Bakunin, Mikhail A.

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Bakunin, Mikhail A.



Mikhail A. Bakunin (1814–1876), professional revolutionary and anarchist theorist, was the oldest son of a provincial Russian nobleman who was influenced by European culture and who at one time had liberal leanings. Revolting against parental authority, Bakunin early abandoned his military career and enrolled in Moscow University, where, together with Vissarion Belinski and Alexander Herzen, he became one of the leaders of the newly emerging intelligentsia. He went to the University of Berlin to study philosophy, but he quickly became dissatisfied with the tedious conservatism of German academic life. During the years 1843 to 1848, he wandered through Europe, meeting such European radicals as Wilhelm Weitling, Proudhon, and Marx, and absorbing their ideas.

Bakunin hailed the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848 with feverish enthusiasm, racing first to Paris and then to central Europe where he played an important role in the Slav Congress, which met at Prague in June 1848. Captured in an abortive uprising at Dresden in May 1849, he was successively imprisoned, tried, and sentenced by Saxon and Austrian justice before, finally in 1851, being turned over to the Russian authorities, who consigned him, without a semblance of trial, to the gloomy depths of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. Exiled to Siberia in 1857, by grace of the new tsar, Alexander II, he escaped four years later and made his way to London, where he collaborated with his friends Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev in the publication of the Bell. After an unsuccessful attempt to lead an expedition of volunteers to Poland during the insurrection of 1863, he transferred the seat of his operations to Italy, founding there the most formidable of his many revolutionary organizations, the International Alliance of Social Democracy. Bakunin lived to participate in two more uprisings, both of them abortive: that of Lyon in 1870 and that of Bologna in 1874. But the most notable and lasting feature of the activity of his later years was his conflict with Marx within the First International, which ended in the disintegration of that organization and the secession of the anarchists.

Most writers agree that Bakunin’s anarchism was not so much a theory as a psychological necessity. As E. H. Carr has observed, “The call of revolution was in his blood, as some men feel the call of sea or hills” (1937, p. 148). Consequently, Bakuninism suggests an outlook, a temperament, and a revolutionary tactic, rather than a system of ideas. Bakunin’s ideological odyssey (for that is how his tumultuous spiritual development must be thought of) can best be divided into three parts: a first, apolitical, stage lasting until 1841, in which he confined himself to a conservative and romantic interpretation of German idealistic philosophy; a second, Pan-Slav phase lasting from 1847 to 1863, during which he saw the key to European revolution in the disintegration of the Hapsburg empire and its replacement by a free federation of Slavic peoples; and a final, anarchist, period.

The political philosophy of Bakunin’s later years is a paean to destruction: all political, social, and religious institutions must be destroyed, the goal being a free federation of independent associations in which all would have equal rights and equal privileges, including that of secession. The means for the attainment of this anarchist Utopia would be a universal rebellion of the lower orders of society, led by a secret group of conspirators bound together by an iron discipline and subject to a single will.

The determination of Bakunin’s influence is a far from easy task. As a theorist of society, he had little to say that was not said first and better by Proudhon and Marx. His collected writings are a mass of fragments, abounding in shrewd insights and powerful passages of polemic, but lacking in the kind of sustained and precise analysis necessary for a social thinker of the first order. As a revolutionary and as an organizer, he is noted mainly for the indefatigability of his revolutionary ardor and for the imagination with which he dreamed up conspiratorial societies that never came into existence. Yet his importance in the history of nineteenth-century social movements is not to be questioned. A personality of almost superhuman proportions, Bakunin had a rare ability to inspire men. Through his lieutenants, James Guillaume, Elie and Elisée Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, and Giuseppe Fanelli, he shaped the working-class movements of Italy, Spain, and Russia, and, to some degree at least, those of France and Switzerland.

Bakunin’s political legacy is more ambiguous. No man ever pushed the principles of individualism and individual liberty further. But it has been pointed out increasingly in recent years (in particular by Carr 1937; Pyziur 1955; and Hepner 1950) that if Bakunin’s ends point toward freedom, his means—the revolutionary party—lead to totalitarianism. And it is indisputable that in his desire for a bloody revolution of the masses, led by a small, select group of professional revolutionaries, men without roots or conscience, he was a distant forerunner of the Bolshevik, fascist, and national socialist revolutions of the twentieth century.

Robert Wohl

[For the historical context of Bakunin’s work, see the biographiesMarx; Proudhon. For discussions of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeAnarchism; Radicalism; Revolution.]


No complete edition of Bakunin’s works is yet available. For selective editions in French (1895–1913), German (1921–1924), and Russian (1934–1936), see below.

1895–1913 Oeuvres. 6 vols. Paris: Stock.

1896 Correspondance de Michel Bakounine; Lettres à Herzen et à Ogaroff. Paris: Perrin. → First published as Pis’ma M. A. Bakunina.

(1921) 1932 Confession. Paris: Rieder. → First published as Ipoved’ i pis’mo Aleksandru II.

1921–1924 Gesammelte Werke. 3 vols. Berlin: Der Syndikalist.

1934–1936 Sobranie sochinenii i pisem (Selected Works and Correspondence). 4 vols. Moscow: Izd. Vsesoiuznogo Obschestva Politkatorzhan i Ssyl’noposelentsev.

1953 The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Compiled and edited by G. P. Maximoff. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Contains a biographical sketch of Bakunin by Max Netteau. A paperback edition was published in 1964.

1961 Michel Bakounine et l’Italie, 1871–1872. Edited by A. Lehning, A. Y. C. Rüter, and P. Schreibert. Archives Bakounine, Volume I. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → The first volume of a projected series of Bakunin’s unpublished works.


Carr, Edward H. (1937) 1961 Michael Eakunin. New York: Vintage.

Hefner, BenoÎt-P. 1950 Bakounine et le panslavisme révolutionnaire. Paris: Rivière.

Kenafick, K. J. 1948 Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx. Melbourne and London: Freedom Press.

Kornilov, A. N. 1917 Molodye gody Mikhaila Bakunina (The Youthful Years of Mikhail Bakunin). Moscow: Sabashnikov.

Kornilov, A. N. 1925 Gody stranstvii Mikhaila Bakunina (The Wandering Years of Mikhail Bakunin). Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo.

Lampert, Evgenii 1957 Studies in Rebellion. London: Routledge.

Pyziur, Eugene 1955 The Doctrine of Anarchism of Michael A. Bakunin. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette Univ. Press.

STEKLOV, Y. M. 1926–1927 Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin, ego zhizn’ i deiatelnost, 1814–1876 (Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin, His Life and Activities, 1814–1876). 4 vols., 2d rev. ed. Moscow: Izdatelstvo Kommunisticheskoi Akademii.

Venturi, Franco 1952 Il populismo russo. 2 vols. Turin (Italy): Einaudi.