Military history

Chapter 19

Herzen and Bakunin

People don’t storm the Bastille because history proceeds by zigzags. History proceeds by zigzags because when people have had enough, they storm the Bastille.

—Alexander Herzen

Alexander herzen was a rare combination of a commitment to radical change with a fear of the consequences of reckless action. He is the hero of playwright Tom Stoppard’s remarkable trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, in which Stoppard portrays the circle of mainly Russian radical émigrés who moved in and out of Herzen’s life during the middle of the nineteenth century. Herzen was born in 1812 in Moscow, just before Borodino. An illegitimate child of the aristocracy, he became a brilliant writer and conversationalist, a shrewd observer of the human condition, and—while in exile—an influential agitator for change in Russia.1 Stoppard’s plays were held together by the interaction between the personal and public dramas of Herzen’s life, including his wife’s tempestuous affair with a German revolutionary. The intellectual meat came from the constant question about how to stimulate and direct radical political change. In Stoppard’s plays the great revolutionary figures of this time look forward with enthusiasm and without qualms to a coming revolution that in reality filled Herzen with deep foreboding.

Stoppard draws on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, also a fan of Herzen, in portraying a man who “favored the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical,” and could not accept that “future bliss justified present sacrifice and bloodshed.” For Herzen, according to Stoppard, “there was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind.”2 When a radical spoke of the “Spirit of History, the ceaseless March of Progress,” Herzen exclaimed, “A curse on your capital letters! We’re asking people to spill their blood—at least spare them the conceit that they are acting out the biography of an abstract noun.”3

With his liberal skepticism and general distrust of intellectuals on a mission, Stoppard did not do full justice to Herzen’s libertarian socialism.4 Until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Herzen was playing an important role in generating pressure for change in Russia. His paper, The Bell, was required reading among intellectual and elite circles in Russia. He produced this in conjunction with his close friend, the poet Nicholas Ogarev. Many readers, even from the elite, shared his sense of humiliation that Russia was the backward country of Europe, still mired in feudalism and unable to join in the economic, social, and political dynamism of the time. Herzen’s method was to expose scandals, mock censorship, and reveal abuses, concentrating on the reasons why reform was necessary and not on how it should be achieved. He was even prepared to invest hopes in Tsar Alexander, to whom he made direct appeals. At first this was politically astute, making it possible to condemn the government vigorously without appearing to call for revolution.

This stance led to disputes with revolutionaries who could see no reason to trust the Tsar and accused him of lacking a program. He particularly quarreled with the nihilists. This was a group described by another member of Herzen’s circle, the novelist Ivan Turgenev, in his 1862 book Fathers and Children . A nihilist “does not bow down before any authority, and accepts no principles on trust, however much respect they may enjoy.” The nihilists were resolutely materialist, refusing to believe anything that could not be shown to be true. All abstract thought and aesthetics were decried. Their sole interest was to create a new society. One of their intellectual leaders was Nicholas Chernyshevsky. His novel What Is to Be Done? . written while in prison in 1862 and escaping the censor only by mistake, was generally given low marks as literature. It nonetheless became a handbook for young zealots, demonstrating how revolutionaries should steel themselves for the struggles ahead. Whatever Herzen’s personal views, his press in London was responsible for the covert publication of many of the key nihilist texts.

Stoppard staged his version of a real encounter between Herzen and Chernyshevsky in 1859. Chernyshevsky had once been an admirer but now found Herzen an irritating “dilettanti of revolutionary ideas.” His wealth and social position allowed him a disengaged approach to the struggle and to embrace the delusion of reform, that authority might undermine itself. For Chernyshevsky, “only the axe will do.” Herzen considered such arguments divisive. He could not endorse a stance that would serve the government by driving the reformists into the arms of the conservatives. “[A]re we ridding the people of the yoke so that they can live under a dictatorship of the intellectuals?” Better to move forward by peaceful steps than have blood flowing in the gutters.5

