Postmodernism, Part 33: The Anarchist Bakunin

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes Marxism, Freedom, and the State, by Mikhail Bakunin; Writings on the Paris Commune by Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Lenin; Freedom and Organization, by Bertrand Russell; The Russian Revolution: A New History, by Sean McKeenin.)


Enlightenment and Darkness

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism (reason, individualism, liberal democracy, free markets).  Postmodernism is based on nihilism and radical left politics.

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Postmodern political philosophy is related to Rousseau, whose totalitarian collectivism inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to the rise of Napoleon and his conquest of Germany.

Right Collectivism

Right Collectivism fused Rousseau, the German Counter-Enlightenment, and Napoleonic stress disorder.  Rousseau got a German makeover: hero worship, state worship, German supremacy, and the dialectic.

Left Collectivism

Left Collectivism fused German Counter-Enlightenment ideas with romanticism: passion, revolution, and disgust (at industrial working conditions).  Disgusted, Marx and Engels concocted “scientific socialism” and published the Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

The Revolutions of 1848 frustrated Marx and Engels.  The French Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering failed leftist uprisings), as did German Communism and Italian unification, but not Bismarck’s unification of northern Germany .

Red Star Rising

In the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck united victorious Germany, while defeated France divided in civil war.  Marx used the brutally crushed Paris Commune as a “teachable moment”.

The Anarchist Bakunin
mikhail-bakuninMikhail Bakunin

Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, one of his fiercest critics, had deep animosities.  Bakunin was born a Russian aristocrat (and Marx hated Slavs).  Marx was born Jewish (and Bakunin hated Jews).  Marx falsely accused Bakunin of being a spy, after Bakunin escaped from a Siberian penal colony.  (Bakunin, for his role in the Revolutions of 1848, had been sentenced to death by Germany and Austria, sent to Russia, then imprisoned and packed off to Siberia.)  Marx dropped his allegations, but later revived them to have Bakunin expelled from the 1872 meeting of the First International.


Bakunin and Marx had fundamental differences over political action and the State.  Marx was an “authoritarian communist” (State Socialist) while Bakunin was a “revolutionary collectivist” (Anarchist) who argued for liberty:

  • Liberty is essential to individual material, moral, and intellectual development.
  • Without liberty, political and social equality are a pack of lies.
  • A State that can limit liberty, will reduce individual rights to zero.
  • Equality must be built spontaneously by freely organized producers’ associations (not by a paternalistic domineering State).
peter-kropotkinPeter Kropotkin (Anarchist)

Bakunin shared Marx’s goals (a new social order based on the organization of labor, collective ownership of the means of production) but fundamentally differed on the means:

  • Communists use political power (of the urban proletariat and radical bourgeois).
  • Anarchists use non-political social power (of the working class and all people of goodwill).
  • Communists seek the political power of the State.
  • Anarchists seek to destroy the political power of the State.
  • Communists advocate authority, force, and planning by “superior minds” (imposed on the “ignorant” masses).
  • Anarchists advocate liberty, persuasion, and spontaneous organization.
  • Communists have faith in the “profound intelligence of all the doctors and guides of humanity who, after so many failures, still keep on trying to make men happy”.
  • Anarchists have faith in the “practical good sense and wisdom in the instinctive aspirations and real needs of the masses”.

The problem isn’t the form of government, but “the very existence of government, whatever form it takes,” Bakunin argued.

The State is “a mere abstraction, a fiction, a lie,” Bakunin admonished, a vast slaughterhouse where all the real aspirations and living forces of a country go to die. “No abstraction exists for and by itself,” he explained, the State “represents the no less real interests of the exploiting class … a dominant oligarchy [ruling] an enormous mass of … hopeless creatures … who live in perpetual illusion”.

 The Paris Commune

Bakunin put an Anarchist spin on the Paris Commune, claiming that it was a “bold, clearly formulated negation of the State”.  The Commune, he praised, marked a new era of “complete emancipation of the masses … destroying nationalism”.

mikhail-bakunin Louis Delescluze (Jacobin)

Bakunin rejected Marx’s Communist spin on the Commune.  Most Communards were not socialists, but Jacobins, he reminded (correctly).  The socialist minority had little influence, he said, and imposing socialism was a lower priority than meeting immediate needs (like food, shelter, and defense).

Bakunin rejected Marx’s criticisms of the Commune.  The Communards “were right a thousand times over,” he replied, for avoiding dictatorship and slavery.  Social revolution through political revolution, he said, risks political dictatorship and economic slavery.

The State
marx-karlKarl Marx

Marxism is “the out and out cult of the State”, Bakunin chided.  Marx worshiped “power so much that he wanted to impose and still means … to impose his dictatorship on us … the establishment of the great People’s State”.  He derided Marx’s lust for power.  Marx, he claimed, had established a sort of Communist Church, where Marx ruled an army of fanatics (mainly German Social Democrats).

