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Review of 'Mikhail Bakunin; the philosophical basis of his anarchism'

category international | history of anarchism | review author Tuesday April 19, 2005 20:14author by Brian Morris - published in Organise Report this post to the editors

By Paul McLaughlin Algora Publications, New York, 2002

Harassed, abused, jailed, denigrated, ridiculed, misunderstood in his own day, poor old Bakunin has long been treated by Marxists and liberal scholars alike in the most appalling and derogatory fashion.

In the pages of "Freedom", supposedly an anarchist newspaper, many correspondents have now jumped enthusiastically upon this anti-Bakunin bandwagon.

Its columns are thus full of petty criticisms and pathetic tirades against Bakunin, who is dismissed as a potential dictator, a Bolshevik no less, and a moral reprobate. Even worse, social anarchists - those dreadful atheists and materialists - are tarred with the same brush; accused of being wicked, nasty "fundamentalists", with their heads full of utopian "fantasies" This is because, unlike the spiritualists who place their faith in god, they are unable, as materialists, to face the openness and uncertainties of human life. These tirades, written from a theological perspective, are of course nothing new: these correspondents simply revamp criticisms of Bakunin and materialism that were made long, long ago by philosophical idealists, liberal savants and political reactionaries. Most of these criticisms are either malicious, or misplaced, or both.

A decade ago (1993) I wrote a short book on the remarkable life and political philosophy of Michael Bakunin, for in a real sense old Bakunin was one of the first to outline social anarchism as a coherent philosophy. I did not have any particular fondness for Bakunin, yet the idea that anyone expressing an interest in the ideas of Bakunin is thereby advocating a "great man" theory of history (suggested by one correspondent to "Freedom"), seems to me quite facile. Regurgitating the tired mantras and holy writ of such academic gurus as Laclau and Lyotard - who are by no stretch of the imagination anarchists - this correspondent seems himself to embrace the "great man" theory of history! No. What motivated me to write the book on Bakunin was the arrogant and despicable way in which the old anarchist had been treated by his liberal and Marxist critics, and the dismissive attitude of one "primitivist" who declared, in oracular fashion, that the ideas of Bakunin were "obsolete".

A recent correspondent in "Freedom" likewise boldly acclaims that Bakunin is now merely an "historical curio", and that we should therefore abandon his social anarchism - especially as it entails atheism and a materialist ontology. Much better to put our faith in god, seek spiritual redemption and thus find happiness in the "afterlife"! It is therefore not unusual to find in the pages of "Freedom" correspondents advocating sociobiology, possessive individualism and free-market capitalism; parliamentary democracy as a political strategy in order that anarchists may have more contemporary "relevance"; and these anti-Bakunin theologians who advocate spiritual redemption through faith in god. These, of course, constitute the "unholy trinity" - capitalism, state power, and religion - that Bakunin and other anarchists critiqued more than a century ago.

My book attempted to counter the more malevolent critiques of Bakunin - for Bakunin was not without his foibles, ethnic prejudices and political misjudgements - and to suggest the contemporary relevance of the ideas of this much maligned social anarchist, in the same way as the ideas of Darwin still have salience for evolutionary biologists.

In spite of the perverse anti- Bakunin sentiments expressed in the pages of "Freedom" there has in fact been a genuine renewal of interest in Bakunin in recent years, and this is reflected in Paul McLaughlin's excellent study of Bakunin's philosophy, which provides both a defence of Bakunin's ideas as against Marxist and liberal scholarship, and an interpretation of his philosophy. The book is focussed on the philosophical foundations of Bakunin's social thought, rather than on his anarchism, but it does offer a spirited (and scholarly) defence of Bakunin's philosophy, one that combines the logic of negative dialectics with an ontology of evolutionary naturalism. Like Murray Bookchin, the philosophy that Bakunin expressed in embryonic form can perhaps best be described as dialectical naturalism. This philosophy is not a crude form of mechanistic materialism; something that is completely lost on his theological detractors in "Freedom".