The Tsar’s Emancipation of the Serfs of March 1861 was the turning point. Herzen made this an occasion for a big party at his London home, but the celebration was soon muted. Not only were the details of the declaration a deep disappointment, revealing it to be something of a fraud, but it was followed almost immediately by a massacre in Warsaw by Russian troops. Herzen’s sympathy was with the peasants and the Poles, and his anger ran deep. Having worked to hold together a reforming coalition, he could now no longer do so. The betrayal was too great. He broke with the liberals, who feared both restlessness at home and an uprising in Poland. He wrote in The Bell in November 1861 that “a moan is growing, a murmur rising—it is the first roar of the ocean waves, which seethe, fraught by storms, after the terrible wearisome calm. To the people! To the people!”6This may have been more exasperation than a political program, but it was interpreted as a call to revolution. Momentarily Herzen did wonder about whether to support revolution, but he could not bring himself to back leaders who claimed to speak for a people they so evidently disdained. He refused to accept talk of the backwardness of the peasants and so moved toward populism, coming to trust more in the wisdom of ordinary people than that of the intelligentsia. “Manna does not fall from heaven,” he observed, “it grows from the soil.” Unable to abandon either his radical beliefs or his reluctance to back a selfappointed revolutionary elite, despised by both moderates and extremists, he saw with great clarity and poignancy the gap between ends and means:

Like knight-errants in the stories, who have lost their way, we were hesitating at the cross-roads. Go to the right, and you will lose your horse, but you will be safe yourself; go to the left and your horse will be safe but you will perish; go forward and everyone will abandon you; go back—that was impossible.7

Bakunin

In Stoppard’s trilogy, Marx made a cameo appearance as rude and boorish. In a dream sequence, Marx was shown delivering choice epithets for the other leading revolutionaries of 1853 (“flatulent bag of festering tripe,” less use than the “boil on my arse,” “unctuous jackass,” “impudent windbag”).8 Certainly at this time Marx and Engels had become disenchanted with many of their fellow revolutionaries. Late in his life Engels described how after a failed revolution, “party groups of various shades are formed, which accuse each other of having driven the cart into the mud, of treason and of all other possible mortal sins. . . . Naturally, disappointment follows disappointment . . . recriminations accumulate and result in general bickering.”9

Looming larger in Stoppard’s account, as in Herzen’s life, was Mikhail Bakunin, appearing as a lovable rogue, a poseur full of contradictions, always asking for money, in a fantasy world of his own yet of undoubted charisma. Having been an insurrectionary tourist in 1848, Bakunin was imprisoned in Russia and then sent to exile, from which he escaped. Thereafter he moved from one promising revolutionary setting to another, elaborating a distinctive anarchist doctrine as he did so. He shared much with Marx: rebels from comfortable backgrounds, drawn to Hegelian philosophy during their formative years, engaged with the stirrings of 1848, and enthusiasts for a working class neither knew well. They both studied philosophy in Berlin in 1840 but did not meet until 1844. Their paths crossed a number of times over the following years, including during the heady days of 1848.10 Bakunin distrusted German intellectuals and their tendency for pedantry, but not as much as Marx distrusted Russians, which is one reason he refused to have anything to do with Herzen.

Bakunin could be an original and penetrating theorist, but he was impatient, often left work unfinished, and was prone to contradictory statements. When it came to political economy, he was a disciple of Marx’s. He even contemplated (and received an advance for) a Russian translation of Capital. At times Marx appreciated Bakunin’s energy and commitment. Though Bakunin believed that Marx had denounced him in 1853 as a Russian agent, they patched over their differences. In the end their effective political careers concluded as they rowed furiously over the direction of the revolutionary movement. “He called me a sentimental idealist and he was right,” acknowledged Bakunin, “I called him vain, treacherous and cunning, and I too was right.”11

