Anarchism/Anti-State

Bakunin

by P. R. Stephensen

(The London Aphrodite, no. 6, July 1929, pp. 421–432.)

 (Stephenson regarded himself as a Nietzschean-Bakuninite. Hat tip to MP.)

Only one man has lived dangerously—Michael Bakunin. While Nietzsche postulated the Fore-runner, here was a fore-runner in deed. “Everything about him was colossal,” says Richard Wagner (Autobiography), “and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength.”

Candidly enough Wagner adds:

“I never gathered that he set much store by my acquaintance. Indeed he did not seem to care for merely intellectual men; what he demanded was men of reckless energy. . . . Doubtless I, with my hopes of a future artistic remodelling of human society, appeared to him to be floating in the barren air.

Wagner’s account of Bakunin is the best psychologically that we possess. The two were closely associated on the revolutionary committee directing the actual street fighting at Dresden during the 1849 rising. It is Wagner who relates that on this occasion Bakunin was merely supercilious, strolled unconcernedly along the barricades in a frock coat, smoking a cigar; and explained to the enthusiasts that he “found no inducement to take much interest in a revolution conducted in such a slovenly fashion.” Bakunin was perhaps the only man who effectively rebuked Wagner’s predilection for the Christling, which subsequently oozed out in Parsifal:

I had just then been inspired by a study of the Gospels (says Wagner) to conceive the plan of a tragedy for the ideal stage of the future, entitled Jesus of Nazareth. Bakunin begged me to spare him any details; and when I sought to win him over to my project by a few verbal hints, he wished me luck, but insisted that I must at all costs make Jesus a weak character. As for the music of the piece, he advised me, amid all the variations, to use only one set of phrases, namely: for the tenor, Off with his head! for the soprano, Hang him! and for the basso continuo, Fire! Fire!

As a further proof that Bakunin was a man of thoroughly sound appreciation, it is only necessary to add that, on hearing Wagner play and sing the first scenes of The Flying Dutchman, he at once exclaimed, “That is stupendously fine!” On another occasion, while explaining to Wagner that the annihilation of all civilisation was the goal upon which his heart was set, Bakunin,

even while he was preaching these horrible doctrines, noting that my eyes troubled me, shaded them with his outstretched hand from the naked light for a full hour, despite my protestations.

—finally, when Wagner conducted the Ninth Symphony at Dresden in 1849, in the midst of Europe-wide convulsions, Bakunin, banished from Russia, France, and Prussia, and sought everywhere by the police, walked publicly up the aisle at the close and said to Wagner in a loud voice:

If all the music ever written is lost in the world-revolution, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of our lives!

This man, Bakunin, walked on the edge of precipices, and is a hero. I have little difficulty in preferring his character to that of, say, the much-esteemed Mr. Stanley Baldwin, whose inane posture of “Safety First” has actually been employed as a sedative to voters in the recent dull Elections in Britain. The Bakunin-principle of action was always “Safety Last.” Bakunin is the essential revolutionary, the antithesis of Baldwin. His type is surely not extinct. It must re-emerge, stronger, or the world dies.

II

      Bakunin was born in Central Russia, at Premuchino, in 1814. He was a Russian aristocrat, not the only member of that now discredited and dispersed breed who lusted for the larger freedom. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the Military Academy in Petersburg. Three years later he was commissioned an Artillery officer. He should have become a popinjay in the Imperial Guards, but a tiff with the Commandant led to his being drafted to a line regiment, and sent to service in Latvia. Here, in a miserable peasant village, remote from the amenities of society and civilisation which his rank required and his youth craved, he became surly and neglectful of his military duties. The following year (1835) he resigned his commission, and went to Moscow to study philosophy for three significant years.

