“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.

The young Bakunin strikingly resembled Turgenev’s portrait of a Hamlet yearning to become a Don Quixote: his contemporaries in the 1830s concurred in seeing him, in his endless and highly abstract theorizing about the importance of action and his own sense of “mission,” as epitomizing at its most extreme the vicious circle in which they were all then trapped in their longing to lead significant and useful lives. But when Turgenev insisted that in Rudin he had also captured the essence of Bakunin in his later revolutionary years, he was universally derided: later scholars, seeing Bakunin the revolutionary as the epitome of decisive action, have agreed with Herzen that the vacillating Rudin was rather Turgenev’s self-portrait.

Turgenev, however, was more clearsighted than might appear. In 1835 Bakunin wrote to a friend: “When we can say ‘ce que je veux, Dieu le veut,’…then our sufferings will be at an end.” This statement, uniting Fichtean self-assertion with a longing to melt into the Absolute, is a classic formulation of the Idealist vision of liberty as the resolution of all duality, reconciliation of freedom and inevitability, being and consciousness. Bakunin’s later revolutionary activity makes sense only if interpreted as an unremitting effort to transpose this millenarian aspiration, which implies the end of history, the advent of timelessness, to the realm of concrete historical reality.

The first stage in this process occurred when he moved to Germany in 1840 and found a satisfying outlet for his voluntarism in the Left Hegelian interpretation of history as revolutionary negation of the past. The urge for destruction he asserts to be “a creative urge,” and in 1847 he announced to his friend Herwegh: “I await my…fiancée, revolution. We will…become ourselves only when the whole world is engulfed in fire.” His fantasies are now projected onto a concrete entity: in his Confession, which he wrote to the tsar from prison, explaining his espousal of the cause of Slav liberty in the 1840s, he asserts that, driven by the urge to fulfill himself in action, “I began to collect old, unconscious impressions, and…created for myself a fantastic Russia, ready for revolution, stretching out…on the Procrustean bed of my democratic aspirations every fact, every circumstance.”

There is much truth here: Bakunin’s itch for revolutionary self-assertion led him to create a new Absolute from an old Idealist cliché, the cult of the primitive instincts of the simple people. In the peasant revolts endemic in Russia he saw a purifying life force which would liberate mankind. “Reaction is thought,…revolution is…rather instinct,” he writes to Herwegh; intellectuals who wished to escape from the arid world of theory into “life” must fuse with this force—but as always in Idealism, self-renunciation is at the same time self-assertion: in conjunction with the people’s instinct the will of the revolutionary conspirator is insuperable. In 1841 Bakunin wrote to his brother: “When [our aspirations] clash with everyday reality we call them…empty fantasies…, but it is that reality which is the most terrible of…fantasies,” we must break its bonds by force of faith and will.” All his life he would remain true to this Fichtean program, in which “everyday reality” was taken as unreal.

After his escape from prison to London in 1861, Bakunin, under the influence of Marx, moved from Slav nationalism to internationalist socialism and from Idealism to economic materialism, and in the mid-Sixties he became an anarchist. This last change. dramatic in appearance, was a logical development of one of the fundamental elements of his Idealist conception of liberty—his worship of the spontaneous life force—into a political creed. The second element—the cult of the will—he was to transmute into a concept of dictatorship.

Anarchism flowed naturally from Bakunin’s cult of instinct. Like all institutions imposed on the people, the state was an “abstraction,” whose only function was to exploit the masses in the name of a minority. Only one form of association sprang from the spontaneous demands of popular life—the primitive peasant commune, then surviving only in Russia: this ideal social form was inherent in the instincts of the European masses, to be reinstated in the West after revolution destroyed the state.

For all his professed materialism, Bakunin remained the Idealist exalté of the 1840s. As then, it was in the act of revolution itself, conceived as spontaneous peasant revolt, that he saw the supreme expression of the life force in all its purity, and in The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution he defines the movement of history in terms of the dialectic of his youth, as “revolutionary negation, sometimes slow and apathetic, sometimes powerful and passionate, of the past.”

The “people” in its revolutionary essence being clearly a secularized form of the Absolute, the goal of the revolutionary intellectual must be, as Bakunin repeatedly asserts, to “drown” in it, to bow before its instincts, the source of goodness and truth, and not impose his worthless theories on it. The worst offender in this respect was the scientific socialism of Marx, and in Statism and Anarchy Bakunin asserts that the Germans, creators both of Idealism and of the most bureaucratic state in Europe, are the most “abstract” of nations, always subordinating life to theory. Marx, a German and former Hegelian, proponent of a centralized revolutionary state, is the abstract theorist par excellence. Bakunin had once asserted, apropos of the role of Germanophobia in uniting the Slavs: “If the Germans did not exist, we should have to invent them,” and his attack on Marx at the end of the Sixties is largely an attempt at exorcising his own devils, which he projects onto Marx, the “abstract inheritor of Hegel.”

