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The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents

3.41  ·  Rating Details ·  229 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
In the late nineteenth century, nations the world over were mired in economic recession and beset by social unrest, their leaders increasingly threatened by acts of terrorism and assassination from anarchist extremists.
In this riveting history of that tumultuous period, Alex Butterworth follows the rise of these revolutionaries from the failed Paris Commune of 1871 to the
Paperback, 544 pages
Published August 9th 2011 by Vintage (first published 2010)
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Aug 17, 2011 Tim rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Giving up on this one after slogging through a little over half of it. Might come back to it at some point but it's been frustrating me for so long now that I feel I have to move onto something else or I'll go mad.

It's a shame, really, since I feel like it fills a niche in the literature on anarchist history that confoundingly has never quite been filled. This is the only book I know of to focus specifically on 19th century anarchist terrorism. On top of that, it manages to tell the story of the
Jul 02, 2011 Broadsnark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recommended
This book was a monumental undertaking. It can be hard to follow. There seem to be almost as many characters as in War and Peace. I mean it covers everyone from Marx to Kropotkin to Michel and then throws in Wyatt Earp and Jack the Ripper for good measure. But it is a very well researched look at the political and historical context in which anarchism formed. I'm amazed by how we are still dealing with the same inner conflicts and difficult personalities. Definitely recommended. Tho you will hav ...more
Justin Evans
Butterworth chose a great time for this work (roughly, Kropotkin's active years), and there's a fabulous story to be told about it, but this book isn't quite it. On the upside, his research is mind-boggling, and my life is substantially richer now that I know about the fabulous Gabriel Jogan-Pages, aka Leo Taxil, who, e.g., managed to convince the military governor of Marseilles to hunt down an imaginary school of killer sharks, and convinced much of the world that the Freemasons worshiped devil ...more
Kate  K. F.
Oct 13, 2012 Kate K. F. rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
I wanted to like this book. I was hoping to find it a look into the complex lives and thoughts of people trying to change the world in the 19th century. Instead I found it dense, boring and incredibly hard to follow. I made it through a couple of early chapters before putting it down and never picking it up again.

The author's introduction made me hopeful that the story would be one that hadn't been told before and that would be full of rich stories from the primary sources. Their enthusiasm was
Neil Powell
Mar 07, 2011 Neil Powell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An enthralling, complicated, intriguing, confusing and ultimately rewarding read. The shear volume of information, characters, espionage and idealistic rhetoric were at times mind blowing, and I'll admit that 150 pages in I was struggling to cope. But I'm very glad I persevered, as it was well worth finishing. At times, the plot twists and turns like a fictional spy thriller: you'd think it hard to believe that characters Peter Rachkovsky, Errico Malatesta, Louise Michel and Peter Kropotkin were ...more
If you can get past some of the overburdened language and the massive cast of characters, this is a great book for tying together the personalities and sects of the radical left after fall of the Paris commune to the rise of Soviet communism. From Russian nihilists, French, Spanish, American and German anarchists, socialists and communists as well as the state organizations and personalities that tracked, tricked and, when it played to their advantage, egged them on. This is one of those books t ...more
Sep 29, 2013 nick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A book about anarchism," this ought to be interesting," I thought when I picked up this book. Now that I have finished it,I must admit i was right but it is only because of my determination and discipline that I am able to say so. A large part of this book is a highly discriptive book, it introduces at least 40 different persons who were somehow connected to anarchism or the police/ secret agents fighting against anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th century. But do not think these are short ...more
jesse lewis
Jan 27, 2017 jesse lewis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating look at the Paris Commune and anarchism.
Dec 28, 2014 Mickey rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow - it took a year and not a half but I finished it. Like reading a 450 page version of Deuteronomy. Alex Butterworth definitely needs a cowriter or a better editor. With six-syllable name following six-syllable name it's harder to follow than an Old Testament genealogy. And with an interplay of characters like Seliverstoff, Savinkov, Sergeyev (who was actually a Russian mole with the real name of Aleksander Evalenko), and Stepniak (a successful assassin who fought in Turkey and Italy before f ...more
This book attempts to tell the story of the inner machinations of the late 19th/early 20th century murky world of anarchists like Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman etc, through using the approach more common to that used by a novelist to tell a story.

Initially this is innovative enough a design to make the read worthwhile but soon enough it soon becomes frustrating, partly because of the inaccessibility of the text and partly because of the annoying way in which it's printed. Page
Marc Nash
A great depth of research on show in a kind of who's who of European anarchism between the Paris Commune and the outbreak of the First World War but somehow an opportunity missed. For a start ending at the War means there is no mention of anarchist collectives in Free Territory Ukraine during the Russian Revolutionary upheaval, but those ideas must have been fermenting, they didn't magically appear in 1917, yet there is no treatment of them at all. Nor do Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, key ...more
Dec 18, 2011 Scott rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an impressive book that anyone interested in anarchist history would find a worthwhile read.

