In Theory Bakunin: the Urge to Resist

In the last of his series on Mikhail Bakunin, political theorist Andrew Robinson presents his critical assessment of Bakunin's ideas and his legacy.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, July 8, 2011 9:00 - 3 Comments


By Andrew Robinson

The urge to resist

Bakunin is unusually alert to the affective dimension of politics. He argues that the force for resistance comes from a kind of inner urge to rebel. This instinct of revolt is ‘primordial and animal’, occurring in all living beings in various intensities. It is a matter of ‘temperament’ rather than intellect or morals, and it is, besides economic need, the most powerful cause of revolution.

Bakunin follows the Marxist theory of an unfolding human essence, but gives it the unusual spin of viewing a particular affective state as the bearer of this essence, and therefore, as an affective state to cultivate and celebrate. This affective state is a spirit of defiance and refusal, even to the point of losing everything. We might think here of the music of groups such as Rage Against the Machine and Keny Arkana, the way in which a spirit as much as a message drives the politics of such music.

For Bakunin, ideas are limited in how far they can inspire people. They are able to inspire only if they resonate with a vital instinct which is already there, and a concept which already reflects it. If the idea one tries to explain to someone is not already nascently present in this way, it will remain incomprehensible.

The instinctive strivings have to be generated first of all within a person’s life. This, perhaps, is why it is so frustrating to try to explain radical theory to conformists. Bakunin believes that one cannot ask of a person or institution more than it can give – this demoralises and destroys them.
On the other hand, if the striving to resist is there, even very nascently, a person cannot rest content in conformity in the present, no matter how well-off they are. Raoul Vaneigem shows what these kinds of instincts to rebel look like in modern capitalism, and how they can be articulated as nascent versions of revolutionary theoretical positions.

He agrees with Marx that capitalism reduces people to poverty, but disagrees that poverty is sufficient to cause revolution. Poverty can render people patient and obedient. Only an experience of the ‘sharp, passionate feeling’ of desperation creates the possibility of revolt. It releases people from the dull feelings of poverty into a situation where other worlds seem possible, even if hopelessly unachievable.

There is something in the nature of the state, of its imposition of violence and authority, which provokes rebellion. Even if a state does good, it spoils it because its nature as command provokes legitimate revolt. Rebellion happens, not when the present is objectively immiserating, but when it is subjectively intolerable and unbearable. This may be a matter of a change in perceptions, rather than or as well as a change in situation (I am reminded here of the Deleuzian theory of the rupture between the time-image and the sensorimotor field of experience).

Marx is thus wrong that revolutions will start in the most economically developed countries. Instead, they will start in the countries with the strongest impulses to revolt. The ‘demon of revolt’ awakens easily in any people which has not been entirely stupefied, or made passive. If a people suffers tyranny, it tends at length to lose its instinct of revolt and its feeling for liberty, becoming a people of slaves.

The absence of a ‘custom of liberty’ practised in revolts is also the absence of a certain consciousness, which makes it impossible for revolutions to achieve liberty. While defeats and state morality can curb the urge to resist, this is shattered in the contagion of a revolutionary wave. Ultimately, the urge to revolt will spread from the margins to the centre.
Bakunin foreshadows later work on affective politics.

One might say that Bakunin theorised resistance as an affective process, arising primarily from an immediate intensity occurring at the crossover between frustrated desire and the experiential self-empowerment arising from action. He sometimes frames his position as a ‘revolt of life against science’, though not to destroy it. The aim is to remove it from the function of government and restore it to a more humble place.

The root of revolt is thus deeply interior to each human being. A person is only strong if they stand up for and act on a particular truth and deep convictions; such a person may fall, but may never bring shame upon her/himself or her/his cause. This foreshadows Badiou and Zizek on the role of a ‘truth’ in the revolutionary event.

Since the basis of revolt is affective, actions are ultimately admirable even if Bakunin does not support them politically. Even those acts deemed pointless (such as certain assassinations) are taken to demonstrate heroism, self-sacrifice, sincere passion, and the unity of thought and deed. Respect is earned by bold and honourable actions. And even an adversary (such as a liberal) is to be admired for staying constant to their beliefs. Bakunin seems to feel a kindred spirit in anyone who takes a stand on principle or acts decisively against forces of domination.

