“We must first of all purify our atmosphere and transform completely the surroundings in which we live”
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was a charismatic anarchist pioneer, a tempestuous man of action who spotted, very early on, the authoritarian implications of Marx’s socialism and helped form the dissenting faction within the First International that became the anarchist movement.
He was a romantic revolutionary, whose sense of freedom rejected the state as “nothing else but the negation of humanity” (1) and yet went far beyond mere individualism.
Bakunin was repulsed by the sterility of the flat economic theories of Marx and his comrades, complaining in 1871 that they “want to see all human history, in the most idealistic manifestations of the collective as well as the individual life of humanity, in all the intellectual, moral, religious, metaphysical, scientific, artistic, political, juridical, and social developments which have been produced in the past and continue to be produced in the present, nothing but the reflections or the necessary after-effects of the development of economic facts”. (2)
For Bakunin, the desire for freedom, the will to revolt, was something innate within the human spirit and he accused the Marxists of ignoring a number of “natural traits”. These included “the intensity of the instinct of revolt, and by the same token, of liberty, with which it is endowed or which it has conserved”.
He added: “This instinct is a fact which is completely primordial and animal; one finds it in different degrees in every living being, and the energy, the vital power of each is to be measured by its intensity”. (3)
Bakunin attended lectures by the great nature-philosopher Friedrich Schelling and, although he later developed his own ideas in other directions, the influence remains clear.
For instance, in ‘Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism’ he wrote: “Nature, notwithstanding the inexhaustible wealth and variety of beings of which it is constituted, does not by any means present chaos, but instead a magnificently organized world wherein every part is logically correlated to all the other parts”. (4)
Elsewhere he declared that natural laws were the only kind that he was prepared to bow to: “Yes, we are unconditionally the slaves of these laws. But in such slavery there is no humiliation, or rather it is not slavery at all. For slavery presupposes the existence of an external master, a legislator standing above those whom he commands, while those laws are not extrinsic in relation to us: they are inherent in us, they constitute our nature, our whole being, physically, intellectually and morally.
“And it is only through those laws that we live, breathe, act, think and will. Without them we would be nothing, we simply would not exist”. (5)
Bakunin expanded on his radical organic vision in the essay ‘Philosophical Considerations’: “Whatever exists, all the beings which constitute the undefined totality of the Universe, all things existing in the world, whatever their particular nature may be in respect to quality or quantity – the most diverse and the most similar things, great or small, close together or far apart – necessarily and unconsciously exercise upon one another, whether directly or indirectly, perpetual action and reaction.
“All this boundless multitude of particular actions and reactions, combined in one general movement, produces and constitutes what we call Life, Solidarity, Universal Causality, Nature. Call it, if you find it amusing, God, the Absolute – it really does not matter – provided you do not attribute to the word God a meaning different from the one we have just established: the universal, natural, necessary, and real, but in no way predetermined, preconceived, or foreknown combination of the infinity of particular actions and reactions which all things having real existence incessantly exercise upon one another. Thus defined, this Universal Solidarity, Nature viewed as an infinite universe, is imposed upon our mind as a rational necessity”. (6)
For him, our belonging to nature and the Universe was not a negation of individual freedom but its fulfilment. He called for a liberty consisting of the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers latent in each person, “liberty that recognizes no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot properly be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator beside or above us, but are immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being”. (7)
Bakunin never imagined that the liberation of humankind would be easy or achieved by using the mechanisms provided by the capitalist system itself. On the subject of voting, he commented: “Men once believed that the establishment of universal suffrage would guarantee the freedom of the people. That, alas, was a great illusion.” (8)
Reforming current society, fighting for little changes here and there, would achieve nothing while the overall tyranny remained, he insisted. Revolution was needed to sweep away the whole rotten edifice.
“We must first of all purify our atmosphere and transform completely the surroundings in which we live, for they corrupt our instincts and our wills, they constrict our hearts and our intelligences”, (8) he wrote.
“There will be a qualitative transformation, a new living, life-giving revelation, a new heaven and a new earth, a young and mighty world in which all our present dissonances will be resolved into a harmonious whole.
“Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”. (9)
Audio link: ‘The Capitalist System’ by Mikhail Bakunin
1. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘The Bear of Berne and the Bear of St Petersburg’, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, ed. by G.P. Maximoff, (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964) p. 140.
2. Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State, trans. by K.J. Kenafick, (London: Freedom Press, 1990) p. 21.
3. Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 50.
4. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism’, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 55.
5. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution’, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 239.
6. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘Philosophical Considerations’, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 53.
7. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘La commune de Paris et la notion de l’État’, cit. Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism, ed. by Barry Pateman (Edinburgh, Oakland and West Virginia: AK Press, 2005), p. 122.
8. Mikhail Bakunin, Oeuvres, Vol II, 1907, The Anarchist Reader, ed. George Woodcock, (Glasgow: Fontana, 1986) p. 108.
8. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘Appeal to the Slavs’, cit. George Woodcock, Anarchism, (London: Penguin, 1979) p. 144.
9. Mikhail Bakunin, ‘Reaction in Germany’, cit. Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 139.