Molluscan Telepathy

Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, published by Pantheon, is old news now, but here are some (very brief) impressions anyway.

A narrative history of the rise of terror tactics and secret agents in the Nineteenth Century is a promising subject, and Butterworth delivers ample skullduggery. A slew of vignettes about topics as diverse as telepathic snails and mystic secret agents is itself enough to make the book worth reading, and the broader narrative of the symbiotic relationship between terror tactics and police provocation is detailed and compelling. Particularly damning are the cases of agents working for Britain’s Special Branch and the Tsarist Okhrana (secret police) providing explosives to anarchists in the hope of catching them in the act.

I have a few quibbles about the strawmen who stand in for anyone on the wrong side of various sectarian divides. On the one hand, the author responds to the repression unleashed by the Russian nihilists’ terror attacks with understated admissions that they might have been counterproductive, and to the elderly Kropotkin’s hypocritical support for war and the parliamentary state with gentle irony. On the other, the epithets ‘authoritarian’ and ‘scheming’ occur alongside the word ‘socialist’ with nigh Homeric frequency but no further discussion.

More seriously, Butterworth sometimes uses flimsy concepts to support his narrative’s heft. Having described Maquis Henri de Rochefort-Luçay’s surprising ideological arc from communard rabble-rousing to anti-semitic adventurism, the author then declines to discuss the rise of nationalism and antisemitism except as ‘atavism’, a term that crops up several times in the book without explanation. Given the prominent role the firebrand journalist plays in the narrative, his conversion to the far right deserves a more thorough treatment, especially given the Okhrana’s murky role in distributing antisemitic propaganda in the same period.

Such omissions are understandable given the book’s scope. Unfortunately, they are also indicative of a tendency to eschew analytical clarity in favour of anecdotal richness; Butterworth prefers to evoke than explain. Perhaps this is also unavoidable in a narrative history of such ambition, but the absence of detailed bilbiographic notes* forces the reader to take Butterworth at his word. This is a pity, because The World that Never Was is a fascinating book that raises important questions.

*The book is printed with only limited notes. Complete notes are supposed to be online, but I can’t seem to access them. Other reviews report the same problem.