James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, 1980. Chapter 14: The Bomb: Russian Violence


Anarchism: The Echo Beyond

The ideal of a constitutional political revolution had spread at the beginning of the nineteenth century from the center (France) to the southern and eastern periphery of Europe. In the late nineteenth century -- as if in revenge -- the ideal of a total social revolution beyond politics spread back from the periphery into the center. Masonic officers had borne the revolutionary message out to Russia at the beginning of the century, speaking aristocratic French and calling themselves liberal or republican. Impersonal wire services now carried the new message back to the center at the end of the century in the earthy vernacular of mass journalism under headlines about TERRORISM, NIHILISM -- and above all, ANARCHISM.

The term anarchism became popular in the West at precisely the time when Russian revolutionaries were tending to abandon it in favor of terrorism. The most widely read emigre writers about the Russian revolutionary movement (Kropotkin and Kravchinsky) had left Russia when terroristic tactics were still identified with the "disorganization" of state power and before the People's Will formed as a kind of revolutionary counter-state. They thus identified terroristic tactics with anarchistic ideals; and in the West this identification was to remain dominant. Western press coverage within Russia also tended to accept at face value the heroic anti-authoritarian rhetoric of the revolutionaries. Thus anarchism tinged with idealism and sanctified by martyrdom became a new verbal talisman for many otherwise dispirited revolutionaries.

Many in the West were infected by "moral contagion from acts which strike the imagination."144 Soon after the first shots were fired at Alexander II in May 1878, five attempts -- an unprecedented number -- were made to assassinate crowned heads of Europe. The leading new convert to anarchist-terrorism in the West, Johann Most, praised the "Russian method" and hailed the slaying of Alexander II with an editorial in London.145 Two years later he supported from afar a conspiracy to throw a bomb at the kaiser; and he was arrested in England for supporting the assassinations by Irish revolutionaries of the British chief secretary and the undersecretary for Ireland. The mania was spreading, and the horror of anarchism expressed in the press made it a label of fascination and even of pride to some intellectuals in hitherto non-revolutionary countries like Holland, England, and the United States. Johann Most took the label with him to America in 1883. The anarchist ideal was propagated in both England and America by an increasing number of exiles from the Romanov Empire: Russians and Ukrainians fleeing political persecution in the 1870s followed by Jewish exiles fleeing religious persecution in the 1880s.

The term anarchist struck special fear in the hearts of those who were building the new industrial states of the late nineteenth century, for anarchists identified the centralized state itself as the enemy. For the same reason anarchism provided a banner of new hope to a generation in France that had become disillusioned with politics: first by a decade of republican repression after the Commune and then by the decision of the rival Blanquists to support the right-wing challenge to the Third Republic of General Boulanger "in the hope that it was the prelude to a great revolutionary crisis."146 Thus began the fateful tendency of putschist revolutionaries on the Left to see in a right-wing challenge to liberal republican authority a tactically useful stage in preparing for their own social revolution. This thinking proved successful for Lenin, who was to view Kornilov's rising against Kerensky's government in September 1917 as a "gun rest" for his own revolutionary rifle. The same thinking by German Communists in 1933 was to have disastrous consequences, when Hitler was seen as a transitory Kornilov tactically useful for destroying the Weimar Republic.

The richly reported struggle of Russian revolutionaries was increasingly identified in the West with the label anarchist. The activist intellectuals of the 1870s called themselves the "true," the "new," and the "young" intelligentsia,147 and brought with them in their westward diaspora the image of pure truth opposing unbridled power. Anarchistic opposition to all power was often imparted in the West by the remarkable women who played a leading role in the Russian movement -- and often enjoyed second careers as wives or leaders of Western radical movements.148 But the distinctively anarchist ideal was most effectively popularized in (and beyond) western Europe by three prominent members of the Russian higher nobility: Michael Bakunin, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and Count Leo Tolstoy.

Bakunin glamorized violent insurrection with the anarchist label, particularly in Latin Europe, during the late 1860s and the early 1870s. Kropotkin extended and intensified Bakunin's anarchist vision while toning down his incendiary excesses after arriving in France in 1876, the year of Bakunin's death. Even more than Bakunin, Kropotkin exerted his greatest influence in western Europe rather than in his native land.149

The third great aristocratic anarchist, Tolstoy, provided massive authority for the new ideal by renouncing his brilliant literary career in the late 1870s and retreating to the barefoot simplicities of his country estate -- rejecting the authority of church, state, and any science or art devoid of moral purpose. Tolstoy became a pole of magnetic attraction for the diverse discontents of the late imperial period: the "moral tsar" of Russia and anarchist counselor to the world until his death in 1910. Prose novels had been vehicles for social revolutionary ideals since the time of George Sand and Cabet's Voyage to Icaria. Now the latest social revolutionary ideal, anarchism, claimed the allegiance of the world's greatest living novelist for the final thirty-five years of his life.

