Bakunin: May St. Nicholas Not Be Forgotten


It’s that time of year again. For those living in Europe and the Americas, particularly North America, the Christmas season is in full swing (it seems to get started now right after Halloween). Despite being a fervent atheist, Michael Bakunin managed to say a few kind words about St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) during his critique of religion in his classic essay, God and the State (Kropotkin also liked the myth of St. Nicholas). In this passage, Bakunin unpacks the ideological implications of the Christian doctrine of humanity’s fall from grace: subservience to the idea of God. Hence, in perhaps the best known passage from God and the State, Bakunin reverses Voltaire’s famous aphorism that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him, declaring instead that “If God really did exist, it would be necessary to abolish him!”

From the Fall of Man to the Fall of God

History, in the system of the idealists, as I have said, can be nothing but a continuous fall. They begin by a terrible fall, from which they never recover – by the salto mortale; from the sublime regions of pure and absolute idea into matter. And into what kind of matter! Not into the matter which is eternally active and mobile, full of properties and forces, of life and intelligence, as we see it in the real world; but into abstract matter, impoverished and reduced to absolute misery by the regular looting of these Prussians of thought, the theologians and metaphysicians, who have stripped it of everything to give everything to their emperor, to their God; into the matter which, deprived of all action and movement of its own, represents, in opposition to the divine idea, nothing but absolute stupidity, impenetrability, inertia and immobility.

The fall is so terrible that divinity, the divine person or idea, is flattened out, loses consciousness of itself, and never more recovers it. And in this desperate situation it is still forced to work miracles ! For from the moment that matter becomes inert, every movement that takes place in the world, even the most material, is a miracle, can result only from a providential intervention, from the action of God upon matter. And there this poor Divinity, degraded and half annihilated by its fall, lies some thousands of centuries in this swoon, then awakens slowly, in vain endeavouring to grasp some vague memory of itself, and every move that it makes in this direction upon matter becomes a creation, a new formation, a new miracle. In this way it passes through all degrees of materiality and bestiality – first, gas, simple or compound chemical substance, mineral, it then spreads over the earth as vegetable and animal organization till it concentrates itself in man. Here it would seem as if it must become itself again, for it lights in every human being an angelic spark, a particle of its own divine being, the immortal soul.

How did it manage to lodge a thing absolutely immaterial in a thing absolutely material; how can the body contain, enclose, limit, paralyze pure spirit? This, again, is one of those questions which faith alone, that passionate and stupid affirmation of the absurd, can solve. It is the greatest of miracles. Here, however, we have only to establish the effects, the practical consequences of this miracle.

After thousands of centuries of vain efforts to come back to itself, Divinity, lost and scattered in the matter which it animates and sets in motion, finds a point of support, a sort of focus for self-concentration. This focus is man his immortal soul singularly imprisoned in a mortal body. But each man considered individually is infinitely too limited, too small, to enclose the divine immensity; it can contain only a very small particle, immortal like the whole, but infinitely smaller than the whole. It follows that the divine being, the absolutely immaterial being, mind, is divisible like matter. Another mystery whose solution must be left to faith.

If God entire could find lodgment in each man, then each man would be God. We should have an immense quantity of Gods, each limited by all the others and yet none the less infinite – a contradiction which would imply a mutual destruction of men, an impossibility of the existence of more than one. As for the particles, that is another matter; nothing more rational, indeed, than that one particle should be limited by another and be smaller than the whole. Only, here another contradiction confronts us. To be limited, to be greater and smaller are attributes of matter, not of mind. According to the materialists, it is true, mind is only the working of the wholly material organism of man, and the greatness or smallness of mind depends absolutely on the greater or less material perfection of the human organism. But these same attributes of relative limitation and grandeur cannot be attributed to mind as the idealists conceive it, absolutely immaterial mind, mind existing independent of matter. There can be neither greater nor smaller nor any limit among minds, for there is only one mind – God. To add that the infinitely small and limited particles which constitute human souls are at the same time immortal is to carry the contradiction to a climax. But this is a question of faith. Let us pass on.

