The Program of “La Démocratie” (1868)

La Voix de l’Avenir, May 24, 1868, Chaux-de-Fonds

Need I say that as far as a foreigner my be allowed to meddle in your affairs, I sympathize with all my heart with your courageous enterprise and that I subscribe completely to your program? You have the noble ambition of restoring the press in your country to the heights from which it should never have descended, whatever the storms that have assailed it, and of once again accustoming is to seek our inspirations there, a habit that we have lost for nearly 19 years.

Be sure that, in all countries, all men to whom liberty and humanity are dear will happily salute the end of the French eclipse, even when they no longer have need of the resplendent sun of France in order to know their way.

The time of the messiah-peoples has passed. Liberty, justice, from now only no longer form the monopoly of any one nation. – The initiative, – to make use of the favorite expression of Mazzini, – that initiative (which, in the case of Dante, he wanted to bestow exclusively upon the fair Italy, his homeland) belongs from now on to all the peoples; it is, to different degrees, it is true, divided among them all. This is a true division of labor, proportionate to the intellectual and moral power of each nation; and the last word of that division will be the federal organization of Europe.

All for each and all by each: such must be today our motto, our watchword. But the harmony would be very imperfect, it would be impossible, if the light and the powerful participation of France was lacking. That is the sense in which we all greet happily its reawakening to liberty.

I can only subscribe fully to the principle of decentralization that you set down as one of the principal bases of your program. Seventy-five years of sad, hard experience, passed in a fruitless tossing between a liberty, re-conquered several times, but always lost again, and the despotism of the increasingly triumphant State, have proven to France and that world that in 1793 your Girondins were in the right against your Jacobins. Robespierre, St.-Just, Carnot, Couthon, Cambon and so many other citizens of the Mountain have been great and pure patriots, but it remains no less true that they have organized the governmental machine, that formidable centralization of the State, which has made possible, natural and necessary, the military dictatorship of Napoleon I, which, surviving all the revolutions that have followed, in no way diminished, but on the contrary preserved, caressed and developed, through the Restoration, the July Monarchy and the Republic of 1848, has inevitably led to the destruction of your liberties.

Many of the democrats of the old unitary school – and I should even say Catholic school, although they are that most often without knowing it themselves – still think today that communal autonomy can suffice, and that with emancipated communes on one side, and on the other side a powerful centralization of the State, the organization of Liberty is possible. Such is the belief boldly professed by the illustrious Italian democrat Joseph Mazzini.

Despite the deep and sincere respect that I bear for this great creator of modern Italian unity, the distressing spectacle presented by that same Italy today would suffice by itself to make me doubt the goodness of his doctrine. I do not hesitate to say that Mazzini and all those who think like him fall into a profound error. No, communal autonomy will never be sufficient to establish liberty in any country; to isolated commune will always be too weak to resist the crushing centralization of all the legislative and executive powers in the State. – in order for communal Liberty to be real, an intermediary more powerful than the commune is required between the commune and the State: the autonomous department or province. We can be certain that where commercial autonomy does not exist, the self-government of the commune will never be anything but a fiction. On the other hand, whatever Mazzini may say, a State powerfully centralized internally will never be anything externally but a war machine, which could enter into a federation of peoples in order to dominate it, but never to submit, on equal conditions with all the other nations, to the supreme law of international justice, that is to say purely human justice and, as such, contrary to the transcendent, theological, political and legal justice of the States.

I am happy to see the flag of antitheologism bravely displayed in France. A mind enveloped in theological and metaphysical fictions, which bows before any authority whatsoever, other than that of rational and experimental science, can only produce the political and social slavery of a nation. Whatever is said by your representatives of the official morality and your spiritualist democrats, scientific and humanitarian materialism alone is capable of establishing liberty, justice, and consequently also morality on branches truly broad and unshakeable. Isn’t it indeed a remarkable thing that, while the spiritualists, taking their point of departure in free will, end inevitably at the doctrine of authority, to the more or less open or masked, but always complete negation of liberty, – we materialists, we start from inevitability, both natural and social, in order to proclaim the progressive emancipation of humanity.

You are socialist. One does not have the right to call oneself a democrat today if, alongside the most complete political emancipation, one does not want as fully the economic emancipation of the people. You are a thousand times right to no longer wish to separate those two great questions which make up, in reality, only a single one: the political question and the social question.

Like you, I deplore the blindness of that party–and not too considerable a party, let us hope,–of workers in Europe, who imagine that by abstaining from any intervention in the political affairs of their country, they serve that much better their own material interests, and who think that they could attain economic equality and justice, to which the working classes aspire today, by another road than that of liberty. The unanimous testimony of the history of all times and all countries shows us that justice is never given to those who do not know how to take it themselves; logic confirms, by explaining it to us, that demonstration of history. It is not in the nature of a privilege, of a monopoly, of an existing power to cede or abdicate without being forced to do it; in order for right to triumph, it must become a force in its turn.

This truth is so simple, it is so well proven by the experience of each day, that we have the right to be astonished that people are still found who can doubt it. Equality without liberty is a noxious fiction created by the rogues to fool the sots. Equality without liberty is the despotism of the State, and the despotic State could not exist a single day without having at least an exploiting and privileged class; the bureaucracy, a hereditary power as in Russia and China, or de facto as in Germany and among you.

The great and true master of us all, Proudhon, has written, in his fine book on Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, that the most disastrous combination that could be formed would be that which would join together socialism with absolutism, the tendencies of the people toward economic emancipation and material well being with dictatorship concentration of all political and social powers in the State.

So let the future preserve us from the favors of despotism; but let it save us from the disastrous and mind-numbing consequences of authoritarian, doctrinaire or State socialism. Let us be socialists, but let us never become sheeplike peoples. Let us seek justice, all political, economic and social justice, only on the path of liberty. There can be nothing living and human apart from liberty, and a socialism that would cast it from its bosom or that would not accept it as the unique creative principle and basis would lead us straight to slavery and brutishness.

But if, on the one hand, we must energetically reject [repousser] every socialist system not inspired by the principle of collective and individual liberty, we must separate ourselves with the same energy and frankness from all the parties that declare their wish to remain strangers to the social question, the most formidable but also the greatest of all those questions that occupy the world today.

You great revolution, which began its sublime work with the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” would only have ended when it had organized – not only in your country, but on the whole surface of the globe – society according to justice: a society that, at the beginning of the life of each of its members, whether of masculine or feminine sex, would have guaranteed equality from the point of departure, as that equality would depend on social organization, setting aside the natural differences between individuals; a society that, in economic and social respects, would offer to each the equally real possibility for all to raise themselves up – in proportion to the energy and individual capacities of each – to the greatest heights of humanity, first through education and instruction, then through the labor or each, freely associated or not associated, – labor at once muscular and nervous, manual and intellectual, which, becoming the legitimate source of all individual, but not hereditary, property, would in the end be considered the principal basis of all political and social rights.

Such is, in my opinion, the last word of the revolutionary program. We could protest the difficulties of its realization; but we could not, without renouncing all logic, be unaware of what is there an absolute condition of true justice. And we who have renounced every theological faith in order to have the right and the power to embrace the human faith, we must still maintain the program of justice.

