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Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 21 Jan 2019

The Russian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin was an important founding figure in collectivist anarchism and an uncompromising opponent of capitalism, private property, religion and the state. He famously described himself as a ‘fanatical lover of liberty’.

A minor Russian noble by birth, Bakunin was subsequently radicalised and combined revolutionary activism with the writing of books and articles that called for a collectivist anarchist society. His political ideas were influential, notably in shaping the anarchist experiments in the Ukraine (1917) and Spain (1936-39). Bakunin’s major works include God and the State (1871) and Statism and Anarchy (1873).

For Bakunin, the state is a ‘vast slaughterhouse’ or ‘enormous cemetery’ - an illegitimate, artificial and imposed form of authority that crushes personal freedom. In his view, the state leads to economic centralisation, the concentration of political power, and social control via religion, resulting in the destruction of individual liberties and the domination of an oppressive ruling elite over the rest of the people. Furthermore, he argues, the state promotes militarism and expansionism so violence, exploitation, subjugation and injustice become central to its self-preservation and the society it controls. Bukharin rejects Marxist arguments for the creation of a temporary workers’ state because, from an anarchist perspective, even the short-term retention of a post-capitalist state will simply lead to a new system of political and economic domination under another corrupt and oppressive ruling elite. The history of the USSR and the Soviet Eastern Bloc certainly tends to bear Bakunin out on this point. Therefore, the state has to be replaced with a new liberated and equal social order based on collective labour and ownership, voluntary associations and free federations.

Religion, according to Bakunin’s thinking, reinforces state oppression. A belief in God undermines independent thought and encourages acceptance of divine authority. In turn, such religious faith serves the state by promoting ignorance and social conservatism. Consequently, the deeply anti-clerical Bakunin regards the church and the state as illegitimate (and interlinked) institutions of control and calls for both of them to be abolished by violence if necessary. Some have suggested that his anti-religious attitudes shaped anarchist hostility to Catholicism during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s when churches were destroyed and priests executed.

Bakunin opposes all forms of parliamentary politics as fraudulent and corrupt since representative government is a sham, leading only to oppressive elite rule and statism. Instead, he advocates the immediate destruction of the state and argues that industrial workers, rural labourers and the lumpenproletariat (marginalised groups such as the unemployed and the poor) will free themselves through spontaneous revolutionary acts. Indeed, Bakunin possesses an almost mystical faith in violent revolution as a great cleansing and transformative force. He maintains that the revolutionary will of the people will be triggered by a strategy of 'propaganda by the deed' - actions such as targeted violence, mass strikes, refusal to pay taxes and rejection of conscription that are designed to ignite a spirit of popular revolt against the state. Propaganda by the deed will serve as a catalyst for widespread social revolution from below, thereby emancipating and galvanising the people and exposing the oppressive and corrupt nature of the state. Nevertheless, although Bakunin stresses that revolution will take place ‘from the bottom up and from the periphery to the centre’, he also argues that small conspiratorial secret societies and professional revolutionaries will inspire and lead the revolt of the masses.

Humans, in Bakunin’s estimation, are rational and autonomous with an innate capacity to think and rebel. At the same time, he emphasises that humans are naturally social creatures. People are humanised and liberated by the society they live in - existing outside society would deprive people of these benefits. Society also creates the morality and justice that is essential for human development. Bukharin further argues that humans can liberate themselves from the constraints of the external world only through collective work. An individual can attain autonomy and develop their character only in a social context. Thus, social solidarity is fundamental to human nature since ‘man is born into society, just as an ant is born into an ant-hill and a bee into its hive’.

According to Bakunin, following the revolution people will be able to construct an ordered and free stateless society in line with ‘true’ human nature. Based on federalism, this ‘bottom up’ society will comprise of voluntary associations or communes of free and equal individuals (both men and women) liberated from the shackles of patriarchy and the rights of inheritance. Under such collective arrangements, individuals will voluntarily abide by the laws of nature (e.g. empathy and respect for others and human sociability) and, since no coercion is involved to make them do this, they will therefore retain their freedom. This ‘collective’ freedom will encourage social solidarity and create a moral, just and self-regulating society. Bakunin also calls for collectivisation in the economy. He maintains that common ownership of the means of production, such as land, factories and workshops, and the abolition of private property will promote liberty and equality and remove exploitation and privilege. Collective ownership of wealth is justified because collective labour produces this wealth. Distribution within these rural and industrial associations will be based on work done, measured in labour time, and not need. Since everyone will be given the means to earn a living and will not be dependent on anyone else, property rights have to be held collectively by a community of equals and not owned by individuals. Relations between these associations will be conducted on a mutually beneficial basis through a free agreement and exchange system that recognises the real worth of goods and services.

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