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(en) Britain, *Organise! #63* - Book Revies - II. Mikhail Bakunin; the philosophical basis of his anarchism

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 19 Apr 2005 09:33:38 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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By Paul McLaughlin Algora Publications, New York, 2002
Harassed, abused, jailed, denigrated, ridiculed, misunderstood
in his own day, poor old Bakunin has long been treated by
Marxists and liberal scholars alike in the most appalling and
derogatory fashion. In the pages of "Freedom", supposedly an
anarchist newspaper, many correspondents have now jumped
enthusiastically upon this anti-Bakunin bandwagon.
Its columns are thus full of petty criticisms and pathetic
tirades against Bakunin, who is dismissed as a potential
dictator, a Bolshevik no less, and a moral reprobate. Even
worse, social anarchists -
those dreadful atheists and
materialists - are tarred with
the same brush; accused of
being wicked, nasty
"fundamentalists", with their
heads full of utopian
"fantasies" This is because,
unlike the spiritualists who
place their faith in god, they
are unable, as materialists, to
face the openness and
uncertainties of human life.
These tirades, written from a
theological perspective, are of
course nothing new: these
correspondents simply re-
vamp criticisms of Bakunin
and materialism that were
made long, long ago by
philosophical idealists, liberal
savants and political
reactionaries. Most of these
criticisms are either malicious,
or misplaced, or both.
A decade ago (1993) I wrote a
short book on the remarkable
life and political philosophy of
Michael Bakunin, for in a real
sense old Bakunin was one of
the first to outline social
anarchism as a coherent
philosophy. I did not have any
particular fondness for
Bakunin, yet the idea that
anyone expressing an interest
in the ideas of Bakunin is
thereby advocating a "great
man" theory of history
(suggested by one
correspondent to "Freedom"),
seems to me quite facile.
Regurgitating the tired
mantras and holy writ of such
academic gurus as Laclau and
Lyotard - who are by no
stretch of the imagination
anarchists - this
correspondent seems himself
to embrace the "great man"
theory of history! No. What
motivated me to write the
book on Bakunin was the
arrogant and despicable way
in which the old anarchist had
been treated by his liberal and
Marxist critics, and the
dismissive attitude of one
"primitivist" who declared, in
oracular fashion, that the
ideas of Bakunin were
"obsolete". A recent
correspondent in "Freedom"
likewise boldly acclaims that
Bakunin is now merely an
"historical curio", and that we
should therefore abandon his
social anarchism - especially
as it entails atheism and a
materialist ontology. Much
better to put our faith in god,
seek spiritual redemption and
thus find happiness in the
"afterlife"! It is therefore not
unusual to find in the pages of
"Freedom" correspondents
advocating sociobiology,
possessive individualism and
free-market capitalism;
parliamentary democracy as a
political strategy in order that
anarchists may have more
contemporary "relevance";
and these anti-Bakunin
theologians who advocate
spiritual redemption through
faith in god. These, of course,
constitute the "unholy trinity"
- capitalism, state power, and
religion - that Bakunin and
other anarchists critiqued
more than a century ago.
My book attempted to counter
the more malevolent critiques
of Bakunin - for Bakunin was
not without his foibles, ethnic
prejudices and political
misjudgements - and to
suggest the contemporary
relevance of the ideas of this
much maligned social
anarchist, in the same way as
the ideas of Darwin still have
salience for evolutionary
In spite of the perverse anti-
Bakunin sentiments expressed
in the pages of "Freedom"
there has in fact been a
genuine renewal of interest in
Bakunin in recent years, and
this is reflected in Paul
McLaughlin's excellent study
of Bakunin's philosophy,
which provides both a defence
of Bakunin's ideas as against
Marxist and liberal
scholarship, and an
interpretation of his
philosophy. The book is
focussed on the philosophical
foundations of Bakunin's
social thought, rather than on
his anarchism, but it does
offer a spirited (and scholarly)
defence of Bakunin's
philosophy, one that combines
the logic of negative dialectics
with an ontology of
evolutionary naturalism. Like
Murray Bookchin, the
philosophy that Bakunin
expressed in embryonic form
can perhaps best be described
as dialectical naturalism. This
philosophy is not a crude form
of mechanistic materialism;
something that is completely
lost on his theological
detractors in "Freedom".
