Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Bakunin as a neocon? Thats a bit much, isn't it? Bakunin's polemical style may leaves something to be desired, but his consistent opposition to power and domination make him quite distinct from the Bush crowd. He certainly wouldn't have invaded a country in order to establish military bases there.

Bruce Barnhart

Greensboro, NC

Mar 9 2007 - 2:23pm

Web Letter

Having seen Tom Stoppard on Charlie Rose and looked forward to seeing or at least reading his Coast of Utopia at some point, I was excited to find Eric Alterman’s review of it. However, as I began to read it my excitement quickly waned off. Perhaps Alterman’s straw-man of Mikhail Bakunin reflects Stoppard’s, I don’t know, but nowhere in Alterman’s piece does he begin to convey any of the contributions he made.

In fact, what Alterman says regarding the play is true of Bakunin, he “resists simple summary.” There can be no doubt that there is plenty of room for criticism of him, and he has been criticized extensively even by those who in some sense follow in his footsteps, but he was not the simple-minded “revolutionary hothead” Alterman makes him out to be. He was the first to translate Hegel into Russian, and in addition to being a prolific author and commanding orator, he was also “physically brave,” as Stoppard admitted in conversation with Charlie Rose. In addition to his disparaging comments, Berlin also said that Bakunin was, “consumed with a genuine hatred of injustice,” and had a, “spell-binding eloquence.” He names Bakunin among the “great democratic revolutionaries” of the time, who, “were admired not only as heroic fighters for freedom, but for their romantic, poetical properties as individuals.” (Karl Marx, 1939)

Bakunin was a seminal figure of the First International, and nineteenth-century socialism in general. Peter Kropotkin wrote very affectionately about him in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1889). His views were greatly influenced by Bakunin and he listed him among “our best contemporary writers” alongside Dostoevsky. Whilst in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland when some of Bakunin’s ideas were being put into practice there he noted his surprise that, “In conversations about anarchism, or about the attitude of the federation, I never heard it said, ‘Bakunin says so,’ or ‘Bakunin thinks so,’ as if it settled the question. His writings and his sayings were not regarded as laws--as is unfortunately often the case in political parties.” Interestingly, Kropotkin also wrote, “I only once heard Bakunin’s name invoked as an authority in itself, and that impressed me so deeply that I even now remember the spot where the conversation took place and all the surroundings. Some young men were indulging in talk that was not very respectful of the other sex, when one of the women who were present put a sudden stop to it by exclaiming: ‘Pity that Michel is not here: he would put you in your place!’”

What comes through to my mind when reading about Bakunin is his undaunted humanity; he emerged battered but unbroken from every storm. Kropotkin describes how he drew on Bakunin’s strength, how in prison his “thoughts fixed especially on Bakunin.” James Guillaume wrote that when Bakunin himself suffered years in harsh conditions chained and secluded, sick and malnourished, though “his body was debilitated, his spirit was indomitable. It was this above all he feared, that prison life would break his spirit; that he would no longer hate injustice and feel in his heart the passion for rebellion that sustained him; that the day would come when he would pardon his tormentors and accept his fate.” (Bakunin on Anarchy, 1971)

Bakunin’s speculations about authoritarian socialism proved regrettably prescient. He warned of a “red bureaucracy,” which would be “all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people’s will.” He rejected all authority because he believed that every man has it within himself to be vicious and despotic, if only the situation arises that his power remains unchecked. In the same vein as Lord Acton’s famous phrase that “power corrupts,” Bakunin wrote that, “Even the best of men are rendered corruptible by the temptations of power and the absence of a serious, consistent opposition.” He even said that “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself.”

“We believe power corrupts those who wield it,” said Bakunin, “as much as those who are forced to obey it.” Both the oppressor and the oppressed are degraded and dehumanized. Therefore, I think it would have been much more appropriate for Alterman to use the opportunity of this review not only to remember the ideas of revolutionary socialists long ago, but to question the institutions and relations of production that still exist. Certainly today there are, to quote Chomsky, “forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to--rather than alleviate--material and cultural deficit.” But then, as Chomsky also said, “if it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision-making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, 2005)

What I found most displeasing in Alterman’s article is his equating Bakunin with those who called for the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. To say that “Bakunin would have led the charge” is nothing short of slander, and he gives us no reason to believe it is true, but merely proclaims it as though it were beyond question. Of course, it is rather a stretch for him to try to tie the war in Iraq in with this play anyway. It would have been a much more organic transition to put into question the very “liberal evolution” (rather than revolution) that he lauds. After all, where has it gotten us? The gap between richest and poorest countries is much wider now than it was in Bakunin’s day. According to the UN, one-fifth of the population of the developed nations consumes more than four-fifths of the world’s resources! At the other end of the spectrum, more than ten million children under five die needlessly every year. The richest 400 people on earth have more money than the bottom 45 percent of the world’s population! It is truly as Peter Unger put it bitterly with his wonderful title, Living High and Letting Die.

It is well and good to have a “consistent commitment to moderation” of temperament, but as Thomas Paine, another great revolutionary, said, “moderation in principle is always a vice.” If like Bakunin we are opposed on principle to the imposition of any “will whatsoever, human or divine, collective or individual,” then we will oppose the wage system, which reduces some to the level of bosses and many more to the level of wage-slaves. If, like Bakunin, we believe that “every command slaps liberty in the face,” we will wish to see the coercive institutions that now dominate our society utterly replaced by ones that are as nonhierarchical as possible. We will want everyone to be free, because privileging some disadvantages others, and like violence authority hardens the heart and weakens the mind of everyone involved. Just as our sensitivity to cruelty and injustice in other forms has been made more acute, we may come to say of the wage-earners of our time what the Russian poet Nekrásov said of the serfs of his:

“It is bitter, the bread that has been made by slaves.”

Matthew Provonsha

Toledo, Ohio

Feb 27 2007 - 12:24pm