With characteristic obtuseness, the academic authorities in Russia had at that time forbidden the reading of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot—a good thing too, because all that remained for Bakunin to absorb was the infinitely more soundly revolutionary thought of Fichte, Hegel, and even Feuerbach—considered innocuous, because not French, by the dunderheads of the Czar. Bakunin took the opportunity of becoming the most thorough-going Hegelian who has ever lived. Only a Russian could have plumbed that well of pure idealism without leaving the world of action. Only a “barbarian newly awakened to civilization” (Wagner’s phrase) could have so far absorbed Hegel’s abstract dialectic into his own fibres of concrete action as to apply “Negation” and “Overcoming” to the contemporary society in terms of physical destruction and annihilation. An Oxford philosophy “Course” shows that it is possible to “prescribe” Hegel for study merely as an academic exercise—training the mind, or something—but to Bakunin the issue was immediately practical: how to speed up, himself, personally, the negation of Being into an eternally newer synthesis, intensifying the human universal as concrete movement. At this time Bakunin was in daily contact with Alexander Herzen, and together they hammered out the practical consequences of the Hegelian dialectic. Succinctly, in Herzen’s words, these consequences were:

Death to the old world! Long live chaos and destruction! Long live Death! Place for the future!

—perhaps as precise a condensation of Hegel’s philosophy as it is possible to make.

In 1841, Bakunin went to Berlin, to the fountain-head, to slake his enormous philosophical thirst. He read there for three full terms, and then, at the beginning of the “revolutionary forties,” contributed an article to the German Year Book which immediately established his reputation in Europe. Proudhon declared in Paris that Bakunin was a monstrosity in his terse dialectic and his luminous perception of ideas in their essence. It was in this article that the Bakunin-principle of action was first clearly enunciated.

“Let us rely upon the unquenchable spirit of destruction and annihilation, which is the perpetual spring of new life. The joy of destruction is a Creative Joy.

Bakunin was now an avowed social revolutionary. He travelled to Zürich, Berne, Geneva, Brussels, and Paris, where he met Marx, Engels, and Proudhon. News of this scandal reaching the Czar, he was ordered back to Russia.

III

      His reply was to publish in the French radical paper, Reforme, an article violently attacking the Czar’s government. The feud was on. His property in Russia was confiscated, and he was sentenced to perpetual banishment.

Bakunin now issued his famous “Oration to the Poles,” the first acknowledgment by a Russian of the Polish right to autonomy as a separate branch of the Slav family. To realise the enormity of this offence, remember that Poland was precisely a Russian Ireland, and that Bakunin was a Russian aristocrat. Years later, when he passed in chains through Vilna on his way to sentence in Russia, enormous crowds gathered in the snow-bound streets and knelt with heads bared in a voluntary homage never accorded the Czar. Meanwhile the Czar’s government offered a reward of 10,000 roubles to anyone bringing the desperate libertarian to trial in Russia. Bakunin was followed everywhere by Czarist pimps. A request was made to the French government for his expulsion; and Guizot expelled him. He went to Brussels and issued his Second Oration to the Poles. Here, too, he spent much time in the company of Karl Marx, who was just issuing the Communist Manifesto, beginning with the words:

A spectre is haunting Europe, the Spectre of Communism. All the powers of Old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.

More than twenty years later, Bakunin gives us an account of this meeting between the two master-conspirators:

“Marx was much more advanced than I was, as he remains to-day (1871); not more advanced but incomparably more learned than I am. I had not yet rid myself of metaphysical abstractions, and my socialism was only instinctive. He, though younger than I, was already an atheist, an instructed materialist, a well-considered socialist . . . We saw each other fairly often, but there was never any frank intimacy between us. He called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right. I called him a vain man, perfidious and crafty; and I, also, was right.”

In February, 1848, the Revolution broke out in Paris, a torch to all Europe. Marx and Bakunin both hastened to the storm-centre. In the next twelve months Bakunin rode the whirlwind everywhere at its shifting centre. In April he visited Frankfort, Cologne (where he quarrelled with Marx), Berlin, and Breslau (where he stirred up the headquarters of the Polish conspiracy). In May he attended the Pan-Slav Congress in Prague. He returned to Breslau, then to Berlin, where a decree of banishment from Prussia was pronounced against him. Off he went to Leipsig and worked on the Central Social Democratic Committee. At the end of the year he was organising a revolution in Bohemia.

