Optional Reading: Bakunin Statism and Anarchy

I touch on a few issues here, but specifically on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy by trying to connect his understanding of revolution as necessarily getting rid of states to the notion that capitalism, the state and civilization require the transforming of people into workers, subjects and civilized beings. Where fleeing was once a tenable means of resistance, when it is longer feasible or fails one’s resistance should not be to take over the force that oppresses you, but to reject it in favor of a different mode of being. This is a brief, broad account and requires much more exploration.


    Stanley Diamond’s book, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, explores the deleterious effect civilization has had on human existence. He employs the term ‘primitive’ to designate, among other things, a search for “human potential” (Diamond p. 119) or “different ways of being human” (Diamond p. 121). What I want to draw attention to is his emphasis on the process of civilization as (violently) transforming people into a ‘civilized’ person thereby obliterating the ‘primitive’. For example, he writes in the introduction:

Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other. Anthropologists who use, or misuse, words such as ‘acculturation’ beg this basic question. For the major mode of acculturation, the direct shaping of one culture by another through which civilization develops, has been conquest. (Diamond p.1)

The process of civilization is a violent reconfiguring of people; it obliterates one way of living and puts in its place another that alters social, economic, and political orientation. This process must first be enacted on those of a given territory (at home) and, is then, imposed on those outside the defined territory when it expands.

        I was reminded of Diamonds text as I listened to David Harvey’s lecture on Marx’s chapter ten of Capital and as I read Mikhail Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy. Harvey talks about Marx’s treatment of the working day and time discipline (approx. min 55). He argues in order to obtain a ‘normal working day’ it required state’s to transform or socialize people into wage labors or workers.[see note 1.] By seeing oneself as a worker and thereby fighting over the length of the working day, in one sense we have ‘lost’ because we have now accepted the terms of the debate and became workers. He points out that workers resistance has in some ways stabilized the system by putting a check on certain contradiction of capital like the tendency to grind down workers until they ‘used up’.

    As mentioned in class, one way of resistance to proletarinization was to flee; flee from the state; flee from civilization. Bakunin’s relevance to this point comes in his discussion of the role of the state in revolution, but to get to that point I will quickly look at his discussion of the rise of the German state and its victory over France. [See note 2.] He thinks that in the war between the French and German state there is no winner because it is a war between states and it is not a struggle to free the people from states. Bakunin ridicules the enthusiastic celebrations of Germans at home and abroad (Bakunin p. 190) because he sees it as a betrayal of “the total liberation of the masses” (Bakunin p. 218). He unjustly paints the Germans as naturally obedient, but that aside, I think he is getting to a greater point about accepting the state and the terms of debate.

    Bakunin writes, “The only consistent patriot is the person who passionately loves his fatherland and everything that is his own, while passionately hating everything foreign” (16). When fleeing is not an option or didn’t work and people were/are forced to integrate into the state, they should not then become patriots; rooting for the state that governs you over other states is to accept their terms. Instead, Bakunin argues that they should not want to be part of the strongest ruling state (and by analogy the ruling class), but instead, we should be part of the force that abolishes states and make common cause with workers world-wide. This raises question about revolution that helps to clarify some of the difference between Bakunin and Marx (perhaps, between anarchism and communism, generally), but I will only briefly comment on the role of the state.

    When discussing revolution, Bakunin almost always uses social revolution, which I attribute to the idea that he sees revolution as getting rid of all forms of oppression including capitalism, and the state. He ridicules any inclination towards obtaining state power and yielding it in favor of the workers. He insists that using one state to overcome another regardless of its dressing (as a ‘peoples’, or communist state) is not going to give life to human freedom, but renew despotism (Bakunin p. 45, 49-50, 175-179). Capitalism is our enemy, but so is the state; both require people to be disciplined into obedience. We should resist any and all states (and other forms of oppression) regardless if they come in the form of a monarchy, a republic, or a socialist state.

    Bakunin highlights that a crucial distinction between his thought and Marx is in the role of the state. Bakunin emphasizes that Marx thinks that the state can be taken over and employed by the workers to carry out their own goals; if political position is won legal methods can be used to change workers conditions. If workers gain control of the state and abolish capitalism and institute an economy that provides all our needs, would we be inclined toward abolishing the state?

