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Introduction [to The Basic Bakunin]

Robert M. Cutler

Originally published as “Introduction”, Mikhail Bakunin: From Out of the Dustbin — Bakunin's Basic Writings, 1869–1871, ed. and trans. R.M. Cutler (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Publishers, 1985), pp. 15–29; reprinted (and still in print) as The Basic Bakunin: Writings, 1869–1871, Great Books in Philosophy Series (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992). Copyright © Robert M. Cutler. See reprint info if you want to distribute this or any other item on the site.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the anarchist, was a political thinker; his reputation, based partly on his appetite for action and partly on unsympathetic historiography, obscures this. Bakunin's social milieu influenced the manner in which he expressed his ideas, because he tried always to tailor them to those to whom he spoke, promoting so far as possible the revolutionary consciousness and socialist instincts of his audience. That is still another reason, without even mentioning Bakunin's unyielding antidoctrinairism, why it has been hard to delineate a Bakuninist “doctrine.”

The works included in this volume nevertheless have a certain unity, because they all were intended for the same audience. The texts presented here date from the period of Bakunin's propaganda on behalf of the International Working-Men's Association. They thus belong to a phase of his activity which is central to his anarchism, which is generally agreed to be one of his most significant projects, and which marks the height of his influence during his life.[1] Most of the items first appeared in the Swiss newspapers L'Égalité and Le Progrès in 1869.[2] Isaiah Berlin, no great partisan of Bakunin's, has called him a “gifted journalist,” and Amédée Dunois considers these articles the best of Bakunin's written works.[3] Only one of them, however, has ever before appeared unabridged in English.

A reasoned examination of Bakunin's ideas is complicated, too, by the fact that he did not leave an organized body of written work: “My life itself is a fragment,” he once replied when the disarray of his manuscripts was mentioned to him.[4] By making available in English an important and coherent set of Bakunin's writings, it is hoped to contribute to a more careful reevaluation of his thought.

There are any number of ways to approach an interpretation of Bakunin's ideas. One of the most fruitful, but least frequently adopted, is to attempt to understand their evolution from his pre-anarchist through his anarchist period. A dichotomy between a pre-anarchist “early Bakunin” and an anarchist “late Bakunin,” each distinct from and related only superficially to the other, is as helpful as one between a humanistic “early Marx” and a deterministic “late Marx”—but also, in the end, as unenlightening. Both suppositions belong in the dustbin of hypotheses.

For historical reasons, and also because contrast is a convenient method of clarification, it is nevertheless useful to compare some of Bakunin's ideas with those of Karl Marx. This introduction attempts to suggest the fruitfulness both of the evolutionary perspective and of the Bakunin–Marx comparison. One hopes it will be clear, moreover, that the

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two approaches are mutually complementary and can, together, yield useful insights.

[Part] I

Bakunin first encountered philosophy through the romantic poems and letters of Venevitinov, whose passion had been Schelling.[5] At the suggestion of Nicholas Stankevich, “the bold pioneer who opened to Russian thought the vast and fertile continent of German metaphysics,”[6] whom he met in 1835, Bakunin read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; soon, however, he turned to Fichte. He published a translation of the Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar (the first of the philosopher's works to appear in Russian), and The Way to a Blessed Life became his favorite book. Fichte's ideas gave Bakunin the inspiration for his religious but extraecclesiastical immanentism, and Bakunin's Russian Orthodox upbringing provided the originally Christian terminology in which this was expressed. An August 1836 letter to his sisters strikingly illustrates this development; in it, Bakunin exhorts them to

… [l]et religion become the basis and reality of your life and your actions, but let it be the pure and single-minded religion of divine reason and divine love, and not … that religion which strove to disassociate itself from everything that makes up the substance and life of truly moral existence. … Look at Christ, my dear friend; … . His life was divine through and through, full of self-denial, and He did everything for mankind, finding His satisfaction and His delight in the dissolution of His material being.
… Because we have baptized in this world and are in communion with this heavenly love, we feel that we are divine creatures, that we are free, and that we have been ordained for the emancipation of humanity, which has remained a victim of the instinctive laws of unconscious existence. … Absolute freedom and absolute love –that is our aim; the freeing of humanity and the whole world – that is our purpose. [7]

That there are “instinctive laws of unconscious existence” is a postulate of the series of articles on “Physiological or Natural Patriotism” that Bakunin wrote as an anarchist, and which are translated here. This series also shows the long-lasting influence on Bakunin of Feuerbach, in the assumption that man progresses through history from animality to humanity.

Less than a year after Bakunin wrote this letter to his sisters, Hegelian terminology began to predominate in his style, though sometimes only cloaking Fichtean ideas.

Finite man is separated from God. … Such a man fears and even hates reality. But that means he hates God and does not know Him. For reality is the will of God.[8]

Nevertheless, from such a point it was a short step to acquiesce in Hegel's dictum that “the real is rational and the rational is real.” The consistent unity of Hegel's system urged this acceptance, aided by the philosopher's profound sense of concrete existence and abetted by his idealistic

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interpretation of that existence. Having read Fichte, Bakunin was already prepared to see, in concrete existence, the immanence of the Absolute.

