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Prominent Russians: Mikhail Bakunin

May 30, 1814 - July 1, 1876

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Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin was one of the intellectual founding fathers of anarchism, often considered to be Marx's major historical rival.

Bakunin was born on 30 May [18 May, Old Style] 1814 (the date is, however, disputed), in Premukhino, near the town of Torzhok in the Tver Gubernia (province). He was the eldest son in the family of a retired diplomat and landowner. Mikhail’s parents were hereditary noblemen of liberal political inclinations. His father was in Paris during the French Revolution, received his doctorate of philosophy in Padua and regarded himself as a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Bakunin’s mother was a member of the Muravyov family and three of her cousins were involved in the December rising of constitutionalists in 1825.

Bakunin grew up in idyllic surroundings, romantically devoted to four sisters who were nearer to him in age than his younger brothers and was educated under the strict supervision of his father before being sent to the Artillery School in St. Petersburg. After finishing his studies at the Artillery School, he received a commission as an officer in the Guards. It is said that his father was angry with him and asked that Mikhail be transferred to the regular army. An awakening taste for literature caused him to become discontented with military life, and, stranded in a desolate village in Byelorussia with his battery, Bakunin became depressed and unsociable. He neglected his duties and would lie for days wrapped in a sheepskin. The battery commander felt sorry for him; he had no alternative, however, but to remind Bakunin that he must either perform his duties or be discharged. Bakunin chose to take the latter course and in 1835 asked to be relieved of his commission.

Bakunin went to Moscow in 1836 to study philosophy, and from that time life began in earnest for him. He joined a discussion circle centered on Nicolay Stankevich, which concentrated on contemporary German philosophy. Mikhail had never seriously studied before and his knowledge of German was very poor. However, he was blessed with a gift for dialectics and for constant, persistent thinking. He mastered German to study the philosophies of Kant, Fichte and Hegel. Bakunin was first influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte; his earliest literary task was the translation of his writings for Vissarion Belinsky's periodical, the Telescope. Later he transferred his allegiance to G. W. F. Hegel and translated the latter’s "Gymnasial Lectures," marking the first time Hegel had been published in Russian. He started advocating the Hegelian doctrine with such enthusiasm that when Stankevich left for Western Europe, Bakunin became the leader of the Hegelian school in Moscow and challenged the liberalism of the rival group associated with Aleksandr Hertzen, who propagated the ideas of Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

In 1840 Bakunin left Russia to study German philosophy in Berlin, with his opinions in a fluid and turbulent state. He still hoped to become a professor of philosophy at the Moscow University and assiduously attended lectures for some time; in his leisure hours he frequented the literary salons in the company of Ivan Turgenev, who used him as a model for the hero of his first novel, Rudin.

Mastering the Hegelian philosophy, which he afterwards characterized as the "Algebra of Revolution," Bakunin inclined to the heterodox school, which produced men like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss. In 1842 Bakunin moved to Dresden making the acquaintance of Arnold Ruge, leader of the Young Hegelians, the radical followers of Hegel, whose contention that Hegel's dialectical method could be used more convincingly to support revolution than reaction was to influence almost every school of socialist philosophy in mid-19th-century Europe. Bakunin's meeting with Ruge, combined with his reading of Lorenz von Stein's writings on Fourier and Proudhon, effected a change of his viewpoint that had all the strength of religious conversion.

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The first manifestation of this change was the impassioned essay "Reaction in Germany - A Fragment by a Frenchman," which Bakunin published under the nom de plume of Jules Elysard in Ruge's Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst (October 1842). It put forward a Young Hegelian view of revolution: before it succeeds, revolution is a negative force, but when it triumphs, it will, by a dialectical miracle, immediately become positive. However, the most striking feature of the essay is the apocalyptic tone in which Bakunin introduced the theme - recurrent in his writings - of destruction as a necessary element in the process of social transformation. Thus, he debated Hegel's emphasis on the positive in the dialectical process, asserting instead that the negative is the creative driving force of dialectics. "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge," he wrote. This final sentence was to become the motto of international anarchism and one of Bakunin’s most quoted phrases.

