The Fatal Charm of the Millennium

New York Review of Books January 1976
New York Review of Books January 1976

The New York Review of Books
Aileen Kelly
January 22, 1976 Issue

Submitted by jondwhite on December 13, 2018

Michael Bakunin
by E.H. Carr
Octagon Books, 501 pp., $27.50
Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism
by Anthony Masters
Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 279 pp., $9.95
Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings
edited by Arthur Lehning, translated by Stephen Cox and Olive Stevens
Grove, 288 pp., $4.95 (paper)

“One of the completest embodiments in history of the spirit of liberty,” as his biographer E. H. Carr maintains, Michael Bakunin has come more than any other political thinker to symbolize the rebellion of the individual against all repressive authorities and idols, of the left as well as the right. But there is another vision of Bakunin—that of a scheming megalomaniac, collaborator with the sinister Jacobin Nechaev on projects for revolutionary dictatorship. There is evidence to support both images, and all studies of Bakunin are faced with the necessity of explaining or resolving the contradictions between them; and according to whether, in doing so, they emphasize primarily his personality or his writings, they fall roughly into two categories.

By far the best example of the first type of approach is E. H. Carr’s biography—first published in 1937 and now reissued with minor alterations. For Carr, the key to Bakunin’s activity is in a personality embodying in exceptional intensity “the pure instinct to rebel.” Born in 1814 into an aristocratic landowning family, he began his rebellion when at the age of twenty he gave up the army career for which he had been destined, to become engrossed, with the intellectual circles of Moscow, in the study of German Idealism. He went abroad to further this study, and through the German Left Hegelians he was converted to the cause of revolution. He thus began a turbulent career which was interrupted in 1849 by arrest for revolutionary activities in Germany, followed by deportation to Russia and twelve years of prison and exile. But in 1861 he escaped to Western Europe where he turned from Slav nationalism to socialism, and subsequently to anarchism, joining the International and engaging in a titanic battle against Marx’s centralist communism.

Carr presents a superbly vivid portrait of this “intense, bizarre and destructive personality,” whose complexity is reflected in the astonishing contradictions in his theories. This vehement critic of Marx’s authoritarian centralism was also the organizer and self-appointed leader of a rigidly hierarchical international secret society—his secret “Alliance,” whose goal was to organize the revolution and subsequently safeguard it through a mysterious “invisible dictatorship”—a society which on entering the International he maintained under his sole authority, while pretending to Marx he had no claims to be a rival leader. In his eternal intrigues, as Carr shows with a nice blend of irony and sympathetic insight, his Byzantine cunning was continually frustrated by his childish gullibility, and his vanity and megalomania by his practical incompetence. An inveterate dreamer and eternal optimist, he was, in his lifelong rebellion against all authorities, a perpetual adolescent. According to Carr, “the determination of the object against which his rebellions were directed…was decided by more or less transient conditions or motives, and the arguments provided by his reason to justify his revolt were more adventitious still.”

It is presumably this judgment that accounts for the glaring defect of Carr’s book—the absence of any serious analysis of the nature and provenance of Bakunin’s ideas. The…