By the time Bakunin left Moscow in 1840, for the fount of idealist philosophy in Berlin, he had translated into Russian the first of Hegel's works to appear in that language (a series of lectures), and published an article expressing the orthodox Hegelianism that he and Belinsky had propagated after Stankevich's death. The sequel to that article, which remained unpublished until nearly a century later, suggested a new direction by portraying man as the realization of the universal and transforming him into an instrument of Spirit, such that Spirit is in fact animated by the activity of the individual human being in concrete reality. [9]

Following the direction indicated by this way of thinking, Bakunin found its limit by 1842, the year in which, under the pseudonym Jules Elysard, his sensational article, “The Reaction in Germany,” was published. It marked the full transformation of the philosophical orthodoxy of his Moscow days into the most radical Left Hegelianism. The conception of the dialectic that Bakunin presents in this article animated his revolutionary activities for the rest of his life. Neither his resolutely uncompromising attitude, nor his idea of social revolution as the total destruction and entire razing of the existing order, nor perhaps even his self-conception, can be fully fathomed without an understanding of these roots in German philosophy.

For Hegel, the dialectic began with the thesis (the Positive), which was negated, creating the antithesis, which was then in its turn negated, yielding the third element of the dialectical triad: the synthesis. As a negation of a negation, Hegel's synthesis represented the superposition of the Positive; Marx's dialectic shares this basic feature. Bakunin, in his 1842 article, establishes the Negative,rather than the Positive, as the motive force of the dialectic. This aspect of Bakunin's thought is important enough to deserve elaboration.

The contradiction between Positive and Negative was, to Bakunin,

… not an equilibrium but a preponderance of the Negative, which is its encroaching dialectical phase. The Negative, as determining the life of the Positive itself, alone includes within itself the totality of the contradiction, and so it alone has absolute justification.[10]

At first the Positive appears restful, immobile. The Positive, in its inertia, not only contains nothing negative; it must also, furthermore, resist the Negative and exclude the Negative from itself in order to maintain its own positive nature. But, Bakunin asserts, this exclusion of the Negative is motion, and in ending its immobility the Positive becomes negative. If it subsequently denies the Negative, then it only denies itself. The “significance and irrepressible power” of the Negative, on the other hand,

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… is in the annihilation of the Positive; but along with the Positive it leads itself to destruction as this evil, particular existence which is inadequate to its essence. … The Negative … exists only in contradiction to the Positive. Its whole being, its content and its vitality are simply the destruction of the Positive.[11]

For Bakunin, the resolution of the dialectical contradiction signifies the victory of the Negative. In this victory, both parties are vanquished; neither is superposed on the other in the outcome. The Negative and the Positive disappear, together and totally, in the final conflagration to which their struggle leads.

In Marx's dialectic, as in Hegel's, the resolution of the dialectical contradiction comprehends not only the destruction and transcendence of thesis and antithesis but also their preservation: for Marx, one thing in particular which should survive the destruction of the existing social order is the communitarian essence which, according to him, the State, despite its alienating aspect, expresses. In Bakunin's vision of the contradiction, however, the Positive and the Negative mutually destroy one another, leading to the transcendence of both but preserving nothing of either. Thus Bakunin, in his revolutionary exhortations, foresees no aspect of existing society, based on the institution of the State, to survive the universal insurrection.

Bakunin's dialectic acquires substantive meaning in his 1842 article, when he sociomorphizes the Positive into social reactionaries and the Negative into social revolutionaries; and here his anarchist rejection of compromise with bourgeois opponents has its origin. The reactionaries, Bakunin explains are composed of two trends: the consistent ones and the compromising ones. The consistent reactionaries flee from the present conflict by taking refuge in he past, although it is mistaken to believe that the historical totality of the past, which existed before the emergence of the revolutionary movement, can be recreated. The compromising reactionaries, on the other hand, do not unconditionally reject the revolutionary movement: “… they maintain that two opposing trends are as such onesided and therefore untrue; but, they argue, if the two members of the contradiction are untrue when taken abstractly in themselves, then the truth must lie in their middle, and so one must intercorrelate them to arrive at the truth.”[12] Thus the compromisers wish to prohibit to the Positive the act of excluding the Negative, thus they desire to rob the contradiction of its vitality. The articles “The Hypnotizers” and “La Montagne and Mr. Coullery,” among others, find Bakunin inveighing against the bourgeois socialists—compromising Positives—who wish to prohibit to the workers the act of excluding the bourgeois world. The uncompromising revolutionaries, however, of whom Bakunin undoubtedly was one, are animated by “the energy of [the contradiction's] all-embracing vitality,” itself the source of the “pure fire” of the Negative, which, “through this storm of destruction, powerfully urges sinful, compromising souls to repentance.”[13]

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Bakunin's anarchist attitude toward political participation, one of the most salient questions of revolutionary tactics, reflects his refusal to compromise. He viewed acceptance of universal suffrage as participation in the bourgeois world and hence compromise with it.[14] In contrast to Bakunin, Marx and Engels encouraged proletarian participation in bourgeois politics. Believing the proletariat to be the class that would inevitably comprise the vast majority of humanity, they had no complaint about majoritarian balloting. Engels called the democratic republic “the highest form of the State,” because it “officially knows nothing anymore of property distinctions.” It was, he wrote, the only form of the State in which “the last decisive struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out.”[15] Said Engels contra Bakunin in 1871:

Complete abstention from political action is impossible. … Living experience, the political oppression of the existing government compels the workers to occupy themselves with politics whether they like it or not, be it for political or for social goals. …
We want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The only means is the political domination of the proletariat.[16]

Bakunin believed, on the contrary, that the workers should strive to create their future world in the very heart of the existing bourgeois world, alongside but altogether separate from it. As he explains below in his article “On Cooperation,” it was up to the workers themselves to create cooperative organizations, which would replace the erstwhile political distribution of goods and services with a more just social distribution of them.

