Radically Different Rebels: Examining Sergey Nechayev, Mikhail Bakunin & Emma Goldman

Arguably more than any other political term, ‘revolutionary’ covers an extremely wide range of ideologies. These differences become especially clear after reading the works of Sergey Nechayev, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman. All three wanted to destroy the state and ignite a revolution, but their methods, among other things, greatly differed.

In this essay, I will discuss Sergey Nechayev, a Russian revolutionary, and his late 1860s work the Catechism of the Revolutionary. I will also focus on Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian contemporary and (arguably) friend of Nechayev, through his own Revolutionary Catechism in 1866, as well as his 1870 letter to Nechayev on the role of secret revolutionary societies (I will not discuss Bakunin’s Confession, given the questionable motivations/sincerity of the work). Furthermore, I will touch on the works of Emma Goldman, a Russian-born radical who moved to America (and elsewhere) and was influenced by the works of Bakunin. Focusing on their ideas rather than their personal lives, I will examine the beliefs of the three radicals by addressing two topics: whether or not the ends justify the means and the role of individuality in revolution.

Arguably the main difference between Nechayev and both Bakunin and Goldman is that Nechayev strongly believed that the ends justify the means. For Nechayev, as he wrote in his Catechism of the Revolutionary, “everything [for the revolutionary] is moral which assists the triumph of revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything which stands in its way.” The revolutionary, he argues, “must face the annihilation of a situation, of a relationship or of any person who is a part of this world – everything and everyone must be equally odious to him.” The society of revolutionaries “has only one aim-the total emancipation and happiness of the people, that is, the common laborers.” Nechayev never seems to recognize the irony of his proposal – he claims to care about the people, yet treats people as mere means, who can be disposed of as necessary; he wants his revolution for the people, no matter what the people want. The revolution ‘for the people’ has complete disregard for actual people; Nechayev writes, “All the persons organized in accordance with the general principles are regarded as and used as a means of or implements for performing the undertakings and achieving the aim of the society.”

As Bakunin notes in his letter to Nechayev, that way of thinking leads to its own form of statism: “To strive to foist on the people your own thoughts – foreign to its instinct – implies a wish to make it subservient to a new state.” Early on in his letter, he explains that his views “do not acknowledge the usefulness, or even the possibility, of any revolution except a spontaneous or a people’s social revolution. I am deeply convinced that any other revolution is dishonest, harmful, and spells death to liberty and the people.” Bakunin warns against Nechayev’s approach, which doesn’t seem to “accept in all sincerity the idea that it is a servant and a helper, but never a commander of the people, never under any pretext its manager, not even under the pretext of the people’s welfare.” For Bakunin, “the only possible, the only real revolutionary army is not outside the people, it is the people itself.” In his own Revolutionary Catechism, Bakunin warns against sacrificing freedom, even for causes like Nechayev’s, noting the importance of “Absolute rejection of every authority including that which sacrifices freedom for the convenience of the state.” Arguably his boldest denunciation of Nechayev, Bakunin wrote, “You wished, and still wish, to make your own selfless cruelty, your own truly extreme fanaticism, into a rule of common life…. Renounce your system and you will become a valuable man; if, however, you do not wish to renounce it you will certainly become a harmful militant, highly destructive not to the state but to the cause of liberty.”

Still, Nechayev wasn’t worried about the post-revolution world: “Any future organization will undoubtedly take shape through the movement and life of our people, but that is a task for future generations. Our task is terrible, total, universal, merciless destruction.” But both Bakunin and Emma Goldman disagreed; they argued that the means shouldn’t be separated from the ends. In Revolutionary Catechism, Bakunin wrote, “Freedom can and must be defended only by freedom: to advocate the restriction of freedom on the pretext that it is being defended is a dangerous delusion.” Emma Goldman, who was influenced by Bakunin, understood this point even more clearly after she witnessed the actual revolution in Russia.

In her book My Disillusionment in Russia, Goldman acknowledged that, “The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and wellbeing.” Perhaps both Bakunin and even Nechayev would agree with her on this. But I would imagine that Goldman would be quite disillusioned by Nechayev’s dehumanizing efforts toward the revolution. She wrote, “There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. This conception is a potent menace to social regeneration. All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical.” History matters, and Goldman recognized that a foundation of oppressive means laid the foundation for oppressive ends.

Regarding the role of the individual in revolution, it might be obvious at this point that, given his absolutism, Nechayev didn’t have much concern for individuality. His goal, he wrote, was “To knit this world into a single invincible and all-destroying force–this is the purpose of our entire organization, our conspiracy, and our task.” He argued that revolutionaries should “act concertedly, collectively, in total subordination to the voice of the majority,” and that they should “pledge themselves, in all their relationships with the outside world, to bear in mind only the good of society.” Again, Nechayev seems to miss the glaringly problematic idea that, in order to support the people, the people themselves should sacrifice themselves and their desires to the cause. Nechayev wants his ideal revolutionaries to have “no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution.”

In Revolutionary Catechism, Bakunin argues that equality shouldn’t mean “the leveling of individual differences,” which, rather than being problematic, constitute “the abundance of humanity.” Yes, greater economic and social equality is needed, Bakunin argued, but “not by restricting what a man may acquire by his own skill, productive energy, and thrift.”

For Emma Goldman, the problem with ideas similar to Nechayev’s was clear – a revolution that required the loss of one’s individuality isn’t a revolution worth pursuing. In her autobiography Living My Life, Goldman wrote:

“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.”

In some ways, Goldman’s views on individuality were the exact opposite of Nechayev’s. Nechayev passionately argued that, for revolutionaries, “The extent of his friendship, devotion and other obligations towards his comrade is determined only by their degree of usefulness in the practical work of total revolutionary destruction.” For Nechayev, individuals have no value other than what they contribute to the cause. For Goldman, the whole point of the cause was to promote the individuality of the people. She vehemently denounced statist ideas, like Nechayev’s, in her 1940 essay “The Individual, Society and the State”: “’The individual is nothing,’ [the new statists] declare, ‘it is the collectivity which counts.’ Nothing less than the complete surrender of the individual will satisfy the insatiable appetite of the new deity.” In the same essay, Goldman argued, “All progress has been essentially an enlargement of the liberties of the individual with a corresponding decrease of the authority wielded over him by external forces.” She went on, saying, “True civilization is to be measured by the individual, the unit of all social life; by his individuality and the extent to which it is free to have its being to grow and expand unhindered by invasive and coercive authority.”

In conclusion, radicals like Nechayev, Bakunin, and Goldman agreed on many things, including the need for eliminating the state and the church. Yet, they significantly differed on some issues, such as whether or not the ends can justify the means, and what the role individuality should play in the revolution. While both Bakunin and Goldman are unquestionably idealistic, they are undoubtedly more compassionate and less tyrannical than Nechayev.