Mikhail Bakunin (God and the State and Other Anarchist Selections)

This summary is for our group Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club meeting on April 8th from 4pm- 7pm.

GAS=God and the State

SSA=Stateless Socialism=Anarchism

SA=Statism and Anarchy

RC=Revolutionary Catechism

WIS=Where I Stand

Bakunin’s entire political enterprise rests on the notion of freedom, for people, and that which denies this freedom, authority. Any system or body that is put in place that realizes an authoritative stance, whether it is a god, the state or even a parent, is deplorable to Bakunin and must be revolted against. Our readings this week can be read from such an angle towards freedom and against authority. He does not say God is horrible, instead he strongly believes what the notion of God, in particular here a Christian god, does to humans is horrible. The State similarly, in a congealed, bureaucratized and hierarchical form too will always and forever subordinate humans and limit them in some way. Again, he is against the State here, but he is not throwing his hands up totally in regards to a social life between humans. This weeks readings give insight into Bakunin’s understanding of freedom and authority, the two best examples of the latter being, God and the State. As for the former, freedom, we will discuss Bakunin’s socialism in comparison to Marx’s, ending our discussion on his “Revolutionary Catechism” which reads as a futuristic list of demands for the kind of society Bakunin imagines. Held beside our previous discussions, which have tried to imagine a future society outside of our current neoliberal one, Bakunin’s work (almost all of which were fragments) and the life that he led in particular adds a great deal to the discussion.

If authority is what Bakunin detests with all his heart, let us begin there. First in the abstract sense, what is authority? Authority is a power coming from laws of the natural world that are manifested in the physical and social worlds in which we reside (GAS, 28). We cannot know them, we can misunderstand them, but we cannot disobey them. In a strong sense, Bakunin’s “authority” comes awfully close to our understanding of hegemony that we have been building in our group, he writes, “they constitute the basis and fundamental conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements, thoughts and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only show their omnipotence” (GAS, 28). We are slaves to these laws since they are not outside of us, they constitute our whole being and without them we are nothing. We haven’t made the jump yet from these natural laws of authority to the manifestation of them into and by an authoritative construct (i.e. State or God). Because of this, we might not call this slavery at all, since there is no external master outside of us who is commanding a particular manifestation of this authority. In our relation to these natural laws within us, we have but one liberty—the capacity to recognize and apply them (GAS, 29). By doing so, we exercise an authority and this authority, this “government of common sense” is never questioned (Ibid). At issue is not this process, nor the natural laws of this authority established by science, but that a great number of people are unaware of these laws, thanks to the government. Secondarily if not obviously, a great number of these laws in their application to human society (by a political body) have been poorly established and not have not been recognized by science itself. Political organization, direction and legislation that come, even if they conform to the system of natural laws, will always be hostile to the liberty and freedom of people, since they will always be a system imposing external laws. Bakunin sums up this libertarian view,

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally impose upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual” (GAS, 30).

Simply said then, freedom is not granted to us by the State (formal freedom), it is prescribed to us by the laws of our own nature and it consists in the total development of all the material, intellectual and spiritual powers that are in a potential state in everyone, thus no external legislators could enforce laws of freedom on us (WIS, 1).

Let us move from the abstract to the concrete. Though he shared a great deal of his concerns and conclusions, Bakunin is often contrasted with Marx (who he in fact had a heated argument with). Keeping these ideas of authority in mind, this contrast is made clear. Bakunin totally rejected positivism and the application, notably by an external force, of scientific laws governing objects to the behaviors of living people who have the ability to modify and choose (SA, 2). Bakunin’s use of science here is rather important.

