John P. Clark

From Rights, Justice, and Community, ed. C. Peden and J. Roth

(Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1992), pp. 25-34.

Bakunin, we are told, "declared war on all the powers of the world." (1) The implacable foe of all systems of arbitrary power, he gave inspiration to revolutionary movements throughout Europe and much of Latin America. He became the most famous and, indeed, the most infamous of the classical anarchist theoreticians and activists. This "giant among revolutionaries" has much to teach us about power. And about the ironies of power. For his lessons come not only from his acute insights into the nature of power, but equally from his blindness to certain forms that it assumes.

Bakunin had in many ways a realistic view of power. He saw the drive for power as an inherent and inescapable aspect of human nature. Its origin, in his view, lies in the universal instinct for preservation of life and for self-assertion. But he sees it as a force that is no less dangerous than it is natural. For it exhibits an inevitable tendency to expand beyond the justifiable requirements of self-preservation and self-development. Given certain "favorable conditions" in the environment, conditions such as "stupidity, ignorance, apathetic indifference, and servile habits," this instinct forms the basis for the establishment and perpetuation of systems of domination and oppression. (2) Consequently, history must be a constant struggle against the dangers of this will to power.

Bakunin's critique of systems of power encompasses an analysis of the ideologies through which these systems maintain themselves. His view of ideology is quite similar to the Marxian position, and, in fact, lapses into the kind of reductionism that sometimes plagued Marx. Thus, he expresses his agreement with analyses that discover in all aspects of history, including "intellectual, moral, religious, metaphysical, scientific, artistic, political, juridical, and social developments" nothing but "reflections or repercussions" ("des reflets ou des contre-coups") of economic developments. (3) His more detailed discussions of historical development contradict this simplistic view, since he often gives much weight to factors that are not narrowly economic. Yet he fairly consistently holds to a materialist interpretation which asserts, more generally, that "the material needs exert a much greater power than the needs of the intellect." (4) Thus, systems of ideas must be traced to underlying material determinants. On the basis of this view, he launches a critique of religious ideology, statist ideology, capitalist ideology, and Marxist ideology.


Bakunin sees religious ideology as a distortion by power of a natural human instinct. He holds that the "real essence" of religion consists in the "feeling of absolute dependence" that each individual experiences in relation to "eternal and omnipotent nature." (5) At times he distinguishes between this primordial religious feeling, which "arises out of animal life," and theology and metaphysics, which in his rather Nietzschean interpretation are "the science of Nothingness," and "the science of the impossible reconciliation of Nothingness with reality." (6) The ideological dimension of religion arises when this natural feeling of dependence is institutionalized and used by systems of power. A supernatural world becomes "established in the traditional imagination of peoples" and "religious systems" are developed that "conform to the real contemporary development of economic and political relations," giving "divine consecration to these relations." (7)

Much like Marx, Bakunin sees religious ideologies as serving power, first, by helping the oppressed adapt to their oppression. The "great honor" and "incontestable merit" of ancient Christianity was that it gave consolation to the masses whose rights were cruelly denied. (8) But what was originally a kind of self-defense mechanism of the oppressed becomes an instrument of oppression. The oppressors encourage forms of religion that give the people a harmless escape from their suffering. The Church becomes a sort of "heavenly tavern for the people." (9)

Bakunin sees the particular forms of religious ideology as adaptations to the needs of specific systems of power. He applies such an analysis to the development of Deism among the French bourgeoisie after 1830. Economic and political disputes with Rome made Catholicism unacceptable to a large segment of this class. On the other hand, hostility to Protestantism among the majority of Frenchmen made this option embarrassing for any class aspiring to hegemony. Affirmation of Deism was thus appealing, because it permitted the bourgeoisie to clothe its power in a religious guise, while escaping this dilemma. (10)


According to Bakunin's account, statist ideology is also a perversion of a natural instinct. In this case, what is exploited is humanity's natural patriotic feeling, the love for and attachment to ones country. He sees this instinct as a "natural fact" that should be "respected." (11) Statism distorts this feeling by directing it toward a "metaphysical" abstraction, the state. This fiction is then used to legitimate the power of an "exploiting minority." (12) As a hierarchical institution with centralized power, the state necessarily entails domination and exploitation. These evils are disguised through the use of ideological concepts like "the public good" and "the public welfare," so that real wills expressing opposed power-interests are "dissolved" in an abstract "will of the people." (13)


