Guy A. Aldred Archive

Chapter 6
The French and German Spirit

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

Tourgenieff once invented a Nihilist hero named Bazaroff. This character lives in Socialist literature because of his propagandist reply to the usual skeptical question: Do you imagine that you influence the masses? Bazaroff answered: “A half-penny tallow dip sufficed to set all Moscow in a blaze.” Herzen’s nativity associates his name with the immortal flames thus humbly originated. He is the lighted tallow dip which began the mighty Russian conflagration which yet threatens to consume the whole of Capitalist Society. Even as the flames spread, Herzen spluttered and went out. Before succumbing to reaction, he set fire to a rare torch in Bakunin. His great disciple was destined to light the beacon fires of revolution throughout the world. For many years Bakunin’s activities may have seemed to have been so much smoke. To-day we know they were smoldering fires. The last has not been heard of his world influence. Bakunin began his mission in 1841. He proceeded to Berlin to continue the studies commenced at Moscow. He was now a Red among Reds. Philosopher, Socialist, Rebel, he left Russia for the first time. The following ear he removed from Berlin to Dresden in order to gain a nearer acquaintance with Arnold Rouge, the foremost Hegelian of the left. Bakunin was anxious to proclaim his sympathy with Rouge, and his definite rupture with conservatism. To this end, he published his first revolutionary essay, entitled “The Reaction in Germany,” in Rouge’s Jahrbucher for 1842, Nos. 247–51. He used the nom-de-plume of Jules Elizard and had Rouge pretend it was a “Fragment by a Frenchman.” From this time on, French prejudices were to mar his work, as formerly, his German ones had confined his understanding. The hindrance of radical idealism was fatal to the genius of the nineteenth century. It limited Marx as well as Bakunin.

“Jules Elizard” entered an uncompromising plea for revolution and Nihilism. The principle of revolution, he declared is the principle of negation, the everlasting spirit of destruction and annihilation that is the fathomless and ever-creating fountain of all life. It is the spirit of intelligence, the ever young, the ever new born, that is not to be looked for among the ruins of the past. The champions of this principle are something more than the mere negative party, the uncompromising enemies of the positive; for the latter exists only as the contrary of the negative, whilst that which sustains and elevates the party of revolt is the all-embracing principle of absolute freedom. The French Revolution erected the Temple of Liberty, on which it wrote the mysterious words: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” It was impossible not to know and feel that these words meant the total annihilation of the existing world of politics and society. It was impossible, also, not to experience a thrill of pleasure at the bare suggestion of this annihilation. That was because the “joy of destruction is also the joy of creation.”

It was fitting that the year after the publication of “Jules Elizard” essay, Bakunin should quit Dresden for Paris. He believed he had learned all there was to be learned in Germany. In the French capital he identified himself with all who were noted for their revolutionary opinion. A certain community of thought attracted him to Proudhon. The latter answer answered the question, “What is Property?” with Brissot’s revolutionary reply: “Property is Theft.” Proudhon, who paid great tribute to Jesus as a prophet, adopted the early Christian motto: “I will rebuild.” Proudhon possessed an intense admiration for Hegel and believed that the process of destruction was a necessary part of construction. With Thomas Paine, he also believed that the social constitution of society was opposed to the political constitution of the state. This is the essence of Anarchist philosophy. Despised during the years that parliamentary social democracy was fooling and betraying the workers of Europe, it is now seen to embody the wisdom of the social struggle. This idea subsequently led Proudhon to develop his “Revolutionary Idea” in which he foresees the liquidation of political or military society-he identifies the two-in industrial or useful society. Proudhon's anarchist theory that reaction is the forerunner of revolution is seen to-day to be historically correct as opposed to the parliamentary theory of gradualism, which has collapsed. On all these points Bakunin finds himself at one with Proudhon. Marx describes Proudhon as a Utopian and a Reformist. Bakunin described him as a social revolutionist of the first water. There is truth in both conceptions. In later years Bakunin came to share Marx’s view of Proudhon. In “Statism and Anarchy,” issued somewhere in Russia, in 1873, Bakunin wrote:-

“Proudhon, in spite of all his efforts to get a foothold upon the firm ground of reality, remained an idealist and a metaphysician. His starting point is the abstract side of law; it is from this that he starts in order to arrive at economic facts, while Marx, on the contrary, has enunciated and proved the truth, demonstrated by the whole of the ancient and modern history of human societies, of people and of states, that economic facts preceded and precede the facts of political and civil law. The discovery and demonstration of this truth is one of the greatest merits of M. Marx.”

Two years before, writing at the time of the disaster to the Commune and at the beginning of the parliamentary debacle, Bakunin, in his Political Theology of Mazzini and the International, published at Neuchatel, gives Marx the credit of having discovered the materialistic conception of history. Bakunin defines this conception as follows:-

“All the religions, and all the systems of morals that govern a given society are always the ideal expression of its real, material condition, that is, especially of its economic organization, but also of its political organization, the latter, indeed, being never anything but the juridical and violent consecration of the former.”

In this same year of tragedy, Bakunin records his first impressions of Marx when he met him in Paris:-

“Marx was much more advanced that I was as he remains to-day, not more advanced but incomparably more learned than I am. I knew then nothing of political economy. I had not yet rid myself of metaphysical abstractions, and my Socialism was only instinctive. He, though younger than I, was already an Atheist, an instructed materialist, a well-considered Socialist. It was just at this time (1847) that he elaborated the first foundations of present system. We saw each other fairly often, for I respected him much for his learning and his passionate and serious devotion-always mixed, however, with personal vanity-to the cause of the proletariat. I sought eagerly his conversation, which was always instructive and clever, when it was not inspired by a paltry hate, which, alas! happened only too often. But there was never any frank intimacy between us. Our temperaments would not suffer it. He called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right. I called him a vain man, perfidious, and crafty; and I, also, was right.”

This takes us back to the forties and Bakunin’s adventures in France. A few months after their meeting, Proudhon was obliged to leave Paris for Lyons. Bakunin was induced by his Polish to leave Paris for Lyons. Bakunin was induced by his Polish friends to go to Switzerland. He was involved in the trial of the Swiss Socialists and deprived of his rank as a Russian officer and his rights of nobility. He whittled away five years in the Swiss villages. Proceeding to Paris, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the struggle for freedom. His activity brought him into contact with Marx. His impression of Marx has been recorded.