However, he is dimly aware of a contradiction in his argument. Theory distorts life, but his future rational society is based on the theories of economic materialism. This leads to some ambiguity in his rejection of “theory,” which he resolves in typical Idealist fashion: having polarized the inseparable, he reunites them in a dialectical Aufhebung—in the future just society, when the masses have access to science, theory and life will be perfectly reconciled.

But in the contemporary world, the contradiction was not so easily resolved. As the revolutionary intelligentsia could, he believed, teach the people nothing, the role of the secret organization which he had founded in the Sixties was merely to coordinate scattered risings. But these risings failed to materialize in Russia or Europe, and he explained the disappointing apathy of the peasants in a secret letter to a follower, “Paolo,” declaring that although the masses are opposed to church and state, their exploiters have led them to “cherish ideas in contradiction with their own instincts.”2 He justifies the continued existence of his secret organization within the International as an “invisible dictatorship” to revolutionize the masses and if necessary bring about the revolution, and thereafter to guard against reaction. Being merely the “headquarters” of the popular “army,” it would in no way impede the free expression of the latter’s will, and would bear no resemblance to Marx’s dictatorial revolutionary state.

Arthur Lehning accepts this assurance without comment or demur, but the apparent inconsistency of this combination of anarchism and dictatorship has proved a stumbling block for others who seek to present Bakunin’s writings as a coherent body of theory. Some, like the Soviet scholars Steklov and Polonsky, resort to the odd hypothesis that the secret elite was a realistic “corrective” to Bakunin’s anarchism, introduced by him to give it more chance of success in an imperfect world. But their basic postulate—that there is a contradiction between Bakunin’s concept of liberty and his theory of dictatorship—is mistaken: such a contradiction would exist if Bakunin were a political theorist concerned primarily with the problem of freedom in the real world. But his concern was with liberty in the most disembodied of forms, and for the millenarian psychology there is nothing incongruous in the combination of dreams of liberty and of dictatorship—the second flows naturally from the first, a product of the dualism inherent in all millenarian ideologies.

For Bakunin’s distinction between the empirical nature of the peasantry and its “true,” rebellious nature, echoing Rousseau’s axiom “man is born to be free, but is everywhere in chains,” stems from that distinction, inherent in all Idealism, between everyday reality and spiritual essence. Rousseau’s logic was parodied by de Maistre in the phrase “fish were born to fly, but everywhere they swim,” and it notoriously culminates in the totalitarian conception of liberty: men may be forced to be free, inasmuch as, in doing so, one is doing violence only to their “lower” empirical natures, in the name of their “higher” and “true” selves. There is more than a touch of this in Bakunin’s suggestion in his letter to “Paolo” that it may be only after his elite brings about the revolution that the masses will recognize its program to be “the truest expression of their own aspirations.”

In this light, what are seen as the most sinister passages in Bakunin’s writings take on a very different meaning. For instance, in letters to his follower Albert Richard, he expatiates on his secret organization, a branch of which, convinced by the lies of his associate Nechaev, he believes to exist in Russia: “The personality has disappeared, and in its place is an unseen, unknown, omnipresent host…they are caught in tens, they resurrect in hundreds; personalities perish, but the host is immortal….” This collective, expressing the popular will, demands “the complete dissolution of the personality” in its ranks. Bakunin asks: “Is this so great a sacrifice for really strong, serious, and passionate men? It is the sacrifice of appearance for reality, of empty ambition for real power, of words for action…. I wish not to be ‘I,’ but ‘we’…only on that condition can we triumph….” It is this “host” which after the revolution will become a dictatorship “with no power, but thereby all the more active and powerful…with a single common will.”

This vision, with no basis in reality (no such “host” existed in Russia or anywhere else), shows how his conception of “invisible dictatorship” was a pure projection of the yearnings of his Idealist youth. The language is Rudin’s: the insistence on the utter merging of the personality with an invisible but thereby all the more omnipotent and “real” whole, in a feat of self-renunciation which as always in Idealism was eo ipso self-assertion. Bakunin genuinely desires to “melt” into the people. But just as Hegel’s Absolute can “know” itself only through the consciousness of man, so the people’s idealized “will” can be interpreted only by its servant, the revolutionary elite. In rejecting the phantom of power for “real” power, the elite is simultaneously asserting the true liberty of the people. It is only in the light of the Idealist dialectic that this nonsense has any meaning.