Finally you are persuaded, are you not, that all new wine must be poured in new bottles and that, turning your back on the henceforth exhausted mob of the cripples of theologism, of privilege, of anti-socialist democracy and transcendent politics, we should base all of our hopes of that party of the intelligent and studious, but not doctrinaire youth, who, feeling in themselves the need to merge with the mass of the people, in order to draw a life from it that ostensibly begins to be lacking in the higher regions of society, love, respect the people enough to have the right to instruct them and if necessary that of guiding them; – but especially on the working classes who, moralized by labor and not being exhausted by the abuse of the pleasures of life, are today the bearers and dispensers of every future?

Here is, my dear [Charles-Louis] Chassin, my profession of faith. If it does not displease you too much, accept me among your numerous collaborators. In the meantime, please record me among your subscribers.

Michel Bakounine

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To the Compagnons of the International Workingmen’s Association of Locle and La Chaux de fond, Article 1 (1869)

(Progrès, no 6, Geneva, February 23, 1869 – March 1, 1869)

To the Compagnons of the International Workingmen’s Association
of Locle and La Chaux de fond.

Friends and brothers,

Before leaving your mountains, I felt the need to express to you one more time, in writing, my profound gratitude for the fraternal reception that you have given me. Isn’t it a marvelous thing that a man, a Russian, a former noble, who until now was perfectly unknown to you and who has for the first time set foot in your country, hardly arrived, finds himself surrounded by several hundred brothers! This miracle can only be accomplished today by the International Workingmen’s Association, and for one simple reason: it alone represents today the historic life, and the creative power of the political and social future. Those who are united by a living thought, by a common will and great common passion, are really brothers, even when they do not know each other.

There was a time when the bourgeoisie, endowed with the same power of life and constituting exclusively the historic class, offered the same spectacle of fraternity and union as much in acts and in thought. That was the finest time for that class, always respectable, no doubt, but from now on powerless, stupid and sterile, the era of its most energetic development. It was so before the great revolution of 1793; it was still, though to a much lesser degree, before the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Then the bourgeoisie had a world to conquer, a place to take in society, and organized by the combat, intelligent, audacious, feeling itself strong with the right of everyone, it was endowed with an irresistible power: alone it made three revolutions against the monarchy, the nobility and the clergy united.

In that era the bourgeoisie had also created an international, universal, formidable association, Freemasonry.

We would be badly mistaken if we judged the Freemasonry of the past century, or even that of the beginning of the present century, according to what it is today. Institution par excellence bourgeois, in its development, by its growing power at first and then by its decadence, Freemasonry represented in some ways the intellectual and moral development, power and decadence of the bourgeoisie. Today, descended to the role of an old, prattling schemer, it is null, useless, sometimes destructive and always ridiculous, while before 1830 and especially before 1793, having gathered within it, with very few exceptions, all the elite minds, the most ardent hearts, the proudest wills, the boldest characters, it had constituted an active organization, powerful and really beneficial. It was the energetic incarnation and practice of the humanitarian idea of the 18th century. All those great principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, reason and humane justice, elaborated at first theoretically by the philosophy of that century, had become in the heart of Freemasonry practical dogmas and the bases of a new morality and politics,—the soul of a gigantic enterprise of demolition and reconstruction. Freemasonry had been nothing less in that era than the universal conspiracy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie against feudal, monarchical and divine tyranny.—That was the International of the Bourgeoisie.

We know that almost all the major actors of the first Revolution were Freemasons, and when that Revolution broke out, it found, through Freemasonry, friends and dedicated, powerful cooperators in all other countries, which certainly helped its triumph a great deal. But it is equally obvious that the triumph of the Revolution killed Freemasonry, for the Revolution having largely fulfilled the wishes of the Bourgeoisie and having made them take the place of the noble aristocracy, the Bourgeoisie, having been so long an exploited and oppressed class, became quite naturally in its turn the privileged, exploitative, oppressive, conservative and reactionary class, the friend and the firmest supporter of the State. After the coup of the first Napoleon, Freemasonry had become, on a large part of the European continent, an imperial institution.

The Restoration revived it somewhat. Seeing themselves threatened by the return of the old regime, constrained to yield the place that it had won by the first revolution to the Church and the united nobility, the bourgeoisie necessarily became revolutionary again. But what a difference between this reheated revolutionism and the fiery, powerful revolutionism that had inspired it at the end of the last century! Then the bourgeoisie had been in good faith, it had believed seriously and naively in human rights, it had been driven, inspired by the genius of demolition and reconstruction, it had found itself in full possession of its intelligence, and in the full development of its strength; it did not suppose that an abyss separated it from the people; she believed, it felt, it was really the representative of the people. The Thermidorian reaction and the conspiracy of Babeuf have forever deprived it of that illusion.—The gulf that separated the working people from the exploiting, dominant and enjoying bourgeoisie was opened, and nothing less than the body of the whole bourgeoisie, all the privileged existence of the bourgeois, could fill it.

So was it no longer the bourgeoisie as a whole, but only a part of the bourgeoisie that began to conspire, after the Restoration, against the clerical regime, the nobility and against the legitimate kings.

In my next letter, I will elaborate, if you will permit me, my ideas on this last phase of constitutional liberalism and bourgeois carbonarism.

M. Bakunin.


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Mikhail Bakunin, “What is Authority” (1870)

NOTE: This passage is generally known as part of “God and the State” (Dieu et l’État, first published in 1882), but it appears in Bakunin’s manuscript as part of “Sophismes historiques de l’école doctrinaire des communistes allemands,” the second section of the unfinished book L’Empire Knouto-Germanique et la Révolution Sociale (The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution.)

This new translation seeks to clarify some passages that may appear contradictory in existing translations. In particularly the verb repousser, which previous translators have tended to simply render as “reject,” has been brought closer to its literal sense of “push back” and some attention has been given to distinguishing where Bakunin uses the word autorité to designate abstract authority and where he refers to particular experts or authority figures.

In the preceding section, Bakunin has been discussing, among other things, the idea of God, and the section ends with his reply to Voltaire’s comment that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him:

If God really did exist, it would be necessary to get rid of him.

The severe logic that dictates these words is far too obvious to require a further development of this argument. And it seems to me impossible that the illustrious men, whose names (so celebrated and so justly respected) I have cited, should not have been struck by it themselves, and should not have perceived the contradiction into which they fell in speaking of God and human liberty at once. To have disregarded it, they must have considered this inconsistency or logical license practically necessary to humanity’s well-being.

Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.

What is authority? Is it the inevitable power of the natural laws which manifest themselves in the necessary concatenation and succession of phenomena in the physical and social worlds? Indeed, against these laws revolt is not only forbidden, but is even impossible. We may misunderstand them or still not know them at all, but we cannot disobey them, because they constitute the basis and very conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements, thoughts, and acts, so that even when we believe that we disobey them, we do nothing but demonstrate their omnipotence.

