Bakuninism – utopia out of bounds

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin [1814 – 1876] was, for want of better terminology, a Russian revolutionary. A contemporary of Karl Marx he was born into Russian nobility and started out with a brief career in the Tsar’s army before moving into philosophy. Unlike Marx his ideas on social revolution have largely been forgotten despite his infamous battles with the author of “Das Kapital”. The world we live in is a consequence of a moment in history when Marx manoeuvred Bakunin out of the First International at the 1872 Hague Convention. It could have all been so different for us all if Bakunin had outfoxed his somewhat more Machiavellian opponent. Bakunin was no Communist, he was an Anarchist. Convention has it today that the term “anarchism” is only used in purely pejorative terms. That outcome is a result not only of early terrorist acts (conducted by people who called themselves “anarchists”), but also because both Communism & Capitalism has so tried so hard quash this third option. Yet Anarchism is not necessarily the terrible thing we think it is. It is a utopian philosophy that means “rule by no one”.

Bakunin’s reputation has been much maligned too. He was attacked by both left and right with slurs that have left his legacy eclipsed by others. The fact that history has been so unkind is a matter that the author Mark Leier has attempted to re-address in his 2006 work “Bakunin – a creative passion” (ISBN 978-1-58322-894-4 First Seven Stories Press). Leier is strident about the legacy of anarchism:

“…it is not the anarchists who are primarily responsible for terror and violence in the world… …that sort of violence has been the prerogative of the state.”

Whilst Bakunin was no pacifist (indeed his life story reads like an action adventure story – a ‘young Winston’ of the 19th Century revolutionary movement) the brand of Anarchism he developed was certainly far more peaceful than anything his Communist contemporaries gave to the world. Yet

“…most authors of the standard histories of Bakunin were interested not in understanding anarchism but in burying it. They wrote to discredit the radicalism of their own generation [..] they wrote to make it plain which side they were on in the Cold War they wrote to promote orthodoxy and order, and to oppose critical thinking and protest.”

No Biography, like no History, is truly values-free. Historians spent most of the 20th Century trying to kill Bakunin’s legacy. Yet Leier argues that

“Anarchism remains the most optimistic and hopeful alternatives. It is worth understanding because it continues to be a political force to inspire. [..] But the tendency in recent years has been to close off debate, to limit possibilities, to declare Utopia out of bounds [..] The anarchist critique of the state, or capital, of power, is a compelling one, and the lesson of anarchism is constantly relearned through experience people who do not benefit from the system will organise to create alternatives.”

When put this way it is easy (although simplistic) to see a little anarchism in us all. There is something in the birth of the Transition Movement that speaks to us of organising “to create alternatives”. There is much in our disgust at modern politics that leads us to seek criticism of power and the blueprints for its replacement. Although so much of what Bakunin wrote is trapped inside the class-war paradigm of his time it is hard not to be inspired by his philosophy & desire to create a better world through stateless, bottom-up, self re-organisation.

Bakunin was born into a very troubled Russia. His family were not old blood-nobility. They had earned their place there in the service of the Tsars. His father (Alexander) was relatively liberal and was, no doubt, in Paris to see the French Revolution take place.

“Thinkers from Hegel to Alexander Bakunin had welcomed the French Revolution and the end of regal despotism, but quailed at the aftermath of brutal repression and war.”

The young Mikhail was not destined to follow his father into the Civil Service, instead he was ushered into the Russian Military Academy for a short & relatively unsuccessful career as an officer cadet. He was ill-disciplined, ran up large debts and eventually got pushed out of the Academy to do some guard duty at some God-forsaken spot at the edge of the Russian Empire. It wasn’t long before he went absent-without-leave from the Army. If it was not for the standing of his family he would have been court-martialed. Instead he was discharged and, ever restless, he turned his attentions to his true passion – Philosophy were he quickly made a name for himself. However Tsarist Russian forbade the academic study of free-thinking and he fled on borrowed money to take up studies in Germany. There he fell under the spell of German idealists Hegel and Johann Fichte

“The point of philosophy was not to escape the world but to “Act! Act! That is what we are here for.”  “

This is how Bakunin lived his life. Whilst Marx developed his arcane theories whilst researching in the British Museum, Bakunin was more likely to be found on the barricades. For Fichte the mission was to create a better world with greater freedom and equality.

“The two were not, in his vision, antithetical; each implied the other. For the desire to master others – inequality – was a sign of immaturity in both individuals and society.”

“He insisted that class inequality was not natural, and could not be justified, whatever advantages this inequality provided to society. Every class was necessary and thus deserved respect; moreover, nearly everyone could learn from nearly anyone. Therefore all people should be educated equally and left free to choose their class, based on their abilities, skills, and preferences, rather than have their class position fixed by birth, tradition or law.”

