The First International and the Paris Commune


Returning to my series from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, this installment deals with the effect of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune on anarchist theory and practice.

The Paris Commune - Street Barricades

The Paris Commune – Street Barricades

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 had a significant impact on emerging anarchist movements. Bakunin argued that the War should be turned into a mass uprising by the French workers and peasants against their domestic and foreign masters. To bring the peasants over to the side of the social revolution, Bakunin urged his fellow revolutionaries to incite the peasantry “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil and military institution,” to “throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others” and to seize the land. He rejected any notion of revolutionary dictatorship, warning that any attempt “to impose communism or collectivism on the peasants… would spark an armed rebellion” that would only strengthen counter-revolutionary tendencies (Volume One, Selection 28).

Although it was Proudhon who had first proposed an alliance between the workers and peasants, it was Bakunin who saw the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary force. Bakunin and subsequent anarchists did not believe that a social revolution was only possible in advanced capitalist societies with a large industrial proletariat, as Marxists claimed, but rather looked to the broad masses of the exploited and downtrodden to overthrow their oppressors. Consequently, anarchists supported the efforts of indigenous peoples to liberate themselves from colonial domination and the local elites which benefitted from colonialism at their expense, particularly in Latin America with its feudalist latifundia system which concentrated ownership of the land in the hands of a few (Volume One, Selections 71, 76 & 91). In Russia, Italy, Spain and Mexico, anarchists sought to incite the peasants to rebellion with the battle cry of “Land and Liberty” (Volume One, Selections 71, 73, 85, 86, & 124), while anarchists in China, Japan and Korea sought the liberation of the peasant masses from their feudal overlords (Volume One, Selections 97, 99, 101, 104 & 105).

Bakunin argued that the best way to incite the masses to revolt was “not with words but with deeds, for this is the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda” (Volume One, Selection 28). In Mexico, the anarchist Julio Chavez Lopez led a peasant uprising in 1868-1869, in which the insurgents would occupy a village or town, burn the land titles and redistribute the land among the peasants (Hart: 39). In September 1870, Bakunin participated in a short-lived attempt to create a revolutionary Commune in Lyon, proclaiming the abolition of mortgages and the judicial system (Leier: 258). He made a similar attempt with his anarchist comrades in Bologna in 1874.

In 1877, Bakunin’s associates, Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and a small group of anarchists tried to provoke a peasant uprising in Benevento, Italy, by burning the local land titles, giving the villagers back their tax moneys and handing out whatever weapons they could find. Paul Brousse (1844-1912) described this as “propaganda by the deed,” by which he did not mean individual acts of terrorism but putting anarchist ideas into action by seizing a commune, placing “the instruments of production… in the hands of the workers,” and instituting anarchist communism (Volume One, Selection 43).
The inspiration for this form of propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris proclaimed the revolutionary Commune, throwing out their national government. Varlin and other Internationalists took an active part in the Commune. After its bloody suppression by the Versailles government, during which Varlin was killed, several Communards were to adopt an explicitly anarchist position, including Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel.

Paris commune journal

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International supported the Commune and provided refuge for exiled Communards. Bakunin commended the Communards for believing that the social revolution “could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses” (Volume One, Selection 29). James Guillaume thought that the Commune represented the revolutionary federalist negation of the nation State that “the great socialist Proudhon” had been advocating for years. By 1873, the Jura Federation of the International was describing the Commune as the first practical realization of the anarchist program of the proletariat. However, as David Stafford points out, the “massacre of the Communards and the savage measures which followed it (it has been estimated that 30,000 people were killed or executed by the Versailles forces)” helped turn anarchists further away from Proudhon’s pacifist mutualism, which was seen as completely unable to deal with counter-revolutionary violence (Stafford: 20).

Louise Michel (1830-1905) had fought on the barricades when the French government sent in its troops to put down the Commune. The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded issued a manifesto calling for “the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital” (Volume One, Selection 30). At Michel’s trial after the suppression of the Commune, she declared that she belonged “completely to the Social Revolution,” vowing that if her life were spared by the military tribunal, she would “not stop crying for vengeance,” daring the tribunal, if they were not cowards, to kill her (Volume One, Selection 30).

Anarchists drew a number of lessons from the Commune. Kropotkin argued that the only way to have consolidated the Commune was “by means of the social revolution” (Volume One, Selection 31), with “expropriation” being its “guiding word.” The “coming revolution,” Kropotkin wrote, would “fail in its historic mission” without “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings; [and] the return to the community… of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others” (Volume One, Selection 45).

With respect to the internal organization of the Commune, Kropotkin noted that there “is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.” Instead of giving themselves a “revolutionary” government, isolating the revolutionaries from the people and paralyzing popular initiative, the task is to abolish “property, government, and the state,” so that the people can “themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it in common,” and “form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself” (Volume One, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Additional References

Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas, 1987.

Leier, Mark. Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

The First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement

The First International

The First International

In this installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the First International and the emergence of a European anarchist movement. I am currently finishing the manuscript to We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, in which I deal with these matters in much more detail.

Paper of the French International

Paper of the French International

The First International

Bellegarrigue, Déjacque and Coeurderoy were dead or forgotten by the time the International Association of Workingmen (the First International) was founded in 1864 (Volume One, Selection 19). It was only after the emergence in Europe of self-identified anarchist movements in the 1870s that Pisacane’s writings were rediscovered. Of the anarchists from the 1840s and 50s, only Proudhon and Pi y Margall continued to exercise some influence, but by then both identified themselves as federalists rather than anarchists (Volume One, Selection 18). Prouhon’s followers in the First International supported his mutualist ideas, advocating free credit, small property holdings and equivalent exchange. They agreed with Proudhon that a woman’s place was in the home and argued that only workingmen should be allowed into the First International, which meant that intellectuals, such as Karl Marx, should also be excluded. They shared Proudhon’s critical view of strikes, regarding them as coercive and ineffective, but in practice provided financial and other support to striking workers.

Within the First International there were more radical elements that gave expression to a renewed sense of militancy among European workers. These Internationalists, such as Eugène Varlin (1839-1871) in France, were in favour of trade unions, seeing them as a means for organizing the workers to press their demands through collective direct action, such as strikes and boycotts. The ultimate aim was for the workers to take control of their workplaces, replacing the state and capitalism with local, regional, national and international federations of autonomous workers’ organizations.

Opposing these “anti-authoritarian” Internationalists were not only the orthodox Proudhonists, but Karl Marx and his followers, as well as some Blanquists, who favoured centralized organization and the subordination of the trade unions to political parties that would coordinate opposition to capitalism and seek to achieve state power, either through participation in bourgeois politics, revolution or a combination of both. Disagreements over the International’s internal form of organization and participation in politics would lead to the split in the International in 1872.