Yes, we are absolutely the slaves of these laws. But there is nothing humiliating in that slavery, or, rather, it is not slavery at all. For slavery supposes an external master, a legislator outside of the one whom he commands, while these laws are not outside of us; they are inherent in us; they constitute our being, our whole being,  as much physically as intellectually and morally. We live, we breathe, we act, we think, we wish only through these laws. Without them we are nothing–we are not. From where, then, could we derive the power and the wish to rebel against them?

With regard to natural laws, only one single liberty is possible to man—that of recognizing and applying them more and more all the time, in conformity with the goal of collective and individual emancipation or humanization which he pursues. These laws, once recognized, exercise an authority which is never disputed by the mass of men. One must, for instance, be at base either a fool or a theologian or at least a metaphysician, jurist, or bourgeois economist to rebel against the law by which 2 x 2 makes 4. One must have faith to imagine that fire will not burn nor water drown, unless one has recourse to some subterfuge that is still based on some other natural law. But these rebellions, or, rather, these attempts at or foolish fancies of an impossible revolt, only form a rare exception; for, in general, it may be said that the mass of men, in their daily lives, let themselves be governed by good sense—that is, by the sum of the natural laws generally recognized—in an almost absolute fashion.

The great misfortune is that a large number of natural laws, already established as such by science, remain unknown to the popular masses, thanks to the care of these tutelary governments that exist, as we know, only for the good of the people. There is another difficulty—namely, that the major portion of the natural laws that are inherent in the development of human society and that are every bit as necessary, invariable, and fatal as the laws that govern the physical world, have not been duly established and recognized by science itself.

Once they shall have been recognized by science, and then shall have passed, by means of an extensive system of popular education and instruction, from science into the consciousness of all, the question of liberty will be perfectly resolved. The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any foreign will, whether divine or human, collective or individual.

Suppose an academy of learned individuals, composed of the most illustrious representatives of science; suppose that this academy is charged with the legislation and organization of society, and that, inspired only by the purest love of truth, it only dictates to society laws in absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science. Well, I maintain, for my part, that that legislation and organization would be a monstrosity, and that for two reasons: first, that human science is always necessarily imperfect, and that, comparing what it has discovered with what remains to be discovered, we we might say that it is always in its cradle. So that if we wanted to force the practical life of men, collective as well as individual, into strict and exclusive conformity with the latest data of science, we should condemn society as well as individuals to suffer martyrdom on a bed of Procrustes, which would soon end by dislocating and stifling them, life always remaining infinitely greater than science.

The second reason is this: a society that would obey legislation emanating from a scientific academy, not because it understood itself the rational character of this legislation (in which case the existence of the academy would become useless), but because this legislation, emanating from the academy, was imposed in the name of a science that it venerated without comprehending—such a society would be a society, not of men, but of brutes. It would be a second edition of that poor Republic of Paraguay, which let itself be governed for so long by the Society of Jesus. Such a society could not fail to descend soon to the lowest stage of idiocy.

But there is still a third reason that would render such a government impossible. It is that a scientific academy invested with a sovereignty that is, so to speak, absolute, even if it were composed of the most illustrious men, would infallibly and soon end by corrupting itself morally and intellectually. Already today, with the few privileges allowed them, this is the history of all the academies. The greatest scientific genius, from the moment that he becomes an academician, an officially licensed savant, inevitably declines and lapses into sleep. He loses his spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy that characterizes the nature of the grandest geniuses, ever called to destroy obsolete worlds and lay the foundations of new ones. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he loses in power of thought. In a word, he becomes corrupted.

It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether politically or economically, is a man depraved intellectually and morally. That is a social law that admits no exception, and is as applicable to entire nations as to classes, companies, and individuals. It is the law of equality, the supreme condition of liberty and humanity. The principal aim of this treatise is precisely to elaborate on it, to demonstrate its truth in all the manifestations of human life.

A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by no longer occupying itself with science at all, but with quite another business; and that business, the business of all established powers, would be to perpetuate itself by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.

But that which is true of scientific academies is also true of all constituent and legislative assemblies, even when they are the result of universal suffrage. Universal suffrage may renew their composition, it is true, but this does not prevent the formation in a few years’ time of a body of politicians, privileged in fact though not by right, who, by devoting themselves exclusively to the direction of the public affairs of a country, finally form a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy. Witness the United States of America and Switzerland.

Consequently, no external legislation and no authority—one, for that matter, being inseparable from the other, and both tending to the enslavement of society and the degradation of the legislators themselves.

Does it follow that I drive back every authority? The thought would never occur to me. When it is a question of boots, I refer the matter to the authority of the cobbler; when it is a question of houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For each special area of knowledge I speak to the appropriate expert. But I allow neither the cobbler nor the architect nor the scientist to impose upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and verification. I do not content myself with consulting a single specific authority, but consult several. I compare their opinions and choose that which seems to me most accurate. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in quite exceptional questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have absolute faith in no one. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave and an instrument of the will and interests of another.

If I bow before the authority of the specialists and declare myself ready to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because that authority is imposed upon me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would drive them back in horror, and let the devil take their counsels, their direction, and their science, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and human dignity, for the scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, that they might give me.

I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if be wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility. I do not think that society ought to maltreat men of genius as it has done hitherto; but neither do I think it should enrich them too much, nor, and this above all, grant them any privileges or exclusive rights; and that for three reasons: first, because it would often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; then, because, through such a system of privileges, it could transform even a true man of genius into a charlatan, demoralize and stupefy him; and, finally, because it would give itself a despot.

in summary, then, we recognize the absolute authority of science, because science has no other object than the mental reproduction, well thought out and as systematic as possible, of the natural laws inherent in the material, intellectual, and moral life of both the physical and the social worlds, these two worlds constituting, in fact, only one single natural world. apart from this legitimate authority, uniquely legitimate because it is rational and in harmony with human liberty, we declare all other authorities false, arbitrary, despotic and deadly.

We recognize the absolute authority of science, but we reject [repoussons] the infallibility and universality of the representatives of science. In our church—if I may be permitted to use for a moment an expression which I so detest: Church and State are my two bêtes noires—in our church, as in the Protestant church, we have a head, an invisible Christ, science; and, like the Protestants, more consistent even than the Protestants, we do not wish to suffer a pope, nor council, nor conclaves of infallible cardinals, nor bishops, nor even priests. Our Christ is distinguished from the Protestant and Christian Christ in this—that the latter is a personal being, while ours is impersonal; the Christian Christ, already fully realized in an eternal past, presents himself as a perfect being, while the fulfillment and perfection of our Christ, science, are always in the future: which is equivalent to saying that they will never be realized. Therefore, in recognizing no absolute authority but that of absolute science, we in no way compromise our liberty.