The critics of Bakunin
In my book I tried to defend
Bakunin as against both his
Marxist and liberal critics.
Marx famously described
Bakunin as a philosophical
"ignoramus", and Marxists
have invariably followed their
mentor in describing Bakunin
as a petit-bourgeois ideologist
like Proudhon, or as a
misguided romantic with a
bent for destruction and
secret societies, and pour
scorn on Bakunin for his
"elitist despotism". Hal
Draper, for example, saw
Bakunin as essentially a
revolutionary brigand, whose
politics involved little more
than pillage, theft and
murder, while Lichtheim
wrote that all that Bakunin's
anarchism entailed was a
"chiliastic vision of an armed
uprising that would smash
state and society" (Morris
1993:136). Thankfully,
McLaughlin continues and
develops my defence of
Bakunin and offers a strident
critique of his Marxist critics,
whom he felt were critical of
Bakunin mainly because the
anarchist had dared to
challenge the philosophical
doctrines and statist politics of
their hero Marx. McLaughlin
notes that the Marxist
scholars who dismiss Bakunin
as a "voluntarist" (in being
ignorant of the political
economy) or as an apolitical
"bandit", never actually
studied in depth the
theoretical writings of
Bakunin. McLaughlin focuses
his own analysis on two
Marxists scholars, George
Lichtheim and Francis
Wheen. Lichtheim, as noted,
had portrayed Bakunin as a
mindless revolutionary, a
misguided romantic with an
insatiable faith in the
goodness of humankind, yet
one who, nevertheless, was
bent on "pan destruction".
This portrait of Bakunin
McLaughlin fervently
critiques, suggesting rather
than being a hopeless
romantic bent on destruction,
Bakunin had his roots in the
Enlightenment tradition, and
that his main philosophical
interests were in the
development of
Enlightenment naturalism
and "anti-theologism"(4).
With regard to Wheen's
biography of Marx, which
includes a chapter on Bakunin
entitled "The Rogue
Elephant", McLaughlin
suggests that this chapter is
simply a regurgitation of what
Marxists have been writing
about Bakunin for many
decades, and that the truth
value of the chapter
approaches zero. The
"superfluity of this work, the
idiocy of its tone, and the
poverty of its content overall"
meant, for McLaughlin, that
Wheen's account of Bakunin
lacked any scholarly merit (5-
Liberal scholars have been
even more hostile to Bakunin.
Eugene Pyziur, whom a
"Freedom" correspond cites
with glowing approval, also
claimed that Bakunin was the
"apostle of pan destruction"
and thereby a precursor of
Bolshevism; Bakunin's early
biographer, E.H.Carr thought
Bakunin an advocate of
"extreme individualism", as in
essence a Hegelian idealist,
and as a precursor of Italian
fascism; and the well-known
liberal scholar Isaiah Berlin,
in an essay that is biased,
crude and highly prejudiced,
in spite of Berlin's eloquence,
declared that Bakunin, for all
his love of humanity, was like
Robespierre prepared to wade
through "seas of blood" to
achieve his political aims, and
that Bakunin was thus akin to
Attila and had a "fascist
streak" (Morris 1993:73).
Even more biased and crude
is Aileen Kelly's awful study
of Bakunin, subtitled "a study
in the psychology and politics
of Utopianism". A "lackey" of
Berlin's, Kelly is interested
neither in Bakunin as a
person, nor in his anarchism -
which is dismissed as of "little
merit". In fact her book, as I
have described elsewhere, is
simply one long diatribe
against Bakunin, whom she
portrays as fanatical, gullible,
vindictive, megalomaniac, an
idealist and romantic
dilettante who lived in a
fantasy world and was
completely out of touch with
reality. Bakunin she implied
was a prototype of the
alienated intellectual, an
appellation that fits this
Oxbridge scholar more easily
than it does Bakunin (Morris
Throughout his book
McLaughlin offers further
refreshing, harsh and
substantive critiques of the
work of these liberal scholars,
particularly Berlin and Kelly.
