In a world torn by divides between scientific progress and religious faith, ideological conflicts erupt into violence. International terrorists conspire to push their agendas by wreaking havoc on the governments they oppose. Those governments in turn use increasingly insidious, brutal methods to find and prosecute radical elements. Those they capture or kill only become martyrs to the cause.

In The World That Never Was: A True Story Of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists And Secret Agents, historian Alex Butterworth doesn’t need to draw any comparisons between current events and his chronicle of the rise and evolution of anarchism from the 1870s through the early 1900s. In fact, he provides very little analysis at all—he simply tells the story of how groups throughout Europe, Russia, and the United States attempted to bring about their dream of a world without government, where individuals would live in harmony and enlightenment.


The lack of analysis doesn’t prevent him from revealing his prejudices. Butterworth clearly sympathizes with the more idealistic revolutionaries, who seemed to genuinely believe that a better world could be brought about without violence, and that humankind is inherently good. It’s easy to feel for them as their naïveté results in tragedy after tragedy, from a group of anarchists letting an armed military unit get within bayonet range of them because the soldiers pretended to want to cooperate, to hundreds of young radicals being turned in by the Russian serfs they were trying to educate.

Those whose ideals evaporated in the heat of persecution or who grew impatient and urged violent methods are painted much less favorably. So are the figures who fought the anarchist leaders. The movement was riddled with government spies and informants, who not only provided information that led to arrests and increasingly harsh punishments, but produced an environment of paranoia that destroyed the anarchist groups from within.

Butterworth’s fascination with the era is a mixed blessing. At more than 400 dense pages, The World That Never Was is a tough read. Butterworth includes too much, dividing time between the stories of dozens of revolutionaries, their disciples, and their antagonists. He also goes off on tangents on everything from the symbolism in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the tea addiction of a group of feminists living in Switzerland. These asides often add a little, whether it’s humor or simply a more fleshed-out understanding of the times, but they also make it harder to follow an already challenging, fragmented narrative.