The Russian gentry of the 19th century produced a strangely long list of ‘names’. Can you imagine the English nobility, in that or any other era, producing Tolstoys or Turgenevs, Mussorgskys or Herzens? The contrast between actual and would-be, in 19th-century Russia, was vast, and was to stimulate literature of a very high order: in this respect, there is a parallel between the Russian case and the Anglo-Irish one, among others. In Italy, Sicily was by far the most backward part: but all the most interesting Italians – and certainly the funniest – came from the South. An upper class looking ‘west’ in a countryside that looked ‘east’ had much to sharpen its sense of irony.
Roberta Thompson Manning’s book concerns the Russian gentry in the last two decades or so of Tsarist Russia. It is a very large and dense book, with a list of sources (mainly Soviet) that goes on and on. She has used copious material from Russian local government (the zemstva, which were dominated by the landowners for much of this time) and she refers lightly to works such as ‘Statistika Zemlevladeniya 1905 g. (50 volumes, St Petersburg 1906)’. Her analysis of this material is not particularly new. She notes the run-down of gentry agriculture before 1900, the flight of some former landowners into other (often bureaucratic) employment, and the development of a gentry-dominated liberal movement, in which ‘modernising’ talk was well to the fore. I rather lost her once she started discussing the role of the gentry in the new Duma, or Russian parliament: much of this (the longest) part of her book consists of difficult-to-follow political narrative, which falters around 1909 and peters out well before 1914. She stresses the polarisation of bureaucracy and gentry before 1914. To the Government’s increasing encroachments, some gentry figures responded by ultra-conservatism and anti-semitism; others, mainly associated with the liberals, hoped instead for a properly-functioning constitution and parliament that would enable ‘society’ to give the country a lead. One of the ultimate ironies was that, by the end of 1916, the Tsarist Government was being condemned, from a reactionary standpoint, by a majority of the gentry associations of Southern Russia.
Two parts of this book ought to have been extended, since they are written with authority and feeling, and matter a great deal more than the political chronologising that makes up most of the book. The initial section on the run-down of gentry agriculture in Russia contains a number of interesting suggestions. Tolstoy regarded labour as the main factor behind this run-down: by 1900, peasants who could support themselves on their own plots worked rather irregularly for anyone else, and agrarian capitalism in Russia accordingly declined except in some very specific areas. In 1902, and again in 1905, there were anticipations of 1917, when peasants ran amok and sacked many of the private estates: Professor Thompson Manning has some compelling descriptions of nobles fleeing to the protection of the police in the chief towns of their province. We need a good book on 1905.
In the 19th century, men and women of the gentry class were prominent in revolutionary movements: and none of these figures was as strange as Bakunin, the subject of a new biography and intellectual study by Aileen Kelly (to whom we owe re-editions of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s works). He arrives with immense revolutionary credentials: E.H. Carr, whose Bakunin was his own favourite book, called him ‘one of the completest embodiments in history of the spirit of liberty’. Dr Kelly rather dislikes her subject: ‘Like all romantics who make the attainment of some form of spontaneous existence the object of conscious intent, Bakunin was trapped in a vicious circle: to formulate his ideal was to emphasise his distance from it.’ No wonder, then, that he ended up in advocacy of secret societies and revolutionary dictatorship. Dr Kelly quotes Dostoevsky’s famous lines: ‘Starting from unlimited freedom, I have arrived at unlimited despotism.’
This book is not a detailed account of his life – events are sketched in in the interstices of a lengthy essay in intellectual history. The man’s relationships with women are, characteristically, dismissed with a ‘he seems to have been impotent.’ Bakunin lived his life as one of the 19th century’s great show-offs: everything was directed towards the external, and his autobiography made a fine and often repeated tale – army officer, Moscow intellectual, victim of Tsarist oppression, student of philosophy in Berlin, revolutionary, convict, escapee from Siberia (via America), anarchist, and ‘embodiment of liberty’. Audiences sometimes found his company quite entrancing: but they had to have a strong stomach for the first person singular. Karl Marx did not have such a strong stomach, and he eventually broke with Bakunin in bitter rivalry as to the shape of the First International, which Bakunin tried to capture. Bakunin responded by attacking Marx as a Jew and as a German and as a socialist: no ‘soul’ there, no taste for that endless playing-to-the-gallery in futile, bloodthirsty gestures of the kind Bakunin himself needed to be relieved of.
Dr Kelly’s patience with Bakunin wears very thin indeed, and pretty well nothing survives of him. This excellent demolition-job ought to finish off Bakunin as a historical figure with anything to say about anything. His record as a practical revolutionary was pathetic: trust in quite the wrong people, and hopeless, self-indulgent incompetence about details large and small. His prose was lazy and pretentious: ‘Psychology, statistics and the entire course of history show that ...’ It was not altogether accidental that Bakunin’s appeal went down best in Italy, where the attitudinising Left had strong roots. Aileen Kelly can quite plausibly maintain that ‘as an intellectual construction, Bakunin’s political ideology has little merit; its fascination lies in what it reveals of the utopian psychology.’ More than once, I was eerily reminded of George Bernard Shaw. Still, he had one merit: earlier than Marx, he appreciated that Russia would quite soon experience revolution. ‘Evil passions will bring about a peasant war, and that delights me.’ How many of his own relatives perished in it?
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