Guy A. Aldred Archive

Chapter 3
The Artillery School To Moscow

Written: 1940.
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source:; 2021

Bakunin did not escape Liberalism at the Artillery School. Economic conditions had decided that his natural destiny was the army. Political circumstance selected him for a revolutionist. He discovered Liberalism, if not among the majority, at least among a large minority of the students. Here was a menacing undercurrent of radical thought and sympathy which was only outwardly loyal and obedient to the behests of the Governmental despotism. Among themselves, the rebel students cherished the memories of the Decemberists of 1825, and handed round the poems — that some of the martyred insurrectionists had written — as sacred literature to be preserved and handed on from generation to generation. Anecdotage of the martyrs themselves — most of whom had belonged to the First Cadet Corps and the Artillery Institute — was retailed eagerly also and recited jealously. The students felt that Decembrism expressed and maintained “the honor of the school.” Those of the Decembrists who had been sentenced to Siberia were pitied, not on account of their exile, but because they had not been permitted to share the more honorable and direct fate of those who had died on the gibbet or had been executed otherwise. t was impossible for military despotism to efface memories of heroic revolt or to silence entirely the genius of knowledge. So the revolutionary enthusiasm continued to exist and to grow apace. That it influenced Bakunin is certain. His subsequent career is an evidence of its effect as a powerful undercurrent, directing all his energies towards the mighty purpose of social revolution. By temperament, Bakunin was passionate and elemental. This characteristic linked the conservatism of his youth with the radicalism of his maturity and his old age. It finds expression in all the writings and explains his strange concentrated style. In all the stages of his evolution he was volcanic and he writes history and philosophy as though he had a commission from the fates to reduce the record of time to a study in precise writing. Bakunin was very human. It was easy for him to pass from the conservative worship of slaves to authority to the idealistic admiration of the martyrs of liberty. There came a time when he recalled the school legends of the Decembrists as sources of vision and inspiration. At first he suspected them of being enemies of the fatherland and was dead to the grand motif of their lives. He was very much the schoolboy, conscious mainly of the discord existing between himself and his environment. And he had the grand manner of youth indulged by wealth. Alas, for the egoism of too early introspection!

Writing to his parents in the autumn of 1829, Bakunin expressed the reaction of fifteen with the solemnity of seventy. He speaks disgustedly of “the new era in my life.” This meant that he was suffering from homesickness. He complains that his imagination is pure and innocent no longer; whereas his imagination has not discovered itself as yet. The artillery school has “acquainted” him, not with Decembrism, but with “the black, foul, low side of life.” He “got used to lying” because the art of lying was approved unanimously. He felt his spirituality go to sleep, for “there reigned among the students a cold indifference to every thing noble, great, or holy.” By these virtuous superlatives, the youthful Bakunin meant loyalty to the Czar.

Three years later, Bakunin passed his examination with great eclat. He was now an officer, eighteen years old and as orthodox and priggish as a state curriculum could make him. He writes home of this event. The undergraduate saw “a new era in my life.” Bu the graduate declares that there has begun “truly a new epoch in my life.” There is the same flamboyant egotism noticeable but there is a subtle improvement in the expensive arrogance of expression. Slavish military discipline has given place to personal freedom. Bakunin feels spiritually awake. He goes where he likes and meets his fellow officers only in lesson hours. He has severed all other relations with them because their presence reminded him of the meanness and infamy of his school life. Here we see the passion of the man surging almost into revolt against the idea of external discipline. The writer seems to anticipate his latter anti-authoritarianism. Yet his letters betray extreme conservatism of opinion. His ideas are static to all appearance. Of course, the devil was born in heaven and in the beginning of his rebel career was God’s second in command. George Washington was jealous of English prestige against the French in the American colonies when the British governor and the Home Government were indifferent. Washington was compelled by the very logic of his English and a new flag. Bakunin’s Nihilism was foreshadowed by the extravaganism of his Czarism. His life-long French bias was predicted in his first contemptuous dismissal of the French revolutionary outlook.

“The Russians are not French,” he wrote to his parents, “they love their country and adore their monarch. To them his will is law. One could not find a single Russian who could not sacrifice all his interests for the welfare of the sovereign and the prosperity of the fatherland.”

