"The General idea is always an abstraction and, for that very reason, is some sort of negation of real life...human thought, and in consequence of this, science, can grasp and name only the general significance of real facts, their relations, their laws - in short, that which is permanent in their continual transformations - but never their material, individual side, palpitating, so to speak, with reality and life, and therefore fugitive and intangible...science comprehends the thought of the reality, not reality itself; the thought of life, not life. That is its limit, its only really insuperable limit, because it is founded on the very nature of thought, which is the only organ of science."

--Mikhael Bakunin, God and the State (NY : Dover, 1970)
Michael (or Michail) Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1879)

A Russian Anarchist (who, oddly enough, was part of the aristocracy) that promoted the idea of "propaganda by deed", or more specifically, revolution through violence and sabotage. While most collectivist or other left-wing revolutionaries were largely pacifistic, either due to creed or simply by a lack of influence, Bakunin preached not only his anarchistic theory, but also instigated revolts in France, Prague, Berlin, and Dresden.

Bakunin was born on May 18, 1814 in Premukhino, Russia, about 40 miles south of Moscow. His father, Alexander, exposed young Bakunin to the ideals of European liberalism and the French Revolution, but this radical education was ended by the Decemberist uprising. Alexander, horrified not only by the uprising but only the effect it would have on the liberals as a whole, became a loyal Czarist, so as to keep him and his family safe from any injustices against the radicals that might ensue. He also sent Bakunin to St. Petersburg to become an artillery officer. The artillery school, however, was quite unlike what Alexander thought it would be. He expected the school to make Bakunin into a loyal subject of the Czar, but it was actually a bastion of liberal thought.

Bakunin quickly became tired with his studies and considered deserting, but he was sent to Poland in 1832 at the age of 18. In Poland, Bakunin's liberal ideas finally made sense in the aftermath of the Polish uprising of 1830. Two years later, Bakunin left the army and began studying philosophy at Moscow. In 1849, Bakunin then went to Berlin to study for a professorship in philosophy. However, due to the turmoil of the period, he was forced to leave for Geneva. Here he first came in contact with German Communists. From 1844 to 1847 Bakunin stayed in Paris, though he was forced to leave after the Russian Ambassador heard about a speech in which he argued for Polish independence. However, he was able to return soon afterwards.

Bakunin made his reputation as a great revolutionary in the revolutions of 1848. He instigated rebellion in at least four cities in France and Germany. Oddly enough, the French government paid for Bakunin's travel. Although everywhere he went he demonstrated his astounding dedication and leadership, he seemed to want the chaos of the period to continue. The revolutions ended in 1848 when Bakunin was arrested after the collapse of the revolt in Dresden. He was then deported back to Russia to be imprisoned by the Czar's forces.

This imprisonment completely destroyed any respect he might have once had for the Czar. He contracted scurvy and lost all of his teeth (which is probably why he didn't smile in any of his pictures), but his family was able to persuade the Czar to cut his life sentence short and banish Bakunin to Siberia in 1857. He was able to escape to Tokyo via ship, from whence he came to San Francisco. By 1862 Bakunin was in London, where many of the most radical groups had made their homes. Of particular interest was his founding of the International Brotherhood of Revolutionary Socialists, whose goal was to spread propaganda in support of revolution through direct action (i.e. violence). He would at one point in time be part of the famous International Working Man's Association but would be kicked out due to his opposition to Marx.

Throughout his life, Bakunin had not only written many works that called for the elimination of not only private property, but also of the State; he had effectively rallied together many of the radicals of central Europe to revolt against the State. His impact on anarchistic thought is probably equal to that of Che Guevara's impact on revolutionary thought.

Just an anecdote about Bakunin:
He was asked to translate Marx's Das Kapital to Russian language. Well, as he advocated this work of Marx, Bakunin promised to do it and received advanced payment. Eventually, Sergey Nechayev managed to induce Bakunin to "more urgent things" and Marx never saw the translation nor the money.
A nihilist in theory, a nihilist in practice.

