Bakunin with a MacBook

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Bakunin with a MacBook


Assange might seem like a uniquely 21st century character, but is he simply a modern incarnation of a delusional 19th century anarchist? Photo: New Media Days

The argument over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has so far taken place in a zone of ambiguity. Is he a principled genius or a megalomaniacal nihilist? A fugitive rapist or a political prisoner? The sexually charismatic shaman of web-based “scientific journalism” or the unlikely albinoid saviour of the declining newspaper industry? Much ink has been spilled trying to understand the mind and sensibility of Assange. Most profiles emphasise his resemblance to a Stieg Larsson character, a laptop-wielding crusader that only the 21st-century can have produced. Yet upon closer inspection Assange betrays a striking similarity to a 19th-century historical figure, the willy-nilly anarchist and failed Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin.

Born in 1814 and justifiably forgotten today for his lack of theoretical rigor or coherent platform,

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  1. February 8, 2011

    Phillip Bubb

    What drivel. Hardly a balanced piece. Pure self indulgence.

  2. February 8, 2011


    A little ironic accusing Assange of not caring about collateral damage isn’t. If there’s one thing that Wikileaks has exposed its the terrifying indifference to the death of civilians shown by the occupying powers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not something I imagine Prospect has wasted much ink on.

  3. February 8, 2011


    Bakunin counted Richard Wagner among his followers and collaborators. When Assange adds a genius like that to his entourage, he will be worthy of comparison with Bakunin.

  4. February 8, 2011

    Stephen Kennamer

    There is an argument that can be made against Assange, one that is very briefly touched on, but this piece is why we invented the term “character assassination.” Hell hath no fury like an allegedly democratic government that is no longer allowed to operate in complete secrecy or a journalist who defends it. After we stop fixating on Assange himself, perhaps we should ask these rather more important questions: Did we American taxpayers know what we were financing? Did we want to pay for these operations?

  5. February 8, 2011

    David Fisher

    With all his flaws Bakhunin was perceptive enough to see that Marxism would result in tyranny. He was right where many are wrong and are still wrong.

  6. February 8, 2011

    Denis Joe

    However much one can disparage the approach of Bakunin one cannot ignore that his aim was at least, a humanistic one: the liberation of mankind. The same cannot be said of Assange, whose personality and approach may share something with the anarchist, but whose contempt for humanity’s ability to reach higher than the gutter-press, suggests that there is a gulf between him and Bakunin, when it comes to comparison.

    But it is not Assange that should be held to account but the lazy press barons and journalist who happily regurgitated WikiLeaks outpourings as if it was a religious crusade. The hypocrisy of the Guardian newspaper in Britain, for example, is a case in point. They created headline after headline for a month, based, not on journalism, but on the titbits they garnered from WikiLeaks. These titbits had been made available by means considered illegal. Yet, for the past few weeks, the same paper has been taking delight at the prosecution of people concerned with comings and goings of some public figures, for the Sunday tabloid, The News Of The World. They too used, what is considered, illegal methods. The main difference is that at least NOTW journalists put in some work.

    Assange relies on sensational (though second-hand) salacious gossip and seems to view everybody else as incapable of rising above the ‘petty’. And that seems to be the endgame

    To compare him to Bakunin is to engage with this sort of campaign at the same level. It is a lazy comparison.

  7. February 8, 2011

    Alan Vanneman

    Another trivial piece on the terrible things Julian Assange hasn’t yet done but possibly might do, and nothing on the lies, murders, etc. that he has exposed. Blame the messenger, indeed!

  8. February 8, 2011


    This piece of drivel would have been far more interesting had the author instead managed to extemporize on the contexts of an Assange vs a Bakunin; similarities between 21st century American empire and 19th century tsarist Russia. But that is obviously beyond the abilities of Weiss.

  9. February 8, 2011

    Don P

    Weiss writes: “Assange has expressed indifference to the harm that might be done to innocents in Afghanistan.” But some Assange news (e.g. CBC-TV Fifth Estate programme) featured
    Assange voicing concern for such people (cf. vetting by the NY Times, London Guardian and Der Spiegel.) Weiss offers no reason to believe either interpretation.