The critics of Bakunin

In my book I tried to defend Bakunin as against both his Marxist and liberal critics. Marx famously described Bakunin as a philosophical "ignoramus", and Marxists have invariably followed their mentor in describing Bakunin as a petit-bourgeois ideologist like Proudhon, or as a misguided romantic with a bent for destruction and secret societies, and pour scorn on Bakunin for his "elitist despotism". Hal Draper, for example, saw Bakunin as essentially a revolutionary brigand, whose politics involved little more than pillage, theft and murder, while Lichtheim wrote that all that Bakunin's anarchism entailed was a "chiliastic vision of an armed uprising that would smash state and society" (Morris 1993:136). Thankfully, McLaughlin continues and develops my defence of Bakunin and offers a strident critique of his Marxist critics, whom he felt were critical of Bakunin mainly because the anarchist had dared to challenge the philosophical doctrines and statist politics of their hero Marx. McLaughlin notes that the Marxist scholars who dismiss Bakunin as a "voluntarist" (in being ignorant of the political economy) or as an apolitical "bandit", never actually studied in depth the theoretical writings of Bakunin. McLaughlin focuses his own analysis on two Marxists scholars, George Lichtheim and Francis Wheen. Lichtheim, as noted, had portrayed Bakunin as a mindless revolutionary, a misguided romantic with an insatiable faith in the goodness of humankind, yet one who, nevertheless, was bent on "pan destruction".

This portrait of Bakunin McLaughlin fervently critiques, suggesting rather than being a hopeless romantic bent on destruction, Bakunin had his roots in the Enlightenment tradition, and that his main philosophical interests were in the development of Enlightenment naturalism and "anti-theologism"(4). With regard to Wheen's biography of Marx, which includes a chapter on Bakunin entitled "The Rogue Elephant", McLaughlin suggests that this chapter is simply a regurgitation of what Marxists have been writing about Bakunin for many decades, and that the truth value of the chapter approaches zero. The "superfluity of this work, the idiocy of its tone, and the poverty of its content overall" meant, for McLaughlin, that Wheen's account of Bakunin lacked any scholarly merit (5- 6).

Liberal scholars have been even more hostile to Bakunin. Eugene Pyziur, whom a "Freedom" correspond cites with glowing approval, also claimed that Bakunin was the "apostle of pan destruction" and thereby a precursor of Bolshevism; Bakunin's early biographer, E.H.Carr thought Bakunin an advocate of "extreme individualism", as in essence a Hegelian idealist, and as a precursor of Italian fascism; and the well-known liberal scholar Isaiah Berlin, in an essay that is biased, crude and highly prejudiced, in spite of Berlin's eloquence, declared that Bakunin, for all his love of humanity, was like Robespierre prepared to wade through "seas of blood" to achieve his political aims, and that Bakunin was thus akin to Attila and had a "fascist streak" (Morris 1993:73).

Even more biased and crude is Aileen Kelly's awful study of Bakunin, subtitled "a study in the psychology and politics of Utopianism". A "lackey" of Berlin's, Kelly is interested neither in Bakunin as a person, nor in his anarchism - which is dismissed as of "little merit". In fact her book, as I have described elsewhere, is simply one long diatribe against Bakunin, whom she portrays as fanatical, gullible, vindictive, megalomaniac, an idealist and romantic dilettante who lived in a fantasy world and was completely out of touch with reality. Bakunin she implied was a prototype of the alienated intellectual, an appellation that fits this Oxbridge scholar more easily than it does Bakunin (Morris 1993:3).

Throughout his book McLaughlin offers further refreshing, harsh and substantive critiques of the work of these liberal scholars, particularly Berlin and Kelly. Dismissing Berlin as a profoundly unoriginal thinker and an apologist for capitalism, McLaughlin notes that Berlin's famous distinction between positive and negative freedom is actually filched from Bakunin's own writings (17).

Kelly's study, though seemingly impressive and with the trappings of scholarship, McLaughlin argues is seriously flawed. Ignorant of philosophy, never seriously engaging with Bakunin's social anarchism, and ideologically and wilfully biased against Bakunin's socialism, Kelly's study of "utopian psychology" is a work, McLaughlin contends, of a liberal "fanatic" - full of bias, slander, puerile abuse, and intellectual naivety.

Kelly's invoking of the "Stalinist nightmare", and insinuating the idea that Bakunin was a Bolshevik in the making - a thesis also falsely propagated by Pyziur and a correspondent in "Freedom" - McLaughlin demonstrates that this notion is both unjust and slanderous, and stems from Kelly's "utter ignorance" of Bakunin's social anarchism, which actually provides a trenchant critique of the "Stalinist" tendencies inherent within Marxism (12).