Establishing cooperatives was thus one tactic the workers could use in their struggle to resist the deleterious influences of the bourgeois world. Another was the strike, which Bakunin discusses in “Geneva's Double Strike.” In a pamphlet he wrote in 1870, Bakunin argues that strikes facilitate the work of socialist-revolutionary propagandists.

Strikes are necessary … to such an extent that without them it would be impossible to rouse the masses to the social struggle, nor would it be possible to organize them.
Strikes awaken, in the masses of the people, all the socialist-revolutionary instincts that reside deep in the heart of every worker … [and] when those instincts, stirred by the economic struggle, are awakened in the masses of the workers, who are arising from their own slumber, then the propagation of the socialist-revolutionary idea becomes quite easy. For that idea is simply the pure and faithful expression of the instincts of the people. If it does not correspond fully to their instincts, then it is false; … if that idea represents the genuine thought of the people, then it will quickly and unquestionably take hold among the popular masses in revolt; and once it so infuses the people, it will not hesitate to triumph in reality.[17]

This “theoretical propaganda of socialist ideas [is spread] among the masses” by “the International[, which] prepares the elements of the

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revolutionary organization but does not fulfill [that role].”[18] Thus whereas Marx's activities as well as his writings suggest that he conceived the International to be a sort of federation, the general line of which would unite different national parliamentary workers' parties in their electoral struggles with their respective national bourgeoisies, Bakunin saw the International as the midwife of an uncompromisingly revolutionary movement in the form of an alternative society of the world of the workers, unpolluted by bourgeois intrusions and institutions.

[Part] II

Bakunin's interpretation of history suggests two principal elements of his anarchist political philosophy: (l) that the essence of the State is first and foremost coercive; and (2) that the modern State, being the contemporary form assumed by coercion, is a child of the Reformation, or, as he wrote elsewhere, “The State is the younger brother of the Church.”[19] These two tenets conflict fundamentally with two of Marx's most basic ideas about the State: (1) that the essence of the State is not coercion but alienation; and (2) that the modern State, being the contemporary form assumed by alienation, is a child not of the Reformation but of the French Revolution.

Bakunin explicitly disconnects the creation of the modern State from the ascendance of the bourgeoisie in his “Three Lectures to Swiss Members of the lnternational.” These lectures are the most concise and careful survey of the history of Western Europe, from the Reformation through the Paris Commune, to be found in his writings. Bakunin believed that the most significant characteristic of the era prior to the French Revolution was the usurpation, by the State, of the power of the Church and feudal lords: the raging battle between the Pope and the crowned sovereigns having been decided in favor of the latter, they claimed their titles directly by divine right, without the intercession of religious authorities.

According to Marx, however, the “so-called Christian State” of the Middle Ages was only the “constable of the Catholic Church.” In such a State, Marx continues, “what counts is … alienation”;[20] this tendency is developed further, he concludes, when the French Revolution alienates private property from the community in the creation of the modern State. Marx interpreted the Constitution of the French bourgeoisie as the “independent form of the State, divorced from the real interests of the individual and community.” The State became “a separate entity beside and outside civil society” by virtue of “the emancipation of private property from the community.”[21] Because he felt that inheritance would disappear naturally in the future with the establishment of communism, which he had defined in 1844 as the “positive overcoming of private property,”[22] Marx opposed the abolition of the right of inheritance, in the 1860s, as unnecessary.

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With that position Bakunin disagreed. His interpretation of history led him to regard the right of inheritance as one of the foundations of social inequality: thanks to it, human beings are unequal at birth. The minoritarian founders of even the most primitive State bequeath to their offspring superior social status and all its concomitant advantages, including the “right” to exploit. The “Report of the Committee on the Question Inheritance” and the “Speeches to the Basle Congress” in this volume illustrate this perspective, according to which the bourgeoisie, in seizing State power by toppling the monarch, did not change the coercive nature the State but rather became its new usufructuaries.

These differences between Bakunin and Marx, over the basic notion the State, are rooted in their divergent understandings of Hegel. Both me believed that Democracy was the motive force of history, the real form, Hegel's world-historical Spirit; but that is as far as their agreement went on the issue. According to Hegel, Monarchy was the generic form of the State Bakunin agreed, and in his analysis Monarchy and Democracy opposed each other, with the result that the State had to be destroyed in a general conflagration. For Marx, however, the essence of the State was Democracy itself; he conceived Democracy to be embodied in a constitution hierarchically superior to other political forms, and therefore concluded that the State had to be realized to its highest degree.[23]

Bakunin the Left Hegelian had written in 1842, “Democracy not only stands in opposition to the government and is not only a particular constitutional or politico-economic change, but a total transformation of the world condition and a herald of an original, new life which has not yet existed in history.”[24] In his eyes, social emancipation did not exist in degrees; either it existed or it did not. For Bakunin the anarchist, therefore, all forms of government were merely various forms of Monarchy, that is, different forms of the despotism of some small number exercised again the vast majority. Political constitutions could not be differentiated more or less democratic.