IV

      In 1849 he met Wagner at Dresden, and created a profound impression upon the maestro. Wagner regarded his own personal fate as being interwoven with the universal unrest. (“I became conscious of an impulse to give myself up recklessly to the stream of events, no matter whither it might lead.”) The majestic appearance of Bakunin and his reputation for dangerousness fascinated Wagner (“My feeling during my intercourse with him fluctuated between involuntary horror and irresistible attraction.”) The two men frequently dined and went for long walks together, with circumspection, however, as Bakunin was lying low. Wagner was astonished by the gluttonous (Russian) manner in which Bakunin ate slices of sausage; and, always rather a bon père, was “guilty of the weakness” of explaining the more genteel (or German) manner of eating such comestibles. Bakunin in reply begged to be allowed to eat what was placed before him in his own way. Wagner was also astonished at the way Bakunin gulped down wine in quantity and preferred to get drunk quickly on stiff glasses of brandy.

Above all he scorned the sentiment which seeks to prolong enjoyment by moderation, arguing that a true man should only strive to still the cravings of nature—and that the only real pleasure in life worthy of a man was making love.”

These observations led Wagner to the opinion that in Bakunin “the purest impulses of an ideal humanity conflicted strangely with a savagery entirely inimical to all civilisation.” This, combined with Bakunin’s good-humoured gibes at the Jesus-obsession from which Wagner was suffering, led the maestro to the conclusion that Bakunin was a mere visionary, whose reputation for dangerousness was overdrawn.

Luckily for Wagner’s theory, Bakunin went off on a fool’s errand to Prague about this time. Having heard of a revolution there, he obtained a fake passport, shaved his luxuriant hair and beard, and set off secretly.

We bade farewell to Bakunin with the firm conviction that we should never again see him alive. But in a week he was back once more, as he had realised immediately what a distorted account he had received as to the state of things in Prague, where all he found ready for him was a mere handful of childish students.

This incident rehabilitated Wagner’s self-respect. It was Bakunin who came in for chaff now when he spoke of the world revolution. But in a few days street fighting had broken out in Dresden; and Bakunin was in charge of operations with Wagner as a lieutenant. Once again it was Bakunin’s turn to mock at the Germans for their amateurishness in really serious matters such as revolution.

V

      On the ninth of May the Dresden rising was suppressed and the revolutionaries, including Wagner, fled. Bakunin was captured at Chemnitz, and his immolation of long years began. He was imprisoned in Dresden and in Konigsten fortress, tried, sentenced to death—and then handed over to the Austrian Government, who presumably wanted to get information from him about the Slav conspiracies. Sent in chains to Prague, he was again tried, sentenced to death, and then, after a year—as an even worse punishment—handed over to the Russian Government.

In 1851 he was imprisoned in the terrible dungeons of “Peter-Paul,” chained to the wall, for five years. Then he was transferred to the Schlusselburg dungeons, below water level of the Neva, where his teeth rotted out and his skin went yellow. This was not the end of Bakunin.

VI

      The new Czar, Alexander II, came to the throne in 1856. There was a general amnesty of political prisoners. But when Bakunin’s mother petitioned for her son’s release the Czar very amiably replied: “Madame, not so long as he draws breath.” This same Czar was sent to blazes later by an Anarchist bomb.

The next year, having spent eight years in the dungeons, Bakunin was deported to Siberia as a penal colonist, and could at least stretch his limbs again.

After four years his chance came. This unconquerable man escaped from Siberia! He reached Japan, crossed the Pacific Ocean to ’Frisco, traversed America to New York; and, circling the earth with a flame, landed at Liverpool in December, 1861.

The next day he was in London, like a ghost of ’48—unrepentant, full of fight and energy—a roaring ghost, with the strength of a lion rampant.

VII

      Such was Bakunin. From that time till his death in 1876 he tried to make up for the twelve prime years of his life lost in gaol. His activities in organising revolution were illimitable. In London he met the companion of his youth, Alexander Herzen, again; he at once joined the Russian and Polish groups and edited their paper, Kolokol (The Tocsin). Within a year he had visited the comrades in Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, Switzerland, and Italy, establishing the Anarchist societies everywhere on a secret basis.

In spring, 1864, he was in Florence on “Headquarters” work. The same year he was back in Sweden in the summer; and in the autumn he was in London (where he met Marx again), in Paris (where he met Proudhon again), and he was back in Florence for Christmas.

