The First War on Terror

What the fight against anarchism tells us about the fight against radical Islam


The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth, Pantheon Books, 482 pages, $30

In the late 19th century, as today, a terrorist cabal detonated bombs in the heart of the Western world. Judged by the number of successful attacks on politicians and royalty, that force was more directly threatening to the inner circles of power than today's radical Islam.

This episodic violence, loosely associated with the extremist wing of the anarchist movement, lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910. It claimed the lives of only about 150 private citizens but also killed a president, a police chief, a prime minister, a czar, a king, and an empress. Yet the wave of terror eventually receded. No one has lived in mortal fear of bomb-throwing, dagger-clutching anarchists for nearly a century. Will citizens in 2110 view radical Islamic terrorism as a similar historical curiosity, useful mostly for colorful storytelling?

I don't know, and neither does Alex Butterworth, author of The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents. The book is a detailed chronicle both of the anarchists—intellectuals and peaceful activists as well as terrorists—and of the cops and spies who set out to nab and crush them. It is irresistible, while contemplating this history in 2011, to look for analogies that might illuminate the current war on terror.

Butterworth, an English historian, brings up that comparison casually in the introduction. It feels like a last-minute addition to give a long tale of days gone by a ripped-from-the-headlines promotional hook. The author himself never returns to the idea. But perhaps the rest of us should.

The anarchists were considerably more precise in their attacks on political leaders, implying, perhaps, that they were more efficient, clever, or at least focused than today's more civilian-oriented terrorists. Although their plots never approached the scale of 9/11, they did outdo the Islamists when it came to the number of successful fatal attacks within Western cities.

Might smarter, more effective intelligence and policing in the 21st century explain the difference? Butterworth provides stories and data relevant to that question but no decisive answers. He does not, after all, have access to a century's worth of delayed revelations about our current twilight struggle. Still, the first war on terror does offer tantalizing hints about what we face when confronting organized nonstate international killers.

Butterworth's walk through the  oft-told tale of 19th-century anarchism includes plenty of familiar material. Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, the Communards and the narodniki, the First and Second Internationals—all get plenty of attention. (So do many tangential stories, some interesting and some not, about the historical milieu in which they lived.) The freshest and most relevant parts of the book are Butterworth's tales of cops and spies at war with anarchist radicals. The most valuable player in this battle against the international anarchist terror conspiracy—which didn't actually exist, in the sense of one organization centrally planning attacks across national lines—was the Russians' man in Paris, Peter Rachkovsky.

Rachkovsky started as a possibly sincere, possibly duplicitous mover in St. Petersburg's radical underground in the late 1870s, after having been dismissed (for leniency toward political exiles) from a job as a prosecutor for the czar's government. He ended up running the show for the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, in Paris, where so many radicals considered dangerous to the czarist regime had immigrated.

From 1885 until 1902, Rachkovsky was responsible for keeping anarchists under surveillance and on the run—and also, in many cases, financed and supplied with ideas. Butterworth notes that "prominent among his early initiatives were provocations designed to lure credulous émigrés into the most heinous crimes of which they may never have otherwise conceived." Rachkovsky's aim was to entrap his targets into committing acts that would help ensure that his job seemed of vital importance to the czar. This guaranteed him a solid berth in Paris that was lucrative both in salary and prestige—and, Butterworth's research leads him to strongly suspect, in opportunities for corrupt under-the-radar dealings with a French government doing heavy business with Russia.

Rachkovsky wasn't the first cop to use agents provocateurs among the French radicals. Louis Andrieux, the French prefect of police during the early 1880s, had been frustrated that all his spying on the anarchists failed to uncover a crime worthy of his time and attention, so he decided that "it was necessary that the act was accomplished for repression to be possible."

Rachkovsky's bosses in Russia and his hosts in Paris both feared the radicals, allowing the Russian agent to tighten the ties between the two nations. He succeeded so well that Butterworth argues he was partly to blame for the Russo-French alliance that helped make World War I such a bloody mess.

The British government, by contrast, initially resisted czarist efforts to capture Russia's radical émigrés. In 1890 Vladimir Burtsev, wanted by the czarist police, boarded a British boat bound from Constantinople to London. When the ship found itself surrounded by Turkish police vessels with Russians on board, the captain refused their demand to hand over the fugitive, announcing: "This is English territory. And I am a gentleman!" But soon even Britain's Special Branch ended up playing the spy and provocateur game.