If for Marx the carrier of Democracy was the German proletariat, for Bakunin this was the Russian peasantry. Bakunin always had faith in the instincts and the inclinations of the Russian people, believing that they merely needed appropriate inspiration to break into revolt. “The Russian people,” he wrote in 1845, “are altogether democratic in their instincts and habits [and] … they still have a great mission to perform in the world.”[25] He was aware, however, that the Russian people would not rise spontaneously against the Tsar, whose “unlimited will” is the “[only] law in Russia” and whom we may consider to be, according to Bakunin's reading of Hegel, the perfect monarch, “uniting all political powers in his own person, free from any control.”[26]

In a speech in Paris in November 1847, Bakunin declared that Russia “is everywhere a synonym for brutal oppression and slavery,”[27] and

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reasoned that Polish and Russian peasants have a common interest to free themselves from the Tsar's oppression. (This idea reappears in the article here on “Panslavism.”) Uniting the themes of Polish nationalism and Russian democracy, Bakunin conjures for his audience a situation in Russia where the army, the peasants, “a very numerous intermediate class composed of quite diverse elements,” and the enlightened aristocratic youth are all on the verge of open rebellion. (See “On Russia” and “A Few Words to My Young Brothers in Russia.”) What is needed for them to break into revolt, he concludes, is a Russo–Polish revolutionary alliance, which would foretoken the deliverance of all Slavs from the Tsar's domination, and announce the arrival of democracy for all the peasants of Eastern Europe and Russia.

The reconciliation of Russia and Poland is a great cause and worthy of our wholehearted devotion. It means the liberation of sixty million people, the liberation of all the Slav peoples who groan under a foreign yoke. It means, in a word, the fall, the irretrievable fall, of despotism in Europe.[28]

At the Slav Congress (1848) in Prague, Bakunin tried unsuccessfully to form an international revolutionary committee to foment an insurrection in Bohemia, where he hoped to strike the spark that would inflame the Slavs in a way rolling eastward to Russia. Whenever Bakunin called for an uprising of the Poles or other Slavs in the 1840s, more for one of the Spanish or the Italians in the 1860s, this was in the hope that such an insurrection would spread, and in the belief that if it spread far enough, it could catalyze the revolutionary sentiments of the Russian essence. In 1851, Bakunin recalled his attitudes at the Congress three years earlier:

It is true that without Russia Slav unity is not complete and there is no Slav strength; but it would be senseless to expect salvation and assistance for the Slavs from presentday Russia. What is left for you? First, unite outside of Russia, not excluding her but waiting, hoping for her liberation near at hand; and she will be carried away by your example and you will be the liberators of the Russian people, who in turn will then be your strength and your shield.[29]

It is useful to interpose here Engels's critique of Bakunin's Appeal to the Slavs, for it also contains his criticism of democratic Panslavism more generally. Writing in 1849, Engels argued that the Slavs cannot be revolutionary.

     [Panslavism] … has in reality no other aim than to give the Austrian Slavs … a basis of support … .
… [T]he Southern Slavs [are] necessarily counterrevolutionary owing to the whole of their historical position … .
Peoples which have never had a history of their own … are not viable and will never be able to achieve any kind of independence.
And that has been the fate of the Austrian Slavs. …
The same thing holds for the Southern Slavs proper.[30]

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This criticism is based not only on the premise that bourgeois capitalist development is a prerequisite to the formation of a nation-state, but also on a not always latent German nationalist undercurrent.

[If the Panslavist program were realized,] the eastern part of Germany would be torn to pieces like a loaf of bread that has been gnawed by rats! And all that by way of thanks for the Germans having given themselves the trouble of civilizing the stubborn Czechs and Slovenes …[31]

Bakunin's mature anarchism was built on a foundation of international, not just Slav, revolution; his advocacy of Panslavism in Prague in 1848 is perhaps best understood as an aspect of this developing cosmopolitanism, a stage evolving from his strictly Polish sympathies of the mid-1840s. Nevertheless, there are continuities with his later period. Bakunin's Appeal to the Slavs of 1848, as well as the three papers he submitted to the Prague Congress, on which the Appeal is based, express his belief (1) that although the future hopes of revolution lay with the working class, both peasantry and proletariat, still the peasantry, especially the Russian would prove the decisive force in bringing about the final and successful revolution; and (2) that the Austrian Empire had to be broken up and a federation of free Slav republics established in Central and Eastern Europe, based on common ownership of the land. These arguments undergird his discussion of events in his 1869 article, “The Agitation of the Socialist-Democratic Party in Austria.”

It is easy to misinterpret the contrasts between this practical revolutionary program, proposed by Bakunin, and that of Marx's, because the social classes each man conceives have, as a set, contrasting and different relationships to the concept of social revolution that he holds. By the time of the revolution, according to Marx, society will have been dichotomized into “two great hostile camps”: the bourgeoisie, who are the “owners of the means of production and employers of wage-labor”; and the proletariat who are reduced by the former “to selling their labor-power in order to live.”[32] As for the peasants, “their natural ally [is] the proletariat, whose task is the overthrow” of the bourgeois order.[33] Despite Marx's admission late in life that even in Germany “the majority of the ‘toiling people’ … consists of peasants, and not of proletarians,” the world-historical role of the proletariat remained for him an article of faith; and he believed that, since the peasantry would cease to exist because of the inevitable universalization of the condition of the proletariat, the peasants' only hope was to forsake their own interests and to identify with those of the proletariat.[34] Bakunin objected to this very idea, foreseeing “nothing more nor less than a new aristocracy, that of the workers in the factories and towns, to the exclusion of the millions who constitute the proletariat of the countryside and who … will become the subjects in this great so-called People's State” proclaimed in the name of the urban proletariat.[35] Bakunin considered the

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proletariat to comprise the urban-industrial workers and the rural-agricultural workers together; their union he often simply referred to as “the people.” Moreover, the workers and the peasants—to call them that—had, in Bakunin's eyes, not only common but also interdependent interests.

Bakunin agreed with Marx that the workers had a more highly developed revolutionary consciousness than did the peasants, and he affirmed that the peasants needed the workers' guidance. But he stressed that no revolution could succeed without an uprising by the people, of whom the peasantswere the vast majority. “There is more thought, more revolutionary consciousness in the proletariat of the cities, but there is more natural force in the countryside.”[36] These are the main themes of his article on “The Policy of the International.”

