on 8 May 2010
This really is a ridiculously enjoyable and interesting book, somehow keeping the narrative going across innumerable conspiratorial cells from St Petersburg to London, the whole thing a mass of infernal devices, inflammatory public meetings, agents provocateurs, garottes and black propaganda. Butterworth does an excellent job of balancing events and ideology and his own struggle between fascination and disgust with his subject makes the whole book far far more than a mere recitation of outrages of yesteryear. The book is almost better on the police than on the anarchists, with great material on the disastrous role of police double agents of the kind dramatized in Under Western Eyes. The Russian Revolution has retrospectively swept away pre-1914 anarchism and made it appear a futile dead-end, with Marx's descendants rather than Kropotkin's inheriting history - but most of the heavy-lifting from 1870 onwards was done by the anarchists, who spent decades spectacularly taking out a lot random members of the ruling class, albeit on the whole to little substantive effect. The author must have worked his way heroically through a lot of borderline repetitive anarchist pamphlets and minutes to meetings and it is a tribute to his labours that he successfully shields the reader from much of the day-to-day tedium of anarchist life. It is tempting in a review like this to talk about some of the many fun details he throws in (there really are some extraordinary cast members) but it would be a disservice to the reader, who should be allowed the full sense of surprise lurking in each chapter of this terrific book.
on 24 October 2011
First of all I'd like to say that all my expectations of this book have come true. It depicts a view of the 1800s and early 1900s that has been overlooked in popular culture for a long time. No wild west cowboys and victorian 'Sherlock Holmes', goverment 'sponsored' wars and political preaching, but a society that wanted and needed change and people who would do anything to achieve it. Surprinsingly, the way this book is written allows the reader to follow many characters across their adventures and misfortunes across the globe while keeping a eye on related events that occur at the same time in locations far away from each other. It's not an academic account full of names and dates but a thoroughly researched story that shows the facts and exposes questions when those facts cannot be confirmed, leaving the reader with plenty of room to form an opinion. Very enjoyable and interesting. It will change the view of many readers on authority-driven goverments and institutions and revolutionary ideas that fit with actual global situations as they did over a hundred years ago. It reads like a spy story with the chilling aftertaste of the true horrors that men are capable of. Higly recomended.
on 29 March 2010
This book, which must be the definitive account of the nineteenth century anarchist movement, provides meticulous detail of the events and intrigues of the movement in Europe and North America. The depth of detail and the clarity of analysis make this work a triumph of research and synthesis. Amateur enthusiasts of politics, journalists and all history students will find this a monumental store of insights and disambiguation.
Personally, as general reader I was propelled along through almost dizzying circus of event and characters as a sequence of deceptions, misconceptions and provocations follow one another as agents and their controllers manipulate and incite the hot-headed idealists. But I needed to keep on reading to find out more about just why and how society's utopian initiatives get scuppered from within and without...
At the core of the story are the chiefs of the secret police services such as the Russian Colonel Steiber whose fathomless intrigues spanning decades will never be fully unravelled but there is no doubt that many terrorist outrages and key conspirators were directly connected to him.
Perhaps you will find the overall effect upsetting or depressing as time and time again brave idealists get misled or lose their way or are simply crushed. Is this book a counsel of despair for radicals? Maybe future radicals just need to become way more savvy as to the extent of provocation and duplicity practised by the incumbent powers if things are ever to be changed? Or maybe human nature really is too selfish and base for anti-authoritarian revolution?
on 10 March 2010
A gripping tale told well which never patronises nor proselytizes. It makes no overt attempt to but does provoke thought about contemporary freedoms and the place of lawlessness in any overbearing social order.
The subject was alien territory for me so the introduction and prologue seemed heavy going as the author compacted plenty of thought and fact into powerful sentences. Thereafter the sentence structure opened and it was a pleasurable downhill romp until in the final chapter one hits the Bolsheviks and one knows that the end of the story is idealism hijacked.
Butterworth engages one with the interlocking historical characters wrestling with the moral and practical challenges of effecting change. Their conflicting passions, vanities and altruism are depicted en passant as pawn takes pawn.
There are some interesting illustrations which leave one searching for more.
on 7 March 2014
This is a big book...it needs to be because the subject matter is huge, and the author covers it intimately and in great detail...One is, from the outset, conveyed into the idealistic lifestyle of the early anarchists, and carried into a world where the establishment reactions have changed, if not corrupted the hopes and dreams of many...from Communard to Dynamitard as it were.
It would be a sad world without idealists, radicals and reformers...and yet the establishment demands stability - it is only in the push and shove, disturbing the uneasy balance between those aspirations, that there lies the hope of progress...if nothing else, the fate of the dreamers of the 19th century, masterfully narrated in this book, illustrates vividly why the radicals of the 20th and 21st century have shed much of their naivety and wised up.