By 1868 the International had adopted a policy in favour of strikes and collective ownership of the means of production. However, collective ownership did not necessarily mean state ownership, as many Internationalists advocated workers’ control of industry through the workers’ own organizations and continued to support other aspects of Proudhon’s mutualism, such as workers’ mutual aid societies, cooperatives and credit unions. Varlin, for example, organized a cooperative restaurant with Nathalie Lemel (who later converted Louise Michel to anarchism). Some Geneva Internationalists proposed that half of the cooperatives’ profits be paid into the workers’ “resistance” funds, with the cooperatives also providing workers with financial aid and credit during strikes (Cutler, 1985: 213, fn. 69).


Bakunin: “We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it”

Bakunin had begun to articulate a revolutionary anarchist position in the mid-1860s, prior to his entry into the International in 1868. He advocated socialism and federalism based on “the most complete liberty for individuals as well as associations,” rejecting both bourgeois republicanism and state socialism (Volume One, Selection 20). He rejected any “call for the establishment of a ruling authority of any nature whatsoever,” denouncing those revolutionaries who “dream of creating new revolutionary states, as fully centralized and even more despotic than the states we now have” (Volume One, Selections 20 & 21).

“We do not fear anarchy,” declared Bakunin, “we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction.” The new social order will be created “from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center… not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin opposed any attempts to justify the sacrifice of human lives in the name of some ideal or “abstraction,” including patriotism, the state, God or even science. Someone who is “always ready to sacrifice his own liberty… will willingly sacrifice the liberty of others” (Volume One, Selection 20). The revolutionary socialist, “on the contrary, insists upon his positive rights to life and to all its intellectual, moral, and physical joys.” In addition to rejecting any notions of individual self-sacrifice, Bakunin argued against revolutionary terrorism as counter-revolutionary. To “make a successful revolution, it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods, to destroy property and the State. It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and be condemned to suffer the sure and inevitable reaction which no massacre had ever failed and ever will fail to produce in every society” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin argued that the means adopted by revolutionaries should be consistent with their ends. Accordingly, the International should itself be organized “from the bottom up… in accordance with the natural diversity of [the workers’] occupations and circumstances.” The workers’ organizations would “bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” Consequently, he rejected the view that the majority of the workers, even within the International itself, should accept the “fraternal command” of those who claimed to know what is best for them, as this would divide the International “into two groups—one comprising the vast majority… whose only knowledge will be blind faith in the theoretical and practical wisdom of their commanders,” and a minority of “skilled manipulators” in control of the organization (Volume One, Selection 25).

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin’s anarchist critique went well beyond attacking property, religion and the state. In addition to arguing against hierarchical and authoritarian organization within the revolutionary movement itself, Bakunin sought to free women from their domestic burdens, with society taking collective responsibility for raising and educating children, enabling women to marry and divorce as they please. Bakunin rejected patriarchy in general, denouncing the “despotism of the husband, of the father, of the eldest brother over the family,” which turns the family “into a school of violence and triumphant bestiality, of cowardice and the daily perversions of the family home” (Volume One, Selection 67).

With respect to education, Bakunin argued that “one who knows more will naturally rule over the one who knows less.” After the revolution, unless differences in education and upbringing are eliminated, “the human world would find itself in its present state, divided anew into a large number of slaves and a small number of rulers” (Volume One, Selection 64). Bakunin looked forward to the day when “the masses, ceasing to be flocks led and shorn by privileged priests,” whether secular or religious, “may take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Bakunin argued against the rule of the more learned, the savants, the intellectuals and the scientists, whether within the International or in society at large. His targets here were the followers of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx, with their pretensions to “scientific government” and “scientific socialism.” To confide “the government of society” to any scientific body, political party or group would result in the “eternal perpetuation” of that group’s power “by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently in need of its government and direction” (Volume One, Selection 24). Bakunin was perhaps the first to develop this critique of the role of intellectuals, the “new class,” and their rise to power, either by taking over leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement or through control of the state bureaucracy, for the “State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the priesthood, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and finally, after every other class has been exhausted, the bureaucratic class, when the State falls or rises… into the condition of a machine” (Volume One, Selection 22).

Noam Chomsky has described Bakunin’s analyses and predictions in this regard as being perhaps “among the most remarkable within the social sciences” (Volume Two, Selection 68). Subsequent anarchists adopted Bakunin’s critique (Berti, Volume Two, Selection 67) and his suggestion that the inequalities that arise from differences in knowledge can be prevented by “integral education,” which breaks down the barriers between practical and scientific education, and by the elimination of any distinction between manual and “intellectual” or “brain” work (Volume One, Selection 64). In his highly influential book, Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898), Peter Kropotkin set forth practical alternatives to the present “division of society into brain workers and manual workers,” with all its “pernicious” distinctions, advocating, much like Fourier had before him, a daily combination of manual and intellectual work, human-scale technology and the integration of the fields, factories and workshops in a decentralized system of production, providing for “the happiness that can be found in the full and varied exercise of the different capacities of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 34).

Bakunin was instrumental in spreading anarchist ideas among revolutionary and working class movements in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia and within the International itself. According to Kropotkin, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who “established in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (1912).

Robert Graham

The Anarchist International

The Anarchist International

Additional references

Cutler, Robert. Ed. From Out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.

Kropotkin, Peter.  Modern Science and Anarchism (1912). In Evolution and Environment. Ed. G. Woodcock. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995.

European Anarchism Before 1848

Prelude to Revolution

Prelude to Revolution

This is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I discuss some of the revolutionary ideas that were emerging in Europe prior to the European revolutions of 1848-1849.


Revolutionary Ideas in Europe

In the 1840s there was an explosion of radical ideas and movements in Europe, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-49. In Germany, radical intellectuals inspired by and reacting against the philosophy of Hegel, sometimes referred to as the “Young” or “Left Hegelians,” began developing a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” as Marx put it in 1843. The previous year, Bakunin had published his essay, “The Reaction in Germany,” in which he described the revolutionary program as “the negation of the existing conditions of the State” and “ the destruction of whatever order prevails at the time,” concluding with the now notorious phrase, the “passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Volume One, Selection 10). Max Stirner’s masterpiece of nihilistic egoism, The Ego and Its Own, came out in 1844 (Volume One, Selection 11). Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent of the “Young Hegelians,” called for “the abolition of all government” in favour of “an ordered anarchy… the free community… of men who make their own decisions and who are in all respects equal comrades” (Nettlau: 53-59).

Three aspects of the Young Hegelian critique had a lasting impact on Bakunin, and through him on the development of anarchist ideas. The first was the Young Hegelian critique of religion. The second was the development of a materialist worldview, from which all “divine phantoms” were banished. The third, which followed from the first two, was atheism. Bakunin and later anarchists were to denounce the alliance of Church and State, particularly the role of religion in pacifying the masses and in rationalizing their domination and exploitation, advocating a materialist atheism that emphasizes human agency because there are no divine or supernatural forces to protect or deliver the people from their earthly misery. The people can only liberate themselves through their own direct action.


Max Stirner

Max Stirner (1806-1856) took the Young Hegelian critique of “divine phantoms” to its furthest extreme, attacking all ideal conceptions, whether of God, humanity, or good and evil, as “spooks” or “wheels in the head” which dominate the very consciousness of the unique individual, preventing him or her from acting freely.