In “All-Round Education” Bakunin discusses what he calls the “equalization of classes” with respect to knowledge. It is because Bakunin did not believe that the proletariat would become a universal class, and so put an end to history, that he used that phrase in preference to Marx's “abolition of classes.” By the equalization of classes, Bakunin meant equalizing not so much the classes themselves as the individuals who compose them; Marx, however, appeared to interpret the phrase in the former, more abstract sense. “The equalization of classes,” Marx wrote,

… results in the harmony of capital and labor, so obtrusively preached by the bourgeois specialists. The great goal of the International is not the equalization of classes, a logical contradiction, but on the contrary the abolition of classes, the real secret of the proletarian movement.[37]

But “the proletariat … presented as class, and not as mass” seemed to Bakunin not only to exclude the peasantry but also to fail to recognize as individuals the individuals who compose it. [38] The issue for Bakunin was the death of the bourgeoisie as a separate class, as a political body economically separated from the working class—not the death of an aggregation of individuals who, as individuals, could join the proletariat by following the program set out in “The Policy of the International.” His analysis of this situation may be found in “The International Working-Men's Movement.”

Because Bakunin and Marx disagreed over the nature of the principal ill of the existing social order, they meant different things when they wrote of “classes.” In brief: (1) Marx defined classes by their relation to the means of production, and (2) he characterized political power as “merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another,”[39] from which (3) he concluded that the proletariat's economic appropriation of the means of production would constitute the foundation of a new political order. By contrast, (1) Bakunin saw the bourgeoisie's political power as having resulted from their denial of political liberty to the people, whose poverty made freedom a fiction for them and licensed to the bourgeoisie alone that

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liberty,[40] which (2) he believed they obtained through their own revolt against the monarchy, in which they seized State power in the name of the people, whence (3) he concluded that economic relations between politically defined classes did not change when merely the form of government was altered.

[Part] III

The programs of revolution espoused by Bakunin and by Marx are superficially similar; each man believed that the productive forces of society, reappropriated by revolution, would sustain social life thereafter. Each man also believed that transformation of the productive forces of society into collective property to be a conditio sine qua non of the revolution. The difference between them lies in the fact that, whereas that transformation did not serve Bakunin as a characteristic definition of social revolution, it did so serve for Marx.

Bakunin would have been a partisan of any spirit or any power that could have realized a genuine and wholehearted revamping of social conditions. The violence or peacefulness of the transformation was less important than its immanence and thoroughgoingness. This he asserted as early as his 1845 letter to La Réforme in Paris, and it accounts for his willingness (which disappeared after 1863) to allow the Tsar a role in accomplishing the social transformation. Following his imprisonment in the 1850s and subsequent escape from exile, Bakunin, in 1862, wrote and published a pamphlet in which he examined three possible forms that he then conceived a revolution in Russia could take: a bloodless revolution sponsored by the Tsar, a peasant uprising such as Pugachev's, and an insurrection modelled on the Decembrist movement.[41] Discounting a revolt of the intelligentsia as incapable of bringing about a true revolution, Bakunin confronted the same tactical choice as a decade and a half earlier.

In To Russian, Polish, and All Slav Friends,[42] another pamphlet he wrote in 1862, Bakunin renovated, from the perspective of his experiences in 1848–49, his belief that a peasant revolution in Russia could be catalyzed by the right combination of national insurrections in Europe. Acting on this belief the following year, he left London for Poland, where a widespread rebellion was being heralded, joining an eclectic legion of sympathizers who sailed to reinforce the insurgents. The insurrection, however, was suppressed before the brigade reached Poland, and the ship docked instead in Sweden. From there Bakunin moved to Italy, where he spent the middle years of the decade of the 1860s: first in Florence, where he formed a circle called the Brotherhood (really a discussion group in which he propagandized future Italian socialists), and later in Naples, where he created a new society which he called the International Brotherhood. The program that Bakunin wrote for the latter, the “Revolutionary Catechism,”

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was the first document in which he outlined the program of his mature anarchism.[43]

Leaving Italy in 1867, Bakunin attended, in September of that year, the First Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom (LPF), in Geneva. He spoke to the assembled delegates and joined the organization's Central Committee, which accepted the program he outlined in the brochure Federalism, Socialism, and Anti-Theologism.[44] At the League's Berne Congress the following year, however, Bakunin found himself accused of communism by the rank-and-file bourgeois delegates when he introduced a resolution concerning “the economic and social equalization of classes and individuals.” He defended himself as a collectivist and not a communist:

I am not a communist, because communism concentrates and swallows up in itself for the benefit of the State all the forces of society, because it inevitably leads to the concentration of property in the hands of the State, whereas I want the abolition of the State[.] … I want to see society and collective or social property organized from below upwards, by way of free association, not from above downwards, by means of any kind of authority whatever. … That is the sense, gentlemen, in which I am a collectivist, but not a communist.[45]

Bakunin's motion was nevertheless defeated, and after the Congress finished its business he withdrew from the League with his associates. With them he then founded the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, which considered itself a branch of the International Working-Men's Association (IWMA) and, applying to the latter's General Council for corporate admission, accepted its statutes. The Council refused this application, contending that an international body within the IWMA would create confusion, and citing its refusal of a similar application which Bakunin had convinced the LPF Central Committee to make. The General Council of the IWMA declared null and void those articles of the Alliance pertaining to their mutual relations, but allowed the individual sections of the Alliance to become sections of the International after the Alliance had altered its statute on the “equalization of classes” to read “abolition of classes” and had dissolved itself as a corporate organization.

