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The Fatal Charm of the Millennium

Michael Bakunin

by E.H. Carr
Octagon Books, 501 pp., $27.50

Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism

by Anthony Masters
Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 279 pp., $9.95

Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings

edited by Arthur Lehning, translated by Stephen Cox, by Olive Stevens
Grove, 288 pp., $4.95 (paper)

One of the completest embodiments in history of the spirit of liberty,” as his biographer E. H. Carr maintains, Michael Bakunin has come more than any other political thinker to symbolize the rebellion of the individual against all repressive authorities and idols, of the left as well as the right. But there is another vision of Bakunin—that of a scheming megalomaniac, collaborator with the sinister Jacobin Nechaev on projects for revolutionary dictatorship. There is evidence to support both images, and all studies of Bakunin are faced with the necessity of explaining or resolving the contradictions between them; and according to whether, in doing so, they emphasize primarily his personality or his writings, they fall roughly into two categories.

By far the best example of the first type of approach is E. H. Carr’s biography—first published in 1937 and now reissued with minor alterations. For Carr, the key to Bakunin’s activity is in a personality embodying in exceptional intensity “the pure instinct to rebel.” Born in 1814 into an aristocratic landowning family, he began his rebellion when at the age of twenty he gave up the army career for which he had been destined, to become engrossed, with the intellectual circles of Moscow, in the study of German Idealism. He went abroad to further this study, and through the German Left Hegelians he was converted to the cause of revolution. He thus began a turbulent career which was interrupted in 1849 by arrest for revolutionary activities in Germany, followed by deportation to Russia and twelve years of prison and exile. But in 1861 he escaped to Western Europe where he turned from Slav nationalism to socialism, and subsequently to anarchism, joining the International and engaging in a titanic battle against Marx’s centralist communism.

Carr presents a superbly vivid portrait of this “intense, bizarre and destructive personality,” whose complexity is reflected in the astonishing contradictions in his theories. This vehement critic of Marx’s authoritarian centralism was also the organizer and self-appointed leader of a rigidly hierarchical international secret society—his secret “Alliance,” whose goal was to organize the revolution and subsequently safeguard it through a mysterious “invisible dictatorship”—a society which on entering the International he maintained under his sole authority, while pretending to Marx he had no claims to be a rival leader. In his eternal intrigues, as Carr shows with a nice blend of irony and sympathetic insight, his Byzantine cunning was continually frustrated by his childish gullibility, and his vanity and megalomania by his practical incompetence. An inveterate dreamer and eternal optimist, he was, in his lifelong rebellion against all authorities, a perpetual adolescent. According to Carr, “the determination of the object against which his rebellions were directed…was decided by more or less transient conditions or motives, and the arguments provided by his reason to justify his revolt were more adventitious still.”

It is presumably this judgment that accounts for the glaring defect of Carr’s book—the absence of any serious analysis of the nature and provenance of Bakunin’s ideas. The several chapters on his youth in Russia in the 1830s are devoted mainly to a highly entertaining account of his friendships, entanglements, and quarrels in the course of what Carr calls his “philosophical philanderings” as mentor in the cult of the beautiful soul to the adoring women of his circle. But this was only one, and not the most important, aspect of that passionate absorption in German Idealism which so strikingly characterized the first generation of the Russian intelligentsia, who applied themselves to Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel with an intensity unparalled in Germany itself.

Carr gives us no real understanding of Bakunin’s intellectual development as conditioned by his unique social environment: yet Bakunin was one of the leading representatives of the first generation of the intelligentsia, and their special predicament deeply conditioned his later thought. This generation of the 1830s was a product of Russia’s increasing contact with Western culture. The sense of alienation engendered in these young men by the gulf between the ideas they assimilated in the universities and their backward environment led them to seek in the historiosophical schemes of German Idealism then current in the West an understanding of Russia’s destiny and their own role. Bakunin’s philosophical development in the Thirties was a vivid example of this process—as with his contemporaries, his dedication to Idealism (in his case Fichte and subsequently Hegel) was based on far more than intellectual fascination: it consoled him for his impotence and disorientation in the brutal reality around him by assuring him that man was the highest manifestation of the Absolute or World Spirit which was progressing to ever higher forms.

The fantasies of compensation which Idealism afforded Bakunin and his contemporaries took two main forms. In the first, they could feel that the personality attained absolute significance through passive fusion with the Absolute, through contemplation of beauty or platonic love. Or, alternatively, in Fichtean self-assertion all distinction between the ego and absolute Mind was eliminated and the external world became a mere reflection of the will. In both cases the aim was the millenarian goal so consistently attractive to alienated intellectuals—the recapture of a lost “wholeness” in which consciousness would be harmonized with spontaneous being.

This millenarian schema was to be the ethos of Bakunin’s later socialism. However, the crucial role of Idealist patterns of thought in Bakunin’s development does not emerge from Carr’s analysis, and his later anarchism receives even scantier treatment: the principal works in which he expounded it are scarcely mentioned. All emphasis is on his personality, his penchant for intrigue and his childish weaknesses; and it is in terms of these that the contradiction between his anarchism and his dictatorial leanings is treated. As Carr explains, his urge to dominate was as strong as his urge to rebel.