  10. February 8, 2011


    So your masters don’t like Assange .

  11. February 8, 2011


    Bravo Michael Weiss!!!
    You proved again and again that knowledge is an unnecessary burden to a journalist, while catch phrases are the way to go.
    Uninstructive amusement may be afforded for a moment by a passing jest or a ludicrous anecdote by which no knowledge is conveyed to the mind of the hearer or the reader…

  12. February 8, 2011


    Interesting comparisons.

    As you say, there are many new opportunities for muckrakers provided by the internet. I acknowledge that a certain amount of muckraking is a good thing. But Assange has shown that any half-formed utterance can potentially be dragged out into the village square to be poked at with a stick. What do we gain from such “transparency” but stomach ulcers?

    I read on the internet that Assange is the offspring of hippies who instilled in him their utopic ideas of freedom and curtailed his education, which they saw as “indoctrination”. Consequently he has grown up with a bogus sense of his own importance and a resentment of authority—and ignorant of diplomacy.

  13. February 8, 2011


    Mr Weiss claims that The Catechism of a Revolutionist was co-written by Bakunin and Sergei Nechayev. As far as I’m aware the latter was its lone author while the cantankerous Mikhail penned a separate document entitled Revolutionary Catechism. Could be wrong.

    As for the rest of the piece, well, I can’t argue with the notion that Assange places no value in friendship or principles because I don’t know him. I presume Weiss does? Still, even assuming that he’s an amoral realist I’m not sure one needs to dredge up obscure revolutionaries to locate a parallel. Looking at, say, the reactions to the Egypt riots I think it’s an attitude that’s shared by practically all of our statesmen.

  14. February 8, 2011


    I usually find that articles that appear here are well analyzed and go to a certain level of depth and rigor that is necessary to understand the issues properly. This however is a terrible exception. The author has summarily dismissed Bakunin by quoting Edmund Wilson on him and describing his disagreements with Marx. Thereby his entire philosophy, his political views and his activism have been completely ignored as irrelevant for any decent appraisal of his life. And the author thinks that comparing the secrecy of the private life of Assange with his crusade for the transparency in the functioning of democracy is sufficient “contradiction” for rejecting him as a hypocrite. This is worse than tabloid case of selective reporting. Pathetic.

  15. February 8, 2011


    This article seems to me highfalutin’ character assassination.

    The story of Assange and his “secret society” is that they are an effective conduit for whistleblowers, and a corporate-bought Fourth Estate is freaking out that someone is doing journalism that Zenger would’ve dreamed of.

    You see? The Patriot Act, COINTELPRO, Hoover’s FBI having a “file on everyone” (Nixon’s words), etc, etc, etc: that’s somehow taken-for-granted as fine because State power is behind it; when non-State actors shed light on what the State and the Military-Industrial complexes worldwide are doing…FREAK OUT!

    Nothing to do but varieties of the Hit Piece.

    We need 1000 more Assanges.

    And I have now filed away “Michael Weiss” as yet another cozier-up to State power that has long proved illegitimate. I hope he’s proud of himself.

  16. February 9, 2011


    This is a piece of pure fantasy drivel. Bakunin’s lasting contribution to the debate was to recognise that a new political class would form.

    “former workers, who however, as soon as they have become representatives or governors of the people, cease to be workers”

    Marx was not only wrong in his economics, but disastrously wrong in his political theory which didn’t see this point and killed millions and millions and broke the souls of millions more. Orwell saw this in person in Spain and wrote his devastating Animal Farm and 1984 (which ends with a Bakunin allusion) and the left has hated him ever since for it.

    By the way, Assange uses a netbook, with Linux I’d suspect, and not a crappy computer from one of the largest corporations in the world. A corporation which has sought to steal imagery not only from Orwell (their 1984 advert) but also to appropriate efforts from open source programmers around the world without contributing to the community.

    Your piece is factually wrong, historically wrong and wrong in its theory. Further, it’s poorly written and you rehash the personality politics of Assange which have been endlessly discussed instead of doing something interesting like discussing the legal issues, geopolitical implications, cables or the meaning of transparency. Pure unadulterated drivel which contributes nothing to the debate whatsoever.