Bakunin portrays rebellion in almost apocalyptic terms: a savage force, elemental, chaotic and merciless, involving massive sacrifice and destruction for which the heroic mass are always ready. His language suggests that he sees such revolts as virtuous, even holy. Although Bakunin sees it as a necessary counterpoint to military brutality, his account of it is more expressive than instrumental. Revolt, refusal or defiance is a direct, immanent, immediate expression of the human essence in its longing to be free.

It involves a spirit of sacrifice. As later accounts suggest in the stance of ‘freedom or death’, a person becomes ungovernable. On the other hand, false revolutionaries can be distinguished by their refusal to make sacrifices. They claim to want revolution, but also want to keep their privileged positions today, and look out for themselves above all. They are too concerned about their patrons and colleagues to be too audacious. They want to shock not anger the bourgeois world, attract revolutionaries but avoid the revolutionary abyss – so they pick on targets other than the authorities, arguing against God for example.

Today, there seems to be a similar adherence to what Zizek terms a ‘denkverbot’ against criticising capitalism or liberalism too deeply. And those who criticise capitalism (including Zizek himself) are strangely reluctant to reject the state. Just as relevant here is the common stance of being radical in theory, without transforming actual social relationships in one’s own life, or connecting to autonomous social movements involved in bringing about another world. There is also the question of NGOs used to undercut struggles by siding with the state at the vital moment.

There is thus a moral side to Bakunin’s argument, a restoration of virtue. The bourgeoisie in its day also had virtues (of thrift and moderation), but these have disappeared in get-rich-quick schemes and the degeneration caused by statism. The ‘rabble’ are paradoxically the only people left with virtue.

This moralised view of resistance pits Bakunin against theorists such as the Situationists, Hakim Bey and Deleuze, for whom self-sacrifice is to be rejected as a form of reactive desire. While such theorists similarly insist on an unconditional refusal, they reject the idea of self-sacrifice and of valorising suffering. The idea of the urge to resist as a positive and virtuous force is common to such theories, but is reframed as an aspect of liberated desire rather than of sacrifice. They are in many regards heirs of Nietzsche, who viewed Bakunin as a theorist of ressentiment or reactive desire.

Anarcho-pacifists such as Tolstoy also put a different spin on active desire, arguing that the recourse to violence is itself extensive with the logic of power and the desire to dominate. The question of which desires count as active and reactive is thus very much contested among different theorists in the field.

It is also rather strange to see an anarchist like Bakunin writing of the need for ‘the strictest discipline’ and ‘unanimity’ in pursuit of a ‘rigorously conceived and fixed plan’. What is rather strange in Bakunin’s account is that the virtues he prescribes for revolutionaries are similar to the military virtues he abhors.

Bakunin’s Legacy

Bakunin is perhaps the most important figure in creating anarchism as a distinct current. Fusing Proudhon’s emphasis on economic equality and Marx’s economic and class theories with elements of Stirner’s critique of top-down identities and ‘spooks’, Bakunin melded a powerful hybrid theory which served to inspire generations of marginalised people. Bakunin’s anarcho-communism is followed-up today by groups such as the IWA, the Anarchist Federation, Class War and the IWW.

It provides the underpinnings of the forms of anarchism prevalent up until the 1960s, such as the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. t is still common to encounter imagery, slogans and music drawing their main source of power from the urge to resist, deployed in terms reminiscent of Bakunin’s.

In the aftermath of the 1960s wave, class-struggle anarchism has been challenged by other currents (evolutionary anarchism, post-left anarchy, eco-anarchism, post-Situationism) which reject the centrality of class and the positive orientation to work. These approaches criticise Bakunin’s brand of anarchism as retaining elements of the dominatory, repressive and governmental logics it largely rejects.

The resultant split between different camps of anarchists has impeded the critical reception of Bakunin’s work outside the anarcho-communist milieu. It is too common for him to be dismissed as another ‘boring old man with a beard’, without considering his importance as a theorist of affect – a concern similar to that of his anarchist critics.

Some critics, including Marx and Engels and, more recently, David Morland, consider Bakunin to be authoritarian. This is largely because of his organisational model, which places a strong emphasis on secrecy and decisive action. While this reading is exaggerated (or based on his pre-anarchist writings), it is true that Bakunin comes from the same kind of assumptions as Marx regarding the importance of realising a particular model of life.

