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The Wild Ones: Anarchists, Romantics, and Nietzsche

In France was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, nine years older than Marx and in touch with him through personal correspondence. Proudhon was one of the many who differed from Mill and Marx by his opposition to organization, especially government — a part of his belief in a collection of contradictions called anarchism. He won a seat in France's Constituent Assembly, but his career in electoral politics was largely ineffective. His influence was as a journalist.

Proudhon wanted a society without competition. He described competition as the root of evil and appeared to believe the absurdity of a society without conflicts among people — two men interested in the same woman resolved by sharing? — and no need for a police force or prisons. With his ideal society being all agreement, he spoke of it being created by non-violence. And he was opposed to indoctrination. To Marx he must have seemed a hopeless dreamer. But to Marx he had some advice. He wrote: "Let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance."

Proudhon had a slogan that attracted attention — "property is theft," but he changed his mind, deciding that free people ought to have enough property to assure their independence.


Another philosophical anarchist was the famous writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of "War and Peace," about Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Tolstoy was born into the wealthy Russian landowning family. At Kazan University he studied oriental languages, and his teachers described him as "both unable and unwilling to learn." For years thereafter his personal life and marriage were filled with awkward disharmonies (Tolstoy failing in his personal life to create Proudhon's ideal). In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army — the military an anarchist's nightmare.

In the 1870s, while in his forties, Tolstoy is said to have found refuge from his miseries in a spiritual awakening. He held to the idea that the Kingdom of God was within him. He accepted a literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ. He sympathized with the poor and believed that the powerful were a burden on the poor, that the state was dominated by the wicked. He described the state as having forced itself on people with brutal force, which offended his Christian pacifism. He described himself as an anarchist and Russia's peasant communes as the best institution. And he faulted Mill for not having concluded that humanity's well-being was best served not by liberal politics but by trying to understand God.

He was to be considered by some as the greatest of novelists. His belief in non-violence was to influence Gandhi. But the kind of world that Tolstoy wanted was not soon coming. It would have to wait for the Second Coming, a time when God's violence would, it is said, destroy the wicked.

Mikhail Bakunin

Russia produced another anarchist from the aristocracy: Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76). He began his career as an academic, ending up in Paris, where in 1842 he met Proudhon and Marx. He participated in the Czech rebellion of 1848, was apprehended, turned over to Russian authorities and imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg until 1857. Then he was sent to a work camp in Siberia. He escaped to Japan, made it to the US and back to Europe. He became a leading figure in the International Working Men's Association (a federation of trade unions and workers' organizations) and there he butted heads with a faction led by Karl Marx. The so-called Bakunin, anarchist faction wanted a revolution without taking over the state, without applying any kind of hierarchical authority.

Bakunin wrote that liberty consists solely of people obeying the laws of nature. He complained that if the Marxist faction were successful it would create a dictatorship. He added that when people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called "the People's Stick". Bakunin wanted a revolution organized at the grassroots rather than from the top down.


In Europe early in the century were those who accepted those parts of the Enlightenment that suited them while rejecting the egalitarianism and empiricism of people like Jeremy Bentham and Stuart Mill. There were those who claimed to believe in rationality and others who believed in intuition, emotions and a return to nature, as had Rousseau. Some believed in spontaneity and emotional intensity. They were called Romantics, while some others championed the disciplined thinking that supported the view that reality was essentially idea or spirit, as had Plato.

Among the Romantics was a belief in libertarianism — a desire to be free of the tyranny, maybe governmental and maybe convention. Some of them disliked combing their hair. Some hung-out at places that catered to those called Bohemians (because Gypsies were thought to come from Bohemia).

The academic philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) has been categorized as a Romantic. He viewed art as an expression of freedom and nature as spirit. He believed that great men like Napoleon moved history. He described how seeing Napoleon pass through his town moved him emotionally, and he described Napoleon as "world soul." He saw viewpoints as existing within historical context. He believed in specifics and scientific fact, but he connected his facts with a world developing in stages and connected to spirit. He saw his development reaching an end, an ultimate, which he saw as a God created political arrangement: his beloved country, Prussia.

Hegel's philosophy and description of change attracted a lot of attention. He was debated in coffee houses and beer halls in Germany by eager young men. One of them in the late 1830s (a few years after Hegel had died) was Karl Marx, who was ignoring Hegel's theism. Marx and his Hegelian friends put a twist on Hegel. They saw people as able to choose their own course rather than God choosing it for them.

England's Wordsworth and Coleridge

On the side of romanticism was William Wordsworth (1770-1850), a major English poet who wrote of our souls seeing that immortal sea that brought us hither and hearing the mighty waters rolling evermore. Wordsworth is described as the "founder of the Romantic Movement" in Britain.

And there was Wordsworth's friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Britain's best known conservative early in the century. Coleridge had been friendly toward revolutionaries during his younger days, a time of turmoil connected to the French Revolution and urgent discussions about the nature of society. He wrote a poem "Frost at Midnight" (published in 1798) and compared what he saw through his window with the silent breathing of his sleeping child nearby, whom he decided he wanted to see grow up as a "child of nature."

Coleridge was disappointed by the revolution. In 1801 he began sinking into an opium habit. Throughout his adult life he would suffer bouts of anxiety and depression. He was treated with laudanum, said to have fostered a continuing opiun addiction. He passed through Pantheism (God is everywhere and everything) but he recovered his Christian faith in time to appeal to conservatives. He denounced Pantheism as atheism (if God is everything then there is nothing distinct enough to be called God). He embraced philosophical idealism — Plato's view of reality as basically mind or idea. And, as libertarians do, Coleridge championed free speech.

Into his later years (he died at age 61 in 1834) he continued to work analyzing literature and to encouraged the reading of Shakespeare and Milton.

A quote Coleridge sentence Hegel might have liked:

Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends.

Another of his comments returns to his "Frost at Midnight":

Advice is like snow -- the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed in a heroism and "master morality" that dated back to Homeric Greece. He was not Hegelian but he too celebrated Napoleon, because Napoleon had made himself above the common man. Nietzsche believed in the Übermensch, translated by some as "Superman." It was mental development he was interested in. His superman was not superior in athletic ability to bully. No sloppy student, Nietzsche became a professor of philology by age 24. He was a morally intense aristocrat (not a nihilist) who thought democracy brought degeneration. He was a pessimist who feared better people being dragged down by mediocrity.

He disapproved of romantic flights from reality or any other forms of intoxication. And rather than withdraw from life's ups and downs he was for bravely embracing life. A morose quote:

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.

To his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, he is quoted as saying, "If you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire." His sister would marry an anti-Semite and she would betray him by editing his work for Hitler's Nazis. Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism. (The Nazis were trying to add philosophical profundity to their movement.) As an aristocrat he was inclined to favor internationalism. He considered himself a European more than a German. In fact, he saw himself as Polish. He served as a medical orderly with the Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 but he is also described as having he renounced his Prussian citizenship. He would have despised fascism's demagogic appeals to nationalism. Nationalism he considered something of small minds. He was opposed to fascistic-like demagoguery and nationalist appeals.

Wikipedia describes his comment that God is Dead as "perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood phrases in all of 19th century literature." He was describing religion's decline in influence.

Since his childhood, various disruptive illnesses had plagued him, including moments of shortsightedness that left him nearly blind, with migraine headaches and violent indigestion. In 1889, at 44, he suffered neurological collapse. A friend, Franz Overbeck, a Christian theologian, returned Nietzsche to Basel, and there he spent the last eleven years of his life, first in an asylum, then in Naumburg under his mother’s care and, after her death in 1897, in Weimar in his sister’s care.

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