We would take such truths to be self-evident but today we still live a very long way from these ideals. Hegel believed that “..human nature was not fixed or static and that humanity changed and developed over time. So did human societies.. there was meaning and direction to this evolving history.” In essence there was a destination for human evolution – a destiny ungoverned by strict laws yet it had purpose, it was no accident. He also believed that greater freedom was that destiny. But, Hegel pointed out that

“..we made our choices from a limited number of options. Our freedom of choice was, to be sure, based on our will, but our very will, including the notion of free choice, was itself based on our society. Our choices were restricted by what was possible and permitted within that society.”

Thus our freedoms are governed by society hence carefully edited by political and social forces beyond our immediate control. Such forces were not neutral of even objective, they were captured by special interests to serve the purposes of small sub-groups – NOT all the people equally. Hegel went on to conclude that the only way that society could be run by the people (rather than special interests) would be to use rational thinking.

Writing these words in Britain in 2017 amid the hysteria of Brexit it is hard to understand how such self-evident truth is still so lost upon our power structures. The special interest groups who win from such political insanities are so small, obscure and hard to identify, that all we are left with is a layer of dogma & lies. Modern Britain is so wrapped up inside ideology it is hard to see any evidence of the enlightenment Hegel was teaching 200 years ago. Today we have far more anarchy in our governance than could ever be realised by the most fetid visions of dystopia peddled by our capitalist order.

Bakunin took what he had learnt and distilled it into journalistic essays concerning the nature of freedom whilst he was in Dresden in 1842. His words remain prescient

“Even those who worked to destroy [freedom] had to cover their politics with the rhetoric of freedom to be taken seriously. … [such] language was not reality, and the fact remained that many rulers would use any means to crush the popular movements for democracy and liberty. The first job of the democrat then was to blow away the fog of language and understand the different groups who wished to obstruct the progress of humanity.”

In 1848 the February Revolution broke out on Paris. Workers took over the city and declared the Second Republic. Similar popular uprisings spread throughout Europe and the monarchy fell in Vienna. Bakunin headed for the epicentre in France where he described the scenes of revolution “reminiscent of George Orwell’s description of anarchist Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War“. Bakunin learnt much from this revolution that would later shape his anarchism. He saw how the self-organisation of the common working men exceeded anything their so-called leaders could have delivered. It bequeathed in Bakunin a faith in his fellow man to organise their own affairs little different from those passions aroused in Eric Blair in Barcelona before World War Two. The impossible had become possible. He was staring utopia in the eye. He also understood that if this utopia was to survive the revolution had to be spread.

So he headed back to Germany and Frankfurt to witness the revolutionary parliament there – only to become disillusioned. The revolution there foundered on the objectives of German Nationalism. Bakunin concluded that Nationalism could not only serve the needs of reactionary conservatives but it was also linked to the cause of social revolution. He believed the Slavic peoples could unite in tearing down the old Prussian, Austrian and Russian empires. By this time of his life he was flitting around Europe on numerous fake passports as his writings & activities had landed him in hot water with various European states – Russia included. He had to be careful. He went to Prague to witness the revolution founder under the force of the army’s cannons. He slipped out again before he could be arrested. The events of 1848 were to be formative on Bakunin. He lost his faith in Parliaments. “I believe in neither constitutions nor laws” he wrote.

“We need something else; spirit and vitality, a new world without laws and thus free.”

It was at this time that his long running schism with Marx and Engels was born. They held that the spontaneous anarchic revolutions that Bakunin was supporting were pointless and should be under-mined in favour of the true & proper revolution was to come later.

“Bakunin held that history could move rapidly in times of revolution and that humanity did not have to move through specific economic stages in proper order.”

Marx and Engels held the opposite view preferring a large scale capitalistic expansion in production as a fore-runner to their idealistic revolution. Bakunin would have none of this pre-determination of history and argued that societies at any level of development could have a fruitful revolution. Workers didn’t have to wait until a certain level of economic development had been reached. They could throw off their chains today.

“To argue otherwise was to doom humanity to the yoke and to insist that the intellectual, not the people themselves, should lead the revolution.”

Thus one of the fundamental differences between Marx and Bakunin was born: who should be in the vanguard of a social revolution? The revolutionaries themselves or some elite? Bakunin did not like the idea of the revolution needing such leadership. Although Marx and Bakunin were to argue about this, and so much else besides, over their long association Leier points out that their ideas evolved a great deal through the years. It is easy to find both division and agreement in philosophy depending on which writings you were to cherry-pick from which time period. They actually had a great deal in common which made their disagreements even more tragic. What does become clear through the book is how far Marx and Engels went in undermining the anarchist concept by slurring Bakunin. Many times they implied he was a Russian spy or associated with terrorists. Their accusations were attempts to silence Bakunin and to head-off his ideas. They wished only for the revolutionaries to follow THEIR program. The idea that revolutionaries could do it DIY-style, as Bakunin suggested, was anathema to the writers of the Communist Party Manifesto. He made it plain that

“I detest communism because it is the negation of liberty. I cannot conceive of humanity without liberty. I am not a communist because communism concentrates and absorbs all the powers of society in the state.. I want the abolition of the state… [..] I want the organisation of society and collective, social property by free association from the bottom up, not by authority from top down.”

