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The Young Satan

Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism

by Aileen Kelly
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 320 pp., $29.95

In spite of his origins in a Russian landholding family and his early involvement with German idealist philosophy, Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) is best known as a revolutionary socialist, the founder of an important branch of the anarchist movement, and one of the earliest critics, from the revolutionary perspective, of an authoritarian streak running through the ideas of Karl Marx and Marxism. Whether seen as a Promethean or as a satanic figure, he came to represent the spirit of rebellion, extreme revolutionary activism, a love of popular uprisings and the barricades. Biographers have tended to concentrate more on his activities than on his ideas, except for the details of his controversy with Marx. Aileen Kelly’s long interpretative essay, while it does not contain any specifically new facts about Bakunin, makes excellent critical use of recently published documents on his life and attempts to relate the old Satan to his background as a young Russian nobleman and to the formation of the Russian intelligentsia during the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855).

While E.H. Carr’s well-known biography of Bakunin goes over the same ground in somewhat denser detail, his tone of aloof and amused superiority (which so angered Edmund Wilson that he accused Carr of having expended all that energy in research “merely in order to lift the eyebrow”) is foreign to Kelly.1 Her book is a critical analysis of Bakunin’s kind of commitment to revolution and of the type of revolutionary she feels he exemplified. She is out to destroy the persistent myth of Bakunin as a revolutionary hero, dramatically different from the “remote,” calculating, merely intellectual revolutionaries like Karl Marx or Alexander Herzen in his uninhibited, one might say direct bodily, involvement in actual revolutionary situations. She contends that Bakunin was far more abstract than they, colder, and cared less what happened to people; that as far as the reality of contemporary political circumstances was concerned, he lived in a perpetual cloud-cuckoo-land.

Bakunin’s parents both came from prominent landholding families. His father belonged to a generation whose educated members had been thoroughly Europeanized (he held an academic degree from the University of Padua) but had not yet lost its commitment to the Petrine ideal of state service. For this generation, the idea of a civilizing mission and loyalty to the throne did not yet appear antithetical. The Napoleonic wars strengthened both their patriotism and their involvement in and with European ways. In the aftermath of these wars, however, they became dimly aware of the crisis that was to be central to the lives of the next generation: the growing indebtedness and impending bankruptcy of the landholder-serf economy, the fiscal problems of maintaining the largest military force in Europe on the shoulders of a backward economy, the increasingly reactionary policies of the throne, and the growth of centralized state apparatus that was increasingly repressive, militarized, and bureaucratic. But Bakunin’s father took it for granted that his sons, though reared in the spirit of Rousseau, would find careers in the military or civil service (no others were available) to supplement the declining earnings of the estate.

Bakunin’s mother was from the Muraviev family. Two of her relatives were deeply involved in the conspiracy of December 14, 1825, which attempted to prevent Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne and to reverse the regime’s reactionary tendency. They were hanged. Another relative was the future governor general of Siberia, who was later to take Bakunin under his wing when he was a political exile there, and even unwittingly helped prepare the way for his escape. Still another cousin was the victor over the Polish rebels in 1863, called “The Hangman,” who boasted that he belonged “not to those Muravievs who were hanged, but to those who did the hanging.” Bakunin’s mother was much younger than her husband. Bakunin was her first son, closer to her in age than she was to her husband. He had two older and two younger sisters, close to him in age, and four much younger brothers. In the isolated pastoral setting of the family estate of Premukhino, Bakunin grew up among women in a lordly position, chief actor in a family drama that proved decisive in casting the shape of his life.

First, as Kelly makes clear, he had a deep attachment to his mother, soon displaced by an admitted love for a younger sister—incestuous longings accompanied by sexual guilt that apparently made him impotent. He found sex and sensuality distasteful and looked with contempt on the preoccupations of his parents, increasingly concerned as they came to be with the social problem of marrying off four daughters. “Society” seemed a plot to take his sisters away from him; over them, at an early age, he began to exercise an intellectual, moral, and emotional tyranny.

He was sent to military school at fourteen, then into the army. He hated it. Dirty barracks-talk, the military amusements of cards, vodka, horse racing, and brothels so repelled him that he deserted. Being a nobleman and well connected, he got away with it, and next found himself in Moscow on the fringes of the university. During the remarkable period of the 1830s and 1840s, which Bakunin’s later friend and comrade Alexander Herzen called “a time of outward slavery and inner emancipation,” bright young people tended to flee the oppressive parade-ground atmosphere created by Nicholas following his suppression of the Decembrists by forming small, private study-circles that pursued with extraordinary intensity questions of personal fate and national destiny. Where was an aspiring, more or less educated (i.e., “Europeanized”) young Russian to find a place for himself in a garrison state?