Nothing could restrain him, and he seemed to be everywhere. The Anarchist secret societies sprang up all over Italy, like spoor of the lion as he roamed. Within a few months he was at Florence, at Sorrento, at Naples—and then (1867) he attended the Peace Congress at Geneva, and was elected member of the Central Committee of the Peace and Freedom League at Berne; Victor Hugo being the President. Before this gathering of sentimental idealists (very much like supporters of our present League of Nations) Bakunin spoke as follows:

Your civilisation is founded from time immemorial upon the forced labour of the enormous majority, condemned to lead the lives of brutes and slaves, in order that a small minority might be enabled to live like human beings. This monstrous inequality rests upon the complete separation between headwork and manual labour. But it is an abomination which will be destroyed; for in future the working classes are resolved to make their own politics . . .

Naturally he had to resign from the League; and when the Working Men’s International assembled at Geneva, Bakunin was there, quarrelsome and defiant and impatient and truculent. At the time of the Paris Commune he was in Italy leading the movement against Mazzini—his absence from Paris must have grieved him—but he continued indefatigably organising on Committees, at Congresses, by speeches and by thousands of personal letters stoking the fires of revolt in every country in Europe.

On his deathbed in 1876 he said: “I have lived violently, now I die at peace.” His last words were: Diavolo! Diavolo!

VIII

      Such was Bakunin, the greatest intransigent, and his name cannot die. He has left no corpus of doctrine Like Marx, who has prevailed; but he defined in his own person the deathless principle of all valid action—destruam et aedifico. This principle goes much deeper into life even than political revolution; and it may be that the Russians alone understand it nowadays—certainly they owe much of their success to the Bakunin tradition.

He combined in his own person brute vigour with intellectual subtlety; intellectual subtlety with a ruthless courage; and ruthless courage with the most tenderly sympathetic humanity. He fought a losing fight, and a lonely fight. Apart from police persecution, with its twelve years’ physical victory over him, he had to contend against, and failed to overcome, the powerfully logical consistency of Marx, as well as the vacant cautiousness of the revolutionary material (“radical,” “liberal,” “democratic”) of his time. Yet more will be heard of that man. Capitalism has developed to the holocaust of the “Great” war, and the dispersal of all decent values in its aftermath. Machinery and its accompanying sacrifice to profit-scrambling, has developed the Robot and crushed the man. We shall need the Bakunin-principle, yet.

IX

      Like all men of action, he was romantic, not in the “literary” sense of the term, but in the sense that he dramatised his every action in terms of a pre-conception. Too much romanticism of this sort can nullify a revolutionist; which happened to Trotsky; but only after the revolution, not before. In so far as the character of the revolutionary leaders affects the direction of events, the more romanticism the better before and during the actual struggle for power. Trotsky’s impetuousness was invaluable when he organised the Red Army, and when he faced the conquering Junkers at Brest-Litovsk. It was pleasantly dramatic to appear before the German High Command in a slouch and a private soldier’s uniform—plenipotentiary of the Soviet Republics—and to say to the heel-clicking sentry “Hello, Comrade!” before noticing the Brass Hats. That was the Bakunin touch. Stalin couldn’t have done that; but Stalin is the revolutionary now, not Trotsky.

Stalin’s motto, like that of Mr. Baldwin, is “Safety First.” As statesmen both require economic stability. The difference between them is not psychological, and it is not one of personal method. It is merely that Baldwin seeks to stabilise capitalism while Stalin seeks to stabilise the new régime. To such a climax of realism even the most heroically-carried-through revolution must come. Here is no work for heroes, flaming at heads of phalanges. Exit the Bakunin-principle, exit Trotsky. Enter Stalin, up-stage, sits at desk quietly, works . . .

