From August, 1849, to May, 1850, Bakunin was kept a prisoner in the fortress of Konistein. He was then tried and sentenced to death by the Saxon tribunal. In pursuance of a resolution passed by the old Diet of the Bund in 1836, he was delivered up to the Austrian Government and sent (chained) to Prague instead of being executed.
The Austrian Government attempted in vain to extort from him the secrets of the Slavonian movement. A year later, it sentenced him to death, but immediately commuted the death sentence to one of perpetual imprisonment. In the interval he had been removed from the fortress at Gratz to that of Almutz, as the government was terrified by the report of a design to liberate him. Here he passed six months chained to the wall. After this, the Austrian government surrendered him to the Russian. The Austrian chains were replaced by native irons of twice the weight. This was in the autumn of 1851, when Bakunin was taken through Warsaw and Vilna to St. Petersburg, to pass three wear years in the fortress of Alexis. At Vilna, in spite of the threats of the Russian Government, the Poles gathered in the streets to pay the last tribute of silent respect to the heroic Russian orator of four years before. As Bakunin drove past them in the sledge, they bowed their heads with an affection never assumed in the presence of Emperors. Bakunin maintained his fortitude during years of confinement in Russian dungeons, until the torture of his imprisonment produced the tragedy of his confessions, and showed that he was not unworthy of their devotion.
In Russia he was never tried; the Czar Nicholas I. considered him his property, like all his other subjects, and simply sent him to the fortress of Peter and Paul, at Petrograd, to molder there to the end of his life. There were no charges, no fellow conspirators; he was a passive object in the hands of the Czar. The Czar, no doubt, felt proud to have this rebel at his mercy; he felt curious also about the secrets of the European revolution, which Bakunin, if anybody, was believed to possess; and, with the contempt of men that an autocrat, before whom all cringe, must feel, he may have expected to tame Bakunin, to win him over, perhaps to make him one of his tools.
So his henchman, Count Orloff, was sent to tell Bakunin that the Czar wished to receive a statement on his revolutionary doings, and that he might talk to the Czar with the same confidence which a penitent would exercise towards the priest in the confessional.
Bakunin demanded a month’s time for reflection, and then wrote a statement which was given to the Czar in the summer of 1851. He addressed himself in terms of crushing humility. The reign of Nicholas has been described as a blank sheet in the history of Russian progress. He made no pretense at reforms and glorified in reaction. The last ten years of his reign saw the reduction of even ordinary newspapers to a level of almost zero. Only six newspapers and nineteen monthlies were permitted to be published throughout the whole of Russia. It was a period of absolute sterility.
The reception of Bakunin’s petition by the Czar symbolized the attitude of power towards genius. He had a god in chains and the cowardly suppression of titanic energy merely served to tickle the vanity of this Lilliputian braggart in uniform. He chuckled at the idea of forgiving and releasing Bakunin, and then intensified the persecution. When Nicholas II. was executed or assassinated by the Bolsheviks, it may have been an unnecessary and unjustifiable murder in the violence of reaction and struggle against the crimes Czarism; but when the Romanoff, Nicholas I., was sowing he might have remembered that some day another Romanoff, even a Nicholas, so as to point the moral, might reap. Those called to authority should always remember that one sows a storm only to reap a whirlwind.
Truth is more sacred than all the gods. Its utility is greater than the strife of heroes. Knowing this to be a fact it is the author’s duty, in this chapter, to put before his readers the saddest and most regrettable discoveries of the Russian Revolution. These are the documents containing Bakunin’s “avowal of sins,” found in the archives of the Czar’s secret police. Four Czars, rejected the “secret of the confessional” and did not use the document against the living Bakunin, their open enemy, nor against his memory. It was left to the Soviet regime to use them against his memory. One suspects that it was more from a desire to damn his fame than from zeal for truth. It must be remembered that the Soviet press, under the domination of Stalinism, slandered Trotsky and recalled, with exaggeration and falsification, his quarrels with Lenin. Stalin’s hired apologists endeavored to write Trotsky’s name out of the revolution and to write Stalin’s name in its place. Clumsy forgery, true: but none the less, an established forgery that all the world may see. Before Trotsky, Bakunin was the most slandered revolutionist in the world, enjoying the especial hatred of the Marxists.
