Life of Bakunin

Submitted by libcom on April 4, 2005

Life of Bakunin

Michael Alexandrovitch Bakunin was born on 30th May, 1814, in the Russian province of Tvar. He was the eldest son of a retired diplomat, who was a member of the ancient Russian nobility. Young Michael passed his boyhood on the family estate, and gained there an insight into the peasant mentality which is reflected in his later writings.

At the age of fifteen, after a good home education under tutors, he was sent to St. Petersburg to study for and enter the Artillery School. After five years of military studies, he was posted as ensign to a regiment stationed in Poland; but the monotonous life of a remote garrison soon proved highly unpalatable to this very sociable and highspirited young aristocrat. He threw up his commission and the whole military career and adopted instead that of a student in Moscow.

The adolescence and young manhood of Bakunin were spent under the iron despotism of the Tsar Nicholas I, the most consistently reactionary that Russia had ever known and the most rigidly repressive till the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Under this regime every type of liberalism of even the mildest kind, whether in politics, literature, or religion, was ruthlessly crushed. In philosophy alone did there seem to be any chance for discussion, and those who would in Western countries have turned to politics devoted their attention in Russia to philosophy. Bakunin was one of these and in fact at this time his interest in politics appears to have been nil. His favourite philosophers were Fichte and Hegel; from the former he learned that freedom, liberty, independence were the highest expression of the moral law; from the latter, the dominating philosopher of the time, he gained a knowledge of the Dialectic, the theory that all life and history constitute a process of the reconciliation of opposites on a higher plane--or, as Hegel expressed it thesis, antithesis and synthesis. From this there naturally arose a theory of historic evolution.

Five years of Bakunin's life (1835-40) were spent in the study of philosophy, at Moscow, and then he went to Berlin to imbibe more knowledge of his subject at its fountainhead. The political and intellectual atmosphere of Germany, though reactionary compared to those of France and England, was almost progressive as compared with Russia and some of the younger adherents of Hegel began to develop Radical ideas from his doctrine of the Dialectic. Prominent among these was Ludwig Feuerbach, whose book The Essence of Christianity took a decidedly materialistic, in fact, atheistic attitude. It converted many young intellectuals to its viewpoint and among these were Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Michael Bakunin. The latter's intellectual evolution had now begun--the evolution that was to turn him from an orthodox subject of the Tsar into a Materialist, a Revolutionary Socialist, and an Anarchist.

In 1842 he went to Dresden in Saxony and in October published in Arnold Ruge's Deutsche Fahrbuecher an article entitled "Reaction in Germany" which led to revolutionary conclusions and which ended with words that became celebrated: "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The desire for destruction is also a creative desire."

Leaving Saxony which had become too hot to hold him as a result of this article, Bakunin went in 1843 to Switzerland. Here he made the acquaintance of Wilhelm Weitling and his writings. This man was a self-educated German Communist, who preached revolution and Socialism in phrases foreshadowing the later Anarchism. He said for instance: "The perfect society has no government but only an administration, no laws but only obligations, no punishments but means of correction." These sentiments greatly impressed and influenced the liberty-loving Bakunin. But they caused the gaoling of Weitling and when the Tsarist Government heard of Bakunin's connection with him, the young man was summoned back to Russia. He refused to go and was outlawed. He went for a brief period to Brussels and then, early in 1844, to Paris.

Bakunin's sojourn in Paris was of vital importance in his intellectual development. He encountered here two men whose influence on his thought was very great. These men were Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Bakunin had many discussions with Marx at this period, and though greatly impressed by the German thinker's real genius, scholarship, and revolutionary zeal and energy, was repelled by his arrogance, egotism, and jealousy. These faults were ones of which Bakunin himself was entirely free, and this temperamental difference alone would have made it difficult for these two great men to get along together, even if their opinions had not been dissimilar in many respects, and if outside influences had not deliberately poisoned their relationships at a later time.

But at this period of the early eighteen forties their differences had not yet matured and Bakunin no doubt learned a good deal from Marx of the doctrine of Historical Materialism which is so important an element in both these great Socialistic thinkers' work.