I mean by this phrase, “absolute science,” the truly universal science that would reproduce ideally, to its fullest extent and in all its infinite detail, the universe, the system or coordination of all the natural laws manifested in the incessant development of the world. It is obvious that such a science, the sublime object of all the efforts of the human mind, will never be realized in its absolute fullness. Our Christ, then, will remain eternally unfinished, which must considerably moderate the pride of his licensed representatives among us. Against that God the Son, in whose name they claim to impose their insolent and pedantic authority on us, we appeal to God the Father, who is the real world, real life, of which their God is only the too-imperfect expression, and of which we, real beings, living, working, struggling, loving, aspiring, enjoying, and suffering, are the immediate representatives.

But, while rejecting [repoussant] the absolute, universal, and infallible authority of the men of science, we willingly bow before the respectable, but relative, very temporary, and very restricted authority of the representatives of special sciences, asking nothing better than to consult them by turns, and very grateful for the precious information that they should want give to us, on the condition that to receive such information from us on occasions when, and concerning matters about which, we are more learned than they; and, in general, we ask nothing better than to see men endowed with great knowledge, great experience, great minds, and, above all, great hearts, exert over us a natural and legitimate influence, freely accepted and never imposed in the name of any official authority whatsoever, celestial or terrestrial. We accept all natural authorities and all influences of fact, but none of right; for every authority or every influence of right, officially imposed as such, becoming straight away an oppression and a falsehood, would inevitably impose upon us, as I believe I have sufficiently shown, slavery and absurdity.

In short, we reject all legislation, all authority, and every privileged, licensed, official, and legal influence, even that arising from universal suffrage, convinced that it can only ever turn to the advantage of a dominant, exploiting minority and against the interests of the immense, subjugated majority.

It is in this sense that we are really Anarchists.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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God and the State: The Lost Paragraphs

It’s generally known that “God and the State” is a fragment drawn from “Historical Sophisms of the Doctrinaire School of the German Communists,” the second installment of The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution, Bakunin’s great, unfinished work. But as that work is still unpublished in English, the fact is simply one more mystery regarding the famous text. There are parts of the context that are not so easy to provide: the first section is over 40,000 words in length and “Historical Sophisms” contains at least another 40,000 words, of which less than 30,000 appear in “God and the State.” And then there are pages and pages of additional sections and fragments, which were never fully incorporated into the larger work, and the lengthy appendix, “Philosophical Considerations concerning the Divine Phantom, the Real World and Man.” So there is a good deal of translation to be done before we can present “God and the State” in its full context, but, as it happens, we can establish its place in the flow of the “Historical Sophisms” with comparative ease. Once a pages-long footnote is removed, it turns out that there are only four paragraphs at the start of the text, before the text of “God and the State.”

Here are those paragraphs:






Historical Sophisms of the Doctrinaire School of the German Communists

Such is not the opinion of the Doctrinaire School of socialists, or rather of authoritarian communists, in German; a school that was founded shortly before 1848, and which renders, it must be acknowledged, some distinguished services to the cause of the proletariat, not only in Germany, but in Europe. It is to that school that principally belongs the great idea of an International Association of Workingmen, as well as the initiative in its initial realization. Today it finds itself at the head of the Parti de la Démocratie socialiste des travailleurs in Germany, with the Volksstaat as its organ.

So it is a perfectly respectable school, which does not prevent it from showing a very bad character sometimes [*], and especially from having taken as a basis for its theories a principle that is profoundly true when we consider it in its true light, from a relative point of view, but which, considered and posited in an absolute manner, as the unique foundation and first source of all the other principles, as that school does, becomes completely false.

This principle, which constitutes, by the way, the essential foundation of positive socialism, has been scientifically formulated and developed for the first time by Karl Marx, the principal leader of the school of German communists. It forms the dominant thought of the famous Manifesto of the communists that an international committee of French, English, Belgian and German communists, gathered in London, issued in 1848, under this title: Proletarians of all countries, unite! This manifesto, written, as we know, by Marx et Engels, became the basis of all the later scientific labors of the School, and of the popular agitation stirred up later by Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany.

This principle is absolutely opposed to the principle recognized by the idealists of all the schools. While the latter derive all the facts of history, including the development of material interests and the different phases of the economic organization of society, from the development of ideas, the German communists, on the contrary, wish to see in all of human history, in the most ideal manifestations of the life, whether individual or collective, of society, of humanity, in all the intellectual and moral, religious, metaphysical, scientific, artistic, political, legal and social developments, which were produced in the past and continue to be produced in the present, nothing but reflections or necessary repercussions of the development of the economic facts. While the idealists claim that ideas dominate and produce facts, the communist, in agreement in this with scientific materialism, say on the contrary that the facts give rise to the ideas that that the latter are never anything but the ideal expression of accomplished facts; and that among all the facts, the economic or material facts, the facts par excellence, constitute the essential basis, the principal foundation, of which all the other facts, intellectual and moral, political and social, are nothing more than the inevitable derivatives.

The text of “God and the State” then begins with the question: “Who are right, the idealists or the materialists?”

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Filed under 1870, God and the State, L'Empire knouto-germanique et la Révolution sociale, Mikhail Bakunin

Collective protest of the dissident members of the 2nd Congress of Peace and Freedom

[September 25, 1868]

Considering that the majority of the delegates to the Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom have passionately and explicitly declared themselves against the economic and social equalization of classes and of individuals, and as no political program and action that does not aim at the realization of this principle could be accepted by the socialist democrats, by the conscientious and logical friends of peace and freedom, the undersigned believe it is their duty to separate from the League.

Albert Richard
J. Bedouch
Hugo Byter
Elisée Reclus
Aristide Rey
Victor Jaclard

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Filed under 1868, League of Peace and Freedom

Speech on the 17th Anniversary of the Polish Revolution

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 6.27.28 PMSpeech delivered November 29, 1847 and published in La Réforme, December 14, 1847.


This is a very solemn moment for me. I am Russian, and I come into the midst of this large assembly, which has gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the Polish revolution, whose very presence here is a sort of challenge, a threat, like a curse thrown the face of all the oppressors of Poland; – I come here, gentlemen, animated by a profound love and unalterable respect for my homeland.

I am not unaware of how unpopular Russia is in Europe. The Polish regard it, and perhaps not without reason, as one of the principal causes of all their misfortunes. Independent men of other countries see in the rapid development of its power an always-increasing danger to the liberty of nations. Everywhere the name Russians appears as a synonym of brutal oppression and shameful slavery. A Russian, in the opinion of Europe, is nothing but a vile instrument of conquest in the hands of the most odious and most dangerous despotism.

Gentlemen, it is not in order to exonerate Russia of the crimes of which it is accused, it is not in order to deny the truth that I have come to this rostrum. I would not attempt the impossible. The truth becomes more necessary than every to my homeland.

Well, yes, we are still an enslaved people! Among us there is no liberty, no respect for human dignity. It is the monstrous despotism, with no impediment to its caprices, without limits on its action. No rights, no justice, no recourse against the arbitrary will; we have nothing of that which constitutes the dignity and pride of nations. It is impossible to imagine a position more unfortunate and more humiliating.

Externally, our position is no less deplorable. Passive executors of a thought that is foreign to us, of a will that is as contrary to our interests as it is to our honor, we are feared, hated, I would even almost say scorned, for we are regarded everywhere as the enemies of civilization and humanity. Our masters use our arms to enchain the world, to enslave the nations, and each of their successes is a new shame added to our history.

