Mikhail Bakunin Introduction - Essay


Mikhail (Alexandrovich) Bakunin 1814-1876

(Also transliterated as Michael; see also Aleksandrovich) Russian political philosopher and social activist.

For further information on Bakunin's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 25.

Recognized as one of the founders of anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin is remembered for his central role as architect and perpetrator of revolution in nineteenth-century Europe. His fervor to see social revolution take place made him one of the most active radicals of the century, sometimes driving him to travel from country to country in pursuit of the rebellion that would spark continental revolution. Articulating himself in a variety of forms, including lectures, pamphlets, journal articles, and an extensive correspondence, Bakunin contributed to the development of philosophical and political anarchism with disquisitions on revolutionary aims and means, and plans for social reorganization. Through both his actions and his writings, he became a model and a leader to many revolutionaries, spearheading substantial movements in Italy and Switzerland. While Bakunin's anarchist vision of the overthrow of reigning powers in Europe was largely superseded by the ideological program of Marxism, his stated goals—the destruction of institutional government and the creation of a federation of cooperative communities—have continued to influence radical thought.

Biographical Information

Bakunin's youth reflected his position in Czarist Russia, where he was born into an aristocratic family with liberal sympathies. After an initial education at home, Bakunin entered a military academy at fifteen and took commission as an officer at eighteen. During his two years of active duty he developed an interest in philosophy and, obtaining an early release, determined to find himself an intellectual community. In 1836 he moved to Moscow, where he studied German philosophy and associated with various writers and intellectuals. He pursued his philosophical education further in Berlin, beginning in 1840, hoping ultimately to return to Moscow to teach philosophy at the university. By 1842, however, his interests had taken on an explicitly political and radical bent, which aroused the suspicion of his home government. When he published the political tract "Die Reaction in Deutschland" (1842; "Reaction in Germany"), Russian authorities—alarmed by its incendiary content and his association with German communist Wilhelm Weitling—ordered Bakunin to return home. When he refused, he was sentenced in absentia to an indefinite term of hard labor in Siberia.

As a phase in the development of Bakunin's political thought, the years from 1842 to 1863 roughly represent his nationalist or "pan-Slavic" period. As revolution appeared to rage throughout Europe in the 1840s, Bakunin saw the opportunity for people of all Slavic countries to throw off their largely monarchical regimes. Living in Paris during much of this time, he became acquainted with several leading revolutionaries, including Karl Marx and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, both of whom influenced him profoundly, although he would ultimately find himself in dire conflict with Marx. After participating in the Paris Revolution of 1848, Bakunin went east to join the revolutionary uprisings in Prague and Dresden, where he hoped to instigate a unified Slavic rebellion. His ambitions were cut short when Dresden authorities captured him and sentenced him to death. He was granted a reprieve, however, and extradited to Russia, where he began to serve a life sentence. At the invitation of Czar Nicholas I, and in the hopes of having his sentence reduced, Bakunin penned an autobiographical statement called the Ispoved' (1851) or Confession, a controversial work in which he combined a candid record of his subversive activities and revolutionary thought with self-recrimination and pleas for the czar's leniency. Despite the Confession, his sentence was not altered until 1857 when, under Alexander IPs rule, he was exiled to Siberia for life. There, he married, enjoyed a congenial relationship with the governor of the district, who was also a distant relative, and was afforded considerable freedom to travel. In 1861 he capitalized on this laxity and, in a daring escape, made his way to London via Japan and the United States.

In London, Bakunin resumed his efforts for Slavic unification, contributing essays in support of the 1863 Polish uprising to Alexander Herzen's periodical Kolkol (The Bell). When the Polish rebellion failed, Bakunin moved to Italy and shifted his focus from Slavic issues to international anarchism. He also succeeded in his efforts to organize groups of revolutionaries, beginning in Naples where he founded the International Brotherhood in 1865. The revolutionary principles Bakunin articulated for this group exemplified the form his anarchism took—stressing the need to abolish government, organized religion, and private property, and advocating conspiracy and violence as the means for change. When that association dissolved in 1867, Bakunin moved on to Switzerland, where he founded the International Alliance of Social Democracy. Through this latter organization he sought in 1869 his first formal alliance with the International Workingmen's Association, a largely socialist organization founded in 1864 and defined heavily by the leadership of Karl Marx. For a time Bakunin carried some weight in the International, informally heading anarcho-communist factions from Italy, France, Switzerland, and Spain. Ultimately, however, Bakunin and his followers found themselves at odds with the majority faction led by Marx on the key issue of how power ought to be distributed following a successful revolution. Bakunin argued that the communist state envisioned by Marx, in which the workers held power, would be no less corrupt than the governments they sought to overthrow; this conflict also betrayed a struggle between the two leaders for the control of the International. That competition came to an end in 1872, when Marx engineered a coup by scheduling the Congress for Hague, a location to which Bakunin and many anarchists could not travel; a formal expulsion went through in the absence of Bakunin and his delegates.

While Bakunin tirelessly formed another association and continued to pursue an agenda of political agitation, he was increasingly plagued by poor health and financial problems. Exhausted after his endeavors in the unsuccessful Bologna uprising of 1874, he spent his final years in poverty and illness. Allegations of misspent funds and revelation of the treachery of his one-time associate Sergei Nachaev added to his distress. Bakunin died in 1876.