In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that through upbringing, education and indoctrination, people internalize abstract social norms and values, putting the individual “in the position of a country governed by secret police. The spy and eavesdropper, ‘conscience,’ watch over every motion of the mind,” with “all thought and action” becoming “a matter of conscience, i.e. police business.” Anticipating radical Freudians like the anarchist psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), Stirner observed that everyone “carries his gendarme within his breast.”

Stirner advocated freedom “from the State, from religion, from conscience,” and from any other power or end to which the individual can be subjected. He rejected any concept of justice or rights, arguing that the unique individual is free to take whatever is in his or her power. Whenever the egoist’s “advantage runs against the State’s,” he “can satisfy himself only by crime.” After Stirner’s writings were rediscovered in the late 1890s, this aspect of his critique was developed by individualist anarchists, such as Albert Joseph (“Libertad”), into the doctrine of “illegalism,” which was used by the Bonnot Gang as an ideological cloak for their bank robberies in the early 1900s in France (Perry, 1987).

Stirner denounced socialism for seeking to replace the individual capitalist with a collective owner, “society,” to which the individual will be equally subject, but nevertheless argued that the workers need only stop labouring for the benefit of their employers and “regard the product of their labour” as their own in order to bring down the State, the power of which rests on their slavery.

Another aspect of Stirner’s thought that was to have some influence on later anarchists is his distinction between insurrection and revolution. Revolutions seek to rearrange society into a new order. Insurrection or rebellion, by contrast, is “a rising of individuals… without regard to the arrangements that spring from it” (Volume One, Selection 11). In light of the defeats of the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, Herbert Read (1893-1968) sought to revive Stirner’s distinction, arguing that anarchists must avoid creating “the kind of machinery which, at the successful end of a revolution, would merely be taken over by the leaders of the revolution, who then assume the functions of government” (Volume Two, Selection 1). During the 1960s, many of the younger anarchists endorsed the notion of “spontaneous insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 51). More recently, Hakim Bey has argued in favour of the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” which can be seen as “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (Volume Three, Selection 11).

Anarchy is Self-Management

Anarchy is Self-Management

Proudhon: Machinery and Worker Self-Management

In one passage in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner described individuals as mere cogs in the “State machine.” In Proudhon’s 1846 publication, The System of Economic Contradictions, he argued that the first and “most powerful of machines is the workshop” The workshop degrades “the worker by giving him a master.” The “concentration of forces in the workshop” and the introduction of machinery “engender at the same time overproduction and destitution,” rendering more and more workers redundant, such that in a capitalist economy it is continually necessary to “create new machines, open other markets, and consequently multiply services and displace other” workers. Industry and wealth, population and misery, “advance, so to speak, in procession, one always dragging the other after it” (Volume One, Selection 9).

This focus on and opposition to relationships of subordination in both the economic and political spheres sharply distinguished Proudhon and the anarchists from many of their socialist contemporaries. In his sarcastic attempt to demolish Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dismissed Proudhon’s critique of factory organization and machinery as a reactionary demand for a return to a pre-industrial utopia of skilled craft production. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), co-written with Friedrich Engels, Marx called for the centralization of “all instruments of production in the hands of the State… to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would require the establishment of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”

Proudhon’s solution to this problem was neither to advocate a return to a pre-industrial craft economy nor the creation of industrial armies, “for it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves” (Volume One, Selection 9). While Proudhon argued that free credit should be made available so that everyone would have the opportunity to engage in whatever productive activity they chose, he recognized from the outset the advantages of combining one’s labour with the labour of others, creating a “collective force” that in existing society was being exploited by the capitalists who reaped the benefit of the resulting increase in productive power. “Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours,” Proudhon wrote in What Is Property, “do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days?” (Volume One, Selection 8).

Proudhon therefore advocated workers’ control or worker self-management of industry, later referred to in France as “autogestion,” an idea that became a major tenet of subsequent anarchist movements (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 49). In Proudhon’s proposals, all positions in each enterprise would be elected by the workers themselves, who would approve all by-laws, each worker would have the right to fill any position, “unpleasant and disagreeable tasks” would be shared, and each worker would be given a “variety of work and knowledge” so as to avoid a stultifying division of labour. Everyone would “participate in the gains and in the losses” of the enterprise “in proportion to his services,” with pay being “proportional to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents, and the extent of responsibility” (Volume One, Selection 12).

Robert Graham

Additional References

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Perry, Richard. The Bonnot Gang. London: Rebel Press, 1987.


Bakunin: For Reasons of State

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

As part of the 200 hundredth anniversary of the birth of the revolutionary anarchist, Michael (Mikhail) Bakunin (1814-1876), I have been posting some of his writings. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections by Bakunin on libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, science and authority, revolutionary action, the Paris Commune, integral education and the nature of the state. One of the passages was taken from Bakunin’s critique of Rousseau’s social contract theory of the state. I am reproducing a portion of it here in response to the various wars that continue to grip this planet, and as an antidote to the propaganda celebrating the 100 hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the First World War.


For Reasons of State

The existence of one sovereign, exclusionary State necessarily supposes the existence and, if need be, provokes the formation of other such States, since it is quite natural that individuals who find themselves outside it and are threatened by it in their existence and in their liberty, should, in their turn, associate themselves against it. We thus have humanity divided into an indefinite number of foreign states, all hostile and threatened by each other. There is no common right, no social contract of any kind between them; otherwise they would cease to be independent states and become the federated members of one great state. But unless this great state were to embrace all of humanity, it would be confronted with other great states, each federated within, each maintaining the same posture of inevitable hostility.

War would still remain the supreme law, an unavoidable condition of human survival.

Every state, federated or not, would therefore seek to become the most powerful. It must devour lest it be devoured, conquer lest it be conquered, enslave lest it be enslaved, since two powers, similar and yet alien to each other, could not coexist without mutual destruction.

The State, therefore, is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. It protects its own citizens only; it recognizes human rights, humanity, civilization within its own confines alone. Since it recognizes no rights outside itself, it logically arrogates to itself the right to exercise the most ferocious inhumanity toward all foreign populations, which it can plunder, exterminate, or enslave at will. If it does show itself generous and humane toward them, it is never through a sense of duty, for it has no duties except to itself in the first place, and then to those of its members who have freely formed it, who freely continue to constitute it or even, as always happens in the long run, those who have become its subjects. As there is no international law in existence, and as it could never exist in a meaningful and realistic way without undermining to its foundations the very principle of the absolute sovereignty of the State, the State can have no duties toward foreign populations. Hence, if it treats a conquered people in a humane fashion, if it plunders or exterminates it halfway only, if it does not reduce it to the lowest degree of slavery, this may be a political act inspired by prudence, or even by pure magnanimity, but it is never done from a sense of duty, for the State has an absolute right to dispose of a conquered people at will.

This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue. It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one’s own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.

