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Review: The Basic Bakunin

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The Basic Bakunin: Writings, 1869-1871. Ed. and Trans. by Robert M. Cutler. (Prometheus Books, 1992) ISBN 0-87975-745-0

The Basic Bakunin collects essays by one of the greatest anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century. Translated and edited ably by Robert M. Cutler, these essays represent Bakunin's thoughts on both theory and practice, and on their essential unity. Cutler points out that Bakunin's works have been translated into English in a highly fragmented way, frequently just excerpted in anthologies and collections. Even if the texts have been available (God and the State being the most popular), nine of the seventeen essays are translated into English for the first time by Cutler, which itself is a valuable contribution.

As to the contents, I find that Bakunin has aged rather well, especially by comparison with his contemporaries. From this point in history, it quite clear that his condemnation of authoritarian communism, for example, was prophetic:

We have always fought this view passionately, for we are convinced that the moment the International [Working-Men's] Association is divided into two groups -- one comprising the vast majority and composed of members whose only knowledge will be a blind faith in the theoretical and practical wisdom of their commanders, and the other composed only of a few score individual directors -- from that moment this institution which should emancipate humanity would turn into a type of oligarchic State, the worst of all States. What is more, this learned, clarivoyant, and cunning minority, carefully hiding its despotism behind the appearance of obsequious respect for the will of the sovereign people and for its resolutions, would yield to the necessities and requirements of its privileged position, thus assuming along with all its responsibilities, all the rights of government, a government all the more absolute because it would always urge those resolutions itself upon the so-called will of the people, thereby very soon becoming increasingly despotic, malevolent, and reactionary.
(from "The Organization of the International" (1871), p. 144)
But does Bakunin's insight carry over from his fellow socialists to the political situation of the present day? After all, some Marxians claim that socialism has not failed, since it has never really been attempted (anarchists and Christians both occasionally argue similarly). Does the analysis and prescription of Bakunin apply 130 years later? I would qualifiedly agree that it does in large part.

Europe, let alone the world, is immensely changed from Bakunin's era. States have come and gone with the same rapidity in the twentieth as the nineteenth century, but technique has hurtled forward and accelerated tremendously. (Neither telephone nor automobile, for instance, existed in Bakunin's day.) Social structures, too, have changed in part due to labor agitation inspired by socialisms of Bakunin's time. The extension of universal suffrage, regarded by Bakunin as a cynical trick of the dominant class, has been extended even to women; automation and stock-holding have drastically changed the distribution of property and capital. But of what of the principles?

The "Three Lectures to Swiss Members of the International" which begins Cutler's translation is an excellent coice, because the lectures include a full arc of Bakunin's thought, from origins of the socialist struggle to his call to action. Bakunin's diagnosis of the world's condition is neither abstract nor individual, but social:

The State is likewise nothing but the guarantor of all exploitation, to the profit of a small number of prosperous and privileged persons and to the loss of the popular masses. In order to assure the welfare, prosperity, and privileges of some, it uses everyone's collective strength and collective labor, to the detriment of everyone's human rights. In such a setup the minority plays the role of the hammer and the majority that of the anvil.
The State is a social tool for enriching the few who control wealth (and consequently the State), at the expense of the many who labor; this social tool takes advantage of the many in order to continue this arrangement, exploitative though it is. Bakunin's accusation against the State and its controllers is that it is a massive institutionalized injustice, an affront to all human morality/ethics. The State is an organizer, not of justice, but of injustice. The wealthy and powerful use the State to take away people's freedom in order to enrich themselves. This imposition of bondage and impoverishment entirely illegitimizes the existence of the State.
[The French Revolution] audaciously overturned every obstacle and every political tyranny, but it left intact, even proclaiming sacred and inviolable, the economic bases of society which have been the eternal source and chief cause of all political and social injustices, all past and present religious absurdities. It proclaimed the freedom of each and every individual, or rather it proclaimed for each and every individual the right to be free. But really, it gave the means of realizing and enjoying this freedom only to the property-owners, the capitalists, and the rich. [...] Yes, poverty is slavery -- it is the need to sell one's labor, and with one's labor one's person, to the capitalist who gives you the means barely to survive. One's mind must indeed be affected by Bourgeois Gentlemen's lies to dare speak of the political freedom of the working masses. Fine freedom this is, that subjects them to the whims of capital and that shackles them through hunger to the capitalist's will! Dear friends, I surely do not have to prove to you, who have come to understand the agonies of labor through long and hard experience, that so long as capital and labor are mutually isolated, labor will be the slave of capital and workers the subjects of Bourgeois Gentlemen, who out of ridicule give you every political right and every semblance of freedom, so as to preserve its reality exclusively for themselves.
(p. 45-6)
Compelled economic inequality corresponds directly to real inequality, irrespective of merely theoretical political freedoms, Bakunin argues. In practice, then, the revolutionizing of the society's economic arrangements is not an afterthought of revolutionizing its political arrangements, but the pre[co-?]requisite for political revolution. The unequal practical freedom resulting from economic inequality caused a continuation of the enslavement of the un-free many by the freed few (those who alone have the means of exercising their freedoms because of the economic means). The end of enslavement requires the end of inequality in economic means.