In the history of Socialism, with the exception of Trotsky, there is no historical personality which has been so much slandered by a handful of would-be revolutionists and pseudo-Socialists. Just so was the hatred and slander against Bakunin, the work of Marx, and his doctrinaire disciples, as the slander of Trotsky is the work of Stalin and his disciples. Bakunin, the true incarnation of revolutionary spirit, fearless fighter for the social and political emancipation of the working class, was the direct antithesis to the Social Democratic and petty bourgeoisie cowardice in the political life of the day. In the midst of the revolutionary struggle of 1848, Marx published, in his New Rhenish Gazette, articles accusing Bakunin of being a secret agent of Czar Nicholas and the Panslavists. Marx and his friends were then forced to stammer their apology. Whilst Bakunin, at Olmnitz and other Austrian jails, suffered imprisonment, forged to the walls in chains, Herzen and Mazzini forced Marx to take back his unworthy lies. But Marx was not the man to forgive them this humiliation.
When Bakunin reappeared in the midst of his revolutionary friends, after his escape from Siberia, Marx and his satellites recommenced their slanderous attack. Marx especially merits the workers’ regard for his great services to the revolutionary cause, rendered under conditions often of appalling poverty. But this personal vanity and domination detract seriously from his claim to our love as a man and a comrade. His private spleen and hatred towards Bakunin, although occasionally softened, is unforgiveable and a serious blemish on a great character. On Bakunin’s return, he inspired anonymous denunciations in Social Democratic Papers, which were under the editorship of W. Liebknecht, M. Hess, and others. Again at the congress of the International at Basle, 1869, the slanderers lost the game, and were forced to compromise themselves, and declare the entire baselessness of their charges. Marx resolved to kill Bakunin and Herzen, morally, at one stroke. In his position as secretary of a Russian section, and as a member of the General Council of the International, Marx sent, on March 28th, 1870, “a private and confidential circular to his German friends.” This bore, at the bottom, the official seal of the International. The fact of it being issued secretly was an offense against the rules and spirit of the International. The slanders which it contains cover eight printed pages, and had been conveyed to Marx. The organizers of these slanders, and confidential correspondents of Marx, were two men who begged the Czar’s pardon, received it, and loyally returned to Russia. Their names were Utin and Trussow. In our day, Trotsky has been slandered by similar types.
Among innumerable treacherous stupidities, the circular went on: —
“Soon after Herzen died, Bakunin, who, since the time he tried to proclaim himself leader of the European labor movement, and disowned his old friend and patron. Herzen, lost no time, soon after his death, to sing his praise. Why? Herzen, in spite of his great personal wealth, accepted 25,000 francs annually, for propaganda Through his flattering voice. Bakunin attracted this money, and with is, the heritage of Herzen — malgre so haine de l’heritage — pecuniarily and morally a beneficio inventaril resumed.”
Never in the whole political and revolutionary movement was a worse slander issued. Herzen, who issued at his own cost a complete revolutionary library, and who was one of the most intellectually brilliant and uncompromising destroyers of political and intellectual reaction is slandered equally with Bakunin.
These slanders against Bakunin must be borne in mind when we recall that his alleged confessions have been published by the school of ‘his traditional enemies, who are jealous of their own reputation, and have silenced all opposition by medieval methods. Yet the facts having been given to the revolutionary and labor world, their import must be considered.
