To get a handle on what’s been going on lately in Oaxaca, that beautiful Mexican city that has been lately transformed into a bloody proving ground for strikers, marchers, rioters, armed gangs, federal police battalions, and anarchists, you don’t really have to go all the way back to the 19th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakunin.
But you will want to know something about Bakunin if you’re interested in how Oaxaca so rapidly mutated into a candle flame for the moths of North America’s counterculture left, not least of whom was the plucky anarchist and Indy media activist Bradley Roland Will, who died in Oaxaca on October 27 with two bullets in his body.
And if you want to know about Bakunin, you’re going to have to read the brilliant, just-published Bakunin: A Biography (St. Martin’s Press, $34.95), by Simon Fraser University labour historian Mark Leier, because it’s probably the best book, certainly the most complete book, on the life, the times, and the ideas of anarchism’s most important philosopher.
Bakunin figures into Oaxaca in the same way that he figures into the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) pepper-spray rumpus at UBC, the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, and the pitched battle between rioters and Italian police at the July 2001 Group of Eight summit in Genoa that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Italian anarchist Carlo Giuliani.
Bakunin figures into all this because the vanguardists involved in these violent showdowns—and there have been dozens of such donny brooks in recent years, large and small—are in many ways the ideological heirs of Bakunin. But it is not as though all the activists who vainly court these excitements have been reading too much Bakunin, Leier told me the other day. If anything, they’ve been reading far too little of him.
“I know, I know, theory without practice means nothing,” Leier said, anticipating his critics. “But practice without theory can make you do really stupid things.”
Bakunin was perhaps the most dangerous European revolutionary of his generation. Born an aristocrat and trained as a czarist officer, Bakunin was an imposing intellectual presence during the revolutionary tumults that swept Europe in 1848. His insurrectionary activities in France helped precipitate the 1871 Paris Commune, an uprising that was crushed in a slaughter that cost the lives of at least 20,000 Parisians.
Bakunin spent several years in prison—in Dresden, in Prague, in St. Petersburg, and finally in Siberia—but he managed to flee, by ship, via the Sea of Okhotsk to Japan, and then to San Francisco, and after he made it back to Europe he threw himself back into the work of the revolution. He died in 1876.
Karl Marx recognized a formidable adversary in Bakunin, and Marx lived in Bakunin’s shadow for much of his life. And although Leier makes a convincing case that the ideological gulf between Bakunin and Marx was not as wide as Marx’s hagiographers would have us believe, there remains a fundamental difference between the two revolutionists.
Bakunin ended up heartily disavowing communism because he was against the proletariat becoming the supreme authority in society. To Bakunin, authority itself was the enemy, all coercion was evil, and so he was against the idea of workers rising up to seize the state. Bakunin wanted to smash the state.
In these ways, Bakunin lived on in the counterculture, in both the outlook as well as the “grassroots” organizing methodology often employed by trade unionists, feminists, and environmentalists. But it is in the violent “propaganda of the deed” that hoodie-wearing, slingshot-firing activists err by a tragic misreading of Bakunin, Leier argues. Further, the emergence of identity politics and other postmodernist currents would not have made Bakunin any happier.
Firstly, Bakunin opposed violence. He recognized violence against property would be a necessary feature of the revolution, but he would have seen no virtue in provoking riot squads into ambuscades just for the sake of it. Secondly, Bakunin never abandoned the working class as the primary agent of social change, and he certainly wouldn’t have gone looking for more “revolutionary” substitutes for it.
Leier does perhaps gloss over certain of Bakunin’s unseemly traits—a tendency to vile anti-Semitism, a habit of flirting with out-and-out sociopaths, a weird fascination with secret societies—but Leier is unapologetic about his intention to rehabilitate Bakunin’s reputation. And that’s a worthy project. Lately, Bakunin’s ideas have been unfairly blamed for the outrages of such repulsive characters as the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh; the “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski; and the Islamist mass murderer Osama bin Laden.
Leier also intends to contribute in some small way to the restoration of anarchism as something worth taking seriously as a source of political and ethical theory. That might be a harder task. With the hindsight of more than a century since Bakunin’s death, it is no easier to imagine a global civilization organized along the lines of a volunteer fire department.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss Bakunin, in at least this one respect: he was an optimist. In the darkest and bloodiest moments of the 19th century, Bakunin was capable of imagining a brighter, freer world, and it was to that end that he dedicated his life. We could use more of that now adays.
The Chronicles blog can be found at transmontanus.blogspot.com/.