Bakunin became an army officer in 1833 but after being sent to the Polish frontier he resigned his commission and began studying philosophy. As a young man he met and was deeply influenced by the radical philosopher, Alexander Herzen. He was impressed with Bakunin and later commented: "This man was born not under an ordinary star but under a comet."
Bakunin left Russia in 1842 and lived in Dresden before moving to Paris where he met Karl Marx. He participated in the 1848 French Revolution and then moved to Germany where he called for the overthrow of the Habsburg Empire. The composer, Richard Wagner met him during this period and later pointed out: "Everything about him was colossal and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength." His biographer, Paul Avrich, added: "His broad magnanimity and childlike enthusiasm, his burning passion for liberty and equality, and his volcanic onslaughts against privilege and injustice all gave him enormous appeal in the libertarian circles of his day."
During the Dresden Insurrection in May, 1849, Bakunin was arrested and sentenced to death. He was reprieved and extradited to Austria where he was wanted for his role in the Czech Republic Revolt. He was once again found guilty and sentenced to death. This was eventually commuted and in 1851 he was passed on to the Russian government and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. In 1854 he was transferred to to the Shlisselburg Fortress and stayed there until 1857 when he was exiled to Siberia.
In 1861 Bakunin managed to escape from Tomsk and reached Japan on 16th August. Paul Avrich has argued: "Despite his years of confinement, he still possessed much of his old vitality and exuberance. He had aged, to be sure, had lost his teeth from scurvy and grown quite fat. But the grey-blue eyes retained their penetrating brilliance; and his voice, eloquence, and physical bulk combined to make him the center of attention."
In September 1861, Bukunin arrived in San Francisco. Over the next few weeks he visited New York City and Boston, where he met John Andrew, George B. McClellan, Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson. Over the next few weeks he mixed with Radical Republicans. He wrote to his friend, Alexander Herzen, that he was very interested in the American Civil War and that "my sympathies are all with the North".
Bakunin also visited his old friend, Louis Agassiz. He introduced him to Henry Longfellow. That night he recorded in his diary: "George Sumner and Mikhail Bakunin to dinner. Mr. Bakunin is a Russian gentleman of education and ability - a giant of a man, with a most ardent, seething temperament. He was in the Revolution of Forty-eight; has seen the inside of prisons of Olmiitz, even, where he had Lafayette's room. Was afterwards four years in Siberia; whence he escaped in June last, down the Amoor, and then in an American vessel by way of Japan to California, and across the isthmus, hitherward. An interesting man." Annie, Longfellow's daughter added that Bukunin was a "big creature with a big head, wild bushy hair, big eyes, big mouth, a big voice and still bigger laugh."
Bakunin enjoyed his time in America, claiming that "the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy". He added that the United States and Britain were the "only two great countries" where the people possessed genuine "liberty and political power" where even "the most disinherited and miserable foreigners".
Bakunin eventually reached London where he joined his old friend, Alexander Herzen. The two men worked together on the journal, The Bell, until 1863 when Bakunin went to join the insurrection in Poland. However, he failed to reach his destination and after a spell in Sweden he moved to Italy before settling in Geneva in 1868.
Bakunin had a great influence on radical young students in Russia. In March 1869 he met Sergi Nechayev Soon afterwards Bakunin wrote to James Guillaume that: "I have here with me one of those young fanatics who know no doubts, who fear nothing, and who realize that many of them will perish at the hands of the government but who nevertheless have decided that they will not relent until the people rise. They are magnificent, these young fanatics, believers without God, heroes without rhetoric."
In 1869 he co-wrote Catechism of a Revolutionist with Sergi Nechayev. It included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."
In August, 1869, Nechayev returned to Russia and settled in Moscow where he set up a secret terrorist organization, People's Retribution. When one of its members, Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, questioned Nechayev's political ideas, he murdered him. The body was weighted down with stones and dumped through an ice hole in a nearby pond. He told the rest of the group, "the ends justify the means".
Sergi Nechayev escaped from Moscow but after discovering the body, some three hundred revolutionaries were arrested and imprisoned. Nechayev arrived in Locarno, where Mikhail Bakunin was living, in January 1870. At first Bakunin was pleased to see Nechayev but the relationship soon deteriorated. According to Z.K. Ralli, Nechayev no longer showed any deference to his mentor. Nechayev told friends that Bakunin had lost the "level of energy and self-abnegation" required to be a true revolutionary. Bakunin wrote that: "If you introduce him to a friend, he will immediately proceed to sow dissension, scandal, and intrigue between you and your friend and make you quarrel. If your friend has a wife or a daughter, he will try to seduce her and get her with child in order to snatch her from the power of conventional morality and plunge her despite herself into revolutionary protest against society."
German Lopatin arrived from Russia with news that it was Nechayev was responsible for the murder of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov. Mikhail Bakunin wrote to Sergi Nechayev: "I had complete faith in you, while you duped me. I turned out to be a complete fool. This is painful and shameful for a man of my experience and age. Worse than this, I spoilt my situation with regard to the Russian and International causes."
Bakunin completely disagreed with Nechayev's approach to anarchism which he called his "false Jesuit system". He argued that the popular revolution must be "invisibly led, not by an official dictatorship, but by a nameless and collective one, composed of those in favour of total people's liberation from all oppression, firmly united in a secret society and always and everywhere acting in support of a common aim and in accordance with a common program." He added: "The true revolutionary organization does not foist upon the people any new regulations, orders, styles of life, but merely unleashes their will and gives wide scope to their self-determination and their economic and social organization, which must be created by themselves from below and not from above.... The revolutionary organization must make impossible after the popular victory the establishment of any state power over the people - even the most revolutionary, even your power - because any power, whatever it calls itself, would inevitably subject the people to old slavery in new form."
Mikhail Bakunin told Sergi Nechayev: "You are a passionate and dedicated man. This is your strength, your valor, and your justification. If you alter your methods, I would wish not only to remain allied with you, but to make this union even closer and firmer." He wrote to N. P. Ogarev that: "The main thing for the moment is to save our erring and confused friend. In spite of all, he remains a valuable man, and there are few valuable men in the world.... We love him, we believe in him, we foresee that his future activity will be of immense benefit to the people. That is why we must divert him from his false and disastrous path."
Bakunin joined the International Working Men's Association (the First International), a federation of radical political parties that hoped to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist commonwealth. Bakunin had several disagreements with Karl Marx, the other prominent figure in the organization. Bakunin opposed Marx's ideas on state socialism, claiming that it would replace one oppressive form of government with another. Bakunin argued: "No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system."
Peter Lavrov was another member who disagreed with Bakunin about the way change will be achieved. In 1873 Lavrov argued: "The reconstruction of Russian society must be achieved not only for the sake of the people, but also through the people. But the masses are not yet ready for such reconstruction. Therefore the triumph of our ideas cannot be achieved at once, but requires preparation and clear understanding of what is possible at the given moment."
Bakunin was accused of anarchism and in 1872 he was expelled from the First International. The following year Bakunin published his major work, Statism and Anarchy. In the book Bakunin advocated the abolition of hereditary property, equality for women and free education for all children. He also argued for the transfer of land to agricultural communities and factories to labour associations.
Over the last few years of life, Bakunin continued to be active in politics, hoping that he would help to create a world revolution that would enable an international federation of autonomous communities to be created.