Besides advocating economic and political reforms based on Work, Freedom, and Federalism— Mikhail Bakunin also advocated Revolution– violent revolution.
“Revolution requires extensive and widespread destruction,” he contended, “a fecund and renovating destruction, since in this way, and only in this way, are new worlds born.”
Bakunin saw the destruction of the old as a prerequisite to the rebuilding of society anew. That is why he could say that, “the desire for destruction is also a creative desire.”
But he warned against a shallow and False Revolution, saying that the so-called revolutions of the past “have been nothing but the struggle between rival exploiting classes.” For the true Revolution to spring forth, what is necessary is the full and physical support of the people. When the rebellion rises up naturally like magma from the pit, “it is this that will make the Revolution invincible.”
Bakunin felt that the details of the Revolution for each particular country or locality should be left up to the people on the scene: “While we might enunciate the great principles of humanity’s future development, we should leave it to the experience of the future to work out the practical realizations of such principles.”
It was believed by Bakunin that –because the masses lack organization and knowledge, and because they have “lost the habit of freedom“– they make for ineffectual revolutionaries. Mere “discontent rarely produces revolution,” he opined. Nevertheless, he added, “even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it.”
Sometimes an individual worker, in his despair and misery, will actually work up the gumption or spleen to revolt… but, inevitably, he will fail due to lack of group organization. Sadly, says Bakunin, the worker– who never realizes the true, underlying causes for his plight– will grow “exhausted by futile struggles,” and will fall “back again into the old slavery.”
To help the Revolution get off the ground before it can sputter-out from lack of knowledge, goals, ideals, and organization, Bakunin felt that a group of professional revolutionaries should be working ahead of the curve, preparing the ground for the coming war.
In trying to create such a vanguard group, Bakunin explained that “our aim is the creation of a powerful but always invisible revolutionary association which will prepare and direct the Revolution.” He felt that the number needed to kickstart the Revolution would be very small: “One hundred revolutionaries, strongly and earnestly allied, would suffice for the internal organization of all Europe.”
Once the Revolution is in top gear, the complete destruction of the State bureaucracy and its thousandfold tyrannies should be the top priority. The entire cart of government will need to be overturned: the old State-protections for property will no longer exist; the old order’s political rules and judicial rulings will be ignored. As Bakunin puts it (very Leninesquely): “There will only be established revolutionary facts.”
Might this anarchic (and here I wield the word in its abused, misused, but now apropos usage) situation lead to conflict in the streets, even to civil war?
“Why be so afraid of civil war?” Retorts Bakunin, a veteran of street fighting. Better to let the unenlightened fight it out amongst themselves, then to allow them to unite against those trying to establish meaningful reforms. Or, Bakunin asks rhetorically, “do you wish to see ten million peasants united against you?”
One important task in the preparation for the Revolution is propaganda. Bakunin has enough of the realist in him not to think his vanguard revolutionaries can, merely by using high-sounding phrases, instill in the people something they do not already feel. But he contends that propaganda, when used correctly, has a crucial inspirational and educational purpose to serve.
“Never can propaganda make them what they are not,” he says, “nor awaken in their hearts passions which are foreign to their own history.” But what it CAN do is to “sometimes precipitate and facilitate the awakening consciousness of the masses” and “make the worker fully conscious of what he wants, to awaken in him an intelligence which will correspond to his inner yearnings.”
But a bunch of speeches about the plight of the world’s proletariat will hold little water at ground zero. The worker will need to hear the tangible and important reasons that he should turn his own small world upside down and risk the security –even lives– of his own family. Therefore, Bakunin instructs the propagandists to speak to the workers specifically of how the Revolution will bring economic freedom. For, points out Bakunin, “there is no worker who today does not understand that economic freedom is the basis of all his other freedoms.”
People reach for two things, he said: 1) the greatest possible prosperity, and 2) the greatest possible freedom. The propagandist must show how the Revolution will help workers pluck these two coveted apples from the tree.
In his own time, as of course today, Bakunin’s grand talk may strike many as unrealistic; they will object that the task of uniting billions of the world’s under-paid, under-served, under-free, and over-taxed people is just too much to ever be accomplished, and that the powers that be are too strong, too entrenched, and that all human history stands against the success of such a fantastic endeavor.
“By reaching for the impossible, man discovers the possible,” counters Bakunin in response to the naysayers of his day. He contended that if we merely live in the ruts we’ve previously dug-out and grown accustomed to, we will never climb higher than the hole we’re already in: “Those who limit themselves to the possible will never advance a single step.”
It is a human characteristic to want to belong, to blend in. People feel “ill at ease” when they are not conforming. Most people in fact, said Bakunin, “think and want only what everybody else around thinks and wants” though “they doubtlessly believe they think for themselves.” Societal norms are as powerful as they are insidious. But as society is made-up of individuals, it is we, ourselves, who turn out to be the true tyrants of our lives. “Each individual,” says Bakunin, “is, often unknowingly, in a sort of conspiracy against himself.” Thus, the revolt against one’s society begins with the revolt against one’s self.
By the end of life, Bakunin was no longer optimistic about the ability of the people to rise up against their oppressors, going so far as say that:
“The mass of men present so sorry and degrading a spectacle, so poor in spirit, in will and initiative, that one must be endowed with a truly great capacity for self-delusion to detect in them an immortal soul or even the faintest traces of Free Will.” […] “They appear to be absolutely determined: determined by exterior nature, by the stars, and ball the material conditions of their lives.”
He came to see that all the events of a person’s life coalesce into a certain pattern of thought, and once that pattern is established, it is very, very difficult to change it.
“The masses have allowed themselves to become deeply demoralized, apathetic– not to say castrated– by the pernicious influence of our corrupt, centralized, statist civilization. Bewildered, debased– they have contracted the fatal habit of obedience, of sheepish resignation. They have been turned into an immense herd, artificially segregated and divided into cages for the greater convenience of their various exploiters.”
Bakunin was by now disillusioned with the various progressive world congresses and socialist manifestos of the revolutionary movement. He felt it was time for action– real, in the street, bloody revolution.
“During the last nine years,” he complained, “more than enough ideas for the salvation of the world have been developed” [as] “if the world could be saved by ideas…”
But in the end, no matter how hard the compassionate, enlightened vanguard work, the people will get the government they deserve, and in a sense, the one they are ready for. As Bakunin states in his Appeal To The Slavs: “It is up to you, too, to determine whether the future is to be in your own hands or, if you want, once more to sink into impotence, into the night of hopes abandoned, into the inferno of slavery.”