From the fact that Bakunin tried to merge, with the IWMA, first the League of Peace and Freedom and then the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, it can be claimed (as many have done) that he was seeking to take control of Marx's organization. This interpretation is one-sided, betraying an insufficient degree of comprehension of Bakunin's tactical program. The purpose that Bakunin gave the Alliance was to provide the International with a real revolutionary organization. In order to understand fully the logic of this tactic, it is necessary to recall Bakunin's philosophical orientation, particularly the conception of dialectical contradiction as he discussed it in his 1842 article.

Briefly put, Bakunin respected Marx's scholarship but believed the man to be, in the language of “Reaction in Germany,” a compromising

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Negative. Marx's advocacy of participation in bourgeois politics, including parliamentary suffrage, would have been proof of this. It would have been Bakunin's duty, following the script defined by his dialectic to bring the IWMA to a recognition of its true role. His desire to merge first the League and then the Alliance with the International derived from a conviction that the revolutionaries in the international should never cease to be penetrated to every extremity by the spirit of Revolution. Just as, in Bakunin's dialectic, the consistent Negatives needed the compromisers in order to vanquish them and thereby realize the Negative's true essence, so Bakunin, in the 1860s, needed the International in order to transform its activity into uncompromising Revolution.

Why did the revolutionary organization itself, within the International, have to remain secret? Bakunin argues that it would otherwise divorce itself from the life of the people and become a new State by imposing on them (like a “vanguard” party) its thenceforth authoritarian will. A secret organization was essential to the revolution, but wide participation by the masses was necessary to its success. Still, even the most widespread insurgency would accomplish nothing unless it were skillfully organized and prepared; therefore the secret revolutionary organization draws its strength from the life of the people. Its members “go to the people.”[46] The “powerful but always invisible revolutionary collectivity” leaves the “full development [of the revolution] to the revolutionary movement of the masses and the most absolute liberty to their social organization, … but always seeing to it that this movement and this organization should never be able to reconstitute any authorities, governments, or States and always combatting all ambitions collective (such as Marx's) as well as individual, by the natural, never official, influence of every member of our Alliance.”[47] Animated by the secret revolutionary organization, the International would provide a base of operations for stirring popular sentiment, taking on the crucial role of disseminating propaganda. Bakunin's conception of the revolutionary role of the International, and of its tactics, is elaborated below in the very important text, “The Organization of the International.”

Both Bakunin's Panslavism and his anarchism were democratic. It is worthwhile to recall, in this connection, how he first conceived Democracy under the influence of German philosophy, in his 1842 article: “Democracy is a religion[; its partisans should be] religious, that is, permeated by its true principle not only in thought and reasoning, but true to it also in real life down to life's smallest manifestations … .”[48] When Bakunin concluded that “we must not only act politically, but in our politics act religiously,”[49] he meant that action must be permeated, penetrated through and through, by the principle of Democracy. In the same way, the members of the secret revolutionary organization were to be penetrated by the spirit of Revolution, which would transmit itself, through them, among the people.

[ page 28 ]

Many observers find it difficult to reconcile the democratic current in Bakunin's thought with the seemingly authoritarian streak inferred from passages such as the following, which dates from 1851:

I thought that in Russia, more than anywhere else, there would be necessary a strong dictatorial power [vlast′] exclusively concerned with the elevation and public education of the masses; a power with a free spirit, free to follow any path, but without parliamentary forms; with the printing of books free in content, but without the freedom of printing; surrounded by like-minded persons and enlightened by their advice, strengthened by their free assistance but not limited by anyone or anything. I told myself that the whole difference between such a dictatorship and monarchical power was that the former, through the spirit that sets it in place, strives to render its own existence unnecessary as soon as possible, having in view only the freedom, independence, and progressive maturation of the people; monarchical power, on the contrary, must endeavor to prevent its [own] existence from ever becoming unnecessary, and therefore must maintain its subjects in unalterable childhood.[50]

Such a notion is fundamentally different from Marx's “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In the midst of a popular upheaval, Bakunin explained in the early 1870s, the members of the secret revolutionary organization, “firmly united and inspired with a single idea, a single aim, applicable everywhere in different ways according to the circumstances,” would disperse themselves “in small groups throughout the empire.” The “dictatorial power” of the secret revolutionary organization, democratic in this immanent sense, would have for its chief aim and purpose to “help the people towards self-determination, without the least interference from any sort of domination, even if it be temporary or transitional.”[51] In this respect, the contrast with Marx's vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat could not be more clearly drawn. Bakunin seemed instinctively to recognize that prerevolutionary organizational tactics are imprinted on post-revolutionary social relations.

If we now understand, first, that the revolution, according to Bakunin, will be animated by a secret revolutionary organization immanent in the people—one that “goes to the people” and draws its strength from their life, acting as lightning rods to electrify them with the current of Revolution; and, second, that the members of the secret revolutionary organization, animated by the same revolutionary spirit and working with similar purpose, organize the people of every region around the local issues closest to them, assuring nonetheless that each local uprising take on the character of the true popular revolution into which, erupting universally, they will all merge: then the ideational nexus of (1) the secret revolutionary organization with (2) its own anti-Statist “dictatorship,” which is in fact (3) immanent in the people, ceases to resemble the incoherent ravings of a “demon of pan-destruction”[52] and takes on the appearance of the nucleus of a structured system of thought which the vagaries of the history of Bakunin's time aided in obscuring, and which the vagaries of historiography since then have not much helped to clarify.