"Reaction in Germany," with its glorification of the idea of perpetual revolt, was the first step toward Bakunin's later anarchism, but he went through many stages before he reached that destination. In 1843, he journeyed from Paris to in Switzerland, where he resided for some time, taking an active part in all socialistic movements and associated with the German revolutionary Wilhelm Weitling. In 1844 he visited Paris where he settled and consorted with French and German socialists, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx (although his dislike of Marx prevented any personal closeness between them) and with numerous Polish émigrés who inspired him to combine the cause of the national liberation of the Slav peoples with that of social revolution. Bakunin became a disciple of Proudhon and the next few years of his life were devoted to turning the Social Democratic movement in an anarchist and international direction. He was also on friendly terms with George Sand. Shortly thereafter Marx, Feuerbach, Ruge and Bakunin founded the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher political annual, of which only a single number was issued.

The Russian authorities soon became aware of Bakunin's awakening radicalism and his permission to reside abroad was rescinded by the Russian Government. Upon his refusal to return to Russia in December 1844 his property in Russia was confiscated, he was stripped of his noble status and sentenced in absentia to hard labor in Siberia. The Russian ambassador, in an attempt to discredit Bakunin, circulated the false rumor that Bakunin was employed by the Russian government to pose as a revolutionary. Ten thousand rubles were offered for his arrest. Instead of obeying the peremptory order to return to Russia Bakunin issued an address to Poles and Russians to unite in a Pan-Slavonic revolutionary confederation on 29 November 1847 at the banquet in Paris commemorating the Polish insurrection of 1830, denouncing the Russian government.

The 1848–1849 years were probably the most dramatic period of Bakunin's life. The February Revolution of 1848 in Paris gave him his first taste of street fighting and class war; and after a few days of eager participation he traveled eastward in the hope of fanning the flames in Germany and Poland. In Prague in June 1848, he attended the Slav Congress, making a fruitless attempt to organize a secret revolutionary international campaign for a Czech revolt, which ended when Austrian troops bombarded the city; and later, in the secure retreat of Anhalt-Köthen, in Germany, he wrote his first major manifesto, “An Appeal to the Slavs.” He denounced the bourgeoisie as a spent counterrevolutionary force; he called for the overthrow of the Habsburg Empire and the creation in Central Europe of a free federation of Slav peoples; and he counted on the peasantry -especially the Russian peasantry with its tradition of violent revolt - as the agents of the coming revolution. His passion for liberty and equality and his condemnations of privilege and injustice gave him an enormous appeal in the radical movement of the day. The “Appeal to the Slavs” in many ways also anticipated his later anarchist attitudes. The social revolution, he declared, must take precedence over the political one and he claimed that the social revolution must be total. "We must first of all purify our atmosphere and transform completely the surroundings in which we live, for they corrupt our instincts and our wills.”

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A bit later he took a leading part, with the great composer-to-be Richard Wagner by his side, in the Dresden rebellion of May 1849, where be became a member of the insurrectionary government. On 9 May 1849 the rebellion was defeated and Bakunin, Wagner and Heuber escaped to Chemnitz where Bakunin was arrested while Wagner hid in his sister's house and escaped. Bakunin was incarcerated in Chemnitz and sentenced to death in May 1850, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. By request of the Austrian government Bakunin was extradited to Austria, where after first being jailed in Prague, then Olmütz, he was sentenced to death again, and again the sentence was altered to life imprisonment; however his stay in Austria was accompanied by severe beatings and torture as he was chained hand and foot to the prison wall. In 1850, Bakunin was extradited to Russia.

In May 1851, he found himself in solitary confinement in the dungeons of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. At the invitation of the chief of police he wrote an enigmatic Confession manuscript, which was discovered in the archives declassified after the February 1917 revolution and published as late as in 1921. The hidden motives that prompted his confession are still in dispute. It consisted of expressions of repentance for misdeeds and abject appeals for mercy but also included some gestures of defiance, playing heavily on Bakunin’s devotion to the Slavs and hatred of the Germans - sentiments that were noted with interest and approval by the tsar. The Confession is important principally for its account of the early development of Bakunin's revolutionary philosophy. It covers the prisoner's life from his arrival in Berlin in 1840 to his arrest by the Saxon police in May 1848. As a psychological document, the Confession shows Bakunin disillusioned by political failure yet undaunted in spirit.