From Proudhon he learned at this period even more than from Marx. The former can be considered as the father of modern Anarchism, for he utterly rejected the very concept of Authority, in both politics and religion. In his economic views, he advocated a scheme called Mutualism, in which the most important role was played by a national bank, based on the mutual confidence of all those who were engaged in production. Bakunin did not take up this idea far he was impressed rather by the Marxian economies and advocated a system of Collectivism, but he thoroughly appreciated the spirit of liberty that breathed through all Proudhon's writings and talk, and he placed him in that respect above Marx, of whom he truly said that the spirit of liberty was lacking in him; he remained from head to foot an Authoritarian.

Towards the end of 1847, Bakunin was expelled from Paris for having delivered a speech advocating freedom for Poland which was so displeasing to the Tsarist Government that it put pressure on the French Government to take action against him. He spent a few months in Brussels, but the revolution of February, 1848, which overthrew King Louis Philippe and established the Second Republic allowed Bakunin to return to Paris and he took a prominent part in the political demonstrations of the day. But he was soon attracted by the rising revolutionary movements in Central Europe. In Prague he participated in a brief insurrection, and in May, 1849, in another in Dresden. This resulted in his arrest, and finally his extradition to Russia, which claimed him as a fugitive. He passed eight horrible years in solitary confinement and it was only the death of the implacable Nicholas I and the accession of the milder Alexander II that enabled his family to secure his release. He spent four more years under surveillance in Siberia, where he married. Finally, in 1861, he escaped on an American vessel going to Japan and at the end of the year reached London.

In London he worked for a time with Alexander Herzen, the Russian Liberal, in his publications addressed to the Russian people, went for a while to try to help a Polish insurrection from there, and then settled down in Italy. Here he encountered the religiously-minded Nationalism of Mazzini, a man whom he greatly respected personally (having met him in London), but whose ideas he heartily disliked. This led him to accentuate the anti-patriotic and anti-religious elements in his own ideas, which by this period of the middle eighteen-sixties had become practically those later called "Anarchism".

In 1867 he went to Geneva to attend the inaugural Congress of the League for Peace and Freedom, a bourgeois body of which he thought some use could be made for the purpose of Socialist propa ganda. He soon found that this could not be done (his ideas as set out in an article entitled "Federalism, Socialism and Anti-theologism", were far too radical), and instead he concentrated on the First International, which had been founded, largely through the instrumentality of Marx, in 1864. On leaving the League for Peace and Freedom, Bakunin and his friends had formed the Alliance of Socialist Democracy and this body now applied to join the International. The application aroused the suspicions of Marx who felt a jealous possessiveness as regards the International and had a German-minded antipathy to anything coming from a Russian. The initial proposal was therefore turned down and the Alliance was only admitted in sections, and when as a separate body it had been disbanded. (July, 1869.)

In September of the same year, a Congress of the International was held at Basel. This Congress showed itself favourable to Bakunin's view that inheritance should be abolished and rejected Marx's views on this subject. This was the beginning of a breach between Marx and his followers on the one hand and Bakunin and his followers on the other. It was fundamentally a difference on the question as to the role of the State in the Socialist programme. The Marxian view was essentially that the State must be used to bring about and consolidate Socialism; the views of the Bakuninists (at this period beginning to be called "Anarchists") was that the State must be abolished, and that it could never under any circumstances be used to attain either Socialism or any form of social justice for the workers.

These differences spread rapidly throughout the International and were deepened and exacerbated in Switzerland (where Bakunin was now settled) by a Russian emigre named Utin, who by methods of character-assassination poisoned Marx's already jealous and vindictive mind still further against Bakunin. The latter rightly resented the campaign of calumny which was now launched against him but he was of a tolerant and generous disposition and for all his resentment against Marx's tactics (only too prophetic of later "Communist" methods) never failed to acknowledge Marx's greatness as Socialist and thinker. He even began at this time a Russian translation of Marx's Capital, a book he highly admired, and whose economic doctrines he enthusiastically supported.

