I’ve been reading a little about the history of anarchism lately too, familiarizing myself with the contexts in which Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin’s ideas and activism arose. The 19th century was a time of incredible political upheaval, after all. The stereotype of the Victorian era’s stability is often used to gloss over the genuinely radical activities of the period and the popular resistance.
This was a century that began with the Napoleonic Wars, a military movement that lasted two decades, whose ostensible goal was quite literally the conquest of Europe. Globally, the century was dominated by the rise of colonial empires across the world. The colonial possessions of Britain and France (and the other major countries of Europe, but these were the major powers) enabled those states to build their armies and navies to such a degree that they would conquer parts of the world that were never within reach before.
Because of the incredible ethnocentrism and racism that had developed in European culture, they had no qualms about overwriting the cultures and moralities of the people in their newly colonized lands. Instead of simply exploiting the locals’ labour and extracting their resources, as most colonial empires had done before,* the European empires set about marginalizaing the cultures of the subjugated peoples. Only the horrifying trauma of the First World War could bring this process to a skittering halt. Even then, the true wind-down never occurred until after the Second World War, when the European economies and military had literally been exhausted fighting each other in a conflict that literally spanned the Earth, making the Second World War the only truly unified global war of states.
* When you look at the investments that state and Communist Party owned corporations have made throughout Africa today, it’s easy to see that this economic colonialism continues today. The Chinese, however, have the good business sense simply to strip these lands of their resources and not rub salt in the wound through further cultural destruction in the name of a false sense of moral and rational superiority.
|Bakunin, the revolutionary who never|
lost his hope, even after he lost all his
teeth from scurvy developed in a
The story of anarchist movements in the 19th century is the story of domestic resistance to these powerful state militaries and the institutions that they supported. These movements, of which Mikhail Bakunin was a central leader throughout Europe, sought to dismantle the modern militarized state and restore a new form of governance adapting the model of the communal city-state to the industrial era. We’ll never know precisely how these forms of government would have developed over time, because the political revolutions in 1848 and 1870 that tried to institute such governance models were all stamped out by the state militaries of the time.
Reading through a long biographical essay on the life of Bakunin, I am struck by the ferocity with which he advocated violent revolution, and the equal ferocity with which he denounced violence. One of the more important stories of Bakunin’s life was his brief relationship with a Russian revolutionary named Sergey Nechaev. Nechaev advocated revolution by any means, that whatever violence and despotism was necessary to install and maintain a true communist regime was justified through the justice of its goal. Bakunin could not tolerate this, and eventually broke with Nechaev because of the younger man’s utter amorality. Bakunin himself advocated violence against the state and its agents in the army and the police, but he drew the line at Machiavellian murder.
Nechaev was eventually arrested in Russia. He murdered a former member of his revolutionary cell and attempted to manipulate the murder’s public image to encourage revolt against the Tsarist regime. This plan was an utter failure, and a few years later, he was captured and locked away in the hells of the Russian prison system.
If the story sounds familiar to you, the murder and its motivation is the basic plot of Pyotr Verkhovensky’s story in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Dostoyevsky himself had been a political revolutionary, but abandoned the cause of radical socialism after the trauma of receiving a pardon from the Tsar, timed to arrive literally seconds before his execution by firing squad. After serving his prison sentence, he became a staunch social conservative and Orthodox Christian, and wrote some of the greatest works of literature in human history, including Demons.
Demons is Dostoyevsky’s most explicitly political novel, engaging with the liberal and socialist revolutions that were rocking Russia and Europe at the time. His story offered revolutionaries a powerful challenge in the figures of the Verkhovensky father and son, Stepan and Pyotr. Violent revolution, articulated in the machinations of Pyotr (who was, remember, based on a real communist revolutionary, Nechaev), could only achieve empty violence that inspired no true believers in the cause of liberation from despotism.
The route of persuasion, meanwhile, led you to the position of Stepan. A writer of moving works of political philosophy, Stepan essentially was a self-parody. A man who spent decades writing to advocate the overthrow of the Tsar and to inspire a democratic culture, he was employed as a teacher and scholar through the support of the very landed gentry he thought at the heart of such intolerable despotism. His figure cuts close to my own anxieties, as I believe in using my books to advocate and inspire social change.
So if both paths are ultimately impotent, says Dostoyevsky, what choice is left, either for the activist or the writer?