Social & Political Philosophy 14 – Bakunin’s God & the State
For this lecture, read Bakunin’s God & the State, pages 9 – 56.
“The passion for destruction is a creative passion too.”
“My life itself is a fragment.”
– Michael Bakunin
So far, we have been studying political philosophies that support or advance toward bottom-up democracy through top-down structures of authority. Anarchism also aims at bottom-up democracy, but more radically does not propose any top-down authority for support. Just as Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “That government is best which governs the least”, Anarchists believe in getting rid of government as much as possible. This may or may not leave room for a diminished government that leans towards capitalism or socialism, but it is at odds with communism imposing a dictatorship even though it also ultimately aims at direct governance by the people.
Hard capitalism could be similar if not identical to anarchism (remember that communists consider capitalism to be anarchism already but anarchism for the wealthy rather than for the common people), however capitalism traditionally relies on the state for money and military support. Socialism is not compatible with complete anarchism because it presupposes a state structure, but a more libertarian socialism would aim at anarchism as much as it is possible and feasible, just like communism.
How feasible is anarchy? Some say it is impossible. Others say it is entirely possible and we can figure it out and live it now. Others say we cannot figure it out, but we should dream the impossible and strive to achieve what may only be a dream for now. To many anarchism is no different than Hobbes’ state of nature: nasty, brutish and short-lived. Without government, the police and military for example, how would the powerless and marginalized be defended from the powerful and dominant? Anarchists would side with Saint-Simon, the socialist, and argue that technology and culture have advanced to a point where power can be held by the people without the necessary abuses of the state. Government and structures of power, they would argue, are already inherently abusive, and anarchism would be less abusive than the current structures of power. For instance, while the powerful could still hire private armies to do what they want without fear of the state police, international wars would become virtually impossible.
One can find the idea that power is inherently abusive in ancient Chinese and Greek thought (Daoism and Stoicism specifically), in the thought of Rousseau and Thoreau, as well as libertarianism of 1800s France and America today. The term ‘anarchism’ was used as a negative term by the Royalists against the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War (involving Hobbes and Locke). During the French Revolution, progressives who began opposing the dictatorship of Robespierre began using the term in a positive way. This prefigured the split between communists and anarchists. The question is, is centralized authority more or less abusive than decentralized authority? All the political philosophies theoretically aim at decentralized authority, but none trusts decentralized authority like anarchism.
The first to call himself an anarchist by name was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865). He is best known for the quote, “Property is theft”, from his work, What is Property?. He is also quoted famously for saying, “Anarchy is order”, the possible origin of the A surrounded by an O which is the symbol of anarchism. Marx and Proudhon were friends for awhile in Paris before splitting over differences. Proudhon argued for a collectivism of co-ops and communes without the need for a centralized state. Unlike Marx and communism, Proudhon did not believe in the nationalization of property under state ownership. Through free association, individuals labor in collectives and reap the fruit of their efforts without individual or collective ownership of the kind Locke felt the state must protect. Proudhon argued for possession through mutual and voluntary use.
While communists such as Marx argued that dictatorship was necessary to transform society, Proudhon and his followers recalled the French Revolution and argued that this would be a step backwards that would take power from the people rather than giving power to the people. Proudhon repeatedly spoke of “the people”, and regarded all government as tyranny. This goes beyond Rousseau, who believes in central government that has the support of the general will. Proudhon argued that property is the cause of all wars, including religious wars and the French Revolution, and so if possession through use made property rights unnecessary, war would become a thing of the past. Towards the end of his life, Proudhon began to compromise with the idea of a balance of central authority as a socialist, but retained his belief that mutualism is superior and more trustworthy than authority.
Socialists in Europe became polarized at this time between the communists who followed Marx and the Anarchists who followed Proudhon and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876). A Hegelian like Marx, Bakunin met both Marx and Proudhon in Paris and translated Hegel and the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels into Russian. Like Lenin and Trotsky, Bakunin was exiled from Russia for his criticism of the tyrannical power of the Tsar. Unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky however, Bakunin had come to distrust authority even under the guise of socialism and communism. At meetings of the First International socialist congress, Marx argued that communists should participate in European national elections while Bakunin argued that they should abstain from voting and complying with state held power.
