Rethinking Reality

Here’s How Anarchism and Mysticism Go Together (I)

Romina Heim

Anarchism is often thought of as being atheist in nature, since anarchists traditionally oppose authority, including religious authority (Davis 2019, 65). However, the development of the Russian anarchist tradition exemplifies that the atheist premise lacks a metaphysical understanding of anarchism. Metaphysical anarchism, or rather anarchist metaphysics imply the idea of a universal humanity and an autonomous consciousness, allowing to rethink reality.

“Rethinking Reality” is the title of my series of blog posts that is dedicated to a spiritual movement and esoteric teaching called “mystical anarchism” which emerged in early 20th-century Russia and complemented political anarchism with metaphysical spirituality. In the articles to follow, I will present the teaching’s core concepts and key figures who strived towards shifting the paradigm of world perception.

Part 1: “A journey into the land of anarchy”[1]

Throughout the history of mankind the human urge to freedom has found expression in various philosophical and religious traditions, schools, and groups (e. g. Chinese Taoism, ancient Greek Cynicism, early Christian Gnosticism, heretic sectarianism), before it transformed into the abstract philosophical idea of a stateless society in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and ultimately developed into the political theory and social movement of “anarchism”.

Arising as a response to the advancement of capitalist industrialization, centralization, and exploitation in 19th-century Western Europe (Avrich 2005, 3), early anarchist theory was – in simplified terms – preoccupied with two basic problems concerning the degree of freedom (1) and the method of achieving it (2):

  1. How is it possible to equally ensure both individual freedom and social coexistence?
  2. Should the dominant social order be overthrown by force or offered pacifist resistance?

The different and mostly incompatible opinions on these issues split anarchists from the beginning and eventually resulted in the formation of multiple schools of thought: Those who believed individual freedom to be possible only in combination with community, mutual aid, and social equality founded the branch of social anarchism (embracing collectivist and communist anarchism as well as 20th-century anarcho-syndicalism). In opposition to this approach emerged the theory of individualist anarchism, advocated by those who put the individual’s freedom above social cooperation. Both camps, in turn, comprised both belligerent revolutionaries embracing the so-called “propaganda by the deed” (Bantman 2019) and anarcho-pacifists for whom the end did not justify the means.[2]

Although modern anarchism has its origins in England and France, the theoretical elaboration of its fundamentals owes much to the contribution of Russian thinkers – the most famous of which were Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) and Piotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), arguing in favor of a communal anarchism achieved through social revolution. Likewise, also the pacifist anarchist tradition is inextricably linked to a Russian name – Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), not only one of Russia’s most famous novelists but also major representative of a Christian anarchism advocating nonviolent resistance (Christoyannopoulos & Apps 2019). Without intending to neglect the works of their European and American predecessors and comrades, it is fair to say that Bakuninism (collectivist anarchism), Kropotkinism (communist anarchism) and Tolstoyanism (Christian anarchism) constituted what we now refer to as classical anarchism (Udartsev 2016, 29).

Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876 ) ©Wikimedia Commons, 2019
Piotr Kropotkin (1842–1921 ) ©Wikimedia Commons, 2019
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910 ) ©Wikimedia Commons, 2019

These three pillars of classical anarchism also provided the framework for a distinctive Russian anarchist tradition taking clear shape only at the beginning of the 20th century, when Russia entered a period of upheaval.[3] Anarchism “as an organized movement of social protest” (Avrich 2005, 3) came into being at the same time when anarchism as a political ideology started to experience a fundamental crisis. Given that existing concepts and postulations were reconsidered and much debated in the last years of Tsarist rule, early post-classical Russian anarchism emerged as a modernization and refinement of the classical theory in the light of past experiences, changing socio-economic conditions, and technological progress. Post-classical anarchist tendencies built on a broader methodological basis, integrated new ideas and findings from humanities and natural sciences, focused on the importance of consciousness, and extended the concept of liberation from authoritarian oppression to an all-encompassing freedom of self-expression (Udartsev 2016, 22–26).

This reorientation within the anarchist tradition resonated with the ongoing discussion on the reorientation of values within Russia’s intellectual and artistic circles during the 1905 turmoil. Seeking to be close to the suffering Russian people and sharing anarchists’ “hostility to materialism, rationality, and bourgeois society” (Glatzer Rosenthal 1977, 609), Russia’s creative intelligentsia echoed their call for autonomy while taking its interpretation to a metaphysical level. Autonomy became equivalent not only to anti-authoritarianism but also to anti-dogmatism and was believed to be fully experienced only in mystical ecstasy. For the social revolution to be successful, a spiritual revolution had to pave the way: The movement of mystical anarchism was born.

