Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Coast of Utopia

The other night I attended one of the preview performances of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage” in its New York production. In fact this is the first installment of a huge three-part sequence. It is about six men who become friends in the Russia of the 1830s. Appropriately, the production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center is lavish, with a revolving stage, backlighted curtains, and a cast of almost 100. In performance the play turns out to be a kind of duel between Ethan Hawke, who plays Michael Bakunin, and Billy Crudup, who impersonates Vissarion Belinsky. Both actors are matinee idols of a sort. Mr. Hawke is monotonously strident, so the palm goes to Mr. Crudup, who is engaging in a puppy-dog way, just this side of cuteness.

The six men are fascinated by the latest developments in German philosophy, going from Kant to Schelling and Fichte, and ending up with G.W.F. Hegel. There are long, somewhat didactic speeches attempting to put these philosophical developments into a nutshell and to show how they interact with the temperaments and personal lives of the young men. Towards the end, Bakunin achieves his aim-—to go to Berlin to study philosophy.

I gather that the succeeding two parts revolve mainly around Alexander Herzen, a rara avis in Russian intellectual life, as he was neither a reactionary nor a revolutionary but a democrat. Stoppard follows Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation, and for Berlin Herzen was a personal hero. Like Bakunin, Herzen lived in exile in the West, making his appearance in “tamizdat,” periodicals and broadsides that were smuggled back into Russia to evade the censorship. These exiles mounted a process of seeking political and social change from the outside. More recently their efforts have been emulated, with varying success by Cuban, Chilean, and Iranian exiles—together with many others.

For me, however, Bakunis is the more interesting figure. Abandoning his aim of becoming a professor of philosophy he threw himself into the revolutionary struggles that convulsed Europe in the middle decades of the 19th century.

Bakunin’s political orientation emerged when he went with the Russian army to suppress the Polish uprising. His revulsion at this enterprise led to his commitment to achieve the emancipation of the captive Slavic nations, a goal that has only been finally achieved with the fall of the Soviet Union. In this way he placed his ideals above his country. In fact, Bakunin was truly a citizen of cosmopolis, the world city.

After many wrangles with his father, Bakunin went to Berlin in 1840. His stated plan at the time was still to become a university professor (a “priest of truth,” as he and his friends imagined it), but he soon joined radical students of the so-called “Hegelian Left.”

In his 1842 essay “Reaction in Germany,” he argued (in a Hegelian mode) in favor of the revolutionary role of negation. “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternally creative source of life. The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” Had he known something of Hinduism, Bakunin might have been a devotee of the goddess Kali.

After three semesters in Berlin Bakunin went to Dresden where he became friends with Arnold Ruge. He abandoned his interest in an academic career, devoting more and more of his time to promoting revolution. The Russian government, taking note of his radicalism, ordered him to return to Russia. On his refusal his property was confiscated. Instead he went with the German poet Georg Herwegh to Zurich.

During his six month stay in the Swiss city, he became closely associated with German communist Wilhelm Weitling. Until 1848 he remained on friendly terms with the German communists. He moved to Geneva in western Switzerland shortly before Weitling's arrest. Then he went to Brussels, where he met many leading Polish nationalists, such as Joachim Lelewel. Yet he clashed with them over their demand for a historic Poland based on the borders of 1776 as he defended the right of autonomy for the non-Polish peoples in these territories.

In 1844 Bakunin went to Paris, then a kind of clearing house for European radicalism. He established contacts with Karl Marx and the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who greatly impressed him and with whom he formed a personal bond.

As the revolutionary movement of 1848 broke out, Bakunin was ecstatic, despite his disappointment that little was happening in Russia. He left for Germany, traveling through Baden to Frankfurt and other German cities. In Prague he participated in the First Pan-Slavic Congress-—which unfortunately was a failure. Nonetheless, Bakunin published his “Appeal to the Slavs” in the fall of 1848, in which he urged that Slav revolutionaries unite with Hungarian, Italian, and German revolutionaries to overthrow the three major European autocracies, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia.

Bakunin played a leading role in the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, helping to organize the defense of the barricades against Prussian troops with the composer Richard Wagner. He was captured in Chemnitz and held for thirteen months before being condemned to death by the government of Saxony. As the governments of Russia and Austria were also after him, his sentence was commuted to life. In June 1850 he was handed over to the Austrian authorities. Eleven months later he received a further death sentence, but this too was commuted to life imprisonment. Finally, in May 1851, Bakunin was relinquished to the Russian authorities.