Bakunin focuses on the ideology of mass democracy as one of the most effective such distortions of power relations. This system finds its perfection in universal suffrage, in which the hierarchical relations of state power can be legitimated as the will of all the people. In addition, it relies on the concept of representation, in which policies of the political elites are equated with decisions authorized by the electorate, no matter how passive or ill-informed the latter may be. But in a system of centralized power, policies are determined in large measure by the interests of the power-holders. A class interest arises among the governing elite, so that even the representatives of the most theoretically democratic or popular parties act to preserve hierarchical structures, once they are in positions of power. (14) In addition to having a material interest in retaining their privileged position, the elected rulers succumb to the psychology of power. Their feeling of superiority to the masses they govern allows them to ignore or repress "instinctive popular aspirations." (15)


Bakunin's critique of statist ideology is inseparable from his analysis of capitalist ideology. In his view, the ideology of the popular will and general interest disguises not only the interest and will of the political elite but also those of the economically powerful. While Bakunin argues that even representatives of the less privileged classes would be corrupted by high office, he notes that it is, in fact, members of the privileged classes who hold these offices. He argues that whatever their democratic rhetoric, these persons are far removed from the actual "feelings, ideas, and will of the people." (16) The general function of the state in a capitalist economy is to protect and serve economic power. It achieves this by protecting property through force or the threat of force, by centralizing powers needed to support economic activities, and by assuring minority rule through the ideology of mass democracy.


Bakunin also analyses the ideological means through which the concentration of economic power is itself legitimated. His critique of liberal economic ideology is similar to Marx's, in showing the central concepts of equal exchange and economic freedom to be ideological distortions. He points out that the selling of labor by those in a disadvantaged economic position is not an entirely free and voluntary act, but is rather the result of force and coercion. The allegedly free contract between equals is an unequal transaction in which a concentration of power on one side of the relation makes possible the exploitation of the disadvantaged parties. (17) Formal freedom is used to disguise substantive oppression. Juridical equality is used to disguise economic inequality. (18)


But by far the most original and interesting aspect of Bakunin's critique of ideology is its application to Marxism. In his view, Marxism offers no alternative to previous systems of domination founded on religion, state, or capital. Rather, it becomes a new ideology of domination, and is perhaps even more dangerous than its predecessors, because of its effectiveness in disguising power.

According to Bakunin's analysis, Marxism becomes the ideology of a new dominant class. He argues that the nature of the Marxian revolutionary movement prepares the way for minority rule. The idealization of the urban proletariat and its intellectual leaders is seen as the basis for a new hierarchical distinction between the more advanced strata of the working class and the more backward ones. In this hierarchy, the more skilled urban workers are seen as superior to the peasants and unskilled workers, and the revolutionary intellectuals are given a position of leadership over the working class as a whole. (19) In his disputes with Marx in the First International, Bakunin argued that Marx supported centralist policies within the organization as a means of entrenching the power of that intellectual elite, and of himself as its chief spokesman.


Bakunin contends that the centralized, hierarchical revolutionary movement advocated by Marx prepares the way for the establishment of a new hierarchical social system. He points out that according to Marx's prescriptions, there will be, after the revolution, a vast expansion of the sphere of state activity. The Communist Manifesto, for example, calls for a variety of programs requiring increased centralization of power in the state. The result will be the creation of a class of managers who will be in a position of power in relation to the masses who are mobilized and organized under these programs. (20)

Bakunin is thus one of the founders of the theory of the "new class," the techno-bureaucratic class, and one of the earliest critics of its ideology. This critique extends, in part, the general critique of representation, in which one class with a particularistic interest claims to act on behalf of the whole of society. But the brilliance of Bakunin's insight was in grasping that the emergence of the new class was based on the connection between knowledge and power in modern technological society. After the old ruling classes have "exhausted themselves," he says, the state begins to fall into the hands of the bureaucracy and increasingly takes on the character of "a machine." (21) It becomes a vast system of political and economic administration. As was later exemplified not only by Marxist ideologists but also by Western technocratic theorists of the "end of ideology" school, the state is presented as a neutral resolver of practical social problems, and injustice is hidden behind a veneer of "equal treatment" in juridical, political, and economic spheres.