[ page 29 ]

It is incorrect to believe that, because Bakunin was an anarchist, he was opposed to all laws. He detested man-made law, but natural law was something else again. “All things are governed by laws that are inherent to them[, that] … are the natural and real processes … through which everything exists.”[53] Human society being a thing of nature, it follows immanent natural laws. “In obeying the laws of nature, man … only obeys laws which are inherent in his own nature.”[54] Animated by the spirit of Revolution, the members of the secret revolutionary organization catalyze the appearance of the real laws which are inherent in the life of the people but which are obscured by artificial laws. Where human beings oppose man-made law that has been forced on them by others, and attempt instead to follow their own inherent human nature, there Revolution is itself nothing less than natural law.

[ page 201 ]


[Note 1]. Bakunin's connection with Nechaev is therefore not directly addressed here, although it is contemporaneous with this period; but Bakunin himself kept that connection separate from his other activities. The Bibliographies in this volume may guide the interested reader to English-language and other materials on this matter and on other matters.

[Note 2]. Of the items not appearing in these two newspapers, one was published in a workers' almanac in French Switzerland, one is from another newspaper, and one was given as a series of lectures in a public hall. Full information on sources may be found in the Comment on Texts and Translation.

[Note 3]. Isaiah Berlin, “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty,” in Joint Committee on Slavic Studies [of the ACLS and SSRC], Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, ed. with introd. by Ernest J. Simmons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), p. 473; Amédée Dunois, “Michel Bakounine,” Portraits d'hier, no. 6 (1 June 1909): 146.

[Note 4]. Cited by Carlo Cafiero and Elisée Reclus, “Editor's Preface” [sic], in Bakunin, God and the State (Boston, Mass.: B.R. Tucker, 18833), p. 4. An acquaintance of Bakunin's from this period has left a description of his “bizarre method of writing, which was itself a function of his complete lack of order”:

[Bakunin] usually began with a letter to one of his neophytes; little by little the letter became as long as an article for a review, which article then took on the dimensions of a pamphlet. Sometimes, even in this context, his vagabond thought was unable to find a home, and a rather thick tome emerged. The first pages would have been long ago set in type and corrected when, upon finishing the manuscript, he would say that there was no money to publish it; the printers' proofs were arranged on shelves, awaiting more favorable circumstances. Another time, a subsidiary question came to his mind while he was in the middle of writing; Bakunin then abandoned what he had begun and concerned himself to develop the issue. What was left unfinished or unpublished was certainly not lost; Bakunin drew liberally on his archives and used old writings for new literary enterprises. Moreover, this was facilitated by the fact that all his cogitations, whatever he wrote, came back to a single thought: the worldwide revolution had to be set off and collectivist anarchism installed. His phraseology, a direct heir to Hegel, easily adapted itself to the most diverse subjects.
… He announced to me in one of his letters that he proposed to write a pamphlet polemicizing against me; but to publish it he needed 300 francs, which he asked me to lend him. This insolent manner of borrowing money from an adversary in order to assail him seemed so original to me that I sent it to him. But this brochure too failed to see the light of day; the money, apparently, was necessary for other “needs” of the propaganda.

G.N. Vyrubov, “Revoliutsionnyia vospominaniia” [Revolutionary Reminiscences], Vestnik Evropy, 48 (February 1913): 56–57.

[Note 5]. A chronological table of Bakunin's life may be found in the list of Milestones, based on

[ page 202 ]

and expanded from N.M. Pirumova, Bakunin (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1970), pp. 394–96.

[Note 6]. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1961), p. 20.

[Note 7]. M.A. Bakunin, Sobranie sochinenii i pisem [Collection of Works and Letters], ed. by Iu.M. Steklov, 4 vols. (Moscow: Izdatel′stvo vsesoiuznogo obshchestva politkatorzhan i ssyl′no-poselentsev, 1934–36), I, 328–29; translated in Arthur Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 34–35.

[Note 8]. Bakunin, Sobranie sochinenii i pisem, II, 70.

[Note 9]. The two articles are reprinted together in ibid., II, 317–85.

[Note 10]. “Reaction in Germany,” in Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 49.

[Note 11]. Ibid., p. 48.

[Note 12]. Ibid., p. 36.

[Note 13]. Ibid., pp. 49–50.

[Note 14]. Hence Bakunin's opposition, at the Basle Congress (1869) of the International, to the notion of “direct legislation” which is now a commonplace known as the referendum.

[Note 15]. Frederick Engels, “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in One Volume (New York: International Publishers, 1968), p. 514.

[Note 16]. Engels, “Apropos of Working-Class Political Action,” in ibid., p. 314.

[Note 17]. Bakunin, “Vsesvetnyi Revoliutsionnyi Soiuz Sotsial′noi demokratii” [World Revolutionary Union of Social Democracy], in Archives Bakounine, 8 vols. in 9 by 1984 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961–  ), V, 100. This translation is based on the one found in G.P. Maximoff (comp. and ed.), The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1953), p. 384, but is greatly modified from this.

[Note 18]. Bakunin, “Aux Frères de l'A[lliance] en Espagne,” cited in Max Nettlau, Michael Bakunin: Eine Biographie (London: By the Author, 1896–1900), p. 288.

[Note 19]. Bakunin, “Programma obshchestva mezhdunarodnoi revoliutsii (okonchanie)” [Program of the World Revolutionary Alliance (Conclusion)], Anarkhicheskii vestnik, no. 7 (May 1924): 40. The first part of this document is in nos. 5–6 (November–December 1923): 37–41.

[Note 20]. Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (trans. and eds.), Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1967), p. 231.

[Note 21]. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), pp. 45, 78.

[Note 22]. Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in Easton and Guddat (eds.), Writings of the Young Marx, p. 304.

