Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Part Fourth, Ch. 10

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This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





     Bakúnin was at that time at Locarno. I did not see him, and now regret it very much, because he was dead when I returned four years later to Switzerland. It was he who had helped the Jura friends to clear up their ideas and to formulate their aspirations; he who had inspired them with his powerful, burning, irresistible revolutionary enthusiasm. As soon as he saw that a small newspaper, which Guillaume began to edit in the Jura hills (at Locle) was sounding a new note of independent thought in the socialist movement, he came to Locle, talked for whole days and whole nights also to his new friends about the historical necessity of a new move in the direction of anarchy; he wrote for that paper a series of profound and brilliant articles on the historical progress of mankind towards freedom; he infused enthusiasm into his new friends, and he created that centre of propaganda, from which anarchism spread later on to other parts of Europe.

     After he had moved to Locarno, --- whence he started a similar movement in Italy, and, through his sympathetic and gifted emissary, Fanelli, also in Spain, --- the work that he had begun in the Jura hills was continued independently by the Jurassians themselves. The name of "Michel" often recurred in their conversations, --- not, however, as that of an absent chief whose opinions were law, but as that of a personal friend of whom every one spoke with love, in a spirit of comradeship. What struck me most was that Bakúnin's influence was felt much less as the influence of an intellectual authority than as the influence of a moral personality. In conversations about anarchism, or about the attitude of the federation I never heard it said, "Bakúnin thinks so," as if it settled the question. His writings and his sayings were not regarded as laws, --- as is unfortunately often the case in political parties. In all such matters, in which intellect is the supreme judge, every one in discussion used his own arguments. Their general drift and tenor might have been suggested by Bakúnin, or Bakúnin might have borrowed them from his Jura friends; at any rate, in each individual the arguments retained their own individual character. I only once heard Bakúnin's name invoked as an authority in itself, and that impressed me so deeply that I even now remember the spot where the conversation took place and all the surroundings. Some young men were indulging in talk that was not very respectful toward the other sex, when one of the women who were present put a sudden stop to it by exclaiming: "Pity that Michel is not here: he would put you in your place!" The colossal figure of the revolutionist, who had given up everything for the sake of the revolution, and lived for it alone, borrowing from his conception of it the highest and the purest views of life, continued to inspire them.

     I returned from this journey with distinct sociological ideas which I have retained since, doing my best to develop them in more and more definite, concrete forms.

     There was, however, one point which I did not accept without having given to it a great deal of thinking and many hours of my nights. I clearly saw that the immense change which would deliver everything that is necessary for life and production into the hands of society --- be it the Folk State of the social democrats or the unions of freely associated groups, which the anarchists advocate --- would imply a revolution far more profound than any of the revolutions which history had on record. Moreover, in such a revolution the workers would have against them, not the rotten generation of aristocrats against whom the French peasants and republicans had to fight in the last century, --- and even that fight was a desperate one, --- but the middle classes, which are far more powerful, intellectually and physically, and have at their service all the potent machinery of the modern state. However, I soon noticed that no revolution, whether peaceful or violent, had ever taken place without the new ideals having deeply penetrated into the very class whose economical and political privileges were to be assailed. I had witnessed the abolition of serfdom in Russia, and I knew that if a consciousness of the injustice of their privileges had not spread widely within the serf-owners' class itself (as a consequence of the previous evolution and revolutions accomplished in Western Europe), the emancipation of the serfs would never have been accomplished as easily as it was accomplished in 1861. And I saw that the idea of emancipating the workers from the present wage-system was making headway amongst the middle classes themselves. The most ardent defenders of the present economical conditions had already abandoned the idea of right in defending their present privileges, --- questions as to the opportuneness of such a change having already taken its place. They did not deny the desirability of some such change, they only asked whether the new economical organization advocated by the socialists would really be better than the present one; whether a society in which the workers would have a dominant voice would be able to manage production better than the individual capitalists actuated by mere considerations of self-interest manage it at the present time.

     Besides, I began gradually to understand that revolutions --- that is, periods of accelerated rapid evolution and rapid changes --- are as much in the nature of human society as the slow evolution which incessantly goes on now among the civilized races of mankind. And each time that such a period of accelerated evolution and reconstruction on a grand scale begins, civil war is liable to break out on a small or large scale. The question is, then, not so much how to avoid revolutions, as how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the smallest number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment. For that end there is only one means; namely, that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve, and how, and that they should be imbued with the enthusiasm which is necessary for that achievement; in that case they will be sure to attach to their cause the best and the freshest intellectual forces of the privileged class.

     The Commune of Paris was a terrible example of an outbreak with insufficiently determined ideals. When the workers became, in March, 1871, the masters of the great city, they did not attack the property rights vested in the middle classes. On the contrary, they took these rights under their protection. The leaders of the Commune covered the National Bank with their bodies, and notwithstanding the crisis which had paralyzed industry and the consequent absence of earnings for a mass of workers, they protected the rights of the owners of the factories, the trade establishments, and the dwelling-houses at Paris with their decrees. However, when the movement was crushed, no account was taken by the middle classes of the modesty of the communalistic claims of the insurgents. Having lived for a few months in fear that the workers would make an assault upon their property rights, the rich men of France took upon them just the same revenge as if they had made the assault in reality. Nearly thirty thousand of them were slaughtered, as is known, --- not in battle, but after they had lost the battle. If they had taken steps towards the socialization of property, the revenge could not have been more terrible.

     If, then, --- my conclusion was, --- there are periods in human development when a conflict is unavoidable, and civil war breaks out quite independently of the will of particular individuals, --- let, at least, these conflicts take place, not on the ground of vague aspirations, but upon definite issues; not upon secondary points, the insignificance of which does not diminish the violence of the conflict, but upon broad ideas which inspire men by the grandness of the horizon which they bring into view. In this last case the conflict itself will depend much less upon the efficacy of firearms and guns than upon the force of the creative genius which will be brought into action in the work of reconstruction of Society. It will depend chicfly upon the constructive forces of Society taking for the moment a free course; upon the inspirations being of a higher standard and so winning more sympathy even from those who, as a class, are opposed to the change. The conflict, being thus engaged on larger issues, will purify the social atmosphere itself, and the numbers of victims on both sides will certainly be much smaller than if the fight is over matters of secondary importance in which the lower instincts of men find a free play.

     With these ideas I returned to Russia.

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