Nevertheless, the Confession did not win Bakunin’s release, and he remained in the Peter and Paul Fortress for three more years then in the Schlisselburg Fortress another three years, during which time his health deteriorated rapidly as he succumbed to scurvy, causing his teeth to fall out. In 1857 he was released and exiled to Siberia, where on 5 October 1858 he married Antonia Kwiatkowski, the young daughter of a Polish merchant, and moved to Irkutsk. The governor of Eastern Siberia was a cousin of Bakunin’s mother and it was probably through this connection that he obtained permission in 1861 to travel down the Amur River, ostensibly on commercial business. Having reached the coast in a Russian ship, the Strelok, in July, he transferred to an American merchant vessel Vickery bound for Hakodate, Japan, then traveled to San Francisco. In November he crossed to New York and on 27 December 1861 he arrived in London. While in the US he declared his intention of becoming an American citizen. The poet Henry W. Longfellow portrayed Bakunin in his diary as "a giant of a man with a most ardent, seething temperament."

In 1862 Bakunin joined Alexander Hertzen, whom he had last seen in Paris in 1847 and who now occupied a preeminent position among Russian émigrés as editor of revolutionary journal Kolokol ("The Bell") and Nicholas Ogarev. Bakunin's intention was to devote all his energies to fighting for the freedom of Russians and Slavs. His instincts were against moderation and conspiratorial intrigue was his goal as he plunged into plotting with immense zest. He had plans for agitating the army and the peasantry and he played with the idea of a vast revolutionary organization ringing Russia with a network of agents at strategic points on the border. Siberia was to be served by a branch located on the western coast of the United States.

Bakunin's 14-month stay in London led to an irretrievable rift with Hertzen, who had shed some of the revolutionary ardor of his youth and had already crossed swords with the critic and novelist Nicholas Chernyshevsky and other Russian radicals of the next generation. He found Bakunin's financial as well as political irresponsibility hard to bear. Temperamentally the two men were so incompatible that they could not be comrades-in-arms, though they remained good friends.

When the Polish insurrection broke out early in 1863, Bakunin eagerly embarked with a shipload of Polish volunteers for the Baltic. He got only as far as Sweden, where he spent a fruitless summer. The failure of the Polish insurrection in 1863 was a big disappointment for Bakunin, who henceforth became absorbed in a campaign of universal anarchy. In early 1864 he established himself in Italy, which became his residence for four years. It was there that he framed the main outlines of the anarchist creed that he preached with unsystematic but unremitting vigor for the rest of his life. It was there, too, that he began to weave that complex network, part real, part fictitious, of interlocking secret revolutionary societies that absorbed his energies and bewildered the followers whom he enrolled in them.

In 1866 Bakunin organized in Naples a secret international brotherhood known later as the International Alliance of Social Democracy. It was a conspiratorial organization, for Bakunin never outlived his taste for the dark and the secret. Its program - embodied in Bakunin's Revolutionary Catechism - rejected the state and organized religion, advocated communal autonomy within a federal structure and maintained that labor "must be the sole base of human right and of the economic organization of the state." In keeping with the cult of violence that was part of the romantic revolutionary tradition, Bakunin insisted that the social revolution could not be achieved by peaceful means. Nevertheless, in 1867 he emerged into public life as a figurehead of the short-lived League for Peace and Freedom, a body of pacifistic liberals, within which Bakunin led the left wing.

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Meanwhile, the International Alliance of Social Democracy in 1869 was dissolved when Bakunin and his followers entered the International Workingmen's Association (also known as the First International), a federation of radical and trade union organizations with sections in most European countries, aimed at transforming capitalist societies into Socialist commonwealths and their eventual unification in a world federation. While agreeing with much of Marx's economic theory (in the fall of 1869 he even tried to translate Volume I of Das Kapital into Russian but left the manuscript, along with many others, unfinished), he rejected his authoritarian politics. Within the International, Bakunin and the southern European federations challenged the power of Marx, which became the most famous episode of Bakunin's later years. The dispute centered on disagreement over political methods. While Marx believed that socialism could be built by taking over the state, Bakunin looked forward to its total destruction and the creation of a new society based on free federations of workers. He had no faith in parliamentary politics and joined Proudhon in saying that universal suffrage meant counterrevolution. He believed in mass self-organization, collectivism, and held that in place of the State, there would arise a free federation of autonomous associations enjoying the right of secession and guaranteeing complete personal freedom. Bakunin thought that Marx's strategies would only lead to another despotism, which in a way turned out to be a wise foresight.