Here then we have Divinity torn up and lodged, in infinitely small particles, in an immense number of beings of all sexes, ages, races, and colours. This is an excessively inconvenient and unhappy situation, for the divine particles are so little acquainted with each other at the outset of their human existence that they begin by devouring each other. Moreover, in the midst of this state of barbarism and wholly animal brutality, these divine particles, human souls, retain as it were a vague remembrance of their primitive divinity, and are irresistibly drawn towards their whole; they seek each other, they seek their whole. It is Divinity itself, scattered and lost in the natural world, which looks for itself in men, and it is so demolished by this multitude of human prisons in which it finds itself strewn, that, in looking for itself, it commits folly after folly.

Beginning with fetishism, it searches for and adores itself, now in a stone, now in a piece of wood, now in a rag. It is quite likely that it would never have succeeded in getting out of the rag, if the other divinity, which was not allowed to fall into matter and which is kept in a state of pure spirit in the sublime heights of the absolute ideal, or in the celestial regions, had not had pity on it.

Here is a new mystery – that of Divinity dividing itself into two halves, both equally infinite, of which one – God the Father – stays in the purely immaterial regions, and the other – God the Son – falls into matter. We shall see directly, between these two Divinities separated from each other, continuous relations established, from above to below and from below to above; and these relations, considered as a single eternal and constant act, will constitute the Holy Ghost. Such, in its veritable theological and metaphysical meaning, is the great, the terrible mystery of the Christian Trinity.

But let us lose no time in abandoning these heights to see what is going on upon earth.

God the Father, seeing from the height of his eternal splendour that the poor God the Son, flattened out and astounded by his fall, is so plunged and lost in matter that even having reached human state he has not yet recovered himself, decides to come to his aid. From this immense number of particles at once immortal, divine, and infinitely small, in which God the Son has disseminated himself so thoroughly that he does not know himself, God the Father chooses those most pleasing to him, picks his inspired persons, his prophets, his “men of virtuous genius,” the great benefactors and legislators of humanity: Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Lycurgus, Solon, Socrates, the divine Plato, and above all Jesus Christ, the complete realiztion of God the Son, at last collected and concentrated in a single human person; all the apostles, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint John before all, Constantine the Great, Mahomet, then Charlemagne, Gregory VII Dante, and, according to some, Luther also, Voltaire and Rousseau, Robespierre and Danton, and many other great and holy historical personages, all of whose names it is impossible to recapitulate, but among whom I, as a Russian, beg that Saint Nicholas may not be forgotten.

Then we have reached at last the manifestation of God upon earth. But immediately God appears, man is reduced to nothing. It will be said that he is not reduced to nothing, since he is himself a particle of God. Pardon me! I admit that a particle of a definite, limited whole, however small it be, is a quantity, a positive greatness. But a particle of the infinitely great, compared with it, is necessarily infinitely small. Multiply milliards of milliards by milliards of milliards – their product compared to the infinitely great, will be infinitely small, and the infinitely small is equal to zero. God is everything; therefore man and all the real world with him, the universe, are nothing. You will not escape this conclusion.

Michael Bakunin


Bakunin on Liberty, Equality and Democracy (1866)

Recently I have been posting material on anarchy and democracy, and liberty and equality (or “equaliberty,” as Tomás Ibáñez (and others) would put it). Seeing as it was just Bakunin’s birthday (May 30th – happy 203rd birthday Mikhail!), I thought it appropriate to post these excerpts, translated by the inestimable Shawn Wilbur, from Bakunin’s 1866 “Revolutionary Catechism.” The “Catechism” is noteworthy on a number of grounds. While Bakunin did not yet identify himself as an anarchist when this was written, he advocates a form of what I have described elsewhere as federative, associational direct democracy, a form of democracy without the state, having as its basis “the completely autonomous commune.” Bakunin expressly calls for the abolition of classes and the state. He draws the connection between religious belief in a (patriarchal) personal god and the “principle of authority,” rejecting both, while at the same time defending the right to one’s personal beliefs and freedom of association. He advocates complete equality between men and women, and the abolition of the patriarchal “legal” family. While he was later to develop a more sophisticated critique of political organization, moving towards a more fluid conception of voluntary federation as associations of productive, communal and functional groups transcending national boundaries, without any coercive authority within or above the associated groups, the Catechism (only a small portion of which I have included here  – for the complete version click here) sets forth the basic principles of what was to become Bakunin’s anarchism.