This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries – statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors – if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

Michael Bakunin, 1868

smash the state

Bakunin: The Principle of the State (1871)

BakunyinportreIn Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from the writings of Michael Bakunin, who helped inspire the first anarchist movements in Europe. Shawn Wilbur is working on a “Bakunin Library,” translating Bakunin’s major works into English. In anticipation of his 200th birthday (Bakunin’s, not Shawn’s), I reproduce below a short excerpt from one of Shawn’s translations, this one from a fragment on the state and morality written in 1871. That states are in a condition of real or apprehended war at all times remains as true today as when Bakunin wrote this.


The Principle of the State

At base, conquest is not only the origin, it is also the crowning aim of all States, great or small, powerful or weak, despotic or liberal, monarchic, aristocratic, democratic, and even socialist, supposing that the ideal of the German socialists, that of a great communist State, is ever realized. That it has been the point of departure for all States, ancient and modern, can be doubted by no one, since each page of universal history proves it sufficiently.

No one contests any longer that the large current States have conquest for their more or less confessed aim. But the middling States and even the small ones, we are told, think only of defending themselves and it would be absurd on their part to dream of conquest. Mock as much as you want, but nonetheless it is their dream, as it is the dream of the smallest peasant proprietor to increase to the detriment of his neighbor, to increase, to enlarge, to conquer always and at any price.

It is a fatal tendency inherent in every State, whatever its extensions, its weakness or its strength, because it is a necessity of its nature. What is the State if it is not the organization of power; but it is in the nature of all power to not be able to tolerate either superiors or equals–power having no other object than domination, and domination being real only when everything that hinders it is subjugated. No power tolerates another except when it is forced to, when it feels itself powerless to destroy or overthrow it. The mere fact of an equal power is a negation of its principle and a perpetual threat against its existence, for it is a manifestation and a proof of its powerlessness. Consequently, between all States that exist side by side, war is permanent and their peace is only a truce.

It is in the nature of the State to set itself up, for itself as well as for all its subjects, as the absolute object. To serve its prosperity, its grandeur, its power is the crowning virtue of patriotism. The State recognizes no others [of its kind]: everything that serves it is good, and everything that is contrary to its interests is declared criminal. – Such is the morality of the State.

Michael Bakunin, Locarno, Switzerland, 1871

Bakunin quote

Kropotkin: Celebrating Bakunin’s Anniversary

bakunin proudhon kropotkin

May 30, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail (“Michael”) Bakunin (1814-1876), the Russian anarchist who was instrumental in the founding of an international anarchist movement in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Europe. This month also marks the publication of Iain McKay’s anthology of Piotr (“Peter”) Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press. While Kropotkin and Bakunin never met, Kropotkin was introduced to revolutionary anarchism by Bakunin’s associates in the Jura Federation, a Swiss section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), although he was already familiar with Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism. Kropotkin later credited Bakunin with establishing “in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (Modern Science and Anarchism). Here I reproduce a letter Kropotkin wrote on the 100th anniversary of Bakunin’s birth, in which he sets forth his assessment of Bakunin’s role in the development of modern anarchism in more detail, and which is now included in Direct Struggle Against CapitalVolume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas contains extensive excerpts from the anarchist writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon.

direct_struggle_against_capitalDear Comrades

I am sorry that I cannot be with you for the commemoration of the birthday of our great teacher, Mikhail Bakunin. There are few names which ought to be as dear to the revolutionary working men of the world as the name of this apostle of the mass revolt of the proletarians of all nations.

Surely, none of us will ever think of minimizing the importance of that labour of thought which precedes every Revolution. It is the conscience of the wrongs of society, which gives to the downtrodden and oppressed ones the vigour that is required to revolt against those wrongs.

But with immense numbers of mankind, quite an abyss lies between the comprehension of the evils, and the action that is needed to get rid of these evils.

To move people to cross this abyss, and to pass from grumbling to action, was Bakunin’s chief work.

In his youth, like most educated men of his times, he paid a tribute to the vagaries of abstruse philosophy. But he soon found his way at the approach of the Revolution of 1848. A wave of social revolt was rising then in France, and he flung himself heart and soul into the turmoil. Not with those politicians who already prepared to seize the reins of power as soon as monarchy would fall under the blows of the revolted proletarians. He foresaw, he knew already, that the new rulers would be against the proletarians the moment they would be at the head of the Republic.

He was with the lowest masses of the Paris proletarians ― with those men and women whose vague hopes were already directed towards a Social, Communistic Commonwealth. Here he represented the so-much-needed link between the advanced parties of the Great Revolution of 1793 and the new generation of Socialists, a giant trying to inspire the generous but much too pacific Socialist proletarians of Paris with the stern daring of the sans-culottes of 1793 and 1794.

Of course, the politicians soon saw how dangerous such a man was for them, and they expelled him from Paris before the first barricades of February 1848, had been built. He was quite right, that bourgeois Republican Caussidière, when he said of Bakunin: “Such men are invaluable before the Revolution. But when a Revolution has begun ― they must be shot.” Of course they must! They will not be satisfied with the first victories of the middle classes. Like our Portuguese worker friends [who participated in the 1910 Portugese Revolution], they will want some immediate practical results for the people. They will want that every one of the downtrodden masses should feel that a new era has come for the ragged proletarian.

Of course, the bourgeois must shoot such men, as they shot the Paris workers in 1871. In Paris, they took the precaution of expelling him before the Revolution began.

Expelled from Paris, Bakunin took his revenge at Dresden, in the Revolution of 1849, and here his worse enemies had to recognize his powers in inspiring the masses in a fight, and his organizing capacities. Then came the years of imprisonment in the fortress of Olmütz, where he was chained to the wall of his cell, and in the deep casemates of the St. Petersburg and Schlüsselburg fortresses, followed by years of exile in Siberia. But in 1862 he ran away from Siberia to the United States, and then to London, where he joined the friends of his youth ― Herzen and Ogaroff.

Heart and soul he threw himself into supporting the Polish uprising of 1863. But it was not until four years later that he found the proper surroundings and ground for his revolutionary agitation in the International Working Men’s Association. Here he saw masses of workers of all nations joining hands across frontiers, and striving to become strong enough in their Unions to throw off the yoke of Capitalism. And at once he understood what was the chief stronghold the workers had to storm, in order to be successful in their struggle against Capital ― the State. And while the political Socialists spoke of getting hold of power in the State and reforming it, “Destroy the State!” became the war-cry of the Latin Federations, where Bakunin found his best friends.

The State is the chief stronghold of Capital ― once its father, and now its chief ally and support. Consequently, Down with Capitalism and down with the State!

All his previous experience and a close friendly intercourse with the Latin workers made of Bakunin the powerful adversary of the State and the fierce revolutionary Anarchist Communist fighter he became in the last ten years of his life.

Here Bakunin displayed all the powers of his revolutionary genius. One cannot read his writings during those years ― mostly pamphlets dealing with questions of the day, and yet full of profound views of society ― without being fired by the force of his revolutionary convictions. In reading these writings and in following his life, one understands why he so much inspired his friends with the sacred fire of revolt.