Nicholas was intent on disseminating Western technology and administrative skills at the same time that censorship and his political police attempted to cut off the flow of ideas and sentiments that were causing political turbulence throughout Europe. The young people in Moscow sought to heal their deep sense of a gulf between what they felt they were and what the regime wanted them to be by a pursuit of the very ideas and attitudes the regime sought to ban. Many of their preoccupations seem strange and even silly today. The paths of self-liberation ran through strange terrain. Some studied Fourier and the French utopian socialists. The group Bakunin joined was carried away by the poetry of Schiller and the pathos of Schönseligkeit, the cultivation of a supremely sensitive and receptive soul. They plunged into German idealism, Schelling first, then Fichte, and in the very late 1830s, Hegel.

Following the biographer of Herzen, Martin Malia,2 Kelly tends to take a somewhat “orientalist” (i.e., condescending) view of this quest for emancipation. She sees Schelling and Fichte as providing ways of metaphysically justifying the estrangement of the individual from society rather than practical ideas for overcoming the “alienation” that was widely felt among young people; she traces the ways by which the cult of the German idealists led to apotheosis of subjective states. While the ideas of Hegel, she allows, led young people to confront the mechanisms of society, this was a mode of confrontation flawed at its foundation. In Hegel’s scheme the old moral categories, and the means for discriminating among them, were to be displaced and made irrelevant by the forward movement of the historical process itself.

Bakunin, with his facility in German and his considerable skills in rhetoric and at dramatizing arguments, became a dominant figure of the idealist group. He also used the charms of idyllic, cultivated Premukhino and especially the poetic presence of his sisters to work a spell on more than one member of his intimate circle. When his friend and disciple, the budding young literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, fell in love with one of his sisters, however, he was furious, turned viciously against him, and soon destroyed their friendship. After Belinsky later became one of the most influential Russian writers of his time, he would reflect ruefully on the basic coldness and abstraction of Bakunin’s personal relations, his need for dominance, and the vicarious prurience of his involvement in the passions of others. A fuller, more delicately nuanced portrait of Bakunin along these lines also appeared in fictional form in the character of Rudin in Ivan Turgenev’s novel of that name.

Kelly draws heavily on Belinsky and Turgenev for her portrait of Bakunin between 1835 and 1845. He still believed in God and the czar, in cultivating the spirit and despising the flesh, and he attempted to establish among his friends and family, with himself at the head, “a community of saints.” And she finds the same tendencies in the later Bakunin as well. Turgenev’s cold, manipulative, emotionally stunted intellectual can, she argues, be seen in the martyr of 1848 and the firebrand-anarchist of the 1860s. She does not, of course, berate him for his intellectuality, but for his inept grasp of circumstance and indifference to the fate of people. No major “study” that he undertook was ever completed, and no uprising in which he participated or which he encouraged had even a reasonable chance of success. His writings, based as they are on polarized antitheses like “statism and anarchy,” are extremely abstract and he seemed incapable of connecting them with ordinary experience, or even completing them.

Some aspects of Bakunin Kelly does not much discuss: his notion of the industrial proletariat, for instance, as too tame and conformist a class to launch a revolution, and his consequent preference for the more impoverished, backward, and violence-prone peasantry, the Lumpenproletariat, and even for bandits as potential revolutionary forces, his anti-Semitism and anti-Germanism; his ideas of a Slavic and a Mediterranean confederation. Presumably she would relate these, too, to the contempt for contemporary historical reality that led him to confuse his own psychological needs with objective historical truth. She accuses him of subverting his initial humanist ideals by a wholly uncritical resort to methods that, in historical experience, have always intensified forms of oppression.