In glorifying an ancient label of abuse, the Russians followed in the footsteps of Proudhon along a trail already blazed in Latin Europe by followers of both Proudhon and Bakunin. Anarchism had previously been rejected by revolutionaries, who viewed the label as a conservative defamation if not a provocation.150 Babeuf noted the "scandalous affection" of established authority for the threats of anarchists.151 Anarchism became a positive revolutionary label with a continuous history only in 1840, when Proudhon invoked the term as a badge of pride and a verbal shock weapon.152

Left Hegelianism had given anarchism a new appeal through Bakunin and others in the 1840s. Having previously accepted Hegel's exaggerated expectation that politics would transform the human condition, Hegelians now exaggerated the benefits to be accrued from dispensing with politics altogether. This dialectical leap of a truly Hegelian kind was particularly congenial to Slavs dwelling under autocracy; and the anarchist ideal as the "antithesis" of autocracy proved equally appealing in conservative, Catholic Spain and Italy.

Anarchism became a major force through the brotherhoods and alliances that Bakunin organized within and beyond the First International, constituting a kind of Left opposition to authoritarianism and Marxism and convening a host of international meetings in sites ranging from Geneva (1873) to Paris (1889) during the interregnum between the collapse of the First International and the birth of the Second.153

The Spanish and Italian movements were at the forefront. The Italian Federation of the First International survived the international parent organization and became the largest and most militant anarchist organization of the 1870s and the 1880s. It attracted more than 30,000 members by the mid-seventies to ten regional federations, extending throughout Italy into Sardinia.154

Though he shared the stage with Bakunin and Tolstoy in spreading the anarchist ideal, Peter Kropotkin was by far its most influential proponent among western revolutionaries. Beginning his long stay in western Europe in 1876, he filled the void left by the demise of the distinctively Bakuninist International the following year. He dominated the last three annual anarchist congresses held in the Jura (1878, 1879, 1880). He began to attract a new international following for his teaching that "insurrectionary deeds . . . the violent expropriation of property and the disorganization of the state" could progressively destroy the national state and establish federated communal organizations throughout Europe. He left the term populism behind in Russia and rejected Bakunin's term collectivism for anarchist-communist or simply anarchist.155 His knowledge of European languages and his experience with both scientific expeditions and revolutionary adventures within Russia enabled him to speak with authority in the West. He channeled his major energies into the international anarchist movement rather than the Russian revolutionary cause. His steady stream of publications attracted a growing following, and his arrest in 1882 gave him the mantle of martyrdom.

The philosophical perspective of Kropotkin's anarchism fell somewhere in between the violent atheism of Bakunin and the nonviolent religiosity of Tolstoy.156 Kropotkin's Swiss journal, Le Revolte, proclaimed in 1879 "permanent revolt by word of mouth, in writing, by the dagger, the rifle, dynamite."157 Yet he subsequently also said: "A structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives." 158 His emphasis on mutual aid and small-scale cooperatives suggested a peaceful, Proudhonist return to a manageable human scale and to distributive justice more than a violent, romantic war against state authority.159

Kropotkin's vision dominated the anarchist movement from the time the anarchist congress convened its forty-five delegates in London on Bastille Day in 1881. No genuinely international congress of anarchists was to meet again until a week-long gathering of eighty delegates in Amsterdam in the summer of 1907. Throughout the intervening period, however, the specter of a Black International haunted Europe. Kropotkin's prolific writings lent respectability to the proposition that "outside of anarchy there is no such thing as revolution."160 Agreeing with Tolstoy that "the only revolution is the one that never stops," he saw man's struggle for freedom as the rational, progressive liberation from all restrictive authority.