X

      It is the true greatness of the greatest revolutionary of them all, Lenin, that he could adapt himself, with overwhelming commonsense, to changes in a changing revolutionary situation. This was “tactics.” Although it is barely ten years since Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Malady, was published, we have already enough historical perspective to know that Lenin was right (as usual) in declaring that the most uncompromising revolutionary is the one who best knows how to compromise. At any rate the Soviet Republics have not only survived but have incalculably strengthened themselves within and without against every opposition; and there they are, proceeding on the principles of Leninism, and are practically certain to remain. In the work just mentioned Lenin flayed all impatient “Left-Wing” intransigence with the whip of Expediency, urging that it was necessary to hold and consolidate the ground won in Russia, and to hell with abstract revolutionism. His description of a certain kind of intellectualist rebelliousness is devastating:

It is not sufficiently known abroad that Bolshevism grew up, formed, and hardened itself in long years of struggle against petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which resembles, or borrows something from Anarchism. . . . The small-holder, who is a constant sufferer under capitalism, moves easily, when faced with ruin, to extreme revolutionism, but is incapable of displaying any consistency, organisation, discipline, or firmness. The petty-bourgeois, ‘gone mad’ from the horrors of capitalism, is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The weakness of such revolutionism, its futility, its liability to transform itself into obedience, apathy, fantasy, and even into a ‘mad’ infatuation with some bourgeois ‘craze’—all this is a matter of common knowledge.

Note at once that Lenin distinguishes this “mad” revolutionism from deliberate philosophical anarchism. The theories of the “petty-bourgeois gone mad” have nothing in common with one another except their hydrophobia, much less have they anything in common with the Bakunin-principle, which is rare, while petty-bourgeois “madness” is epidemic. Lenin’s criticism applies, for example, to the raving “transition” mob in Paris, who assume, amid a thousand other vagaries, that word-chopping and the use of lower-case for caps, is revolution. It applies also, splendidly home, to Wyndham Lewis, that fantastical “enemy” of everything and nothing, who garbles and espouses in turn abstract Communism, East-versus-West pictorial sociology, Shakespearean heterodoxy, and aesthetic Fascism—with photo of author and all his Press-cuttings.

Lenin’s criticism applies also to a “modern” of great literary genius, D. H. Lawrence, who in Lady Chatterley’s Lover sets out a quasi-revolutionary thesis of attack upon the Gentry by means of sexual-social humiliation—first making the mistake of selecting the wrong opponents, for the unfortunate and dispersed English Gentry hardly matter at all now, having long been displaced from their feudal hegemony by capitalists à la Mond; and secondly, using a purely abstract weapon of attack upon the ruling class, viz. lumbar mysticism; and thirdly, not even relating his chosen characters and conflicts to actuality: making the gamekeeper an almost-gentleman with a foot in both class-camps, so that the Lady was not even properly humiliated “from below,” because she knew her lover could talk and behave like a Gentleman whenever he chose. This is precisely the kind of muddled “revolutionism” which Lenin characterises as emanating from the hydrophobia of the lower middle-class; and it wants recognising as such, along with the whole self-consciously “modern” movement in Art and Letters, with its plastic and emotional vorticisms and abstract modes. Even Aldous Huxley, formerly quite a humorist, has gone off the rails in Point Counter Point, dragging in sociology and politics à la Wells, and boring us with dull Fascist theorisings, nothing developed bravely or neatly to the point of action.

XI

      All this fake revolutionism and rebelliousness, whether inside or outside the Communist Party, Lenin has properly knocked on the head. A revolutionary theory which is not going to lead to street-fighting, sooner or later, is the most ridiculous fake—tepid air, not even hot. Now the Bakunin-principle, destruam et aedifico, wherever and whenever it has operated, has never shirked this elementary necessity. English history provides enough examples of the necessity of force to initiate reform. From Jack Cade to Cromwell and the Chartist riots; even to the declaration of that pleasant old Victorian radical, John Burns, who became a Liberal Cabinet Minister (“It may yet be necessary to despatch capitalists to heaven by chemical parcels post”)—the Bakunin-principle has had its constant airing. One of the best recent examples of course was that of Jim Connolly, who marched into the Post Office at Dublin in 1916 with a conglomerate army of mystical Gaels, Fenians, and proletarian Socialists. Connolly was captured by the British, and, although a wounded prisoner, was propped up against a wall and shot (this was before Edith Cavell); but at any rate Connolly had started something. The Irish have their Saorstat now, for what it is worth; and what is more important, there was a repercussion the following year in Russia—Lenin was beside himself with excitement when he heard the news of Connolly’s effort, and took it to mean that the world revolution had actually begun at last.

