Bakunin on Anarchy

"The star of revolution will rise high above the streets of Moscow, from a sea of blood and fire, and turn into a lodestar to lead a liberated humanity"
-Mikhail Bakunin

This is a short summary of Mikhail Bakunin's ideas on "anarchy." Anarchy is the idea that people are better off without government, or at least with a bare minimum of government. However, to get to that place where people are free to govern themselves, often will require a revolution. As you read over this material, it is worth asking whether "V" in V for Vendetta is an anarchist, or if that is an over-simplification of his political ideas. Or is "V" just interested in overthrowing an oppresive government?


Bakunin was extremely influential in the 19th century, yet his ideas for decades have been reviled, distorted or ignored. But others argue that Bakunin has a lot to offer and that his ideas are not at all confused ) but make up a full coherent and well argued body of thought. 

Bakunin saw revolution in terms of the overthrow of one oppressing class by another oppressed class and the destruction of political power as expressed as the state and social hierarchy. According to Bakunin, society is divided into two main classes which are fundamentally opposed to each other. The oppressed class, he variously described as commoners, the people, the masses or the workers, makes up a great majority of the population. It is in 'normal' time not conscious of itself as a class, though it has an 'instinct' for revolt and whilst unorganized, is full of vitality. The numerically much smaller oppressing class, however is conscious of its role and maintains its ascendancy by acting in a purposeful, concerted and united manner. The basic differences between the two classes, Bakunin maintained, rests upon the ownership and control of property, which is disproportionately in the hands of the minority class of capitalists. The masses, on the other hand, have little to call their own beyond their ability to work.

Bakunin was astute enough to understand that the differences between the two main classes is not always clear cut. He pointed out that it is not possible to draw a hard line between the two classes, though as in most things, the differences are most apparent at the extremes. Between these extremes of wealth and power there is a hierarchy of social strata which can be assessed according to the degree to which they exploit each other or are exploited themselves. The further away a given group is from the workers, the more likely it is to be part of the exploiting category and the less it suffers from exploitation. Between the two major classes there is a middle class or middle classes which are both exploiting and exploited, depending on their position of social hierarchy.

The masses who are the most exploited form, in Bakunin's view, the great revolutionary class which alone can sweep away the present economic system. Unfortunately, the fact of exploitation and its resultant poverty are in themselves no guarantee of revolution. Extreme poverty is, Bakunin thought, likely to lead to resignation if the people can see no possible alternative to the existing order. Perhaps, if driven to great depths of despair, the poor will rise up in revolt. Revolts however tend to be local and therefore, easy to put down. In Bakunin's view, three conditions are necessary to bring about popular revolution.

They are:

1. sheer hatred for the conditions in which the masses find themselves

2. the belief that change is a possible alternative

3. a clear vision of the society that has to be made to bring about human emancipation

Without these three factors being present, plus a united and efficient self organization, no liberatory revolution can possibly succeed.

Bakunin had no doubts that revolution must necessarily involve destruction to create the basis of the new society. He stated that, quite simply, revolution means nothing less than war, that is the physical destruction of people and property. Spontaneous revolutions involve, often, the vast destruction of property. Bakunin noted that when circumstances demanded it, the workers will destroy even their own houses, which more often than not, do not belong to them. The negative, destructive urge is absolutely necessary, he argued, to sweep away the past. Destruction is closely linked with construction, since the "more vividly the future is visualized, the more powerful is the force of destruction."

Given the close relationship between the concentration of wealth and power in capitalist societies, it is not surprising that Bakunin considered economic questions to be of paramount importance. It is in the context of the struggle between labor and capital that Bakunin gave great significance of strikes by workers. 

Strikes, he believed, have a number of important functions in the struggle against capitalism. Firstly they are necessary as catalysts to wrench the workers away from their ready acceptance of capitalism, they jolt them out of their condition of resignation. Strikes, as a form of economic and political warfare, require unity to succeed, thus welding the workers together. During strikes, there is a polarization between employers and workers. This makes the latter more receptive to the revolutionary propaganda and destroys the urge to compromise and seek deals. Bakunin thought that as the struggle between labor and capital increases, so will the intensity and number of strikes. The ultimate strike is the general strike. A revolutionary general strike, in which class conscious workers are infused with anarchist ideas will lead, thought Bakunin, to the final explosion which will bring about anarchist society.

