January 22nd, 2014

Notes from Bakunin

I studied Russia’s Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) in college and I must say he puzzled me; I never quite “got” him. He seemed to be a mass of contradictory impulses.

I’m not about to take (or give) a refresher course on Bakunin, nor am I endorsing him. But I’m highlighting him here because I came across a couple of quotes from him that show how well he seemed to understand that Communism (or Marxism, or Bolshevism, or whatever he would have called it at the time) would lead to the very biggest of Big Governments and tyranny.

Here’s one quote to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.

And there’s this, longer but in a similar vein:

The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class or other; a priestly class, an aristocratic class, a bourgeois class, and finally a bureaucratic class…. But in the People’s State of Marx, there will be, we are told, no privileged class at all … but there will be a government, which will not content itself with governing and administering the masses politically, as all governments do today, but which will also administer them economically, concentrating in its own hands the production and the just division of wealth, the cultivation of land, the establishment and development of factories, the organization and direction of commerce, finally the application of capital to production by the only banker, the State. All that will demand an immense knowledge and many “heads overflowing with brains” in this government. It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars.

I especially like that “pretended” in the last sentence.

17 Responses to “Notes from Bakunin”

  1. Don Carlos Says:

    Thanks for bringing this “anarcho-socialist” to my attention.
    I infer from your Wiki link that he never earned a kopeck his entire life, and must have lived off the “family estate” profits.

    He seems to have had as much a sense of direction as a ball in a pinball machine. Some good insights, as you cite -Ding ding- followed by nutty anarchic socialist ones-Ding ding.

    Bottom line: dead at 62, to be remembered by left-wing faculty at US elite colleges.

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Bakunin wasn’t the only leftist who knew;

    “Liberal institutions straightaway cease from being liberal the moment they are soundly established: once this is attained no more grievous and more thorough enemies of freedom exist than liberal institutions.” Friedrich Nietzsche

    I suspect many on the left know the truth of Communism’s tyrannical nature. They simply don’t talk of it because its counter-productive to the indoctrination needed to recruit to the cause. They justify it by rationalizing that it is for the greater good, while most lack the self-honesty to face their own lust for power.

    “Professional liberals are too arrogant to compromise. In my experience, they  were also very unpleasant people on a personal level. Behind their slogans about saving the world and sharing the wealth with the common man lurked a nasty hunger for power. They’d double-cross their own mothers to get it or keep it.”   - Harry S Truman, from a 1970 interview

    Most impressive honesty from Bukunin. To paraphrase his insight; A People’s State of Marx, will demand the reign of the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars.

    American academia is overrun with those who already see themselves as part of that new class. Pretended scientists and scholars indeed.

  3. David Lentz Says:

    Mikhail Bakunin sounds a lot like Milton Friedman. Every economic system as a ruling class, that puts their self-interest first.

    I would argue, that as ruling classes can not be avoided, it is best to make them a broad as possible.

  4. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Bakunin was above all an anarchist. Anarchy is antithetical to civilization, it champions the law of the jungle, whether its advocates realize it or not.

  5. Sam L. Says:

    And communism IS the law of the jungle.

  6. southpaw Says:

    He sounds a lot like those kooky TEA Party candidates that Boner, McCain, and Uncle Karl Rove have targeted for extermination.

  7. DK Says:

    Neo — Completely off topic, but did you see this link at Instapundit? Made me think of you for some reason:


  8. Walter Sobchak Says:

    A few years ago we had the privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia” in its New York run at Lincoln Center. It was a terrific. Bakunin is a character in the play. A comic foil to the gentle elder of the philosophical rebels, Alexander Herzen.


    The source of Stoppard’s play is “Russian Thinkers” by Sir Isaiah Berlin.


  9. neo-neocon Says:

    Walter Sobchak:

    I had to write a paper in college comparing Bakunin and Herzen. I still have it, for some weird reason. I looked at it about a year ago; couldn’t make head or tail of it.

    If I had known, I would have tried to write a play :-).

  10. sergey Says:

    Bakunin, just as Tolstoy, witnessed the awful tyranny of Tzarist absolutist government, and desperately sought some more human, more moral alternative. Both failed, but anarchism of morally pure people was the only option they could imagine. But to make this idea work they needed first to turn these selfish, rude men into saints. Since this was and always will be impossible, both of them were full of contradictions. No wonder, really.

  11. sergey Says:

    There was another preacher of Russian anarchism, just as famous and influential as Tolstoy and Bakunin, namely Prince Kropotkin. All the three were bleeding-heart liberals from the highest ranks of Russian nobility, quite wealthy and well-connected, and in this respect closely reminded American liberals. They also believed in possibility of purify humans from all evil, like their American counterparts. But they never made a mistake to believe that government can be a solution to anything, and with a good reason: nothing good ever transpired from Russian government, so they concluded that government was the root of all evil.

  12. sergey Says:

    Geoffrey, all Russian anarchists held civilization in contempt as well as they hated government. They believed that without civilization humans would be better, not worse. Noble savages, pure children of Nature. The very concept of original sin was totally alien to them.

  13. neo-neocon Says:


    Yes, that’s what always made them seem so bizarre to me, even back in college. Almost insanely idealistic. Why would anyone think that would work?

    I don’t think we studied Kropotkin, although his name sounds vaguely interesting.

    Russian Intellectual History was my favorite course in college.

  14. sergey Says:

    This insanely idealistic social utopianism run deep in Russian culture, both popular and elitist. All Russian intellectual history is full of it, from 16 century to our days. The reason? A whole treatise can be written about it, not just a play. My humble opinion is that the specific form of Christianity adopted in Russia was very conductive to it, and the failure of a number of attempts to reform it. The schism of “Old Believers” was the first, the teaching of Tolstoy – the second, but there were lots of minor attempts.

  15. Upstate Says:

    Thanks for the reminder! Very appropriate given the (almost certain) future implosion of Obamacare AND the Dept of Justice’s decision to request equal punishment in schools.

  16. neo-neocon Says:


    Thanks, that’s interesting. I assume Bakunin was an atheist, but I suppose even atheists can be influenced by the prevailing philosophy, be it religious or otherwise.

  17. sergey Says:

    Not only by prevailing philosophy, but even more so by prevailing culture in the most broad sense of the word. And all Russian culture was anarchistic anti-governmental, with very few exceptions. Strange enough, for Tolstoy the two most influential philosophers were atheist Rousseau and fire-breathing Christian preacher Avvakum, founder of the schism “Old Believers”. So religion was not the deciding issue in their quasi-religious crusades. They were seeking a moral truth of a deeper meaning than theological or clerical issues; like Nietzsche, they were existential philosophers before this type of philosophy got European recognition.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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