Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.