08 April 2010

Romantics, patriots and revolutionaries

The Review section of The Australian Financial Review, Thursday 1 April-Monday 5 April 2010, has a review, under the title Anarchists and dreamers, by John Gray, the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer, of the book The World That Never Was: a True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth, published by Bodley Head (read the article on the New Statesman’s website here).

Butterworth’s book deals specifically with the anarchist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. The opening paragraphs of Gray’s review map out the ground:

The problem faced by those who want to build a new future for humanity is that they have to start in the flawed world that exists at present.  Revolutionaries cannot help being compromised by the power structures they aim to overthrow. If they are to pose a challenge to the prevailing order, they need to protect themselves against repression and subversion by the state. When they organise to defend themselves, they soon come to resemble the state in secrecy and ruthlessness. The revolutionaries’ dilemma is clear: either they remain high-mindedly pure and impotent, or they end up as repressive as the regime they are fighting.

Nothing illustrates this quandary more clearly than the anarchist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century ...

I have not yet had an opportunity to get hold of the book, but it sounds like a compelling read.

For those with an interest in this general subject matter, required reading is Adam Zamoyski’s Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871, first published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999The blurb on the back of my Phoenix Press 2001 paperback edition provides about as adequate an overview of the subject matter as I could muster in a finite time:

The Enlightenment has dislodged Christianity from its central position in the life of European societies. Man’s quest for ecstasy and transcendence flooded into areas such as the arts, spawning the Romantic movement.  By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century this secular quest for salvation gave rise to a widespread desire for ideal communities.

Adam Zamoyski traces how worship and dedication originally channelled through the church was refocused on the cause of people and the nation.  This dramatic journey begins in America in 1776 and goes right up to the last agony of the Paris Commune in 1871, taking in the French revolution, the Irish rebellion, the Polish risings, the war of Greek liberation, the Russian insurrection, Hungarian struggles for freedom, the liberation of South America and the Italian Risorgimento.

On a vast canvas, Adam Zamoyski combines an exhilarating voyage through these spectacular event with illuminating portraits of key players – Lafayette, Garibaldi, Lamartine,Kossuth, Mazzini, Napoleon, Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Coleridge, Byron, Rousseau and Bolivar.

Not only all that and more, but eminently readable to boot, and with some wonderful photographs depicting the iconography of the revolutionaries, and its descent from religious art.

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