Bakunin, Mikhail

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Mikhail Bakunin

May 30, 1814

Premukhino, Russia

July 1, 1876

Bern, Switzerland

Philosopher and anarchist

"It is obvious that liberty will never be given to humanity and that the real interests of society, of all groups, local associations, and individuals who make up society will never be satisfied until there are no longer any states."

T he world in which Mikhail Bakunin lived was very different from that of the early twenty-first century. When he was active in politics, between about 1840 and 1876, the idea of a sudden uprising by workers seemed real and quite possible, based on actual events that had taken place in 1848 and after. Bakunin thought that his dream—in which poor factory workers and peasants would rise up to seize power and found a communist society in which all people were equal—was a practical possibility. He spent his adult life trying to make such a revolution take place, and in the process he developed the theory of revolutionary terrorism.

The political idea most closely linked with Bakunin is anarchism. This word comes from the same root as "anarchy," or chaos, but it means something very different. Anarchism is a theory, put forward by several nineteenth-century writers, that says society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations. The ideal social structure, in the anarchist's view, is a small village where people voluntarily join in common efforts and decide together on standards of conduct. Anarchists believe that traditional

governments tend to be forced on people from the outside. These traditional governments, ruling over whole countries, tend to be undemocratic (not allowing its citizens to have a say in government through voting) and coercive (using force to require certain behavior).

Words to Know

a theory that says society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations.
a class of people with special privileges inherited from birth.
an economic system in which factories and other businesses are owned and controlled by private individuals.
a group of people in society who share the same political and economic status.
Middle class:
people who have some money and political rights.
a nineteenth-century political philosophy in Russia that supported the use of terrorism to bring about revolution.
the working class; people without property or political rights.
a person who believes in popular democratic control of the economy as well as the government.
Working class:
people without property or political rights.

A young aristocrat

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin was born into a well-to-do family of minor aristocrats in Russia, where society had barely changed for hundreds of years. Russia in 1814 was led by the czar (also spelled tsar; king), Alexander I (1777-1825), who was an absolute ruler, meaning he was not subject to any law. Most Russians were poor peasants, living and working on farmland owned by the aristocracy (a class of people with special privileges inherited from birth). These peasants had few freedoms, no say in government, and little hope of improving their lives. Most were legally tied to the land on which they lived and worked, unable to travel freely around the country.

Like most young aristocrats, Bakunin became a military officer. At age fourteen he was sent to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg to train as an artillery officer. (Artillery is the part of an army that operates large, heavy guns, like cannon.) He became an officer and went to serve in the towns of Minsk and Grodno (now in Poland but then part of the Russian empire). Bakunin served in the military for three years, until he was twenty-one years old, when he left the army and moved to Moscow to study philosophy.

In 1840 Bakunin went to Berlin (at the time, the center of philosophical studies in Europe) to get an advanced degree. His plan was to return to the University of Moscow and become a professor of philosophy.

Early industrial society

The Industrial Revolution, a time in which goods began to be mass produced with the use of machines, began in England in the second half of the eighteenth century and quickly spread throughout Europe. A new class of wealthy factory owners had arisen, making huge fortunes and gaining strong influence over government. Workers in the new factories were mostly displaced peasants whose status was similar to the landless peasants that Bakunin had seen in Russia. Workers had few rights, received low wages, and had no benefits. Most often they were crammed into cramped houses in the cities that had grown up around the new factories. If a worker fell ill or was injured in the factory and could not work, he was fired and replaced. Workers were often reduced to begging on the streets. Sometimes they starved. Perhaps most important, modern democracy had not yet developed. Most workers did not have the right to vote, so they had little hope of changing the terrible condition of their lives.

Proposed social solutions

These conditions horrified many philosophers, including Bakunin. Another social philosopher of his time who was disturbed by the status of workers was a German named Karl Marx (1818–1883). Both men came to some of the same conclusions:

  • Major changes were needed to fix the injustices of the industrial system.
  • The governments in industrialized countries had become a tool to protect the interests of factory owners, cracking down on any efforts by workers to make changes.
  • The situation was so bad that workers should revolt. This included seizing the factories, the source of wealth, in order to gain democratic control over both the government and the source of economic power.