  17. February 9, 2011


    Stretching it a little don’t you think? This argument is worthy of Fox News.

  18. February 9, 2011


    Try using a keyboard instead of an axe next time. Jesus, how embarrassing for you.

  19. February 9, 2011

    Greg McColm

    On the other hand, Assange seems rather like John Wilkes, the 18th century British gadfly whose “journalism” got him into a duel and then ultimately outlawed. Wilkes is now regarded as one of the heroes of civil liberties, which may be Assange’s ultimate fate.

    Speaking of gadflies, there was this self-indulgent whacko in ancient Greece who got in trouble for collaborating with the enemy in, um, wartime; his name was Socrates…

  20. February 9, 2011

    richard herriott

    I´m getting a bit disappointed with the new Prospect or the Monthly Times as I like to call it. This article is simply not very good for the reasons cited by other writers.
    I did an ad survey of the most recent edition of Prospect. Ten pages were devoved to financial products or services. And five were devoted to cultural products. Is Prospect now a magazine for spread betters and financial analysts? I´m getting really close to ending my 8 year subscription.

  21. February 9, 2011

    Paul McLaughlin

    Let’s be honest, Michael: you’ve never read Bakunin, have you? Or Herzen, right? In other words, to be blunt about the matter, you really don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?

    It’s the factual inaccuracies (Nachaev affair), historical cliches (conflation of means and ends), and spurious sources (Edmund Wilson) that give it away, I’m afraid.

  22. February 9, 2011

    Josh Strike

    Weird… I’m not dyslexic, but I glossed “The Catechism of a Revolutionary” as “The Catcher in the Rye”.

    Wonder if there’s something there. A google search turns up zero results of those two phrases quoted together.

  23. February 10, 2011


    Possible the most cutting yet considered set of comments I’ve ever read on the Internet. Drop the pen… or is it a crayon, Mr. Weiss? The game is up.

  24. February 10, 2011


    There isn’t much of a parallel between wanting to release “evil passions” and wanting to end two wars. Indeed, they would seem to be just the opposite.

    Similarly, there’s little inconsistency between expecting transparency from governments and expecting it of a private, whistleblowing organization. The former are supported by public tax dollars and wields enormous, officially-sanctioned power over citizens. The latter is an independent, private group seeking accountability from officialdom, and which of necessity must protect sources and methods to achieve those goals.

    (The author’s assumption would seem to imply that any citizen who demands that the Federal government must reveal its budget must also reveal his own tax return or family budget.)

    Each of these shoddily-constructed arguments expose the author’s preconceived antipathy to Assange, more than any actual similarity to Bakunin. As such, the analogy doesn’t really add much if anything to the debate.

  25. February 10, 2011


    P.S. None other than the Department of Defense has conceded that they cannot identify a single source who has come to grief as a result of Wikileaks’ revelations.

    And yet the original soundbite lives on — Assange put lives at risk! — mouthed and chewed over and regurgitated ad nauseam by \critics\ like Mr. Weiss. Isn’t that hamfisted tactic one would expect more of Pravda circa 1950 than of the Prospect in 2011?

  26. February 11, 2011

    Jeff Vincent

    While not impressed by the superficial parallels with Bakunin, I think some of the writers above are just as hasty in writing off complex figures from the past. Marx’s greatest insight was the commodity fetish – we treat humans and their attributes as things, while treating material goods as if they had human qualities. This view arises from the exploitation of labour. Nothing Marx wrote led organically to bureaucrats and gulags, though these things were done in his name.

  27. February 13, 2011


    Cute but not very accurate. Assange is no anarchist. He doesn’t want to overthrow the system, or even overthrow any governments. His stated goal is regime _behavior_ change.

  28. February 13, 2011


    Is this author happy to write this nonsense? Who is he trying to please?
    A ruined morning. Shame, shame, shame!

  29. February 19, 2011

    Chris Lawson

    Julian Assange : Mikhail Bakunin :: Michael Weiss : Walter Annenberg

    Interesting parlour game, but I don’t think I’d feel good about getting paid for it under the guise of journalism.

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Michael Weiss is the Executive Director of Just Journalism, an independent research organisation focused on how Israel and Middle East issues are reported in the UK media 

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