As announced in our last number, we present on this page, for the first time in America, a faithful portrait of the founder of Nihilism,— the physical lineaments of an heroic reformer, of whom we are willing to hazard the judgment that coming history will yet place him in the very front ranks of the world’s great social saviours. The grand head and face speak for themselves regarding the immense energy, lofty character, and innate nobility of the man. We should have esteemed it among the chief honors of our life to have known him personally, and should account it a great piece of good fortune to talk with one who was personally intimate with him and the essence and full meaning of his thought and aspiration. In the absence of any direct knowledge of the man and his own interpretation of his life-work we can do no more than publish a brief sketch of his career, gathered from various German and French writings, with such inferences as appear to us just and natural.
Michael Bakounine was born in 1814 of an ancient aristocratic Russian family. His father was a wealthy proprietor of Torchok in the governmental department of Twer. He was at an early age sent to the cadet school of St. Petersburg, and entered as ensign in the artillery. In that day the artillery branch of military service was one in which the most favored aristocracy were enrolled, and it had always been the traditional policy of the czars to permit greater freedom of thought and research in that branch of the service than in any other. The immunities and privileges there enjoyed corresponded with that license which the German monarchs have always suffered in the universities, and it was there that Bakounine first nurtured the germs of those great revolutionary ideas which were destined to make his life so eventful, so heroic, and so significant in the evolution of sociological drifts.
With a deep yearning to thoroughly master the leading philosophical thought of his time, and having been commissioned as commandant of an obscure and isolated district, he became restless and disgusted, and in 1841 quitted Russia, and took up his abode in Berlin in order to become master of the Hegelian philosophy, which had already seized upon the young students and thinkers of Germany with a bewitching fascination. Here he entered assiduously into the whole realm of philosophy, especially the Hegelian, which he characterized as the “Algebra of Revolution,” and visited Dresden, Leipzig, and every other locality where he might exchange thought with the leading progressive spirits of the times. He published numerous philosophical writings over the name of Jules Elisard. In 1843 he visited Paris. Here he became an enthusiastic admirer of Proudhon, who probably seasoned his thought with those anarchistic tendencies that in later days developed his logic into what constitutes the philosophical method of Nihilism, which now appals and confounds despotism and challenges the attention of the whole world.
From Paris he next went to Switzerland, where he remained from 1843 to 1847. Here he entered into the new social movement, being en rapport with the Polish exiles. But already he had excited the gravest suspicions on the part of the Russian government, and his permis to sojourn abroad was rescinded. Instead of obeying, he returned to Paris, and there delivered a public appeal to the Poles and Russians to unite in a grand Pan-Slavonic revolutionary confederation. At the demand of the czar he was expelled in 1848 from France, and ten thousand rubles were offered for his arrest and return to Russia. But the revolution of February soon brought him back to Paris, which he quitted again, however, for Prague to attend the Congress of Slavs. The following year he went to Dresden, and became one of the chiefs of the May revolution and a member of the insurrectionary government. Forced to fly from Dresden, he was captured, sent to prison, and condemned to be executed in May, 1850. His sentence, however, was commuted to imprisonment for life. Escaping into Austria, he was again captured and again sentenced to death,— this time for high treason. But again his sentence was commuted to perpetual imprisonment. Upon repeated threats and entreaties the Austrian government was constrained to deliver him up to Russia.
As if hardly knowing how to dispose of so dear a prize, he was kept for several years in a dungeon in the fortress of Neva, and finally deported to Siberia. He spent several years in a penal colony, suffering the most cruel hardships, but finally succeeded in escaping from Siberia, a feat which he alone, it is said, ever accomplished. After a journey of one thousand miles, under hardships which approach the miraculous, he reached the sea, and obtained passage to Japan. From there he sailed to California, thence to New York, and in 1860, as if descending from the clouds, Michael Bakounine alighted, like a thunderbolt, in London.
Experiences like those already suffered would have cooled the ardor of most men, but hardly had Bakounine stepped foot in London when he took up his revolutionary schemes with redoubled enthusiasm. He issued numerous addresses to the Poles and Russians to join in a grand revolutionary confederation of Slavs. Associated with Herzen and Ogareff he published a revolutionary sheet called “The Kolokol” (The Bell). But so grand and deep and searching was his philosophy that he led all his co-laborers beyond their depth. The anarchistic philosophy which he had imbibed from Proudhon permeated all his schemes. He was now precipitated into an ever-deepening conflict with the revolutionary socialists of the Karl Marx school. At the great socialist congress in Geneva in 1870 he took direct and positive issue with the governmental wing of the party. He demanded the abolition of the State and all organized “machines” of social and religious administration. At the congress of the International at Hague in 1872 he was expelled, but succeeded in carrying thirty delegates with him, which body of anarchistic radicals finally waxed strong enough to overthrow the International Association, only to reorganize it later (as they did this last summer) under their own direction. Michael Bakounine now formulated his system of scientific anarchy as fully as his resources would permit. His hope was to crown his life-work by setting in motion a revolution throughout the world, looking to the abolition of the State and the substitution of that natural order which comes of justice, selection, and liberty. His ruling idea was: Given equality of conditions, and organized State and Church become unnecessary. The absence of equality of conditions is due to the existence of the State, and the State alone. Abolish the State! was the banner which he set up to conquer despotism, and erect upon its ruins a reign of true order and natural government. His philosophy and purposes he elaborated in several pamphlets, now very rare, principal among which was one entitled, “Dieu et l’Etat” (God and the State).
Russia, his native country, was the land in which he sought to inaugurate the grand revolution. The result is seen to-day in Nihilism, of which he is the father. Though the flippant, self-sufficient literati of the world may call Michael Bakounine a mad fanatic and visionary, there is one man who sees method in his madness, if not a wisdom akin to his sublime heroism. That man is the czar. Michael Bakounine has doomed the czardom, if not imperialism throughout Europe. His soul is marching on, and his ideas, baptized in living martyrdom, are a terror to all despots, though they may feign iguorance of him.
With hands and heart and brain full of revolutionary material, our hero died at Berne, Switzerland, in 1876. Even a tame sketch of his sufferings and adventures in the cause of liberty would make a tale alike touching and sublime. For several years of his life he was practically outlawed in every land on the planet he sought to redeem. No country would recognize him in a passport, even had he dared to ask for one. He was a refugee and an exile from every land. Despotism had standing rewards for his body. He was early disowned by his family, although his name figures among some of the chief officers near the Russian court to-day. The executioner stood waiting for him in several countries. He was everywhere tracked by spies and detectives. He dared not expose his name on the continent outside of Switzerland. He has no biographer, no authoritative defender, and possibly no authenticated grave. But his thought lives after him, and to the new world of Liberty, Justice, Peace, and Love, to establish which he suffered and died, remains the honor of doing his memory the justice denied him while living. Liberty is not afraid to honor him, being assured that posterity will yet search out his lonely resting-place and bear him from it aloft among the great founders of the new heavens and the new earth.
Benjamin R. Tucker, “Michael Bakounine,” Liberty 1 no. 9 (November 26, 1881) 1.