Dismissing Berlin as a
profoundly unoriginal thinker
and an apologist for
capitalism, McLaughlin notes
that Berlin's famous
distinction between positive
and negative freedom is
actually filched from
Bakunin's own writings (17).
Kelly's study, though
seemingly impressive and with
the trappings of scholarship,
McLaughlin argues is
seriously flawed. Ignorant of
philosophy, never seriously
engaging with Bakunin's
social anarchism, and
ideologically and wilfully
biased against Bakunin's
socialism, Kelly's study of
"utopian psychology" is a
work, McLaughlin contends,
of a liberal "fanatic" - full of
bias, slander, puerile abuse,
and intellectual naivety.
Kelly's invoking of the
"Stalinist nightmare", and
insinuating the idea that
Bakunin was a Bolshevik in
the making - a thesis also
falsely propagated by Pyziur
and a correspondent in
"Freedom" - McLaughlin
demonstrates that this notion
is both unjust and slanderous,
and stems from Kelly's "utter
ignorance" of Bakunin's
social anarchism, which
actually provides a trenchant
critique of the "Stalinist"
tendencies inherent within
Marxism (12).
McLaughlin's book consists
only of two long chapters or
parts: one on Bakunin's
negative dialectics, the other
on Bakunin's naturalism and
his critique of theologism -
which for Bakunin meant not
only religious ideologies, now
promoted in the pages of
"Freedom", but also the
idealist metaphysics of Kant
and Hegel. I will discuss each
of these in turn.
Nagative Dialectics
As one of the Left-Hegelians,
like Stirner and Marx,
Bakunin, of course, was
steeped in the philosophy of
Hegel. According to
McLaughlin, and contrary to
Carr, Bakunin however did
not fully embrace Hegelian
metaphysics, for he
repudiated both Hegel's
idealism and his form of
dialectics. For McLaughlin
suggests that Bakunin's
writings exemplify a
revolutionary logic or
negative dialectics in which
negation is seen as a creative
force - implying as Bakunin
put it, a "sense of freedom",
and as the one "true
expression of justice and love"
(Lehning 1973:43). In his
well-known article "The
Reaction in Germany",
published anonymously in
1842 - the article Lehning
suggests (1973:11) created a
sensation in revolutionary
circles in Germany - Bakunin
offers a critique of what he
calls the "reactionary party".
Bakunin himself advocates
"democracy" which for the
anarchist entailed an
opposition to government, and
the total transformation of the
socio-economic and political
order, to herald "an original,
new life which has not yet
existed in history" (1973:39).
The reactionaries for Bakunin
belonged to two types: the
Consistent reactionaries ( or
conservatives) who stood for
the complete suppression of
the negative ( the suppression,
that is, of those like Bakunin
who stood for democracy and
the complete negation of the
existing conditions), and
Compomising reactionaries
(or liberals) who attempted
some sort of compromise or
reconciliation between the
positive (existing capitalism
and government) and the
negative - that is, democracy
or the revolutionary critique.
Discussing this article at some
length, McLaughlin notes that
Bakunin, using Hegelian
terminology, is essentially
concerned with exploring the
contradiction between the
reactionary principle - the
positive thesis of unfreedom -
and its antithesis, the negative
principle of freedom. But for
Bakunin, McLaughlin argues,
the dialectical process is not
viewed as sublation, or as a
positive dialectic (as with
Hegel, Marx and Comte), still
less as a "synthesis", but
rather negation in itself is
seen as an affirmative or
creative principle - expressed
as the principle of freedom or
democracy (49).