McLaughlin's book consists only of two long chapters or parts: one on Bakunin's negative dialectics, the other on Bakunin's naturalism and his critique of theologism - which for Bakunin meant not only religious ideologies, now promoted in the pages of "Freedom", but also the idealist metaphysics of Kant and Hegel. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Negative Dialectics

As one of the Left-Hegelians, like Stirner and Marx, Bakunin, of course, was steeped in the philosophy of Hegel. According to McLaughlin, and contrary to Carr, Bakunin however did not fully embrace Hegelian metaphysics, for he repudiated both Hegel's idealism and his form of dialectics. For McLaughlin suggests that Bakunin's writings exemplify a revolutionary logic or negative dialectics in which negation is seen as a creative force - implying as Bakunin put it, a "sense of freedom", and as the one "true expression of justice and love" (Lehning 1973:43). In his well-known article "The Reaction in Germany", published anonymously in 1842 - the article Lehning suggests (1973:11) created a sensation in revolutionary circles in Germany - Bakunin offers a critique of what he calls the "reactionary party". Bakunin himself advocates "democracy" which for the anarchist entailed an opposition to government, and the total transformation of the socio-economic and political order, to herald "an original, new life which has not yet existed in history" (1973:39).

The reactionaries for Bakunin belonged to two types: the Consistent reactionaries ( or conservatives) who stood for the complete suppression of the negative ( the suppression, that is, of those like Bakunin who stood for democracy and the complete negation of the existing conditions), and Compomising reactionaries (or liberals) who attempted some sort of compromise or reconciliation between the positive (existing capitalism and government) and the negative - that is, democracy or the revolutionary critique.

Discussing this article at some length, McLaughlin notes that Bakunin, using Hegelian terminology, is essentially concerned with exploring the contradiction between the reactionary principle - the positive thesis of unfreedom - and its antithesis, the negative principle of freedom. But for Bakunin, McLaughlin argues, the dialectical process is not viewed as sublation, or as a positive dialectic (as with Hegel, Marx and Comte), still less as a "synthesis", but rather negation in itself is seen as an affirmative or creative principle - expressed as the principle of freedom or democracy (49).

Contradiction for Bakunin thus represents not a mediation nor an equilibrium but the "preponderance of the negative" (1973:49). In Bakunin's version of the dialectic there is no synthesis, for the negative itself is seen as an "affirmative, creative principle", one that would engender a "new, affirmative and organic reality". Thus the slogans of the French revolution liberte, egalite and fraternite, were understood by Bakunin as implying the complete negation of the political and social world of the nineteenth century. The article concludes with the famous words "the passion for destruction is a creative passion, too" (1973:58).

These words, McLaughlin argues, have been seriously misunderstood, for they did not imply mindless destruction, nor even nihilism, but rather Bakunin's negative logic, which implied the affirmation of freedom and the democratic order (30). Negation for Bakunin is thus an affirmation not a mediation or sublation - an affirmation of creativity and freedom. McLaughlin thus repudiates entirely Kelly's attempt to foister upon Bakunin a triadic conception of history, which implied a "fall" from some mythical golden age of primitive harmony, and the eventual restoration of this harmony in some vision of a utopian society. For Bakunin expressed no nostalgia for some primitive golden age, and any speculations regarding some futuristic society Bakunin regarded as reactionary (55). As Bakunin expressed it in "Statism and Anarchy":
"Even the most rational and profound science cannot divine the form social life will take in the future. It can determine only the negative conditions, which follow logically from a rigorous critique of existing society" (1990: 198).

McLaughlin thus regards Kelly's attempt to portray Bakunin as a utopian thinker as quite "absurd". Even so, correspondents to "Freedom" are still peddling the same messianic thesis.

Bakunin's naturalism

The second part of McLaughlin's book gives a very good outline of Bakunin's evolutionary naturalism as well as of Bakunin's theory of religion, for in an important sense Bakunin's naturalism is very much bound up with his critique of "theologism" - which embraces both religious ideologies and philosophical idealism. In Bakunin's nature philosophy nature, understood as universal causality, and reality are synonymous, Bakunin making a distinction between the natural world (as actualized) and nature as universal causality, that is, the possibilities inherent or imminent in the natural, material world.(105). Materialism and naturalism, for McLaughlin, essentially have the same meaning, and he emphasizes that for Bakunin nature is dynamic, with "movement ..of its own"(107). Influenced by Diderot, Feuerbach, Comte and Darwin, Bakunin's dialectical or evolutionary naturalism thus repudiates both theologism (idealism) and mechanistic materialism.