Although Butterworth warns today's governments and spymasters that future historians will "have access to the material necessary to hold those leaders to account for any deceptions they may have practiced," his own research into the century-old fight indicates that that won't necessarily be so. The current keepers of the Special Branch's archives, which could shed light on the history of police behavior toward the radicals of the time, keep access to the relevant records "tenaciously guarded" even now.

It would be comforting to assume that one of the reasons the radical anarchists were able to gin up more consistent bombing action in the West than radical Islam does today was because their ideals—storming the bastions of illegitimate power, winning a better deal for the working man, crafting a future without any coercive authority—were more inherently inspiring than Shariah or a new Caliphate. These anarcho-radical movements were huge in the late 19th century. Star anarchist figures such as Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta could get tens of thousands, sometimes more than 100,000, fans to show up whenever they arrived in town. The number of people who subscribed to the anarchist movement's many publications was in the tens of thousands in France alone. But the active participants in anarchist congresses numbered less than 1,000, and while many of those activists and intellectuals excused the violence, others opposed it. The number of people actively involved in planning and executing terror plots seems to be no more than a few dozen.

Terror then and terror now both hoped to inspire popular insurrection; both failed. Although anarchists referred to their violent actions as "propaganda by deed," acts such as blowing up cafés or opera houses were really far more successful propaganda against anarchism than for it. Similarly, there is scant evidence that even the spectacularly destructive strike of 9/11 did much to help Al Qaeda recruit smart, useful, self-destructive folk willing to wage constant war on the decadent West. Suicide attacks in the name of jihad are only about 30 years old; they arose from modern circumstances and could disappear as those circumstances change.

To the powers of the time, the anarchist threat was not to be downplayed or doubted. After the anarchist-linked Leon Czolgosz assassinated U.S. President William McKinley, McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, issued a pronouncement that presaged George W. Bush's rhetoric about the post-9/11 threat of radical Islam: "When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance." Collaborations of national secret police agencies created an ad hoc global force to fight the nonexistent global anarchist conspiracy, and the very advocacy of anarchist ideas was outlawed in most of the West. 

As history has shown, Roosevelt was wrong about the significance of the anarchist threat. So was George W. Bush when he used the jihadist threat as an excuse for policies that may have done far more to damage America and elsewhere than they did to prevent attacks.

The legacy of the secret police war against anarchists is ongoing and ugly. Both the CIA and the KGB learned from the techniques of the Okhrana, and the authorities today still cling to the notion that policing terror sometimes means encouraging it. Many of the alleged terrorists captured over the past several years were influenced, and in some cases provided materials by, police informants, including the Miami Seven, the accused Rockford, Illinois, shopping mall bomber Derrick Shareef, and Sami Samir Hassoun, who was charged with conspiring to bomb a nightclub near a Dave Matthews concert in Chicago. 

Likewise, Butterworth concludes from his scattered documentary record that provocateurs were close to the planning and/or financing of many headline-making anarchist bomb plots, and that the staff of the British radical magazine Commonweal may have consisted entirely of informants, unbeknownst to each other. (Even today, with unprecedented access to police files, Butterworth is often unsure who was reporting back to the cops.) The French grande dame of anarchy, Louise Michel, once joked, "We love to have [agents provocateurs] in the party, because they always propose the most revolutionary motions." In his fanciful 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday, inspired by the milieu of anarcho-skullduggery that Butterworth chronicles, G.K. Chesterton describes a convocation of anarchist conspirators in which all of the plotters turn out to be cops sent to infiltrate the group.

Anarchists may have been relatively effective at decapitating power, but they were not a mortal threat to Western civilization, and neither are the Islamists. They do not warrant the suppression of civil liberties or the huge cost, in lives and money, of the wars waged by Bush and Barack Obama.

Cracking down on supposed terror threats, whether through mass arrests in the late 19th century or drone air attacks in the 21st, can create martyrs and encourage counterattacks. Many acts of anarchist terror were explicitly conceived to avenge comrades caught and killed or brutalized by Western governments. Sometimes the blowback is more long term, harder to predict, and more terrifying. The 1887 hanging of Alexander Ulyanov, a member of the Russian terror group People's Will, inspired his younger brother to become the revolutionary known as Lenin.

Butterworth's most important lesson for our current war on terror is buried in the middle of the book. Discussing the British police reaction to a bombing campaign—this one not by anarchists but by Irish nationalists—he comments that "the threat may have been smaller than those responsible for its policing liked to maintain." That haunting thought should help guide American voters and politicians as they consider the future of the Second War on International Terror. 

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).