Great read...highly recommended.
on 27 July 2010
This effort from Butterworth is quintessential to anyone interested in the Late Victorian Period of London, England and indeed Europe. What really went on, in and around the East End of London in particular, and the multi-involvement of the police spy network, is a marvel to read about. The best thing about it is that it is all true. The World That Never Was is a book that I could not recommend more highly. Butterworth has really hit the nail on the head with this mammoth book, in more ways than one. The research is impeccable. It opens up a miriad of possibilities to understand why the police acted the way they did, and how the build-up towards the Russian revolution, the First World War and the eventual conflict in Ireland, had firm bases of the seeds sown. Theses things are easily seen, amongst much much more. Totally brilliant, and historically thought provoking.
on 8 September 2012
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 Louise Michel, Kropotkin, Malatesta and Reclus..... and a shuddering horror of the arch spider-manipulator Rachovsky.
on 20 September 2010
An exceedingly well-written account of many of the revolutionaries of Europe (and North America, in part) during the late 19thC and early 20thC. The "usual suspects", such as Bakunin, Nechayev, Ulyanov, Marx and Kropotkin (perhaps the one who, with Marx, was the most intellectually significant and whose influence continues) are noted and explored.
The links between different kinds of revolutionary dreamers are explored.
The book is quite long but is a fairly compelling read for the most part. I should have liked more on the ideological differences and on the programmes advanced, particularly by the anarchists. Kropotkin's book, Mutual Aid, is still very undervalued and, compared to the works of other "dreamers" and particularly Marx, all but unknown to the public as a whole.
Kropotkin developed his ideas as an antidote to "social Darwinism". The latter view is still widely in vogue, not least in the contemporary Conservative Party in the UK; and in the USA even more widely accepted. Yet the "survival of the fittest" is only one side of both the natural/animal and human /social worlds. Kropotkin's politico-social views grew out of his observation of mutual aid or symbiosis among animals and generally in Nature. Rudolf Steiner commented on Kropotkin once or twice, noting this fact about his work. I should like to have seen more, or at least something, on this.
Also, I did not see, perhaps missed it, that Kropotkin had a very "respectable" persona in London, where he was a Governor of Bromley High School For Girls, part of (now) the Girls' Public Day School Trust. I suppose the suburban people were snobbish enough to thhink that "he must be all right, a prince..." (lol.
One aspect I did find especially interesting and which (despite having studied Russian and Soviet history since the age of 21) was fairly new to me is exactly how brutal and cruel the conditions of captivity were in Tsarist Russia, at least for many. I was familiar with the Soviet experience (which of course was visited on far more people, numerically) but I was enlightened as to the equivalent in Tsarist times by this book. Appalling, the difference between the Soviet and pre-Soviet versions mainly quantitative, though at the same time it can be noted that the more bourgois revolutionary prisoners, like the later Lenin, were not so badly treated as the anti-Soviet ones were later yet.
A good book, well worth reading by those interested in european revolutionary politics.
on 17 April 2012
This book is fantastic and disconcerting! It traces the relationships within the radical Left of Europe and USA and between the State and the Left between about 1870 and WWI. If you want to know more about how the State has constantly sought to undermine Working Class efforts to improve their situation, discredit the revolutionary left and present itself as a protector of the nation (for its own benefit) then buy this book!
on 27 March 2010
This book is a marvelous combination of historical research and shaggy dog story. Sometimes it is baffling and murky, but the story, of the anarchist movement from the 1870s on, is itself very often murky and baffling. Butterworth goes a long way towards showing the reader that the further you go the less clear the picture can become, and I would certainly say that the style of the book - narrative rather than analytical, celebrating the spinners of yarns rather than seeking to expose them - suits the subject matter very well: it is a book full of the fantastical and the thrilling, well supported by careful research, sometimes reading more like a novel than history, but with a proper reason for doing so.
But for all the intrigue and fabrication that seem to surround the book's band of renegade princes, Parisian revolutionaries, angry scientists and would-be poets, not to mention the police and informers who chase them (and it would seem that these are very often the same people), Butterworth never fails to be evocative of his book's settings and vastly and infectiously enthusiastic about what his subject might reveal. It is almost possible to imagine the book as being written in one long sentence with so many and such implausible connections and coincidences that they must all be true.
I think most readers of this book will come away with at least one stunning excerpt that they can't help but push on to their friends or anyone else who will listen. Mine concerns one Colonel Wilhelm Stieber, fervent anti-revolutionary North German Federation military intelligence head who had been sent earlier in his career by the Prussian interior minister to spy on Karl Marx in London (the radical political scientist having married the minister's half-sister). Posing as Herr Dr Schmidt, he had infiltrated Marx's house and gained such trust that Marx asked him to examine and treat his hemorrhoids. Well, you just couldn't make that up!
Neither could you make up the historical period the book covers in which Anarchism and what would become Marxism and communism struggled to take the radical mantel, anti-authoritarianism vying with absolute state authority for the good of the revolution. It is a timely book standing as we do ten years after the close of a century whose people were ravaged by, among others, those claiming to be engineering 'a better world', some of whose followers remain in or have returned to power. In this book the darker side of revolution and reaction are exposed and brought to life.