Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

Bakunin: Beware Anarchist!

Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

This is my more detailed reply to René Berthier’s defence of his claim that the anarchist movements that emerged in the 1870s from the struggles and debates within the International Workingmen’s Association constituted some kind of break with Bakunin’s revolutionary socialism. My title is a play on Augustin Souchy’s autobiography, Beware Anarchist! A Life of Freedom. Souchy was a German anarcho-syndicalist and anti-militarist. His best known book in English is probably With the Peasants of Aragon, in which he describes the revolutionary collectives in the Aragon region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.


Recently, René Berthier, or a friend of his, posted on my blog and other anarchist websites some comments directed against two of my recent posts: first, a selection of quotations from Bakunin in which he clearly identifies himself as an anarchist who advocated some form (or forms) of anarchy; and second, Max Nettlau’s 1935 biographical sketch of James Guillaume, in which Nettlau criticizes Guillaume’s claim that the true inheritors of Bakunin’s legacy were the revolutionary syndicalists. One of Nettlau’s main points was that Bakunin never limited himself to advocating syndicalist methods; he also advocated insurrection and the revolutionary commune. To Nettlau, Bakunin’s anarchism was broader than Guillaume’s revolutionary syndicalism, and cannot be reduced to it; although Bakunin’s anarchism contained syndicalist elements, it also contained much more than that.

It is neither “conventional, conservative” nor being “deprived of critical spirit” to criticize Berthier’s revisionist view of Bakunin, and his claim that there is some kind of break, conceptual, tactical or otherwise, between Bakunin and the anarchists who came after him. In fact, it is not even possible to argue that many of these anarchists came after Bakunin — they came with him during the conflicts within the International over the proper direction of European working class movements for self-emancipation. Malatesta clearly comes to mind, as do Reclus, Cafiero, and the Spanish anarchists who fought with Bakunin within the International against the Marxists and Blanquists and, outside of the International, against the bourgeois republicans, the Mazzinians, the neo-Jacobins, the reformists and the state socialists.

Now let’s deal with the Bakunin quotations that Berthier tries to discount in order to support his claim that there was a break between Bakunin’s “revolutionary socialism” and the self-proclaimed anarchist groups and movements of the 1870s (and beyond).

First, he corrects the Maximoff translation of a letter in Italian where Bakunin in fact referred to “anarchy” instead of “anarchism.” Fair enough. Then he emphasizes the use by Bakunin of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense, meaning disorder or chaos. This doesn’t have much bearing on whether Bakunin can be described as an anarchist, or whether the self-proclaimed anarchists of the 1870s advocated something so distinctive from what Bakunin advocated that Berthier can show that there was a “break” between them and Bakunin. Even if Bakunin only advocated “anarchy” in a negative sense, without giving it any positive content, that would still make him some kind of anarchist.

The first problem with the argument regarding Bakunin’s use of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense is that Bakunin regarded anarchy or disorder as something that was inevitable during revolutionary upheavals. Consequently, rather than seeking to suppress anarchy in this sense, as revolutionary governments inevitably sought to do, Bakunin invoked this kind of anarchy as a destructive force that revolutionaries could use to sweep away the existing social order. Anarchy, as destructive force, actually played, or should play, a positive role in the revolutionary process. It is both a destructive and a creative force. One cannot dismiss this aspect of Bakunin’s thought simply by referring to it as “questionable” Hegelian dialectics.

Looking at some of the quotations I relied on, one can see, sometimes in the same passage, how Bakunin refers to anarchy in both a negative and a positive sense, as a destructive and creative force, and as the end result of the revolutionary process. Let’s begin by focusing on three passages that Berthier singles out to show how mistaken I was to rely on them in order to show that Bakunin was an anarchist.

The first is the passage regarding “anarchy,” in the sense of disorder, leading either to enslavement or to the full emancipation of the people (Berthier simply ignores the latter part of the quotation, which I have italicized):

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.

Thus, anarchy as a destructive force can destroy a particular state, but that destruction can lead to two diametrically opposed things: it may ultimately result in another state enslaving the country in which the state has been destroyed, as in Poland, or it may lead to something altogether different, the complete emancipation of the people. Because Bakunin sought to avoid the replacement of one state by another, foreign or otherwise, his argument was that revolutionaries should harness the destructive power of anarchy not only to destroy the state but to ensure that the end result was not the reconstitution of the state, but its permanent abolition, the full emancipation of the people and the abolition of classes, a positive form of anarchy.