Bakunin should have become an officer of the Guards as a matter of course. This would have meant participating in the splendor of the Court. Bakunin would have come into direct contact with his beloved Czar. Fortunately, he had contrived to hanger his father and to arouse the jealousy of the Director of Artillery. Adoration of his monarch had not saved him from rebelling against both parent and superior officer. As a punishment for his dual office of petty treason he was given a commission in the line. He was doomed to spend his days in a miserable peasant village far away from any center of civilization. A hut was assigned to him for his new quarters. Here he took up his abode. He declined to accept the implied disgrace as a discipline. His military duties spent whole days in complete isolation. At last, his commanding officer ordered him to resign his appointment. He sent in his papers and returned to Moscow, a civilian. He had “worked” his discharge and was free of the military atmosphere.

In the great Russian capital, reduced by Peter the Great as Rome was by Constantine, only to become even more eternal, Bakunin was received into a circle of young savants. Its members were situated similarly to himself. Owing to the wisdom of the Russian statesmen and police authorities, this circle was engrossed in German philosophy. It was keen, especially on Hegel, who had been for several years the recognized leader of philosophy in German. His recent death at the age of sixty one, had given fresh life to his thought among these Moscow students. Entire nights were spent discussing, paragraph by paragraph, the volume of his “Logic,” “Ethics,” ““Encyclopedia,” etc. The most insignificant pamphlets which appeared in Berlin were obtained and read eagerly. In a few days they were torn and tattered and preserved in honored pieces. Members of the circle would have nothing to do with one another for weeks after a disagreement respecting the definition of “the intercepting mind” or “the absolute personality” and its autonomous existence.

The system of Hegel was both the negation and the culmination of the philosophy of Kant, who flourished from 1724 to 1804. Hegel’s youth had been contemporary with Kant’s old age, and the period during which Kant developed his own critical philosophy of his life. In Hegel, the Kantian dualisms of phenomena and nuomena or nuomenon disappear. Hegel identifies the rational with the real and the real with the rational. He made idealism imminent in the experience and logic imminent in history. After his death his disciples split into two schools; a right and a left wing who were bitterly opposed to each other. The leaders of the left wing, the positive, original, vigorous, and ultimately only important group were Strauss and Feuerbach.

Feuerbach was born the year Kant died. He lived till after the Paris Commune and the triumph of Thiers. Bakunin survived him only four years. George Eliot translated into English his famous work in which he classified the ideas of God, the future life, and holiness, as the extravagant desires of a fugitive race dwelling upon an inconsiderable planet. Feuerbach developed the Hedonistic ethical theory and declared, somewhat crudely and, to my mind, inaccurately: “Man is only what he eats.” Man is not what he eats, but what he assimilates, remolds, and creates. Even more, man is what he is, and what he expresses in the simple fact of being.

Strauss, who was contemporary with Feuerbach, being cradled a few years after him and outliving him a few years also by way of equity, had a disastrous career as a theologian. His “life” of Jesus, which cost him theological chairs in Germany, was translated by George Eliot. Strauss viewed Jesus as a Socrates misconceived by Christian tradition as a magician; which is a very happy conception and one that time will endorse.

At the time Bakunin returned to Moscow as an ex-officer, Feuerbach had not employed his sardonic humor to contrast the actual and ideal worlds. Nor had he produced his works on the philosophy of history. But he had explained belief in immorality as an illusion. Strauss was still a teacher and was planning his “life” of Jesus. Hegel, with murmurings of Feuerbach, were the themes of the Moscow circle. Its founder was Stankevitch, who had sat under Professor Pawlov at Moscow University.

Pawlov was a pedant who preferred learning to knowledge, and routine to wisdom. He introduced German philosophy into the university curriculum in 1821, because it seemed to him to be so eminently safe and dull. It was his alternative to the French, which he deemed nervous, doubtful, and dynamic. French philosophy in struck him as being something shattering and devastating. The German school was his choice between the quick and the dead.

Pawlov confined the students’ attention to Schelling and Oken. Schelling, who flourished from 1775 to 1854, had not developed at that time his theosophical gnosticism. He opposed nature to spirit but conceived both as common equal expressions of one underlying absolute principle. Actually, Monism; thoughtful and even brilliant, but not revolutionary. Oken-shortened from Ochenfuss-lived from 1779 till 1851. He attempted to construct an a priori system of knowledge and originated the idea of annual meetings of German scientists. It is said that the British Association was modeled on his plan. This fact alone is sufficient to prove that Oken was an essentially fake savant.

Having been introduced to the German philosophy, Stankevitch did not find it possible to stop at Schelling and Oken. He blundered on to Hegel and became fascinated, Hegel seemed to him all important. Consequently, Stankevitch introduced the study of Hegel to a select circle of his friends. Among these were Herzen and Bakunin. The latter had found his “new era” or “epoch.” Hegel and the Hegelians were to inspire all Bakunin’s future thought.