Herzen’s most quoted description of Bakunin conveys a formidable physical impression, how his “activity, his laziness, his appetite and everything else, like his gigantic stature and everlasting sweat he was in, everything, in fact, was on a superhuman scale . . . a giant with his leonine head and tousled mane.”12 In a telling description of the professional revolutionary of the time, Herzen refers to a “passion for propaganda, for agitation, for demagogy, if you like, to incessant activity in founding and organizing plots and conspiracies and establishing relations and in ascribing immense significance to them” but also to a “readiness to risk his life, and recklessness in accepting all the consequences.”13 His supporters objected, both then and now, to the idea that he was borderline deranged and attributed his wild destructive urges to his curious upbringing in an aristocratic idyll. 14 Herzen, who liked and admired Bakunin, pointed to a different sort of tension, an intense version of one facing all revolutionaries caught between ambitious ends and meager means. The stage was far too small for the role Bakunin wanted to play, and he filled it too easily. “His nature was a heroic one,” observed Herzen, “left out of work by the course of history.” Bakunin “incubated the germ of a colossal activity for which there is no demand.” He admitted to “a love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of-adventures, for undertakings that open up a boundless horizon and whose end no one can foresee.”15 Opposing all states, and believing in the wholesome spontaneity of the unfettered masses, he could still concoct plans for clandestine societies organized on hierarchical lines. In practice a poor conspirator, he could still imagine himself as a “secret director,” working upon the masses and then on post-revolutionary society as an “invisible force.”

The First International and the Paris Commune

Neither Marx nor Bakunin was responsible for the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which eventually became known as the First International. It was set up in 1864 to encourage cooperation among workers’ associations with the aim of promoting “the protection, the rise, and the complete emancipation of the working class.” It was non-sectarian and broad-based, drawing in the numerous refugees based in London and the kaleidoscope of philosophies prevalent at the time, including democrats and anarchists, internationalists and nationalists, idealists and materialists, moderates and extremists.

For Marx this was an opportunity to return to actual politics. He approved of the international links and the focus on the proletariat. This created opportunities to develop a more acute class consciousness and meant that it was worth putting to one side misgivings about the IWA’s narrow popular base and ideologically suspect comrades. Marx soon became the International’s wordsmith, managing to stay sensitive to its diverse currents of opinion. He observed to Engels how he had “to phrase matters” so as to incorporate his opinion in a form “acceptable to the present point of view of the labor movement.” It would take time “before the re-awakened movement will be in a position to use the bold language of yore.” When drafting the association’s Address to the Working Classes, he even used phrases about “duty” and “right” or “truth, morality, and justice,” though they were “placed in such a way that they can do little harm.”16 The final product was therefore measured and cautious, quite different from the assertiveness of the Manifesto. His natural inclination to collectivism and centralization was toned down. Rather than lead from the front, for the moment he was pushing from behind.

Bakunin’s years of prison and exile meant that he was unaffected by the post-1848 gloom among émigrés, and he did not really engage with the IWA for four years after its foundation. Over this time his position became more explicitly anarchist. He made his entry into the association at a congress in Basel, with Marx absent. The powerful impression he created led Marx to see him not so much as an errant comrade but as a dangerous rival. Marx had been arguing with anarchists since the 1840s when he took on Proudhon, thereby ensuring a rift between two wings of the same movement that was never healed. Proudhon’s strength lay in his writings, as his strategic judgment was always problematic. He had thrown himself into the uprisings in Paris in 1848, as a writer and speaker, but also briefly entered the National Assembly. This unhappy experience, after which he complained about the isolation and fear of the people that marked his fellow representatives, left him more enthusiastic about economic than political progress. In 1852, he had decided that Louis-Napoleon could lead France down a revolutionary road, a position he later abandoned. Although he retained a following in France, Proudhon drifted to the right in his views, becoming increasingly xenophobic, loathing direct action while recoiling from strikes and elections. Rather than wrestle with how to mobilize the masses to topple the state, he urged withdrawal from organized politics of all forms to concentrate on educating people in the ways of mutual support among free men.17 “The Workers, organized among themselves, without the assistance of the capitalist, and marching by Work to the conquest of the world, will at no time need a brusque uprising, but will become all, by invading all, through the force of principle.”18 So he dealt with the problem of strategy by not advocating any course that needed one.