Without speaking of Poland, where since 1772, and especially since 1831, we dishonor ourselves each day with atrocious acts of violence, nameless infamies, – what a miserable role we have been made to play in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, even in France, everywhere our destructive influence has even been able to penetrate. Since 1815, has there been a single noble cause that we have not battled, a bad cause that we have not supported, a single great political iniquity of which we have not been the instigators or accomplices? – By a truly deplorable fatality, of which is itself the first victims, Russia, since its arrival at the rank of a power of the first order, has become an encouragement for crime and a threat for all the sacred interests of humanity!

Thanks to that execrable politics of our sovereigns, Russia, in the official sense of that word, signifies slave and executioner!

You see, gentlemen, I have a perfect knowledge of my position; and I present myself here as Russian, not although I am Russian, but because I am Russian. I come with the deep sense of responsibility that weighs on me, as well as on all the other individual of my country, for the honor of individuals is inseparable from the national honor: without that responsibility, without that intimate union between the nations and their governments, between the individuals and the nations, there would be neither homeland, nor nation.

I have never, gentlemen, felt that responsibility, that solidarity in the crime as painfully as in this moment; for the anniversary that you celebrate today, for you, gentlemen, it is a great memory, the memory of a holy insurrection and a heroic struggle, the memory of one of the finest eras of your national life. You have all witness that magnificent public surge, you have taken part in that struggle, you have been the actors and the heroes. In that sacred war you seem to have exerted, spread, exhausted all that the great Polish soul contained of enthusiasm, of devotion, of strength and of patriotism! Weigh down under the numbers, you finally succumbed. But the memory of that eternally memorable era remains written in flaming characters in your hearts; but you have all emerged regenerated from that war: regenerated and strong, hardened against the temptations of misfortune, against the pains of exile, full of pride in your past, full of faith in your future!

The anniversary of November 29, gentlemen, is for you not only a great memory, it is also the guarantee of an imminent deliverance, of an impending return to your country.

For me, as a Russian, it is the anniversary of a shame; yes, of a great national shame! I say it frankly: the war of 1831 was, on our part, an absurd, criminal, fratricidal war. It was not only an unjust attack on a neighboring nation, it was a monstrous offense against the liberty of a brother. It was more, gentlemen: on the part of my country, it was a political suicide. – That war was undertaken in the interest of the Russian despotism, not that of the Russian nation; for these two interests are absolutely opposed. The emancipation of Poland was our salvation: with you free, we would have been as well; you could not overturn the thrown of the King of Poland without shaking that of the emperor of Russia… – Children of the same race, our destinies are inseparable and our cause must be common.

You understood that well when you inscribed on your revolutionary flags these Russian words: za nachou i za vachou volnost, “For our liberty and for yours!” You have understood it well when, in the most critical moment of the struggle, braving the fury of Nicolas, all of Warsaw gathered one day, inspired by a great fraternal thought, in order render a solemn, public homage, to our heroes, to our martyrs of 1825, to PESTEL, to RYLEEFF, to MOURAWIEFF-APOSTEL, BESTOUGEFF-RUMIN and KOHOFFSKY, – hanged at Saint-Petersburg for having been the first citizens Russia!

Ah! Gentlemen, you have neglected nothing in order to convince us of your sympathetic dispositions, in order to touch our hearts, in order to pull us from our fatal blindness. Vain attempts! Wasted efforts! Soldiers of the czar, deaf to your appeal, seeing, understanding nothing, we have marched against you, – and the crime has been perpetrated.

Gentlemen, of all the oppressors, of all the enemies of your country, it is we who have most earned your curses and your hatred.

And yet it is not only as a repentant Russian that I come here. I dare to proclaim in your presence my love and respect for my country. I dare more, gentlemen. I dare to urge you to an alliance with Russia.

I need to explain myself.

About a year ago, it was, I believe, after the massacres in Galicia, a Polish nobleman, in a very eloquent and now famous letter, addressed to M. the prince of Metternich, made a strange proposition to you. Carried away no doubt by a hatred, and a very legitimate one at that, against the Austrians, he enlisted you to nothing less than submitting to the czar, surrendering yourselves body and soul, fully, without conditions or reservations; he advised you to freely desire what you have until now only been made to suffer, and he promised you that, in compensation, as soon as you ceased to portray yourselves as slaves, your master, despite himself, would become your brother.

Your brother, gentlemen. Do you hear? The emperor Nicolas would become your brother!

The oppressor, the bitterest enemy, the personal enemy of Poland, the executioner of so many victims, the abductor of your liberty, the one who pursues you with an infernal perseverance, as much from hatred and instinct as from politics, – would you accept him as your brother?

Each of you would prefer to perish, I know it well; – each of you would rather see Poland perish than consent to such a monstrous alliance.

But tolerate, just for a moment, this impossible conjecture. Do you know, gentlemen, what the surest means would be for you to do much evil to Russia? It would be to submit to the czar. He would find in that a sanction for his politics and such a strength that nothing, from now own, could stop him. Woe to us if that anti-national politics prevailed over all the obstacles that still oppose its complete realization! And the first, the greatest of these obstacles, is incontestably Poland, it is the desperate resistance of this heroic people that saves us by combating us.

Yes, it is because you are the enemies of the Emperor Nicolas, the enemies of the official Russia, that you are naturally, even without desiring it, the friends of the Russian people!

In Europe, we generally believe, I know, that we form an indivisible whole with our government; that we feel very fortunate under the reign of Nicolas; that he and his system, oppressive within and invasive without, are the perfect expression of our national genius.

It is not the case at all.

No, gentlemen, the Russian people are not happy! I say it with joy, with pride. For, if happiness was possible for them in the state of abjection into which they find themselves plunged, they would be the most cowardly, most vile people in the world. We are also governed by a foreign hand, by a sovereign of German origin, who will never understand the needs nor the character of the Russian people, and whose government, a singular mix of Mongol brutality and Prussian pedantry, completely excludes the national element. So that, deprived of all political rights, we do not have even that natural, we might say patriarchal, liberty enjoyed by the less civilized peoples, which at least allows a man to rest his heart in a native milieu and abandon himself fully to the instincts of his race. No, we have none of all that: no natural geste action, no free movement is allowed us. We are almost forbidden to live, for every life implies a certain independence, and we are only the inanimate cogs of that monstrous machine of oppression and conquest that we call the Russian Empire. Well! gentlemen, suppose a soul in a machine, and perhaps then you will form an idea of the immensity of our sufferings. No shame, no torture is spared us, and we have all the misfortunes of Poland, without the honor.

Without honor, I have said, and I uphold that expression for everything that is governmental, official, political, in Russia.

A weak, exhausted nation could have need of lies in order to maintain the miserable remains of an existence that is fading away. But Russia is not in that situation, thank God! The nature of that people is corrupted only on the surface: vigorous, powerful and young, it has only to overturn the obstacles with which it has been surrounded, in order to show itself in all its primitive beauty, in order to develop all its unknown treasures, to show the world finally that it is not in the name of brutal force, as it is generally thought, but rather in the name of all that is most noble and most sacred in the lives of nations, that it is in the name of humanity, in the name of liberty, that the Russian people have the right to exist.