Down to his last days, even amidst the pangs of a mortal disease, even in his last writings, which he considered his testament, he remained the same firmly convinced revolutionary Anarchist and the same fighter, ready to join the masses anywhere in their revolt against Capital and the State.

Let us, then, follow his example. Let us continue his work, never forgetting that two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution ― two things, as one of my comrades said in the trial at Lyon: an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action ― guided by the force of Anarchist thought.

Peter Kropotkin


Kropotkin: Happy Solstice (Across the Anarchist Universe)


Around this time of year, the combination of religious idolatry and capitalism called “Christmas” can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are other things to celebrate, like Peter Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, both of which fall on December 21st. Instead of focusing his critique on religion and its role in perpetuating the domination and exploitation of the masses, something that Bakunin was adept at, Kropotkin tried to articulate a positive view of the universe and people’s place in it, which mirrored his views of an anarchist society. In Modern Science and Anarchism (1903), Kropotkin described anarchism as “a world-concept based upon a mechanical [kinetic] explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature.” This was a 19th century conception of nature and the universe, still steeped in Newtonian physics, soon to be replaced by Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics. But in Kropotkin’s earlier pamphlet, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (1896), he set forth a view of the universe that is surprisingly modern, anticipating post-Einsteinian theories, such as the hypothesis of the “God particle,” infinitesimally small particles that hold the universe together. Space considerations prevented me from including these passages in the excerpts from Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In celebration of Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, I reproduce them below, hopefully providing some respite from the relentless religious and commercial propaganda at around this time of year.

Across the Anarchist Universe

Across the Anarchist Universe

An Anarchist Across the Universe

Those who are persuaded that anarchism is a collection of visions relating to the future, and an unconscious striving towards the destruction of all present civilization, are still very numerous. To clear the ground of such prejudices as maintain this view we should have to enter into many details which it would be difficult to cover briefly.

Anarchists have been spoken of so much lately that part of the public has at last taken to reading and discussing our doctrines. Sometimes men have even given themselves the trouble to reflect, and at the present time we have at least gained the admission that anarchists have an ideal. Their ideal is even found too beautiful, too lofty for a society not composed of superior beings.

But is it not pretentious on my part to speak of a philosophy, when according to our critics our ideas are but dim visions of a distant future? Can anarchism pretend to possess a philosophy when it is denied that socialism has one?

This is what I am about to answer with all possible precision of clearness. I begin by taking a few elementary illustrations borrowed from natural sciences. Not for the purpose of deducing our social ideas from them—from it; but simply the better to set off certain relations which are easier grasped in phenomena verified by the exact sciences than in examples taken only from the complex facts of human societies.

What especially strikes us at present in exact sciences is the profound modification which they are undergoing in the whole of their conceptions and interpretations of the facts of the universe.

There was a time when man imagined the earth placed in the center of the universe. Sun, moon, planets and stars seemed to roll round our globe; and this globe inhabited by man represented for him the center of creation. He himself—the superior being on his planet—was the elected of his Creator. The sun, the moon, the stars were made for him—towards him was directed all the attention of a God who watched the least of his actions, arrested the sun’s course for him, launched his showers or his thunderbolts on fields and cities to recompense the virtue or punish the crimes of mankind. For thousands of years man thus conceived the universe.

An immense change in all conceptions of the civilized part of mankind was produced in the sixteenth century when it was demonstrated that far from being the center of the universe, the earth was only a grain of sand in the solar system—a ball much smaller even than the other planets—that the sun itself, though immense in comparison to our little earth, was but a star among many other countless stars which we see shining in the skies and swarming in the milky way. How small man appeared in comparison to this immensity without limits, how ridiculous his pretentions! All the philosophy of that epoch, all social and religious conceptions, felt the effects of this transformation in cosmogony. Natural science, whose present development we are so proud of, only dates from that time.

But a change much more profound and with far wider-reaching results is being effected at the present time in the whole of the sciences, and anarchism is but one of the many manifestations of this evolution.

Take any work on astronomy of the last century. You will no longer find in it our tiny planet placed in the center of the universe. But you will meet at every step the idea of a central luminary—the sun—which by its powerful attraction governs our planetary world. From this central body radiates a force guiding the course of the planets, and maintaining the harmony of the system. Issued from a central agglomeration, planets have, so to say, budded from it. They owe their birth to this agglomeration; they owe everything to the radiant star that represents it still: the rhythm of their movements, their orbits set at wisely regulated distances, the life that animates them and adorns their surfaces. And when any perturbation disturbs their course and makes them deviate from their orbits, the central body re-establishes order in the system; it assures and perpetuates its existence.

This conception, however, is also disappearing as the other one did. After having fixed all their attention on the sun and the large planets, astronomers are beginning to study now the infinitely small ones that people the universe. And they discover that the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are peopled and crossed in all imaginable directions by little swarms of matter, invisible, infinitely small when taken separately, but all-powerful in their numbers.

It is to these infinitely tiny bodies that dash through space in all directions with giddy swiftness, that clash with one another, agglomerate, disintegrate, everywhere and always, it is to them that today astronomers look for an explanation of the origin of our solar system, the movements that animate its parts, and the harmony of their whole. Yet another step, and soon universal gravitation itself will be but the result of all the disordered and incoherent movements of these in finitely small bodies—of oscillations of atoms that manifest themselves in all possible directions. Thus the center, the origin of force, formerly transferred from the earth to the sun, now turns out to be scattered and disseminated. It is everywhere and nowhere. With the astronomer, we perceive that solar systems are the work of infinitely small bodies; that the power which was supposed to govern the system is itself but the result of the collision among those infinitely tiny clusters of matter, that the harmony of stellar systems is harmony only because it is an adaptation, a resultant of all these numberless movements uniting, completing, equilibrating one another.

The whole aspect of the universe changes with this new conception. The idea of force governing the world, pre-established law, preconceived harmony, disappears to make room for the harmony that Fourier had caught a glimpse of: the one which results from the disorderly and incoherent movements of numberless hosts of matter, each of which goes its own way and all of which hold each in equilibrium.

anarchist galaxy

If it were only astronomy that were undergoing this change! But no; the same modification takes place in the philosophy of all sciences without exception; those which study nature as well as those which study human relations.

In physical sciences, the entities of heat, magnetism, and electricity disappear. When a physicist speaks today of a heated or electrified body, he no longer sees an inanimate mass, to which an unknown force should be added. He strives to recognize in this body and in the surrounding space, the course, the vibrations of infinitely small atoms which dash in all directions, vibrate, move, live, and by their vibrations, their shocks, their life, produce the phenomena of heat, light, magnetism or electricity.

In sciences that treat of organic life, the notion of species and its variations is being substituted by a notion of the variations of the individual. The botanist and zoologist study the individual—his life, his adaptations to his surroundings. Changes produced in him by the action of drought or damp, heat or cold, abundance or poverty of nourishment, of his more or less sensitiveness to the action of exterior surroundings will originate species; and the variations of species are now for the biologist but resultants—a given sum of variations that have been produced in each individual separately. A species will be what the individuals are, each undergoing numberless influences from the surroundings in which they live, and to which they correspond each in his own way.