Bakunin represented a quite different strand of anarchism. He rejected all forms of collectivism but enthusiastically embraced revolution, asserting the creativity of destruction. “Only life itself, freed from all governmental and doctrinaire fetters and given the full liberty of spontaneous action, is capable of creation.” A compelling orator, he was a much more charismatic figure than Proudhon. He also had his own international network of activists. Marx accused Bakunin of maintaining a clandestine organization independent of the IWA. There was some truth to the charge: Bakunin was maintaining his network in order to give the movement as a whole a surreptitious push in the preferred direction. At the same time, Marx’s campaign was tendentious and spiteful. The net result was to finish off the IWA. Eventually in 1872, Marx was able to get both Bakunin expelled and the seat of the association’s general council moved to the United States, which effectively led to its demise.

Their differences were brought to a head by the Paris Commune of 1871, a defining event for revolutionaries, comparable in significance to 1848 and just as unsuccessful. It followed the Franco-Prussian War. As Louis-Napoleon was defeated, radicals took over in France, declared the Third Republic, and continued to resist. After five months, Paris fell in January 1871. The drama was still not over. The city was in a fevered state. The people were well armed and the radicals took control. Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers from the Center-Right government fled to Versailles, where he regrouped with those of his troops, police, and administrators who had not gone over to the radicals. In Paris, a central committee arranged elections for a commune. Sundry radicals and socialists stepped forward, some looking back to the glories of 1789 while others looked forward to the new communist utopia. Louis Blanqui’s election as president was largely symbolic as the government had already arrested him. The red flag was flown, the old Republican Calendar reinstated, church and state separated, and modest social reforms introduced. Feminist and socialist ideas were actively canvassed. In the leadership, anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and sundry republicans worked reasonably well together. It did not last. Thiers’s new army eventually found a way into the city and overwhelmed a brave but hopeless defense, conducted with little central coordination and direction. Paris was retaken and reprisals began, with estimates of initial executions as high as twenty thousand.

Neither Marxists nor Bakuninists played a major role in the Commune. “They owed more to the commune than the commune owed to either of them.”19 Marx’s The Civil War in France claimed the Commune as a prototype for a revolutionary government, the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a term that later acquired more sinister overtones. The Commune demonstrated that the working class could hold power but also the difficulty of using the established state machinery for its own purposes. The Communards had “lost precious moments” organizing democratic elections rather than instantly finishing off the Versailles government once and for all. This, Marx thought, might have been achieved by conscripting the able-bodied and having a centralized command. Bakunin’s view was quite different. The whole meaning of the Commune lay in its spontaneity and decentralization to workers’ councils. Marx’s idea of a hard state under strong central direction appalled him.

He warned of the “ruling of the majority by the minority in the name of the alleged superior intelligence of the second.” In retrospect, Bakunin’s warnings about the rise of a new elite and the oppressive role of the state under socialism looked prescient.20 They flowed naturally from his conviction that the state was the root of all evil, and from his opposition to anybody setting themselves up as a power over others.

Marx denied that he considered a strong coercive state necessary for the indefinite future. It would eventually, as Engels put it, “wither away.” According to the theory the emancipation of the proletariat would be the emancipation of all humanity. As a means of class domination, the state would become redundant. The theory offered comfort, but Marx was never sentimental about the exercise of political power or under any illusions about how vicious class struggle could become. The bourgeoisie would not hand over power willingly and they would fight to get it back if it was taken from them. That could, and probably would, involve war with reactionary states. So, in the short term, Marx did not doubt for one minute that the proletariat would have to fight to hold on to power. This was the lesson of the Commune. To believe that the revolution could survive without central direction and coercive capacity was naïve. For Engels, revolution was “certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon—authoritarian means, if such there be at all.”21

For his part, Bakunin considered Marx naïve to believe that a state so forged would ever wither away. States could be expressions of any sectional interests and not just classes. Even well-intentioned revolutionary elites were capable of authoritarianism and deploying state power to maintain and develop their own position. “I am not a communist,” he explained, “because communism concentrates and absorbs all the powers of society in the state; it necessarily ends with the concentration of property in the hands of the state.” Instead, Bakunin argued for “the abolition of the state, the radical elimination of the principle of authority and the tutelage of the state.” He sought “free association from the bottom up, not by authority from the top down.”22 The challenge was not to those who wielded political power but to the very idea of political power. He acknowledged that the revolution must contend with “a military force that now respects nothing, is armed with the most terrible weapons of destruction.” Against such a “wild beast,” another beast was needed, also wild but more just, “an organized uprising of the people; a social revolution which, like the military reaction, spares nothing and stops at nothing.”23