In the early part of 1870, Bakunin was mainly occupied in trying to stir up the Russian people to insurrection. This activity was in collaboration with a fanatical young revolutionary named Sergei Nechayev. The latter had committed a political murder in Russia and deceived Bakunin into condoning this act. He also published a "Revolutionary Catechism" which has often been mistaken for a production of Bakunin's, and which preaches the most violent and amoral tactics against existing society. Internal evidence shows that it cannot be Bakunin's for he was not an advocate of such opinions; and when he finally became aware of Nechayev's unscrupulousness he broke with him. The fugitive was later extradited to Russia and died in jail. The whole episode did Bakunin considerable harm, giving him because of his association with Nechayev, a reputation for violence and amoralism which was quite undeserved.

The Franco-German war which broke out in July, 1870, led to the writing of Bakunin's most important works. He looked to Social Revolution on the part of peasants and workers both to overthrow the reactionary regime of Napoleon III and to repel the German invaders under the direction of Bismarck. With the purpose of stirring up such a movement he wrote A Letter to a Frenchman, and then in September after the fall of the Second Empire and the establishment of the Third Republic, went to Lyons to launch an Anarchist rising. Through lack of determination and support by the workers' leaders themselves, despite Bakunin's demand for energetic action, the movement failed after an initial and brief success, and he fled to Marseilles, and thence back to Locarno, whence he had come to Lyons.

This fiasco deeply embittered and depressed Bakunin. He had lost all faith in the bourgeoisie since their turning on the workers in the revolutions of 1848, but now even the workers had shown themselves supine, and he became very pessimistic about their future. Arising out of these events he now wrote his greatest work, The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution. The title implied an alliance between the knout of the Russian Tsar and the new German Empire of Bismarck and Wilhelm I to crush the social revolution. It became a very voluminous work, treating in an extremely discursive way all manner of subjects, political, historical, economic, religious, philosophical, metaphysical, ethical and even astronomical, for as an Appendix to it Bakunin gave an exposition of the ideas of the System of Nature which he held and which was a complete and consistent Materialism. The piece known as "God and the State" is merely a fragment of this greater work, which is indeed Bakunin's "Magnum opus", his testament, as he called it. He worked at it intermittently from the close of 1870 to the close of 1872 and even then never succeeded in finishing it. (Sections of this work, written in November and December, 1872, have been quoted at length in the text)

The Paris Commune of March-May, 1871, interested him greatly though he no longer had any illusions about a workers' victory in any near future. He considered however that the events of the Commune gave a practical justification of his theories as against those of the Marxians, and a study of that historic episode would seem to justify his contention. In this same year, 1871, he had a controversy with Mazzini who had attacked both the International and the Commune, the former as being anti-nationalist and the latter as being atheistic and therefore both being abhorrent to Mazzini's religious nationalism. Bakunin respectfully but trenchantly replied in a pamphlet called The Political Theology of Mazzini which had a wide circulation in Italy and a great effect on the Italian working class, which largely became imbued with Anarchist ideas. In Spain also, Bakunin's ideas bore fruit and to a lesser extent in France.

In 1872 he was occupied with the coming Congress of the International at the Hague. This meeting, which was held in September, was "packed" by the Marxists in a manner which later "Communist" tactics have made only too familiar. The equally familiar tactics of character-assassination were also resorted to by Marx, to his everlasting discredit, and Bakunin and his closest friend and collaborator, James Guillaume, were expelled from the International, the headquarters of which were at the same time shifted to New York to prevent it from failing into the hands of the anti-Marxists, who constituted a real majority in the International. That organisation soon withered and died in its alien home; but the Anarchists set up a new International in Switzerland and this lasted a few years more, surviving Bakunin himself.

It was based on Bakunin's idea of the Workers' International being a loose association of fully autonomous, national groups, devoted only to the economic struggle, in contradistinction to Marx's attempt to convert it into a highly centralised and rigidly controlled instrument of political manoeuvres--in fact what Lenin afterwards made of the Third International.

In order to ventilate his grievances and to explain his attitude to Marx and Marxism, Bakunin wrote a lengthy letter to the Brussels newspaper Liberte, and large extracts from this letter have been printed in the following pages.