Contradiction for Bakunin
thus represents not a
mediation nor an equilibrium
but the "preponderance of the
negative" (1973:49). In
Bakunin's version of the
dialectic there is no synthesis,
for the nefative itself is seen as
an "affirmative, creative
principle", one that would
engender a "new, affirmative
and organic reality". Thus the
slogans of the French
revolution liberte, egalite and
fraternite, were understood
by Bakunin as implying the
complete negation of the
political and social world of
the nineteenth century. The
article concludes with the
famous words "the passion for
destruction is a creative
passion, too" (1973:58).
These words, McLaughlin
argues, have been seriously
misunderstood, for they did
not imply mindless
destruction, nor even nihilism,
but rather Bakunin's negative
logic, which implied the
affirmation of freedom and
the democratic order (30).
Negation for Bakunin is thus
an affirmation not a
mediation or sublation - an
affirmation of creativity and
freedom. McLaughlin thus
repudiates entirely Kell's
attempt to foister upon
Bakunin a triadic conception
of history, which implied a
"fall" from some mythical
golden age of primitive
harmony, and the eventual
restoration of this harmony in
some vision of a utopian
society. For Bakunin
expressed no nostalgia for
some primitive golden age,
and any speculations
regarding some futuristic
society Bakunin regarded as
reactionary (55). As Bakunin
expressed it in "Statism and
"Even the most rational and
profound science cannot
divine the form social life will
take in the future. It can
determine only the negative
conditions, which follow
logically from a rigorous
critique of existing society"
(1990: 198).
McLaughlin thus regards
Kelly's attempt to portray
Bakunin as a utopian thinker
as quite "absurd". Even so,
correspondents to "Freedom"
are still peddling the same
messianic thesis.
Bakunin's naturalism
The second part of
McLaughlin's book gives a
very good outline of
Bakunin's evolutionary
naturalism as well as of
Bakunin's theory of religion,
for in animportant sense
Bakunin's naturalism is very
much bound up with his
critique of "theologism" -
which embraces both religious
ideologies and philosophical
idealism. In Bakunin's nature
philosophy nature,
understood as universl
causality, and reality are
synonymous, Bakunin making
a distinction between the
natural world (as actualized)
and nature as universal
causality, that is, the
possibilities inherent or
imminent in the natural,
material world.(105).
Materialsm and naturalism,
for McLaughlin, essentially
have the same meaning, and
he emphasizes that for
Bakunin nature is dynamic,
with "movement..of its
own"(107). Influenced by
Diderot, Feuerbach, Comte
and Darwin, Bakunin's
dialectical or evolutionary
naturalism thus repudiates
both theologism (idealism)
and mechanistic materialism.
It is a philosophy that is
characterized by the belief
that "life always precedes
thought" and that objective or
natural Being is always
ontologically prior to human
subjectivity; and that from an
epistemological standpoint
dialectical thinking precedes
philosophical or theological
speculation (33). In contrast
metaphysics, or what
McLaughlin calls
anthropocentrism, articulates
the belief that thought and
human subjectivity precede
life and the objective natural
world. Noting that Kantian
metaphysics is radically
opposed to naturalistic
philosophy in its
anthropocentrism, and given
the subjectivist reactions of
Kierkegaard, Stirner and the
neo-Kantians against post-
Hegelian philosophy,
McLaughlin notes that much
contemporary philosophy
(whether Nietzschean,
structuralist, post-
structuralist, pragmatist or
post-Marxist), besides being
scholastic and obscurantist, is
"absolutely antithetical to the
naturalist tradition" to which
Bakunin belongs. In spite of
their radical pretences, much
contemporary philosophy,
Mclaughlin affirms, is both
philosophically and politically
reactionary (68). Even Marx,
McLaughlin argues, given his
undue emphasis on social
mediation, is essentially closer
to Kant than Hegel and thus
there is a Kantian strand in
his materialism (16).
Given the close association
between Bakunin's naturalism
and his atheism McLaughlin
devotes a great deal of
discussion to Bakunin's
theory of religion, as well as to
Feuerbach's philosophy.
Indeed, Feuerbach's critique
of theology and speculative
philosophy had an important
influence on Bakunin.
