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Anarchist or Antichrist?: Bakunin on fearing & invoking anarchy

David Limond on a name which once frightened children.

Every year, self-styled anarcho-punks in Germany celebrate ‘Chaos Day’. With much malice aforethought but little planning, they attack (in more or less equal measure) property and police. Christmas as we celebrate it in Britain today was a nineteenth century German import; is there any chance that this new German festival will come our way? The journal Class War regularly advocates comparable actions in Britain. The Germans may not want our mad cows, but in an ever more integrated Europe, will we end up with their mad anarchists? For that matter, what could possibly lie behind such a strange ritual as the organised disorder of Chaos Day and what does any of this have to do with Bakunin?

Once his was a name with which to frighten children. Though unwilling to sully his hands with the dirty work of practising much of what he preached and timid enough to repudiate all his crimes in a full confession written while in prison when asked to do so by the Tsar (he subsequently repudiated the repudiation) Bakunin was the archetype of the mad anarchist bomber, intent ever on finding an opportunity for his next outrage, scouting eagerly for a pretty young face into which vitriol might be thrown. Authors as diverse as Conrad and Wilde produced works in which Bakunin was present in all but name. He it was who called unreservedly for “a [worldwide] war of extermination….with no quarter and no respite”‡ (p.91) in which the rural and urban working classes (to which he did not belong by birth) would destroy the land and power holding classes (into which he had been born) in his native Russia and elsewhere. (He was in fact very well born, hence the Tsar’s personal interest in his confessing and recanting.)

Bakunin is gone but we live in Bakuninist times. He it is whom (though they might not know it themselves) those German punks follow to this day. Whether or not the suspect presently in custody is convicted of the crimes, it is clear that the so-called Unabomber is also something of a Bakuninist. That is to say, one who – in Bakunin’s own words – “do[es] not fear anarchy, but invoke[s] it.” (p.170). Bakunin may be a forgotten name in Europe and elsewhere in this latter half of the twentieth century but he is not without influence and significance still. As we near the millennium, his ideas seem ripe for philosophical review.

At the heart of Bakunin’s thought is a classical anarchist argument. He was in fact never especially original in his argument for the desirability of an anarchist future; it was in his ideas on how to get to that condition that he made his particular ‘contribution’. For Bakunin, as for all anarchists before and since, it was self-evident that mechanisms of government are anathema to human liberty. The state (which is simply the instrument of a handful of powerful individuals) has arrogated to itself the roles of unique legitimate decision maker and sole legitimate user of violence. It announces, through its claim to territorial sovereignty, that it and it alone may make all decisions in a given area. It recognises no limit on its decision making power, though in practice it devolves some trivial decision making to individuals. However, it reserves the right to assume control over any and all devolved decision making at any time. Thus, the fact that I think myself free to choose what kind of tie I shall wear today shows that I am deluded. I am currently free to make such a decision but if a state decision is taken to the effect that I shall hitherto be obliged to apply in writing, using a ‘Blue Tie Permission to Wear’ form perhaps, before I dress each morning, then so be it. I have no right which the state acknowledges to countermand this decision once it has been taken. If it seems that I am consulted in the making of state decisions, democratically, this is simply so much pantomime to disguise the true operation of power and more fool me if I believe it.

So long as we live subject to the authority of states (be they republics, monarchies, aristocracies or organised in any other way) no matter what pious words any constitution may contain we have in fact no inalienable rights, only those rights which have been loaned to us. In matters more serious than the wearing of ties, the state too gives and takes liberties as it sees fit. Shall I be allowed to protest in public over policies with which I disagree? Only if it pleases the state that I shall. Shall I be allowed to express my sexuality with others as they and I choose? Only if it pleases the state. Shall I be allowed publicly to profess some belief as to the nature of God? Only if it pleases the state. Shall I be allowed…. and so it goes on. All of this behaviour on the part of the state is, for the anarchist, antithetical to the operation of human reason and liberty. Left to their own devices, people will in fact choose correctly in all matters relating to the running of their lives. If they do not always choose correctly at present this is because they have been twisted by the operation of the state. (Added to this in many anarchist arguments is the supposed perversion of human reason which comes not simply from living under the authority of the state but subject to the immoral logic of its most common allied institution in the modern world, capitalism).

However, even were people not degraded by generations of life as subjects and were they rationally willing and able to make all and only the right choices in their lives starting straightaway, it is in its role as self-declared sole legitimate user of violence that the state shows it has a bite to enforce the orders which it barks as to who may and may not choose and what they may and may not choose. For Bakunin the principal respect in which the state denies choice to those under its sway is in its insisting that they may not use violence except by its sanction; it is not only the state of Turkey which would never vote for Christmas! That is, the state may sanction violence by some people at some times (police officers may sometimes use violence in execution of their duties,citizens sometimes in self-defence, soldiers always in defending the state against other states and – in conjunction with the police – against its own subjects) but it never sanctions the use of violence against itself. Such uses of violence it calls treason or sedition or civil war or (if it wants to discredit any act of violence against itself) it simply calls these actions criminality. It is here that Bakunin’s particular argument comes into its own.