The same organization could not hold two such powerful and incompatible personalities and at The Hague Congress in 1872 Marx secured the expulsion of Bakunin and about 30 of his followers from the International. Two of Bakunin's major writings, “L'Empire Knouto-Germanique et la Révolution Sociale” (1871, including the sections published posthumously as “God and the State” where he reversed Voltaire's quote that "if god did not exist, he would be necessary to invent" to "if god really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him") and “Staat en Anarchie” (1873), which reflected his conflict with Marx. Bakunin was as uncompromising a revolutionary as Marx, but he rejected political control, centralization, and subordination to authority (while making an unconscious exception of his own authority within the movement). He denounced what he regarded as characteristically Germanic ways of thought and organization and opposed them with the untutored spirit of revolt that he found embodied in the Russian peasantry. In a way, Bakunin's anarchism took its final shape as the antithesis of Marx's communism.

Amidst the political debates and quarrels, Bakunin again, in 1870, attempted a popular uprising at Lyons on the principles afterwards exemplified by the Paris Commune. The uprising was suppressed and Bakunin was forced to flee in the face of an arrest warrant.

During his last years, which he spent in penury in Switzerland, Bakunin reverted to his preoccupation with central and eastern Europe consorting with Russian, Polish, Serb and Romanian émigrés, among whom he found eager disciples; he drafted proclamations and planned revolutionary organizations. He was compromised by a short-lived enthusiasm for Sergey Nechaev, a young Russian nihilist who paraded his contempt for conventional morality, achieved notoriety by murdering a fellow conspirator whom he suspected of intending to betray or desert the cause and for this crime was eventually extradited to Russia by the Swiss authorities (the Nechaev case inspired Feodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel “The Demons”). Bakunin actually helped to build up the Nihilist party in Russia on the basis of undoing present injustice without seeking to hamper, or even to guide, the natural evolution in the future.

Meanwhile, Bakunin's health declined rapidly while his financial embarrassments became ever more acute and he depended on the bounties of a few Italian and Swiss friends. But he never wholly lost the resilience of his revolutionary convictions. In July 1874 Bakunin for a while joined his friends in Bologna where they had planned an uprising, but then returned to Switzerland in disguise, retired from the movement and settled in Lugano. He died, exhausted, in Bern on 1 July [June 19] 1876.

Bakunin’s legacy is enormous, though he was not a systematic writer. He wrote manifestos, articles, books and magnificent letters arousing the torpid and nerving the timid, but he never finished a single sizable work. Primarily an activist, he would stop, sometimes literally, in mid-sentence to play his part in struggles, strikes and rebellions. What he left to posterity is a collection of fragments. Fertile in suggestion, his writings were of the nature of fragments cast off red-hot from the fiery furnace of his mind. "My life," he used to say, "is but a fragment." Bakunin was more of a stimulator than an organizer. He admitted that he had no sense of "literary architecture" and saw himself primarily as a man of action, although his actions were rarely successful and his life was punctuated by abortive revolts. His writings were intended to provoke action; they were topical in inspiration, if not always in content, and it is in numerous pamphlets on current events and in reports written for congresses and organizations that his opinions are scattered.

Bakunin was not a great theoretical originator of ideas as he was influenced by Hegel, Auguste Comte, Proudhon, Ruge, Charles Darwin and even Marx. Original in Bakunin are his sharp insight into contemporary events and the most vivid power to create a synthesis of borrowed ideas around which the anarchist movement would have crystallized. His lifelong friend, Hertzen, once remarked about Bakunin: "This man was born not under an ordinary star, but under a comet.”

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