The point here is that no revolution, in fact no human action, can be initiated without the stimulus of the Bakunin-principle. I am not denying that this principle would be a menace in Soviet Russia nowadays—“they’ve had some,” and they are fully entitled to a spell of Leninist compromise. George Lansbury said to Lenin: “Why shouldn’t the English Trade Unionists be allowed to compromise, since Bolshevism has compromised?” To which Lenin answered in effect, “We did not compromise with our own ruling class; but now we have to get on with the job of running this country, and we may have to compromise with the imperialist bandits of other countries (including yours) for the time being.”

Leninism, as advocated thus by the calm and practical mind of a realist, has in fact assured the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia after the revolution; but abstract Leninism (or compromise) in the still-capitalist countries might very well damp the world-revolutionary movement with over-sophistication. A case in point is that the British Communist Party for years put the soft pedal on anti-god propaganda, as “tactics” to avoid estranging the Clydeside Roman Catholics. And this is the reductio ad absurdum of tactics, because the war against religion can never be relaxed by a revolutionary party; not even after the revolution and certainly not before. The exposure of religion is almost the essence of the ideological attack upon capitalism; just as its propagation, by the journalism of deans, community hymn-wailing at football matches, wireless broadcasting of church services, and newspaper stunting of piffling “prayer-book” controversies, is essential in the buttressing of capitalism.

XII

      Marx and Lenin, long before Miss Laura Riding, pointed out that “Anarchism is not enough.” Of course, Marx and Lenin were speaking of actualities, of a class-fight for power, with men sprawling bloody in streets and against walls. They were discussing ways and means of rebuilding a decent, more human, and more reasonable society from the ruins of the present ramshackle and jerry-built social structure—whereas the literary lady is speaking of precisely nothing at all. I am not urging here that Anarchism is enough: merely that Anarchism, as personified in Bakunin, and only in Bakunin, is the essential valid stimulus to effective action. I destroy and I build—only Bakunin had the full-blooded passion in these matters. Here is his “Catechism”:

The revolutionist is a man under a vow. He ought to have no personal interests, no business, no feelings, no property. He ought to be entirely absorbed in one single interest, one single thought, one single passion—the Revolution. He has only one aim—Destruction of the existing order. Between him and the present society there is war to the death, incessant, irreconcilable. He is ready to die, to endure torment, and with his own hands to KILL ALL who place obstacles in the way of that revolution. . . . So much the worse for him if he has any ties of relationship, of friendship, or of love.

There you have the single-track mind, the essential character of every man of action. No compromising here! Know your foe, and destroy him. With just a difference, be it noted, this is the identical frame of mind required of every Tommy Atkins who joins the King’s Colours for active service against the King’s enemies. It is also the frame of mind of the scientist in his laboratory engaged in cancer research. It is even the “playing-fields” frame of mind of the Rugby winger streaking for the corner flag with a ball under his arm. It is the principle of action, and the only principle of action. In Nietzsche’s phrase:

. . . a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal . . .”

It is the principle most utterly lacking in the modern world, particularly in Baldwinised England.

XIII

      When I say that we shall need Bakunin yet, I mean that we shall need this Bakunin-principle of action: I mean that we shall need to destroy. It is this which the Socialist reformers shrink from. If they were working-men (these “Labour” leaders), they would know instinctively that you must demolish the old building before you put up a new one on the same site. But no. Being intellectuals, they imagine that you can place new beams and rafters, one at a time, in the old house, till at last you have a new house. They call this patching process the Inevitability of Gradualness, and regard themselves as being practical men—rebuilding a house, without pulling the old one down, without even touching the foundations!

XIV

      No well-intentioned person could journey in an underground tube-train full of wan faces coming in to work in the mornings from the suburbs, reading their Daily Express, or returning from work in the evenings towards the suburbs, reading their Evening Standard, without feeling homicidal. If this massed paleness and vacuity is what civilisation has brought man to, by all means let civilisation be destroyed. It seems to me inevitable that such will be the conclusion, sooner or later, of all kindly persons endowed with the faculty of observation and thinking. There is a hunted and miserable, a caught look, about these pale creatures trapped in the mechanical whirligig. Better destroy them, to put them out of their pain.

