The Convention of Mikhail Bakunin and Legacy

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Even the most wretched individual of our present society could not exist and develop without the cumulative social efforts of countless generations.-Mikail Bakunin

Michael Alexandrovitch Bakunin was born on 30th May, 1814, in the Russian province of Tvar. He was the eldest son of a retired diplomat, who was a member of the ancient Russian nobility. Young Michael passed his boyhood on the family estate, and gained there an insight into the peasant mentality which is reflected in his later writings.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the anarchist, was a political thinker, his reputation, based partly on his appetite for action and partly on unsympathetic historiography, obscures this Bakunin social milieu influenced |he manner, in which he expressed his ideas, because he tried always to tailor them to those to whom he spoke, promoting so far as possible the revolutionary consciousness and socialist instincts of his audience. That is still another reason, without even mentioning Bakunin’s unyielding antidoctrinairism, why it has been hard to delineate a Bakuninist ‘doctrine. There are many numbers of ways to approach an interpretation of Bakunin’s ideas. One of the most fruitful, but least frequently adopted, is to attempt to understand their evolution from his pre-anarchist through his anarchist’ period. A dichotomy between a pre-anarchist early Bakunin and an anarchist ‘late Bakunin,’ each distinct from and related only superficially to the other, is as helpful one, between a humanistic ‘early Marx’ and a deterministic ‘late Marx’ but,’ also, in the end, as unenlightening. Both suppositions belong in the dustbin of hypotheses.

By the time Bakunin left Moscow in 1840, for the fount of idealist philosophy in Berlin, he had translated into Russian the first of Hegelian works to appear in that language (a series of lectures), and published an article expressing the orthodox Hegelianism that he and Belinsky had propagated after Stankevich death. It suggested a new direction by portraying man as the realization of the universal and transforming him into an instrument of Spirit, such that Spirit is in fact animated by the activity of the individual human being in concrete reality. Bakunin found its limit by 1842, the year in which, under the pseudonym Jules Elysard, his sensational article, “The Reaction in Germany,” was published. It marked the full transformation of the philosophical orthodoxy of his Moscow days into the most radical Left Hegelianism. The conception of the dialectic that Bakunin discusses about revolutionary activities rests of his life. Neither his resolutely uncompromising attitude, nor his idea of social revolution as the total destruction and entire razing of the existing order, nor perhaps even his self conception, can be fully fathomed without an understanding of these roots in German philosophy.

For Hegel, the dialectic began with the thesis (the Positive), which was negated, creating the antithesis, which was then in its turn negated, yielding the third element of the dialectical triad: the synthesis. As a negation of a negation, Hegel’s synthesis represented the superposition of the Positive; Marx dialectic shares this basic feature. Bakunin, in his 1842 article, establishes the Negative, rather than the Positive, as the motive force of the dialectic. This aspect of Bakunin thought is important enough to deserve elaboration.

Bakunin’s anarchist attitude toward political participation, one of the most salient questions of revolutionary tactics, reflects his refusal to compromise. He viewed acceptance of universal suffrage as participation in the bourgeois world and hence compromise with it. In contrast to Bakunin, Marx and Engels encouraged proletarian participation in bourgeois politics. Believing the proletariat to be the class that would inevitably comprise the vast majority of humanity, they had no complaint about majoritarian balloting. Engels called the democratic republic “the highest form of the State, because it “officially knows nothing any more of property distinctions.  It was, he wrote, the only form of the State in which “the last decisive struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out.” Said Engels contra Bakunin in 1871: ‘Complete abstention from political action is impossible. …Living experience, the political oppression of the existing government compels the workers to occupy themselves with politics whether they like it or not, be it for political or for social goals. We want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The only means is the political domination of the proletariat.”

Bakunin believed, on the contrary, that the workers should strive to create their future world in the very heart of the existing bourgeois world, alongside but altogether separate from it. As he explains it “On Cooperation”, it was up to the workers themselves to create cooperative organizations, which would replace the erstwhile political distribution of goods and services with a more just social distribution of them.