Though this approach “allowed power to be studied in its own right,”24 it assumed that revolutions could be conducted in a way that abolished political power rather than transferred it. Power to Bakunin was an artificial construct, an unnecessary and therefore immoral imposition on humanity. Without power, humanity would be in a more authentic state, with laws reflecting its essentially harmonious nature. Only this optimism could deny anarchy its connotations of chaos and disorder, with less potential-fulfilling liberation and more chronic insecurity. But if the revolution was against power how could it succeed? Bakunin solved the problem for himself by describing a restricted role for a professional revolutionary, though he still left himself open to charges of hypocrisy. Though objecting to power in principle, he seemed to fancy it for himself, as he was always at the heart of these conspiracies. In 1870, for example, he contemplated the “creation of a secret organization of up to 70 members” who would aid the revolution in Russia and form the “collective dictatorship of the secret organization.” This organization would “direct the people’s revolution” through “an invisible force—recognized by no one, imposed by no one—through which the collective dictatorship of our organization will be all the mightier, the more it remains invisible and unacknowledged, the more it remains without any official legality and significance.”

Bakunin was, of course, operating in a milieu infested by government agents, where survival depended on concealing intentions and networks. The conspiracies were also largely products of Bakunin’s lively imagination. Few of his plans came close to serious implementation. Nonetheless, Bakunin put some effort into defining the special role for professional revolutionaries. True, they must be exceptional, constituting a “sort of revolutionary general staff composed of individuals who are devoted, energetic, intelligent, and most important, sincere and lacking ambition and vanity, capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and popular instinct.”25 The metaphor of the general staff was revealing in itself: this was after all the strategy-making body of a conventional army. Moreover, Bakunin’s critique of orthodox political activity always warned how “the best, the purest, the most intelligent, the most disinterested, the most generous, will always and certainly be corrupted by this profession [of government].” This is why he opposed participation in elections. Good people were not enough.

The way out of the logical morass was to stress how limited a role professional revolutionaries could play, whatever their intentions. For Marx, revolutions were positive, constructive events, arising naturally out of shifts in underlying economic conditions. Bakunin described them as supremely unpredictable affairs, with deep causes that could neither be manipulated nor necessarily recognized by those encouraging or opposing them. Revolutions “make themselves, produced by the force of affairs, by the movement of the masses—then they burst out, instigated by what often appear to be frivolous causes.” They emerged out of “historical currents which, continuously and usually slowly, flow underground and unseen within the popular strata, increasingly embracing, penetrating, and undermining them until they emerge from the ground and their turbulent waters break all barriers and destroy everything that impedes their course.” In this respect they were not set in motion by individuals or organizations. Instead, they “occur independently of all volition and conspiracy and are always brought about by the force of circumstances.”26

It is interesting to note how close this view of history was to Tolstoy’s. Both conveyed a sense of events emerging out of the individual responses of many people to their circumstances in ways that could neither be predicted nor manipulated. The influence was quite possible. Tolstoy’s War and Peace was written during the 1860s, appearing first in a serialized form and then in its final version in 1869. Both men were also influenced by Proudhon. Proudhon showed Tolstoy his own new book, War and Peace, when the two met in Brussels in 1861. Tolstoy borrowed the title as an act of homage.27 His own brand of Christian anarchism, which took inspiration from the simple faith of the peasantry, was close to Proudhon’s vision of a new society developing from the bottom up.

