Magazine article The American Conservative

An Enemy of the State

Magazine article The American Conservative

An Enemy of the State

Article excerpt

[Bakunin: A Biography, Mark Leier, St. Martin's Press, 350 pages] An Enemy of the State

MARK LEIER sets out to rescue not only Mikhail Bakunin, the great anarchist thinker, but the whole anarchist tradition, which he argues is a pertinent political force today: "The current interest in anarchism," he writes, "is not misplaced or irrelevant." He certainly accomplishes the former and does much to dispel the multiple canards that have surrounded this man, many of them fabricated by Marx and the Marxists, but I don't think he makes much of a case for the latter.

Bakunin, aptly called "the hairy Russian giant," was born to a noble family of only modest means in a village north of Moscow in 1814. As the firstborn male, he was destined for a military career and at 15 was sent to a rigid, anti-Western military school, where he chafed at the arbitrary discipline and the narrow curriculum-much less encompassing than the homeschooling he had experienced before. He gradually learned to resist the system in minor ways and soon lost all interest in formal studies, reading instead in philosophy, history, and languages (none of which were in the official curriculum), getting himself expelled from school in 1834 for poor grades and assigned to barracks on the Polish frontier. He liked that no better, went AWOL after a year, and eventually, in 1836, landed in Moscow, gravitating to a circle of students and intellectuals, most of whom were sharply critical of the repressive tsarist regime.

Bakunin spent the next four years, supported apparently by loans that he couldn't repay and occasional handouts from his family, voraciously readingEnglish and French Romantics and German philosophers, in particularand writing for little Russian magazines. This provided the basis for his later theones, but he was not yet an anarchist and like many of his circle saw his task as developing a critique of the tsarist state-though not too openly or the police would be on him. When he left Russia to go to study at the University of Berlin in 1840, pursuing his deep interest in Hegel in particular, he was a highly regarded writer, "in the vanguard," Leier says, "of progressive Russian thinkers."

Western Europe around this time was surging with ideas about freedom and justice and political reform that would lead to the 1848 revolutions, and Bakunin's thoughts took a new turn. He became a convinced atheist and began to think about ways of obtaining liberty in a new kind of state ("Liberty today stands at the head of the agenda of history"). By 1842, he was arguing that "the passion for destruction is at the same time a creative passion," by which he did not advocate violence and terror, as he is sometimes accused of, but only meant that if there was going to be movement toward democracy and freedom, the reactionary state had to be done away with. He was developing a revolutionary position, arguing that it was impossible to reform the state: what's needed "is not only a particular constitutional or politico-economic change, but a total transformation of that world condition."

Publishing this kind of material did not sit well with the German government, and the paper he published it in was shut down, leading Bakunin to flee to Switzerland. But the Swiss government told the Russians that he was there and hanging around in revolutionary circles, so the Russian ambassador ordered him to return home. When he refused, the tsarist regime ordered him stripped of his noble rank and sentenced him to hard labor in Siberia, whereupon he fled again, to Paris, in 1844.

It was a lively, political city at that time-George Sand, Marx, Louis Blanc, Proudhon were all there-and Bakunin fit in with the growing passion for revolution, giving speeches, writing articles, making a name. But as an anarchist, not a socialist: socialists were "more or less authoritarians" who wanted "to organize the future according to their own ideas" whereas he was for liberty and against authority. …

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