[Note 23]. Marx, “Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of the State,” in ibid., pp. 173–75.

[Note 24]. Bakunin, “Reaction in Germany,” in Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 39.

[Note 25]. La Réforme (Paris), 27 January 1845.

[Note 26]. Ibid.

[Note 27]. M. Bakounine, 17e anniversaire de la révolution polonaise (Paris: Bureau des Affaires polonaises, 1847), p. 1.

[Note 28]. Ibid., pp. 13–14; this translation is taken from Carr, Michael Bakunin, p. 150, and checked against the original. Samuel Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 60, for some reason renders the last word as “Russia.”

[Note 29]. Bakunin, Sobranie sochinenii i pisem, IV, 140; this translation is slightly revised from Lawrence D. Orton (ed.), The “Confession” of Mikhail Bakunin, trans. by Robert C. Howes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 76.

[Note 30]. Engels, “Democratic Panslavism,” in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, 13 vols. by 1984 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–  ), VIII, 366–67.

[ page 203 ]

[Note 31]. Ibid., p. 369.

[Note 32]. Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Works in One Volume, pp. 35–36.

[Note 33]. Marx and Engels, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in ibid., p. 175.

[Note 34]. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in ibid., p. 330.

[Note 35]. Bakunin, “Lettre à La Liberté,” in Archives Bakounine, II, 161; translation slightly revised from Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 253–54.

[Note 36]. Bakunin, “Lettre à Celso Ceretti,” in Archives Bakounine, I, pt. 2, 245.

[Note 37]. Marx, “Le Conseil général au Comité central de l'Alliance internationale de la Démocratie socialiste,” in Archives Bakounine, II, 275. An English translation of the full text may be found in Institute of Marxism-Leninism, The General Council of the First International: 1866–1870 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.), pp. 379–83.

[Note 38]. Bakunin, “Lettre à La Liberté,” in Archives Bakounine, II, 161.

[Note 39]. Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Works in One Volume, p. 53.

[Note 40]. Bakunin, “L'Empire knouto-germanique et la Révolution sociale,” in Œuvres, 6 vols. (Paris: P.V. Stock, 1895–1913), II, 327.

[Note 41]. M. Bakunin, Narodnoe dielo: Romanov, Pugachev, ili Pestel′? [The People's Cause: Romanov, Pugachov, or Pestel?] (London: Trübner & Co., 1862), reprinted in M.P. Dragomanov [Drahomaniv] (ed.), Pis′ma M.A. Bakunina k A.I. Gertsenu i N.P. Ogarevu [Letters of M.A. Bakunin to A.I. Herzen and N.P. Ogaryov] (Geneva: Ukrainskaia tipografiia, 1896), pp. 396–418.

[Note 42]. M.A. Bakounine, À mes amis russes et polonais (Leipzig: Wolfgang Gerhard, 1862).

[Note 43]. Not to be confused with the “Catechism of the Revolutionary” that was found in Nechaev's possession. An English translation of the “Revolutionary Catechism,” abridged, may be found in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, pp. 76–97.

[Note 44]. This brochure was set in type in 1867, and printers' proofs were corrected; however, it was not published until after Bakunin's death. It may be found in Œuvres, I, 1–206. The principal passages are translated into English in Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 94–110.

[Note 45]. Translation taken from Carr, Michael Bakunin, p. 356. This passage does not correspond exactly with the minutes of the Congress in Bulletin sténographique du deuxième Congrès de la Paix et de la Liberté (Berne), no. 2 (23 September 1868): 119, probably because Carr's source uses a Russian translation of a separately published French edition of the speech, which Bakunin would have had the opportunity to emend. The changes do not affect the substance of Bakunin's speech, constituting mainly clarification and elaboration of the ideas expressed.

[Note 46]. See Bakunin, “Kuda idti i chto delat′?” [Where Are We to Go and What Is to be Done?], in Archives Bakounine, III, 187–200.

[Note 47]. Bakunin, “[Lettre] à Pablo,” cited in Nettlau, Michael Bakunin: Eine Biographie, p. 284.

[Note 48]. Bakunin, “Reaction in Germany,” in Lehning (ed.), in Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 43.

[Note 49]. Ibid., p. 40.

[Note 50]. Bakunin, Sobranie sochinenii i pisem, IV, 153. This translation is based on Orton (ed.), The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin, p. 91, but is revised against the original text. The most significant change is to render vlast′ as “power” rather than “government.” In the paragraph preceding the one cited, Bakunin did use the word napravlenie, which does mean “government,” and the context of that usage led the original Russian editor to infer that Bakunin was repeating a question which the Tsar had given him on a list to answer (Sobranie sochinenii i pisem, IV, 152, 475, n. 142). Orton duly notes that inference in his own edition (p. 172, n. 79), and that is the only possible basis for retaining the English word “government” when Bakunin switches from napravlenie to vlast′. The very fact of the switch, however,

[ page 204 ]

strongly suggests that Bakunin intended another meaning. The whole of his revolutionary activity and political philosophy argues against the use of the word “government” in this context.

[Note 51]. Bakunin, “Pis′mo k Sergeiu Nechaevu” [Letter to Sergei Nechaev], in Archives Bakounine, IV, 118–19, translation taken from Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 191–92. Emphasis in the original.

[Note 52]. The epithet is Max Nomad's.

[Note 53]. Bakounine, “Appendice [à L'Empire knouto-germanique et la Révolution sociale]: Considérations philosophiques sur le Fantôme divin, sur le Monde réel et sur L'Homme," in Œuvres, III, 219, 234.

[Note 54]. Ibid., p. 235.

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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