Bakunin left Russia in 1840 to study philosophy in Berlin. There he discovered the Hegelian power of the negative—that is, he joined the left Hegelians, met Marx and Proudhon and Weitling later in his travels about Europe, and began restively to sniff revolutionary stirrings in the air. In 1848, Nicholas ordered Russians to return home. Revolutionary outbursts deepened Nicholas’s alarm, and Bakunin’s participation in them made him a “wanted” criminal in Russia. In 1849, he was (with Richard Wagner) on the barricades in Dresden, a member of the soon-to-be-crushed revolutionary committee there. He was captured by Saxon troops at Chemnitz, turned over to the Austrians and then to the Russians (guardian powers of the status quo); he spent years in the Schlüsselburg Fortress, then, under an amnesty from the new czar, Alexander II, in 1856, had his sentence commuted to Siberian exile, from which he escaped on an American ship in 1860.

In prison, he produced, at Nicholas’s suggestion, a curious document known as his Confession.3 It was partly an attempt to win some leniency by openly confessing the frivolity of his youthful revolutionism. He betrayed no one, and the document is not in this sense “dishonorable.” Yet clearly the confessional mode was congenial to him, and his self-analysis and contrition have a certain sincerity. Kelly concentrates on that part of the document in which he urges Nicholas I to fulfill the glory of Russian arms by supporting rather than opposing the revolutionary movement in Europe. He later repeated the notion in a pamphlet—The People’s Cause: Romanov, Pugachev or Pestel? Nor was such an idea—a revolution led and partly organized by an imperial, perhaps even proto-fascist figure—associated in his mind with the czar alone. Later, in Siberia, he began to envisage his distant cousin, General Muraviev-Amursky, as such a leader.

When Bakunin arrived in London in 1860 to join his friend Alexander Herzen, the latter noted fondly but a little wryly that Bakunin’s enthusiasm for revolution, for uprisings, for the barricades, seemed undiminished, indeed untouched by the failures and disillusionments of 1848. From the other side of the great historical divide, he brought his revolutionary enthusiasm to the Europe of Bismarck, Cavour, and Napoleon III. It was at this time that he became first a socialist, then an atheist and an anarchist. Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had, he thought, statist and authoritarian implications. He was critical, too, of Jacobin tendencies that advocated an armed coup and seizure of the state apparatus as a preliminary to revolution. Only “the people”—a mass popular uprising—could make its own revolution.

At the same time, however, as Kelly and a number of others have pointed out, Bakunin had a passion for organizing secret societies (often with a purely fictitious membership) linked in a chain of command that led to himself. While he had a following in Italy, in Spain, and in the Jura region of Switzerland, his most intense hopes were stirred by the beginnings of a revolutionary movement in Russia. Here began a rift with his old friend Herzen who, though a revolutionary, thought mindless violence a poor response to the first signs of flexibility, reform, and responsiveness the Russian regime had shown.

In 1869, a young Russian “nihilist,” Sergei Nechaev, appeared in Switzerland and sought out the émigrés. He was the half-educated son of a provincial artisan, who had about him an air of cold ruthlessness, secret knowledge, and impressive determination. He claimed to lead a network of underground revolutionary cells in Russia, which he wished to link up with the international revolutionary movement. After an attempt to assassinate the czar in 1866, the regime had greatly tightened police controls and the repressive apparatus in general. There were a few small isolated groups of radical youth in Russia, but Nechaev’s “network” was a product of desperately imaginative paranoia. Herzen mistrusted him from the first, but Bakunin fell in love with him. Here was an utterly ruthless “Machiavellian from below” who had links with a secret revolutionary organization that promised to fulfill Bakunin’s yearning for association with a revolutionary uprising in Russia without his having to take responsible control. Kelly describes with appreciative irony a scene in which Nachaev signed up Bakunin in his secret organization at the same time that Bakunin gave Nechaev membership number 2,771 in his own secret alliance, neither organization having any actual membership or real existence.

Returning to Russia, however, Nechaev used Bakunin’s name and the “international connection” to dazzle the young radicals and get them to form one of his cells. Kelly here invokes Dostoevsky and the brilliant novel that the Nechaev case subsequently inspired, The Demons (or The Possessed). For Nechaev, the progress of the revolution was the only morality. He did not hesitate to lie, cheat, blackmail, and kill—not only “the enemy,” but equally his own comrades. In Moscow, he organized the murder of a member of his group who had made the mistake of questioning the existence of Nechaev’s secret chain. Nechaev apparently felt that the commitment of the other members to the cause would be enforced by their participation in a sacrificial murder. Nechaev returned to Switzerland, was again harbored by Bakunin, and then arrested by the Swiss police and extradited to Russia as a common murderer. Convicted in 1871, he died ten years later in the Schlüsselburg.