Gentlemen, Russia is not only unfortunate, it is discontented as well, it is at the end of its patience. Do you know what is whispered in the court of Saint-Petersburg itself? Do you know what those close to the emperor, the favorites, even the ministers think? That the reign of Nicolas is that of Louis XV. Everyone senses the storm, a terrible, imminent storm, which frightens many people, but which the nation summons with joy.

The internal affairs of the country go horribly wrong. It is a complete anarchy, with all the semblance of order. Beneath the exterior of an excessively rigorous hierarchical formality is hidden some hideous wounds; our administration, our justice, our finances, are so many lies: lies to mislead foreign opinion, lies to lull the sense of security and conscience of the sovereign, who plays along all the more willingly, as he is frightened by the real state of things. Finally, the is the organization on a large scale, an organization, we might say, studied and learned in iniquity, barbarism and pillage: for all the servants of the czar, from those who occupy the highest position to the lowliest district employees, bankrupt, rob the country, commit the most flagrant injustices, the most detestable violence, without the least shame, without the least fear, in public; in the light of day, with an insolence and a brutality without example, not even taking the trouble to conceal their crimes from the indignation of the public, so sure are they that they will remain unpunished.

The emperor Nicolas indeed sometimes gives himself the appearance of wishing to arrest the progress of this frightful corruption; but how could he suppress an evil whose principal cause is within himself, in the very principle of his government? And that is the secret of his profound powerlessness for good! For this government, which appears so imposing from without, is powerless from within; nothing it does is successful, all the reforms that it attempts are immediately struck null and void. Having no foundation but the two vilest passions of the human heart, venality and fear; functioning outside of all the instincts of the nation, of all the interests, of all the vital forces of the country, the power, in Russia, weakens itself each day through its own action, and disrupts itself in a frightful manner. It twists and turns, thrashes about, and changes plans and ideas at each moment; it attempts many things at once, but accomplishes nothing. Only, it does not lack the power for evil, and it exhausts it fully, as if it wanted to hasten the moment of its own ruin. – Foreign and hostile to the country in the midst of the country itself, it is marked for an imminent fall.

Its enemies are everywhere: there is the formidable mass of the peasants, who no longer count on the emperor for their emancipation, and whose uprisings, more and more frequent every day, prove that they are tired of waiting; there is a very large intermediary class, composed of very diverse elements, an anxious, turbulent class that will throw itself passionately in the first revolutionary movement.

– There is also, and especially, that innumerable army that covers the whole surface of the empire. Nicolas, it is true, regards his soldiers as his best friends, as the most solid supports of his throne; but this is a strange illusion, which will not fail to be fatal for him. What! The supports of his throne, some men drawn from the ranks of the people, so profoundly unfortunate, men brutally snatched from their families, who are hunted down like wild beasts in the forests where they go to hind, often after maiming themselves, in order to escape recruitment; who are led in chains to their regiments, where they are condemned for twenty years, which is to say for the life of a man, to a hellish existence, beaten every day, loaded down every day with new fatigues, and dying every day of hunger! What would they do then, good God! these Russian soldiers, if, in the midst of such tortures, they could love the hand that inflicts them on them! Believe it well, gentlemen, our soldiers are the most dangerous enemies of the present order of things; those of the guard especially, who, seeing the evil at its source, can have no illusions about the unique cause of all their suffering. Our soldiers, they are the people themselves, but still more discontent; they are the people entirely disillusioned, armed, accustomed to discipline and common action. Do you want a proof of it? In all the recent peasant riots, the discharged soldiers have played the principal role.

To end this review of the enemies of power in Russia, I must finally tell you, gentlemen, that among the noble youth this is a mass of educated, generous, patriotic men, who blush at the shame and horror of our position, who are outraged at feeling they are slaves, who are all animated against the emperor and his government by an implacable hatred. Ah! Believe it well, revolutionary elements are not lacking in Russia! It stirs, grows in passion, it reckons its forces, it recognizes itself, it gathers, and the moment is not far off when the storm, a great storm, our salvation, will break!

Gentlemen, it is in the name of that new society, of that true Russian nation, that I come to propose to you an alliance.

The idea of a revolutionary alliance between Poland and Russia is not new. It had already been conceived, as you know, by the conspirators of the two countries, in 1824.

Gentlemen, the memory that I have just alluded to fills my soul with pride. The Russian conspirators were then the first to cross the abyss that seems to separate us. Taking counsel only with their patriotism, braving the precautions that you had naturally set up against all who bore the name Russian, they came to you first, without mistrust, without ulterior motives; – they came to you to propose a common action against our common enemy, against our only enemy.

You will forgive me, gentlemen, this moment of involuntary pride. A Russian who loves his country cannot speak dispassionately of these men; they are our purest glory, – and I am happy to be able to proclaim it frankly in this midst of this great and noble assembly, in the midst of this Polish assembly, – they are our saints, our heroes, the martyrs for our liberty, the prophets of our future! From the height of their gibbets, from the very depths of Siberia where they groan still, they have been our salvation, our light, the source of all our good inspirations, our safeguard against the cursed influences of despotism, our proof, before you and before the entire world, that Russia contains within itself all the elements of liberty and of true greatness! Shame, shame to those among us who would not recognize it!

Gentlemen, it is under the invocation of their great names, it is by leaning on their powerful authority, that I present myself to you as a brother, – and you will not reject me. I have no legal title to speak to you in this way; but, with the least bit of vain pretension, I feel that, in this solemn moment, it is the Russian nation itself that speaks to you through my mouth. I am not the only one in Russia who loves Poland, and who feels for it that enthusiastic admiration, that passionate ardor, that profound sentiment, mixed with repentance and hope, that I could never manage to express to you. The friends, known and unknown, who share my sympathies, my opinions, are numerous, and it would be easy for me to prove it, by citing facts and names to you, if I did not fear uselessly compromising many persons. It is in their names, gentlemen, it is in the name of all there is that is living, noble, in my country, that I hold out to you a fraternal hand.

Chained to one another by a fatal, inevitable destiny, by a long and dramatic history, the sad consequences of which we all suffer today, our two countries have long detested one another. But the hour of reconciliation has been struck: it is time that our disagreements end.

Our crimes against you are very great! You have much to forgive us for! But our repentance is not less, and we sense in you a power of good will that will repair all the wrongs and make you forget the past. Then our hatred will change to love, into a love that much more ardent as our hatred has been implacable.

To the extent that we remain disunited, we are mutually paralyzed; together we will be all-powerful for good. nothing could withstand our common action.

The reconciliation of Russia and Poland is an immense work, well worthy of our complete devotion. It is the emancipation of 60 million men, it is the deliverance of all the Slavic peoples who groan under a foreign yoke, and, finally, it is the fall, the final fall of despotism in Europe!