In Berlin, Bakunin became active in political movements whose members wanted to start a revolution to create a more democratic society. He knew Marx, as well as other leading philosophers of the left wing, which supported popular control over government (led by the people) and the economy to bring about a more equal distribution of power and wealth. He also began writing essays and pamphlets, arguing in support of such changes. His radical politics brought him to the attention of authorities back in Russia. At the time the Russian government held that Russians needed permission to leave the country and claimed the right to order its citizens back home. This is what happened to Bakunin in 1844, the year he left Berlin for Paris, France, which was also a center of left-wing thought. Bakunin refused the Russian government's order to return home. As a result, he was stripped of his aristocratic status, tried in court in absentia (in his absence), and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, a remote, cold, and unpopulated region in northeastern Russia, should he ever return.

Over the next four years Bakunin became deeply involved in the movement of philosophers and activists supporting a revolution against the existing governments and the economic system called capitalism. (Capitalism is an economic system in which factories and other businesses are owned and controlled by private individuals.) Between 1844 and 1847 Bakunin met various writers, including Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), a French anarchist. In 1847 Bakunin made a speech at a banquet in Paris in which he criticized the government of Russia. As a result the French government ordered him to leave the country. He moved to Belgium but returned to Paris just two months later after French workers revolted.

Revolutions of 1848

In both France and Germany the late 1840s was a time of serious social unrest that peaked in 1848. On February 24, 1848, a mob attacked the Tuileries, home of the French king in Paris, forcing the government to flee. A socialist leader named Louis Blanc (1811–1882) declared the Second Republic (the First Republic had been founded in 1789, with the French Revolution). Socialism is a political and economic system in which there is no private property, and business and industry is, in theory, owned by the workers. It is the opposite of communism, under which, in theory, the community owns the factories and businesses and the goods they produce. Thus Blanc supported a system of universal voting and a more equal distribution of wealth. (His slogan, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," was later adopted by Marx.)

One of the most famous results of this time of social unrest was the Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet written by Marx and fellow philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in 1848, just weeks before the Paris revolt. In it Marx and Engels laid out their ideas for a future society in which equality would be achieved through common ownership of factories and popularly elected legislatures.

The uprising in Paris was followed by revolutions in Germany, Italy, the Austrian empire, and many other European countries. Most of these revolutions were more concerned with national independence than with reforming politics and economics. They were largely led by the middle class, or even the aristocracy, who wanted independence from the empires that ruled them. German and Italian revolutionaries wanted to unify their countries, which in 1848 were collections of independent states. Thinkers like Bakunin and Marx tried to shape these revolutions into a social uprising by workers against the owners of land and factories.

From revolution to prison

Bakunin also was busy trying to organize unhappy workers so they could seize power. Bakunin today is remembered for his theories, but between 1848 and 1851 he was actively involved in trying to start revolutions in several countries.

From Paris Bakunin traveled to Cologne, Germany, in March 1848 and met with Marx. Three months later Bakunin took part in a revolution in Prague (then part of the Austrian empire, now in the Czech Republic). Later in the same year Bakunin was thrown out of the German states of Prussia and Saxony and lived for a while in another principality (a small nation ruled by a prince) called Anhalt (later part of Germany). In January 1849 he traveled to Leipzig (then part of the small state of Bohemia, in what is now the western part of Czechoslovakia) to help with an uprising, and then to the German city of Dresden, where he led a popular but short-lived rebellion.

Shortly after the Dresden rebellion Bakunin was arrested in Germany and sentenced to death for his revolutionary activities. In June 1850 his death sentence was commuted (changed) to life in prison, and he was sent to Austria. Jailed in Prague, he was again sentenced to death, and again the sentence was commuted. He was sent back to Russia, where he spent six years in prison before being sent to live in Siberia, to serve the sentence handed down in 1844.

