One Legacy of Bakunin, Part III: Can a Revolution Come Without Guns?, Research Time, 22/08/2014

Continued from previous . . . Mikhail Bakunin’s writings are filled with admiration for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the founding figures of the modern tradition of anarchist politics, having lived in the first half of the 19th century. But there were important differences, particularly in their lives as social and political activists, between them as well. 

Bakunin had worked hard for a better life for
the people of Europe, but achieved nothing.
It wasn’t a question of what their political goals were. Bakunin and Proudhon both thought that the ideal human society was the local community, bound together through ecological interdependency and moral obligations. They both thought the modern state was an oppressive institution. The state used mediocre-at-best popular expressions of electoral institutions to enact laws that police forces would enforce. Inter-state relations among states were chaotic collisions of interests that could tip into violence at any time, so required strong militaries for national defence. State government was heavily centralized, taking almost all autonomy of action and independence of mind away from people, their communities, and their associations. To be governed is to be told what to do by an authority that you only trusted because it was your state government.*

* After spending my doctorate at an institution that is a central research hub for contemporary North American legal theory, the tradition that follows from H. L. A. Hart, it is a relief to me to dive into these old texts of anarchist theory and see so many of that tradition’s presumptions called into serious question. I heard and read many arguments for the different ways that the authority of the state and its legal regimes were legitimately grounded. Yet I could never shake my skeptical attitude that there was no such grounding for the authority of a state other than the brute fact of its existence.

Bakunin and Proudon’s difference lay in the means by which they thought such a political order should come to pass. Proudhon advocated the creation of communities and associations of people that would stand back from the centralizing authority of the state. They would reintroduce the norms, moral systems, and ethics of voluntary associations and the neighbourliness of mutual aid at the local level, and encourage these social structures and attitudes to spread to other communities through the simple influence of social networks. 

This proliferation would eventually spread because it offered an ethically better life; a kind of lifestyle or practical political meme, if you want to call it that. You would never attain the kind of absurd wealth that too many of us dream of acquiring. There would be no lottery of capitalism catapulting you to riches on the scale of Mark Zuckerberg, Mitt Romney, or Jordan Belfort. But you would live in a vibrant community of people who would help you develop the skills you would need to help your community prosper materially and artistically. They would help you when you were sick or needy, and you would help them when they were in similar trouble. It pains me that today we see such a community as a dream for fools. But it would be a good life.

This is how I see many anarchist political movements operating today. I don’t mean the black bloc protesters at every major political gathering they can scrounge a bus ride to. I mean ordinary people forming associations of mutual aid in their communities, to grow food, manage a local business, or just to look after each other in stressful times. 

Bakunin, like many anti-Czarist radicals, spent years in
brutal penal colonies. It seems little has changed in the
Russian prison system has changed since then.
Both these men had to become revolutionaries. Bakunin was particularly dedicated to the violent overthrow of the state, himself leading several attempts before his decade of imprisonment in the cells of Czarist Russia and its wilderness penal colonies. After returning from exile, his work with the International Workingmen’s Association made him a social networker of revolution, linking revolutionaries and activists all over Europe to help each other as they each worked on the problems of their own homes and lands. 

Proudhon sought a social revolution through his grassroots organizing of new communities. Bakunin could not support this because he understood that, while state authority still existed, the militarized government would pose a threat to these experiments in living. If people lived well enough in self-organizing communities that they realized that the state was unnecessary for a good life, then the state would either be overthrown or impotent. So Bakunin chose to overthrow the state before the state could crush the new communities.

He was not successful. Neither was Proudhon. The lure of being a political authority was too much even for the revolutionary sector, who, from the dissolution of the First International, largely joined Karl Marx’s militarized, ideologically unified, authoritarian brand of revolutionary communism. The Slavic revolutionaries campaigning for freedom from Austrian and Ottoman domination didn’t want the genuine freedom of managing their own communities. They wanted their own ethnically homogeneous nation-states, or else wanted to be incorporated into Czarist Russia in the name of Slavic unity. Monarchies and bureaucracies gained power throughout Europe.

Not much has changed in the articulation of state power
since Bakunin's day either.
Bakunin, as he was slowly dying, wrote a letter to an old friend where he said that the potential for genuine social revolution in Europe had withered away over the 1870s. He thought that only a total war between the militarized state powers could awaken that potential again. “These gigantic military states must sooner or later destroy each other. But what a prospect!”

The Great War would only create the conditions for even greater destruction, and the militarized monarchies of Bakunin’s era paled in comparison to the oppressive and destructive power of the totalitarian regimes that arose in the 20th century. And nuclear weapons changed the way we thought about the necessity of war. The hostility of state-centric military powers for self-organized communities remain. We are essentially watching the military invasion of a city in the middle of the United States of America today. 

But contemporary global capitalism has changed so much, has decentralized the forces that shape the world from states and spread them around more complex networks whose hubs pay little attention even to militaries. Anarchist experiments have space to breathe again. Will projects of liberation from political and military authorities be more successful in the coming decades?

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