It is a philosophy that is characterized by the belief that "life always precedes thought" and that objective or natural Being is always ontologically prior to human subjectivity; and that from an epistemological standpoint dialectical thinking precedes philosophical or theological speculation (33). In contrast metaphysics, or what McLaughlin calls anthropocentrism, articulates the belief that thought and human subjectivity precede life and the objective natural world. Noting that Kantian metaphysics is radically opposed to naturalistic philosophy in its anthropocentrism, and given the subjectivist reactions of Kierkegaard, Stirner and the neo-Kantians against post- Hegelian philosophy, McLaughlin notes that much contemporary philosophy (whether Nietzschean, phenomenological, structuralist, post- structuralist, pragmatist or post-Marxist), besides being scholastic and obscurantist, is "absolutely antithetical to the naturalist tradition" to which Bakunin belongs. In spite of their radical pretences, much contemporary philosophy, Mclaughlin affirms, is both philosophically and politically reactionary (68). Even Marx, McLaughlin argues, given his undue emphasis on social mediation, is essentially closer to Kant than Hegel and thus there is a Kantian strand in his materialism (16).

Given the close association between Bakunin's naturalism and his atheism McLaughlin devotes a great deal of discussion to Bakunin's theory of religion, as well as to Feuerbach's philosophy. Indeed, Feuerbach's critique of theology and speculative philosophy had an important influence on Bakunin.

Although religious consciousness may have been important in the development of human culture and in the affirmation of humanity, Bakunin was highly critical of the religion of his day, particularly Christianity, and for two reasons. Firstly, it is hostile to science and entails the abdication of human reason: and secondly, it involves the negation of human liberty (141), particularly in having a symbiotic relationship with political power. The latter is expressed in the oppression and exploitation of the mass of people by various functionaries - priests, monarchs, gendarmes, capitalists, entrepreneurs and politicians of every shade (148). Thus although Bakunin follows Hegel in viewing religion or the "divine idea" as the product of human consciousness, he also emphasizes the inadequacy of religion as a form of reason, and the need for human consciousness to develop beyond religion in order to realize itself (160)

Reason, the ability of humans to create culture - the faculty by which humans achieve the consciousness of freedom (which is how Bakunin understood the rational faculty) and the "spirit of revolt" are the two essential aspects, for Bakunin, of human nature (127). It is therefore of interest that the pages of "Freedom" nowadays resonate with fervent denunciations of reason and rationality, which is usually, be it noted, misleadingly equated with state management, bureaucratic administration and industrial capitalism - all of which, of course, Bakunin long ago repudiated. But what are we offered in the place of reason, as Bakunin and other Enlightenment thinkers defined it? Recent "Freedom" correspondents, it seems, join the ranks of scores of conservatives, fascists and romantic reactionaries in not only denigrating reason but put in its place faith in god, an emphasis on spiritual redemption and suggest we read Catholic theologians like Matthew Fox and Rosemary Radford Ruether. But Bakunin, it may be noted, was not only critical of theologism and statism, but also of deterministic "scientism", and was particularly hostile to the rule of scientific savants. As for Bakunin embracing the "myth of progress", be it also noted that Bakunin nowhere thought of capitalism and the modern nation state as in any sense inevitable or desirable, let alone "progressive" Making an interesting comparison between the philosophies of Marx and Bakunin, McLaughlin emphasizes that Bakunin was always critical of the economic determinism that was inherent in Marx's materialist conception of history, and that Bakunin put much more stress than did Marx on the biological aspects of human life. Puzzled on how Marx "can assert that nature is prior to that by which it is essentially mediated" McLaughlin interprets Marx as a Kantian idealist rather than as a "genuine" materialist(170). But of course Marx was affirming, like later anthropologists, that nature is ontologically prior to humans, though our knowledge of the world is always socially mediated.

In my earlier study I suggested that Bakunin's philosophical writings on nature presented, in embryonic form , an ecological approach to the world, one that is materialist and historical, and stresses the continuity and organic link between humans and nature(1993:84). This ecological world view is implicit in the philosophy of Feuerbach who wrote: "Man is dependent on nature...he should live in harmony with nature..even in his highest intellectual development he should not forget that he is a part and child of nature, but at all times honour nature and hold it sacred, not only as the ground and source of his existence, but also as the ground and source of his mental and physical well- being"(199).

