For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Mikhail Bakunin
The Philosophical Basis of His Theory of Anarchism
  • Paul McLaughlin
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Mikhail Bakunin. The Philosophical Basis of His Theory of Anarchism
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The first English-language philosophical study of Bakunin will interest scholars in the fields of political philosophy and theory, the history of ideas, and specialists on anarchism, socialism, Marx studies, and scholars of Left Hegelianism. McLaughlin offers an interpretation of Bakunin’s philosophy and, in part, a defense of it against Marxist and liberal scholarship to date.


About the Author

Paul McLaughlin is a scholar of political philosophy at the National University of Ireland. His research on Bakunin and European and Russian anarchists has taken him to the University of Zielona Góra (Poland) and the Institute of Philosophy at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan (Poland).

About the Book

McLaughlin is concerned not so much with an explication of Bakunin's anarchist position, as such, as with the basic philosophy which underpins it. He focuses on two central components: a negative dialectic, or revolutionary...

McLaughlin is concerned not so much with an explication of Bakunin's anarchist position, as such, as with the basic philosophy which underpins it. He focuses on two central components: a negative dialectic, or revolutionary logic; and a naturalist ontology, a naturalistic account of the structure of being or reality.

Bakunin scholarship, he notes, falls into two camps, Marxist and liberal. Both, he says, tend to be hostile. McLaughlin discredits one by one the analyses (published, usually, as part of a work on Marx et al.) by Francis Wheen ("schoolboy wit, idiocy of tone, poverty of content"), George Lichtheim ("completely misreads Bakunin"), and Oxbridge scholar Aileen Kelly ("personality assassination, perverse, slanderous"), while upholding Eric Voegelin. Perhaps, this book will spark a small revolution of its own.

Scholars interested in Bakunin have had few resources available in English, and none of them, until now, presented a credible study of the man's philosophy.


Introduction
Bakunin as Philosopher? The primary purpose of this essay, as the title indicates, is to examine the philosophical foundations of Mikhail BakuninÂ’s social thought. Thus it is concerned not so much with the explication of the anarchist position of Bakunin as such as with the basic philosophy which underpins it. This philosophy has, as far as I...
Bakunin as Philosopher? The primary purpose of this essay, as the title indicates, is to examine the philosophical foundations of Mikhail Bakunin’s social thought. Thus it is concerned not so much with the explication of the anarchist position of Bakunin as such as with the basic philosophy which underpins it. This philosophy has, as far as I can determine, two central components: a negative dialectic or revolutionary logic; and a naturalist ontology, a naturalistic account of the structure of being or reality. These two components are analyzed in the two main sections of this essay — but a preliminary question is begged, relating to the very significance of Bakunin as a philosophical thinker, the very significance of this apparent philosophical “non-entity” (Karl Marx’s judgment, seemingly confirmed by Bakunin’s absence from the philosophical canon). The question might be put in the following way: is Bakunin worthy of philosophical consideration?

 

The mass of scholarship — or certainly Anglophone scholarship — on Bakunin holds that he is not. Anglophones — not surprisingly, given the ideological order in Anglophone countries — are especially hostile; Bakunin is generally regarded more sympathetically and treated more seriously in Latin countries, for instance. Due to the extent of this hostility, and the sheer orthodoxy by now of this hostile interpretation in the Anglophone world — to say nothing of my own background — it is Anglophone scholarship (and the “foreign” element that it has adopted) that is of utmost concern in what is undeniably a broadly sympathetic (though not uncritical) treatment of Bakunin.1

By and large, Bakunin scholarship (if it can be called that) falls into two categories — alas, two ideological categories: Marxist and liberal. Conservative analysis of Bakunin is less conspicuous. Nevertheless Eric Voegelin, whose views will be outlined below, has made a serious contribution from this perspective. What is most noteworthy about the case of Voegelin is that it supports an argument of Bakunin’s Die Reaktion in Deutschland (The Reaction in Germany) (1842): that the conflict between consistent revolutionaries and “consistent reactionaries” is marked by more honesty than the conflict between the former and “mediating reactionaries”.

Marxist Analysis

Marxist analysis of Bakunin is, it appears, predetermined by the less than flattering analysis of the master (which will be attended to directly later). Indeed, Marxist arguments against Bakunin are clearly identifiable as arguments from authority (every possible pun intended). Thus Bakunin emerges as a “voluntarist” with no understanding of political economy or the workings of capital, that is to say, as an impatient and “apolitical” “bandit” and a theoretical “ignoramus” — for the simple reason that he dares to disagree with the historically disputed and, as I will argue, philosophically tenuous doctrine, as he dared to cross Marx in his revolutionary activity.2 This damning indictment of Bakunin is made in spite of the fact that not one Marxist has actually conducted an in-depth analysis of the theoretical writings of Bakunin. Hence one might accuse Marxist scholars of being, at the very least, uninformed.

Examples of this level of Marxist scholarship are numerous, even excluding the most dubious “Marxist-Leninist” material. A standard example is George Lichtheim. (Lichtheim, like Francis Wheen [see below], is marxist [note the lower-case “m”] at least to the extent that he is generally sympathetic to Marx and that he sides with Marx against Bakunin on the major points of their controversy.) His views on Bakunin encapsulate the Marxist critique3: basically, Bakunin is no thinker, no philosopher, no theorist, but a mere “agitator”. “He remained, one may fairly say [?], all his life a man of action rather than a thinker”. The “all his life” phrase is prevalent among those scholars, both Marxist and liberal (as we will see), who seek to impose a uniform and simplistic account on the complex intellectual biography of Bakunin. Hence, we are told that he “remained all his life” either a mindless revolutionary (the Marxist line) or a hopelessly idealistic intellectual (the liberal line). In either case, however, he has no philosophical merit: on this point liberals and Marxists concur. Thus while the liberal maintains that Bakunin was a thinker — but a poor one — the Marxist maintains that he was not really a thinker at all, but to the extent that he was, he was a poor one.

As Lichtheim puts it: “There remains the philosophical aspect, for Bakunin of course had to have a philosophy — as a former Hegelian he could hardly afford to be without one”….


Reviews
In Defence of Michael Bakunin | More »
CHOICE, March 2003 Vol. 40 No. 07 | More »

Pages 284
Year: 2002
LC Classification: HX914.7.B34 M35
Dewey code: 335'.83
BISAC: PHI019000
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