Bakunin's ideas are revolutionary in a very full sense, being concerned with the destruction of economic exploitation and social/political domination and their replacement by a system of social organization which is in harmony with human nature. Bakunin offered a critique of capitalism, in which authority and economic inequality went hand in hand, and state socialism, (e.g. Marxism) which is one sided in its concentration on economic factors whilst, grossly underestimating the dangers of social authority.

Bakunin based his consistent and unified theory upon three interdependent platforms, namely: human beings are naturally social (and therefore they desire social solidarity) are more or less equal and, want to be free

His anarchism is consequently concerned with the problem of creating a society of freedom within the context of an egalitarian system of mutual interaction. The problem with existing societies, he argued, is that they are dominated by states that are necessarily violent, anti-social, and artificial constructs which deny the fulfillment of humanity.

Whilst there are, in Bakunin's view, many objectionable features within capitalism, apart from the state, (e.g. the oppression of women, wage slavery), it is the state which nurtures, maintains and protects the oppressive system as a whole. The state is defined as an anti-social machine which controls society for the benefit of an oppressing class or elite. It is essentially an institution based upon violence and is concerned with its maintenance of inequality through political repression. In addition the state relies upon a permanent bureaucracy to help carry out its aims. The bureaucratic element, incidentally, is not simply a tool which it promotes. All states, Bakunin believed, have internal tendencies toward self perpetuation, whether they be capitalist or socialist and are thus to be opposed as obstacles to human freedom.

It might be objected that states are not primarily concerned with political repression and violence and indeed that liberal democratic states, in particular, are much interested in social welfare. Bakunin argues that such aspects are only a disguise, and that when threatened, all states reveal their essentially violent natures. In Britain and Northern Ireland this repressive feature of state activity has come increasingly to the fore, when the state has been challenged to any significant degree, it has responded with brutal firmness.

And developments within Britain over the last couple decades tend to substantiate another feature of the state which Bakunin drew attention to, their tendency toward over increasing authoritarianism and absolutism. He believed that there were strong pressures in all states whether they are liberal, socialist, capitalist, or whatever, toward military dictatorship but that the rate of such development will vary, however according to factors such as demography, culture and politics.

Finally, Bakunin noted that states tend toward warfare against other states. Since there is no internationally accepted moral code between states, then rivalries between them will be expressed in terms of military conflict. "So long as there's government, there will be no peace. There will only be more or less prolonged respites, armistices concluded by the perpetually belligerent states; but as soon as a state feels sufficiently strong to destroy this equilibrium to its advantage, it will never fail to do so."

Bourgeois Democracy
Political commentators and the media are constantly singing the praises of the system of representative democracy in which every few years or so the electorate is asked to put a cross on a piece of paper to determine who will control them. This system works good insofar as the capitalist system has found a way of gaining legitimacy through the illusion that some how the voters are in charge of running the system. Bakunin's writings on the issue are of representative democracy were made at the time when it barely existed in the world. Yet he could see on the basis of a couple of examples (the United States and Switzerland) that the widening of the franchise does little to improve the lot of the great mass of the population. True, as Bakunin noted, middle class politicians are prepared to humble themselves before the electorate issuing all sorts of promises. But this leveling of candidates before the populace disappears the day after the election, once they are transformed into members of the Parliament. The workers continue to go to work and the bourgeoisie takes up once again the problems of business and political intrigue.

Today, in the United States and Western Europe, the predominant political system is that of liberal democracy. In Britain the electoral system is patently unfair in its distribution of parliamentary seats, insofar as some parties with substantial support get negligible representation. However, even where strict proportional representation applies, the Bakuninist critique remains scathing. For the representative system requires that only a small section of the population concern itself directly with legislation and governing (in Britain a majority out of 650 MP's (Members of Parliament)).