Although religious
consciousness may have been
important in the development
of human culture and in the
affirmation of humanity,
Bakunin was highly critical of
the religion of his day,
particularly Christianity, and
for two reasons. Firstly, it is
hostile to science and entails
the abdication of human
reason: and secondly, it
involves the negation of
human liberty (141),
particularly in having a
symbiotic relationship with
political power. The latter is
expressed in the oppression
and exploitation of the mass
of people by various
functionaries - priests,
monarchs, gendarmes,
capitalists, entrepreneurs and
politicians of every shade
(148). Thus although Bakunin
follows Hegel in viewing
religion or the "divine idea"
as the product of human
consciousness, he also
emphasizes the inadequacy of
religion as a form of reason,
and the need for human
consciousness to develop
beyond religion in order to
realize itself (160)
Reason, the ability of humans
to create culture - the faculty
by which humans achieve the
consciousness of freedom
(which is how Bakunin
understood the rational
faculty) and the "spirit of
revolt" are the two essential
aspects, for Bakunin, of
human nature (127). It is
therefore of interest that the
pages of "Freedom" nowadays
resonate with fervent
denunciations of reason and
rationality, which is usually,
be it noted, misleadingly
equated with state
management, bureaucratic
administration and industrial
capitalism - all of which, of
course, Bakunin long ago
repudiated. But what are we
offered in the place of reason,
as Bakunin and other
Enlightenment thinkers
defined it? Recent "Freedom"
correspondents, it seems, join
the ranks of scores of
conservatives, fascists and
romantic reactionaries in not
only denigrating reason but
put in its place faith in god, an
emphasis on spiritual
redemption and suggest we
read Catholic theologians like
Matthew Fox and Rosemary
Radford Ruether. But
Bakunin, it may be noted, was
not only critical of theologism
and statism, but also of
deterministic "scientism", and
was particularly hostile to the
rule of scientific savants. As
for Bakunin embracing the
"myth of progress", be it also
noted that Bakunin nowhere
thought of capitalism and the
modern nation state as in any
sense inevitable or desirable,
let alone "progressive"
Making an interesting
comparison between the
philosophies of Marx and
Bakunin, McLaughlin
emphasizes that Bakunin was
always critical of the
economic determinism that
was inherent in Marx's
materialist conception of
history, and that Bakunin put
much more stress than did
Marx on the biological aspects
of human life. Puzzled on how
Marx "can assert that nature
is prior to that by which it is
essentially mediated"
McLaughlin interprets Marx
as a Kantian idealist rather
than as a "genuine"
materialist(170). But of course
Marx was affirming, like later
anthropologists, that nature is
ontologically prior to humans,
though our knowledge of the
world is always socially
In my earlier study I
suggested that Bakunin's
philosophical writings on
nature presented, in
embryonic form , an
ecological approach to the
world, one that is materialist
and historical, and stresses the
continuity and organic link
between humans and
nature(1993:84). This
ecological world view is
implicit in the philosophy of
Feuerbach who wrote: "Man
is dependent on nature...he
should live in harmony with
nature..even in his highest
intellectual development he
should not forget that he is a
part and child of nature, but
at all times honour nature and
hold it sacred, not only as the
ground and source of his
existence, but also as the
ground and source of his
mental and physical well-
For Feuerbach this did not
imply a religious perspective
or the deification of nature.
Yet although Bakunin follows
Feuerbach in his naturalism,
and is not, unlike Kant and
Marx an anthropocentric
thinker, McLaughlin does
suggest that there is an anti-
ecological strain in Bakunin's
thought, when, for instance,
he writes that humans can
and should conquer and
master nature (231). But it is
also important to recognize
that Bakunin was influenced -
like Kropotkin - by Darwin's
evolutionary biology, and thus
conceived of nature as a kind
of evolutionary process, which
ought not to be equated with
the myth of progress. Thus
human sociality and
consciousness is seen by
Bakunin as a natural
development, and he denied
any dualism between humans
and nature, which was
intrinsic to Cartesian
mechanistic philosophy
(Morris 1993:79) What of
course was significant about
Darwin's evolutionary
philosophy is that it
introduced and emphasized
the crucial importance of
openness, chance, creativity,
and the subjective agency and
individuality of all organisms
in the evolutionary process.