This is made clear by the second passage Berthier focuses on, the passage that I used as part of the title to my book on the First International and the origins of the anarchist movement:

“We do not fear anarchy, 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. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.”

Berthier suggests that this quotation constituted a poor choice for the title to my book about the International because in it, Bakunin is supposedly using the word “anarchy” in a purely negative sense, as nothing more than “the chaos following the collapse of a social system.” But if one reads the passage carefully, Bakunin defines “anarchy” as the positive result of the revolutionary upheaval, “the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people,” not simply the means to create that “liberated life.” “Anarchy,” conceived as the realization of the liberated life of the people, springs from (i.e. is the result of) liberty, equality, the new social order and the force of the revolution itself. Besides lending itself as a catchy title to a book, this passage shows that Bakunin used anarchy in a positive sense to describe the result of a successful revolution, not simply in a more negative sense of either chaos or destructive force.

The third passage is the one where I relied on Maximoff’s translation of “anarchy” into “anarchism.” However, even after making that correction, the passage still constitutes a use by Bakunin of “anarchy” in a more positive sense, not in the sense of “chaos,” as Berthier claims:

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.”

What is the “system of Anarchy” of which Bakunin writes? It is the republic as a socialist commune and federation, the “free organization of the people… from below upward, by means of a federation.” This is a positive form of anarchy. But “anarchy” is also “the abolition of the State,” which is only a negative form of “anarchy” in the sense that destruction is the negation of something existing (the state), but the result is not something negative, either “anarchy” in the sense of chaos or a reconstituted state, but something positive, the federation of socialist communes.

Thus, a close examination of these passages shows that it is Berthier, not me, who “most of the time (not always, though) misinterprets what Bakunin really says.”

Consider also the very title to Bakunin’s last published work, Statism and Anarchy. Surely Bakunin was not arguing that the alternative to Statism was anarchy conceived as disorder, chaos and destruction.

Berthier also claims that “Bakunin felt really uneasy” in using the word “anarchist.” However, at another point he says instead that when Bakunin used the words “anarchy” or “anarchist,” he felt it “necessary to add an explanation, as if the concept was not immediately understandable by the reader.” This latter explanation makes more sense, and does not imply any kind of “uneasiness” on Bakunin’s part. At the time Bakunin wrote these various passages, largely between 1868 and 1873, the only “anarchist” with whom anyone would likely have been familiar would have been Proudhon, who distanced himself from his anarchist stance of the 1840s in his later works, for a variety of reasons (police censorship, pessimism regarding the prospect for positive social change, and so forth).

There were no anarchist movements, nor very many people who identified themselves as anarchists. Anarchist ideas were in the process of development by Bakunin and others. As most people would be unfamiliar with anarchist ideas, and would naturally assume that “anarchy” only meant chaos and disorder, it became necessary for the early revolutionary anarchists, including Bakunin, to explain what they meant when they described themselves as such.

Bakunin first described himself as an anarchist in the Italian paper, Libertà e Giustizia, in September 1867, when he distinguished himself from Pan-Slavists, describing them as “unitarians at all costs, always preferring public order to freedom”; whereas, Bakunin wrote, “I am an anarchist and prefer freedom to public order” (W. Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism, p. 453, n. 47). And we see in the passages that I cited in my earlier post that Bakunin continued to identify himself as an anarchist in order to distinguish his views from those of his political opponents, whether Pan-Slavists, Blanquists, Marxists, Mazzini or other supporters of some kind of state power.

Since Bakunin’s death, other anarchists have continued to use the label to distinguish themselves from other revolutionaries, citing many of the same grounds cited by Bakunin: preferring freedom to “public order” (see for example Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” in Words of a Rebel); advocating “anarchy” as both a method and as a goal (Malatesta, in his pamphlet, Anarchy, among many other writings); rejecting any participation in bourgeois politics; rejecting the state, even as a transitional power; rejecting a privileged role for the urban or industrial proletariat; and rejecting government by legislation and the so-called “rule of law.” This is what made these anarchists either Bakunin’s comrades in arms, for those who were his contemporaries, or his ideological successors.