The re-building of civilisation we can safely leave to those who survive the catastrophe; for there will be survivors, lots. It is always worth remembering that, even if every capitalist and priest in England were destroyed, together with the Houses of Parliament, all churches, Buckingham Palace, the Nelson Column, and the Albert Memorial; and even if “Lord” Rothermere and “Lord” Beaverbrook were prevented by force majeure from issuing their “news” papers; and even if the Monarch abdicated and the Constitution were nullified—nevertheless, even after these apparently cataclysmic events, Britain would remain an island to the North-West of France, coal would still be dug in Welsh valleys, cloth woven in the North, Devonshire Cream clotted in Devon, hops grown in Kent, and ale brewed at Burton. Whatever political permutations occur, life goes on. Not a single politician realises this.

XV

      Bakunin realised it. What, then, did he mean by Revolution? It is flogging the obvious to point out that he did not mean the electoral change of party office-grabbers which Democracy achieves at intervals. In fact it is impossible to believe that anybody (with the exception of the 20,000,000 dolts who have just voted) could believe that there is any fundamental difference between Ramsay Macdonald and Baldwin, or that either or both of these politicians could essentially change the face of life in Britain. Much more than a X on a ballot-paper is required for that.

Bakunin saw through the political shuffle:

We reject all legislation, all authority, and all privileged, licensed, legal, and official influence, even though deriving from universal suffrage; convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interest of the immense majority in subjection to them. . . . The best governments are invariably the worst.

But neither did Bakunin desire the substitution of a Communist State for a Capitalist State:

Communism I abhor, because it is the negation of liberty, and without liberty I cannot imagine anything truly human. I abhor it because it concentrates all the strength of society in the State, and squanders that strength in its service.

His object was the complete abolition of the State itself:

The State means power, oppression, exploitation, and injustice established as the prevailing system. The State never had a morality, and can never have one. Its only morality and justice is its own advantage, its own existence, and its own omnipotence at any price. Before these interests, all the interests of mankind must disappear. The State is the negation of manhood.

So long as there is a state, war will never cease. Each state must conquer or be conquered. Each state must found its own power on the weakness of other states. To strive for international justice and freedom, and lasting peace, while there are states, is a ridiculous naiveté.

Bakunin himself was guilty of the “ridiculous naiveté” of believing that this simple truth would be easily perceived.

XVI

      There is no necessity here to argue for or against Anarchy as a political philosophy. Anarchism as immediate working-class politics has long been put on ice, first by Marx in Bakunin’s day, and still more recently by Lenin in The State and Revolution. The modern anarchists (if any) are a mere handful of die-hard syndicalists with a flavour of Tolstoyan watery “non-resistance” theory which washes them out from the field of action entirely. The revolutionary working-class movement of the twentieth century is and will be Communist. Yet the last has not been heard of Bakunin.

The Hegelian nihilism, which he and Herzen worked out in their earliest student days, found this formulation:

Socialism will be developed in all its phases, even to its uttermost consequences, the absurd. Then, once again, there will come forth the cry of negation from the titanic breast of the revolutionary minority. Once again the mortal struggle will begin. But in that struggle Socialism will be in the position of the present Conservatism, to be conquered eventually by a revolution unknown to us. The eternal game of living, cruel as death, inevitable as birth, constitutes the flux and re-flux of history, the perpetuum mobile of more life.

This is the soundest possible revolutionary theory. Communism, on its most fundamental hypothesis, cannot stand still but must develop. Develop to what? To practical Anarchism, no less; and it is then that Bakunin will have the last laugh. When the whole world is a federation of working-class states, it is the destruction of State-power which will become practical revolutionary politics. This is the future of Bakunin, though he has only a partial present. That present is the element of determined character which alone can make a revolutionist effective: the uncompromising pugnacity in rebelliousness which marks Satan for our respect.

Leave a Reply