The State will not whither under Communism, Bakunin scoffed, quite the opposite.  Based on Marx’s theories and actions, Bakunin predicted the Marxist State must:

  • Be supreme and absolute,
  • Conquer and enslave,
  • Have a State morality (of power) that negates human morality,
  • Control education to control thought,
  • Use secret police to monitor thought,
  • Use censorship to limit thought and opinion, and
  • Use the military against domestic enemies.

Marx’s State is based on a lie, Bakunin warned, because the State is an abstraction and a lie, and so is the “public good” (“will of the people”, “common interest”, “public safety”).  These abstractions are only the sacrifice of real people’s wills and interests, he wrote.  The “omnivorous abstraction” of the State cannot impose itself on millions, he said, without a ruling class.

Marx’s State won’t destroy class privilege, Bakunin advised.  History shows the absolute necessity of a privileged class, he said, and “a people who or more or less ignorant … riffraff … always incapable of governing themselves [who] must submit … to the benevolent yoke” of a wise and just ruling minority of “superior intelligence”.

gulag Soviet Gulag forced labor

Marx’s State will never “be able to do without the forced labor of the masses,” Bakunin warned, “whether wage-earners or slaves” because this is the “absolutely necessary basis of the liberty and and culture of the [ruling] political class”.  This was true in the United States, he said, whose morality was depraved by Northern industrialists who imposed ruinous protectionism on evil Southern agricultural oligarchs.

Marx’s State will be corrupt, Bakunin cautioned, because power corrupts.  In an ideal State, he said, the masses would elect the brightest and most virtuous, but power would corrupt their morality by breeding contempt (for the “inferior” masses) and hubris (arrogant overestimation of their own merits).

Marx’s State will be “the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes”, Bakunin predicted, because Marx’s extremely complex government is totalitarian, governing everything: politics and economics (industry, agriculture, banking).  “All that will require an immense knowledge and many ‘heads overflowing with brains’,” he said, “It will be the reign of scientific intelligence … a hierarchy of real and pretended scientists … ruling in the name of knowledge … [over] an immense ignorant majority”.

International Communism

Marx’s vision of global emancipation is only German world domination, Bakunin warned.  Marx is a German nationalist, he reminded, who claims to seek “the emancipation of the proletariat of all other counties”.  How,  Bakunin asks, “can this contradiction be resolved?”  There is only one way, he answered, the triumph of Germany is the triumph of humanity and all that opposes “this great new omnivorous power is the enemy of humanity”.

In 1871, Marx tried to use the International to set up “this great Pan-German State”, Bakunin reminded.  Marx failed “not for lack of very great efforts and much skill on his part, but probably because the fundamental idea which inspires him is false and its realization is impossible”.


In 1872, Marx nearly killed the International with his mad dreams of imposing “a universal State, government, [and] dictatorship,” Bakunin recounted.  Marx, “a new Moses”, inscribed his commandments on the flag of the International, and attempted to impose “a dictatorial government … directed by a head extraordinarily filled with brains … a complete fabric of political and economic institutions strongly centralized and very authoritarian”.

Marx was mad to dream that the working masses of the world would unite under the flag of the International, Bakunin exclaimed, madness “driven by ambition, or vanity, or both at once”.  Nothing could be more burlesque or revolting, he scoffed, than this “heresy against common sense [and] … the experience of history”.  The Popes, at least, had an excuse, “the absolute truth which they claimed rested in their hands by the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he admonished, but Marx has no excuse because he claims no such absolute truth.


In 1872, the First International fell apart, largely due to Marx’s disputes with Bakunin and others.  After Marx’s death, the Second International would take up the cause of defining Marxist orthodoxy.  Bakunin’s dire predictions of Marxist totalitarianism would prove accurate.

Bakunin’s anarchist ideas and Bastiat’s libertarian ideas had much in common:

  • Both decried the fiction of the State and how it deluded the masses.
  • Both looked to a sort of natural law – fundamental liberty, based on our innate need to survive.
  • Both objected to State limits on our natural liberty.
  • Both viewed society as a natural institution born of our social nature (not as some mere creature of the State).

Bakunin and Bastiat had many fundamental differences:

  • Bastiat was a Christian.
  • Bakunin was an atheist, who violently opposed the Church (for many reasons, including its partnership with the State and its many historical evils).
  • Bastiat thought property was a natural extension of fundamental liberty.
  • Bakunin thought property should be collectively owned.

Nietzsche predicts twentieth century catastrophe.  Next: Part 34, Nietzsche’s Warning.