Back into the struggle

In 1861, ten years after he was sent to prison in Russia, Bakunin decided to escape from Siberia. He made his way hundreds of miles to the east coast of Russia and jumped aboard an American ship headed for Japan. From there he sailed to San Francisco, California, traveled to New York, and set sail again for England, where he arrived at the end of December 1861, six months after leaving Siberia.

Bakunin was now a full-time revolutionary. Over the next fourteen-and-a-half years, until his death in July 1876, Bakunin moved among several European cities, constantly writing books and pamphlets, trying to organize revolutionary parties, and quarreling with Marx, who became his bitter rival for leadership of Europe's growing socialist movement.

Basic Bakunin: What he believed

Many intellectuals and writers in the 1800s agreed that social reform was needed. Industrialism had brought poor workers into the cities and made their suffering worse, since there was no way for hungry city workers to grow their own food on tiny plots of land, as they could in the country. Industrialism also concentrated many workers in the same place, where their existence could not be easily ignored.

Many philosophers looking for a solution agreed on the basic concept of "class. " A class was a group of people in society who shared the same political and economic status. Some people were born into the aristocracy, a wealthy class of people who owned land. Others were born into the "working class, " people without property or political rights. A third class, the "middle class," were people who had some money and political rights. These people tended to be professionals, such as lawyers or doctors, or business owners. In the mid-1800s the biggest class by far was the working class, and people like Bakunin defended their rights.

One of Bakunin's central beliefs was that all governments existed to protect the rights of the upper class (including aristocrats and wealthy factory owners), to the disadvantage of the lower classes. He believed that governments had to be overthrown by violent revolution in order to achieve a fairer and more equal society. In contrast to Marx, who believed that the working class (which he called the "proletariat ") should seize the government and control it, Bakunin thought government should be destroyed by revolution and not be re-created. It was on this point that Bakunin and Marx most sharply disagreed.

In His Own Words

"The State, however popular may be the form it assumes, will always be an institution of domination and exploitation, and consequently a permanent source of poverty and enslavement for the populace. There is no other way, then, of emancipating [freeing] the people economically and politically, of giving them liberty and well-being at one and the same time than by abolishing [getting rid of] the State, all States, and, by so doing, killing, once and for all time, what, up to now, has been called 'Politics.'."

From Politics and the State (1871)

Bakunin also believed that economic power was not the only important factor in people's lives. He thought social controls, including religion, were equally important. Bakunin thought government helped maintain social classes and social controls, as well as economic controls. Most religions, for example, had the financial backing of one government or another in nineteenth-century Europe.

Finally, Bakunin believed that governments tended to look after their own interests above all else. Even though some governments might pass laws to relieve suffering (as had begun to happen after 1850), when the existence of a government was challenged, it would turn immediately to military force to protect itself. Even a socialist government, he thought, would fall into this self-protective behavior. On this, he wrote: "The State [government] never had a morality [system of rules of good and just conduct], and can never have one. Its only morality and justice is its own advantage, its own existence, and its own omnipotence [total power] at any price. Before these interests, all interests of mankind must disappear. The State is the negation of manhood."

Rather than a central government, Bakunin suggested voluntary associations of people who would work for their mutual economic and social benefit. Trade unions were an example of such associations, in Bakunin's view. His idea of society as one without a large central government is known as anarchism. Bakunin spent the last third of his life supporting the cause of anarchism, trying to organize political parties that would destroy existing governments and bring about this new form of society.

Bringing about a revolution

Bakunin had no problem with using violence to put an end to existing governments. He also believed that revolutionaries should attack government institutions as a means of destroying government in general. For this reason, he is often thought of as the author of the idea of "revolutionary terrorism."

In 1866 Bakunin wrote a pamphlet titled Revolutionary Catechism. In it he maintained:

The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured [consumed] by one purpose, one thought, one passion—the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed [broken] every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose—to destroy it.