I would like to conclude with some remarks regarding Berthier’s argument that the anarchists of the 1870s broke with Bakunin’s advocacy of a “pluralist” International. While Bakunin certainly opposed the International adopting a compulsory political program, he also lobbied incessantly for his own anarchist program, not to impose it on others, but to convince them to adopt it. His position is illustrated by this quotation from a fragment from the Knouto-Germanic Empire (Oeuvres, Vol. 6, p. 430):

“A political program has value only when, coming out of vague generalities, it determines precisely the institutions it proposes in place of those which it wants to overthrow or reform. Such is the program of Mr. Marx. It is a complete scaffolding of highly centralized and authoritarian economic and political institutions, no doubt sanctioned, like all despotic institutions in modern society, by universal suffrage, but nevertheless subjected to a very strong government, to use the expressions of Mr. Engels, the alter ego of Mr. Marx, the confidant of the legislator.

“But why is it precisely this program that is supposed to be officially introduced, necessarily, in the statutes of the International? Why not the Blanquists? Why not ours? Could it be because Mr. Marx invented it? That is not a reason. Or because the workers of Germany seem to accept it? But the anarchic program is accepted, with very few exceptions, by all the Latin Federations; the Slavs will never accept any other.”

It was around this time that Bakunin wrote the program for the Slav Section of the International in Zurich, which expressly accepted “the Anarchist revolutionary programme,” and called for the “abolition of all States.” There can be no question regarding Bakunin’s role in convincing many Spanish, Italian, Swiss, French and Russian members of the International to adopt an anarchist stance.

Furthermore, it was Bakunin himself who wrote the St. Imier Congress resolutions in September 1872 that:

“the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government… ”

Therefore, “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat,” and “any organization whatsoever of a self-styled provisional and revolutionary political authority for the purpose of ensuring such destruction can be nothing but another fraud, and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as any government now in existence” (reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).

From the outset, the anti-authoritarian International adopted an anti-statist position, making it difficult for any sections allied with Marx to participate, and it was Bakunin who authored the resolutions that helped to create that difficulty (of course, Marx and Engels put pressure on the social democratic Internationalists to boycott the anti-authoritarian International in any event). The resolutions at the 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International were not really any different in substance from the resolutions Bakunin wrote for the St. Imier Congress five years earlier. The Verviers delegates simply made it clear that in addition to rejecting the state and so-called “revolutionary” government, they also rejected, as had Bakunin himself, the socialist political parties that hoped to achieve political power.

The Belgians who had already moved toward a social democratic position, such as Caesar De Paepe, did not even attend the Verviers Congress, instead choosing to attend the Socialist congress in Ghent. However, in the Verviers region itself, many of the Internationalists continued to support an anarchist approach. The rejection of socialist political parties at the Verviers Congress simply confirmed what was already happening–the Internationalists who had decided to follow the electoral path no longer saw a need for an international association of workers, instead choosing to focus their energies on political activities within their own countries; whereas many of the anarchists who remained in the anti-authoritarian International, such as Malatesta and Kropotkin, continued to see a useful role for the International.

The anarchists did not drive De Paepe and other Belgians out of the International — rather De Paepe and many of the other Belgian Internationalists no longer believed that the International and working class organizations to which its members belonged, from resistance and mutual aid societies to cooperatives and trade unions, formed the “embryo” of the future socialist society. Rather, as De Paepe himself said at the 1874 Brussels Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, “the reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, the organization of the state from below upwards, instead of being the starting point and the signal of the revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result.”

Consequently, De Paepe argued that “the proletariat of the large towns” would be compelled “to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population… for a sufficiently long period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class” (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 211). De Paepe and other Internationalists had adopted a view virtually indistinguishable from that of Marx, a view to which Bakunin was completely opposed (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 130).

Who remained in the International who agreed with Bakunin’s anti-statism, his rejection of participation in bourgeois politics, the creation of autonomous working class organizations that would provide the basis for workers’ self-management, and the use of insurrectionary means, as well as general strikes, to abolish the state and capitalism in order to create a socialist society based on equality and freedom for all? The anarchists. And it is simply untrue that the anarchists in the anti-authoritarian International were all anti-organizationalists who rejected anything other than affinity group forms of organization.

