the anarchist specter, Butterworth weaves a richly detailed—sometimes too detailed—tapestry. Following the travels and travails of his various revolutionaries—especially in the absence of any single organizational framework to ground his research—is not always easy; following the police is often rather simpler. There are a few basic errors—Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, would have turned in his grave before he allowed himself to be called a socialist—but these are minor blemishes. Butterworth’s international perspective allows one to see the connections between the German ’48ers, the American labor movement, and the Russian populists. And he tells a very good story. He is particularly strong on the cultural, artistic, and literary figures from Jules Verne to William Morris who help demonstrate that the story of fin de siècle revolutionary dreams, both peaceful and bloody, ramified deep into society at that time and was not the preserve of a small number of highly politicized individuals. If this is very much a tale of anarchism for our own times—with its stress on terror and counterterror—it is none the worse for that.

For long-range analysis, one turns to the veteran English scholar Eric Hobsbawm, who is as clear and as trenchant as ever in How to Change the World. Although much of the commentary surrounding this book has discussed it as an appeal for Marx to be taken seriously again, I understand it rather differently. What Hobsbawm gives us above all in this collection of essays (most of them published before, although not necessarily in English) is the history of how Marx has been read since the 1870s, and the results are rather surprising. There was a very slow start, but even after interest in him soared—thanks to the efforts of his friend Friedrich Engels, to the rise of a Marxist socialist party in Germany, and then of course to the Russian Revolution—the public’s engagement with Marx remained oddly episodic and confined to only a few of his texts read in isolation.

The rise of Communism in the USSR spurred the interwar generation of intellectuals—Hobsbawm’s own—to take Marx seriously, but growing disillusion with Stalinism dragged Marx’s standing down, too. And when the real boom in the West in Marxism studies began, in the 1960s, it was of a very odd kind—anti-Soviet, and indeed often anti-Communist from a New Left vantage point, based on heavily theorized readings of specific texts, often slanted toward the early metaphysics and increasingly divorced from anything recognizable as mainstream economics, which was going its own merry way into quantification and rational choice. Decolonization made Marxism look important, but much of what passed as Marxist analysis was in fact merely progressivist in the very loosest sense of the word. As such, it was tied as much to the nationalism of a Mazzini or the cult of violence of a Georges Sorel or a Bakunin as it was to the author of Capital. As for the years from the early 1980s onward, Hobsbawm shows how quickly any real interest in Marx faded, to the point where in 2005 scarcely anyone hailed the completion of what was by any reckoning an epic scholarly achievement—the fifty volumes of the collected works.

And today? May we expect the much-vaunted upswing in Marx studies to continue for long? It seems unlikely. As Hobsbawm himself notes, the truth is that while capitalism may still be in crisis, it is not obviously producing its own gravediggers, which is what Marx thought would happen with the growth of the working class. The unionized labor force has shrunk, and where strong core electorates for Communist Parties survive in democracies, as for instance in Greece, it is not because the working class there is strong but rather because people associate Communism with wartime resistance and the memory of a noble cause that they are unwilling to turn their backs on. Meanwhile, a younger generation now passing through universities sees politics as a matter of single-issue mobilization and views the entire political process with suspicion. This generation is universalist while also antistatist and anti-institutional, and therefore antipolitical, too, although it does not think of itself as such. The result is constant critique but little by way of effective mobilization. If we think of the victims of the slump of 2008, we can see that theirs is a story of political failure, because they have failed to challenge the ideological hegemony of market values. Even now, hedge-fund profits and bank bonuses are up, and gold is soaring, as state spending across the United States faces unprecedented cuts.

Hobsbawm reminds us that in the 1960s, Marxism became popular because it seemed to provide “a critique of modern Western society as such.” For all the recent calls to return to Marx, he is unlikely to play that part again. The most commonly encountered critiques of mainstream economics—at least in the United States and Western Europe—are not Marxist but Keynesian. The very fine Marxist commentators who do write in Latin America or southern Europe—for instance, on the current sovereign-debt crisis in Europe—are hardly noticed here.

One must wonder whether it is in fact anarchism and not Marxism that speaks most clearly to our current condition. It is not just that Marx’s actual explanation for the causes of capitalist crisis was always undertheorized and in any case referred to an older kind of economy that lacked the complex and panic-inducing financial mechanisms that are commonplace now. Above all, the attractiveness of Marx’s thought as a model is fatally compromised in the eyes of many natural critics of capitalism today by his commitment to organization and to rigid party discipline. Anarchism’s combination of individual commitment, ethical universalism, and deep suspicion of the state as a political actor mark it out as the ideology for our times. We are all anarchists now.

Mark Mazower teaches history at Columbia University. He has written many books on modern Greece, the Balkans, and twentieth-century Europe.