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


Kropotkin on Christmas

Kropotkin santa

Every year I usually post something by Kropotkin around December 21st (his birthday) but this year I was a bit too busy. Someone else beat me to reposting this article by Ruth Kinna about Kropotkin’s views regarding Christmas and Santa Claus, which reminded me to do so as well. Is the true spirit of Christmas the Spirit of Revolt?

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

An Anarchist Guide to Christmas

It’s no surprise to discover that anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin was interested in Christmas. In Russian culture, St. Nicholas (Николай Чудотворец) was revered as a defender of the oppressed, the weak and the disadvantaged. Kropotkin shared the sentiments. But there was also a family link. As everyone knows, Kropotkin could trace his ancestry to the ancient Rurik dynasty that ruled Russia before the upstart Romanovs and which, from the first century CE, controlled the trade routes between Moscow and the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas’s branch of the family had been sent out to patrol the Black Sea. But Nicholas was a spiritual man and sought an escape from the piracy and brigandage for which his Russian Viking family was famed. So he settled under a new name in the southern lands of the Empire, now Greece, and decided to use the wealth that he had amassed from his life of crime to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

Unpublished archival sources recently discovered in Moscow reveal that Kropotkin was fascinated by this family tie and the striking physical similarity between himself and the figure of Father Christmas, popularised by the publication of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in 1823.

Kropotkin was not quite so portly as Klaus, but with a cushion stuffed up his tunic, he felt he could pass. His friend Elisée Reclus advised him to drop the fur trim on the outfit. That was a good idea as it would also allow him to wear a bit more black with the red. He’d decided to follow Elisée’s advice on the reindeer, too, and to use a hand driven sleigh. Kropotkin wasn’t normally given to dressing up. But exploiting the resemblance to spread the anarchist message was excellent propaganda by the deed.

Anticipating V, Kropotkin thought that we could all pose as Santa Claus. On the edge of one page Kropotkin writes: “Infiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”

Faint remnants on the back of a postcard read:

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

His project notes also reveal some valuable insights into his ideas about the anarchistic features of Christmas and his thinking about the ways in which Victorian Christmas rituals might be adapted.

“We all know”, he wrote, “that the big stores – John Lewis, Harrods and Selfridges – are beginning to exploit the sales potential of Christmas, establishing magic caves, grottos and fantastic fairylands to lure our children and pressurise us to buy gifts that we do not want and cannot afford”.

“If you are one of us”, he continued, “you will realise that the magic of Christmas depends on Father Christmas’s system of production, not the stores’ attempts to seduce you to consume useless luxuries”. Kropotkin described the sprawling workshops at the North Pole, where elves worked all year, happily because they knew that they were producing for other peoples’ pleasure. Noting that these workshops were strictly not-for profit, craft-based and run on communal lines, Kropotkin treated them as prototypes for the factories of the future (outlined in Fields, Factories and Workshops).

Some people, he felt, thought that Father Christmas’s dream to see that everyone received gifts on Christmas day, was quixotic. But it could be realised. Indeed, the extension of the workshops – which were quite expensive to run in the Arctic – would facilitate generalised production for need and the transformation of occasional gift-giving into regular sharing. “We need to tell the people”, Kropotkin wrote, “that community workshops can be set up anywhere and that we can pool our resources to make sure that everybody has their needs met”!

Kropotkin santa B & W

One of the issues that most bothered Kropotkin about Christmas was the way in which the inspirational role that Nicholas’s had played in conjuring Christmas myths had confused the ethics of Christmas. Nicholas was wrongly represented as a charitable, benevolent man: saintly because he was beneficent. Absorbed in the figure of Father Christmas, Nicholas’s motivations for giving had become further skewed by the Victorian’s fixation with children.

Kropotkin didn’t really understand the links, but felt that it reflected an attempt to moralise childhood through a concept of purity that was symbolised in the birth of Jesus. Naturally he couldn’t imagine the creation of the Big Brother Santa Claus who knows when children are asleep and awake and comes to town apparently knowing which have dared to cry or pout.

But sooner or later, he warned, this idea of purity would be used to distinguish naughty from nice children and only those in the latter group would be rewarded with presents.

Whatever the case, it was important both to recover the principle of Nicholas’ compassion from this confusing mumbo-jumbo and the folkloric origins of Santa Claus. Nicholas gave because he was pained by his awareness of other peoples’ hardship. Though he wasn’t an assassin (as far as Kropotkin knew), he shared the same ethics as Sofia Petrovskaya. And while it was obviously important to worry about the well-being of children, the anarchist principle was to take account of everyone’s suffering.

Similarly, the practice of giving was mistakenly thought to require the implementation of a centrally-directed plan, overseen by an omniscient administrator. This was quite wrong: Father Christmas came from the imagination of the people (just consider the range of local names that Nicholas had accrued – Sinterklaas, Tomte, de Kerstman). And the spreading of good cheer – through festivity – was organised from the bottom up.

Buried in Christmas, Kropotkin argued, was the solidaristic principle of mutual aid.

Kropotkin appreciated the significance of the ritual and the real value that individuals and communities attached to carnivals, acts of remembrance and commemoration. He no more wanted to abolish Christmas than he wished to see it republicanised through some wrong-headed bureaucratic re-ordering of the calendar.

It was important, nonetheless, to detach the ethic that Christmas supported from the singularity of its celebration. Having a party was just that: extending the principle of mutual aid and compassion into everyday life was something else. In capitalist society, Christmas provided a space for special good behaviours. While it might be possible to be a Christian once a year, anarchism was for life.

Kropotkin realised his propaganda would have the best chance of success if he could show how the anarchist message was also embedded in mainstream culture. His notes reveal that he looked particularly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to find a vehicle for his ideas. The book was widely credited with cementing ideas of love, merriment and goodwill in Christmas. Kropotkin found the genius of the book in its structure. What else was the story of Scrooge’s encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future than a prefigurative account of change?

By seeing his present through his past, Scrooge was given the chance to alter his miserly ways and re-shape both his future and the future of the Cratchit family. Even if it was only remembered once a year, Kropotkin thought, Dickens’s book lent anarchists a perfect vehicle to teach this lesson: by altering what we do today, by modelling our behaviours on Nicholas, we can help construct a future which is Christmas!

Ruth Kinna is the editor of the journal Anarchist Studies and professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University. She is the author of Anarchism: A Beginners Guide and also William Morris: The Art of Socialism. This article was originally published by STRIKE! magazine.

Peter-Kroptkin birthday