Ironically though, it was Bakunin who first translated The Communist Party Manifesto in 1869. He was also to praise Marx for giving the revolution an economic footing. Indeed Marx’s economic insight is still useful today even if his analysis of class politics aged badly.

Bakunin understood how the ruling classes

“..put a great deal of effort into creating and maintaining “the prejudice of the masses”.

Calls for the mass of society to rally around the State due to the threat of foreigners, outsiders and other traitors is as relevant today as it was then. With the advent of mass media and the internet it is maybe a greater threat to our liberty now than at any time. Demagogues are still coming to power in the 21st century with appeals to nationalism riding on a tsunami of fake news.

In 1849 disaster struck for Bakunin with his capture and extradition to Russia where he was held in the Tsar’s notorious Peter and Paul Fortress and left to rot until 1857. His mother’s intervention saw him exiled to Siberia. His health had suffered enormously and he lost his teeth due to scurvy. Many a lesser man had died under these circumstances but not Bakunin. He married a girl much younger than him then, in 1861 he made his escape from Siberia through Japan, then Central America and finally back to Europe. He was broke but soon re-established himself. He travelled a great deal before settling for a time in Geneva in 1868 where he joined the First International. His wife managed to rejoin him from Russia but after an initially cordial reunion with Marx in London they soon fell out again. Marx made the battle very nasty and very personal until Bakunin himself was expelled from the International in 1872 at the Hague Congress.

History judges Bakunin the loser in his intellectual battles with Marx

“Bakunin had no ability as a political intriguer. Bakunin himself, for all his fondness of secret codes and paper organisations, had neither the talent nor taste for internecine battles and infighting.”

Or, to put it another way, good guys come last. But it was closely fought. By 1870 the sort of anarchism that Bakunin was preaching was reaching an appreciative audience in southern Europe. So much so that it was proving to be a threat to Marx’s dominance of the International. A new wave of revolution had broken out again in France after the Germans had invaded. Bakunin found himself once again at the barricades, this time in Lyon.

“It was not the revolution, as Bakunin admitted freely, but it was an example of propaganda by deed, an instance of people organising themselves freely from the bottom up..”

Yet the Lyon insurrection eventually failed and Bakunin’s critics saw it as a futile quixotic gesture. Marx particularly saw any German invasion of France as a good thing and believed the French got what they deserved. He saw it all as natural stepping stones on the path to capitalistic centralisation leading to an eventual social revolution of his pleasing. Most of us today would undeniably see Marx’s view as hideously utilitarian and despotic. It seemed to not matter to him the individual injustices. He was swept away in his vast grand sweeping vision of history within which all smaller struggles meant nothing and could be crushed without consequences.

Then, in 1871, the Paris Commune was destroyed by the French Army. It was an infamous bloody slaughter.

Bakunin died in 1876 and is buried in Bern some 41 years before the Russian Revolution. Yet there were anarchists in the 1917 revolution. Yet their fate was just that of those utopians in the Paris Commune or later in Spain… In 1921 the Bolsheviks had used their secret police, the Cheka, against the anarchists. At Kronstadt the Red Army turned its guns on the self-organising workers and Marx became the prophet of the new state religion. All forms of Bakuninism in Bakunin’s homeland was crushed.

The rest, as they say, is history. In Spain the later Civil War gave rise to Bakuninism in the flesh

“Spain provided a clear, living example of anarchism in action as workers and peasants ran industries, agriculture, and armies as collective, free associations.”

It was not the Fascists who crushed the Barcelona anarchists. It was, again, the Communists… Before, they too, were pushed out by the Fascists.

The grand re-organisation of society, through Bakuninistic social revolution, remains utopian… although practised at a small scale here and there. Where-ever you see Transition in action or read about the Mondragon Cooperatives of Spain you know that Bakunin’s legacy remains with us today. The spirit of bottom-up self-organisation still remains a driving spirit if not a guiding light.

It is fun to think how history would have turned out if the Bolsheviks had not crushed the anarchists at Kronstadt. What if idealism had won the day? What kind of world would we live in if the Soviet Union had never existed? What if that bipolar world of Communist versus Capitalist had never come to being? What if a truly democratic and popular people’s revolution had taken root in Russia and given a very different example to the world? We wonder.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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