Bakunin's objections to representative democracy rests basically on the fact that it is an expression of the inequality of power which exists in society. Despite constitutions guaranteeing the rights of citizens and equality before the law, the reality is that the capitalist class is in permanent control. So long as the great mass of the population has to sell its labor power in order to survive, there can not be democratic government. So long as people are economically exploited by capitalism and there are gross inequalities of wealth, there can not be real democracy. As Bakunin made clear, economic facts are much stronger than political rights. So long as there is economic privilege there will be political domination by the rich over the poor. The result of this relationship is that representatives of capitalism (bourgeois democracy) "posses in fact, if not by right, the exclusive privilege of governing."

A common fiction that is expounded in liberal democracies is that the people rule. However the reality is that minorities necessarily do the governing. A privileged few who have access to wealth, education and leisure time, clearly are better equipped to govern than ordinary working people, who generally have little free time and only a basic education.

But as Bakunin made clear, if by some quirk, a socialist government be elected, in real terms, things would not improve much. When people gain power and place themselves 'above' society, he argued, their way of looking at the world changes. From their exalted position of high office the perspective on life becomes distorted and seems very different to those on the bottom. The history of socialist representation in parliament is primarily that of reneging on promises and becoming absorbed into the manners, morality and attitudes of the ruling class. Bakunin suggests that such backsliding from socialist ideas is not due to treachery, but because participation in parliament makes representatives see the world through a distorted mirror. A workers parliament, engaged in the tasks of governing would, said Bakunin, end up a chamber of "determined aristocrats, bold or timid worshipers of the principle of authority who will also become exploiters and oppressors."

The point that Bakunin makes time and time again in his writings is that no one can govern for the people in their interests. Only personal and direct control over our lives will ensure that justice and freedom will prevail. To abdicate direct control is to deny freedom. To grant political sovereignty to others, whether under the mantle of democracy, republicanism, the people's state, or whatever, is to give others control and therefore domination over our lives.

It might be thought that the referendum, in which people directly make laws, would be an advance upon the idea of representative democracy. This is not the case according to Bakunin, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the people are not in a position to make decisions on the basis of full knowledge of all the issues involved. Also, laws may be a complex, abstract, and specialized nature and that in order to vote for them in a serious way, the people need to be fully educated and have available the time and facilities to reflect upon and discuss the implications involved. The reality of referenda is that they are used by full-time politicians to gain legitimacy for essentially bourgeois issues. It is no coincidence that Switzerland, which has used the referendum frequently, remains one of the most conservative countries in Europe. With referenda, the people are guided by politicians, who set the terms of the debate. Thus despite popular input, the people still remain under bourgeois control.

Finally, Bakunin on the whole concept of the possibility of the democratic state: For him the democratic state is a contradiction in terms since the state is essentially about force, authority and domination and is necessarily based upon an inequality of wealth and power. Democracy, in the sense of self rule for all, means that no one is ruled. If no one rules, there can be no state. If there is a state, there can be no self rule.

Revolutionary Organization
Above all else, Bakunin the revolutionary, believed in the necessity of collective action to achieve anarchy. After his death there was a strong tendency within the anarchist movement towards the abandonment of organization in favor of small group and individual activity. This development, which culminated in individual acts of terror in the late nineteenth century France, isolating anarchism from the very source of the revolution, namely the workers.

Bakunin, being consistent with other aspects of his thought, saw organization not in terms of a centralized and disciplined army (though he thought self discipline was vital), but as the result of decentralized federalism in which revolutionaries could channel their energies through mutual agreement within a collective. It is necessary, Bakunin argued, to have a coordinated revolutionary movement for a number of reasons. Firstly, fig anarchists acted alone, without direction they would inevitably end up moving in different directions and would, as a result, tend to neutralize each other. Organization is not necessary for its own sake, but is necessary to maximize strength of the revolutionary classes, in the face of the great resources commanded by the capitalist state.

However, from Bakunin's standpoint, it was the spontaneous revolt against authority by the people which is of the greatest importance. The nature of purely spontaneous uprisings is that they are uneven and vary in intensity from time to time and place to place. The anarchist revolutionary organization must not attempt to take over and lead the uprising but has the responsibility of clarifying goals, putting forward revolutionary propaganda, and working out ideas in correspondence with the revolutionary instincts of the masses. To go beyond this would undermine the whole self-liberatory purpose of the revolution. Putchism has no place in Bakunin's thought.

