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

3.44  ·  Rating details ·  295 ratings  ·  54 reviews
A thrilling history of the rise of anarchism, told through the stories of a number of prominent revolutionaries and the agents of the secret police who pursued them.
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 e
Hardcover, 528 pages
Published June 15th 2010 by Pantheon
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Aug 17, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 th
Justin Evans
May 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-etc
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
Jul 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
If you are looking for an easy "beach" read this is not the book for you. A lot of the people in this book, I had never heard of before. Reading their stories was enjoyable. I liked it
Neil Powell
Mar 07, 2011 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
Dec 31, 2019 rated it liked it
Unfortunately I could not finish the book. I really did try, however continuing on would have been a waste of my time because I could not keep the characters straight. There simply was too much going on in short spaces and blocks of time. While the Author is undoubtedly well versed with the ins and outside of late 1800 world affairs, I apologize for not having the memory or processing power to drive on to the finish!
Sep 29, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Marc Nash
Jun 25, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Kate  K. F.
Oct 13, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Dec 04, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Falynn - the TyGrammarSaurus Rex
Very rarely do I give up on a book. However, having taken two months to battle through 14 of this book's 25 chapters, I have reached the end of my endurance.
I really wanted to like it. The premise behind it is fantastic; tales of the anarchists of 19th century Europe from an impartial perspective. But it tries too hard to cover too much ground.
There are nuggets of gold in here, but they are compressed down to a mere line or two, massively out weighed by pages and pages of names and people's trav
Heather Jones
Mar 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
This book is so thoroughly researched that I think it'll probably be an invaluable resource for someone with the right kind of interest in and prior knowledge of the subject.

For me, though, it didn't work. I emerged at the other end of this long, dense work not much wiser than I was when I began it, with a lot of names and events, but very little sense of contexts and reasons. I think the author was assuming a LOT more prior knowledge than I actually had, and prioritizing getting every detail in
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A long and very detailed read, on reflection probably not worth the time invested though.

The writing style is quite academic and just not very enjoyable. Must have taken a huge amount of research but the end result is just to be swamped with detail upon detail There was (is) a great story waiting to escape the mire.

Was also very surprised to see no mention whatsoever of Rudolph Rocker who to my understanding was an integral figure in the early 1900s.

Leah Alexandra
May 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: dnf, history
DNF at 70%

Maybe I’ll come back to this one day. I was really stoked about the topic but the writing is a chore to slog through. I was zoning out for such long stretches that I didn’t see the point in continuing .
Jun 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good overview of European radical history in late 19th C Europe, intertwined with tales of the police and spies who tried to stop them.
Rudy van der Hoeven
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed it tremendously Easy read because one can read each chapter on its own
More fun when you have Google ready to get more details
Feb 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Far more accessible than many of the reviews here would lead you to believe.
Dec 28, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Mar 19, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, politics, anarchy
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
Dec 18, 2011 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 rated it liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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,
Susan Beetlestone
Apr 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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
Aug 20, 2012 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
May 04, 2012 rated it liked it
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 rated it liked it
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
May 29, 2013 rated it liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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.)
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