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The World That Never Was: A True Story of…

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists,…

by Alex Butterworth

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166671,708 (3.13)4
  1. 00
    1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: The one almost serves as the sequel to the other. Panoramic picture of a tumultuous time and the people who fought for and against it.
  2. 00
    The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Fictional encounter between Dostoevsky and Russian anarchist

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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 devils and sacrificed human beings. The general thrust of the book is to show how many wonderful characters emerged from the 1871 Commune, or from interactions with communards on the one hand, and, on the other, how anti-terrorist bodies fairly quickly turned into terrorist bodies all in the interests of catching terrorists. That's all reasonable.

Unfortunately, there are far too many kettles on the stove-top; Butterworth, like many non-professional historians, is more concerned with cramming more stuff in than selecting the most relevant bits and pieces, and, still worse, his prose style is very, very, very poorly suited to a story involving dozens of people flung across the globe. It's entirely up to the reader to work out which events were the important ones, which sounds wonderful, but is actually like trying to choose a good meal from a menu on which there's only names and no description of the food. It's just impossible.

Five stars for the choice of topic and the asides and digressions; two stars for the execution. Well worth reading, though you might need to skim sections. Or even whole chapters.*

*: please, please, please, historians, give your chapters real names so your reader knows what the topic is before they get half way through. No more clever quotes as chapter titles, I beg you. ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Lots of great information, context, and stories here. I wasn't reading for academic reasons though, so I had to develop a way to skim past some of the overwhelming detail. I never gave up though and I learned a lot for it. Would recommend if you're really interested in the subject. ( )
  pdesjardins | Sep 5, 2013 |
Oh my wishlist just keeps getting longer and longer. ;0
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Haven't you started to hate how often authors of history connect 9/11 and its aftermath to their own subject, no matter what that subject matter is? Well, here's an instance in which the comparison may actually be merited. The book tells two parallel stories through a half-dozen or so interweaving threads: the aspirations of anarchist revolutionaries and the machinations of the secret police. There certainly were violent anarchists. That's plainly evident. In Buttewrworth's book, however, it is revealed how the agents of the secret police throughout Europe actually sought to incite that violence, how they actually came to depend upon it as their raison d'etre. Seeking expanded powers to pursue the terrorists it was necessary to make them worse, hence the implementation of agent provocateurs. An actual threat was utilized as a tool to consolidate power through fear.

It is undoubtedly a fascinating story. As to how successful was Butterworth in telling it, that is harder to say. I think he perhaps took on too much. He tried to encapsulate too large a span of time and told through the experiences of too many protagonists. The comment of another reviewer ("I kept getting my Russians confused") encapsulates the problem quite well. He tried to tell the story in an almost novelistic form, and it doesn't quite work. The personalities of the main players aren't well-enough fleshed-out to make them relatable or even memorable. Pared down to a more intimate scale, focusing on a smaller number of people and over a shorter length of time, it might have been much more readable. As a novel, with surprisingly little artistic license, it could have been a truly great historical-fiction political-thriller.
  CGlanovsky | Nov 10, 2012 |
A familiar tenet posits the development of two divergent streams of political radicalism (each with its leading figurehead) in response to the reactionary retrenchment of Church and Monarchy in Europe after the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. The simple picture presents the anti-authoritarianism of Mikhail Bakunin in conflict with the revolutionary Communism of Karl Marx. Plenty has been written on Marx, Lenin, and the Russian Revolution, but Butterworth’s book is an attempt to fill in the spaces between Bakunin and fin de siècle anarchism in its various forms.

The rise and fall of the anti-statist Paris Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War created a generation of political émigrés and fostered the development of radical communities in nearly all the capitals of Europe. Butterworth’s narrative recounts the exploits of the anarchists and socialists determined to bring about revolution, but also delves deep into the official response to radicalism. Following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the Okhrana (the Russian state’s secret anti-subversive agency) took the lead in coordinating the efforts of Russian, German, French and (usually reluctantly) British authorities.

Butterworth presents the leading lights among the Communards as idealists moved by hope and courage, intent on creating a more just, more nurturing world. Over time, the combination of dislocation and determination led to divisions among anarchists, conceived broadly in terms of associationists v. individualists. Some romanticized the rambunctious energy of working class neighborhoods, seeing militant trade unionism as the vehicle to advance the ideas of social revolution (“Agitate! Educate! Organize!”). For others, social revolution was about the imagination, and the capacity to inhabit a better world of spiritual and artistic fulfillment. Along those lines, Butterworth discusses the radical underpinnings and symbolism behind Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and the stylings of Art Nouveau, and the influence of anarchist thought on the works of J.K. Huysman, Ford Maddox Ford, and Joseph Conrad. Bakunin’s fellow countryman Peter Kropotkin, in Fields Factories & Workshops, explained how technology could provide for the basic needs of human existence, freeing men and women to lead richer, more satisfying lives. But, writes Butterworth, such a paradise premised on an optimistic view of human nature appeared increasingly fanciful in the face of the brute realities of industrial capitalism.

History often makes the turn to violence by initially idealistic social movements seem almost inevitable. Butterworth suggests, however, that government security forces had a hand in fostering the escalation of assassinations and bombings that came to define anarchism in the last decades of the 19th century. ‘Propaganda by the deed’ was to be the proverbial spark that ignited the cleansing conflagration, but distinguishing violent anarchism from black ops intended to stoke the fires of mistrust and resentment among would-be revolutionaries becomes difficult in hindsight. Agents provocateur of the Okhrana in particular became skillful in fomenting then propagandizing against violence. The ratcheting of repression in the wake of strikes and bombings led to retaliatory assaults and assassinations that seemed to confirm fears of a radical international conspiracy, and played into the authorities’ strategy to make anarchism and terrorism synonymous. According to Butterworth, manufacturing danger and manipulating public opinion (“perception management”) became the spymaster’s stock in trade.

Butterworth synthesizes a vast amount of information (drawn from personal letters, memoirs, manifestos and broadsides, roman à clef novels and recently declassified official reports), and there are some intriguing episodes and personalities chronicled in clear journalistic prose. It’s a worthwhile read if one is not in a hurry. Alas, ‘tis a fine line between "thorough" and "over-full": details accumulate, dozens of names fly in and out of the narrative, and there are detours through utopian farming communes in the U.S. and the mysteries of Jack the Ripper and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The drawing of conclusions is left mostly to the reader. What makes the study of political radicalism (and anarchism especially) fascinating is a series of open questions: Is revolution still possible? How and why does the challenge to authoritarianism slip into nihilism, or the creation of new forms of oppression? How do we balance the needs and wishes of the individual with the social good? Hell if I know.
  HectorSwell | May 19, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037542511X, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:53 -0400)

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"The World That Never Was" is a thrilling history of the rise of anarchism, told through the stories of several violent revolutionaries and the secret police who pursued them.

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