As said, all this is lost on those
theological detractors of
Bakunin in the pages of
"Freedom". Surprisingly,
McLaughlin has little
discussion of Darwin or
evolutionary theory.
What is perplexing and
frustrating about
McLaughlin's study is that it
contains some fifty pages of
footnotes. Valuable for
reference purposes, these
footnotes include long,
substantial and interesting
discussions of many topics
that could usefully have been
incorporated into the main
text. Indeed another section or
chapter on the political
aspects of Bakunin's
philosophy could well have
been created from the
footnotes, and thus enhanced
the study. These topics include
the following: Bakunin's
critique of the state and all
forms of government,
including Marx's notion of a
state "administered" society,
which Bakunin, with some
prescience saw as only leading
to some form of despotism
(80); Bakunin's federalist
principle, which implied that
the organization of social life
from below, although it is
significant that McLaughlin
denies that Bakunin was an
anarcho-syndicalist (232);
and, finally, Bakunin's
advocacy of true communism,
which implied the unity of
freedom and equality, which
Bakunin continually
emphasized, and which was
expressed in the well-known
phrase: "Liberty without
socialism is privilege and
injustice, and...socialism
without liberty is slavery and
As McLaughlin denoted,
liberal critics like Berlin and
Pyziur denigrate Bakunin's
socialism, while Marxists
repudiate the libertarian
aspects of Bakunin's political
philosophy: in essence, of
course, Bakunin was a
libertarian socialist.
Bakunin was an heir, as
McLaughlin argues, to the
Enlightenment tradition, at
least in its radical aspects, a
tradition, stemming from
Spinoza and Diderot, which
suggests that through secular
reason and empirical
knowledge, and through
political struggle, humans
could create a better world -
one in which liberty, equality
and fraternity could be fully
manifested. Like his radical
contemporaries Marx and
Kropotkin, Bakunin was
unduly optimistic regarding
the coming revolution - but to
blame "reason" for the ills of
the twentieth century seems to
me to be completely facile.
Equally, to describe Bakunin
as a "modernist" is also rather
inept, for Bakunin repudiated
many of the key aspects of so-
called "modernity" -
specifically the modern nation
state, industrial capitalism,
possessive individualism and
liberal ideology more
No social anarchist, as far as I
am aware, certainly not
McLaughlin, treats Bakunin's
writings as "holy writ" or
with uncritical adulation, for
they have long acknowledged
that Bakunin's anarchism is
complex and full of
contradictions. But avoiding
the "intoxicated vilification"
(58) indulged in by his
Marxist and liberal critics,
and by some recent
correspondents to "Freedom",
social anarchists have
approached Bakunin with an
attitude of critical sympathy,
recognizing that Bakunin, for
all his faults and foibles, was
the first to articulate, through
his disputes with Marx, social
anarchism as a political
philosophy. Thus rather than
viewing Bakunin as a
misguided romantic bent on
violence, or as having an
unbalanced mind, he has been
described - by for example
Peter Marshall - as a man
whose search for wholeness
was a "bold and inspiring
attempt to reclaim one's
humanity in an alienated
world" (1992:308).
McLaughlin, likewise,
emphasizes the contemporary
relevance and critical
significance of Bakunin - both
with regard to his dialectical
naturalism as a philosophy,
and his social anarchism as a
political vision.


Bakunin, M - Statism and
Anarchism Trans. & Ed.
Marshall Shatz, Cambridge
University Press, 1990.
Lehning, A - Michael
Bakunin: Selected Writings.
Cape, London, 1973.
Marshall, P - Demanding the
Impossible: A History of
Anarchism. Harper Collins,
London, 1992.
Morris, B - Bakunin: The
Philosophy of Freedom. Black
Rose Books, Montreal, 1993.

If you have a book you
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* Organise! #63 - Winter 2004 FOR REVOLUTIONARY ANARCHISM -
the magazin of the anarchist federation

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