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The Influence of Philosophers

John Simkin

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In 1869 Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev, two of Russia’s most important anarchists, published Catechism of a Revolutionist. It included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."



The book had a tremendous influence on a group of young people in Russia who established the revolutionary organisation, the People’s Will. They planned to rescue Nechayev, who had been imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress since 1872, but first decided to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. The task was achieved on 1st March, 1881. All the conspirators were arrested and Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were all executed. The rest of the members were arrested and imprisoned and with no one to rescue Nechayev, he died of consumption and scurvy on 21st November, 1882.



Despite this repression, there were attempts by the People's Will to kill Tsar Alexander III. One plot was led by Alexander Ulyanov, who was a student at St. Petersburg University. The secret police soon discovered Ulyanov’s plot and he was caught and executed on 20th May, 1887. When he heard the news, his brother, Vladimir Illich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin), is reported as saying: "I'll make them pay for this! I swear it."


Victor Kibalchich (he later took the name Victor Serge), was one of those who was deeply influenced by the ideas of Nechayev and Bukharin. His father was a member of the People’s Will and a close relative of Nikolai Kibalchich, one of those executed for the killing of Tsar Alexander II. The family fled to Brussels and Victor began associating with local anarchists.

In 1910 Serge moved to Paris and wrote for the leading anarchist journal, l'Anarchie. Serge became involved with a group of militant anarchists who became known as the illegalists. Their views were expressed in an article that appeared in l'Anarchie: "The anarchist is in a state of legitimate defence against society. Hardly is he born than the latter crushes him under a weight of laws, which are not of his doing, having been made before him, without him, against him. Capital imposes on him two attitudes: to be a slave or to be a rebel; and when, after reflection, he chooses rebellion, preferring to die proudly, facing the enemy, instead of dying slowly of tuberculosis, deprivation and poverty, do you dare to repudiate him? If the workers have, logically, the right to take back, even by force, the wealth that is stolen from them, and to defend, even by crime, the life that some want to tear away from them, then the isolated individual must have the same rights."


This group of illegalists established what became known as the Jules Bonnot gang. On 21st December, 1911 the gang robbed a messenger of the Société Générale Bank of 5,126 francs in broad daylight and then fled in a stolen Delaunay-Belleville car. It is claimed that they were the first to use a car to flee the scene of a crime. As Peter Sedgwick pointed out: "This was an astounding innovation when policemen were on foot or bicycle. Able to hide, thanks to the sympathies and traditional hospitality of other anarchists, they held off regiments of police, terrorized Paris, and grabbed headlines for half a year."








Most of the gang were killed in gun-battles and the rest of them were guillotined outside the gates of the prison on 21st April, 1913. The police took this opportunity to round up all the anarchists in France and Victor Serge, although he was opposed to the tactics of the Jules Bonnot gang, was sentenced to five years hard labour. Lenin, by this time the leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia, decided to adopt the tactics of the “illegalists” and gave permission for groups of revolutionaries to rob banks in order to increase party funds. Stalin played a significant role in this operation and one of these raids, an attack on the State Bank in Tbilisi raised three hundred and forty thousand kopeks.

Victor Serge was released from prison in 1915. He went to live in Spain but soon after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II he attempted to return to Russia. However, he was arrested on the border by those opposed to the revolution and he was not released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1919. By the time he arrived in Russia he was a witness to the attempts by the Bolsheviks to suppress the anarchists. Over the next few years he spent his time trying to rescue left-wing critics of the Bolshevik government. In 1928 Stalin ordered Serge’s arrest. He was eventually released while suffering from severe abominable pain. Serge thought he was going to die. He told himself: "If I chance to survive, I must be quick and finish the books I have begun; I must write, write..."

Serge's first book, Year One of the Russian Revolution, was finished in 1930. Adam Hochschild has pointed out: "In all his books, and particularly in this one, his masterpiece, his prose has a searing, vivid, telegraphic compactness. Serge's style comes not from endless refinement and rewriting, like Flaubert's, but from the urgency of being a man on the run. The police are at the door; his friends are being arrested; he must get the news out; every word must tell." The book was banned in the Soviet Union and Serge was rearrested. However, after international pressure, Serge was allowed to move to France in 1936. Later, he moved to Mexico but was unable to find a publisher for his masterpiece, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, until after his death in 1947.

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