God and State

The stories of the life of Michael Bakunin, but its general features are already sufficiently familiar. Friends and enemies know that this man was great in thought, will, persistent energy; they know also with what lofty contempt he looked down upon wealth, rank, glory, and all the wretched ambitions which most human beings are base enough to entertain. A Russian gentleman related by marriage to the highest nobility of the empire, he was one of the first to enter that intrepid society of rebels who were able to release themselves from traditions, prejudices, race and class interests, and set their own comfort at naught. The present memoir, “God and the State,” is really a fragment of a letter or report. Composed in the same manner as most of Bakunin’s other writings, it has the same literary fault, lack of proportion; moreover it breaks off abruptly: we have searched in vain to discover the end of the manuscript. Bakunin never had the time necessary to finish all the tasks he undertook. One work was not completed when others were already under way. “My life itself is a fragment,” he said to those who criticized his writings. Nevertheless, the readers of “God and the State” certainly will not regret that Bakunin’s memoir, incomplete though it be, has been published. The questions discussed in it are treated decisively and with a singular vigor of logic. Rightly addressing himself only to his honest opponents, Bakunin demonstrates to them the emptiness of their belief in that divine authority on which all temporal authorities are founded; he proves to them the purely human genesis of all governments; finally, without stopping to discuss those bases of the State already condemned by public morality, such as physical superiority, violence, nobility, wealth, he does justice to the theory which would entrust science with the government of societies. Supposing even that it were possible to recognize, amid the conflict of rival ambitions and intrigues, who are the pretenders and who are the real savants, and that a method of election could be found which would not fail to lodge the power in the hands of those whose knowledge is authentic, what guarantee could they offer us of the wisdom and honesty of their government? On the contrary, can we not foresee in these new masters the same follies and the same crimes found in those of former days and of the present time? In the first place, science is not: it is becoming. The learned man of today is but the know-nothing of tomorrow. Let him once imagine that he has reached the end, and for that very reason he sinks beneath even the babe just born. But, could he recognize truth in its essence, he can only corrupt himself by privilege and corrupt others by power. To establish his government, he must try, like all chiefs of State, to arrest the life of the masses moving below him, keeping them in ignorance in order to preserve quiet, and gradually debasing them that he may rule them from a loftier throne. Who is right, the idealists or the materialists? The question, once stated in this way, hesitation becomes impossible. Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists right. Yes, facts are before ideas; yes, the ideal, as Proudhon said, is but a flower, whose root lies in the material conditions of existence. Yes, the whole history of humanity, intellectual and moral, political and social, is but a reflection of its economic history. All branches of modern science, of true and disinterested science, concur in proclaiming this grand truth, fundamental and decisive: The social world, properly speaking, the human world — in short, humanity is nothing other than the last and supreme development  at least on our planet and as far as we know the highest manifestation of animality. But as every development necessarily implies a negation, that of its base or point of departure, humanity is at the same time and essentially the deliberate and gradual negation of the animal element in man; and it is precisely this negation, as rational as it is natural, and rational only because natural at once historical and logical, as inevitable as the development and realization of all the natural laws in the world — that constitutes and creates the ideal, the world of intellectual and moral convictions, ideas. Yes, our first ancestors, our Adams and our Eves, were, if not gorillas, very near relatives of gorillas, omnivorous, intelligent and ferocious beasts, endowed in a higher degree than the animals of another species with two precious faculties the power to think and the desire to rebel.

Where I Stand

It mean that freedom of the individual which, instead of stopping far from the freedom of others as before a frontier, sees on the contrary the, mending and the expansion into the infinity of its own free will, the unlimited freedom of the individual through the, freedom of all; freedom through solidarity, freedom in equality; the freedom which triumphs over brute force and over the principle of authoritarianism, the ideal expression of that force which, after the destruction of all terrestrial and heavenly idols, will find and organize a new world of undivided mankind upon the ruins of all churches and States. It is a convinced partisan of economic and social equality, for I know that outside this equality, freedom, justice, human dignity and moral and spiritual well-being of mankind and the prosperity of nation, and individuals will always remain a lie only. But as an unconditional partisan of freedom, this first condition of humanity, I believe the equality must be established through the spontaneous organization of voluntary cooperation of work freely organized, and into communes federated, by productive associations and through the equally spontaneous federation of communes-not through and by supreme supervising action of the State.