Bakunin's ideas about anarchism—especially the need to destroy social controls—found an enthusiastic audience, particularly after his death in 1876. Individuals, or small groups of individuals, believed they were acting on his teachings when they used assassinations and bombings to bring about social change. To a significant extent, the actions of anarchists after Bakunin's death influenced the popular understanding of his ideas.

Bakunin and Russian Nihilism

Mikhail Bakunin is sometimes called the father of Russian Nihilism (pronounced NEE-hu-liz-uhm or NYE-huliz-uhm). This is a term with different meanings. "Nihilism" sometimes means the belief that life is without meaning, and that there are no real moral "truths." This meaning is often associated with despair and the attitude that "nothing matters, so what's the use?"

The other meaning is a belief that social conditions are so bad that destruction becomes worthwhile for its own sake. When spelled with a capital "N," Nihilist refers to a specific nineteenth-century political party in Russia that supported the use of terrorism to bring about revolution. Bakunin believed that peasants in Russia could start a revolution, and he believed that violence was required to bring down existing governments. These were two points on which he disagreed with the German philosopher Karl Marx.

But other revolutionaries in Russia, particularly Sergei Nechayev, agreed with Bakunin. Nechayev was notable for his support of terrorism—especially assassination—as a means of sparking a revolution. Bakunin was briefly allied with Nechayev from March 1869 until June 1870.

Bakunin and terrorism

Bakunin is often associated with revolutionary terrorism, largely based on his brief association with fellow Russian revolutionary Sergei Nechayev (pronounced nee-CHI-ev; 1847–1882) from 1869 to 1870. But in most of his writings, Bakunin did not specifically suggest terrorism as a way to destroy the state. For the most part, he was vague on exactly how the state would be overthrown. Although Bakunin spent years trying to organize political parties and associations to support anarchism, he pictured an unplanned uprising of workers or peasants that would overthrow the government.

Bakunin often wrote about ideals involving the equality of all people—men and women—and the destruction of classes in a future society that would be governed through democratic "communes," or voluntary communities. He strongly disliked Marx's idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat," in which society would be led by a group claiming to represent working people. For Bakunin, any control of society by a government, regardless of who was in charge, was unacceptable.

For conservatives (traditionalists), and for many socialists, it was Bakunin's philosophy that was unacceptable. His disapproval of religion in general and his desire to get rid of official state religions was deeply offensive to many. (He did, however, like the American model of religious freedom in which religious organizations depended on their own resources.) Even more shocking were his statements about getting rid of the state. So it was no surprise that his name was linked to terrorism: many people saw it as an example of what would happen if there were no government to prevent crime.

At the same time, terrorists active in Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century, long after his death, often stated their support of Bakunin's ideas. This was sometimes in opposition to the growing communist movement that followed Bakunin's great rival, Marx, who believed a strong revolutionary government was needed to establish a better system of socialism.

For More Information


Aldred, Guy A. Mikhail Bakunin, Communist. Glasgow: Bakunin House, 1920.

Bakunin, Mikhail. Politics and the State. 1871.

Bakunin, Mikhail. Revolutionary Catechism. 1869.

Masters, Anthony. Bakunin, the Father of Anarchism. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1974.

Nomad, Max. Apostles of Revolution. Boston: Little Brown, 1939.

Pyzuir, Eugene. The Doctrine of Anarchism of Michael A. Bakunin. Chicago: Regnery, 1968.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Section: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.


Chastain, James G. "Bakunin as a French Secret Agent in 1848." History Today, August 1981, p. 5.

Rose, Jonathan. "What 19th-century Terror Tells Us about Today's: What Did Terrorists Hope to Gain from Their Deadly Crimes 100 Years Ago?" Scholastic Update, May 16, 1986, p.7.

Bakunin, Mikhail

views updated May 17 2018


BAKUNIN, MIKHAIL (1814–1876), Russian anarchist.