The state, Bakunin argues, has outlawed choice except in a trivially few areas of life where it has sanctioned a limited amount of individual choice, for the time being. Thus, in effect, the state has hijacked society. Consequently, the only way to be anti-state is to be anti-social. If the state makes choice a crime then choosing in favour of a life of crime is doubly to oppose the state. It is to oppose the state by choosing anything at all and to oppose the state by choosing all and only those other things which it has forbidden – crimes. Thus it was that Bakunin called for anarchists both to commit random acts of violence and to seek alliances with “men [sic – he did have only men in mind] who are rough to the point of cruelty, but whose nature is fresh and strong, unsubdued and inexhaustible.” (p.187). That is: those who have already chosen against the state by choosing lives of crime. What is this to mean in practice?

Bakunin knew that some state laws were not bad in themselves, in that they enshrined moral principles which all people of good will would surely want to see still recognised even after the fall of states everywhere. He did not imagine that murder or rape, say, were in fact good actions to perform in themselves, actions from which illegitimate state interference simply holds us back. Rather, actions which ought always to be recognised as wrong and actions which ought never to have been recognised as wrong are lumped together as crimes because it suits the purposes of the state that they should be. ‘Political crimes’ (speaking out in public without a police permit, say) rank alongside ‘criminal crimes’ (such as assaults, rapes and murders) only because it is made so by the state. Attack the state in the short term and it will be possible in the longer term to re-order society so what are currently political crimes come to be recognised as legitimate choices while criminal crimes continue to be punished (by community sanction now, with the state gone), though acts of this latter type are far less likely to be committed when the unnatural, reason-distorting effect of life under state control comes to an end*. The means to this end is the alliance of criminals and anarchists. The latter must harness the power of the former for disruptive activity while sharpening their, admittedly weak, political and philosophical consciousnesses. Specifically Bakunin may have had in mind the highly organised Thieves’ Guilds of Tsarist Russia and the Cossack bandits of the steppes but a useful example of a similar alliance may be that between the erstwhile bandit Pancho Villa and the agrarian revolutionaries of Mexico. (Though the latter were not strictly anarchists.) It may seem a great distance from there to the Chaos Day punks and the Unabomber but for my own part I don’t think the jump is too great. In choosing antisocial actions (be they the sending of random letter bombs or the performance of random acts of vandalism, theft and violence) these contemporaries of ours reveal themselves as being at least indirectly influenced by Bakunin. It may not be given to philosophy to predict (whereof it cannot speak…etc.) but I am personally convinced that a certain millennial twitch being felt by many different groups and individuals, though not all of them anarchists, will increasingly incline them to adopting or, on the part of the more timid, advocating Bakuninist anti-social tactics.

Bakunin was hardly the first, and has hardly been the last, to advocate revolutionary violence but, I argue, Bakuninist revolutionary violence has a unique nature. It is not the, more or less discerning, selection of ‘legitimate targets’ of the IRA or any comparable group. Rather, it is the unstructured but relentless increasing of social entropy in the hope of ensuring that things do indeed fall apart because the centre can no longer hold. It is thus somewhat akin to, but not identical with, Maoist revolutionary violence. The distinguishing feature of Bakuninist revolutionary violence is that it is compatible with most tactics for social disruption. It can be a euphemism which covers a multitude of sins. It may thus involve classic terror/guerrilla tactics but it can equally be reduced to bank raids, car thefts, joy-riding, computer hacking and the distribution of computer viruses or much else besides. Further, to return to his own central point, the revolutionary violence advocated by Bakunin can as easily be carried out by thieves (be they with or without honour) and other criminals as by Sea Green Incorruptible political activists.

The problem Bakunin does not tackle in his vision of this move to the future without the state by the use of anti-social tactics is simply this: if anarchists ally with criminals (hardened criminals who have chosen lives of crimes rather than those who have only occasionally committed some crime or other) what is to be done if these criminals turn out to be like prime ministers? In other words, what is to be done if, having got power in the sense that their crimes have contributed to the downfall of the state, they decide that they like it and they want to keep it? Who is then to stop them becoming a new state in their own right where the only difference with the past is that those who were once outlawed now make the law and frame those laws for their own, exclusive, benefit? Are high-minded anarchists to stop them? With the aid of whose army (or police force)? The bargain between criminals and anarchists which Bakunin expected to be so productive seems likely in the long run to be only as productive as that which Dr Faustus so famously struck. This is why it makes little sense for anarchists (as many currently do) to welcome anti-social behaviour whenever it arises. This is why it make little sense for anarchists (as many currently do) to welcome outbreaks of rioting in inner cities as a positive force for change. This is why it makes little sense for anarchists (as many currently do) to eulogise criminal groups and cultures such as the Yardies.

The state may have hijacked society but this can surely be no grounds for anarchists to turn their antistate principles into anti-social practices; tantamount to blowing up the baby with the bath water. If people are to take moral and political responsibility for all their own choices, they will not be helped by alliances with the criminally immoral and irresponsible. Anarchy invoked in the name, or through the proposed methods, of Bakunin is something which I fear very much indeed. Chaos Day comes but once a year…..for the present…..

‡ I quote throughout from Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973) translated by A. Lehring.

* Note that I specifically excluded theft from this list as the nature of property (itself considered theft by some anarchists) is likely to be quite different in an anarchist state.

© David Limond 1996

David Limond tutors at Glasgow University and is interested in violence

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