Marx’s revolution, coming from theoretical analysis of natural laws, intending to be by the people, installs a new State (of the people). Bakunin and other “revolutionary anarchists” declare themselves enemies of the state and the statist principle (SA, 4). For Bakunin, natural and social life always comes before theory and theory is always created by life and can therefore never create it. We can understand theories as mileposts and road signs, they can indicate the direction and the different stages of life, but they cannot directly influence it. Bakunin believes strongly that people carry within themselves the future of social organization and that no scheme can be concocted from books that would be better than that scheme which is already within people. Putting these direct jabs to the intellectual establishment aside (he is filled with them), Bakunin believes that every state power, places itself outside and over people and to maintain itself this body necessarily subordinates the needs and aspirations of people (ibid).

Marx’s communism falsely imagines itself to be the will of the people. How is this actually put into action? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? What does this mean if 40 million Germans or 80 million Russians become a part of the government? This would be an impossibility, indeed the real living people haven’t the foggiest idea of this new ideology. For this and because of this Marxist theory comes up with a solution, the rule of a small number of people who represent the others. Of course this remains pseudo-representative. This is to say, Marx’s government of the people conceals the fact that it is still very much a state (albeit a new one) which has been conceived of by and is being run by a handful of privileged elite (presumably Marx and his intellectual friends) (ibid). Each step of the way, Bakunin seems to have a profound understanding or sensitivity to what it means to take on the responsibility of others and what can come with that responsibility (i.e. a politics and with it certain and specific claims in particular person’s wants and needs over others). In this context, if the proletariat are to become the ruling class, who are they to rule over? Always someone. The factory proletariats over the farming proletariats. Intellectuals over the factory workers. Marxist are well aware of this predicament and their measured response is that this rule over will only be temporary. In time, people are to be educated economically and politically to the point that a government is unnecessary and the state would come to lose its coercive character over people such that it develops into a free organization of communes (SA, 6). Bakunin would not have any of this, since the means to such an aim (in which he would agree with this aim) is still through a state dictatorship. Along with our previous discussions, especially as it was mentioned in the text Inventing the Future, Bakunin believes revolutions do not happen because their is no common ideal capable of inspiring a popular revolution. He completely embraces propaganda and a commitment to changing popular thought (SA, 17). At the same time, the social revolution cannot be done by any particular nation, but must be international in scope (SA, 13). Instead of this state socialism, an authoritarian revolution, a revolution from the top down, Bakunin wants a different kind of socialism, led by a libertarian revolution—a revolution from the bottom up (SSA, 5).

Socialism is justice and justice means equity, yet such socialism has never existed in any pure form across history (SSA, 1). Marx’s way would never lead to such equity as we have seen. Bakunin sees it best not to propose a new socialist system, but principle: “that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop all his humanity” (SSA, 1). This translates into the following problem worth quoting in full since it is the base from which our later discussion of anarchism will unfold.

“To organize society in such a manner that every individual, man or woman, should find, upon entering life, approximately equal means for the development of his or her diverse faculties and their utilization in his or her work. And to organize such a society that, rendering impossible the exploitation of anyone’s labor, will enable every individual to enjoy the social wealth, which in reality is produced only by collective labor, but to enjoy it only in so far as he contributes directly toward the creation of that wealth.” (SSA, 2).

There is after all no combination of geniuses so capable of representing the infinite multiplicity and diversity of all the people, their interests and aspirations (SSA, 4). Bakunin wants to abolish all political power and establish a federation from the bottom up, a genuine people’s republic, the republic as a true commune—the system of Anarchism (SSA, 3). How would this come about? Here lies an interesting similarity on the two sides of the Libertarian table, the anarchist-libertarian and the capitalist libertarian. Whereas the latter is committed to the spontaneous whim of capital, Bakunin believes that equality should and would “be established in the world by a spontaneous organization of labor and collective property, by the free organization of producers’ associations into communes, and free federation of communes” (SSA, 4). We will return to more detailed points Bakunin makes in his “Revolutionary Catechism”, below.

