The Street Cred Of Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin


Unless you’ve studied Anarchism a bit, you probably have the wrong idea of what it is.  Anarchism, as expounded by Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin, is a economic and political order (yes, order) that does not rely on centralized government bureaucracies.

Anarchism as a political-economic system grows closer to my heart with each passing year and with each new elucidation of its basic tenets that I review.  Anarchism, truly understood, is blend of Liberalism and Libertarianism.  As I try to explain to my friends, scratch a Libertarian, and an Anarchist will bleed.

But before diving into Bakunin’s view on Anarchism (and his view is pretty darn relevant since he is considered by most to be the founder of Revolutionary Anarchism), I want to briefly relate a few events of his life.  I think more than most bookish types, I place a very high value on real-world experience, and Bakunin’s got some real street cred.

Bakunin was actually born a bourgeoisie.  And as Sam Dolgoff tells us in his book, Bakunin On Anarchism, Bakunin even briefly served Mother Russia as a junior artillery officer in Poland in the 1840s.

However, Bakunin is swept up in the fever seizing Europe in that incredible Revolutionary Year Of 1848, and by April 1849 he finds himself in Dresden, Saxony (Germany), assuming a leadership role in a popular uprising against Prussian troops.  Sadly for Bakunin and his fellow freedom fighters, the uprising fizzles.  When their barricades are overrun, Bakunin and the others (including later-to-be-famous composer Richard Wagner) retreat.  Again sadly for Bakunin  –and unlike the luckier Wagner– Bakunin is captured.

Bakunin is soon extradited to Austria, where he is chained to the wall and suffers brutal treatment at the hands of his Austrian captors.  He is eventually transferred to Russia where he is kept in the dungeon of the Fortress Of Peter And Paul.  When the Fortress comes under threat of bombardment during the Crimean War of 1854, he is then transferred to Schlusselberg Prison, where he suffers so severely from scurvy that he looses all his teeth.

In 1857, Bakunin is sent to the Tomsk region of Siberia.  In 1858 he marries a young Polish girl (Antonia) and they move to Irkutsk, Siberia where Bakunin works for the government in some development and mining posts.

Perhaps now is a good time to point out that, at this time, Bakunin is not yet an Anarchist, and he does not (and never will) possess any particular hatred for his home country, so working for the Russian government is not as strange as it might sound for the future Anarchist leader.  At this time in his life, Bakunin is more of a revolutionary Pan-Slavist, and hasn’t yet given much thought to economics and truly fundamental reforms in governance.   And with the politics of the day (and perhaps still occurring under the surface today), to be Pan-Slavist was often/naturally to be Anti-German.  “What the Germans hate,” Bakunin once said, “the Slavs must love.”

After a total of twelve years of imprisonment and exile, Bakunin escapes Siberia in 1861.  After a half-year spent nearly circumnavigating the globe, he winds up in London just before the new year, 1862.  There, he meets Karl Marx, one of the other titans of his age.  Bakunin grows to detest Marx, which I hope to talk about in a later post, and I have to wonder how much of this antipathy is related to his general dislike of German politics.

In 1863, Bakunin reunited with his wife Antonia in Stockholm, Sweden.  The year 1864 finds him in Italy.

By now, Bakunin– even with the subtraction of twelve years of his life and perhaps the best portion of his health– has greatly expanded his worldview.  He has traveled the globe.  He has seen firsthand the foreign-ruled country that was Poland before it was carved-up by voracious conquerors on both sides.  He has seen the plight of his own people, suffering under the rule of the Russian Tsar.  He has talked philosophy with the German Marx and seen with his own eyes the terrible living conditions of London’s working poor.  He has visited the great city of Paris, birthplace of the day’s European revolutionary spirit–  and a city still simmering just under a boil.  In Paris he spoke with the French anarchist thinker Proudhon.  And now, in Italy, he witnesses the struggle of the Italian people to free themselves from the oppressor’s yoke.

Bakunin in Italy begins, as Dolgoff points out, to mature from revolutionary nationalist to international anarchist.  He will grow to transcend his merely Pan-Slavic aspirations and emerge as a leader the great multi-ethnic, multi-national Anarchist movement– a worldwide struggle that, though it did not succeed in wiping central governments off the face of the planet, would nevertheless prove a tremendous benefactor of mankind since many of The Revolution’s demands were to be co-opted as establishment-sponsored economic and governmental reforms in the coming century.

By the way, it is also in Italy that Bakunin learns about the organization of the underground revolutionary movement known as the Carbonari.  This will influence him greatly in years to come when he is planning the worldwide workers’ revolution.  

Later, in 1870, Bakunin will again put himself on the front lines of The Revolution, when he helps man the barricades during the Lyons Insurrection in France in the time of the Franco-Prussian War.  The same spirit will motivate the famous Paris Commune uprising during the same period.

Toward the end of his life, Bakunin saw that The Revolution was not to be.  “Repression has become a new science systematically taught,” he wrote in 1875.  He then went on to say, “But there remains another hope… World War.  These gigantic military states must sooner or later destroy each other.  But what a prospect!”

Check-out other Hammering Shield posts on Anarchism, including:

“It Was Total Anarchy!” May Not Mean What You Think It Does


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