A few weeks ago, while browsing the "new non-fiction" section of my local library, I was pleasantly surprized by the sight of the name "Bakunin" written in big letters on the side of the book. Picking up the book, a blurb from Simon Sebag Montefiore (author of Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar) assured me that I had found what I was looking for:
Bakunin not only reassesses this fascinating and important character, but also provides the biography of the forgotten ideology of anarchism itselfAfter many disappointing searches for books about anarchism in these libraries, I eagerly checked out this book and began to read it. I found Montefior's evaluation of the book to be spot on.
I was instantly absorbed in Leier's colorful and amusing style of writing. He provided a delightful description of the condition of Russian nobility into which Mikael Bakunin was born at the beginning of the 19th century. This included the many determinants of family status, the landscape of the Bakunin estate, the relationship with between lord and serf, the influence of radical ideas from Western Europe, and the ever-changing relationship between the tsar and the nobility, which greatly depended upon the personality of each tsar.
The description of Hegelian philosophy is detailed enough to understand Bakunin's contributions to that school, yet brief enough to not bore readers who are just interested in Bakunin's story. Leier also conveys Bakunin's excitement about the "revolutions of 48", along with the despondence arising from a stint as a political prisoner, followed by exile to Siberia, and escape via Japan and the Panama Canal only to return to the European radical community and find that it has, itself, been radically changed during his imprisonment.
Leier account of Bakunin's relationship with the new generation of radicals probably contains lessons for every aging activist. Leier also recounts Bakunin's relationship with various radicals of the time, including Marx and Proudhon, in which we can see the beginning of the ideological and cultural splits among radical activists that continue to this day.
Unfortunately, I didn't manage to finish the book before other concerns grabbed my attention. However, I can whole-heartedly endores this book for anyone interested in the history and theory of anarchism, socialism, or any form of political and intellectual radicalism from the 19th century. I've recently taken an interest in the history of Russia and its sphere of influence, which this book only stoked.
Leier's writing is engaging. He adds humor and relevance with many tangential comments, often connecting the dynamics of 19th century society with those of 21st century society. Unfortunately, these tangents are sometimes annoying, as they gratuitously expose an ax to grind, or they suggest that he is ignorant of some topic that he has strong opinions about (such as how capitalists increase their profit).
It becomes apparent early on that if Leier is not an anarchist, he at least sympathizes with anarchism. His treatment of Bakunin often comes off as defensive--going out of his way to refute and even mock previous authors who have defamed Bakunin.
As for Bakunin himself, while Leier is clearly attempting to rehabilitate Bakunin's reputation, he admits some of Bakunin's shortcomings, if only to make him seem more human. Leier repeatedly notes Bakunin's inability to manage money, along with his tendency to constantly borrow money from friends and family without much of an idea of how he would repay them.
I find this aspect of Bakunin's personality to be rather distasteful, earning him the title of "wanker". It seems that Bakunin was capable of crafting fine theories about the economic condition of man, but was unable manage basic economic affairs. To Bakunin's credit, Leier suggests that he was aware of his own shortcomings, and eager to learn from socialists who had little formal education, but had developed socialist ideals as the result of their own experience as laborers, thereby fulfilling the socialist mantra of "uniting theory with practise".
Leier also depicts Bakunin as being humble in that most anarchist of manners--he refused to dictate the details of how a good society should operate or come into being, insisting that any society should arise form the decisions of the individuals in it, rather than from any doctrine proposed by a historical figure. This was a matter of distinction within radical communities where many theorists were willing to describe a "perfect society" in precise, dogmatic detail.
In summary: I liked it. It seems that others have generally liked it. The best review I saw was by this history professor.