Bakunin argued for rising up against the state in acts of open rebellion, what he called the “propaganda of the deed” (or: actions speak louder than words). Later anarchists would use this phrase to describe bombings and assassinations against those they believe oppress the common people. The Marxists, who dominated the congress, expelled Bakunin and his followers. Bakunin argued that no one should be given political power, not even the workers, as this power would come to exploit the workers themselves. All dictatorship is self-perpetuating, and a communist dictatorship would merely claim to be the voice of the people. Marcuse and Chomsky have both been influenced by Bakunin in their criticism of communist dictatorship.
In his God and the State, Bakunin gives us a quasi-Hegelian trinity of human existence, which he says is 1) Human Animality, 2) Thought and 3) Rebellion, arguing that humanity remains very close to the gorilla in our common social lives, we think and do science to improve our condition and we rebel against power and control through liberating politics, such as real socialism that results, not in communism, but in anarchism, in a state where everyone takes care of each other without needing to submit to any authority, either local or national.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), the fascist general Francisco Franco fought for control of a divided Spain with the support of the fascist governments of Italy and Germany and American corporations such as General Motors, Ford and Texaco. Those on the left, the communists, socialists and anarchists, saw the war as a struggle for freedom, while those on the right saw the war as a struggle for Christian civilization. On the left were peasants, workers and intellectuals. On the right were the clergy, the military, land owners and business interests. Anarchism gained more influence in Spain than elsewhere in Europe, and for a brief time, especially in Andalusia and Catalonia, land and industries were collectivized and run as mutualist co-ops.
Unfortunately, this success frightened the communists as well as the fascists, and infighting between communists and anarchists weakened the left side of the war. With the victory of Franco in 1939, these communities were crushed and thousands of anarchists and communists shot. I personally saw walls in Barcelona that were riddled with pockmarks from this period. This is known as a brief period where anarchism did flourish and work as a political form, but because it was so brief and crushed by fascism its feasibility remains controversial. Would it have survived and flourished had Franco and the powers that backed him not been victorious, or would it have been swallowed up by communism or another form of power?
One concept of anarchism that still has a following today is squatter’s rights. Does anyone, including the poor, have the right to seize unused property such as houses and factories and use them as they see fit, gaining possession of these lands and facilities through use? Capitalism and communism would say no, because property is the right of the individual or the state, not to be seized voluntarily. Anarchists argue that people should take possession of buildings that are not used and put them to good use for the good of any who wish to contribute to the effort.
There are countless squatter’s communities around the world, especially in impoverished areas (consider homeless camps visible underneath freeway overpasses here in the East Bay). In Detroit there have been activists for decades who help poor families break into unused homes and repair them so that they can be used, resulting in continuous struggles with local police. Some of these activists even call the police and let them know what homes they are “liberating” to wear down police already busy with other matters. One of the most infamous squats is the Okupas Squat overlooking Barcelona, Spain.
Anarchism is often in solidarity with free love and women’s rights movements. Just as anarchism wants an end to the domination of the wealthy over the poor, it also seeks an end to other forms of oppression such as the tyranny of the male over the female. Anarchists are often advocates of free love, the voluntary sexual association of individuals rather than the prescribed and state sanctified sexual union of marriage, as well as women’s rights such as equal treatment, suffrage, contraception, and abortion. While this is much more accepted today under state systems, sexual relations outside of marriage were considered criminal in the past and remain so in many places today. Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) was a feminist and anarchist who argued the real anarchist and social revolution should be concerned with ridding society of gender inequality. Critical of both American capitalism and Soviet communism, she is considered one of the first revolutionary feminists who hoped that one day women will be recognized as full individuals who are able to get married or not and have children or not without the coercion of the state or culture.
Now we consider two thinkers who are not only affiliated with anarchism but increasingly important today: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Both criticize the way power and information are held in society and the oppressive nature of human institutions. However, Chomsky is very much a positivist who believes that there are true human rights and objective facts while Foucault is very much an existentialist and Nietzschean who believes that any conception of true rights or objectivity is itself oppressive in the same way as all human institutions. Both agree that power as it is practiced today marginalizes the truth, perspective and reality of the oppressed, but they disagree over whether this is monstrous or all too human. Here is the debate, in full, though the part about politics starts 36 minutes in:
This is an important debate within not only anarchism but many other schools of thought. Are human beings always dominating and marginalizing, or are there just forms of social life that liberate us from domination? Are there true human rights, or are human rights another form, perhaps more evolved, of political domination and control? On the one hand, we can agree that there are human rights and social forms we believe in and push for, but on the other, we know that America, Britain and the Soviet Union have paid great lip service to human rights while ignoring and marginalizing brutality and domination at home and abroad. Either way, we should push for the good while maintaining skepticism.