And when a physiologist speaks now of the life of a plant or of an animal, he sees an agglomeration, a colony of millions of separate individuals rather than a personality, one and invisible. He speaks of a federation of digestive, sensual, nervous organs, all very intimately connected with one another, each feeling the consequence of the well-being or indisposition of each, but each living its own life. Each organ, each part of an organ in its turn is composed of independent cellules which associate to struggle against conditions unfavorable to their existence. The individual is quite a world of federations, a whole universe in himself.

And in this world of aggregated beings the physiologist sees the autonomous cells of blood, of the tissues, of the nerve-centers; he recognizes the millions of white corpuscles who wend their way to the parts of the body infected by microbes in order to give battle to the invaders, More than that: in each microscopic cell he discovers today a world of autonomous organisms, each of which lives its own life, looks for well-being for itself and attains it by grouping and associating itself with others. In short, each individual is a cosmos of organs, each organ is a cosmos of cells, each cell is a cosmos of infinitely small ones. And in this complex world, the well-being of the whole depends entirely on the sum of well-being enjoyed by each of the least microscopic particles of organized matter. A whole revolution is thus produced in the philosophy of life.


But it is especially in psychology that this revolution leads to consequences of great importance.

Quite recently the psychologist spoke of man as an entire being, one and indivisible. Remaining faithful to religious tradition, he used to class men as good and bad, intelligent and stupid, egotists and altruists. Even with materialists of the eighteenth century, the idea of a soul, of an indivisible entity, was still upheld.

But what would we think today of a psychologist who would still speak like this! The modern psychologist sees in a man a multitude of separate faculties, autonomous tendencies, equal among themselves, performing their functions independently, balancing, opposing one another continually. Taken as a whole, man is nothing but a resultant, always changeable, of all his divers faculties, of all his autonomous tendencies, of brain cells and nerve centers. All are related so closely to one another that they each react on all the others, but they lead their own life without being subordinated to a central organ—the soul.

Without entering into further details you thus see that a profound modification is being produced at this moment in the whole of natural sciences. Not that this analysis is extended to details formerly neglected. No! the facts are not new, but the way of looking at them is in course of evolution. And if we had to characterize this tendency in a few words, we might say that if formerly science strove to study the results and the great sums (integrals, as mathematicians say), today it strives to study the infinitely small ones—the individuals of which those sums are composed and in which it now recognizes independence and individuality at the same time as this intimate aggregation.

As to the harmony that the human mind discovers in nature, and which harmony is on the whole but the verification of a certain stability of phenomena, the modern man of science no doubt recognizes it more than ever. But he no longer tries to explain it by the action of laws conceived according to a certain plan pre-established by an intelligent will.

What used to be called “natural law” is nothing but a certain relation among phenomena which we dimly see, and each law takes a temporary character of causality; that is to say: If such a phenomenon is produced under such conditions, such another phenomenon will follow. No law placed outside the phenomena: each phenomenon governs that which follows it—not law.

Nothing preconceived in what we call harmony in Nature. The chance of collisions and encounters has sufficed to establish it. Such a phenomenon will last for centuries because the adaptation, the equilibrium it represents has taken centuries to be established; while such another will last but an instant if that form of momentary equilibrium was born in an instant. If the planets of our solar system do not collide with one another and do not destroy one another every day, if they last millions of years, it is because they represent an equilibrium that has taken millions of centuries to establish as a resultant of millions of blind forces. If continents are not continually destroyed by volcanic shocks it is because they have taken thousands and thousands of centuries to build up, molecule by molecule, and to take their present shape. But lightning will only last an instant; because it represents a momentary rupture of the equilibrium, a sudden redistribution of force.

Harmony thus appears as a temporary adjustment established among all forces acting upon a given spot—a provisory adaptation. And that adjustment will only last under one condition: that of being continually modified; of re presenting every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions. Let but one of those forces be hampered in its action for some time and harmony disappears. Force will accumulate its effect, it must come to light, it must exercise its action, and if other forces hinder its manifestation it will not be annihilated by that, but will end by upsetting the present adjustment, by destroying harmony, in order to find a new form of equilibrium and to work to form a new adaptation. Such is the eruption of a volcano, whose imprisoned force ends by breaking the petrified lavas which hindered them to pour forth the gases, the molten lavas, and the incandescent ashes. Such, also, are the revolutions of mankind.



An analogous transformation is being produced at the same time in the sciences that treat of man. Thus we see that history, after having been the history of kingdoms, tends to become the history of nations and then the study of individuals. The historian wants to know how the members, of which such a nation was composed, lived at such a time, what their beliefs were, their means of existence, what ideal of society was visible to them, and what means they possessed to march towards this ideal. And by the action of all those forces, formerly neglected, he interprets the great historical phenomena.

So the man of science who studies jurisprudence is no longer content with such or such a code. Like the ethnologist he wants to know the genesis of the institutions that succeed one another; he follows their evolution through ages, and in this study he applies himself far less to written law than to local customs—to the “customary law” in which the constructive genius of the unknown masses has found expression in all times. A wholly new science is being elaborated in this direction and promises to upset established conceptions we learned at school, succeeding in interpreting history in the same manner as natural sciences interpret the phenomena of nature.

And, finally, political economy, which was at the beginning a study of the wealth of nations, becomes today a study of the wealth of individuals. It cares less to know if such a nation has or has not a large foreign trade; it wants to be assured that bread is not wanting in the peasant’s or worker’s cottage. It knocks at all doors, that of the palace as well as that of the hovel. It asks the rich as well as the poor: Up to what point are your needs satisfied both for necessities and luxuries?

And as it discovers that the most pressing needs of nine-tenths of each nation are not satisfied, it asks itself the question that a physiologist would ask himself about a plant or an animal:—”Which are the means to satisfy the needs of all with the least loss of power? How can a society guarantee to each, and consequently to all, the greatest sum of satisfaction?” It is in this direction that economic science is being transformed; and after having been so long a simple statement of phenomena interpreted in the interest of a rich minority, it tends to become a science in the true sense of the word—a physiology of human societies.

While a new philosophy—a new view of knowledge taken as a whole—is thus being worked out, we may observe that a different conception of society, very different from that which now prevails, is in process of formation. Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises, giving at the same time a forecast as regards its future, both conceived in the same spirit as the above mentioned interpretation in natural sciences. Anarchism, therefore, appears as a constituent part of the new philosophy, and that is why anarchists come in contact on so many points with the greatest thinkers and poets of the present day.

