“The question of revolutionary ethics.”
The slim volume Bakunin & Nechaev by Paul Avrich focuses on a fascinating, and almost forgotten, slice of Russian anarchist history. Although only just over 30 pages long, this well-written little book presents a gripping truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale.
Author Avrich does not attempt to present full-scale biographies of either of his two subjects–Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev–instead he traces the bizarre revolutionary beginnings of Nechaev, and the ultimately difficult relationship the two men shared. After escaping from a sentence of life imprisonment in Siberia, Bakunin was living as an exile in Switzerland when Nechaev showed up. 22-year-old Nechaev arrived with a self-created cloak of mythological revolutionary activities. By creating “an aura of mystery” which involved a fabricated escape from the Peter and Paul fortress, he “cast himself into the role of the revolutionary prototype.” Once he arrived in Geneva, Nechaev visited Bakunin “claiming to represent a powerful revolutionary organization.”
In 1869, Bakunin and Nechaev collaborated on the production of a number of political pamphlets and manifestos. The most infamous of the documents was The Catechism of the Revolutionary. It was divided into two parts–the first section contained rules and regulations for revolutionary organizations. The second part discussed The Rules of Conduct of Revolutionaries. This second section basically presented an ends justifies the means approach to revolutionary ethics. According to The Catechism, nothing was unacceptable as long as the revolutionary furthered his goal.
Exactly who authored The Catechism became the “subject of prolonged and bitter dispute.” And this dispute became particularly relevant after Nechaev returned to Russia. Nechaev deliberately set out on a campaign to incriminate friends and then used blackmail to rope them into his organization. His manipulations ended in the murder of one of his followers. Avrich argues that the relationship between Bakunin and Nechaev “illuminates the question of revolutionary ethics–of the relationship between means and ends–which revolutionists everywhere have continued to face.”
Arvich covers early Russian revolutionary activity, including the Ishutin Circle and its beliefs. He also explores the authorship of The Catechism, and Nechaev’s final fate. The book’s conclusion includes a nice analysis of revolutionary ethics, the role of a revolutionary organization, and how The Catechism influenced later groups. The author also notes that Nechaev proved to be the inspiration for the character of Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s novel The Demons.
Finally, the author wisely includes a bibliography for further reading. Bakunin and Nechaev is a well-crafted small package that packs a powerful philosophical punch, and Avrich’s style makes this a pleasure to read.