    In essence, Bakunin seems to be extremely weary of political revolution as potentially amounting to little more than reform. Likewise, how is strengthening the state in character and in the way workers relate to it going to bring about its dissolution? Bakunin does not think that dissolution will not come, even if it is a so-called ‘workers’ state, instead the states destruction must be brought about.

    In short, Bakunin’s rejection of political reform, or (political) revolution that leaves the state in tact can be connected to Diamonds and even Harvey’s discussion of the process of disciplining people into civilized, workers. I liken Bakunin’s rejection the above type of revolution as a turning away from struggle that doesn’t attack all forms of oppression. The methods of resistance must in some way resemble the final goal. In other words, taking over the state is not going to bring about liberation, it will only change the veneer or the type of exploitation people experience. Instead of workers under capitalism, we will be workers under socialism-still subjected to the despotism of the state. 





1. Like Diamond and Harvey, Bakunin highlights the necessity of force to transform people into workers for capitalist relationships:

Any exploitation of the people’s labor is a bitter pill for them, whatever the political forms of sham popular sovereignty and sham popular freedom that may gild it. Therefore no people will readily submit to it, however docile they may be by nature and however accustomed they may have grown to obeying authority. It requires constant coercion and compulsion, meaning police surveillance and military force. (Bakunin p. 13)

2. In Marshall Shatz’s introduction, he characterizes Bakunin’s treatment of Germany’s rise as falling into what he calls “Germanophobia” (xxix). This is a fair assessment and some of his comments are simply appalling (pg. 190). However, with that correct critique in mind, I think that Bakunin’s overall critique is actually rooted in a legitimate critique of the State verses a substantial hate for the particular German state or the German people (p. 19, 191-192). I speculate that his disdain is directed towards Germany because they seem to be the power of the time and perhaps his disdain would be directed towards America if he were alive today (Bakunin p. 66).

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Optional Reading: Bakunin Statism and Anarchy

  1. Dave Mesing says:

    Hey Mick, thanks for this post. I really enjoyed your emphasis on fleeing as the rejection of the state in Bakunin, and it reminded me of an essay I’ve been working on by Paolo Virno, which I recommend highly (it’s called “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus” and it’s n the Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics reader). In the essay, Virno argues for a complication of key Arendtian categories Action, Intellect, and Work, in order to try and develop his own conception of Exodus, which he argues is a form of engaged withdrawal from the state that tries to actively change the rules of the game and disorient the enemy. If you plan to keep working on these themes for your paper, Virno might be good to look at because he has a fairly substantial engagement with Arendt in his work, and so there could be other connections to stuff we’ve been working on.

    Additionally, you may know of his work already, but have you checked out Jacques Camatte? http://www.akpress.org/thisworldwemustleaveandotheressays.html

    Don’t want to just link-bomb this reply, but on the topic of anarchism more broadly, I thought I’d also mention that AK Press just released a Kropotkin anthology: http://www.akpress.org/direct-struggle-against-capital.html

  2. michaelwardii says:

    Dave! Thanks for your book suggestions.
    I had not previously heard of Jacques Camatte, but his work sounds similar to some of the others I’ve read (or plan on reading) like Stanley Diamond (as mentioned above), John Livingstone Rogue Primate, Neil Evernden The Natural Alien, David Graeber Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Harold Barclay People without Government, and J.C. Scott The Art of Not Being Governed (I list them in case you or anyone is interested in more research on the issue). However, Scott and Barclay (and maybe Graeber, but I cannot recall exactly) are in some ways pessimistic in their accounts. Not to say they are negative, but they see fleeing as an act of resistance as a thing of the past; in other words, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to flee to-all of the land has been sufficiently ‘occupied’.
    So, a modern type of fleeing, if possible, must not be a complete escape or a journey to highlands where states cannot reach-as in Scott’s text-, but maybe a decentralization, a withdrawal of resources and focus from governmental centers, perhaps.
    At this point, the focus of my final paper is going in the direction of exploring the transformation of people or the transforming power of states, capital, colonization and, in turn, the transforming power of revolution-political and social-and decolonization…I’m not sure if escaping can be a from of resistance today, rather, it seems to lapse into escapism.

    I’m very interested in the idea-Virno’s idea-of Engaged withdrawal. Could you say a little more about it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s