In 1873, Bakunin formally withdrew from political activities. His health had been permanently injured by the long years of solitary confinement in Russian prisons and, though he was a man of great size, physical strength and energy, he was now old before his time.

He came out of his retirement, however, for the last time, in May, 1874, to lead an insurrection in the Italian province of Bologna; but this was a complete fiasco. It had been meant as a political demonstration and this was in accordance with Bakunin's view that such actions should be used as a means of awakening the people's interest. He had had no faith whatever in the use of political action (in the sense of voting at Parliamentary elections and referenda) ever since the abortive revolutions of 1848 with their aftermath of betrayal of the workers and of democracy itself by the bourgeoisie. He agreed with Proudhon's dictum (born of the same events) that universal suffrage was counter-revolution.

His doctrine, however, had nothing in common with the Nihilistic tactics of bomb outrages and assassinations which, after his death, were adopted by some Anarchists and tended to discredit the movement. He believed in mass organisations, in solidarity, and to him Individualism was a bourgeois ideology--a mere excuse for egoism. True liberty could only be achieved in and through Society.

Bakunin was in other words a Socialist, or as he often called himself, a Collectivist, but his Socialism was of the Libertarian school and expressively rejected authority and, above all, the State. In this respect he followed the doctrine of Proudhon, not of Marx. His system in fact consists of Proudhonian politics and Marxian economics.

Bakunin died at Berne on 1st July, 1876, and was buried in the cemetery there. Exactly seventy years after his death, on the 1st July, 1946, a gathering of international Anarchists stood by his graveside to pay homage to his memory.

The message which, above all, Bakunin tried to preach was that only the workers could free the workers; in other words, he desired to stimulate the self-activity of the working-class. He was never tired of quoting the celebrated slogan of the First International: "The emancipation of the toilers must be the work of the toilers themselves," and he expressly excluded from the concept of "toilers" those ex-workers who, having gained the leadership of a working-class movement, endeavour to make themselves masters of it and lead it where they are determined that it shall go. To Bakunin that was not emancipation, it was merely a change of masters. But he wanted the triumph of Humanity--a concept he had borrowed from the great philosopher of Positivism, Auguste Comte-a full human development of all men in conditions of liberty and equality.

To him this could not be achieved by the methods envisaged by Marx and, in the pages that follow, he has given a picture of what he thought the Marxian State would be like. The startling similarity of this picture to that of present-day Soviet Russia is due to the fact that Lenin, the founder of the regime, himself a product of the despotic Tsarist regime, laid great stress on the authoritarian aspects of Marxism as opposed to the more democratic elements of Anarchism. Bakunin had assumed that, in practice, the authoritarian elements in Marxism when it attained power would predominate, and this turned out to be correct.

It is obvious of course that Marxism and Bakuninism despite these differences have much in common and Bakunin himself has not failed to point this out in the pages that follow. Both systems were founded on the idea of Historical Materialism, both accepted the class struggle, both were Socialist in the sense of being opposed to private property in the means of production. They differed in that Bakuninism refused to accept the State under any circumstances whatever, that it rejected Party politics or Parliamentary action, and that it was founded on the principle of liberty as against that of authority: and indeed, it is this spirit of liberty (not Individualism) that distinguishes Bakunin, and in the light of which his criticisms of Marx and Marxism must be read. He had the true instinct that no man can be really emancipated except by himself.

Up to the present, however, the emancipation of the workers has nowhere been achieved, either by Bakunin's methods nor by Marx's (and certainly not in Soviet Russia); but to-day the more militant elements in the Left-wing and anti-Stalinist Socialist movements are beginning to give Bakunin's teachings more serious consideration than Marxians had ever done before; and some of them are commencing to feel that after all there may be something in what he said. If, therefore, the Socialist movement, in its more militant and revolutionary aspects, continues to exist throughout the world, it is possible that the political theories of Marx may give way to those of Bakunin, and that in the end he will prevail as the inspiring genius of militant and democratic Socialism.