The documents are summarized by L. Deitch, an old Russian revolutionist and a disciple of Bakunin, in the columns off the Yiddish monthly, The Future, of New York, for February, 1924. Deitch writes, that in the spring of 1876, when he was living in Odessa, Anna Rosenstein-Makerevitch returned to the comrades there from a visit to Bakunin, whom they regarded as their rebel idol and guide. She reported that Bakunin had not long to live. Her visit was undertaken in order to consult him about a plan that rising among the peasants of the district of Tchigirin by issuing a forged manifesto purporting to come from the Czar. Bakunin replied that falsehood is sewn always with white thread, and sooner or later the thread will show. This is a wise reply and does Bakunin credit. Yet history proves that oft-times falsehood achieves its purpose, unfortunately. Indeed it is safe to say that if truth triumphed naturally and spontaneously, as it should do, there would be no history. Politics and governments would cease to masquerade and society would become a harmony. The remarkable thing about Bakunin’s utterance is that he must have known that his confessions were lying in the archives of the Russian third division. Time would publish them; and no one was working harder for the dawn of that time than Bakunin himself. The future will place his confessions in the same category as that of Galileo. History recalls that even Giordano Bruno sought to evade trial and death. Had it been known, however, during Bakunin’s life, that he had addressed himself to the Czars in the fashion that he did, not even his great personality, nor yet his logical concentrated diction, would have earned him that standing in the International Working-Class Movement that he came to enjoy so deservedly. It must be recalled, against the merit of Bakunin’s revolutionary activity and writing that many of his colleagues suffered torture in the Czar’s prisons and never wavered. The pioneer is never the perfect hero. As a thinker he is the word incarnate. As a messenger he is often a very frail man. His life is usually a tragic and heroic stumbling between his two functions. He seems to be a dual personality. His career ever reminds us that there are no gods to order progress; only pioneers, very, very human beings, to blaze the trail, as they stumble along. Their names pass into legend, grow into a great tradition, and earn a brave respect. Then someone discovers the essential humanity, some temporary weakening under torture, and the hero is gone. All is destroyed. Even the mighty worth that challenged persecution and rose so bravely for the benefit of mankind from its yieldings to temptation is denied. Time, the great healer, rights that also. Finally, posterity sees neither god nor the weakling but the man as he was in the actual setting of his time and circumstance. Remembering this let us consider Bakunin’s confessions from prison and all that happened to them and him.
To Nicholas I. Bakunin wrote:
“In Eastern Europe, wherever we look, we see senility, weakness, lack of faith, all are charlatanizing. Learning has become the same as powerlessness.”
Nicholas wrote in his own hand in the margin: “A wonderful truth.” Certainly the statement was true. It depicts class society in all its drab futility. As a truth the Czar could not be expected to appreciate its force. He toyed with it as an empty platitude. Its sound pleased him. It argued, apparently, against learning. He commended it because it gave him a picture of his victim squirming. We must read it in association with its contents. Bakunin describes himself as “a penitent” and defines his revolutionary activities as “criminal Don Quixotic-like nonsense.” He styles his Socialist plans “as having been, in the highest sense, ludicrous, nonsensical, insolent, and criminal. Criminal against you, my Emperor, my Czar. Criminal against my Fatherland. Criminal against all spiritual, divine, and human laws.”
As has been remarked already, Bakunin was nothing if not thorough. Whether he was promoting the revolution or abasing himself before the Czar, he enjoyed expressing himself to the very limit of his mood. The revolution was his earnest thought. The abasement must be considered a pose, assumed for some tactical objective. It ranks with the parliamentary oath of allegiance. The extremism of expression was Bakunin himself.
The petition continues: —
“It is hard for me, Czar of mine, an erring, estranged, misled son, to tell you he has had the insolence to think of the tendency and the spirit of your rule. It is hard for me because I stand before you like a condemned criminal. It is painful to my self-love. It is ringing in my ears as if you, my Czar, said: ‘The boy babbles of things he does not understand’.”
Bakunin repeats the phrase, that he is a criminal, over and over again. The Czar adds a note: “A sword does not fall on a bowed neck. Let God pardon him.” The pardon was to be quite metaphysical. For his own part, the Czar intended to keep Bakunin jailed.
Nicholas was succeeded by Alexander II. Bakunin’s mother petitioned to the new Emperor. The latter replied with affability: “As long as your son lives, Madam, he will never be free.” To this Czar, Bakunin addressed a petition, dated February 4th, 1857.
It was signed: “The mercy-imploring criminal, Michel Bakunin.” Deitch quotes a few passages to show how the great revolutionist degraded himself before the Czar.