For Feuerbach this did not imply a religious perspective or the deification of nature. Yet although Bakunin follows Feuerbach in his naturalism, and is not, unlike Kant and Marx an anthropocentric thinker, McLaughlin does suggest that there is an anti- ecological strain in Bakunin's thought, when, for instance, he writes that humans can and should conquer and master nature (231). But it is also important to recognize that Bakunin was influenced - like Kropotkin - by Darwin's evolutionary biology, and thus conceived of nature as a kind of evolutionary process, which ought not to be equated with the myth of progress. Thus human sociality and consciousness is seen by Bakunin as a natural development, and he denied any dualism between humans and nature, which was intrinsic to Cartesian mechanistic philosophy (Morris 1993:79) What of course was significant about Darwin's evolutionary philosophy is that it introduced and emphasized the crucial importance of openness, chance, creativity, and the subjective agency and individuality of all organisms in the evolutionary process. As said, all this is lost on those theological detractors of Bakunin in the pages of "Freedom". Surprisingly, McLaughlin has little discussion of Darwin or evolutionary theory.

What is perplexing and frustrating about McLaughlin's study is that it contains some fifty pages of footnotes. Valuable for reference purposes, these footnotes include long, substantial and interesting discussions of many topics that could usefully have been incorporated into the main text. Indeed another section or chapter on the political aspects of Bakunin's philosophy could well have been created from the footnotes, and thus enhanced the study. These topics include the following: Bakunin's critique of the state and all forms of government, including Marx's notion of a state "administered" society, which Bakunin, with some prescience saw as only leading to some form of despotism (80); Bakunin's federalist principle, which implied that the organization of social life from below, although it is significant that McLaughlin denies that Bakunin was an anarcho-syndicalist (232); and, finally, Bakunin's advocacy of true communism, which implied the unity of freedom and equality, which Bakunin continually emphasized, and which was expressed in the well-known phrase: "Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice, and...socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality"

As McLaughlin denoted, liberal critics like Berlin and Pyziur denigrate Bakunin's socialism, while Marxists repudiate the libertarian aspects of Bakunin's political philosophy: in essence, of course, Bakunin was a libertarian socialist.

Bakunin was an heir, as McLaughlin argues, to the Enlightenment tradition, at least in its radical aspects, a tradition, stemming from Spinoza and Diderot, which suggests that through secular reason and empirical knowledge, and through political struggle, humans could create a better world - one in which liberty, equality and fraternity could be fully manifested. Like his radical contemporaries Marx and Kropotkin, Bakunin was unduly optimistic regarding the coming revolution - but to blame "reason" for the ills of the twentieth century seems to me to be completely facile.

Equally, to describe Bakunin as a "modernist" is also rather inept, for Bakunin repudiated many of the key aspects of so- called "modernity" - specifically the modern nation state, industrial capitalism, possessive individualism and liberal ideology more generally.

No social anarchist, as far as I am aware, certainly not McLaughlin, treats Bakunin's writings as "holy writ" or with uncritical adulation, for they have long acknowledged that Bakunin's anarchism is complex and full of contradictions. But avoiding the "intoxicated vilification" (58) indulged in by his Marxist and liberal critics, and by some recent correspondents to "Freedom", social anarchists have approached Bakunin with an attitude of critical sympathy, recognizing that Bakunin, for all his faults and foibles, was the first to articulate, through his disputes with Marx, social anarchism as a political philosophy. Thus rather than viewing Bakunin as a misguided romantic bent on violence, or as having an unbalanced mind, he has been described - by for example Peter Marshall - as a man whose search for wholeness was a "bold and inspiring attempt to reclaim one's humanity in an alienated world" (1992:308).

McLaughlin, likewise, emphasizes the contemporary relevance and critical significance of Bakunin - both with regard to his dialectical naturalism as a philosophy, and his social anarchism as a political vision.


Bakunin, M - Statism and Anarchism Trans. & Ed. Marshall Shatz, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lehning, A - Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Cape, London, 1973.
Marshall, P - Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Harper Collins, London, 1992.
Morris, B - Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom. Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1993.

Originally published in Organise! #63 - Winter 2004

author by Rob Ray - Freedom anarchist newspaperpublication date Mon May 14, 2007 21:03Report this post to the editors

Quick note: in the five years since this article was first published, Freedom has undergone three complete changes of editorial team, and has since 2003 been firmly entrenched as a social anarchist publication. It has not run an anti-Bakunin article since the current team took over.

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