Anarchism and the Sub-basement of the Graduate Library

Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin

My senior year in high school (1971-1972) I was a wannabe radical, enjoying the intoxicating stories of my high school history teacher (an avowed communist) about the group that plotted and killed the Czar in 1881, the Russian revolution of 1905 and its failure to seize power, and the Bolsheviks who thirteen years later successfully did so, leading to my own flirting with the ideas of anarchism, entombed in old dusty volumes housed in the sub-basement of the University of Michigan graduate library.

Throughout my childhood and youth, whatever compelling story I heard, read, saw in the movies or saw on television, I wanted to emulate, and became a source of play and fantasy. Now 16 and a senior in high school (I skipped kindergarten if you’re doing the math), I was enthralled by the story my “Modern Russian History” teacher was telling us. He was a larger than life figure, an “out” Trotskyite and a heck of storyteller, and I imagine only in a really liberal university town like Ann Arbor could he unabashedly do his thing and flaunt his card-carrying credentials.

The course included our teacher’s detailed foray into the differences between the various revolutionary ideologies in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Lenin’s Bolshevism, Trotsky’s “Menshevik” ideology, and the Russian anarchist thinkers, particularly Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. As an older high school youth strongly motivated by the principle of “questioning authority”, and feeling his oats in a very relaxed school environment where they either weren’t taking attendance or at least not enforcing it, I was particularly attracted to the latter.

At age sixteen I was only beginning to relish the power of language, and particularly those expletives and other words with powerful and fearsome connotations. It had been the previous spring when our youth theater group had staged “Lord of the Flies” (see my vignette by the same name), based on my adaptation of Golding’s novel, where I Americanized the British expletives so the characters on stage several times shouted out “F*** the rules!” The word “communism” of course had its traditional radical cache, but nothing like the word “anarchism”, which to many people connoted senseless violence and destruction, but was really much more (and much less) than that. Anyway, it had the taste of forbidden knowledge and I was obsessed with knowing more.

My high school library, though pretty extensive, did not have any books on anarchist philosophy, but I was blessed with much more extensive access to arcane literary works. With my house just a mile from the University of Michigan central campus, it was an easy walk or bike ride to the U of M Graduate Library with its huge collection of books.

I remember bringing a like-minded radical-chic inspired friend along as we walked up the concrete stairs, through the big doors and down the lobby to the giant card catalog (not computerized in 1971). Fittingly enough, at least by my thinking at the time, the books on anarchism turned out to be in the second sub-basement of the library in stacks off the beaten path, with appropriately low lighting, no windows to the outside world, and that wonderful dusty smell of old hardback books that get little use, that still today brings back memories of my youthful pursuit.

I have a recollection of the red spine of the first book I found, with Dewey notation “BA” at the bottom and just the word “Bakunin” in gold inked letters pressed into and running vertically along that spine. We probably looked around to see who else was watching (yeah, way too melodramatic) before we slid the book out of the shelf. I don’t remember if the book was Statism and Anarchy, God and the State, or one of his other volumes. Since I was not a university student at this point, I could not actually check the book out, but we sat on the floor, thumbed through and surveyed the various pages.

I was captured at the time by these anarchist ideas of rejecting God and more earthly formal authority and governing structures, promoting the concept of natural liberty, direct control of institutions by the participants in those institutions, plus decentralized decision-making from the bottom up. I had my own model of this sort of informal governance, being part of my “Junior Light Opera” theater group run (to a large degree at least) by the youth participants. I also fantasized about my fellow students and I taking over and running our high school. I imagined contentious meetings between a hastily formed student collective and a phalanx of concerned parents, discussing the future of educational practice at Pioneer High.

Those ideas did not get beyond idle fantasy at that point, but they stuck with me, permanently embedded in my imagination and periodically rekindled. In the 1980s I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s great sci-fi book, The Dispossessed, which told the story of a man born and raised on a break-away desert planet with an anarchist society, but challenged the conventional wisdom on his own world and their original home-world to try to bring a rapprochement between the two. More recently, reading extensively about Western history, I read more about the anarchist philosophy of Bakunin and Proudhon, as well as the Spanish anarchist-educator, Francisco Ferrer, and the “Modern School” established by American anarchist Emma Goldman and others, inspired by his ideas of the rights of youth.

My mom, the forward thinker that she was, used to say that “the teachers should run the school”, which is maybe not so far from Bakunin’s ideas. She was also a passionate advocate for more respect and more rights for youth, so the fruit definitely did not fall too far from the tree, when I would come to say, taking her idea a step further, that “the teachers and the students should run the school”, not so far from Ferrer.

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2 replies on “Anarchism and the Sub-basement of the Graduate Library”

  1. […] organisations in history ever to gain a mass following. And Dave on why now is not the 1930s. Lefty parent in the basement of the library with Bakunin. More snippets from Roland and Bob. Soundtrack from […]

  2. […] taught a class called “Modern Russian History”, and opened my mind in particular to a number of anarchist thinkers and their radical ideas about governance.) So has our education system become fixated on producing […]

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