Part 2: The ‘soul’s revolt’ against reality’s restraints

Although the idea of a mystically refined social anarchism attracted a broad range of creative intellectuals, it found particular appeal within Russian symbolism and it was the symbolist writer Georgy Chulkov (1879–1939) who coined the term in 1905 (Glatzer Rosenthal 1977, 610).

Georgy Chulkov (1879–1939) ©Wikimedia Commons, 2019

The ideological foundations of Chulkov’s mystical anarchism were elaborated a year later in his booklet On Mystical Anarchism with an opening chapter written by the renowned symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov. Going beyond Bakunin’s “naïve” vision of a revolution from below, Kropotkin’s insufficient communist solidarity, and Tolstoy’s “impersonal love” (Chulkov 1971, 3), mystical anarchists turned to Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” (Nietzsche 2007, 121) and preferred his self- and life-affirming individualism over Max Stirner’s egoistic philosophy, while simultaneously drawing upon Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s concept of a “new religious consciousness” and Vasily Rozanov’s divinization of sexuality (Glatzer Rosenthal 1977, 620). In compliance with the esoteric premise of an interrelated universe, in which the inner state of man influences the external world, early mystical anarchism targeted the liberation of the human soul from all “restraints inherent in reality” (ibid., 609), so that humanity as a whole could eventually be liberated. Early mystical anarchism hence targeted the elimination of all binding norms, whether political, social, religious, or moral, and the replacement of egoism with love (Chulkov 1971, 3). Love, however, was in no way equivalent to the Christian platonic compassion, but rather to Eros. The experience of sexual unity was embraced as a means to overcome ego and experience cosmic unity (Glatzer Rosenthal 1977, 614).

To the Russian philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev, the combination of anarchism and mysticism represented the logical consequence of their semantic contents. Anarchism, if understood as anti-authoritarianism in the broadest sense of the word, inevitably adopts an irrational, and therefore mystical coloring. Equally, to the mystic (in this case the artist), “anarchy” represents the only possible state of mind (Berdyaev 1999, 203f). Still, Chulkov’s doctrine struggled with the criticism of its opponents, including the symbolist poet Andrey Bely whose attacks were directed at mystical anarchism’s amoralism, condescension, and unworldliness (Bely 2016, 708).

Mystical anarchism was short-lived – it flourished and vanished with the course of events between 1905 and 1907. The revolution had failed, hopes had been shattered and interest in mystical anarchism faded. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that mystical anarchism reappeared on Russia’s public scene, in some ways similar to its first version, yet very different.

To Be Continued

Notes

  1. This heading is borrowed from the title of Leonid Heller’s essay Voyage au pays de l’anarchie: Un itinéraire: L’utopie, published in 1996 in Cahiers du monde russe: Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants 37(3): 249–275.
  2. For detailed information on the development of anarchism and its subcategories see the complete collective volume on anarchism The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism, edited by Carl Levy and Matthew S. Adams. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
  3. For detailed information on the development of the Russian anarchist tradition and its various tendencies see the complete collective volume on anarchism Анархизм: pro et contra, антология, 20–32. Отв. ред. Д. К. Богатырев. СПб.: РХГА, 2016.

References

Avrich, Paul. The Russian Anarchists. Oakland CA: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Bantman, Constance. “The Era of Propaganda by the Deed.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism, edited by Carl Levy and Matthew S. Adams, 371–387. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

{Bely} Белый, Андрей. “О проповедниках, гастрономах, мистических анархистах и т.д.“ In Анархизм: pro et contra, антология, 707–710. Отв. ред. Д. К. Богатырев. СПб.: РХГА, 2016.

{Berdyayev} Бердяев, Николай А. Новой религиозной сознание и общественность. Москва: Канон, 1999.

Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre / Apps, Lara. “Anarchism and Religion.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism, edited by Carl Levy and Matthew S. Adams, 169–192. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

{Chulkov] Чулков, Георгий. О мистическом анархизме. Letchworth: Prideaux Press, 1971.

Davis, Laurence. “Individual and Community.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism, edited by Carl Levy and Matthew S. Adams, 169–192. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Glatzer Rosenthal, Bernice. “The Transmutation of the Symbolist Ethos: Mystical Anarchism and the Revolution of 1905.” In Slavic Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 608–627. Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, 1977.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Ecce Homo. How to Become What you Are.” In Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols And Other Writings, edited by Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, 69–151. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

{Udartsev} Ударцев, Сергей Ф. Эволюция теории анархизма в XIX–XX вв. In Анархизм: pro et contra, антология, 20–32. Отв. ред. Д. К. Богатырев. СПб.: РХГА, 2016.


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