Bakunin Bicentennial (1814-2014)

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

May 2014 (May 18 on the old Russian calendar; May 30 on today’s calendar) marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the founder’s of the anarchist movement, Michael Bakunin. Over the course of the year, I posted several selections from Bakunin in honour of his anniversary, which I have now assembled on this page. I previously created a page setting forth Bakunin’s essay on “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State.” 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.

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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

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Shawn Wilbur is working on a “Bakunin Library,” translating Bakunin’s major works into English. Below, I reproduce 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.

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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

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. 

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

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Published on August 7, 2015 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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