Bakunin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (1814–1876)

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Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin, the anarchist writer and revolutionary leader, was born on the estate of Premukhino in the Russian province of Tver'. His family were hereditary noblemen of liberal political inclinations. His father had been in Paris during the French Revolution and had taken his doctorate of philosophy at Padua. His mother was a member of the Murav'av family; three of her cousins were involved in the earliest Russian revolution, the December rising of constitutionalists in 1825. Bakunin was carefully educated under the supervision of his father, who regarded himself as a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; later he was sent to the Artillery School in St. Petersburg. He received his commission and went on garrison duty in Lithuania. An awakening taste for literature made him discontent with military life, and in 1835 he obtained his discharge from the army and went to Moscow to study philosophy. There he joined the discussion circle centered on Nicolai Stankevich, which concentrated on contemporary German philosophy.

Hegelianism and Revolution

Bakunin was first influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte; his earliest literary task was the translation of that philosopher's writings for Vissarion Belinskii's periodical, the Teleskop (The Telescope). Later he transferred his allegiance to G. W. F. Hegel, and he advocated the Hegelian doctrine in its most conservative form with such enthusiasm that when Stankevich left for western Europe, Bakunin became the leader of the Hegelian school in Moscow and challenged the liberalism of the rival group associated with Alexander Herzen, who propagated the ideas of Charles Fourier, Comte de Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Bakunin left Russia in 1840 to study German philosophy in Berlin. He still wished to become a professor of philosophy, and assiduously attended the lectures for some time; in his leisure hours he frequented the literary salons in the company of Ivan Turgenev, who used him as a model for the hero of his first novel, Rudin.

In 1842 Bakunin moved to Dresden, an intellectual as well as a physical journey. He had made the acquaintance of Arnold Ruge, leader of the Young Hegelians, whose contention that Hegel's dialectical method could be used more convincingly to support revolution than reaction was to influence almost every school of socialist philosophy in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Bakunin's meeting with Ruge, combined with his reading of Lorenz von Stein's writings on Fourier and Proudhon, effected a change of his viewpoint that had all the strength of religious conversion.

The first manifestation of this change was the essay "Reaction in GermanyA Fragment by a Frenchman," which Bakunin published under the nom de plume of Jules Elysard in Ruge's Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst (October 1842). It puts forward a Young Hegelian view of revolution; before it succeeds, revolution is a negative force, but when it triumphs, it will, by a dialectical miracle, immediately become positive. However, the most striking feature of the essay is the apocalyptic tone in which Bakunin introduces the themerecurrent in his writingsof destruction as a necessary element in the process of social transformation. "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."

"Reaction in Germany," with its glorification of the idea of perpetual revolt, was the first step toward Bakunin's later anarchism, but he went through many stages before he reached that destination. At first, in Switzerland, he associated with the German revolutionary communist, Wilhelm Weitling. This drew the attention of the Russian authorities to Bakunin's awakening radicalism, and he was condemned in absentia to indefinite exile with hard labor in Siberia.


Meanwhile, Bakunin moved to Paris, where he associated with Karl Marx, Robert de Lamennais, George Sand, and, most important, Proudhon. Only in later years did these discussions bear fruit, when Bakunin became Marx's great enemy and Proudhon's great disciple; for the time being, he was concerned with the liberation of the Poles and other Slav peoples. For his speeches against the Russian government he was expelled to Belgium; he returned to Paris with the February Revolution of 1848. The years of the revolutions in Europe18481849were the most dramatic period of Bakunin's life. He was an enthusiastic partisan of the uprising in France; later in 1848 he fought on the barricades of Prague, and in March 1849, he took a leading part, with Richard Wagner, in the Dresden revolution. He was captured there and, after periods in Saxon and Austrian prisons and twice being sentenced to death and reprieved, he was handed over to the Russian authorities, who imprisoned him in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Six years there ruined his health. In 1857 he was sent to exile in Siberia, and in 1861 he escaped, via Japan and the United States, to western Europe.

During the years of action and imprisonment Bakunin produced two important works, the Appeal to the Slavs, written in the interval between the Prague and Dresden revolutions, and the Confession, which he wrote in prison at the request of Tsar Nicholas II and which was published after the Russian Revolution. The Appeal to the Slavs is much more than a statement of Bakunin's Pan-Slavism; in many ways it anticipates his later anarchist attitudes. The social revolution, he declares, must take precedence over the political revolution and, on moral grounds, he claims that the social revolution must be total. "We must first of all purify our atmosphere and transform completely the surroundings in which we live, for they corrupt our instincts and our wills. Therefore the social question appears first of all as the overthrow of society," by which Bakunin evidently means the overthrow of the contemporary social order. Bakunin further maintains that liberty is indivisible and thus implies the rejection of individualism in favor of the collectivism that becomes explicit in the later development of his anarchist doctrine. The Confession is important principally for its account of the early development of Bakunin's revolutionary philosophy.