Born a Russian nobleman, Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin became a revolutionary and died one of his century's most charismatic and controversial men. He is most famous for leading the anarchist opposition to Karl Marx within the International Workingmen's Association. Their rivalry caused a split within the International and hastened its demise. Bakunin's anarchist criticism of modern life also stimulated theories of "creative destruction" across a range of disciplines, from art to economics. His hairy, bearded image remains a radical icon.

Bakunin lived an adventure-filled life. He was born on his family's serf estate in the province of Tver on 30 May (18 May, old style) 1814; completed the Imperial Artillery School and served briefly as a lieutenant; and then spent the years from 1835 to 1840 studying German idealism and preparing to become a scholar. After traveling to Germany in 1840, however, he abandoned his hopes for a university career and declared himself done with all philosophizing. In 1842 he published a blistering critique of contemporary society titled "The Reaction in Germany: A Fragment by a Frenchman." The essay ended with Bakunin's most famous pronouncement: "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."

Living in Paris in the 1840s, Bakunin met other radicals, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, George Sand, Louis Blanc, and Marx. During the revolutions of 1848, Bakunin sought to upend the Habsburg and Russian Empires by sparking a pan-Slavic revolutionary movement—but the spark failed to catch. Arrested in Saxony in 1849, Bakunin spent much of the next decade in Austrian and Russian prisons, before being exiled to Siberia by the tsar. Escaping his exile, Bakunin crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and returned to London, where he was taken in by his fellow Russian émigré, Alexander Herzen.

This began the final and most active phase of Bakunin's life as a revolutionary. First, in 1863, he sought to rally Russian support for the Polish Uprising (a stance that alienated many of his countrymen). Then, in 1869, Bakunin led a group of his Geneva supporters into the International (Marx later accused Bakunin of planning a conspiratorial takeover of the organization). Bakunin's popularity among radicals in Spain, France, and Italy soared, as the Paris Commune made his vision of immediate revolution seem feasible. His ideas also found enthusiastic reception in his native Russia, where university students went out "to the people" inspired by Bakunin's vision of "revolution from below." The Commune's defeat, however, and Bakunin's collaboration with a particularly blood-thirsty revolutionary named Sergei Nechayev gave Marx an excuse to exclude his rival from the International (1872). Bakunin's health declined thereafter, and he died in Bern, Switzerland, on 1 July (19 June, old style) 1876.

Historians agree that the rivalry between Marx and Bakunin was in part caused by their outsized egos and temperaments. But their antipathy also reflected profound philosophical differences over the nature of revolution, and revolutionary tactics. Marx held that the revolution would be made by the most advanced elements of the working class, who would organize to seize political power. Bakunin, by contrast, believed that Europe's most exploited individuals—its unskilled laborers and peasants—were its most radical revolutionary force. Having no stake in contemporary society, Bakunin argued, the dispossessed masses were also the least corrupted by it. Bakunin also believed that the goal of revolution must be to smash the state, rather than seize it. He held that humanity's future was to live in free federations of small, egalitarian communities. While Marx derided Bakunin as hopelessly naive, Bakunin declared that Marx's vanguard, having seized the state, would inevitably become despotic.

Marx and Bakunin also differed on tactics. While Marx believed the working class must organize politically, Bakunin argued that the role of the revolutionary was merely to strike the spark that unleashed "revolution from below." Attempting to organize or control the revolution would only dampen its progressive energy, he felt, and corrupt radical democracy with the seeds of new political oppression.

Bakunin has passionate critics as well as supporters. His critics see him as an oddly abstract and domineering personality, unwilling and perhaps incapable of imagining the human consequences of his ideas. For his admirers, Bakunin remains an acute critic of modern politics, and an uncompromising symbol of revolution. A gifted polemicist and orator, Bakunin never had the patience for sustained theoretical activity. Most of his effort went into personal letters, journalism, and a few, unfinished longer projects.

See alsoAnarchism; Blanc, Louis; First International; Herzen, Alexander; Marx, Karl; Nechayev, Sergei;Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Revolutions of 1848; Socialism.


