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

A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents

By Alex Butterworth

Pantheon, 9780375425110, 528pp.

Publication Date: June 15, 2010



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 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 1905 Russian Revolution and beyond. Through the interwoven stories of several key anarchists and the secret police who tracked and manipulated them, Butterworth explores how the anarchists were led to increasingly desperate acts of terrorism and murder.
Rich in anecdote and with a fascinating array of supporting characters, The World That Never Was is a masterly exploration of the strange twists and turns of history, taking readers on a journey that spans five continents, from the capitals of Europe to a South Pacific penal colony to the heartland of America. It tells the story of a generation that saw its utopian dreams crumble into dangerous desperation and offers a revelatory portrait of an era with uncanny echoes of our own.

About the Author

ALEX BUTTERWORTH is a historian and dramatist whose first book, "Pompeii: The Living City," won the Longman-History Today New Generation Book of the Year Award in 2006. He lives in Oxford, England.

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

“Vivid . . . In its thorough, compelling examination of anarchism, The World That Never Was is not a chronicle of isolated violent acts committed by deranged individuals. Rather, it convincingly portrays anarchism as the product of an inexorable human impulse. And it leads one to ask if anarchism might again (or, perhaps, still) be lurking at the fringes of society.”
—John Smolens, The Washington Post

“Stocked with vivid characters. . . . Butterworth shows how political violence committed by disorganized cells of anarchists, socialists, and nihilists fuelled fears of an international conspiracy and justified reactionary crackdowns. . . . [He] brings these figures to life without romanticizing their followers, who claimed the lives of a Russian tsar, an American president, and, most consequential, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”
The New Yorker

“Stimulating, provocative . . . Butterworth’s deeply knowledgeable, exceedingly well-written text does not airbrush the weakness inherent in anarchism’s belief that a perfect society could arise only from mutual cooperation among enlightened individuals free of constraining hierarchies. Our knowledge of the terrible history of trying to create utopias by coercive means helps us share the author’s empathy for the anarchists’ desperate insistence on the primacy of individual conscience and liberty. Our knowledge of the polarizing political consequences of unfettered individualism and rote invocation of the word ‘liberty’ may help us judge more gently anarchism’s destructive romance with violence, chronicled here with such intelligence and moral clarity.”
—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
“Fascinating . . . A historical pot-boiler . . . Butterworth charts the odyssey of these European revolutionaries as they fought to build a new society, and the furious maneuvers by security services to thwart them.”
—Matthew Price, The Boston Globe

"Chillingly familiar . . . As the author of a political history, Butterworth strikes a rare balance; he doesn’t flinch from moral judgment, but he’s not about to succumb to the propagandizing instinct himself by glossing over the radicals’ many flaws and impracticalities. He has also mastered a staggering amount of material . . . The World That Never Was has much of value to impart, from the understanding that today’s radicals may be tomorrow’s sensible visionaries to the unanticipated perils of both terrorism and counterterrorism."
—Laura Miller, Salon

"A timely tale of a vicious cycle in which violence begets violence—and innocence, idealism and justice are the victims . . . [Butterworth] brings to life the social and intellectual ferment of the late 19th century."
—Glenn C. Altschuler, Kansas City Star

"Painstakingly researched . . . Butterworth charts this tangled terrain with authority and rigor . . . [His] tale crosses paths with most of the era’s most important figures, from monarchs to literary giants, while presenting some of the fascinating characters in the anarchist movement. Many of the latter couldn’t have been dreamed up by the most inventive novelist."
—Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Gripping and unsettling . . . A first-rate addition to the growing list of books dealing with terrorism’s origins and history . . . Delivering a virtuoso performance, Butterworth adds the hope that history will not repeat itself and that a successful new bloody ideology will not create the next scourge.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Reports that al-Qaeda operatives were studying Bakunin have encouraged journalists to explain twenty-first-century Jihadists by quoting nineteenth-century anarchists. Butterworth fears that ignorance of anarchist principles often makes these explanations misleading. And it is genuine understanding of this forgotten tradition that he here offers . . . Butterworth urges his readers to recognize the alarming contemporary parallels. A narrative taut with intrigue and freighted with contemporary significance.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“An amazing book full of incredible people, all of whom turn out to be real, and unbelievable stories, all of which turn out be true. Against a backdrop of late nineteenth century Europe and America . . . Butterworth brilliantly teases out the paths and plots of the dedicated revolutionaries, deadly dilettantes, spies, informants, agents provocateurs, false counts and femmes fatales who made up the international anarchist movement, and its enemies. A genuine tour de force.”
—David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

"Alex Butterworth’s exhilarating book is a headlong gallop through the history of anarchism from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Russian revolution in 1917. Almost any paragraph packs more action than an entire Dan Brown novel, though one suspects that even he might reject many of the incidents and characters as too outrageous to be credible . . . The globe-girdling energy of these itinerant schemers is dizzying."
—Francis Wheen, Financial Times

"Alex Butterworth writes lucidly, in fine detail, seeking answers that must sometimes prove elusive  . . . He has to try to separate the bad from the true believers, to put the terror of decades into a frame of understanding that even those in the thick of it couldn't always discern. He can't escape the resonances of our post-9/11 world, but he has to set the reader free to think for himself. It's a formidable task, formidably (and entertainingly) accomplished."
—Peter Preston, The Observer

"In a lengthy and well-nuanced study of [the] period Butterworth presents an intelligent political and social overview of violent democracies reacting to perceived external threats and creating internal instabilities."
—Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)

"The World That Never Was conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache . . . Butterworth has created an impressive work which will captivate those unfamiliar with anarchist history and teach even specialists much that they did not know before."
—Sheila Rowbotham, The Independent (London)

"Butterworth, in this wide-ranging account of nineteenth century anarchist activity, does justice to both sides of the picture—the glowing ideal, its shady enactment . . . His ingenious narrative is not a line but net . . . a net slung from the starting point of the Paris Commune to the end point of the Bolshevik Revolution."
—Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Sunday Telegraph "Book of the Week" (London)

"Exceptionally astute . . . One of the most absorbing depictions of the dark underside of radical politics in many years . . . Butterworth has opted to present the anarchists in a mode that emphasises narrative over analysis. The result is a riveting account, teeming with intrigue and adventure and packed with the most astonishing characters."
New Statesman

"In this rich and passionate account of the world’s first international terrorist campaign . . . the disquieting echoes of our times are impossible to ignore . . . Underpinned by impressive research and a genuine argument . . . this is a thrilling and important book—not least for its unmasking of the forces of reaction."
The Sunday Times (London)

“Intriguing, provocative and written with a novelist’s eye for detail, this book is an engrossing journey into a murky subterranean world—the dark underbelly of the Belle Époque.” —BBC History Magazine