Confronting Dostoevsky's Demons : Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-century Russia by James Goodwin [Book Review]

Goodwin examines different responses to Bakunin after the Russian revolution: celebration as revolutionary precursor; demonisation as the Anti-Marx; studied as the only way to even mention anarchist ideas. Chapter four (In defense of Bakunin: Aleksei Borovoi and the anarchist conception of Demons) covers the manoeuvres of anarchists in 1920s Russia. It disproves the idea that they simply disappeared, and provides information on exactly what they did do.

Arguably the highest point in the anarchists’ transition from anti-Soviet agitation to more subtle propaganda , Voice of Labor [Golos Truda] became the most significant and enduring producer of anarchist literature in the 1920s, publishing more than sixty titles between 1919 and 1926. One of its first and most important achievements was a five-volume publication of Bakunin’s works from 1919 to 1922 that featured some of Bakunin’s sharpest criticism of “state socialism,” most of which were not printed in Russia again before the perestroika period of the late 1980s.’ (p103)

The 50th anniversary of Bakunin’s death (the Bakunin jubilee of 1926) sparked new anarchist plans.

Borovoi’s elaborate plans for the Bakunin Committee reflect the great hopes and ambition which the Bakunin jubilee inspired in the minds of some surviving anarchists. With its provisions for a Bakunin museum, permanent commissions, and regular publishing activity, it is likely that Borovoi envisioned the Bakunin Committee as a genuine institution within Soviet culture, one that provided a more purely “anarchist” alternative to the Kropotkin Museum, from which the original anarchist contingent had become all but completely estranged by 1926.’ (p120-1) ‘[T]he anarchists’ subtle but obvious strategy of self-vindication … was deployed most extensively in a collection of anarchist writings edited by Borovoi and published by Voice of Labor in honour of Bakunin that summer. Consisting of eighteen articles by fourteen different authors, the collection represented by far the largest and most diverse compilation of anarchist texts to emerge throughout the entire Soviet period. Its format reflected the need to subordinate its principal aim of outlining a history of anarchism, as acknowledge in the preface, to the purpose of commemoration. Its title, Sketches on the History of the Anarchist Movement in Russia, therefore included the dedication To Mikhail Bakunin, 1876-1926.’ (p123)

Interestingly, it was not only inside Russia that Bakunin was being invoked: ‘[A]s anarchists and Bolsheviks observed Bakunin’s 1926 jubilee in Moscow, Maksimov prepared four installments of Bakunin’s “teachings,” as he called them, in the form of fictitious “conversations” between a modern enquirer – represented by Maksimov himself – and the revived Bakunin, whom Maksimov returned to the living after a fifty-year slumber. Eliciting classic utterances by Bakunin on the need for a sweeping, anarchist revolution and the way to realize it, Maksimov offered a creative and original alternative to the scholarly paraphrase of Soviet Marxist studies.’ (p127)

Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons is a specialised but intelligent and valuable contribution to the history of anarchism in Russia.

Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons : Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-century Russia by James Goodwin Peter Lang, 2010. ISBN: 9781433108839 £55/ $90.