As others have noted, one of the biggest problems is that it is a huge story involving hundreds of individuals, making it very difficult to keep track of things. The book could certainly have benefited from a glossary of individuals, allowing for easy reference when an unfamiliar name comes up. Along with the myriad of individuals, the book jumps around a lot, making it hard to follow. Finally, w
Holly Cruise
Mar 26, 2013 Holly Cruise rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The grandiose, almost filmic, quality of the book's title is a clue to its style. The history of the anarchists is presented as an adventure, crisscrossing Europe and America, with the dreamers and their governmental nemeses striking out at each other. There are some great stories in here, and Butterworth manages to make the parallels drawn with today's political situations come across as considered rather than trite, a lightness of touch which serves the book well.

There is a big cast of names,
Jason Reeser
Jun 30, 2010 Jason Reeser rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I must admit this book was not particularly well written, but I'll have to explain. The text is very thick, and the author doesn't do much to make it easy to get through. There are so many different names/characters and historical incidences tossed around that it was difficult to follow. I get the feeling I was supposed to have taken a class in 20th century European history before reading this.
However, and that's a big however, I gave this book 4 stars, and for good reason. The book, as a whole,
The American Conservative
'Alex Butterworth claims that his book examines various revolutionaries and radicals in the period between the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, all with the purpose of showing how they were so very like the terrorists of today. It is based on his feeling, looking back on the 19th century, “that the intervening century has somehow folded back upon itself” and that the “secret clockwork of intrigue and manipulation to protect the status quo” that operated back then is like ...more
Susan Beetlestone
Apr 16, 2012 Susan Beetlestone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Okay, this book was hard work, with a vast cast of characters to remember, and it did help to have some knowledge of the subject already, but I found it very rewarding. My knowledge of the Paris Commune was greatly extended, and though I knew something already about the Russian and British anarchists and the activities of the Okhrana, I learned a great deal more from this book. There were so many stories that were almost too ridiculous to be true, but they were true. The whole is a story of oppo ...more
Aug 20, 2012 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating tale of anarchism, ideals and treachery from 1870-1920. At times the list of characters threatens to engulf the narrative despite the handy list of main players at the front of the book.

The persecution of the downtrodden masses by capitalism and autocracy sometimes makes you weep with the wretched sadness of the times and makes the acts of desperate violence seem understandable.

Finishing the book I have a better understanding of and a certain admiration of such key figures as Louis
An interesting book - my first on the history of the anarchist movement. The story is full of really interesting characters that I had never heard of (but after I had read about them, I felt that I should have.) The author is very good at navigating through anarchist theory, contextualizing it within socialist/communist thought in the 19th Century and why this was important to history. My main complaint is that there are just simply too many characters to keep track of. A "dramatis personae" wou ...more
Sep 30, 2010 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While it's definitely an interesting book, overall it never quite seems to come together for me. It seems to assume a greater familiarity with events from the period than I have, and casts its net so wide in terms of players and events, that the throughline of the book never becomes especially clear. The connections are all there, but for me they were swamped in so many other details it was difficult to keep up.
Bill Murphy
This was frustrating and fascinating in equal measures. A very well researched tale of a turbulent time with a huge array of different protagonists. However for many sections of the book it was just too much of a slog, getting bogged down in a bit too much detail. If you have a historical interest in this era then it's an informative read, but otherwise be prepared to struggle through it.
Jul 06, 2014 Rachel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is very informative and a great history of anarchism. I don't regret reading it and feel the better for reading "The World That Never Was." That being said, it's dense and maybe not the best choice for a light read. But hey, if you like history, try it! (Although maybe not if you're doing the Goodreads book challenge.)
Sep 23, 2010 Joanna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The relationships between the various anarchists and agents get convoluted pretty fast, and the sheer number of people covered makes it hard to keep track of everyone. But still, a reasonably readable look into a tumultuous period that I didn't know much about.
Eric Mccutcheon
Ugh. Really, really dense account of an interesting time in history. The author totally missed the mark by including so much minutiae about so many different figures. It would have been way more readable by focusing on three of the main figures and weaving the story through them, in my opinion.
Mar 20, 2011 Johannes05 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
so far a really interesting book on a todays often forgotten anarchist terror at the end of the 19th century.
Johanna Haagsman
Feb 13, 2015 Johanna Haagsman rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Had er iets anders van verwacht. Wat, dat weet ik niet. Maar niet dit. Vond het tegenvallen daarom, maar het is vast goed. Niet uitgelezen dus.
Apr 29, 2014 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Exciting and fascinating book... so much detail it can be confusing keeping up with the individuals in the different stories.... looks like it was well researched.
Mar 23, 2013 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazing story of the various threads of anarchist thought and personalities at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century in Europe.
Long Williams
Wow! Quite a slog. Lots of characters and info to digest. Not hard to see where union thuggery originated.
Collin Case
Jul 12, 2013 Collin Case rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love the era. Love the content. But god damn, this was a tough thing to get through! Very, very large in scope, too. So bust out your heavy-reading pantaloons if you're starting this.
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