It is commonplace to infer, as Carr does, on the basis of his opposition to the rule of “theory” over men, that individualism was “the essence of Bakunin’s social and political system.” In fact, as Isaiah Berlin has pointed out in the essay quoted earlier, the opposite is true. This Bakunin himself, in a moment of self-understanding, admitted in 1840: “A striving to the universal is the basic characteristic of my life…all that is individual…has meaning and importance for me only to the degree to which it is illuminated by the rays of universal…Spirit.”

The ethos of his life was the mystical ecstasy of Rudin, with his yearning to feel himself, through assertion of his will, “the instrument of higher forces.” This urge is the emotional core of totalitarian ideologies; although it must be said that Bakunin himself was no totalitarian dictator, even in spe. His secret society has been compared to Lenin’s revolutionary elite; but to be effective it demanded a grip on reality of which he was incapable. Its elaborate codes and rituals were products of a romantic fantasy, and Bakunin’s ideal revolutionary seems modeled on the noble rebels of Schiller’s dramas, utterly ruthless, but devoid of ambition or cupidity, the epitome of aristocratic honor.

Nor had he any conception of the real forces unleashed by revolution. Behind his constant invocations of the spirit of destruction lies the unspoken conviction that it will have the sensibility of a Russian aristocrat. Thus in Dresden, in 1849, hearing Wagner conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he assured him that that would be spared in the future holocaust. Herzen, one of his most severe critics, understood this and commented on Bakunin’s bloodthirsty imprecations that he was like an old nanny, frightening children with the bogeyman, knowing full well that the bogeyman would not come.

But the bogeyman did come—in the person of Nechaev. This utterly ruthless young revolutionary, taking Bakunin’s calls for destruction at face value, came from Russia in 1869 to collaborate with him. Bakunin’s infatuation and subsequent disillusionment with him are a psychological drama at least as powerful as Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Nechaev himself in The Possessed: for in Nechaev Bakunin saw his own theories reflected in a distorting mirror, and in his efforts to analyze the mixture of attraction and revulsion which he felt for him, came close for the first time to spelling out the real implications of his concept of liberty.

Taking Nechaev’s virulent hatred to be “noble” passion, Bakunin believed him to embody his Schillerian ideal of a revolutionary; but Nechaev’s Jacobinism and ruthlessness, epitomized in his murder of a member of his own group for the purpose of intimidating the others, finally led to a break between them. However even then he managed to integrate Nechaev’s villainy into his own fantasies, writing to his astonished friends that Nechaev’s methods were those of a “pure” and “saintly” nature who, faced with the apathy of the masses and intellectuals in Russia, saw no other way but coercion to mold the latter into a force determined enough to move the masses to revolution. Such reasoning, Bakunin concluded, “contains, alas! much truth.”

This grotesque assessment of Nechaev is very revealing. At a time when the gap between men’s empirical and ideal natures seemed enormous, Bakunin, albeit reluctantly, concluded that if men do not wish to liberate themselves, it might be necessary for those with their higher interests at heart to liberate them against their will. Thus, in its practical implications, Bakunin’s renowned defense of liberty is a new version of an old method, summed up by Herzen as “civilization through the knout, liberation through the guillotine.”

Thus, of all the studies of Bakunin, it is still Turgenev’s novel that offers the best perception of the roots of his ideology—the millenarian urge to regain a lost “wholeness” through fusion with spontaneous life. Turgenev encapsulates the source of the effect of Bakunin’s eloquence on others—an effect which, according to Carr, defies analysis:

[When Rudin spoke] the spirit of things could be felt everywhere…. Nothing remained senseless or accidental…everything acquired a meaning simultaneously lucid and mysterious, and we, with a kind of worshipful awe,…felt as if we were living vessels of eternal truth, called on to accomplish something great….

Here is the formula behind the fatal charm of all millenarian ideologies: extreme clarity polarizing reality into simple oppositions, which make for dramatic slogans; and extreme mystery giving full play to fantasies of self-aggrandizement. For the social psychology of extremist politics, Bakunin’s writings offer a rich source of material, one which, as the works under review show, is largely unexplored. The significance of his concept of liberty does not lie in its logical coherence or the lack of it but in the light it sheds on the hold exercised on the will and emotions by ideas which in logical argument are ridiculously easy to refute.

This Issue

January 22, 1976