Anarchists pressed this uncompromising antipolitical faith with far greater success in the 1890s than has generally been remembered. They gained some measure of allegiance from more than one hundred thousand Frenchmen,161 most of whom followed the peaceful ideal of Kropotkin rather than the call of "Dame Dynamite." Anarchists dominated in many ways the early congresses of the Second International until they were expelled at the insistence of the statist German Social Democrats at the London Congress in 1896. Anarchists opposed not only the manifestly political and increasingly bureaucratic Social Democrats; they also began to challenge the more closely related syndicalists for daring to create political structures of their own.162

At Amsterdam in 1907, they demonstrated that even the limited solidarity of a congress could not be sustained. Anarchism fragmented anew, and prior to World War I worked more as a catalyst within other revolutionary movements than as a unitary force. As a delegate to one of their innumerable and disputatious gatherings put it: "We are united because we are divided." 163

Yet anarchism did produce a unitary, transnational impact that makes it important for the history of the revolutionary tradition. For it became a scare word of unprecedented power in the Western world and it kept alive a quasi-religious, totalistic belief in revolution during an era of positivism, skepticism, and evolutionary progressivism. Anarchism as a label became a focus for the suppressed fears of the era; and nowhere more than in America. The arrest in 1920 of two poor Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the long agony leading to their execution in the electric chair in 1927 ritualized the rejection of the revolutionary ideals that had arisen in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. "Anarchy" and "anarchism," Katherine Anne Porter was to reminisce years later, inspired "terror, anger and hatred,"164 which enabled a counter-revolutionary chorus to drown out the "duet of two great voices telling a tragic story": 165 Kropotkin and Emma Goldman.

A kind of anarchist revolution did occur in the New World, in the very year when Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in Massachusetts. The location was the most implausible outpost of human habitation, the Patagonian Peninsula, where Latin America narrows into an arrow pointing towards Antarctica. There, in 1920, Antonio Soto, an emigre Spanish classmate at the Military Academy in Toledo of the future Fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, led oppressed Chilean and Argentine peons in a brief and tragic revolution. Soto had been impelled to flee military service by a reading of Tolstoy and had worked as a stagehand in an Argentine theater before moving south to lead his short-lived revolution in the name of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. His red and black flag was burned, some fifteen hundred people (mostly poor sheep farmers) shot, and the polyglot anarchist uprising suppressed by the Argentine army.166

The Russian dream faded out on this remote frontier of European civilization at almost exactly the time in 1920 it effectively died in Russia itself. When the new Soviet government was finally to defeat the White opposition in the Russian Civil War, it would turn for a "major surgical operation" on the substantial and varied anarchist forces that had hitherto fought with it.167 The great Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno would flee abroad; and the man who had inspired him, the aged Peter Kropotkin, would die early in 1921 in Moscow deeply disillusioned with the new Soviet dictatorship for having reestablished the "Jacobin endeavor of Babeuf." 168 With the leading anarchists dead or gone, the anarchist spirit as well was to be crushed the following month, when the anti-authoritarian revolt of the Kronstadt sailors was cruelly repressed and its leaders shot by Soviet authorities.


143. The basic account of this neglected group is "Istoricheskaia zapiska o tainom obshchestve 'zagovorshchikov,'" Katorga i Ssylka, 1928, no. 12, 49-58, esp. program 51-2. There were the familiar three layers of membership "amorphous" (amorfny), "preparatory," and "political circles," with the latter under the strict discipline of "constitutors" (uchrediteli), who also controlled the entire secret process of cooptation from lower to higher levels.

144. Cited from Kravchinsky's Le Tsarisme et la revolution, 1886, in Waciorski, Terrorisme, 37.

145. In his journal Freiheit, printed with a festive red border. See R. Hunter, Violence and the Labour Movement, L, 1916, 66-8; Iviansky, 48.

146. Cited in P. Hutton, "The Role of the Blanquist Party in Left-Wing Politics in France, 1879-90," Journal of Modern History, 1974, Jun, 293.

147. G. Haupt, "Role de l'exil dans la diffusion de rimage de l'intelligentsia revolutionnaire," Cahiers du Monde Russe et Sovietique, 1978, Jul-Sep, 236, 245, 247.

148. In addition to the general impact of the Russian women discussed in the final chapter of this work, G. Haupt has pointed to the marriage of key leaders of the European Left to Russian revolutionary women: Charles-Victor Jaclard in France, Fritz Adler in Austria, Karl Liebknecht in Germany, and Filippo Turati in Italy. Haupt particularly stresses the role played in Italy by Turati's wife, about whom see A. Schiavi, Anna Kuliscioff, Rome, 1955-

149. Miller, Kropotkin, 156-7. For an often prophetic contemporary work by a Ukrainian liberal predicting the impact of the Russian revolutionary tradition on the West, see Michael Dragomanov, Le Tyrannicide en Russie et l'action de I'Europe occidentale, Geneva, 1881.

150. Unlike most other key words in the modern revolutionary lexicon, anarchy and anarchical are terms with a relatively constant meaning, invoked by worried European rulers since at least the time of Philip the Fair. See the collection published by the Einaudi Foundation: Anarchici e anarchia nel mondo contemporaneo, Turin, 1971, 591.