So let it come then, this great day of reconciliation, – the day when the Russians, united with you by the same sentiments, fighting for the same cause and against a common enemy, will have the right to burst with you into your Polish national tune, that hymn of Slavic liberty:

Ieszeze Polska nie zginela!

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Letter to Nikolai Bakunin, February 1, 1861

Working on the Bakunin Library involves a lot of working back and forth through the writings, keeping important details fresh and seeing what new details seem fresh and important as things develop. As part of that process, I’m going to spend some time working through parts of Bakunin’s correspondence, starting with the years 1861-1868, preparing to work on the introduction for the first full volume of the edition. I’ll share rough translations of as many of those letters as time allows.

The first fruits of that project is the last surviving letter from Bakunin during his exile in Siberia, written to his brother Nikolai about six months before his escape.

February 1, 1861. Irkutsk.

Dear brother, this is probably the last time that I will write to you before receiving your response to my letters, which I want to complete by the following remarks: the best would be, obviously, that if, having had my rights restored, I should be permitted, simply and with no restrictions, to go in Russia; we must extend all our strength toward that end. But if I am considered dangerous to the point that in order to avoid my permanent stay in Russia they are ready to refuse me anything, we can say to them that I only ask a permission of six or even four months before returning to Siberia, after I have seen you, you and mother. Naturally, it is necessary that in Siberia a job and some means of existence. It seems to me that it would be good if mother addresses a direct request to the sovereign; her great age gives her the right to it. Finally, if you convince yourself of the absolute impossibility of obtaining the authorization for me to go now to Russia – but only in the case of absolute impossibility –, let them restore to me my rights without that of returning to Russia initially; that decision has recently been announced for the political criminal Weber for whom Murav’ev had demanded the total liberation. Thanks to that he has become, at least in Siberia, a free man, enjoying the same rights as all, while I am presently tied hands and feet. I anticipate all possible cases, according you full liberty to act as you judge is best. Just remember that you will never find a more propitious moment and that if you do not manage to liberate me now, you will surely never manage it. On you, your skill, your faith in success – for nothing on earth is impossible -, and on your energy depends at present the question of knowing if we will see each other or not on this earth. I would not rot in Siberia, that is certain; only having given up following the regular planetary march, I would again become a comet. But I would not desire it, and it is not easy, it would be very difficult with my wife, [although] alone I would not have hesitated. But I would not separate from her, and before attempting anything with her, I must consider it ten times. Having given the business much thought, I have decided to wait a bit more, another year doubtless, but in no case more if I see the hope of a future liberation, based on something precise. From you, in any case, I expect a complete sincerity and truthfulness. You would act very badly if you dared to deceive me concerning my situation. Enemies have the right to act in this way, but not you, and the least blunder, the least bad faith, the least contradiction on your part would be sufficient to incite me to the most reckless enterprises. I have become suspicious of everything and everyone and it would be difficult to mislead me, to string me along, and if that occurred, I would never forgive having been abused. I speak to you on the same basis as in the past and, so rare are the things that do not change in life, I judge you according to myself and I believe in you as I believe in myself; but if you have changed, if you are weary of me, say so frankly, I will not complain. I only demand the unconditional truth from you in all things.

I have asked you, Nikolaj, if it is possible, without harm to my honor, not to break off my relations with Benardaki; I have urged you to define, reinforce and regulate my financial affaires with him without modesty, without quixotism, and safeguard my interests to the degree that it is possible. Here two possible cases present themselves: either I am given the authorization to return to Russia, or I am not given it. in the first case, he must know that I will leave in May, and he will not refuse to give me the means to go to Russia, as he does it for all the employees of his businesses. In the second case, I would desire that he entrust me with a mission on the Amur up to Nikolaevsk; I would doubtless learn all the truth about what is done and can be done and learned in that country, and the truth in business, the truth at six thousand or ten thousand verst is precious. In any case, I would not take less than 3000 silver rubles of salary in order to entirely provide for my needs, as those are practiced in Siberia, and I feel myself capable of being equally useful to him for 6000 r. or salary. It goes without saying that I would not consent to remain in his service if he does not entrust me with a real job and does not admit his error.

If you judge it necessary to break off my relations with Benardaki, it would not be bad for you to recommend me to another muscovite or pétersbourgeois capitalist. But in this regard, I count little on you, it would on the contrary be a good thing if I could dwell myself in Moscow or Saint-Petersburg. Adieu, my brothers, pardon the blunt tone of this letter, but what is there to do, my soul is dried out, but despite everything I love you ardently and I believe in your as par le passé. Mother, grant me your benediction, let us hope that we will see each other soon.

          Your M. Bakunin

One more word. If I am not freed, if my relations with Benardaki are shattered and you do not find me other work, it will be necessary to sell my part of the estate, to pay off my debts and send me the balance, whatever it may be. I see no other solution. I am presently buried in debts, and what’s more I must still settle a debt of 600 r. I live poorly and in need and there is little hope, however I lose neither faith nor morals. – I would fight to the end.

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An appealing, but apocryphal tale

“So you see those fellows yonder?” said a man to me in a Russian village in 1871, pointing to a group of sallow, bearded, low-browed peasants, who were slouching past in their ragged frocks of sheepskin. “These are the men who carry all Russia on their backs, and the moment they find out how much they have to bear, down we all go together; but they endure it because they don’t know how ill off they are!” Few more striking truths have ever been uttered, and the utterer could hardly be accused of speaking without experience, for he was no other than Michael Bakunin, he greatest, if not the most renowned, of all the nihilist chiefs of Russia.

“Dark Russia” (excerpt) Troy Weekly Times (Troy, New York) 24 no. 51 (Thursday, June 24, 1880): 1.
[From the New York Times (June 14, 1880)]

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The Three Lives of “God and the State”

I have been thinking about “God and the State” in terms of a choice between two texts: the fragment, “God and the State,” and the incomplete work from which it was drawn, “The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution.” This is the choice proposed by James Guillaume, when he suggested that the publication of the latter should be the occasion for no longer publishing in the former. But, if Guillaume’s suspicions were correct and Reclus and Cafiero knew what they were publishing, and engaged in a bit of “literary artifice” when they presented it as a fragment, what we have is the abandonment of the full text, which was being published piece by piece, for the decontextualized fragment.

I think there are good reasons to believe that Reclus was aware of the source of the fragment and that he made a choice roughly opposite to that of Guillaume. And that opposition is probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex history of conflicts among those who had a hand in presenting Bakunin’s work to future generations. But I also think that there is a third text that has to be considered: “God and the State” as presented by Max Nettlau, with its remarkable collection of introductions, afterwords, explanations and such.

It is that text that really interests me, particularly as the years have multiplied its far-flung appendices. There were undoubtedly reasons why Nettlau would not have been as explicit as Guillaume in emphasizing the conflicts, but they are probably not reasons that concern us much now. So it is possible, and almost certainly useful, to “complete” Nettlau’s work by gathering evidence of the conflicts and using that body of work as a starting place for the Bakunin Library.