Bakunin’s sentiments about the State hold true for God. In God and the State he works with very similar themes in the context of and against a human construct, which by claiming a certain form of authority, imposes restrictions on people. The text is incomplete and at times reads like a tirade, but it brings further insight into Bakunin’s concerns for people, that is, his strong belief that governments, and God here in particular, systematically poison and stupefy the masses (GAS, 11). In this text, more than the others, Bakunin as a moral personality comes out more than anything else, rather than Bakunin as an intellectual authority (GAS, vi). This distinction may not have been particularly useful in our past readings, but with Bakunin especially it seems like a sensible remark. While reading him one gets a sense of not only a childlike enthusiasm, as Avrich in the introduction remarked, but of a childlike deviousness, an inclination to revolt endlessly. Case in point, his version of Genesis is devious and fun in and of itself, so let us start there.

God, in his “egoistic solitude”, had created Adam and Eve for reasons we never know. Granting them the entire Earth, he placed a single limit on them. In so doing this he damned them to remain as eternal beast before God. But in comes Satan, “eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds” who “makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him…” (GAS, 10). God, “flew into a terrible ridiculous rage; he cursed Satan, man and the world created by himself, striking himself so to speak in his own creation as children do when they get angry; and, not content with smiting our ancestors themselves, he cursed them in all the generations to come, innocent of the crime committed by their forefathers” (ibid). Catholic and Protestant theologians look at this as being just and profound just because of its very iniquity and absurdity (GAS,11). God, remembering that he was not only a God of wrath, but also a God of love took pity on humans and sent him his son, only so that he may be killed (ibid). This became known as the mystery of Redemption, the basis of all Christian religions. Moreover, the paradise promised by Christ, is meant for an elect few, all others will eternally burn in hell. Bakunin ends, “Such are the absurd tales that are told and the monstrous doctrines that are taught, n the full light of the nineteenth century, in all public schools of Europe at the express command of the government” (ibid).

Bakunin derives three fundamental principles from this myth and two caricatures. In emancipating itself from its animality, humans had become something uniquely human—a human animality, as he calls it. With this, humans began to embark on a distinctly human history through this act of disobedience and what he calls “science”—or in other words, rebellion and thought. With human animality, we have the social and private. With thought, we have science. And with rebellion, is liberty. As for the caricatures, we have the idealist and materialist. One is described as the opposite of the other, such that we might simply look at the idealist (a long list of individuals including theologians, philosophers and politicians), who believes that all matter is vile. Their work transformed the only non-real matter into the only “real” matter, God. He writes,

They have taken away from matter intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging roles, the have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, “supreme Being.” And, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing” (GAS, 13).

We should rest there, but Bakunin is eager for more. The idealists insist on a salto mortale from which the divine, eternal, infinite and absolutely perfect decided to no longer be as such. All philosophical systems and religions hinge on this “iniquitous mystery”, this leap into the profane. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, not to mention the Indian philosophers have written beautiful systems to describe this leap, but it remains a mystery (GAS, 15). In the mind of Bakunin, these efforts have been such a waste, albeit a beautiful one. But he asks the question, how would intelligent and well-informed people ever come into believing this mystery of the ages? People accept religion “without criticism and in a lump” (GAS, 16). Although he does not go into detail here, he does briefly mention how ignorance is a great condition for the use of power, particularly by a governmental body. Harkening on that notion of hegemony discussed earlier, or authority for Bakunin, he describes how religion is “artificially sustained” in the minds of people by a multitude of officials (from priests to laymen).

There is of course a class of people who do not share any of these religious beliefs, but they at least give the appearance of believing. For Bakunin it is this very class, which comprises all tormentors and oppressors including; the priests, monarchs, statesmen, jailers, monopolists, “vendors of sweet meats” and so many more (GAS, 17). His blending here of collaborators of the State and its administration and what we might call collaborators of God/religion and its administration is rather intriguing. It is not surprising here that he quotes Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (ibid). Yet another class, does not take to the Christian doctrines seriously at all, yet they haven’t the courage to renounce them altogether.

