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(en) US, black rose fed: MIKHAIL BAKUNIN, 1814-1876: BIOGRAPHY, READINGS AND QUOTES
Wed, 6 Jun 2018 10:33:10 +0300
A short biography of Russian anarchist and the key early figure of modern anarchism,
Mikhail Bakunin. This short biographical essay is followed by links to Bakunin's core
writings, recommended writings on Bakunin as well as some of his most popular quotes. ----
Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin ---- Born on May 18, 1814 in Pryamukhino, Russia - Died on
June 13, 1876 in Bern, Switzerland. ---- The anarchist movement throws up many men and
women, who become famous because of their actions, ideas and writings. Perhaps the best
known of them all was the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. ---- Anarchists do not have
god-like leaders, nor all-knowing prophets. Nobody gets it right all the time and nobody
is above criticism. Whoever does not make mistakes is either (a) not human, or (b) someone
who never does anything at all. It is possible to take inspiration from the actions and
ideas of others without falling into the trap of uncritical hero-worship.
First Steps to Freedom
Born in 1814 in Tsarist Russia, Bakunin quickly developed a burning hatred of injustice.
At age 21, after a couple of years in uniform, he resigned from the army and began to mix
in democratic circles. Nine years later he met up with radicals like Proudhon and Marx in
Paris. By this stage he had formulated a theory which saw freedom being achieved by a
general rising, linked to revolutions in the subject nations.
His passionate campaigning for democracy and anti-colonialism made him ‘public enemy
number one' in the eyes of most European monarchies. In 1848 he was expelled from France
for making a speech in support of independence for Poland. His passion for liberty and
equality, and his condemnations of privilege and injustice gave him an enormous appeal in
the radical movement of the day.
The following year Bakunin rushed to Dresden where he played a leading role in the May
insurrection. This led to his arrest and he was sentenced to death. The Austrian monarchy
also wanted him, so he was extradited and again sentenced to death. But before the hangman
could put the noose around his neck, Russia demanded his extradition and he spent the
following six years jailed without trial in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Release from jail
was followed by exile in Siberia.
Escape from Siberia
In 1861 he made a dramatic escape and returned to Europe by way of Japan, the Panama Canal
and San Francisco! For the next three years he threw himself into the struggle for Polish
independence. Then he began to rethink his ideas. Would national independence, in itself,
lead to liberty for working people? This took him away from nationalism and towards anarchism.
In 1868 he joined the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First
International), a federation of radical and trade union organisations with sections in
most European countries. Very rapidly his ideas developed and he became a famous exponent
of anarchism. While agreeing with much of Marx's economic theory, he rejected his
authoritarian politics and the major division within the International was between the
anarchists and the Marxists.
While Marx believed that socialism could be built by taking over the state, Bakunin looked
forward to its destruction and the creation of a new society based on free federations of
free workers. This soon became the policy of the International in Italy and Spain, and
grew in popularity in Switzerland, Belgium and France. After failing to defeat the
anarchist idea, Marx and his followers resorted to a campaign of smears and lies against
A Movement is Born
A committee set up to investigate the charges found, by a majority, Bakunin guilty and
voted to expel him. The Swiss section called a further congress, where the charges were
found to be false. An international conference also vindicated Bakunin, and went on to
adopt the anarchist position of rejecting any rule by a minority.
Defeated, Marx and his followers moved the General Council of the International to New
York where it faded into irrelevance. The ideas developed by Bakunin in the last decade of
his life went on to form the basis of the modern anarchist movement. Worn out by a
lifetime of struggle, Bakunin died in Switzerland on July 1st 1876.
His legacy is enormous. Although he wrote manifestos, articles and books he never finished
a single sizable work. Being primarily an activist he would stop, sometimes literally in
mid-sentence, to play his part in struggles, strikes and rebellions. What he left to
posterity is a collection of fragments. Even so, his writings are full of insights that
are as relevant today as they were in his time. Many anarchists continue to draw from his
premise of social revolution and methods of materialist analysis but other and much
smaller aspects of Bakunin's writings such as his anti-Semitism and tendency towards
conspiratorial thinking are easily left behind.
The Danger of Dictatorship
While understanding that ideas and intellectuals have an important role to play in the
revolution, a role of education and articulating people's needs and desires, he issued a
warning. He cautioned them against trying to take power and create a dictatorship of the
proletariat. The notion that a small group of people, no matter how well meaning, could
execute a coup d'etat for the benefit of the majority was a heresy against common sense.
Long before the Russian revolution he warned that a new class of intellectuals and
semi-intellectuals might seek to step into the shoes of the landlords and bosses, and deny
working people their freedom.
In 1873 he foretold, with great accuracy, that under the dictatorship of the proletariat
of the Marxists the party leaders would concentrate the reins of government in a strong
hand and divide the masses into two great armies - industrial and agricultural - under the
direct command of state engineers who will constitute a new privileged scientific and
Bakunin understood that government is the means by which a minority rules. In so far as
‘political power' means the concentration of authority in a few hands, he declared, it
must be abolished. Instead there must be a ‘social revolution' which will change the
relationship between people and place power in the hands of the masses through their own
federation of voluntary organisations.
It is necessary to abolish completely and in principle and in practice, everything that
may be called political power, for as long as political power exists there will always be
rulers and ruled, masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.
Who now can say he was not right?
"God and the State" - Classic work discussing religion, the state and conception and
critique of authority. Bonus: Listen to The Discourse Collective podcast episode
discussing this essay and summarizing the arguments (Part 1 and Part 2 - TBA)
"Marxism, Freedom and the State" - Collected extracts of Bakunin's writings on his
disagreements with Marx and disagreements over the state and conceptions of revolution. It
is in this work that Bakunin famously predicted the authoritarian result of any future
"The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State" - Written shortly after the momentous Paris
Commune that rocked late 19th century Europe, Bakunin gives his assessment and draws
lessons from the event.
Michael Bakunin, Selected Writings - Old scanned pdf of what likely the best compilation
of Bakunin's writings.
The Political Philosophy of Mikhail Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism - extensive volume of
Bakunin's writings, edited by Russian anarcho-syndicalist G. P. Maximov, as organized by
subject, whether philosophy or anarchist strategy.
Bakunin Archive - Part of the Anarchy Archives at Pitzer College, this site contains
Bakunin's biography, bibliography, collected works, and some commentary.
Writings on Bakunin
The Revolutionary Ideas of Bakunin - Classic short essay summarizing Bakunin's ideas and
contributions to anarchist ideas.
The Legacy of Bakunin by Paul Avrich - Essay on Bakunin by the leading historian of the
19th and early 20th century anarchist movement in Russia and the United States.
Bakunin for 21st Century Activists - Interview with Mark Leier, author of the excellent
biography, Bakunin: The Creative Passion.
Struggle Archive on Bakunin - Archive of articles and resources related to Bakunin with
emphasis on various debates within the left.
Libcom.org Bakunin tag - Archive of articles and writings related to Bakunin.
Bakunin: Selected Texts, 1868-1875 - Many newly translated pieces available in this 2016
edition. See a review on Anarkismo here.
We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It! - This 2015 volume written by Robert Graham and
published by AK Press explores the titanic struggle in the First Workingmen's
International between Bakunin, anarchists, and federalists on the one hand and Marx and
his supporters on the other. Very highly recommended!
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