Noam Chomsky (1928 – present), who has openly declared himself an anarchist, is one of the foremost critics of American empire and colonialism as was the late Howard Zinn. He first became famous and secured tenure at MIT in the 50s as a linguist and philosopher of language with his theory of universal grammar, also called x-bar y-bar theory (essentially, that there are basic structures of grammar inherent to all human language such that all languages, including ancient Chinese and modern English, have nouns and verbs). In the late 60s, he gained far more fame across many academic disciplines and the reading public as a critic of the Vietnam war and American empire. One of his most famous books is Manufacturing Consent (1988) that he co-wrote with Edward Herman, which argues that the American mass media maintains silence about the brutality of our military, corporations and allies while repeatedly putting the brutality of our enemies and opponents on display. For example, TV news programs and newspapers devoted many minutes of airtime and inches of print discussing suppression of dissent in communist countries while maintaining media silence about the same forms of suppression here at home and in Central and South America.
Chomsky states that all forms of authority and domination should be challenged and if the forms are unjustifiable they should be dismantled. Chomsky clearly has the political, economic, and military domination of America over much of the rest of the world in mind. Because power is by nature domineering and potentially abusive, the burden of proof should be on the authority itself to justify its own existence and importance. Chomsky is consistently critical of academic journals maintaining silence as he is of the mass media, arguing that even left-wing academics are either brainwashed into believing that the West and America stand for freedom and democracy in the face of the evidence he collects or know what not to say and practice self censorship to maintain and advance their careers. Chomsky criticizes forms of democracy and libertarianism as practiced in America and Britain that give property rights overriding support (like Locke) while maintaining silence about poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as Soviet communism for being an enemy of true socialism. Chomsky argues, unlike Foucault, that there is a true human nature and that unjust institutions contradict and violate this nature, however he does also say that we do not know enough about human nature to know whether it is basically anarchistic and libertarian or oppressive and domineering. In other words, he hopes that Mencius is right but we do not know enough to rule Xunzi out.
Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) is a well studied thinker not only in philosophy but also in history, sociology and political science. He also taught briefly at UC Berkeley. His books are critical historical studies of social institutions and practices such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, science and sexuality. Foucault called himself a Nietzschean (a follower of Nietzsche, who we will study next class along with how some Nazis misused his philosophy) and his critical philosophy centers on the idea of the human tendency to privilege what is labeled as good while marginalizing and dominating what is labeled as evil. The famous story is that Foucault went on vacation to the Riviera and brought Nietzsche, who he had not yet read, with him, and then stayed in his hotel room the entire time reading Nietzsche.
As a Nietzschean, Foucault is deeply critical of any claim to absolute or objective knowledge, distrusts binary dichotomies such as good/bad, true/false, opinion/knowledge or sane/insane, and understands truth as a struggle between competing forces, institutions and interpretations. Institutions must support binary divisions to maintain power and pronounce themselves objective holders of genuine knowledge and truth. This bends our view of reality such that the dominant system (religion, science, politics, etc) is simply identified with truth and the messy historical process and evolution of systems of thought is obscured.
For Foucault, knowledge is always involved with serving power, just as for Nietzsche truth is always involved with desire. We have all heard ‘Knowledge is Power!’ as a good thing, but for Foucault knowledge is not only power, it is domination. He states that truth is not outside power, but is a thing of this world. Foucault studied the complicated historical situations when one form of power, knowledge and dominance shifts to become another form as circumstances change.
A dominant theme of his work is that with industrialization people have to learn to police and dominate themselves and the authorities have to convince them that it is their own idea and independence. Marcuse describes something similar in One-Dimensional Man. Thus, science such as psychiatry serves powerful interests while baptizing itself as disinterested objective truth, and the average person believes that they are smart and free for believing what they are told in a magazine rather than understanding the complicated and brutal process of various forms of truth that compete with each other. However, Foucault believes that we should push for what we want and strive for greater understanding while knowing that we are naturally greedy, abusive, marginalizing, and ignorant.
Power is not just a negative thing, but everything, so the form of the bad is the form of the good. Thus, communists who declare themselves to be liberators are also oppressors, and people who feel oppressed by society are also helping to oppress themselves through fear and desire. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but the two together. While not openly calling himself an anarchist, Foucault distrusted all forms of authority and became disenchanted with communism and other forms of left wing thought. His conception of power is very similar if not identical to anarchist criticisms of society.