It may be, as Carr asserts, that Bakunin’s mind was “to an almost unparalleled degree the servant…of his impulses”; and it is true that his theories were incoherent and derivative; but to conclude in consequence that his influence “cannot be explained in rational terms” but derived from the hypnotic effect of his extraordinary eloquence is to beg too many questions. Many of his followers were, after all, seduced by the radical alternative to Marxist socialism which his ideas appeared to offer, and the “relevance” of these ideas to present-day problems is being defended in our own time with increasing vehemence. Even if some of Bakunin’s defenders are even more incoherent than he, reference to the juvenile urge to rebel will not take us very far in understanding the recurring attraction of his anarchism.

To fulfill this function seems the intention of the first new biography in English of Bakunin for thirty-five years—Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism, by Anthony Masters. The foreword, by Roderick Kedward, emphasizing Bakunin’s “persuasive relevance to certain trends in modern society,” claims that the book is a “substantial contribution to the reappraisal of Bakunin as a man of ideas as well as a man of action.” It is hard to see any basis for this claim. The book contains no new material and the sole element of “reappraisal” is the author’s totally uncritical partisanship of his hero in his battle with Marx, which he treats even more sketchily than Carr does, omitting all reference to the more dubious of Bakunin’s intrigues in the International. With this exception, the book represents a fairly competent summary of Carr’s biography, reproducing the best of the quotations cited in the original but devoid of its stylistic elegance.

The second, more common, approach to Bakunin, while not attempting the impossible task of ignoring his personality, concentrates on exegesis of his texts. This difficult challenge—Bakunin’s writings, scrappy and unfinished, exist in numerous drafts—has produced much impressive scholarship notably the lengthy Collected Works still in progress, edited by Arthur Lehning, editor of the selection $$$ review. This carefully balanced $$$tion has succeeded in extracting from a repetitive welter of manuscripts the essence of Bakunin’s main ideas. Two early pieces—a letter to his sisters on the delights of the inner life, and the famous Hegelian article “Reaction in Germany”—are followed by a thorough coverage of writings from the last decade of his life: including programs of his secret and open revolutionary organizations, letters dealing with his mysterious “invisible dictatorship,” and extracts from his polemics with Herzen’s populism and with Marx, and from his main writings on anarchism.

However, the interpretation of the texts, offered in the introduction, is less satisfactory. Scholarly exegesis inevitably tends to seek out an underlying coherence in the most contradictory of texts, a method which Mr. Lehning takes to its extreme, maintaining that Bakunin’s writings “constitute a coherent social philosophy with a complementary theory of revolutionary practise,” namely, a consistent exposition of libertarian socialism. This entails seeing his battle with Marx as motivated purely by the defense of liberty against a Marx whose fear of losing “his theoretical and political supremacy” made him wrongly suspect Bakunin of intriguing for personal power. This is of course the official anarchist view, and Lehning accepts without question the denials of Bakunin’s henchmen that Bakunin had established or intended to establish within the International a secret elite under his personal dictatorship; but to do so is to ignore the wealth of evidence, not least in Bakunin’s own correspondence, of his intrigues directed to just that end. The fact that it had no effective existence was due only to his incompetence as a plotter.

Moreover, only those seekers after faith whose thirst for a “relevant” ideology blinds their judgment could agree with Lehning that Bakunin’s philosophy is one of “depth and originality.” On the level at which Lehning approaches it, as a body of theory, any serious examination of the view of liberty at its core reveals it to be, as Isaiah Berlin has asserted, a confused and meaningless jumble of radical patter, empty tautologies, and the incantations of “glib Hegelian claptrap.”1 Indeed Lehning quotes a typical example: “Freedom can be created only by freedom.”

But Carr is equally mistaken when he reduces Bakunin, because of his logical incoherence, to the stature of a colorful eccentric. For the undeniable attraction which Bakunin’s concept of liberty had, and still has, for so many, does spring from its fundamental coherence, but it is a psychological not a logical coherence. By combining the biographical and theoretical approach it is possible to see in Bakunin a particularly illuminating example of one of the most complex phenomena in the sociology of knowledge: the way in which certain mechanisms of the mind and the emotions generate extreme ideologies, logically flawed but psychologically compelling. In Bakunin’s case, we find a millenarian concept of liberty of the kind inseparably linked with all totalitarianism.

The most penetrating analysis of Bakunin is in fact a literary one—Ivan Turgenev’s portrait of him in his novel Rudin. The novel is an attempt to convey the psychology of the first generation of the Russian intelligentsia, driven by their painful isolation to seek in German Idealism an explanation of their destiny. The eponymous hero, modeled on the young Bakunin, captivated his contemporaries by his eloquent discourses on the “harmonious order” beneath the seeming chaos of empirical reality. He was typical of those most frustrated by the lack of a practical outlet for their energies in that for him the two kinds of compensating fantasies I have described were fused into one—he yearned for an act which would be both a supreme assertion of his will and a perfect identification, as an instrument of Russia’s destiny, with the purposes of the Absolute. For man, he asserts, “the awareness of being the instrument of higher forces must take the place of all other joys.” However, seeing the “reality” for which he yearns only through the prism of his abstract constructions, he becomes in middle age a “superfluous man,” incapable of effective action. His first and last resolute act is conspicuously devoid of the supreme significance for which he craves—in Paris in 1848 he dies obscurely on a barricade, and is taken for a Pole.

  1. 1

    Herzen and Bakunin on Liberty,” E. J. Simmons, ed., Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought (Harvard, 1955).

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