For instance, Bakunin contrasts with contemporary anti-authoritarians in his belief in forced work, and in strong enforcement of community norms in stateless societies. He believes strongly, for instance, in a universal obligation to perform manual labour, which should be compulsory for everyone. He could hardly be further from the autonomist ‘refusal of work’ and Bob Black’s anarchist critique of forced work. And he seems unaware of the problem of defining which activities count as ‘work’, or how one distinguishes refusal from incapacity.

A contradiction also appears between the valorisation of passion, defiance and the will to rebel, and a belief that some kind of social pressure or coercion will still be affective in a stateless society. It would seem that people conforming to Bakunin’s model of virtue would be fundamentally ungovernable, even by their equals.

Similar issues arise with his political model, which retains laws, punishments, disciplinary education and so on, but run by ‘society’ instead of the state. At times, his account of a future society looks less like an anarchist society than a statism diffused outwards and enforced by everyone. It also seems implausible that so many small communities would voluntarily agree to the same social and economic model.

His model of political action prefigures today’s small-scale anarchist bands, affinity groups and informal organisation, but also contains a certain vanguardist disposition which sets him aside from later anti-authoritarians.

Whereas today’s anarchists usually use small groups so as to act on their own desires, exerting a direct counter-power against the state, Bakunin theorised action as a way to catalyse the masses into action. Ultimately, he was not an immanentist. He believed that large aggregates make history, and the role of small groups was relative to such aggregates. This leaves him open to accusations of vanguardism.

His essentialist view of humanity creates problems, which are overcome in later theories of desire and difference. It is, indeed, his essentialism which underpins the theory of positive freedom on which are grounded his residual authoritarian views.

Another difficulty is whether his theory of social movement formation is sufficiently complex. He seems to expect a lot from popular movements, and seems to assume they are already more militantly oppositional than they are likely to have been. He is very quick to speak for the poor and excluded, without any clear basis for assuming that his desires are actually so widespread. And he assumes a very widespread ‘instinct’, not only for revolt, but towards his specific demands (freedom without enslaving others, international solidarity, economic equality, etc).

He would have difficulty dealing with the frequent situations where poor people end up in reactive networks, and the rapid turnaround which often happens between emancipatory and reactionary forces – far too rapid for his idea of national temperaments to explain.

His view of peasant revolts is, however, largely confirmed by researchers such as James Scott and Ranajit Guha, who suggest both that peasants are driven to revolution by desperation (the violation of subsistence), and that their revolts, when they happen, seek to overturn the entire social system.

Bakunin also seems to be right that capitalism as much stems from as causes the state. Recent Marxist scholars such as Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher have shown that the modern state preceded capitalism in most of Europe, and established it as a way of increasing state power. Foucault has advanced similar arguments, and most later Marxists (such as Althusser and Gramsci) recognise that superstructures react back on the base.

Do states always, invariably show the military, nationalistic and aggressive dispositions Bakunin describes? It is by pointing to the existence of liberal, republican or social-democratic states which have avoided international conflict (e.g. Sweden, Switzerland, Canada) that mainstream critics tend to dismiss Bakunin’s views.

Marxists claim that only a few states, with a certain composition (e.g. run by a military-industrial complex or monopoly capital), have such tendencies. IR Liberals further claim that states can be tamed in their aggressiveness by the imposition of international norms and the enmeshment of states in networks of mutual dependency through trade. Political scientists such as Joel Migdal argue that states are often heavily inflected by the societies to which they are connected.

Though such qualifications may operate in some empirical cases, there is strong evidence for an underlying tendency to which states periodically return. Bakunin’s account of states – written more than a century ago – is disturbingly resonant with the ‘war on terror’, and before that, with the preludes to the First and Second World Wars.

It seems that the propensity to develop a fear for security, a desire for total control over everyday life, the criminalisation of dissent, and a touchiness in international affairs which easily leads to war are never far from the surface. And the supposedly ‘nice’ states are not immune to them either: one need only look as far as the Toronto G20 repression aftermath, the ‘Somalia Affair’, the shooting of protesters at the Gothenburg summit, and the rise of the far right in Sweden and Switzerland to see how easily the ‘nice’ states turn nasty.