Bakunin points out that this ideology disguises a new system of power based on the possession of specialized knowledge and technique. "It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes." Society will then be divided into an educated minority with power, status, and privilege, and "an immense ignorant minority" subject to their control. (22)

It is striking the extent to which these ideas, which must have seemed quite aberrant when they were expressed in 1872, have proven prophetic in regard to both state and corporate techno-bureaucracies. It is this which has led Noam Chomsky to remark that Bakunin's new class thesis is the only prediction in the history of social science that has been historically verified.

Bakunin was, then, one of the great enemies of power.


Yes and no. For despite the anti-authoritarian, anarchist dimensions of his thought, he was a person thoroughly corrupted by power. In fact, one could hardly imagine anyone more successfully using ideology (in this case, anarchist ideology) to disguise the quest for power and domination.


Bakunin's ambiguous relationship to power was shaped by a lifetime of experience, only a small part of which involved participation in the anarchist movement. As early as adolescence, he exhibited a propensity toward the formation of small groups of admiring followers who fell under the spell of his charismatic personality. He carefully guided these groups according to the principles of whatever Weltanschauung he happened to embrace at the time. At various points in his life, this consisted of a rarefied Christianity, Fichtean idealism, Hegelianism, revolutionary pan-Slavism, and anarchism. While his public, exoteric teachings and theories varied greatly over a period of 40 years, he was rather consistent in his dedication to the formation of ideological groups. Furthermore, he was quite uncritical of the dangers of charismatic power like his own, and of the authoritarian potential of these groups, which metamorphosed from a kind of spiritual elite (during his early life) into a political vanguard (in the various stages of his political career).


During his pan-Slavist period, Bakunin developed his idea of the need for a rigidly-organized, centralized power to direct social change. Both in this period and during his later anarchist phase, he tended to naively predict immanent revolution wherever and whenever there was discontent. Only two conditions were seen as necessary: the ever-present "revolutionary instincts of the masses," and the action of a well-organized vanguard group. At one point he advocated a "Slavic Council" that would be a "supreme authority" having "dictatorial powers." (23) By 1848, he had already developed the concept of a movement guided by a secret society. He proposed that in Bohemia there should be three branches of the revolutionary movement, to work with the petite bourgeoisie, the youth, and the peasants, respectively. All groups would be subject to "strict hierarchy and absolute discipline," and "linked" by a Central Committee of three to five members, under his control, needless to say. (24)

Despite his official advocacy of "power from below," Bakunin often entertained the possibility of revolution from above. In his Confession he expressed hope that revolutionary change might even be instituted through the will of the Czar. One might be skeptical about his sincerity, given the circumstances (imprisonment by that very Czar to whom he was appealing), but it is consistent with his later faith in the liberal General Muraviev as a potential enlightened despot. In a series of embarrassingly gushing letters to Herzen extolling the General, Bakunin praised him as "without a drop of egoism," someone "born to command," "our strength and the best and strongest in us," and "the future of Russia."Thus far our skeptical critic of the dangers of power! Significantly, his "red general" wanted to liberate the Slavs and "reestablish Russian power in Europe" by means of a kind of dictatorship. (25)


Bakunin later transferred his faith almost completely to the masses and their revolutionary vanguards; yet there remains a belief in an authoritarian path to liberation. In his proposals for an "International Secret Society for the Liberation of Mankind," he outlines a program for democratic centralism in which lower levels of organization would owe "absolute obedience" to the higher ones. The elite of "active brothers" in the organization were to take an oath to "accept in advance" the decisions of its assembly, to practice "absolute obedience" to the group, and even to give to it an "unlimited surrender" of all their "strength, power, social position, influence, fortune and life." (26)


While Bakunin's proposals for the "Alliance for Socialist Democracy" and the "League for Peace and Freedom" exhibited a growing support for libertarian forms of organization, these also betray a continuing faith in centralism and vanguardism. The Alliance was to have a powerful central committee, and direction by an elite "central bureau" with executive power. (27) The League was to have national and provincial committees with "all legitimate autonomy." Yet despite this apparently decentralist principle, there was to be, at the same time, "hierarchical subordination to the Central Committee at Berne." (28)

These centralist tendencies remained quite strong, despite Bakunin's increasingly vehement polemics against the open centralism of the Marxists. Indeed, he was capable of supporting centralist policies within the International itself, until these began to work in favor of the Marxist faction he was fighting for control. (29) And as late as 1870, in his pamphlet "To the Officers of the Russian Army," Bakunin could write favorably (and deceptively, since he not uncharacteristically misrepresented its nature and strength) of an organization based on centralism, vanguardism, and revolutionary asceticism. (30)