151. Pages choisis, 265.

152. Oeuvres completes, I, 212. Anarchism as an ideal avant la lettre has many antecedents, and is generally said to have first approached a systematic doctrine in William Godwin: Joll, Anarchists, 31-9; Woodcock, Anarchism, 60-93. A neglected early paean to the word is The Anarchiad of 1786, a semi-serious "epic poem from the banks of the Wabash" by Joel Barlow along with David Humphreys, John Trumhull, and Lemuel Hopkins, hailing the alleged "reign of anarchy" in primitive America as a "blessing." The rare published version, New Haven, 1861, is in the Beinecke Library, Yale University; see esp. 18, 2,0.

153. Intelligently discussed in M. Nomad, 'The Anarchist Tradition," in Drachkovitch, Internationals, 69-79. The itemization of conferences in Miller, Kropotkin, a58-9, is fuller, listing the first four anarchist congresses (1873-7) under the First International (Bakuninist).

154. For comprehensive treatment, P. Masini, Storia degli anarchici italiani de Bakunin a Malatesta (1862-1892), Milan, 1969.

155. Miller, "The Development of an Anarchist Ideology," Kropotkin, 138-47.

156. Tolstoy's dramatic rejection of the modern state, the industrial system, and all instruments of violence influenced the movement for nonviolent action through "the force of truth" (satyagraha) led by the most original revolutionary of the "third world" in the early twentieth century: Mahatma Gandhi. See M. Markovitch, Tolstoi et Gandhi, 1928; K. Nag, Tolstoy and Gandhi, Patna, 1950. For Tolstoy's more antagonistic relations with the revolutionary movement within Russia, see E. Oberlander, Tolstoi und die revolutionare Bewegung, Munich/Salzburg, 1965. Tolstoy and Gandhi will be presented by Martin Green as the authors of a radical religious alternative to both Marxism and liberalism in his Tolstoy and Gandhi: An Essay in World History, the last volume of a remarkable trilogy on imperialism. This work, to be pursued during 1980-81 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, returns to the key figures of the first volume of his trilogy, The Challenge of the Mahatmas, NY, 1978.

157. Cited in Joll, Anarchists, 127.

158. Cited from La Revolte, 1894, Mar 18-24, in Miller, 174.

159. Kropotkin's anticipations of Paul Goodman, Louis Mumford, and other so critics are itemized in Miller, 195-6.

160. Cited from "Le Gouvernement revolutionnaire," Paroles d'un revolte, 1885 in Miller, 192.

161. Estimate extrapolated from the magisterial study of J. Maitron, Le Mouvement anarchiste en France, 1976, I, by J. Joll, Times Literary Supplement, 1976, Sep 10, 1092.

162. See the challenge of Malatesta to the French syndicalist, Pierre Monatte, at the Amsterdam Congress of 1907: Woodcock, Anarchism, 267. See also Malatesta, Anarchy, L, 1949.

163. A delegate to the Geneva conference of 1882, cited in Woodcock, 260. Not until the International Workingmen's Association was founded in Berlin in Dec 1922, did anything like an Anarchist International exist. But this association, which gained some three million adherents, was more a syndicalist than a pure anarchist body. It led a dwindling, peripatetic existence after the Nazis took over power in 1932, still maintaining, however, a shadow existence in Sweden.

164. K. Porter, "The Never-ending Wrong," Atlantic, 1977, Jun, 39.

165. Ibid., 64.

166. O. Bayer, Los Vengadores de la Patagonia Tragica, Buenos Aires, 1972, 3 v; extensively reviewed by B. Chatwin, Times Literary Supplement, Dec 31, 1976, 1635-6. For the substantial anarchist influence in Brazil, see J. Dulles, Anarchists and Communists in Brazil, 1900-1935, Austin, 1973.

167. Avrich, Anarchists, 222, and more generally 204-33.

168. Kropotkin, cited in ibid., 226. See also Avrich, ed., The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, Ithaca, 1973. All that remained were minute groups such as the Anarcho-Biocosmists, who professed total support for the Soviet state and agreed to press their social experiments "in interplanetary space but not upon Soviet territory" (G. Maximoff, The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia, Chicago, 1940, 362; Avrich, 231). There was also, however, a much more substantial pacifistic movement of Tolstoyan anarchists within the Soviet Union than has ever been realized; its history is currently being written at the Woodrow Wilson Center by M. Popovsky on the basis of new materials from the USSR (The Peasant Disciples of Tolstoy: 1918-1977).