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 reading—English and French Romantics and German philosophers, in particular—and writing for little Russian magazines. This provided the basis for his later theories, 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.

When the revolution came in 1848, Bakunin was on the barricades—Marx said it wasn’t the right “stage” and went to London—and was part of the quasi-anarchist Republican government. He was given money by the Republic to go foment revolution in Poland, which he tried, and then to Prague, where he tried again, and then, in 1849, to Dresden for an uprising against the king of Saxony. That revolution, like all the others, was put down ruthlessly, and this time Bakunin was arrested, sent to prison, found guilty of treason, and then in 1851 handed over to Austria where he was once again found guilty. The Russians stepped in and took him to Moscow, where he was imprisoned for the next seven years and finally, inflicted with scurvy and heart problems, sent to exile in Siberia.

By 1861, Bakunin was well enough to plot an escape and managed to get on a ship that ultimately led him to Japan, then San Francisco, New York, and finally London. For two years he agitated and spoke to the radical circles there, then went to Italy, where in 1866 he wrote his basic manifesto, now as a full-blown anarchist. He called for the “radical overthrow of all presently existing religious, political, economic, and social organizations,” to be replaced by a society built “on the basis of utmost equality, justice, work, and an education inspired exclusively by respect for humanity,” a world in which liberty meant “the absolute right of all adult men and women to seek no sanction for their actions except their own conscience and reason … responsible to themselves first of all, and then to the society of which they are a part, but only insofar as they freely consent to be part of it.” Labor would be social and collective rather than individual, land and resources would be shared equally by all, and women would be the absolute equals of men in all affairs. It was a dramatic picture drawn in complete contrast to the world of Europe at his time—and ours.

In 1867, Bakunin and a small band of followers moved to Switzerland, where he lived most of the rest of his life. He spent his time writing and speaking, establishing himself as the leading intellectual of an anarchist movement that began to have a wide following, particularly in Italy and Spain, with a solid core in Switzerland. He set forth the basic tenets of the movement—workers and peasants would lead the revolution, not intellectuals; secret organizations might be needed to lead the revolution in repressive places like Russia, not as “commander” or “manager” but as “servant” and “helper” of the people; elections and legislatures served only to put a minority in power over a majority and would be unwanted in a free society; claims about the “necessity” of government were founded on false ideas about the weakness and ineptitude of the people, whereas “the state was nothing other than regulated and systematized domination and exploitation” of them; and Marxists and other sorts of “authoritarian socialists” were wrong to want to take over the state and direct it on their own principles because that would only be substituting one minority ruling class with another.

Since anarchism became associated with the advocacy of violence after a failed assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1866 and attempts by other groups in France and Italy in the next few years—and the idea of anarchist-as-bomber fixed so firmly that it still is dominant today—it fell to Bakunin to try over and over again to set the issue straight, and Leier spends a lot of time laying it out. Bakunin was a revolutionary, true, and a revolution might be met with force by the state it was trying to overthrow—but any violence would be in self-defense, since there was no point in trying to change power relationships and property arrangements by guns and bombs. And before the revolution, it would not serve any larger purpose to attempt assassination or terror, since that would more likely turn the mass of people against the cause rather than to it. “Direct action” is a phrase often associated with Bakunin, implying he was for violence, but the phrase meant for him not assassinations and such but the opposite of indirect action, which was political reform and representational government—direct as in forming trade unions, calling a strike or a boycott, or sabotage, direct as in “the organization of the forces of the proletariat,” direct as in marches and demonstrations, the burning of deeds and mortgages in public, the refusal to pay taxes.

It was during his days in Switzerland that Bakunin formed the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries, which functioned openly as a political group, with meetings, speeches, manifestoes, pamphlets, all putting forth the anarchist program. That, as Bakunin put it, meant “the abolition of cults” and religion, the “substitution of science for faith,” “political, economic, and social equalization of classes and individuals of both sexes,” land and capital “becoming the collective property of the entire society,” education for “children of both sexes,” a “universal union of free associations…on the basis of liberty,” and the “international or universal solidarity of the workers of all countries.” With this program, the Alliance joined Marx’s International Working Men’s Association—the famous International that for a decade after its formation in 1864 would represent socialists and anarchists of all stripes across Europe.

It was a stormy decade for Bakunin, for he and Marx, though agreeing on much, disagreed on many major points—reformism, the state, the timing of revolution—and their feud, in print and at congresses, was long and bitter, full of false innuendo and slander against Bakunin that has done much to discolor his portrait for succeeding generations. They didn’t even agree about the two communes that were created—in Lyon and Paris—in the wake of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, both of which Marx ignored, both of which Bakunin went to in support of what he saw as the start of replacing the state with spontaneous self-organized associations of the people.

Bakunin’s last salvo against the Marxists was Statism and Anarchy, written in 1873, where he denounced the authoritarianism in Marx’s vision, argued that it was folly for revolutionaries to use the power of the state, and said flatly that Marx’s idea of the “revolutionary dictatorship” to supposedly express “the will of all the people” was anathema to those who believed in democracy and liberty. But Bakunin no longer had the health and strength to fight this point of view through the International’s congresses, or even to lead the anarchist International, which was created in Switzerland in 1872. Overweight and asthmatic, with a poor heart ill served by constant smoking, Bakunin was increasingly bedridden, and finally died in a hospital in Berne in 1876. (Too bad he could not have known that there would be more people at his funeral service than at Marx’s six years later.)

Leier spends a chapter trying to argue that Bakunin had a significant influence on later thinkers, ranging from Peter Kropotkin and Enrico Malatesta to the Wobblies and Spanish anarchists in the Civil War to Herbert Marcuse, E.P. Thompson, Neil Postman, and A.S. Neill, down to the anarchists gathered these days under the banner of “anti-globalization.” But his evidence here is meager, and in the end the best he can do is say of today’s anarchists that “a reexamination of Bakunin may be useful,” not that any of these people has ever read or studied Bakunin’s voluminous works or were inspired by their libertarian vision.

Leier has served his subject well, and it is good to have another biography (and by a major publisher) that frees Bakunin from the demonizers—the best of the others being probably Brian Morris’s in 1993 and Paul McLaughlin’s in 2002. But as much as I’d like to see it, I’m afraid it is wishful thinking to say that opposition to the nation-state, a desire to do away with capitalism, and a preference for spontaneous free associations of equals play much part in contemporary politics.
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Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books, including, this fall, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Dominance. He is the director of the Middlebury Institute “for the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination.