Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Bakunin was the foremost anarchist of his time. A relentless revolutionary agitator, he wrote prolifically and inspired a political movement which survived well into the twentieth century.
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin was born into a noble Russian family in 1814. The oldest male child in a large family, Bakunin enjoyed an especially close relationship with his four sisters, born between 1811 and 1816. His parents’ marriage seems to have been a good one, and Bakunin’s childhood, by all accounts, was outwardly happy. A small landowner, Bakunin’s father had become a doctor of philosophy at the University of Padua in Italy. He instilled in Bakunin an appreciation of the encyclopedists and the ideas of Jean- Jacques Rousseau. Ultimately, Bakunin would retain traces of both of these influences, elevating reason over faith and advocating a social philosophy which carried Rousseau’s emphasis on individual consent to radical lengths.
Bakunin was sent to artillery school in St. Petersburg at the age of fourteen. He eventually was granted a commission and was posted to a military unit on the Polish frontier. The military life was not for Bakunin, and in 1835, he bolted from his unit, narrowly avoiding arrest and certain disgrace for desertion. His disdain for authority now established, Bakunin began the study of German philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and spent time in Moscow, where he became acquainted with Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky, advocate of the poor, and Aleksandr Herzen, a reform-minded journalist. In 1840, Bakunin journeyed to Berlin to continue his education. There, he was further influenced toward political radicalism by his contact with some of the Young Hegelians.
This atmosphere of unlimited potential for change fastened Bakunin into a career of revolutionary activism. In 1842, having moved to Dresden, Bakunin published his first theoretical work in a radical journal, concluding it with what remains his most famous aphorism: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” A vigorous young man with a charismatic presence, Bakunin had come of age. His education continued as he journeyed to Paris, where he met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx. Bakunin’s concerns would expand to include everything from national liberation for the Slavic peoples to social revolution on a global scale.
Bakunin began his revolutionary career in earnest during the Revolution of 1848, a series of uprisings by workers which took place in a number of European cities. Bakunin took part in street fighting during the Paris uprising, which began in February. He then traveled to Germany and Poland in an effort to aid the Revolution’s spread. In June of 1848, he was present at the Slav congress in Prague, which was brought to an unceremonious end by Austrian troops. Later that year, Bakunin produced his first major manifesto, An Appeal to the Slavs. In it, Bakunin cited the tradition of peasant insurrections in Russia as the model for more far-reaching social revolution throughout Europe.
In May, 1849, Bakunin took part in the Dresden insurrection. He was arrested by German authorities and imprisoned until 1851, when he was sent back to Russia. There, after six more years of imprisonment, Bakunin was released to live in Siberia. Prison life had weakened his health and perhaps even dampened his revolutionary spirit temporarily. In 1857, Bakunin married Antonia Kwiatkowski, the daughter of a Polish merchant. The marriage was curious in a number of ways. Antonia was in her teens, Bakunin in his mid-forties at the time of the marriage. Troubled by impotence, Bakunin reportedly never consummated the marriage. Antonia displayed no interest in politics and disliked Bakunin’s revolutionary associates. She also appears to have been unfaithful to Bakunin. Yet the marriage lasted nearly twenty years. During that time, Antonia endured embarrassing financial straits, dislocation, and a variety of other disappointments, apparently serving as a comfort to her husband until his death.
In 1861, Bakunin managed to escape his exile in Siberia and traveled to London via Japan and the United States. In London, he renewed his acquaintance with Herzen. Herzen, however, was alienated both by Bakunin’s political extremism and by his nearly complete disregard for the dictates of financial responsibility. In 1863, Bakunin tried to take part in the Polish insurrection, but got only as far as Sweden. The next year, Bakunin established himself in Italy, surrounding himself with a band of disciples and organizing a largely illusory network of secret revolutionary societies across Europe. In 1868, Bakunin relocated to Geneva, where he joined the First International, a federation of various working-class parties for...
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