Bakunin’s association with the Nechaev scandal badly compromised him in revolutionary circles, and the Marxists made much of it. Kelly, however, does not fail to point out that they, too, heirs of Hegel like Bakunin himself, tended to “eliminate the moral problem of the relation of ends to means by identifying the desirable with the historically inevitable.”

Since the recent discovery of a previously unknown letter from Bakunin to Nechaev, scholars have debated whether Bakunin wrote with Nechaev the notorious “Revolutionary Catechism”—a document implacably supporting the notion of the revolution as the supreme and only morality. Kelly is, however, correct in pointing out that the new evidence, for all Bakunin’s criticisms of Nechaev, has a tone of wounded subservience and reproach rather than anything resembling moral indignation.4 More than any other figure, Nechaev poses the problem of revolutionary ends and means; but it was not a problem with which Bakunin was really prepared to engage himself.

Bakunin spent his last years in depression and deepening gloom. His health deteriorated; debts and failures accumulated. The last uprising in which he planned to take a part—in Bologna, in 1874—didn’t take place at all, and he had ignominiously to flee from the police disguised as a priest. He died in Berne in 1876. His tombstone, ironically, tells us he died for the freedom of his country.

Kelly’s book is cogently argued and eloquently written. She knows her sources well and moves gracefully between discussions of Bakunin’s character, his undigested ideas, and his times. Not is she without compassion for Bakunin’s problems and weaknesses. She is aware, moreover, that tempered by a sterner morality and the more intelligent influence of Herzen, his example was inspiring to the later radicals of Russian populism and to the keener, morally more sensitive mind of Peter Kropotkin, whom she admires. Yet she firmly puts Bakunin down. Where a recent scholar, resorting to ego psychology, speaks of Bakunin’s “pathological narcissism” and “unresolved Oedipal conflicts,” she uses words like “utopian” and “millenarian,” which turn out to mean almost the same thing.5

That may not be entirely fair. We have good reasons to distrust utopias. And Kelly herself has positive things to say for utopian elements in Herzen’s thought. With his deep sense of individual freedom and the integrity of the individual, he seems to be the alternative she offers to Bakunin. As an exceptionally able student of the Russian intelligentsia, she is aware that it had a libertarian as well as an authoritarian intellectual tradition, though the two may not be so easily traceable to personalities as she seems to think. Yet for her a key criterion for judging utopian thinkers remains whether they made “some adjustment” to contemporary historical reality, to the reality principle—an odd standard by which to judge utopias.

Because German idealism produced intellectual structures that permitted Bakunin to elude and evade, indeed encouraged him to hold in contempt that reality, Kelly considers it largely responsible for Bakunin’s characteristic infantilism and irresponsibility. Yet Herzen, who outgrew it, nevertheless saw German idealism as broadening and liberating, a notable step toward “inner emancipation,” and Marx who mocked it in “The German Ideology” was equally indebted to it. As for Bakunin’s absolute refusal to adjust, much as its results might caution us not to follow him, is it not precisely what keeps Bakunin at least to some degree alive for us, the infantile anarchist who remains a disturbing presence in the midst of our corrupt accommodations?

  1. 1

    E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (Macmillan, 1937; Octagon, 1975); Edmund Wilson, “Cold Water on Bakunin,” The New Republic, vol. 97 (December 7, 1938), pp. 137–138; reprinted in Wilson’s The Shores of Light (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952).

  2. 2

    Martin Malia, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812–1855 (Harvard University Press, 1961).

  3. 3

    The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin, with the Marginal Comments of Tsar Nicholas I, translated by Robert C. Howes (Cornell University Press, 1977).

  4. 4

    Michael Confino, “Bakunin and Nechaev,” Encounter, vol. 39 (July-August 1972), pp. 85–93; Violence dans le violence: le débat Bakounine-Necaev (Paris: Maspero, 1973); Daughter of a Revolutionary: Natalie Herzen and the Bakunin-Nechaev Herzen and the Bakunin-Nechaev Circle (Open Court, 1974). See also the essay by Phillip Pomper on Nechaev in Canadian-American Slavic Studies, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 1976), an issue entirely devoted to Bakunin on the centenary of his death.

  5. 5

    Arthur P. Mendel, Michael Bakunin: The Roots of Apocalypse (Praeger, 1981).

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