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, Bakunin, like Assange, fancied himself a principled anarchist. But it was his personal characteristics that came to define his reputation. To friend and foe alike, he was a chancer, a sponger and a delusional madcap. Bakunin said he wanted to release the “evil passions” of mankind through revolution. Out of a similarly blinding hubris, Assange deflects his colleagues’ criticism by saying, “I’m busy, there are two wars I have to end.”
Both men gloried in the secret society and coded message rather than above-ground operations. Like Assange, Bakunin flitted through Europe with police tails, disguises and an air of conspiracy. He commanded a cult-like following of friends. Edmund Wilson wrote of Bakunin that “he was able to catch people up by the spell of a personality part of whose power resided in the fact that it had the ingenuousness of a child… his conspiracies were always partly imaginary, and he never himself seems quite to have known the difference between actuality and the dream.” Assange is fond of skipping down city streets while journalists are discussing his materials. According to the New York Times, he believes that Stasi agents still control the German secret police archives, which they’re deleting from history.
Bakunin’s willfulness alienated more people than it won over—the most famous of these being Marx, who thought Bakunin a windbag and had him expelled from the Workers’ International. Bakunin’s political prescriptions were shot through with inconsistencies easily mocked by the old Rhinelander. Assange himself is no stranger to inconsistency—he is, after all, the champion of “total transparency” except when it comes to his private life and public legal troubles.
But most dangerously of all, both Bakunin and Assange crudely exemplify the conflation of ends and means in their activities. “Collateral damage,” as we now call it, sits as easily with Assange in the 21st century as it did with Bakunin in the 19th.
Assange has expressed indifference to the harm that might be done to innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of his unredacted disclosures. When Amnesty International warned him of the likelihood that the Taliban would kill named informants and human rights activists, he flippantly dismissed such criticism by saying, “I’m very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses.” (The Taliban, meanwhile, have set up a commission to compare a list of 1,800 Afghan informants with the names that appeared in WikiLeaks.)
Assange seems to be taking a leaf out of The Catechism of a Revolutionist, the manual for underground activists that Bakunin co-wrote with his young protégé, Sergey Nechaev. The Catechism assesses enemies solely by their threat level to the struggle, while professional revolutionaries are described as hollow men with no personal feelings or loyalties other than to the revolutionary cause. Morality doesn’t apply; friendships exist only as expedients and they dry up the minute they sacrifice that core utility. One hears an echo of this attitude when Assange dismisses as “inconsequential” those ex-employees with whom he has fallen out.
Bakunin’s steadfast friend and intellectual superior Alexander Herzen once remarked that his greatest fear for the future was “Genghis Khan with a telegraph.” It remains to be seen what damage will be wrought by Bakunin with a MacBook.