The Capitalist System

Is it necessary to repeat here the irrefutable arguments of Socialism which no bourgeois economist has yet succeeded in disproving? What is property, what is capital in their present form? For the capitalist and the property owner they mean the power and the right, guaranteed by the State, to live without working. And since neither property nor capital produces anything when not fertilized by labor that means the power and the right to live by exploiting the work of someone else, the rights to exploit the work of those who possess neither property nor capital and who thus are forced to sell their productive power to the lucky owners of both. Note that he has left out of account altogether the following question: In what way did property and capital ever fall into the hands of their present owners? This is a question which, when envisaged from the points of view of history, logic, and justice, cannot be answered in any other way but one which would serve as an indictment against the present owners. He will therefore confine himself here to the statement that property owners and capitalists, inasmuch as they live not by their own productive labor but by getting land rent, house rent, interest upon their capital, or by speculation on land, buildings, and capital, or by the commercial and industrial exploitation of the manual labor of the proletariat, all live at the expense of the proletariat. (Speculation and exploitation no doubt also constitute a sort of labor, but altogether non-productive labor.)

He knows only too well that this mode of life is highly esteemed in all civilized countries, that it is expressly and tenderly protected by all the States, and that the States, religions, and all the juridical laws, both criminal and civil, and all the political governments, monarchies and republican with their immense judicial and police apparatuses and their standing armies – have no other mission but to consecrate and protect such practices. In the presence of these powerful and respectable authorities I cannot even permit myself to ask whether this mode of life is legitimate from the point of view of human justice, liberty, human equality, and fraternity. I simply ask myself: Under such conditions, are fraternity and equality possible between the exploiter and the exploited; are justice and freedom possible for the exploited?

Rousseau’s Theory of State

We have said that man is not only the most individualistic being on earth — he is also the most social. It was a great mistake on the part of Jean Jacques Rousseau to have thought that primitive society was established through a free agreement among savages. But Jean Jacques is not the only one to have said this. The majority of jurists and modern publicists, either of the school of Kant or any other individualist and liberal school, those who do not accept the idea of a society founded upon the divine right of the theologians nor of a society determined by the Hegelian school as a more or less mystical realisation of objective morality, nor of the naturalists’ concept of a primitive animal society, all accept, nolens volens, and for lack of any other basis, the tacit agreement or contract as their starting point. According to the theory of the social contract primitive men enjoying absolute liberty only in isolation are antisocial by nature. When forced to associate they destroy each other’s freedom. If this struggle is unchecked it can lead to mutual extermination. In order not to destroy each other completely, they conclude a contract, formal or tacit, whereby they surrender some of their freedom to assure the rest. This contract becomes the foundation of society, or rather of the State, for we must point out that in this theory there is no place for society; only the State exists, or rather society is completely absorbed by the State. Society is the natural mode of existence of the human collectivity, independent of any contract. It governs itself through the customs or the traditional habits, but never by laws. It progresses slowly, under the impulsion it receives from individual initiatives and not through the thinking or the will of the law-giver. There are a good many laws which govern it without its being aware of them, but these are natural laws, inherent in the body social, just as physical laws are inherent in material bodies. Most of these laws remain unknown to this day; nevertheless, they have governed human society ever since its birth, independent of the thinking and the will of the men composing the society. Hence they should not be confused with the political and juridical laws proclaimed by some legislative power, laws that are supposed to be the logical sequelae of the first contract consciously formed by men. The state is in no wise an immediate product of nature. Unlike society, it does not precede the awakening of reason in men. The liberals say that the first state was created by the free and rational will of men; the men of the right consider it the work of God. In either case it dominates society and tends to absorb it completely.

But above all Bakunin is attractive to present-day students and intellectuals because his libertarian brand of socialism provides an alternative vision to the bankrupt authoritarian socialism of the twentieth century. His dream of a decentralized society of autonomous communes and labor federations’ appeals to those who are seeking to escape from a centralized, conformist, and artificial world.


I Pravat Ranjan Sethi finished my studies from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, at present teaching at Delhi University. The keen area of interest is Modern History in particular Nationalism, Political History& Critical Theory and Social Theory.


  1. P. Maximoff, ed., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, New York, 1953
  2. A. Bakunin, Izbrannye sochineniia, 5 vls., Petrograd, 1919-22,
  3. Paiul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, Princeton,
  4. A. Bakunin, Gesammelte Werke, 3 vls., Berlin, 1921-24, III, 120-21.
  5. Regis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution?, New York, 1967
  6. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, Boston, 1964,
  7. Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution, Boston, 1939
  8. Lewis Feuer, Marx and the Intellectuals, New York, 1969



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