Unlike Tolstoy or Proudhon, Bakunin did see even modest scope for human agency in providing direction to revolutions. There was a role for bringing together the popular instinct—the people were socialist without realizing it—with revolutionary thought. If they did not, then they might be taken in by those who sought a dictatorship, using the people as “a stepping- stone for their own glory.” As one biographer put it, “the intellectual should play the junior role in this process, acting, at best, as helpful editor while the writing of the script was the work of the people themselves.”28This was a comforting hypothesis but as much of a fudge as Marx’s claim that the proletarian dictatorship would be no more than a transitional phase. The idea that there were forms of authority and influence so pure and natural that they could be distinguished from artificial and oppressive forms depended on an extremely simplistic view of power. Politicians always claimed to be no more than servants of the people, listening as much as leading, but in practice—as Bakunin observed—things often turned out differently.

A contrast between the two approaches can be found in their responses to the events of September 1870 as Prussia occupied France. Marx, writing for the IWA, used contemptuous language but his analysis was tight, well informed, and subtle, describing the maneuvers which led to the end of the Second Empire and the German war of conquest. He wanted the German working class, which had supported the war, to insist on an honorable peace with France, while the French working class must escape their fascination with the past. He noted presciently that if the working classes stayed passive, “the present tremendous war will be but the harbinger of still deadlier international feuds.” The overall perspective was that of a caring spectator.

Bakunin’s Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, addressed to no one in particular, was long and rambling but deeply engaged. One core theme was that the German army could be defeated and another was that this required an alliance between the working class and the peasants. Together, the French people could not be conquered by any “army in the world, however powerful, however well organized and equipped with the most extraordinary weapons.” If the bourgeoisie had not been so pathetic, there could already have been “a formidable insurrection by guerrillas or, if necessary, by brigands” against the Germans. Much now depended on the peasants. Though they could be ignorant, egoistic, and reactionary, they retained “their native energy and simple unsophisticated folkways” and would react badly to the “ideas and propaganda which are enthusiastically accepted by the city workers.” Yet the gulf between the two was really only a “misunderstanding.” The peasants could be educated away from their religion, devotion to the emperor, and support for private property if only the workers made the effort.

As the actual moment of revolution had arrived, it was too late for organization-building or the “pretentious scholastic vocabulary of doctrinaire socialism.” Instead, this was a time to “embark on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” Once stirred up the peasants could be incited “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil, and military institution, and to establish and organize anarchy through the whole countryside.” At such times it “is as though an electric current were galvanizing the whole society, uniting the feelings of temperamentally different individuals into one common sentiment, forging totally different minds and wills into one.” Alternatively it might be one of those “somber, disheartening, disastrous epochs, when everything reeks of decadence, exhaustion, and death, presaging the exhaustion of public and private conscience. These are the ebb tides following historic catastrophes.”

Propaganda of the Deed

This notion of the “propaganda of the deed” reflected Bakunin’s growing impatience with theory and a conviction that only dramatic action could penetrate the dim consciousness of the befuddled masses. Here the aim was to show how the peasants could be rid of their shackles. If only they could see the vulnerability of the existing order, their best instincts would kick in and the uprising would follow. Because the sort of deeds chosen by anarchists to stir up the masses often involved assassination, Bakunin came to be viewed as the intellectual father of radical terrorism. A key part of Marx’s indictment against Bakunin was his association with Sergei Nechayev. Bitter, ascetic, and militant, Nechayev took nihilism to destructive extremes, claiming the right and obligation to do anything in the name of the cause (a conclusion he did not solely reserve for revolutionary business). On meeting Bakunin in Switzerland in late 1868, he claimed to have escaped from prison and to represent a Russian revolutionary committee. This led Bakunin to proclaim him a member of the Russian Section of the World Revolutionary Alliance (number 2771).29

The next few months were disastrous for Bakunin. Later he rejected Nechayev’s brutal philosophy. Despite allegations to the contrary, he probably did not coauthor some of Nechayev’s starker publications, which celebrated the role of “poison, the knife, the noose” and spoke of the purifying effects of “fire and sword.” The “massacre of personages in high places,” Nechayev claimed, would create a panic among the ruling classes. The more the mighty were shown to be vulnerable the more others would be emboldened, leading eventually to a general revolution. Nechayev’s most notorious publication was the Catechism of a Revolutionary, which opened: “The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion; the revolution.”30 It was the revolution alone which distinguished between good and evil. In the end Bakunin, beguiled by a young man whose energy and militancy offered hope for the future, did not break with Nechayev because of his philosophy but because of an abuse of hospitality. Nechayev took off with his money, issued gruesome threats to a publisher on his behalf, attempted to seduce Herzen’s daughter, and murdered a fellow student to protect his own reputation.