Major Works

Unlike most major political philosophers, Bakunin has to his credit no clear and extended explanation of his political ideas. His writing was prolific, but never sustained. His contributions to political thought exist instead in short pieces—letters, pamphlets, articles, and lectures—most of which he wrote to address specific events or circumstances. Some of these pieces nonetheless influenced the shape of anarchism in particular, and progressive nineteenth-century politics in general. His "Reaction in Germany," his first significant work, concluded with a statement—"The passion for destruction is also a creative passion"—that many anarchists later adopted as a kind of motto. The idea expressed here, recuperating the requisite destructiveness of revolution as something ultimately positive, underpinned Bakunin's later work and the work of many subsequent revolutionaries. The piece has also received critical attention for its clear demonstration of Bakunin's debt to the "Young Hegelians," who were revising the dialectics of Hegel for their own purposes. His "Appeal to the Slavs" of 1848 represents the major statement of his pan-Slavic period, but also contains seeds of the internationalist perspective necessary to his developing anarchism.

He produced other articles in the 1840s, but it wasn't until his imprisonment in 1851 that Bakunin penned his next significant work. The Confession has been particularly controversial in the Bakunin legacy, since the context in which he wrote required circumspection. The Czar, apparently hoping for both repentance and names of co-conspirators, requested that Bakunin write him a letter documenting his revolutionary activities. Bakunin, apparently hoping for some reduction in his sentence, complied. The autobiographical document that he produced, however, both did and did not meet the Czar's expectations. On the surface, Bakunin acknowledged the criminality of his actions; nonetheless, he offered no clear apology for either his actions or his convictions. Those convictions achieved their first explicitly anarchist form after Bakunin's release from prison; when he attended the Congress for Peace and Freedom in 1867, he presented the assembly with his address on Federalism, Socialism, and Anti-Theologism (1867).

Two pieces entitled "Revolutionary Catechism" have been attributed to Bakunin, one on solid grounds and the other on dubious. The first, composed circa 1866, constitutes Bakunin's statement to his Italian followers, the International Brotherhood, and delineates the aims and mode of revolution that he considered appropriate to anarcho-communism. The second, probably written in or before 1870, may have been written with Sergei Nachaev or just by Nachaev alone. Since its discovery in 1870, Bakunin's enemies and detractors have tried to attribute it to him, since its content is so violent as to lose the sympathy of even most anarchists. His defenders, in turn, have tried to dissociate him from the diatribe. Other pamphlets of uncertain origin, but associated with Bakunin and Nachaev, include "How the Revolutionary Question Presents Itself and "Principles of Revolution."

Most of the works that have garnered critical attention came from the last six years of Bakunin's life, during the height of his conflict with Marx. One such document was the 30,000-word Letters to a Frenchman, composed in the early 1870s in response to the Franco-Prussian War. Later edited into six ordered sections by James Guillaume for publication, the document became one of the most lucid statements of Bakunin's thought. Two other pieces, probably the most important from Bakunin's corpus, also come from this period: L 'empire knouto-germanique et la révolution sociale and Statism and Anarchy. The first, composed from 1870 to 1871, exemplifies much of Bakunin's written work. Begun as a pamphlet, it quickly took on the dimensions of a book, but never reached completion. Later editors, putting aside the many revisions, fragments, and addenda, extracted a coherent section and published it as God and the State. First published in French in 1882, the fundamental explanation of government and religion as mechanisms of oppression went on to become Bakunin's most reproduced work, translated into more than ten languages and published around the world. Statism and Anarchy, composed in 1873, was Bakunin's last major work, appropriately reflecting on the events of the previous years, particularly the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War and Marx's victory over Bakunin for control of the International. While this work was also incomplete, critics have also found it less fragmented than much of Bakunin's other works; translator Marshall B. Shatz even dubbed it "quite artfully constructed."

Critical Reception

While the two other significant anarchists of the nineteenth-century—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin—are generally hailed as the seminal thinkers of the philosophy, Bakunin's reputation as a thinker and writer has come second to his reputation as an activist. The great majority of commentators have maintained that he formulated no coherent system, pointing to his inability to produce sustained statements of his political philosophy. Even his admirers often hold this view, including Bertrand Russell, who remarked in 1919 that Bakunin's works were hurried and therefore "lack . . . literary order." Russell also made the charge, echoed by many others, that Bakunin focused almost exclusively on the destructive aspect of revolution and neglected to think through the post-revolutionary society that follows. Isaiah Berlin's 1955 comparison of Bakunin with another Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, represents the harshest critique of Bakunin: while the critic found the "power of cogent and lucid destructive argument . . . extraordinary," he also dismissed it as derivative of eighteenth-century philosophes and dubbed it "glib Hegelian claptrap." Other scholars have agreed that Bakunin's works only synthesize and translate the theories of other philosophers into a form more conducive to activism. The negative critique of Bakunin took another form in psychological studies, including biographies by Arthur Mendel and Aileen Kelly, both of which reduce Bakunin's political commitments to the sublimated seepings of an unresolved oedipal complex.

Another, more positive strand of commentary has persisted, however, usually sustained by avowedly anarchist critics, including historian George Woodcock. This revaluation has gained pace in recent criticism, exemplified in the work of Robert Cutler and Brian Morris. Morris, for example, sought in his 1993 study to demonstrate a consistency and rigor across the body of Bakunin's work, refuting the perspective that dominated for most of the preceding century.