Hilton Als on Tom Stoppard on Mikhail Bakunin

Hilton Als reckons Tom Stoppard’s new play — to be precise: Voyage, the first play of The Coast of Utopia trilogy — is “alternately reckless, romantic, boring, and exhilarating” (The New Yorker, January 8, 2007).

Fucked if I know.

But if Stoppard’s influences are as Als describes them — E.H. Carr’s “valuable” 1937 biography of Bakunin, as well as “Carr’s 1931 The Romantic Exiles, Edmund Wilson’s 1940 To the Finland Station, and [Isaiah] Berlin’s 1978 essay collection, Russian Thinkers, among other works” — then the picture painted of Bakunin is likely to be a stereotypical one: a buffoon whose scribblings remain mired in his (desperately aristocratic and perverse) utopian phantasies.

Such a portrayal of Bakunin receives its most sustained expression in Aileen Kelly‘s Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987 [1982]). In essence, Kelly argues that Bakunin’s philosophy and politics — and hence anarchist philosophy and politics; Mick being the ‘father of anarchism’ according to the academy — was the product of his alienation, both political but also, and crucially, psycho-sexual in origins. At which point it would be worthwhile to consider Jon Bekken on ‘Bakunin and the Historians’ (Libertarian Labor Review, No.13, Summer 1992):

Aileen Kelly’s biography… purports to be an intellectual biography but (in Cutler’s words) “treats Bakunin as a case study in the social psychology of millenarianism” (p.234). Kelly is unabashedly hostile, painting Bakunin as an ill-meaning buffoon, misrepresenting key aspects of his life and thought, and disguising missing evidence with circular footnotes. Although historians of Spanish (Esenwein) and Italian (Ravindranathan) anarchism point to the organizational and propagandistic skills Bakunin displayed in those settings, Kelly refuses to allow the historical record to stand in the way of her thesis…

[George Esenwein is the author of the excellent Anarchist Ideology and the Spanish Working-class Movement, 1868-1898, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989; T.R. Ravindranathan Bakunin and the Italians, McGill–Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1988.]

And make no mistake about it, in the eyes of his biographers (at least his English-language biographers) Bakunin turned out very badly indeed. For Carr, Bakunin is a tragic-comic figure, albeit very human. Masters suggests a greater degree of grandeur in his rewriting of Carr’s work. For Mendel, Bakunin is a villain of the highest order, with an egomaniacal will to dominate and to destroy. Kelly softens this portrait somewhat, leaving Bakunin quite inscrutable. For if he were truly the ineffectual buffoon she describes, he would surely have long since passed into obscurity…

Pffft. In 1995, Brunswick police delivered their verdict on Bakunin, confiscating a pamphlet on sale at Barricade which speculated that, far from being ‘asexual’ or having sublimated his sexual desire for political ambition, Bakunin was gay (Nechaev and Bakunin: Left Libertarianism’s Lavender Lineage, c.1993/4). Well, not that the Brunswick police objected solely to Bakunin’s portrayal by some Canadian “scream-from-the-rooftops faggot” called ‘Robynski’ as being homosexual; the front cover depicted Mikhail (‘Matrena’) and Sergey (‘Boy’) makin’ lurve.

When presumably men should be busy making wars.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in Anarchism, History. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.