Bakunin's unrealistic faith in revolutionary vanguards led him to overestimate the "instinctual" revolutionary potential of the masses in the most extreme, and often dangerous manner. While there are many examples of his exaggerated hopes for various national groups, classes, and social strata, perhaps the most striking is his idealization of the bandits. His claims for the revolutionary role of brigands is based on no analysis of their actual place in society. The question of the nature of their consciousness, values, and character structures is ignored, as is the problem of how they might adapt to a cooperative order. Instead, he uncritically compares them to heroic historical figures like Pugachev, and endorses the kind of "creative destruction" that they supposedly represent. Their activities are interpreted, without evidence, as "a powerful protest against the source of all oppression, the state," and (in a classic non-sequitor) viewed "consequently" as a "hope for the future." (31)

In such analyses, Bakunin ignores the need for the gradual development of liberatory forms of consciousness, modes of interrelationship, and structures of organization, if systems of domination are to be successfully opposed. Instead, he offers a quite deceptive "seizure of power" problematic that is in fundamental contradiction with his anarchist principles.


We should therefore take more seriously than some have his statements concerning the need for an "invisible dictatorship."This dictatorship is described in a letter to Albert Richard as one "without insignia, titles or official rights, and all the stronger for having none of the paraphernalia of power." (32) His assurances that such a dictatorship is temporary and that it constitutes no danger to freedom cannot be accepted uncritically, any more than Bakunin could himself accept Marx's assurances that the proletarian state would harmlessly wither away.


I will conclude by citing an image used by Bakunin in conceptualizing the role of the revolutionary elite in the process of social transformation. It is an image that has resonances in Western political thought going back to the Greeks. In fact, it is perhaps the central image of domination in the tradition. Central and centralizing. It is the image of the Demiourgos: the artisan, craftsman, former and shaper. In the mind of Bakunin, this force becomes the Demiurge of Revolution, acting upon the materials at hand, the masses, and transforming them according to a vision of some higher Good. And for this there is a need for new deceptions of power, Noble Lies of Revolution, and of new mythologies of manipulation. Thus, we have Bakunin's own "Myth of the Metals":


"The aroused masses of people are like molten metal, which fuses into one continuous mass, and which lends itself to shaping much more easily than non-molten metal--that is, if there are good craftsmen who know how to mold it in accordance with the properties and intrinsic laws of a given metal, in accordance with the people's needs and instincts." (33)


(1) Max Nomad, Political Heretics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963), p. 52.

(2) G.P. Maximoff, ed. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (New York: Free Press, 1953), p. 248.

(3) Michel Bakounine, Oeuvres (Paris: Stock, 1895-1913) III: 15-17.

(4) Sam Dolgoff, ed. Bakunin on Anarchy (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 166.

(5) Oeuvres I: 133-34.

(6) Arthur Lehning, ed. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p. 154.

(7) Oeuvres III: 110-11.

(8) Michael Bakunin, God and the State (New York: Dover, 1970), p. 75.

(9) Michael Bakunin, Statism and Anarchism (New York: Revisionist Press, 1976), p. 302.

(10) God and the State, pp. 84-86.

(11) Maximoff, p.324.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Lehning, p. 265.

(14) Dolgoff, p. 221; Maximoff, p. 216.

(15) Maximoff, p. 218.

(16) Dolgoff, p. 222.

(17) Maximoff, pp. 183-84.

(18) Ibid., p. 188.

(19) Lehning, pp. 253-57.

(20) Ibid., p. 258.

(21) Dolgoff, p. 318.

(22) Ibid., p. 319.

(23) "Foundations of a New Slavic Policy," quoted in Arthur Mendel, Michael Bakunin: The Roots of Apocalypse (New York: Preager, 1983), p. 216. See also Bakunin's account in his Confession.

(24) Mendel, p. 229.

(25) Ibid., p. 262-63.

(26) Ibid., pp. 296-97.

(27) Ibid., pp. 306-07.

(28) Oeuvres, I: 43.

(29) Mendel, p. 326.

(30) Ibid., pp. 335-36.

(31) Michel Bakounine, Oeuvres Compl├Ętes (Paris: Champs Libre, 1973) V: 233.

(32) Lehning, p. 180.

(33) Maximoff, p. 384.