“My Lord King, by what name shall I call my past life? I have squandered my life in fantastic and fruitless strivings and it has ended in crime. A false beginning, a false situation, and a sinful egotism have brought me to criminal errors. I have done noting in my life except to commit crimes. I have dared to raise my powerless arm against my great Fatherland. I have renounced and cursed my errors and faults. If I could rectify my past by an act, I would ask mercy and the opportunity to do this. I should be glad to wipe out with blood my crimes against you, my Czar. To you, my Czar, I am not ashamed to confess my weakness. Openly, I confess that the thought of dying in loneliness, in the dark prison cell, terrifies me more than death itself, and from the depths of my heart and soul I pray your Majesty to be released, if it is only possible, from this last punishment, the heaviest that can be. No matter what sentence may await me, I surrender to it in advance and accept it as just. And I permit myself to hope that this last time I may be allowed to express the feeling of profound gratitude to your unforgettable father, and to Your Majesty, for all the benefits that you have shown me.”
There are other documents of a similar character addressed to high officials.
In 1854, at the beginning of the Crimean War, Bakunin was transferred to the casemates of the dreaded fortress of Schlusselburg, which actually lie beneath the level of the Neva. When Alexander II. ascended the throne in August, 1856, he half-pardoned many political refugees and conspirators. With grim satire he included the surviving Decembrists of 1825. A royal pardon after thirty years of torture! Bakunin was not among the pardoned.
In 1857, Bakunin was released from prison and removed to Western Siberia as a penal colonist. Three years later Bakunin asked to return to Russia. The emperor refused this request as he saw in him “no signs of remorse.” After eight years imprisonment and four years in exile, he had to look forward still to a series of dreary years spent in Siberia. Two of these had gone when, in 1859, the Russian Government annexed the territory of the Amur. Bakunin was given permission to settle here and to move about as he pleased. This was not enough. A new flame had been kindled throughout Russia. Garibaldi had unfurled the Italian flag of seeming freedom. Bakunin, at forty-seven years of age and with his pulse full of vigor, could not remain tame and distant spectator of these revolutionary events. His confessions were forgotten. The titan was himself again. He determined to escape. His excursions were extended gradually as far as Novo-Nikolaievsk. Here at last, he secretly boarded an American clipper and reached Japan. He was the first political refugee to seek shelter in the land of the cherry blossom. From there he proceeded to the Devil’s Kitchen, San Francisco. He crossed the Isthmus of Panama and reached New York. On the 26th December, 1861, he landed at Liverpool. The next day he was with his comrades in London. They knew nothing about the amazing documents Bakunin had left behind him in the Russian archives. Sixty years were to elapse before they were to come to light. In the interval, his revolutionary influence was to win the Russian youth to the cause of social revolution by the simplicity, clearness and consistency of his teachings. Immediately, the organized workers of London were inspired by his wonderful record of martyrdom. They regarded both him and his doctrine with respectful awe. Behind his phrases they beheld the figure of a legendary being who had given up the safety of his home and thrown himself into the fight for working-class freedom. They did not know all the truth. It was as well because they would not have appreciated its exact significance. They would have made no allowance for the agony that reduced Bakunin’s spirits to the state of humble petition. They would have forgotten that every martyr has wished that the cup might pass from his lips. They would have attached undue importance to promises and abasements made under duress. Bakunin would have been unable to have given to the world his later magnificent Anarchist manifestos. As it was, they rejoiced. Their rejoicing more nearly expressed what the truth merited than their silence would have done.
“Bakunin is in London! Buried in dungeons, lost in Siberia, he reappears in the midst of us full of life and energy! He returns more hopeful than ever, with redoubled love for freedom’s holy cause. He is invigorated by the sharp but healthy air of Siberia. With his resurrection, images and shadows rise from the dead! Ghosts walk abroad! Visions of 1848 reappear! That revolutionary epoch belongs no longer to the past! It has changed its place in the order of time. The revolution must be completed.”
Such were the greetings with which all lovers of freedom and members of the revolutionary working-class committees throughout Britain welcomed the approach of the year, 1862.
To justify these expectations, Bakunin settled down to the part editorship of Herzen’s Kolokol or Bell. Never did revolutionists produce greater or more valuable writings than Bakunin did during the ten years that followed. Mentally and physically, he attained his prime.