After his escape to western Europe in 1861, Bakunin resumed the course of Pan-Slavism he had been forced to abandon in 1849 but, after taking part in an abortive Polish attempt to invade Lithuania in 1863, he went to Italy.


In 1865 Bakunin founded the International Brotherhood in Naples. Its programembodied in Bakunin's Revolutionary Catechism was anarchism without the name; it rejected the state and organized religion, advocated communal autonomy within a federal structure, and maintained that labor "must be the sole base of human right and of the economic organization of the state." In keeping with the cult of violence that was part of the romantic revolutionary tradition, Bakunin insisted that the social revolution could not be achieved by peaceful means.

The International Brotherhood was a conspiratorial organization, for Bakunin never outlived his taste for the dark and the secret. Nevertheless, in 1867 he emerged into public life as a figurehead of the short-lived League for Peace and Freedom. This was mainly a body of pacifistic liberals, within which Bakunin led the left wing.

Bakunin was not a systematic writer. He admitted that he had no sense of "literary architecture" and saw himself primarily as a man of action, although his action was rarely successful and his life was punctuated by abortive revolutions. His writings were intended to provoke action; they were topical in inspiration, if not always in content, and it is in pamphlets on current events and in reports written for congresses and organizations that his opinions are scattered. One such report, prepared for the benefit of the central committee of the League for Peace and Freedom, was eventually published as Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism. More than any other work, it contains the gist of Bakunin's anarchism.

Bakunin was not a great theoretical originator. The influences in his writings are obviousHegel, Auguste Comte, Proudhon, Ruge, Charles Darwin, and even Marx. Original in Bakunin are his insight into contemporary events (he prophesied with uncanny exactitude the way in which a Marxist state would operate) and his power to create a synthesis of borrowed ideas around which the early anarchist movement could crystallize. In Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism the view of the structure of a desirable society is almost completely derived from Proudhon's federalism. In one vital respect, however, Bakunin's view differs from Proudhon's: While he follows Proudhon in measuring the consumer's right to goods by the quantity of his labor, he also advocates the collectivization of the means of production under public ownership; Proudhon and his mutualist followers wished to retain individual possession of land and tools by peasants and artisans as far as possible, in order to create a guarantee of personal independence. This difference was regarded as so important that Bakunin's followers were actually described as "collectivists" and did not assume the name of "anarchists" until the 1870s.

In 1868 Bakunin left the League for Peace and Freedom to found the International Alliance of Social Democracy, which was dissolved when he and his followers entered the International Workingmen's Association in 1869. Within the International, Bakunin and the southern European federations challenged the power of Marx. The dispute centered on disagreement over political methods. Marx and his followers held that socialists must seize the state and usher in a transitional dictatorship of the proletariat. Bakunin argued that power seized by workers was no less evil than power in other hands, and a communist state would magnify the evil of other states; he called for the earliest possible destruction of the state and the avoidance of political means toward that end. The workers must win their own liberation by economic and insurrectional means. The dispute came to a head at The Hague Congress of the International in 1872, when Bakunin was expelled. The southern federations and those of the Low Countries seceded to form their own federation, and Marx's remnant faded away.

Meanwhile, Bakunin's health declined rapidly. He took part in the Lyons rebellion of 1870 and in the abortive Bologna uprising of 1874. He died, exhausted, two years later at Bern. After his death, the anarchist communism of Pëtr Alekseevich Kropotkin superseded his collectivist anarchism, except in Spain, where the large anarchist movement held his ideas in their purity until 1939.

See also Anarchism; Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor'evich; Comte, Auguste; Darwin, Charles Robert; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Fourier, François Marie Charles; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Kropotkin, Pëtr Alekseevich; Lamennais, Hugues Félicité Robert de; Marx, Karl; Political Philosophy, History of; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Russian Philosophy; Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de.


works by bakunin

The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin: With the Marginal Comments of Tsar Nicholas I. Translated by R. C. Howes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Statism and Anarchy. Translated by M. S. Shatz. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The Basic Bakunin: Writings, 18691871. Translated by R. M. Cutler. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1992.

Political Thought, edited by M. Rosen and J. Wolff, with the assistance of C. McKinnon. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

works on bakunin

Aldred, G. A. Bakunin. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Kelly, A. Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Maximoff, G. P., editor. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. New York: The Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1953.

McLaughlin, P. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Theory of Anarchism. New York: Algora, 2002.

Mendel, A. P. Michael Bakunin: Roots of Apocalypse. New York: Praeger, 1981.

Saltman, R. B. The Social and Political Thought of Michael Bakunin.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

George Woodcock (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)