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(en) May 30th is the190th anniversary of the birth of Michael Bakuninhe - Summary of his Revolutionary Ideas

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 1 Jun 2004 06:10:07 +0200 (CEST)

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Undoubtedly, Bakunin is one of the key anarchist thinkers and activists of
the 19th century. Building upon the federalist and libertarian socialist
ideas of his friend Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as well as those in the European
labour movement, Bakunin shaped anarchism into its modern
form. His revolutionary, class struggle based anarchism soon
became the dominant form of anarchism in the First
International. He combated the state socialism of Marx and
Engels and laid the foundations for both communist-anarchism
and anarcho-syndicalism. His predictions about Marxism have
been confirmed and his critique of capitalism, the state and
religion as just as valid as when they were first expounded. Both
the Russian and Spanish revolutions have confirmed the power of
his ideas on revolution.

Yet Bakunin's ideas are less well known than they should be
outside the anarchist movement. This is due to the fact that
Marxists hate him while liberals cannot understand him. Their
combined distortions of his ideas have ensured that many radicals
have failed to read him and see for themselves the power of his
theories. So why should we be interested in what a dead Russian
had to say in the 1860s and 1870s?


Bakunin's revolutionary ideas where rooted in materialism. For
him, "facts are before ideas" and the ideal was "but a flower,
whose root lies in the material conditions of existence." From this
base he produced a coherent defence of individual freedom and its
basis in a free society and co-operation between equals. Rejecting
the abstract individualism of liberalism and other idealist theories,
he saw that real freedom was possible only when economic and
social equality existed: "No man can achieve his own
emancipation without at the same time working for the
emancipation of all men around him. My freedom is the freedom
of all since I am not truly free in thought and in fact, except when
my freedom and my rights are confirmed and approved in the
freedom and rights of all men who are my equals."

For Bakunin, "man in isolation can have no awareness of his
liberty . . . Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of
interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection." As
capitalist ideology glorifies the abstract individual, it "proclaims
free will, and on the ruins of every liberty founds authority." This
was unsurprising, as every development "implies the negation of
its point of departure." Thus "you will always find the idealists in
the very act of practical materialism, while you see the
materialists pursuing and realising the most grandly ideal
aspirations and thoughts." This is obvious today when the
"libertarian" right's defence of individual liberty never gets far
from opposing taxation while defending "the management's right
to manage" to maximise profits. Abstract individualism cannot
help but justify authority over liberty. Anarchism, however,
"denies free will and ends in the establishment of liberty."

This meant that anarchism "rejects the principle of authority."
While Engels never could understand what Bakunin meant by
this, the concept is simple. For Bakunin, "the principle of
authority" was the "eminently theological, metaphysical and
political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing
themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a
wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed
from above." Instead of this, Bakunin advocated what latter
became known as "self-management." In such an organisation
"hierarchic order and advancement do not exist" and there would
be "voluntary and thoughtful discipline" for "collective work or
action." "In such a system," Bakunin stressed, "power, properly
speaking, no longer exists. Power is diffused to the collectivity
and becomes the true expression of the liberty of everyone, the
faithful and sincere realisation of the will of all . . . this is the only
true discipline, the discipline necessary
for the organisation of freedom."

Freedom, as Bakunin argued, is a product of connection, not of
isolation. How a group organises itself determines whether it is
authoritarian or libertarian. By the term "principle of authority"
Bakunin meant hierarchy rather than organisation and the need
to make agreements. He rhetorically asked "does it follow that I
reject all authority?" and answered quite clearly: "No, far be it
from me to entertain such a thought." He acknowledged the
difference between being an authority -- an expert -- and being in
authority. Similarly, he argued that anarchists "recognise all
natural authority, and all influence of fact upon us, but none of
right." He stressed that the "only great and omnipotent authority,
at once natural and rational, the only one we respect, will be that
of the collective and public spirit of a society founded on equality
and solidarity and the mutual respect of all its members."

Given his love of freedom and hostility to hierarchy, Bakunin also
rejected the state, capitalism and religion. In essay "God and the
State" Bakunin argued the necessity of atheism, arguing that "if
God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free, then,
God does not exist" for the "idea of God implies the abdication of
human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of
human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of
mankind, both in theory and in practice." Not mincing his words,
he stated that "if God really existed it would be necessary to
abolish him."

As well as opposing divine authority, he rejected more concrete
ones as well. The state, he argued, is an instrument of class rule.
It "is the organised authority, domination and power of the
possessing classes over the masses" and "denotes force,
authority, predominance; it presupposes inequality in fact." This
inequality in power is required to maintain class society and so
the state has evolved a hierarchical and centralised structure:
"Every state power, every government, by its nature places itself
outside and over the people and inevitably subordinates them to
an organisation and to aims which are foreign to and opposed to
the real needs and aspirations of the people." For Bakunin, a
popular or truly democratic state was impossible as every state
meant "the actual subjection of . . . the people . . . to the minority
allegedly representing it but actually governing it."