The Bakunin Library

Revolutionary Catechism

  1. Denial of the existence of a real, otherworldly, personal God, and consequently also of all revelation and all divine intervention in the affairs of the world and humanity. Abolition of the service and cult of the Divinity.
  2. Replacing the worship of God with respect and love for humanity, we affirm human reason as the sole criterion of truth; human conscience, as the basis of justice; and individual and collective liberty, as the sole creator of order for humanity.
  3. Liberty is the absolute right of every man or woman, having reached majority, to seek no other sanction for their actions than their own conscience and their own reason, to determine them only by their own will, and consequently to be responsible for them first only with regard to themselves, and then with regard to the society of which they are a part, but only in so far as they freely consent to be a part of it.
  4. It is not true that the liberty of one individual is limited by that of all the others. Man is only really free to the extent that his liberty, freely recognized and represented as in a mirror by the free consent of those others, finds confirmation and boundless expansion in their liberty. Man is truly free only among equally free men; and as he is free only by virtue of being human, the slavery of one single human being on earth, being an offense against the very principle of humanity, is a negation of the liberty of all.
  5. The liberty of each is thus realizable only in the equality of all. The realization of liberty through equality, by right and in fact, is justice.
  6. There exists only one single dogma, one single law, one single moral basis for me: it is liberty. To respect the liberty of one’s fellows, that is duty; to love, aid, and serve them, that is virtue.
  7. Absolute exclusion of every principle of authority and of the Reason of State.—Human society, having been originally a fact of nature, prior to liberty and to the awakening of human thought, later became a religious fact, organized according to the principle of divine and human authority, must today reconstruct itself on the basis of liberty, which must from now on become the sole constitutive principle of political and economic organization. Order in society must be the result of the greatest possible development of all the local, collective and individual liberties.
  8. Consequently, the political and economic organization of social life must begin—no longer as today from high to low, and from the center to the circumference, according to the principle of unity and forced centralization—but from low to high, and from the circumference to the center, according to the principle of free association and free federation.
  9. Political organization. It is impossible to determine a concrete, universal, and obligatory norm for the internal development and political organization of the nations; the existence of each nation being subordinated to a mass of different historical, geographical, and economic conditions, which will never allow us to establish a model of organization equally good and acceptable for all. Furthermore, any such enterprise, absolute devoid of practical utility, would detract from the richness and spontaneity of life which flourishes only in infinite diversity and, what is more, would be contrary to the very principle of liberty. There are, however, some absolute, essential conditions, in the absence of which the practical realization and organization of liberty will be forever impossible.

These conditions are:

A. The radical abolition of all official religions and of every Church privileged, or simply protected, funded and maintained by the State. Absolute liberty of conscience and propaganda for each, with the unlimited ability to raise as many temples as they please to whatever Gods they have, and to pay and support the priests of their religion.

B. The churches, considered as religious corporations, should never enjoy any of the political rights granted to the productive associations; nor could they inherit, nor possess goods in common, except for their houses or places of worship, and could never concern themselves with the education of children;—the only object of their existence being the systematic negation of morality and liberty, and the practice of a lucrative form of witchcraft.

C. Abolition of monarchyRepublic.

D. Abolition of classes, ranks, privileges, and all sorts of distinction.—Absolute equality of political rights for all men and women; universal suffrage.

E. Abolition, dissolution, and social, political, judiciary, bureaucratic and financial bankruptcy of the tutelary, transcendental, and centralist State, the double and alter ego of the Church, and as such, a permanent cause of impoverishment, brutalization, and enslavement for the people. As a natural consequence, Abolition of all state universities,—the task of public instruction must belong exclusively to the communes and free associations. Abolition of the State magistracy—all judges must be elected by the people. Abolition of all criminal and civil codes which are presently in force in Europe—because all of them, being equally inspired by the worship of God, of the State, of the religiously or politically sanctioned family, and of property, are contrary to human rights, and because the code of liberty can be created only by liberty itself. Abolition of the banks and all the other state institutions of credit. Abolition of all central administration, of the bureaucracy, of the permanent armies and the state police.

F. Immediate and direct election of all public functionaries, judicial and civil, as well as all the national, provincial, and communal representatives or counselors by the people, that is by universal suffrage of all adult individuals, male and female.

G. Internal reorganization of each country, taking for its point of departure and basis the absolute liberty of individuals, productive associations, and communes.

Michael Bakunin (1814 – 1876)