To write a book about an oft-misunderstood Russian anarchist and make it enjoyable and engaging is an extraordinary feat. In Bakunin: The Creative Passion, author Mark Leier offers “…an interpretation of Bakunin’s life and ideas of use to those interested in understanding anarchism and social change.” In today’s political climate, where the supposed political center has moved so much to the right that Republican ideas are pejoratively announced as “socialist,” writing a tome on Bakunin is an exposition on what real leftist thought has been, should be, and is. Furthermore, to personalize and humanize a man who is often derided by the right (and liberals) as a bearded, bomb-throwing lunatic also redirects the narrative further away from right wing propagandists.
Leier offers no apology for Bakunin. Instead, he attempts to explain, clarify, and interpret Bakunin’s writing and personal life with a well-researched and reasoned approach. I would have liked to have seen more time spent on the charge that Bakunin was anti-Semitic; the two pages given could have been expanded. However, by putting Bakunin in the proper historical context, many of the criticisms that have been lobbed at Bakunin either fall short or miss their mark completely. Particularly interesting is the antipathy between Karl Marx and Bakunin. While sharing many ideas and analysis, the antagonism between the German Marx and Russian-born Bakunin is at best perplexing and at its worst, amusing. They both, (along with Engels) act like petty school boys trying to please their teacher with excellent test scores and essays while blowing spitballs in each other’s ears behind the teacher’s back (Not to make light—Marx leveled a variety of charges at Bakunin, often accusing him of being a spy).
Nevertheless, Bakunin is a fantastic glimpse into a complex man who had ever-changing and evolving ideas when presented with new facts and evidence. In fact, he went from being a nationalistic young man to an anti-statist through the course of his life, hammering and forging his ideas against many of the best political philosophers of Europe. As the cliché goes, “hindsight is 20/20,” and when looking at historical figures who are controversial and unable to defend themselves on account of being dead, we can find fault with Bakunin, just like we can find fault with just about anyone, on any subject. That being said, Leier’s attempt at clarifying Bakunin in historical context is boldly enjoyable. –Steve Hart (Seven Stories Press, sevenstories.com)