Bakunin in Paris, February 1848

At last the February revolution burst forth. No sooner had I learned that they were fighting in Paris than, taking an acquaintance’s passport against any contingency, I set out again for France. But the passport was not necessary; the first word that greeted us at the border was: “La Republique est proclamee a Paris.”* [“The Republic is proclaimed in Paris.”] Chills ran up my spine when I heard this news. I arrived in Valenciennes on foot because the railroad had been cut. Everywhere there were crowds, wild shouts, red banners in all the streets and squares and on all public buildings. I had to go a roundabout way; the railroad was cut in many places. I arrived in Paris on 26 February, the third day after the proclamation of the republic. I enjoyed the trip. Now what shall I say to you, Sire, of the impression produced on me by Paris! This huge city, the center of European enlightenment, had suddenly been turned into the wild Caucasus: on every street, almost everywhere, barricades had been piled up like mountains, reaching the roofs, and on them, among rocks and broken furniture, like Lezghians* [A tribe of the Caucasus Mountains] in ravines, workers in their colorful blouses, blackened from powder and armed from head to foot. Fat shopkeepers,  épiciers*  [Grocers] with faces stupid from terror, timidly looked out of the windows. On the streets and boulevards not a single carriage. And the dandies, young and old, all the hated social lions with their walking sticks and lorgnettes, had disappeared and in their place MY NOBLE OUVRIERS in rejoicing, exulting crowds, with red banners and patriotic songs, reveling in their victory! And in the midst of this unlimited freedom, this mad rapture, all were so forgiving, sympathetic, loving of their fellow man—upright, modest, courteous, amiable, witty—that only in France, and in France only in Paris, could one see such a thing! Later I lived for more than a week with some workers in the Caserne de Tournon, two steps from the Luxembourg Palace. These barracks were formerly the barracks of the Municipal Guard; at this time they with many others were turned into a red republican fortress, into barracks for Caussidiere’s guard. Now I lived in them at the invitation of an acquaintance, a democrat who commanded a detachment of five hundred workers. Thus I had an opportunity to see and study these last from morning till night. Sire! I assure you, in no class, never, and nowhere have I found so much noble selflessness, so much truly touching integrity, such sincerely considerate good manners, and so much amiable gaiety combined with such heroism as I found in these simple, uneducated people, who always were and always will be a thousand times better than all their leaders! What is so striking about them is their deep instinct for discipline; in their barracks no established regimen, no Jaws, no compulsion could exist, but God grant that any disciplined soldier could so precisely obey, anticipate the wishes of his officers, and observe order as religiously as these free men. They demanded orders, they demanded leadership, they obeyed with punctiliousness, with fevor; they would perform heavy work for twenty-four hours at a stretch without eating and never grow despondent, but were always cheerful and amiable. If these people, if the French workers in general, found a leader worthy of them, one who was able to understand and love them, he could work wonders with them.

Sire! I am in no condition to give you a clear account of the month I spent in Paris, for it was a month of spiritual intoxication. Not only I but everyone was intoxicated: some from reckless fear, others from reckless rapture, from reckless hopes. I got up at five or even four in the morning and went to bed at two. I was on my feet all day, participated vigorously in all the meetings, gatherings, clubs, processions, outings, demonstrations; in a word, I imbibed with all my senses, through all my pores, the ecstatic atmosphere of revolution. It was a feast without beginning and without end. Here I saw everyone and saw no one because all were lost in one infinite, aimless crowd. I spoke with everyone, but I do not remember either what I said to them or what they said to me because at every step there were new topics, new adventures, new information. News that was arriving continually from the rest of Europe also helped no little to maintain and strengthen the general delirium. One constantly heard such things as, “On se bat a Berlin; Ie roi a pris Ia fuite, apres avoir prononce un discours! On s’est battu a Vienne, Metternich s’est enfui, Ia Republique y est proclamee! Toute l’Allemagne se souleve. Les italiens ont triomphe a Milan, a Venise; les autrichiens ont subi une honteuse defaite! La Republique y est proclamee; toute !’Europe devient Republique. Vive Ia Republique!”* [“They are fighting in Berlin; the King has taken flight after having made a speech! They have fought in Vienna, Metternich has fled, the Republic has been proclaimed there! All Germany is rising. The Italians have triumphed  in Milan, in Venice; the Austrians have suffered a shameful defeat! The Republic has been proclaimed there; all Europe is becoming a republic. Long live the Republic!”] It seemed that the whole world had been turned upside down.

The inconceivable had become the usual, the impossible possible, and the possible and the usual unthinkable. In a word, minds were in such a state that if someone had arrived and said, “le bon Dieu vient d’etre chasse du ciel, Ia Republique y est proclamee!”* [“The good Lord has just been chased out of heaven, the Republic has been proclaimed there!”] then everyone would have believed him and no one would have been amazed. And it was not only the democrats who were in such a state of intoxication; on the contrary, the democrats were the first to become sober, for they had to get down to work and secure the power that had fallen into their hands by some unexpected miracle. The conservative party and the dynastic opposition, which in one day had become more conservative than the conservatives themselves—in a word, people of the old order believed in all miracles and all impossibilities more than did the democrats. They really thought that two times two had ceased to be four, and Thiers himself announced that “il ne nous reste plus qu’une chose, c’est de nous faire oublier.”* [“Only one thing remains for us: to make ourselves forgotten.”]  This alone explains the haste and unanimity with which all cities, provinces, and classes in France accepted the republic. (46)

endnote 46: The anarchist and Bakunin scholar Max Nettlau, commenting on the preceding pages, maintained that “This veritable poem to Paris of the February barricades…, sung in the face of the Tsar” should put to rest the insinuations that Bakunin had abased himself before the Tsar and compromised himself by writing the Confession (notes to the French edition of the Confession [1932; reprint Paris, 1974], p. 218….)

= = =

From The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin, with marginal comments of Tsar Nicholas I, trans. Robert C. Howes, introduction and notes by Lawrence D. Orton (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 54–57. Written by Bakunin in 1851 while imprisoned in Tsarist Russia after the failure of the democractic revolts in the West, and before his political transformation to anarchism.

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