Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin

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Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin

Russian revolutionary agitator Mikhail Aleksandro vich Bakunin (1814-1876) was the leading spirit of 19th-century anarchism. He viewed revolution as the necessary means of destroying the political domination of individuals by the state.

Mikhail Bakunin was born on May 18, 1814, in Premukhino in the Tver Province to a retired diplomat and landowner. 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. Stranded in a desolate village of White Russia 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 asked to be relieved of his commission.

Bakunin went to Moscow in 1836, and from that date life began in earnest for him. He had studied nothing before, he had read nothing, and his knowledge of German was very poor. But he was blessed with a gift for dialectics and for constant, persistent thinking. He mastered German to study the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and G. W. F. Hegel. In 1842, while living in Berlin, Bakunin published an impassioned essay declaring Hegelianism a revolutionary tool and ending with the dictum that was to become the motto of international anarchism: "The passion for destruction is also a creative passion." Bakunin participated in the Paris Revolution of 1848, made a fruitless attempt to organize a secret revolutionary international campaign for a Czech revolt, and participated in the Dresden rebellion of 1849. He was imprisoned in Russia until 1857 and then exiled to Siberia. In 1861 he escaped from Siberia to Japan, and on his way to Europe he stopped off in the United States. He declared his intention of becoming an American citizen. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow portrayed the Russian in his diary as "a giant of a man with a most ardent, seething temperament."

Mission in Life

In 1862 Bakunin joined the revolutionary leaders Aleksandr Herzen and Nicholas Ogarev in London. Bakunin's intention was to devote all his energies to fighting for the freedom of the Russians and all the Slavs. He had not yet devised his anarchist doctrines, and he found himself advocating some of Herzen's views. Temperamentally the two men were so incompatible that they could not be comrades-in-arms, though they remained good friends. Bakunin's instincts were all against moderation, and conspiratorial intrigue was his goal. He embraced the cause of land and liberty and plunged into plotting with immense zest. He had plans for agitating in the army and among 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.

Concept of Revolution

Bakunin reached the conclusion that revolution is necessary, regardless of the point of the critique of society from which it starts. He frequently attempted to give a philosophical foundation to revolution. The whole history of mankind appeared to him as "the revolutionary negation of the past. … Man has liberated himself (by breaking the divine commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge); he has divided himself from animal and made himself man; he began his history and his human development with his act of disobedience and knowledge, that is, with rebellion and thought."

Bakunin held that there are principles which are the moving force of both the individual and the historical process. These are human animality, thought, and revolt. Social and private economy correspond to the first, science to the second, and freedom to the third. Man has an innate instinct for revolt. therefore, man's perpetual rebellion, which may lead to self-sacrifice and self-destruction, does not depend on either right or obligation but is immediately bestowed along with his humanity. Revolution can be looked upon as a theoretically perpetual situation or as an almost-infinite process. In theory, revolution may at some time cease and be replaced by a new order; in practice, it lasts so long that it must claim the attention of at least a whole generation. According to Bakunin, the goal of his generation was to destroy; the reconstruction would be done by others who would be better, fresher, and wiser. Bakunin never abandoned this view.

Exponent of Anarchism

The failure of the Polish insurrection in 1863 was a big disappointment to Bakunin, who henceforth became absorbed in a campaign of universal anarchy. Anarchism called for the replacement of the state with a loose confederation of autonomous units that would both end the injustices of private property and assure individual freedom. The millennium was to be achieved through an international rebellion set off by small groups of anarchist conspirators. Bakunin's anarchism, in theory, meant not disorder but lack of domination, a system without political power. Bakunin was also a militant atheist and thought religion was as great an enemy of freedom as the state was. At the end he appears to have lost his confidence in spontaneous popular uprising as the only sure method of destroying state governments.

Bakunin died in Bern, Switzerland, on July 1, 1876. His lifelong friend Herzen once remarked about Bakunin: "This man was born not under an ordinary star, but under a comet."

Further Reading

An early biography of Bakunin is Edward H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (1937). Grigorii P. Maximoff, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism (1953), studies source material. Eugene Pyziur, The Doctrine of Anarchism of Michael A. Bakunin (1955), gives a fine analysis. Recommended for general historical background is Thomas G. Masaryk, The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy (1913; trans., 2 vols., 1919; 2d ed. 1955); the author, a scholar and the first president of Czechoslovakia, makes a comprehensive survey of Russian culture and values. Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia (1952; trans. 1960), is the fullest treatment since Masaryk's of the development of 19th-century Russian radical thought.

Additional Sources

Bienek, Horst, Bakunin, an invention, London: Gollancz, 1977.

Carr, Edward Hallett, Michael Bakunin, New York: Octagon Books, 1975.

Kelly, Aileen, Mikhail Bakunin: a study in the psychology and politics of Utopianism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Mendel, Arthur P., Michael Bakunin: roots of apocalypse, New York, N.Y.: Praeger, 1981. □

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