His critique of capitalism built upon Proudhon's. Under
capitalism "the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given
time" and "concluded for a term only and reserving to the worker
the right to quit his employer, this contract constitutes a sort of
voluntary and transitory serfdom." Property meant for the
capitalist "the power and the right, guaranteed by the State, to live
. . . by exploiting the work of someone else." For Bakunin, the
consistent libertarian must also be a socialist, as "only associated
labour, that is, labour organised upon the principles of reciprocity
and co-operation, is adequate to the task of maintaining . . .
civilised society."

His opposition to oppression was not limited to just the economy.
He opposed sexism and supported the equality and liberty of
women. His opposition to imperialism is well known. Unlike
Marx and Engels, who happily supported imperialism against
"backward" peoples, for Bakunin "every people, like every person,
. . . has a right to be itself."


Bakunin was no passive critic of the existing system. In his eyes
there were three methods to escape the misery of capitalism: the
pub, the church and social revolution. The first was "debauchery
of the body," the second "of the mind." Only the last offered
genuine hope and so he took part in the First International and
saw collective class struggle and organisation as the means of
both fighting for improvements today and as the means of
creating a free society. "Organise the city proletariat in the name
of revolutionary Socialism," he argued, "and in doing this unite it
into one preparatory organisation together with the peasantry."
Prefiguring anarcho-syndicalism, he stressed that anarchists
should take an active part in the labour movement for "to create a
people's force capable of crushing the military and civil force of
the State, it is necessary to organise the proletariat."

The strike played a key role in his ideas, as it was "the beginnings
of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie" and
"awaken" in the masses "the feeling of the deep antagonism
which exists between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie"
and establishes "very fact of solidarity." They "create, organise,
and form a workers' army, an army which is bound to break down
the power of the bourgeoisie and the State, and lay the ground for
a new world." Bakunin supported the general strike, for "with the
ideas of emancipation that now hold sway over the proletariat, a
general strike can result only in a great cataclysm which forces
society to shed its old skin."

His activity in the First International brought him into conflict
with Marxism. He rejected Marx's ideas for numerous reasons.
He opposed the participation of radicals in bourgeois elections,
correctly predicting that when "the workers . . . send common
workers . . . to Legislative Assemblies . . . The worker-deputies,
transplanted into a bourgeois environment . . . will in fact cease to
be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become
bourgeois." The descent of Marxist social-democracy into
reformism and opportunism confirmed Bakunin's worse fears.

Instead of political action, Bakunin argued for "the social (and
therefore anti-political) organisation and power of the working
masses of the cities and villages." This meant that the "proletariat
. . . must enter the International [Workers' Association] en
masse, form factory, artisan, and agrarian sections, and unite
them into local federations" for "the sake of its own liberation."
Anarchism, however, "does not reject politics generally. It will
certainly be forced to involve itself insofar as it will be forced to
struggle against the bourgeois class. It only rejects bourgeois
politics . . . [as it] establishes the predatory domination of the

As for Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat," Bakunin rejected it
for two reasons. Firstly, if taken literally, the term at the time
meant a dictatorship by a minority. As Marx himself admitted,
the peasantry and artisans made up the majority of the working
masses in every European country bar the UK. This meant
Marx's vision of "revolution" excluded the majority of working
people. Bakunin objected that this was "nothing more or less than
a new aristocracy, that of the urban and industrial workers, to the
exclusion of the millions who make up the rural proletariat and
who . . . will in effect become subjects of this great so-called
popular State."

Secondly, he doubted whether the whole proletariat would
actually govern in the new state. Rather "by popular government"
the Marxists "mean government of the people by a small number
of representatives elected by the people. So-called popular
representatives and rulers of the state elected by the entire nation
on the basis of universal suffrage . . . is a lie behind which lies the
despotism of a ruling minority is concealed." Lenin's regime
proved him right, quickly becoming the dictatorship over the

Bakunin's opposition to the "workers' state" had nothing to do
with organising or defending a revolution, as Marxists claim.
Bakunin was well aware of the need for both after destroying the
state and abolishing capitalism. For him, the anarchist abolition
of the state did not mean the workers (to quote Marx) "lay down
their arms." Bakunin was clear that "in order to defend the
revolution . . . volunteers will . . . form a communal militia."
These would "federate. . . for common defence." The communes
would "organise a revolutionary force capable of defeating
reaction" and "it is the very fact of the expansion and organisation
of the revolution for the purpose of self-defence among the
insurgent areas that will bring about the triumph of the

No, Bakunin's opposition to Marxism rested on the question of
power. If working class emancipation was to be genuine, the state
had to be destroyed. For if "the whole proletariat . . . [are]
members of the government . . . there will be no government, no
state, but, if there is to be a state there will be those who are ruled
and those who are slaves." Thus anarchists do "not accept, even
in the process of revolutionary transition, either constituent
assemblies, provisional governments or so-called revolutionary
dictatorships; because we are convinced that revolution is only
sincere, honest and real in the hands of the masses, and that
when it is concentrated in those of a few ruling individuals it
inevitably and immediately becomes reaction."