Even Paul Brousse, who argued against having any kind of coordinating centre for the anti-authoritarian International, was still an advocate of the revolutionary commune (incidentally, Bakunin agreed with the view that the anti-authoritarian International should not have a central coordinating agency, because “[s]ooner or later it would be without fail transformed into a sort of government” — ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 205). The majority of the Spanish anarchists continued to advocate a trade union based working class movement committed to achieving “anarchy” in a positive sense, as did many of the Italian anarchists, such as Malatesta, and some of the French anarchists (see Chapters 9 through 11 of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’).

Robert Graham


We Still Do Not Fear Anarchy

we do not fear the book cover

This month marks several noteworthy anniversaries: the suppression of the Paris Commune, the Haymarket affair, and Bakunin’s birthday (May 18 on the old Russian calendar; May 3o on the modern calendar), among others. It has also been about a year since the publication of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement (AK Press). I discussed the roles of both Bakunin and the Paris Commune in the emergence of self-proclaimed anarchist movements in Europe and the Americas in that book. The quote in the title is taken from Bakunin himself, who first publicly identified himself as an anarchist in 1868, around the time that he joined the International. It is surprising then that in another book along similar lines, Social Democracy & Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864 – 1877, René Berthier argues that the anarchist movements that emerged from the struggles within the International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements constituted a break with rather than a continuation of “Bakuninism,” and that Bakunin is better described as a revolutionary socialist or syndicalist than as an anarchist. I think my book provides a good counter-argument to that position. I also included several selections from Bakunin’s anarchist writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas But this is a blog, not a book, so today I thought I would just present some quotations from Bakunin in which he identifies himself as an anarchist and describes what he is advocating as a form of anarchism, in terms of tactics, methods, means and ends.

bakunin on anarchism

Bakunin’s Anarchism

“We do not fear anarchy, 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. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.” [Program of the International Brotherhood]

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.” [Circular Letter to My Friends in Italy]

“I am the absolute enemy of a revolution by decrees, which is the application of the idea of a revolutionary State and a sequel of it; that is, a reaction disguised by revolutionary appearances. As against the system of revolutionary decrees I oppose the system of revolutionary action, the only effective, consistent, and true system. The authoritarian system of decrees, in seeking to impose freedom and equality, destroys them. The Anarchist system of action evokes and creates them in an infallible manner, without the intervention of any official or authoritarian violence whatever. The first leads inevitably to the ultimate triumph of an outspoken reaction. The second system establishes the Revolution on a natural and unshakable foundation.” [Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis]

“Let us turn now to the Socialists, who divide into three essentially different parties. First of all, we shall divide them into two categories: the party of peaceful or bourgeois Socialists, and the party of Social Revolutionists. The latter is in turn subdivided into revolutionary State Socialists and revolutionary Anarchist-Socialists, the enemies of every State and every State principle.” [World Revolutionary Alliance of Social Democracy (Berlin: Verlag, 1904)]

“To the Communists, or Social Democrats, of Germany, the peasantry, any peasantry, stands for reaction; and the State, any State, even the Bismarckian State, stands for revolution… Altogether, the Marxists cannot even think otherwise: protagonists of the State as they are, they have to damn any revolution of a truly popular sweep and character especially a peasant revolution, which is anarchistic by nature and which marches straightforward toward the destruction of the State. And in this hatred for the peasant rebellion, the Marxists join in touching unanimity all the layers and parties of the bourgeois society of Germany.” [Statism and Anarchy]

“Since revolution cannot be imposed upon the villages, it must be generated right there, by promoting a revolutionary movement among the peasants themselves, leading them on to destroy through their own efforts the public order, all the political and civil institutions, and to establish and organize anarchy in the villages.”

“When the peasants have felt and perceived the advantages of the Revolution, they will give more money and people for its defense than it would be possible to obtain from them by ordinary State policies or even by extraor­dinary State measures. The peasants will do against the Prussians what they did in 1792. For that they must become obsessed with the fury of resistance, and only an Anarchist revolution can imbue them with that spirit.”