Carr, E. H. Michael Bakunin. London, 1937. Reprint, London, 1975.

Crowder, George. Classical Anarchism: The Political Thought of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

International Institute of Social History. Bakounine: Oeuvres complètes. CD-ROM. Amsterdam, 2000.

Kelly, Aileen. Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

John W. Randolph Jr.

Bakunin, Mikhail Alexandrovich

views updated May 17 2018


(18141876), world-famous revolutionary and one of the founders of Russian anarchism and revolutionary populism.

Although born into a nobleman's family, Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin was hostile toward the tsarist system and the traditional socioeconomic and political order. An extreme materialist, he was bitterly antireligious and saw organized religion as oppressing people.

Despite his revolutionary passion, Bakunin, as a contemporary Western philosophical encyclopedia puts it, "was learned, intelligent, and philosophically reflective." By contrast, a Soviet-period philosophical dictionary describes Bakunin as a "revolutionary-adventurer [who] blindly believed in the socialist instincts of the masses and in the inexhaustibility of their spontaneous revolutionary feeling, especially as found among the peasantry and lumpen -proletariat."

The "reign of freedom," Bakunin insisted, could come for the masses and for everyone only after the liquidation of the status quo of traditional bourgeois society and the state. Bakunin soon fell out with the Marxists, with whom he had originally been tenuously allied in the First International in Geneva. He denounced the Marxist teaching of the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat in order to usher in the new order of socialism. He also disagreed with those Russian revolutionists who advocated terrorism and various forms of postrevolutionary authoritarianism and dictatorship, such as the Russian Jacobins. "Every act of official authority," Bakunin once wrote, "necessarily awakens within the masses a rebellious feeling, a legitimate counterreaction."

In a letter to the 1860s revolutionary terrorist Sergei Geradievich Nechayev, Bakunin once wrote: "You said that all men should follow your revolutionary catechism, that the abandonment of self and renunciation of personal needs and desires, all feelings, all attachments and links should become a normal state of affairs, the everyday condition of all humanity. Out of that cruel renunciation and extreme fanaticism you now wish to make this a general principle applicable to the whole community. You want crazy things, impossible things, the total negation of nature, man, and society!" Here Bakunin seemed to be renouncing his own, earlier brief leanings toward authoritarianism before adopting his anarchist philosophy.

For Bakunin, government of any kind, like religion, is oppressive. The church, he said, is a "heavenly tavern in which people try to forget about their daily grind." In order for people to gain freedom, religion and the state must be swept away along with all forms of "power over the people." Their place will be taken by a "free federation" of agricultural and industrial cooperative associations in which science reigns.

Bakunin spent much of his life abroad. He emigrated from Russia in 1840 to live in central and western Europe. There he formed close ties with other famous Russian émigrés, such as Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev.

Bakunin's relations with the First International and Karl Marx were stormy. Resenting Marx's high-handedness and authoritarian political ideology, Bakunin was finally expelled from the communist world organization in 1870. Soon after this, his The State and Anarchy was published in several languages. In this work, in quasi-Hegelian terms, he describes the historical process by which mankind evolves from "bestiality" to freedom.

See also: anarchism; herzen, alexander ivanovich; nechayev, sergei geradievich; populism


Venturi, Franco. (1966). Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia, trans. Francis Haskell. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Weeks, Albert L. (1968). The First Bolshevik: A Political Biography of Peter Tkachev. New York: New York University Press.

Albert L. Weeks

Bakunin, Mikhail Alexandrovich

views updated Jun 08 2018

Bakunin, Mikhail Alexandrovich (1814–76) Russian political philosopher. He became a believer in violent revolution while in Paris in 1848, and was active in the first Communist International until expelled by Karl Marx in 1872. His approach, known as revolutionary anarchism, repudiated all forms of governmental authority as fundamentally at variance with human freedom and dignity. In God and the State (1882), Bakunin argued that only natural law is consistent with liberty.

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