Instead of a "revolutionary" government ruling the masses from
above in a centralised state, an anarchist revolution would be
based on a federation of communes and workers' councils. The
very process of collective class struggle would, for Bakunin create
the basis of a free society. The "federative Alliance of all working
men's [sic!] associations . . . [would] constitute the Commune"
and so the "future social organisation must be made solely from
the bottom upwards, by the free association or federation of
workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions,
nations and finally in a great federation, international and
universal." The councils from bottom to top would be composed
of "delegates . . . vested with plenary but accountable and
removable mandates."

The basic structure created by the revolution would be based on
the working classes own combat organisations, as created in their
struggles within, but against, oppression and exploitation. And
these, not a ruling party, would make the decisions: "Since
revolution everywhere must be created by the people and
supreme control must always belong to the people organised in a
free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . .
organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary
delegation." The revolutionary group "influences the people
exclusively through the natural, personal influence of its
members, who have not the slightest power" within popular

Yet Bakunin's vision of revolution was not purely directed at the
state, it was directed also against capitalism. A free society was
based on "the land, the instruments of work and all other capital"
becoming "the collective property of the whole of society and be
utilised only by the workers, in other words by the agricultural
and industrial associations." Thus one of the firsts act of the
revolution was the workers making "a clean sweep of all the
instruments of labour, every kind of capital and building." For "no
revolution could succeed . . . unless it was simultaneously a
political and a social revolution." The social revolution to be, at
the same time, the abolition of the state and of capitalism.

The new, free, society would be organised "from the bottom-up,"
as a "truly popular organisation begins from below, from the
association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the
organisation of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward,
federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free
and spontaneous organisation of popular life." Economically,
wage slavery would be replaced by co-operative production,
which would "flourish and reach its full potential only in a society
where the land, the instruments of production, and hereditary
property will be owned and operated by the workers themselves:
by their freely organised federations of industrial and agricultural

In this way, "every human being should have the material and
moral means to develop his humanity." Bakunin's anarchism was
about changing society and abolishing all forms of authoritarian
social relationship, putting life before the spirit-destroying nature
of the state and capitalism. For the anarchist "takes his stand on
his positive right to life and all its pleasures, both intellectual,
moral and physical. He loves life, and intends to enjoy it to the


Bakunin's ideas of what to replace capitalism with are still valid,
as are his suggestions on how to achieve socialism. The Paris
Commune was a striking confirmation of many of his ideas, as
were the soviets of the Russian Revolution and the collectives of
the Spanish. His critique of Marxism has been proven right:
Social democracy became as reformist as he predicted while
Bolshevism was as authoritarian. These suggest that Bakunin's
ideas are worth considering today. Not, though, to mindless
repeat but to built on and development.

Of course there are many aspects of Bakunin's ideas which are
not discussed here, both positive and negative. His bigotry against
Jews and Germans are examples of the latter, as is his fondness
for secret societies. For all that, Bakunin is rightfully considered a
key anarchist thinker. This is because anarchists are not
"Bakuninists" and can reject the personal flaws and failings of
any important anarchist thinker. Anarchists agree that in many
aspects of his ideas and life Bakunin was wrong. This does not
detract from the positive ideas he contributed to the development
of anarchist theory and practice.

The Anarchist Federation's pamphlet "Basic Bakunin" is a good,
cheap and short introduction to the ideas of Bakunin. Those
looking for a more substantial account of his life and ideas then
"Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom" by Brian Morris is highly
recommended. The best (and most expensive) acount of
Bakunin's ideas is Richard B. Saltman's "The Social and Political
Thought of Michael Bakunin."

However, reading Bakunin's writings first hand is always the
best. Freedom Press' "Marxism, Freedom and the State" is a
good, short, collection of texts. "Bakunin on Anarchism" is a
comprehensive collection of his works while "The Basic
Bakunin" contains some important essays from the late 1860s
and early 1870s. Bakunin's classic essay "God and the State" is
still available and is highly recommended while his only book
"Statism and Anarchy" is worth reading (but the critique of
Marxism within it is only a very small part of the whole). Volume
one of the anarchist anthology "No Gods, No Masters" contains a
representative collection of his key anarchist works.

Related at Infoshop: www.anarchistfaq.org

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