Welcome to the world of dreamers, schemers, anarchists and secret agents. Alex Butterworth's book, The World That Never Was is a stunning account of the anarchist movement that shook Europe in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The anarchists started building a violent network in early 1870s. Butterworth, a historian by profession, says the roots of the anarchist movement lay in the retribution faced by the Communards in 1871. What followed was a chain of violent incidents, including the assassination of a Tsar and several aristocrats. What was their aim? 'Anarchism's ultimate aim was to usher in a society of human beings, a heaven on earth in which harmonious coexistence was achieved without coercion or the imposition of distant authority, but rather arose out of each individual's enlightened recognition of their mutual respect and dependency.'
Many key figures of history were part of this rather adventurous journey. Louise Michel, who was arrested in New Caledonia after the Paris Commune; Peter Kropotkin, the Russian prince who renounced privilege, and the Russian aristocrat turned revolutionary, Michael Bakunin, Boris Savinkov, a poet, novelist and an anti-Tsarist terrorist who later became a minister in Alexander Kerensky's provisional government and Vladimir Burtsev, head of counter-intelligence for the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia are all here.
They were not communists. For Michel, communism is just a, not the last, stage through which the society must pass. "Socialism will bring about justice and humanise it; communism will refine the new state, and, in anarchism… man, because he will no longer be hungry or cold, will be good".
Butterworth gives a true picture of the early anarchists who looked forward to a stateless, egalitarian society. At the same time, the author, like a genius crime novelist, unearths the convoluted web of intelligence and counter intelligences, spies and double agents and committed revolutionaries. Butterworth begins his story at a Paris apartment of Savinkov in 1908, many of his comrades, including Kropotkin, were present to discuss a crucial issue. They got information that Evno Azef, one the most charismatic faces of the Revolutionary Party was an agent of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. It is just the beginning.
Butterworth is also giving stunning details of Pyotr Rachkovsky, the chief Russian police. His offensive against the anarchist networks is what Butterworth calls the "first international war on terror'. Like the key officials of the junior Bush's administration, Rachkovsky inflated the terrorist threat to justify his actions.
Characters are the strength of the book. Butterworth, author of the award-winning book, "Pompeii: The Living City", narrates lucidly what happened on the stage of radical politics between the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution. His narrative mode of presenting the dreamers, schemers and agents who run the sow during those dark decades, leaves the author stunned and provoked. But the author, despite his ability to recreate history with powerful characters and subtle facts, avoids making judgments on the dreamers and schemers. Perhaps, the readers could make a try.