Bakunin died in 1875, exhausted and disillusioned, his revolutionary energy sapped and his dreams dashed. Though he left behind substantial movements in Italy and Spain, as well as Russia, the immediate legacy lay in the pursuit of the “propaganda of the deed.” This focus on deeds as a spur to revolt demoted words, and resulted in even less attention being paid to the arts of persuasion. For example, the Italian Errico Malatesta, who discovered the writings of Bakunin in 1871, was explaining five years later how “the revolution consists more in deeds than in words . . . each time a spontaneous movement of the people erupts . . . It is the duty of every revolutionary socialist to declare his solidarity with the movement in the making.” Although Malatesta later argued against anarchist terror, at the time the language was forceful. A “river of blood” separated the movement from the future as they sought to destroy all existing institutions.31 Having urged an insurrectional approach on the Anarchist International, he then went off to make his propaganda through deeds, turning up in villages in Campania with an armed band, burning tax registers, and declaring the end of the monarchy. Malatesta and his followers were soon arrested. Yet Malatesta was noted for his analytical and debating skills, evident when it came to influencing juries in political trials. A police informer described him as seeking to “persuade with calm, and never with violent language.” He deliberately avoided “the pseudoscientific phraseology, violent and paradoxical turns of phrase or verbal abuse that were the stock-in-trade of so many of his fellow anarchists and socialists.”32

Thereafter he moved around Europe as well as Argentina, Egypt, and the United States, fomenting rebellion where he could and debating the character of the good society and how to overthrow the old order without using power or creating a new power in its place. Later in his long life he deplored indiscriminate terror, insisting that only justifiable violence would support liberation. “One thing is certain,” he wrote in 1894, “that with a number of blows of the knife a society like bourgeois society cannot be overthrown, being built, as it is on an enormous mass of private interests and prejudices and sustained, more than it is by force of arms, by the inertia of the masses and their habits of submission.”33

The heated language of revolution, however, never encouraged a sense of limitation when it came to force. The International Anarchist Congress, held in London in 1881, urged exploring all means for the “annihilation of all rulers, ministers of state, nobility, the clergy, the most prominent capitalists, and other exploiters,” with special attention to be paid to the study of chemistry and the preparation of explosives. The German anarchist Johann Most argued in the spirit of the Jacobins for the extermination of the possessing classes. In his pamphlet entitled “The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: a manual of instruction in the use and preparation of Nitro-Glycerine, Dynamite, Gun Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc, etc.,” he wrote: “In giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work. A pound of this stuff beats a bushel of ballots all hollow.” Assassinations became regular. Starting with Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the assassins took out a French president, a Spanish prime minister, an Italian king, and a U.S. president (McKinley), failing with the German kaiser. The murder of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in August 1914 provided the trigger for the First World War. An association between anarchism and terror was established and endures to this day, despite the best efforts of its adherents to stress its gentler and more humane aspects.

The novelist Joseph Conrad wrote perceptively about the anarchists and the circles in which they operated. In his note to Under Western Eyes, he commented on how the “ferocity and imbecility” of autocratic rule provoked the “no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means to hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institution.”34 His most famous characterization of the futile revolutionaries of his time was in The Secret Agent, published in 1907. The most notorious character was the bomb-maker known as the Professor (in fact a reject technician from a chemistry department) who lusted after the perfect detonator. By wiring himself up to explode, the Professor concluded that he had rendered himself untouchable by the police. Yet behind his “sinister loneliness” was a “haunting fear” that the people were too feeble to overthrow the established order. He was frustrated by the “resisting power of numbers, the unattackable stolidity of a great multitude.” He bemoaned the fact that the “social spirit of this people is wrapped up in scrupulous prejudices, and that is fatal to our work.” To break the “worship of legality,” he sought to trigger repression.