Bakunin then, saw revolutionary organization in terms of offering assistance to the revolution, not as a substitute. It is in this context that we should interpret Bakunin's call for a "secret revolutionary vanguard" and "invisible dictatorship" of that vanguard. The vanguard it should be said, has nothing in common with that of the Leninist model which seeks actual, direct leadership over the working class. Bakunin was strongly opposed to such approaches and informed his followers that "no member... is permitted, even in the midst of full revolution, to take public office of any kind, nor is the (revolutionary) organization permitted to do so... it will at all times be on the alert, making it impossible for authorities, governments and states to be established." The vanguard was, however, to influence the revolutionary movement on an informal basis, relying on the talents of it's members to achieve results. Bakunin thought that it was the institutionalization of authority, not natural inequalities, that posed a threat to the revolution. The vanguard would act as a catalyst to the working classes' own revolutionary activity and was expected to fully immerse itself in the movement. Bakunin's vanguard then, was concerned with education and propaganda, and unlike the Leninist vanguard party, was not to be a body separate from the class, but an active agent within it.

The other major task of the Bakuninist organization was that it would act as the watchdog for the working class. Then, as now, authoritarian groupings posed as leaders of the revolution and supplied their own members as "governments in waiting." The anarchist vanguard has to expose such movements in order that the revolution should not replace one representative state by another 'revolutionary' one. After the initial victory, the political revolutionaries, those advocates of so-called workers' governments and the dictatorship of the proletariat, would according to Bakunin try "to squelch the popular passions. They appeal for order, for trust in, for submission to those who, in the course and the name of the revolution, seized and legalized their own dictatorial powers; this is how such political revolutionaries reconstitute the state. We on the other hand, must awaken and foment all the dynamic passions of the people."

Throughout Bakunin's criticisms of capitalism and state socialism he constantly argues for freedom. It is not surprising, then, to find that in his sketches of future anarchist society that the principle of freedom takes precedence. In a number of revolutionary programs he outlined which he considered to be the essential features of societies which would promote the maximum possible individual and collective freedom. The societies envisioned in Bakunin's programs are not Utopias, the sense of being detailed fictional communities, free of troubles, but rather suggest the basic minimum skeletal structures which would guarantee freedom. The character of future anarchist societies will vary, said Bakunin depending on a whole range of historical, cultural, economic and geographical factors.

The basic problem was to lay down the minimum necessary conditions which would bring about a society based upon justice and social welfare for all and would also generate freedom. The negative, that is, destructive features of the programs are all concerned with the abolition of those institutions which lead to domination and exploitation. The state, including the established church, the judiciary, state banks and bureaucracy, the armed forces and the police are all to be swept away. Also, all ranks, privileges, classes and the monarchy are to be abolished.

The positive, constructive features of the new society all interlink to promote freedom and justice. For a society to be free, Bakunin argued, it is not sufficient to simply impose equality. No, freedom can only be achieved and maintained through the full participation in society of a highly educated and healthy population, free from social and economic worries. Such an enlightened population, can then be truly free and able to act rationally on the basis of a popularly controlled science and a thorough knowledge of the issues involved.

Bakunin advocated complete freedom of movement, opinion, morality where people would not be accountable to anyone for their beliefs and acts. This must be, he argued, complete and unlimited freedom of speech, press and assembly. Freedom, he believed, must be defended by freedom, for to "advocate the restriction of freedom on the pretext that it is being defended is a dangerous delusion." A truly free and enlightened society, Bakunin said, would adequately preserve liberty. An ordered society, he thought, stems not from suppression of ideas, which only breeds opposition and factionalism, but from the fullest freedom for all.

Bakunin's works currently available:

"God and the State"

"Marxism, Freedom and the State" (edited by K.J. Kenafik)

"The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State"

"Statism and Anarchy" (heavy going) ed. Marshall Shatz.

© Hank Edmondson 2012