August 3, 2000 The New York Times
Anarchists of the World, Unite in Your Literary Roots!
By WALTER GOODMAN
The appearance of some self-proclaimed anarchists among the protesters at the Republican convention is tantalizing but perplexing. With radical effusions so out of style, what are we to make of these figures from beyond the fringe? They summon us back to a time and place when anarchists were taken seriously, Russia in the 19th century, and to the great novelists who grappled with the phenomenon.
As the eruptions on the streets of Seattle and Washington demonstrated a few months ago, any organization that calls itself the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund is a natural target for a radical's abiding animosity toward rich and powerful institutions that impose their will on entire societies. But since the anarchist by definition opposes every sort of system, the word has become identified more with wishful dreams of destroying what exists than with workable schemes to achieve what ought to exist.
In his 1964 history, "The Anarchists," (Atlantic, Little Brown), James Joll concluded that while anarchist doctrine draws on political ideas of the Enlightenment, anarchist actions, which are often meant to startle, can be explained "only in terms of the psychology of religious belief." The confrontations, slogans, costumes (black garb enlivened by red bandanas) of today's American-style street anarchists invite a novelist's scrutiny of a temperament that had its most spectacular heyday in 19th-century Russia yet pops up periodically even on these relatively placid shores.
In their literary incarnations anarchists range from murderers to flower children. Dostoyevsky, the pre-eminent psychologist of Russian radicalism, found inspiration for his novel "The Possessed," (renamed "Demons" by its latest translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) in the 1869 murder of a student by a group led by a 22-year-old nihilist, Sergei G. Nechayev. (My dictionary reports that the anarchist believes that all political institutions and existing social arrangements should be abolished; the nihilist, a word that has gone out of fashion, calls for their destruction by terrorism.) The Nechayev trial in 1871, the first public political trial in Russia, supplied Dostoyevsky with many of the characters and elements of his novel, published the following year.
Be they anarchists or nihilists, the radicals do not come off very well in "Demons." Shigalyov, the movement's theoretician in the book, is candid about the dead end of anarchism: "Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism." The Nechayev-like character, Pyotr Verkhovensky, represents the transformation of the ideal of unlimited freedom into anarchic destruction.
The translators sum up Dostoyevsky's take on his characters' radicalism: "Everything is inverted here: freedom ends in despotism, adoration turns to hatred, lucidity increases blindness, the first real act of the liberator of mankind -- Nechayev or Verkhovensky -- is the murder of his human brother. Seeking the greatest good, we do the greatest evil."
Although Dostoyevsky and his foremost competitor, Turgenev, had little in common politically, they shared a mistrust and distaste for the anarchic atrocities and fancies of their time.
Turgenev provided an enduring specimen of what might be called Anarchy Light in Bazarov, who came to personify nihilism, which had a vogue in mid-19th-century Russia. Although Bazarov willingly accepts being labeled a nihilist, he is far too disdainful of any hope for improvement of any sort to become part of any movement.
As he puts it in a running quarrel with Pavel Petrovich, the older-generation liberal, "At the present time the most useful thing is negation." When pressed on what is to be done after the destruction of "everything," he says: "That already goes beyond our task. The first thing is to clear the field."
Call it anarchy or nihilism or just desperation, that is the terrorism of the mind; the payoff is all internal. The politics of Bazarov, by far the most dynamic character in "Fathers and Sons" (or "Fathers and Children," as a newer translation has it), grows out of his sense of his own intellectual superiority. Or, as some psychologist would surely deduce, it is a shield for his insecurity.
Bazarov wins all the arguments with the elderly liberal, but they are essentially rhetorical victories. He patronizes his loving parents, mocks the ignorant peasantry and scorns almost everyone he meets until, in a contrived ending for an otherwise glowingly honest novel, Turgenev has him morally redeemed by love and death.
Still, when it comes to probing the radicalism of his time, Bazarov remains the enduring figure of the self-absorbed radical whose bark is fierce but who has no bite, a specimen not absent among radicals today. It is temperament, not ideology, that holds him back from true anarchy. Although he is politically useless, his heart, to borrow this campaign season's favorite organ, is good. At least you would never find him donning a mask or breaking a window in a demonstration.
There seems to be something about the greatest novelists that is put off by anarchism, whatever its form. In part it may be their own politically conservative inclinations. More important perhaps, for all their differences, writers like Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Conrad, who inspected the psyche of a bomb thrower in "The Secret Agent," share a need for intellectual organization, which is threatened by ideological chaos. Moreover, they mistrust movements that would force art and politics into utopian abstractions in the name of an illusory freedom. They have history on their side and might make for rewarding reading by today's theatrically inclined protesters.