In fact it is certain that in proportion as the human mind frees itself from ideas inculcated by minorities of priests, military chiefs and judges, all striving to establish their domination, and of scientists paid to perpetuate it, a conception of society arises in which there is no longer room for those dominating minorities. A society entering into possession of the social capital accumulated by the labor of preceding generations, organizing itself so as to make use of this capital in the interests of all, and constituting itself without reconstituting the power of the ruling minorities. It comprises in its midst an infinite variety of capacities, temperaments and individual energies: it excludes none. It even calls for struggles and contentions; because we know that periods of contests, so long as they were freely fought out without the weight of constituted authority being thrown on one side of the balance, were periods when human genius took its mightiest flights and achieved the greatest aims. Acknowledging, as a fact, the equal rights of its members to the treasures accumulated in the past, it no longer recognizes a division between exploited and exploiters, governed and governors, dominated and dominators, and it seeks to establish a certain harmonious compatibility in its midst—not by subjecting all its members to an authority that is fictitiously supposed to represent society, not by trying to establish uniformity, but by urging all men to develop free initiative, free action, free association.

Kropotkin A pamphlet

It seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.

A society to which pre-established forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course—these forces themselves promoting the energies which are favorable to their march towards progress, towards the liberty of developing in broad daylight and counterbalancing one another.

This conception and ideal of society is certainly not new. On the contrary, when we analyze the history of popular institutions—the clan, the village community, the guild and even the urban commune of the middle ages in their first stages—we find the same popular tendency to constitute a society according to this idea; a tendency, however, always trammelled by domineering minorities. All popular movements bore this stamp more or less, and with the Anabaptists and their forerunners in the ninth century we already find the same ideas clearly expressed in the religious language which was in use at that time. Unfortunately, till the end of the last century, this ideal was always tainted by a theocratic spirit. It is only nowadays that the conception of society deduced from the observation of social phenomena is rid of its swaddling-clothes.

It is only today that the ideal of a society where each governs himself according to his own will (which is evidently a result of the social influences borne by each) is affirmed in its economic, political and moral aspects at one and the same time, and that this ideal presents itself based on the necessity of communism, imposed on our modern societies by the eminently social character of our present production.

In fact, we know full well today that it is futile to speak of liberty as long as economic slavery exists. “Speak not of liberty—poverty is slavery!” is not a vain formula; it has penetrated into the ideas of the great working-class masses; it filters through all the present literature; it even carries those along who live on the poverty of others, and takes from them the arrogance with which they formerly asserted their rights to exploitation.

Peter Kropotkin

Anarchist Sky

Bakunin: What is the State (1871)

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

In March 1871, just after the proclamation of the Paris Commune, Michael Bakunin prepared a summary of his revolutionary principles, setting forth his critique of authority, his social conception of freedom, and his critique of the State. I included similar material from Bakunin in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, but the following passage on the State succinctly sets forth Bakunin’s position.

What is the State?

What is the State? It is the historic organization of authority and tutelage, divine and human, extended to the masses of people in the name of some religion, or in the name of the alleged exceptional and privileged ability of one or sundry property-owning classes, to the detriment of the great mass of workers whose forced labour is cruelly exploited by those classes.

Conquest, which became the foundation of property right and of the right of inheritance, is also the basis of every State. The legitimized exploitation of the labour of the masses for the benefit of a certain number of property-owners (most of whom are fictitious, there being only a very small number of those who exist in reality) consecrated by the Church in the name of a fictitious Divinity which has always been made to side with the strongest and cleverest—that is what is called right. The development of prosperity, comfort, luxury, and the subtle and distorted intellect of the privileged classes—a development necessarily rooted in the misery and ignorance of the vast majority of the population—is called civilization; and the organization guaranteeing the existence of this complex of historic iniquities is called the State.

So the workers must wish for the destruction of the State…

The State, necessarily reposing upon the exploitation and enslavement of the masses, and as such oppressing and trampling upon all the liberties of the people, and upon any form of justice, is bound to be brutal, conquering, predatory, and rapacious in its foreign relations. The State—any State, whether monarchy or republic—is the negation of humanity. It is the negation of humanity because, while setting as its highest or absolute aim the patriotism of its citizens, and placing, in accordance with its principles, above all other interests in the world the interests of its own self-preservation, of its own might within its own borders and its outward expansion, the State negates all particular interests and the human rights of its subjects as well as the rights of foreigners. And thereby the State violates international solidarity among peoples and individuals, placing them outside of justice, and outside of humanity…

The State is the younger brother of the Church. It can find no other reason for its existence apart from the theological or metaphysical idea. Being by its nature contrary to human justice, it has to seek its rationale in the theological or metaphysical fiction of divine justice. The ancient world lacked entirely the concept of nation or society, that is, the latter was completely enslaved and absorbed by the State, and every State deduced its origin and its special right of existence and domination from some god or system of gods deemed to be the exclusive patron of that State. In the ancient world man as an individual was unknown; the very idea of humanity was lacking. There were only citizens. That is why in that civilization slavery was a natural phenomenon and the necessary basis for the fruits of citizenship.

When Christianity destroyed polytheism and proclaimed the only God, the States had to revert to the saints from the Christian paradise; and every Catholic State had one or several patron saints, its defenders and intercessors before the Lord God, who on that occasion may well have found himself in an embarrassing position. Besides, every State still finds it necessary to declare that the Lord God patronizes it in some special manner.

Metaphysics and the science of law, based ideally upon metaphysics but in reality upon the class interests of the propertied classes, also sought to discover a rational basis for the fact of the existence of the State. They reverted to the fiction of the general and tacit agreement or contract, or to the fiction of objective justice and the general good of the people allegedly represented by the State.

According to the Jacobin democrats, the State has the task of making possible the triumph of the general and collective interests of all citizens over the egoistic interests of separate individuals, communes and regions. The State is universal justice and collective reason triumphing over the egoism and stupidity of individuals. It is the declaration of the worthlessness and the unreasonableness of every individual in the name of the wisdom and the virtue of all. It is the negation of fact, or, which is the same thing, infinite limitation of all particular liberties, individual and collective, in the name of freedom for all—the collective and general freedom which in reality is only a depressing abstraction, deduced from the negation or the limitation of the rights of separate individuals and based upon the factual slavery of everyone.

In view of the fact that every abstraction can exist only inasmuch as it is backed up by the positive interests of a real being, the abstraction, the State, in reality represents the positive interests of the ruling and property owning, exploiting, and so-called intelligent classes, and also the systematic immolation for their benefit of the interests and freedom of the enslaved masses.

Michael Bakunin, March 25-30, 1871


Blasting the Anarchist Canon


The current online issue of Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies (ADCS) is called “Blasting the Canon,” with articles debating the whole concept of an “anarchist canon,” that is whether anarchism can be defined in terms of foundational or “canonical” texts. I don’t think so. Anarchism is not like Marxism, which must relate somehow to the writings and theories of Karl Marx. It is a collective and evolving product of countless individuals in a wide variety of circumstances.

As I wrote in the conclusion to my three volume anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, “what I hope to have demonstrated in the material included in this anthology is that there is indeed an anarchist current running throughout human history, from the nonhierarchical sensibilities and social relationships found among people living in stateless societies, to the nonhierarchical and anti-authoritarian worldviews of the Daoists and various religious sects, heretics and free thinkers, to literary and popular utopias with their visions of freedom and well-being, to the radical egalitarianism of the anarchist currents in the English and French revolutions, to landless peasants and indigenous peoples, to artisans and workers resisting industrialization and factory discipline, to artists seeking freedom of expression, to students and draft resisters, to women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people struggling against patriarchy and heterosexism, to the discriminated, dispossessed and all manner of people seeking sexual and social liberation.”