This is perhaps a small insight, but I will admit that I feel more comfortable finding myself more completely in the camp of Nettlau, who was a fine theorist of anarchy, than in that of Guillame, who considered the term “Proudhonian” and redolent of “rhetoric and bad taste.”

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Strategies of Presentation

Beneath all the (hopefully useful) chatter, the strategy of interpretation I’m pursuing has three main elaments:

  1. To treat the body of Bakunin’s works as rich and relatively coherent, suffering much more from various kinds of incompleteness than from inconsistency;
  2. To remind ourselves of the long periods during which we, particularly in the English-speaking world, have not always adhered to that kind of strategy; and
  3. To look to Bakunin’s own texts for inspiration when trying to solve the problems posed by their notoriously untidy state.

So what are the consequences of those strategic commitments, when it comes to assembling the Bakunin Library?

Selecting the Texts

By choosing to approach Bakunin’s work not just as a mass of fragments and variants, but as a mass of fragment and variants which might all yield useful insight into Bakunin’s overall project, we throw things wide open with regard to the texts we might include in the edition. That means that a lot of texts need to be considered, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of texts need to be included. It has always been a part of the plan that this edition not be strictly a scholarly edition. And if it is to be useful to more than just experts, or would-be experts, some restraint is called for, in order to avoid drowning readers in the deep waters of a body of work that is, despite all its potential utility, more than a bit of a mess.

Because the goal is in some sense an anarchist edition, there has been no attempt to deal with the earliest works (although we haven’t ruled out circling back to those at some later date.) But there is no real agreement about the date at which we might call Bakunin an anarchist, so the strategy has been to start early enough in the 1860s that at least some of the texts will appear as a contrast to the later texts, in periods where Bakunin had at least claimed to be an anarchist in some sense.

Because the work of translation is ultimately falling on a fairly small number of shoulders, it has also made sense not to retranslate works like the Confession or Statism and Anarchy, which exist in complete, relatively faithful translations.

There have been several plans for the volumes in the edition, organized chronologically or in relation to Bakunin’s organizational affiliations. They have actually varied less than one might expect, given the range of works to choose from. And this is in part because one of the obvious tasks that needed to be accomplished is the completion of a number of partial translation of key texts. That work alone dictated most of the volumes we have ultimately included in the plan for the edition, with the rest of the contents chosen from related texts, variants and correspondence, in order to complement those familiar, but not fully familiar, writings. Readers who come to the edition with a knowledge of the existing collections will have a familiar place to start and new readers will still cover the familiar ground, if in an enlarged context.

Translating the Texts

Working with texts by Proudhon, Déjacque and others, I’ve developed a strategy for exploratory translation that I usually signal with the label “working translation.” Early in my research on Proudhon, I recognized that there were clarifications in the translation that I was just not yet prepared to make, so the natural strategy was to leave some parts of the translations a bit literal, in the sense that I made some extra effort to preserve patterns of keyword usage. If, for example, it remained a bit of a mystery just what Proudhon was up to when he talked about “property” and “possession,” it was easy enough to at least preserve the patterns. And if things became clearer later, then translations could be adjusted.

The potential complexity of the questions is demonstrated by a problem like the translation of anarchie in Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution. In his translation, Robinson attempted to distinguish between what we might call technical and non-technical uses of the term, translating the terms as anarchy where is seemed to refer to Proudhon’s preferred social arrangements and disorder or chaos where it refers to it did not. That might have been a laudable strategy at the time, were it not for the places where Proudhon himself referred  to “anarchy in all of its senses,” posing questions that the translation leaves us unable to address, since the various senses have been translated differently. But we can certainly think of examples where the clarity would call for an approach like Robinson’s. It is simply a matter of being able to distinguish between instances where there might be some more-or-less technical sense of a term that should be maintained and those where there is nothing of the sort at stake. With large bodies of work, of course, it is necessary to make these calculations on a fairly large scale, so in the case of Proudhon it has been necessary to do a lot of reading and rereading in order to get a general sense of his habits of word-use. But there aren’t many surprises of the sort we find in The General Idea.

Working with Bakunin’s works is rather different than working with Proudhon’s. There is, of course, the unpolished character of much of the work. There is also Bakunin’s tendency, whether from inclination or the demands of writing in languages other than his native tongue, to express himself in fairly plain language. When we consider a case like the passage on “the authority of the bootmaker,” the original French text is no clearer than any of the English translations. In one sentence Bakunin is saying “no authority” (autorité) and in the next he seems to have changed his mind. When we look for clarification about the “rejection” of authority, in both positive and negative cases, we find the same verb (repousser) consistently. It is tempting, when faced with this apparent contradiction, to try to fix it where it occurs, but there is nothing in the language that justifies any clarification in the translation itself. We can footnote the problem, pointing back to the other portions of the text that present possible tools for resolving it. But, in terms of translation, what is important is actually that the problem be clearly marked in the language itself.

The strategy of not just retaining, but even highlighting the problems in the text is simply another part of reducing the amount of work that readers have to do in order to come to terms with the material. One of the things that I want readers to  understand when they engage with the Bakunin Library translations is that they are getting as close to the “whole fragment” as we could manage, so that those with the skills to consult the original, untranslated texts won’t feel that they have to and those without can have some faith that the collaboration and interpretation has been kept to the absolute minimum. Again, a real translation cannot be clearer than the original. So, while attempting to avoid the clumsiness of literal translation and respecting the real wit and power of Bakunin’s more finished prose, it will be necessary to use a version of the “working translations” strategy in the edition. And sometimes the amount of smoothing and clarification that is possible will be limited.

Fortunately, the relative simplicity of Bakunin’s prose means that the instances where things have to be left really rough will be few.

Framing and Interpretation

As the editor of the edition, and for reasons that should already be fairly clear, my interpretive ambitions are pretty modest. Each volume will require the establishment of specific contexts, including the development of Bakunin’s ideas through the various volumes, and there will be a certain amount of annotation necessary to highlight potential problems in the texts. But I understand the Bakunin Library primarily as a means of producing new interpretations, rather than an interpretive account on its own. There will be instances where we have inherited interpretations that probably need to be questioned, but in those cases I hope to address the difficulties by discussing issues of translation, editing choices in previous translations, etc.

Naturally, spending all the time required wrestling with Bakunin’s ideas has inspired, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire, lot of thoughts regarding the interpretation of his works, not all of which will fit in a relatively neutral footnote or an aside in an introduction. I am considering the possibility of pursuing some of these ideas in a separate volume or volumes, perhaps with other scholars who have expressed an interest in contributing to the edition. But I am also planning to conclude each volume with some open-ended, exploratory remarks on the material. And the logistics of publishing The Knouto-Germanic Empire may commit us to two volumes, in which case it might make sense to include more interpretive material in what is also certainly going to be the centerpiece of the edition.

This particular approach to the material will undoubtedly not satisfy everyone, but I don’t think there is an approach that would be universally useful. What this set of strategies seems likely to guarantee is an edition that is broadly useful to anarchists and non-anarchists alike, regardless of their ideological or organizational commitments and interpretive presuppositions.

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