Bakunin and the great schism
Chapter IV for The Anarchists, by James Joll

Joll, James

Year Published:  1979  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX19285

It was Bakunin who gave later anarchists an example of anarchist fervour in action; and it was Bakunin who showed how great was the difference in theory and practice between anarchist doctrine and the communism of Marx, and thus made explicit the split in the international revolutionary movement. Bakunin, too, more than any of his contemporaries, linked the revolutionary movement in Russia with that of the rest of Europe, and derived from it a belief in the virtues of violence for its own sake and a confidence in the technique of terrorism which was to influence many other revolutionaries besides anarchists.



Bakunin's thought was never very subtle or very original; and, indeed, in all his lifelong devotion to the cause of revolution, it was in the acts of conspiracy and revolt that he expressed his passion, rather than in theories about social or economic change. His complaint that Marx was 'ruining the workers by making theorists of them' is characteristic. However, in the Foundations of Slav Policy, which he wrote for the Prague Congress, and in his Appeal to the Slavs, published at the end of the year, he put forward ideas which were to remain his stock in trade. The Slavs should form a federation, so that 'the new policy will not be a state policy, but a policy of peoples, of independent, free individuals'. Thus not only must the Austrian Empire be destroyed, but also the whole system of liberal bourgeois values which many people thought the revolutions of 1848 were aiming at establishing. 'We must overthrow from top to bottom this effete social world which has become impotent and sterile. . . . We must first purify our atmosphere and transform completely the milieu in which we live; for it corrupts our instincts and our wills and contracts our heart and our intelligence. The social question takes the form primarily of the overthrow of society.'


Proudhon had taken as his motto Destruam et aedificabo. For Bakunin, on the other hand, the act of destruction was sufficient in itself, for there was in his view a fundamental goodness in man and a fundamental soundness in human institutions which would [70] automatically be released once the existing system was overthrown; and the initial act of revolutionary violence would reveal the natural virtues of man without much further preparation. Bakunin believed that these virtues were especially to be found in the Russian peasantry, and it was they who were somehow to take the lead in the redemption of Europe.


At the Pan-Slav Congress at Prague, Bakunin revealed another characteristic passion -- that for establishing largely imaginary secret societies. All his life he was to see himself as the great conspirator, at the centre of a web of clandestine organizations controlled by himself and organized, in theory, on the basis of a 'strict hierarchy and unconditional obedience'. He was always planning central committees of which, as often as not, no other members except himself were ever appointed.

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