I was given a maximum of 1000 words in the “Blasting the Canon” issue of ADCS to respond to the claim of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, that there is an anarchist canon, which consists of nothing other than the class struggle anarchism that can be traced back to Michael Bakunin and his Alliance of Socialist Democracy. Van der Walt wrote a rejoinder that was over twice as long, which he has now posted online, in what can only be described as an ongoing campaign not only to redefine anarchism to exclude any anarchist currents which cannot trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the Alliance, but to discredit any contrary views.

Unfortunately, the online version of my brief piece contained some typographical errors. Accordingly, I am posting the original version here.


The Anarchist Tradition

In their critique of the so-called “seven sages” approach to anarchism in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Counter-Power, Volume 1, Schmidt and van der Walt claim that there “is only one anarchist tradition, and it is rooted in the work of Bakunin and the Alliance” of Socialist Democracy (2009: 71). This is the tradition of “class struggle” anarchism, which for Schmidt and van der Walt is not merely “a type  of anarchism; in our view, it is the only anarchism” (2009: 19). This is an extraordinary claim, based upon a historicist definition of anarchism which excludes even Proudhon, the originator of the doctrine and the first self-proclaimed anarchist, from “the broad anarchist tradition,” by which Schmidt and van der Walt really mean the more narrow tradition of class struggle anarchism (2009: 18). According to this approach, the “broad anarchist tradition” is really nothing more than a form of socialism, one which is libertarian and revolutionary (2009: 6). Anarchism, as a distinct doctrine, disappears, subsumed under the socialist rubric.

That there are different schools of anarchist thought does not mean that only one of them qualifies as “anarchist,” no more than the fact that there are many different schools of socialist thought means that only one of them qualifies as “socialist,” although the Marxists used to think so. Schmidt and van der Walt argue that their narrow definition of anarchism makes anarchism a coherent doctrine because differing conceptions of anarchism with contrary ideas are now excluded from the very definition of anarchism. But if anarchism is just a form of socialism, and there are differing conceptions of socialism, then any definition of socialism that encompasses these competing and sometimes contradictory conceptions of socialism is similarly deficient. If only one body of thought can qualify as anarchist, to avoid charges of “incoherence,” then only one body of thought can qualify as socialist.

But Schmidt and van der Walt accept that there are competing and contrary conceptions of socialism, including anarchism and Marxism. If both anarchism and Marxism can be considered forms of socialism, despite their many differences, then there is no reason why there cannot be different forms of anarchism. Just as Marxism may be an internally coherent theory of one kind of socialism, without that entailing that contrary conceptions of socialism, such as “class struggle” anarchism, cannot be “socialist,” so can different conceptions of anarchism be internally coherent, even though they may be contrary to each other to greater and lesser degrees, and still remain “anarchist.”

Marx and Bakunin

Marx and Bakunin

Schmidt and van der Walt then conflate anarchism with self-described anarchist movements, so that anarchism cannot but be the ideas expressed and embodied by these movements, which they claim all trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the First International (2009: 44-46). Anyone who cannot trace his or her ideological roots back to this family tree does not qualify as an “anarchist.” This is a completely circular argument, and a problematic way to approach the study of anarchist ideas and movements.

If anarchism is whatever Bakunin and his associates said it was, then of course Bakunin and his associates qualify as anarchists. But if other people develop conceptions of anarchism contrary to that of Bakunin and the Alliance, then they don’t qualify as anarchists,  even if they did so around the same time as Bakunin, or even before him, as in the case of Proudhon (2009: 83-85). Gustav Landauer, whose communitarian anarchism was heavily influenced by Proudhon and Tolstoy, both of whom Schmidt and van der Walt exclude from the anarchist canon, cannot be considered an anarchist because he was not a Bakuninist. Anarchism then becomes a much more narrow body of thought, from which no significant departures or modifications can be made without risking one’s status as an “anarchist,” much as what happened with Marxism, inhibiting any significant innovation as anarchism must remain within the general confines of its “original” formulation. This turns anarchism from a living tradition into an historical relic.

While Schmidt and van der Walt exclude Proudhon from the “broad” anarchist tradition, Bakunin and Kropotkin certainly did not do so. Bakunin praised Proudhon for “boldly [declaring] himself an anarchist,” and described his own revolutionary anarchism as “Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences” (Lehning, Selected Writings of Michael Bakunin, 1974: 100 & 198). Kropotkin similarly observed that Proudhon “boldly proclaimed Anarchism and the abolition of the State” (Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, 1995: 56).

Proudhon the Anarchist

Proudhon the Anarchist

There are other ways of defining anarchism, including recognizing that there may be different “anarchisms,” which allow for anarchism to be conceived as a truly “broad” tradition of thought comprising different schools, currents and tendencies, something which Kropotkin acknowledged, having participated in the formulation and refinement of anarchist views, including the movement away from Bakunin’s collectivism to anarchist communism, the debates between the insurrectionists and the syndicalists, the disagreements over direct action and propaganda by the deed, the role of technology and the nature of post-revolutionary society.

Later anarchists, such as Landauer, were aware of these debates and participated in some of their own, developing new ideas and approaches incorporating elements from the anarchists who preceded them, often in a very conscious manner, but also departing from them in significant respects. For them, anarchism was a broad and living tradition, always subject to change, not restricted to the general form initially developed in the particular historical circumstances of the First International.

Gustav Landauer

Gustav Landauer

Post Script

Van der Walt’s claim that Landauer does qualify as an anarchist because he was martyred during the 1919 Bavarian Revolution cannot go unanswered. Landauer certainly qualifies as an anarchist under my approach, but he was not a “class struggle anarchist,” in which case, under the Black Flame approach, despite his martyrdom he does not qualify as an anarchist. His economic views were based on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism. Black Flame excludes both Proudhon and mutualism from the anarchist canon. With respect to the means of action, Landauer was a proponent of non-violent or “passive” resistance, inspired by the political writings of Leo Tolstoy, who is also excluded from Schmidt and van der Walt’s “anarchist canon.” Landauer did not think much of Marx’s “class analysis” and rejected his theory of historical materialism, which provided the basis for Marx’s claims, rejected by Landauer, that the working class was destined to abolish capitalism and class society as part of the process of technological and economic development spurred on by capitalism (see the selections from Landauer in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939)).

anarchism volume 1


Free Pussy Riot


Amnesty International is trying to organize an international day of solidarity for the imprisoned Russian punk-feminists, Pussy Riot, for June 10, 2013, to coincide with the broadcast of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary film about Pussy Riot and their persecution by Russian authorities:

In support of Pussy Riot, I previously posted Michael Bakunin’s classic critique of the relationship between church and state, a critique which appears to hold true in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia. For many more of Bakunin’s anarchist writings, see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot


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