“But in letting them divide among themselves the land seized from the bourgeois owners, will this not lead to the establishment of private property upon a new and more solid foundation? Not at all, for that property will lack the juridical and political sanction of the State, inasmuch as the State and the whole juridical insti­tution, the defense of property by the State, and family right, including the law of inheritance, necessarily will have to disappear in the terrific whirl­wind of revolutionary anarchy. There will be no more political or juridi­cal rights—there will be only revolutionary facts.”

“Once the wealth of the rich people is not guaranteed by laws, it ceases to be a power. Rich peasants are now powerful because they are specially protected and courted by the functionaries of the State and became they are backed up by the State. With the disappearance of the State, this backing and power also will disappear. As to the more cun­ning and economically stronger peasants, they will have to give way before the collective power of the peasant mass, of the great number of poor and very poor peasants, as well as the rural proletarians—a mass which is now enslaved and reduced to silent suffering, but which revolutionary anarchy will bring back to life and will arm with an irresistible power.” [Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis]

“We revolutionary anarchists who sincerely want full popular emancipation view with repugnance another expression in this [Social Democratic] program – it is the designation of the proletariat, the workers, as a class and not a mass. Do you know what this signifies? It is no more nor less than the aristocratic rule of the factory workers and of the cities over the millions who constitute the rural proletariat, who, in the anticipations of the German Social Democrats, will in effect become the subjects of their so-called People’s State.” [Letter to La Liberté]

“The road leading from concrete fact to theory and vice versa is the method of science and is the true road. In the practical world, it is the movement of society toward forms of organization that will to the greatest possible extent reflect life itself in all its aspects and complexity.

Such is the people’s way to complete emancipation, accessible to all—the way of the anarchist social revolution, which will come from the people themselves, an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge the new creative forms of social life.”

“We, the revolutionary anarchists, are the advocates of education for all the people, of the emancipation and the widest possible expansion of social life. Therefore we are the enemies of the State and all forms of the statist principle. In opposition to the metaphysicians, the positivists, and all the worshippers of science, we declare that natural and social life always comes before theory, which is only one of its manifestations but never its creator.”

“Such are our ideas as social revolutionaries, and we are therefore called anarchists. We do not protest this name, for we are indeed the enemies of any governmental power, since we know that such a power depraves those who wear its mantle equally with those who are forced to submit to it. Under its pernicious influence the former become ambitious and greedy despots, exploiters of society in favor of their personal or class interests, while the latter become slaves.”

“Our polemic had the effect of making them [the Marxist Social Democrats] realize that freedom or Anarchy, that is, the free organization of workers from below upward, is the ultimate aim of social development, and that every State, their own people’s State included, is a yoke, which means that it begets despotism on one hand and slavery on the other.”

“They say that this State yoke—the dictatorship—is a necessary transi­tional means in order to attain the emancipation of the people: Anarchy or freedom is the goal, the State or dictatorship is the means. Thus to free the working masses, it is first necessary to enslave them.”

“While the political and social theory of the anti-State Socialists or Anarchists leads them steadily toward a full break with all governments, and with all varieties of bourgeois policy, leaving no other way out but a social revolution, the opposite theory of the State Communists and scientific authority also inevitably draws and enmeshes its partisans, under the pretext of political tactics, into ceaseless compromises with governments and political parties; that is, it pushes them toward downright reaction.” [Statism and Anarchy]

“Between the Marxists and ourselves there is an abyss. They are the governmentalists; we are the anarchists, in spite of it all.” [Letter to La Liberté]

“In accepting the Anarchist rev­olutionary program, which alone, in our opinion, offers conditions for a real and complete emancipation of the common people, and convinced that the existence of the State in any form whatever is incompatible with the freedom of the proletariat, and that it does not permit the international fraternal union of nations, we therefore put forth the demand for the abolition of all States.” [Program of the Slav Section (Zurich) of the International]

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.” [Science and the Urgent Revolutionary Task]

“In a word, we reject all legislation- privileged, licensed, official, and legal — and all authority, and influence, even though they may emanate from universal suffrage, for we are convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the vast majority in subjection to them. It is in this sense that we are really Anarchists.” [God and the State]

bakunin on freedom