In cases where the state’s aggressive and repressive tendencies are contained, it is quite conceivable that this has occurred because of a quiet compromise with, or counterbalancing by, other social forces which reduce the power of the ‘state-class’ or the state’s internal logic. The Fordist social-democratic regimes for example can be seen as a result of a temporary compromise in which the state was forced to make concessions, both to national capital, and to the trade unions and professions. It thus happens in much the same way that a state will ally with other states against an enemy.

This kind of analysis is compatible with Bakunin’s approach. In the German context, Bakunin writes of despotism camouflaged and embellished with popular representation, and of promises made to the people for tactical reasons of state survival.

It seems to follow from this that only a serious threat to the state or a strong locus of counter-power is sufficient for the state to make concessions. When circumstances change, and compromise is no longer necessary or is no longer sufficient to make the state feel secure, it returns to form and its basic logic reasserts itself. This reassertion is very prominent in today’s political context.

Bakunin thus retains relevance today in many ways: as a theorist of the underlying logic of the state, as an early theorist of affect, as a class analyst alert to the politics of the excluded, and as a critic of representation and vanguardism.

See also: Parts one and two of this essay.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.



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In Theory Bakunin vs Marx – Ceasefire Magazine
Jul 9, 2011 18:17

[...] here for Part One. Part Three is published on July [...]

Jul 12, 2011 14:42

Nice article, Robinson. I would first like to thank you for these great installments on Bakunin. An actual examination of Bakunin’s views is a nice change from the centuries of vilification and distortion that this man has received from people all over the political spectrum (even from anarchists sometimes).

Some qualms, though:

1. You are mischaracterizing Bakunin as some sort of closet authoritarian or vanguardist. Here’s an article showing how those views are based on misreadings of his writings:

2. Throughout your Bakunin trilogy, you use his views to vindicate later theorists, usually of a more postmodern bent, like Deleuze, Foucault, Zizek, or Althusser. I want to know why you chose to do this.

3. This is related to the second complaint I made above, in that you give postmodern tendencies within anarchism too much credit. You overestimate the influence that post-left anarchism, post-Situationism, etc., have on the anarchist movement. Most of them are limited to Internet forums, and have little to no influence in the anarchist movement in general.

Jul 22, 2011 14:41

Glad you like it on the whole :-)

Responses to qualms:

1. I think he’s a vanguardist at least in the limited sense that “large aggregates make history, and the role of small groups was relative to such aggregates”. Marx is probably making up the secret hierarchy stuff, though informal hierarchies are a big problem in anarchisms of all stripes. I’m thinking more of Bakunin’s relationship to ‘propaganda of the deed’ (e.g. alleged co-authorship of Catechism of a Revolututionist), and the distinctions between ‘propaganda of the deed’ and later views of direct action (which are not, on the whole, related to an observer).

2. The main point here is to suggest that Bakunin’s theories aren’t outdated or irrelevant. They’re similar to later, (academically) better-known theories, and in many ways ahead of their time. A second point is to help people understand both Bakunin’s theory and those of other thinkers, by linking them to one another.

3. I guess this depends how you’re defining ‘postmodernist’, ‘anarchist movement’, and ‘influence’. There are a lot of tendencies in the last 50 years which don’t fit into classical anarcho-communism, don’t use even the limited kind of organisation anarcho-communism uses, and are not ‘leftist’ in the usual sense (but don’t necessarily identify as anarchist, let alone as post-left anarchist). Particularly mass ecological movements such as Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets, the autonomist and anarcho-punk squatter scenes which peaked in the 70s-80s, cultural resistance movements such as the rave movement, and the carnivalesque aspect of summit protests. These movements have tended to come and go, but at their peak were both the most numerous and the most ‘situation-creating’ strands of autonomous activism. I’ve no idea how many ravers read Hakim Bey, or how many Earth First! or RTS activists were hardcore anti-civ, but there seems to be a relationship one way or the other – either the post-left theories are influencing these newer styles of activism, or they’re some kind of deduction or extension from them. I get the feeling the divisions between types of anarchism are clearer on paper (and the Internet) than in practice, and a lot of people are influenced by several traditions without placing themselves firmly in one or another.

Of course, my own sympathies for post-left anarchy, post-Situationism, and certain poststructuralists such as Deleuze has a big impact on my selection of these particular lines of resonance and interpretation. Other interpretations could be written from other standpoints in the present conjuncture.

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