Memories of Bakunin

Just when you though anarchist studies was a dead subject, Mark Leier, the director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada has published a new biography of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. You can read Walter Moss’ review of the book in the Moscow Times. It sounds like a good read, though sadly Leier doesn’t take advantage of the voluminous amount of Russian sources.

I’ve always found Bakunin an attractive figure. Alexander Herzen paints a wonderful picture of him in his memoirs My Past and Thoughts. Bakunin’s debates with Marx are a classic moment in revolutionary intellectual history, though when you think of about it, it is wholly unimportant in the big scheme of things. Unfortunately, not everyone is so convinced of its irrelevance to current politics.

About ten years ago I went to an anarchist convention in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park. The main attraction was not only the book fair, but the fact that Jello Biafra was speaking. When I ventured outside the pavilion for a break from the anarchist hubbub, I came upon a lone Spartacist member peddling the League’s newspaper the Workers Vanguard. Not having much exposure to the Sparts at that time, I began talking to him. What followed was a lesson in American radical politics.

While I was talking to the Spart, an anarchist approached and began denouncing the Trotskyist for a number of political historical crimes: betraying Nestor Makhno and being on the wrong side of the Bakunin-Marx debate. The Spart rebutted with similarly silly accusations. There was a good lesson in this comedic moment: both of these fools were completely irrelevant. And how could they not be? One was speaking about a debate that happened in 1848 as if it was yesterday, and the other was selling a newspaper that had little pictures of Lenin and Trotsky inside the front page.

As a postscript, I did subscribe to the Workers’ Vanguard that day. It wasn’t because I found the Spartacist line attractive in any way, but because it was cheap and I was into collecting radical newspapers at the time. The paper never really impressed; it was mostly concerned with resurrecting revolutionary corpses from a bygone time. Though I must say, it did give me a few laughs, especially when a few months later they published three issues revisiting that damn Bakunin-Marx debate.