Dreamers, Dynamiters and Demagogues
Anarchism, like Anabaptism, has become respectable. In its heyday the movement had a uniformly bad press, aside from being treated as dangerous by governments and police authorities. Now that it no longer exists—for in its pure form it died with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s—its legendary founders benefit from the indulgence commonly extended to the defeated. This is an old story. If there were any Albigensians around today, one may be sure the Pope would be polite to them—he might even invite them to attend the next session of the Vatican Council. It is too bad they were all exterminated in that thirteenth-century Crusade (the only one that achieved its aim—all the others were military failures). Anabaptism too no longer terrifies. The spiritual descendants of Thomas Muenzer and John of Leyden are today’s liberal Protestants. Who can imagine anyone calling for their blood? Luther thought Muenzer a child of Satan, and Muenzer repaid the compliment. Nowadays, Lutherans and Unitarians are more likely to invite each other to tea than to fling excommunications around.
Anarchism too is rapidly approaching the stage where it will be socially smart to profess at least a sympathetic interest in it. In Britain it has long been acceptable, at any rate in its nonviolent form. No one worries about Bertrand Russell, who may be described as a distinguished fellow-traveler. Sir Herbert Read, a paid-up member, has accepted a knighthood from the Queen. What would Proudhon have thought of that? It would probably have confirmed him in his morose dislike of the English. Marx perhaps would not have been surprised: he had always taken a poor view of the Anarchist fraternity.
His ghost must have chuckled when in 1922 the Bolsheviks published Bakunin’s abject Confession to the Tsar, penned in jail seventy years earlier: a document that might have come straight out of Dostoyevsky. In those days confessions were still genuine, and Bakunin was doubtless sincere when in 1852 he painted himself as “a prodigal, estranged and perverted son before an indulgent father,” as well as a Pan-Slav patriot and hater of all things German. The episode—it was no more than that—has been an embarrassment to his biographers, and Mr. Joll hurries away from it as soon as he can. People who are congenitally out of tune with the Dostoyevskyan temperament (the present reviewer for example) will be inclined to treat it as evidence of a more basic instability in Bakunin’s character. In later years, when he was safely abroad hatching conspiracies (most of them never got beyond the talking stage), there was also the little matter of his association with the murderous Nechayev, who crops up as one of the heroes of The Possessed. But this topic was exhaustively discussed by Mr. E. H. Carr in The Romantic Exiles many years ago, and Mr. Joll does well to dismiss it briefly.
The Anarchists, as was to be expected from the distinguished author of Intellectuals in …
Which Zeno? April 22, 1965