The most sinister figure in the book agreed. This was not an anarchist, but Vladimir, from an unnamed embassy clearly meant to be Russia’s. To Vladimir, England was a weak link in the fight against terror. “This country,” he complained, “is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty.” What was needed, he concluded, was a “jolly good scare” for which this was the “psychological moment.” What would be the best sort of scare? Attempts on monarchs or presidents were no longer so sensational while attacks on churches, restaurants, and theaters could easily be explained away. He wanted “an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying.” And so by this reasoning he identified his target as “the first meridian.” The hapless Adolf Verloc was told to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The book was based on a real incident of 1894, in which the building was not touched but the bomber was blown to pieces. Conrad described this episode as “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” In his book neither the Professor nor Vladimir are able to trigger the repression they sought and the story becomes one of individual tragedy.35

Anarchism was not solely about individual terror. Notably, a genuinely popular mass movement was developed in Spain during the first decades of the twentieth century. Anarchism was a formidable presence on the Left in Spain, more so than communism. It came in a variety of forms, including strong syndicalist tendencies among the workforce. The Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was formed in 1911 and a decade later it had over a million members. It shunned politics and committed itself to direct action in the economic sphere, denouncing all forms of power. Politics was never far away, however. There was sufficient organization to have all members agreeing that after appropriate branch discussion they were bound by the majority view. Unsurprisingly for a movement of such a size, it soon had an extremist wing, ready to engage in violent insurrection, and a moderate wing, prepared to do deals with employers and the state. In the early 1930s, the extremists, having organized themselves into an effective Bakunin-type conspiracy within the CNT, supplanted the moderates. This was a time of growing social unrest, and the movement began to face real choices. The consequences of their actions were evident and not merely theoretical.

Having abstained in the 1933 election, and let in a right-wing government, many members voted in 1936 in support of the leftist Popular front. Then came General Franco’s coup against the Republic. The resistance was led by the CNT, with its members to the fore in running areas on collectivist principles controlled by the Republic. The harsh realities of power began to intrude. The first choice was whether to dissolve the local government in Catalonia and set up what would be in effect an anarchist dictatorship or work with the sort of institutions they had always denounced. The leadership chose collaboration. As Franco’s forces gained ground, the CNT leadership accepted the need for a united front with the socialists and was soon requiring its members to follow a party line. On entering government, the CNT paper observed that because anarchists were now ministers, the state was no longer oppressive. There was conscription and demands for strict military discipline, while the social experiments (some of which had been successful) were halted. In practice, an army composed of militias, each with their own political sponsor, was always likely to lead to factional in-fighting. As the more disciplined force, and with the Republic increasingly reliant upon Soviet support, communists soon dominated the officer corps.36 Eventually the communists, with Soviet backing, turned on the anarchists and a civil war within the civil war began. To anarchism’s association with terror, the experience of Spain added an association with futility and ineffectuality.

Anarchists might see with great clarity the temptations and perversions of power, as well as its incompatibility with their ideal society, but they were unable to demonstrate how to function effectively without it. When an opportunity came to exert influence over human affairs, they either had to forget their past strictures against accepting positions of power or let others who were less squeamish about power take their chance. The anarchists understood how the means employed shaped the ends achieved, but by ruling out all effective means as potentially corrupting, they were left waiting for the people to take an initiative that they could support. There was, as Carl Levy has noted, something paradoxical about this reluctance to take power because the anarchists, more than most, “relied on its leaders (local, national and international) to help preserve institutional continuity.”37 But leaders who had to pretend that they were not leading could not provide strategic direction. Indeed, a refusal to address directly the possibilities of power precluded the possibility of a serious strategy leaving them only the role of angry critics. The question of leadership thereafter continued to divide the Left, with two extremes on offer. On the one hand were the purists who dared do little more than nudge the masses in the right direction; at the other extreme were those who put themselves firmly in the vanguard of change and insisted that there was no other way forward than the one which they set.

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