Bakunin settles down a bit. For the revolutionary socialist, none of this is surprising. History appears to us as the revolutionary negation of the past it consists in the progressive negation of the primitive animality of man by the development of his humanity (GAS, 21). Why we still believe in god the divine idea is an outcome of ourselves, an error historically necessary in the development of humanity (GAS, 22). We must take note and grab hold of this “development of religious hallucinations in human conscience” (GAS, 23).   When we can fully give an account of the supernatural or divine world, how this world developed and more crucially how it developed in the historical evolution of the human consciousness, all our scientific conviction of the absurdity of it all will be continually be in vain (ibid). If we want to succeed in annihilating the opinions of the majority, again a necessary measure for Bakunin’s revolution, we must reach into the depths of the human being where these ideas are born. Perhaps even, the revolution starts here. Summarizing his thoughts on religion he writes: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice,· it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice” (GAS, 25). Returning us full circle to his detest for authority, he continues a little later on the same page, “If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist” (ibid).

To end we might highlight a few points from Bakunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism”, a document highlighting the practical problems of the Anarchist revolution as well as describing a list, in effect, of commands. As we mentioned with the transitional phase of Marx’s communism above, Bakunin was well aware that his project would take generations and therefore this document or outline was meant towards the more immediate early stages of the revolution. Much of what we have discussed is here in condensed form. The direction of this revolution and the ultimate political and economic organization of social life, for example, is clearly outlined as starting from base to summit, from center to circumference (RA, 1), in contrast to Marx’s revolution which in spirit is intended to move in this direction, but in action, doesn’t. The only way to real freedom, unconditional freedom as he writes in his, “Where I Stand”, is through the actualization of certain conditions, in which this catechism is one long list. A few are worth highlighting as they offer further insight into Bakunin’s thought. We might end here and use a selection of these points as a conclusion.

A.) The abolition of all state religions and all privileged churches, including those partially maintained or supported by state subsidies. Absolute liberty of every religion to build temples to their gods, and to pay and support their priests.

B.) Abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth

C.) The abolition of all classes, ranks and privileges; absolute equality for all men and women; universal suffrage

D.) The total abolition, dissolution, and moral, political and economic dismantling of the all-pervasive, regimented, centralized State.

E.) Immediate direct election of all judicial and civil functionaries as well as representatives (national, provincial, and communal delegates) by the universal suffrage of both sexes.

F.) Individual rights. The right of every man and woman, from birth to adulthood, to complete upkeep, clothes, food, shelter, care, guidance, education (public schools, primary, secondary, higher education, artistic, industrial, and scientific), all at the expense of society.


And further on these individual rights:

  1. The freedom of adults of both sexes must be absolute and complete, freedom to come and go, to voice all opinions, to be lazy or active, moral or immoral, in short, to dispose of one’s person or possessions as one pleases, being accountable to no one. Freedom to live, be it honestly, by one’s own labor, even at the expense of individuals who voluntarily tolerate one’s exploitation.
  1. Unlimited freedom of propaganda, speech, press, public or private assembly, with no other restraint than the natural salutary power of public opinion. Absolute freedom to organize associations even for allegedly immoral purposes including even those associations which advocate the undermining ( or destruction ) of individual and public freedom.


G.) The basic unit of all political organization in each country must be the completely autonomous commune, constituted by the majority vote of all adults of both sexes.

H.) The province must be nothing but a free federation of autonomous communes. The nation must be nothing but a federation of autonomous provinces.

I.) From the moment of pregnancy to birth, a woman and her children shall be subsidized by the communal organization. Women who wish to nurse and wean their children shall also be subsidized.

J.) Parents shall have the right to care for and guide the education of their children, under the ultimate control of the commune which retains the right and the obligation to take children away from parents who, by example or by cruel and inhuman treatment, demoralize or otherwise hinder the physical and mental development of their children.

K.)  Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong to themselves and to their own future liberty. Until old enough to take care of themselves, children must be brought up under the guidance of their elders. It is true that parents are their natural tutors, but since the very future of the commune itself depends upon the intellectual and moral training it gives to children, the commune must be the tutor. The freedom of adults is possible only when the free society looks after the education of minors.


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