Bakunin was taken to the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of his captivity, Count Orlov, an emissary of the Tsar, visited Bakunin and told him that the Tsar requested a written confession hoping that the confession would place Bakunin spiritually as well as physically in the power of the Russian state. Since all his acts were known, he had no secrets to reveal, and so he decided to write to the Tsar. “You want my confession; but you must know that a penitent sinner is not obliged to implicate or reveal the misdeeds of others. I have only the honor and the conscience that I have never betrayed anyone who has confided in me, and this is why I will not give you any names.”

After three years in the underground dungeons of the notorious Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, he spent another four years in the castle of Schlüsselburg. Because of the appalling diet, he experienced scurvy and all his teeth fell out. After the death of Nicholas I, the new tsar Alexander II personally struck his name off the amnesty list. However in February 1857 his mother's pleas to the Tsar finally succeeded and he was allowed to go into permanent exile in the western Siberian city of Tomsk.

Within a year of arriving in Tomsk, Bakunin married Antonia Kwiatkowska, the daughter of a Polish merchant. In August of 1858 Bakunin received a visit from his second cousin, General Count Nikolai Muravyov-Amursky, who had been Governor of Eastern Siberia for ten years. Muravyov helped Bakunin obtain a job in the Amur Development Agency which enabled him to move with his wife to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia.

Bakunin joined a circle that advanced a separatist proposal for a United States of Siberia, independent of Russia and federated into a new United States of Siberia and America (Alaska), following the example of the United States of America.

On June 5, 1861, Bakunin left Irkutsk under cover of company business. In the port of Olga, Bakunin managed to persuade the American captain of the SS Vickery to take him on board. By August 6 he had reached Hakodate in the Japanese island of Hokkaido and was soon in Yokohama. In Japan Bakunin met by chance Wilhelm Heine, one of his comrades-in arms from Dresden. Despite these experiences in Japan, Bakunin remained resolutely Eurocentric.

He left Japan on the SS Carrington, arriving in San Francisco on October 15. By way of Panama he traveled to London, where he immediately went to see Herzen.

Back in Europe, Bakunin immersed himself in the revolutionary movement. In 1863 he joined a revolutionary expedition to aid a Polish insurrection against the Czar, but the revolt failed and Bakunin ended up in Sweden. In 1864 he traveled to Italy, where he first began to develop his anarchist ideas. He conceived the plan of forming a secret organization of revolutionaries to carry on propaganda work and prepare for direct action. He recruited Italians, Frenchmen, Scandinavians, and Slavs into the International Brotherhood, also called the Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists.

In 1868 Bakunin joined the Geneva section of the First International, in which he remained very active until he was expelled from the International by Karl Marx and his followers at the Hague Congress in 1872. Although Bakunin accepted Marx’s class analysis and economic theories regarding capitalism, acknowledging “Marx’s genius,” he thought Marx was arrogant, and that his methods would compromise the social revolution. More importantly, Bakunin criticized “authoritarian socialism” (Marxism) and the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat which he adamantly rejected. “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself.”

In 1870 Bakunin led a failed uprising in Lyon on the principles later exemplified by the Paris Commune, calling for a general uprising in response to the collapse of the French government during the Franco-Prussian War, seeking to transform an imperialist conflict into social revolution.

Bakunin retired to Lugano in 1873 and died in Bern on June 13, 1876.

Bakunin’s political beliefs rejected governing systems in every name and shape, from the idea of God downwards, and every form of external authority, whether emanating from the will of a sovereign or from universal suffrage. In a nutshell Bakunin's political beliefs advanced several interrelated concepts: (1) liberty; (2) socialism; (3) federalism; (4) anti-theism; and (5) materialism. He also developed a prescient critique of Marxism, predicting that if the Marxists were successful in seizing power, they would create a party dictatorship "all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people's will."

The above account, which makes no claim to originality, shows that Bakunin’s colorful life—completely devoted to his cause—and his eloquent writings entitle him to a whole play by itself. I confess that I have always admired Bakunin.

Through his courageous example and insightful writings Michael Bakunin left an invaluable legacy for both anarchism and libertarianism.

1 Comments:

Blogger The Gay Species said...

Bakunin is a testament to the irrepressibility of human freedom, even if he occasionally connected with opposite spirits. How he ever embraced anarchy and socialism, ostensibly polar opposites, remains a curiosity.

“If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself,” is one of the greatest political insights ever. The Bolshevik Revolution proved his point. And still we forget it.

And once again, Hegelian "logic" and German Idealism are the intellectual inheritance for "new" tyrannies, as "contradiction" is recast as "synthesis." Amazing what a simple change of idea can do to us. And still, the sentiment outweighs the logic.

1:26 PM  

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