Bakunin's Thought

... freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice... Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality

Although Michael Bakunin never managed to create the body of work of other anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin, he produced a number of important writings, which set out his distinctive version of anti-authoritarian and anti-religious anarchist thought. Bakunin was a libertarian socialist, who shared many of Karl Marx's views of the flaws of capitalism. In its place he sought a society of free individuals who would work together in cooperation to fulfil each other's needs, governed by reason and science, not by fear or superstition.

Bakunin was not an egoist in the model of Max Stirner. He was in favour of order and self-discipline, and a great believer in education, but he utterly opposed authoritarianism, which is the idea that people have a duty to obey authority. He believed that people should reject enslavement by institutions and live in accordance with reason, nature and science; the laws of nature are the only legitimate authority that can control us. However, he opposed a government of scientists on the grounds that it, like all governments would inevitably become corrupt. He saw that even democracies end up being governed by an oligarchy. (See his essay What is Authority?)

In the following quotation he sets out his philosophy succinctly:

We understand by liberty, on the one hand, the development, as complete as possible of all the natural faculties of each individual, and, on the other hand, his independence, not as regards natural and social laws but as regards all the laws imposed by other human wills, whether collective or separate.

When we demand the liberty of the masses, we do not in the least claim to abolish any of the natural influences of any individual or of any group of individuals which exercise their action on them. What we want is the abolition of artificial, privileged, legal, official, influences." (Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, p. 300) One particular target of his in his struggle against authority and irrational control was religion:

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 practice. [...]

If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist.

I defy anyone whomsoever to avoid this circle; now, therefore, let all choose. (God and the State, Part II) His syllogism ("If God is...") in the second paragraph above offers a logically-valid proof of atheism. If you accept the premises that (i) man can be free now, and (ii) God makes it impossible for man to be free, the syllogism is true. Both these premises are essential to his system of thought; he takes their truth to be obvious. For Bakunin, the conclusion is inevitable.

Bakunin had met Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Paris in the 1840s. At first Bakunin learnt a lot from Marx about his historical dialectical materialism; however they were temperamentally very different, and Bakunin was annoyed by Marx's egotism and arrogance. Bakunin was also interested in the ideas of Proudhon, the first modern anarchist thinker and the man who coined the phrase "property is theft". He disagreed with Proudhon's view of economics, preferring Marx's collectivism to Proudhon's mutualism, but he felt a strong kinship with Proudhon's belief in individual liberty.

Following his imprisonment in Russia, his ideas on politics and liberty took full shape, anarchism coloured by an opposition to religion and patriotism. In September 1869, a Congress of the Marxist International was held, and Bakunin attended. He quarreled with Marx on the issue of inheritance, which Bakunin opposed. But this was just a precursor to the real disagreement, on the role of the State. Marx believed that it was necessary for a central authority to bring about or impose socialism on the people; while Bakunin believed the state must be abolished immediately and totally.

In hindsight, looking at the tyranny of most communist regimes, it is easy to see the catastrophic consequences of adherence to Marx's principles, but even a study of the French Revolution should have show them that revolutionary governments turn easily into dictatorships. However, this led to an irreconcilable split between the Bakuninists and the followers of Marx.

Although Bakunin is viewed as a figure who viewed violence as an essential part of anarchism, it is important to see the role it played in his thought. He certainly believed in violent uprisings against the state as the best way to bring about a revolution, and he worked unsuccessfully to promote risings in Germany, Russia and France. However, he was not a proponent of the individual nihilist with a bomb, the troublemaker who played an important role in Russian politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bakunin believed in collective action, and opposed individualism as a bourgeois ideology. As a man who believed in the social nature of mankind, revolution had to come from the masses, not the actions of an isolated egotism.


Note: Bakunin seemed unable to complete any book he started to write, so what follows is largely a list of articles and fragments. For many, the exact date is not known. His most significant works are God and the State, an incomplete essay published after his death in book form; the collection called as Marxism Freedom and the State; and the short essay What is Authority?.

Published books in English

Essays and fragments

A large number of Bakunin's works are available online at [http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bakunin/Bakuninarchive.html]. An additional index can be found at [http://struggle.ws/anarchists/bakunin.html]


Additional works cited

Thanks to Cletus the Foetus for discussions regarding the logical validity of Bakunin's syllogism.

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