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Bakunin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (1814–1876)

Robert M. Cutler

[Originally published in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Thomas Flynn (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007), pp. 103–04. See colophon at bottom of page for copyright and reprint information.]

European revolutionary socialist and collectivist anarcho-federalist. Bakunin, sometimes called the “father of Russian anarchism,” was born to a Russian noble family in Tver Province. After two international revolutionary careers of the highest and still-continuing significance, he died in Berne, Switzerland, where he is buried. Bakunin’s atheism was most clearly expressed in three pamphlets published during his lifetime: Federalism, Socialism, and Anti-Theologism (1867), The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State (1871), and The Political Theology of Mazzini and the International (1871); and the posthumous God and the State (1882). He called his atheism “antitheologism” in riposte to Giuseppe Mazzini’s program for Italy’s national unification. Mazzini advocated an overtly religious concept of the state in the form of a bourgeois republic, a theocracy supposedly democratized by the people’s spiritual unity, itself in turn reified as a unitary mass consciousness. Mazzini’s ideas were thus anathema not only to Bakunin’s antistatism, but also to his anthropocentric moral philosophy.

Bakunin’s Road to Atheism

The first translator of both J.G. Fichte and G.W.F. Hegel into Russian, Bakunin journeyed to Berlin to study philosophy in 1840. Two years later he caused his first sensation in

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Europe with the pseudonymous article “The Reaction in Germany.” There he declared the negative rather than the positive to be the motive force in dialectical change, and drew that conclusion that revolutionaries should never compromise in the pursuit of social change. An advocate of Polish nationalism and then of pan-Slav federalism in the 1840s, he participated in the 1848 February Revolution in Paris, then also in the insurrections in Prague (June 1848) and Dresden (May 1849). His arrest in the aftermath of the last ended the first of his revolutionary careers in Europe.

Bakunin’s second revolutionary career in Europe began in 1862, following a dozen years of imprisonment and Siberian exile, from which he escaped and sensationally circumnavigated the globe. Landing in London in late 1861, he sought to continue where he had left off after his arrest in 1849. His atheism came to the fore with his transition from pan-Slav federalism to international anarchism following the czar’s bloody suppression of the 1863 Polish rebellion. Reflecting that broadened scope, Bakunin moved in 1864 to Italy, where the confrontation with Mazzini sharpened his ideas on atheism.

Bakunin as Moral Philosopher

The significance of Bakunin’s moral philosophy is only now being recognized. Its cornerstones were freedom and the individual’s interdependence with society; from them, it followed that any individual’s freedom required every individual’s freedom. Influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, Bakunin saw human history as a progression from animality to humanity. Man’s capacity for abstraction marked the distinction between animal and human and was the key feature of human existence. Unfortunately, it also made possible the creation of such institutions as state and church. Bakunin’s writings mercilessly contrasted religious pieties with the actual effects of religious institutions upon people’s real lives.

Bakunin’s atheism included a refutation of theism by reductio ad absurdum turning upon the theodicy problem. More significantly, it was a corollary of his uncompromising opposition to hierarchical authority of any kind. Wherever any external source of law, whether human or divine, sought to impose itself on human society, Bakunin saw society’s resistance as merely a manifestation of its own inherent natural laws. Theologism, that is, a theological doctrine institutionalized through social structures characterized by privilege and oppression, was contrary to natural law. From this followed Bakunin’s “antitheologism,” perhaps best encapsulated in two of his best-known aphorisms: “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” and “The State is the younger brother of the Church.”


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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Copyright © Robert M. Cutler
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