One's perception of how changed or unchanged this socioeconomic dilemma is will almost certainly affect the degree to which the reader is willing to be persuaded to Bakunin's original programme. It could rightly be pointed out that Bakunin's point of view was formed pretty much exclusively on the examples of Western Europe and the USA (although the same applies to Marx). A rational reassessment of positions inherited from the 19th century, Marxist, laissez-faire, anarchist, and otherwise, especially with respect to the rest of the world's political economies, is certainly long overdue.

Although Bakunin was convinced that "bourgeois socialism" only hastened the death of the bourgeois class as such, even though it corrupted the proletariat in the process, "bourgeois socialism" has not passed away as Bakunin believed it would (in contrast to Communism). I believe, in fact, that his description (in "The Hypnotizers") of the distinguishing characteristics of bourgeois socialism apply quite well to the prevailing situation in my own country:

[Bourgeois socialism] ...aspires to marry together two absolutely incompatible principles which it has the singular pretension to reconcile. For example, it wishes to preserve personal property in capital and land for the bourgeoisie and it simultaneously declares its magnanimous intention to assure the well-being of the worker. It even promises him the full benefits of his labor; but since interest and rent are levied only on the fruits of labor, this cannot be realized until capital ceases to collect interest and property in land ceases to collect rent.

Bourgeois socialism likewise wishes to preserve the freedom currently enjoyed by the members of the bourgeoisie, a freedom which is only the ability to exploit and which exists only thanks to the power of capital and property (which are the workers' labor); and simultaenously it promises the fullest economic and social equality of the exploited with their exploiters!

It upholds the right of inheritance, that is, the privilege of the children of the rich to be born into wealth and that of the children of the poor to be born into poverty; meanwhile, it promises to all children the equality of upbringing and education that justice demands.

It upholds, in favor of the Bourgeois, the inequality of means that follows durectly from the right of inheritance, and it promises to the proletarians that everyone will work under its system, the work being determined only by the individual's natural capabilities and inclinations.
(p. 76)

Bakunin sees in this a halfway house between oppression and revolution, based on an anti-social continuation of the private property system which is the basis for State oppression of the overwhelming majority. The "American Dream" combined with the "social services safety net", however, seems to almost exactly match the description: monopoly trade unionism, stock markets, unemployment insurance, home ownership, inheritances, inheritance taxes, "progressive" income tax, income tax loopholes, private health care, Medicare/Medicaid, universal suffrage, the two-party system. And indeed, the revolution born of explosive worker rage seems to have been blunted by this bourgeois socialism, with all its contradictions.

Let the reader understand: The Basic Bakunin contains neither panaceas nor nonsense. Cutler's translations present, to many of us for the first time, the extended thoughts of one of history's most powerful political thinkers; even those of us who believe that time and change have eclipsed his program have a duty to consider his works and assess what lasting value can be found in them. As a theologian, for instance, I must weigh the serious and nearly irrefutable accusations against the Church of his time, along with his acute assessments of human nature. (Jacques Ellul has led the way in his Jesus and Marx, and in Anarchy and Christianity; Vernard Eller's Christian Anarchy has the same theme.) Short, inexpensive and readable, anyone interested in politics and society should get and read The Basic Bakunin.

The Basic Bakunin: Writings, 1869-1871. Ed. and Trans. by Robert M. Cutler. (Prometheus Books, 1992) ISBN 0-87975-745-0

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