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Freedom and Anarchy

In response to:

The Fatal Charm of the Millennium from the January 22, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Aileen Kelly (“The Fatal Charm of the Millennium,” NYR, January 22) plainly does not know much about anarchism. Anyone who reads Bakunin’s statement, “Freedom can be created only by freedom,” as a “typical example” of (citing Isaiah Berlin) “radical patter, empty tautologies, and the incantations of ‘glib Hegelian claptrap,’ ” simply fails to understand one of the most fundamental theses of anarchism. Since this “example” is all that Kelly offers to justify dismissing Arthur Lehning’s claims for the depth and originality of Bakunin’s philosophy, readers of the Review might be interested in the passage from which the quotation is taken; although I would expect any reader of the Review to have recognized it, even without context, as a concise statement of position on means/ends, transition/goal:

They [the Marxists] say that this State yoke—the dictatorship—is a necessary transitional means in order to attain the emancipation of the people: Anarchism or freedom is the goal, the State or dictatorship is the means. Thus to free the working masses, it is first necessary to enslave them…. They maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up. [from Statism and Anarchy, 1873; p. 288 in G. P. Maximoff, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin]

Which is this, radical patter, empty tautology, or Hegelian claptrap?

David T. Wieck

Department of Philosophy

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Troy, New York

Aileen Kelly replies:

Neither I nor, I hope, my readers, need Mr. Wieck’s enlightenment on the “fundamental theses of anarchism.” If he reads beyond the offending description of Bakunin’s thought, he will discover that the argument which he quotes is stated as the point of departure for my analysis of what Bakunin means by the freedom he defended against Marx. Mr. Wieck appears satisfied that the depth and originality of the concept of freedom outlined in the quotation from Statism and Anarchy is self-evident, and needs no further justification. He is easily satisfied. Whatever their own inconsistencies, Bakunin’s opponents were justified in asserting that neither in Statism and Anarchy nor anywhere else did Bakunin enlighten us as to how the creation of freedom through freedom is compatible with the element of force inherent in all revolutions. To quote Engels:

[The anarchists] demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of all authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will on the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon—authoritarian means if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not wish to have fought in vain; it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.

Any anarchist thinker with claims to profundity would have to deal seriously with this problem and with related problems concerning the goals of revolution—for example, that of reconciling liberty with demands for equality, or (if like Bakunin he were a determinist) with historical determinism. Bakunin never seriously examines these problems. His theory of “invisible dictatorship” implies agreement with Engels’s conclusion, but the charge that this is inconsistent with the “absolute liberty” he calls for is met merely by the confident assurance that the outstanding virtue of his “dictators” will prevent them from using their power to oppress, or by vague promises that in the future society all contradictions will be transcended, his dictatorship will be the expression of popular freedom, theory and life will coincide; alternatively, echoing the most naïve of Enlightenment optimists, and buttressing his argument with the assertions “history tells us…” and “human nature is such that…,” he assures us that as men are wholly determined by their environment, the destruction of the state and its evil institutions will of itself ensure the reign of virtue.

It is on such examples, and not, as Mr. Wieck claims, on the strength of one quotation, that I based my assertion that Bakunin’s philosophy was devoid of depth and originality. But if he requires further evidence, I refer him to Bakunin’s Principles and Organisation of the Revolutionary Brotherhood of 1866 (included in Arthur Lehning’s edition of his Selected Writings). Here Bakunin expounds at length the conception of freedom on which he bases “an absolute rejection of any principle of authority.” I quote from two typical passages:

It is quite untrue that the freedom of the individual is bounded by that of any other individual. Man is truly free only to the extent that his own freedom, freely acknowledged and reflected as in a mirror by the free conscience of all other men, finds in their freedom the confirmation of its infinite scope.

Liberty cannot and should not defend itself except by means of liberty…. Since morality has no other source, incentive, cause and object than liberty, all restrictions imposed on the latter with the intention of safeguarding the former have always turned against it.

The meaning of these passages is clear only to the extent that they are tautologous: they belong to that brand of metaphysical patter which is open to any interpretation that one chooses to give it. But Bakunin’s interpretation of “boundless freedom” when applied to the future anarchist society is a curious one. He asserts that “all associations, like all individuals, must enjoy absolute liberty”; but individuals and associations who reject the principles laid down in this document are subject to loss of political rights and other severe sanctions of the kind which Bakunin in his preamble so categorically rejects. One of these principles is that no one has the right to inherit; but this does not detract from “absolute liberty,” because the latter in Bakunin’s definition is synonymous with equality. For, as “man is truly free only among other equally free men” the liberty of each man can, “therefore,” be realized only by the equality of all. Thus the problem that had beset generations of political philosophers—that of reconciling the conflicting values of liberty and equality—is resolved at the stroke of a pen; and in so doing Bakunin reveals the essence of his view of freedom: whatever history (or human nature) “tells us” to the contrary, absolute freedom lies in conformity to Bakunin’s political beliefs and goals.

There is no profound philosophy here—only the mentality of a philosophical dilettante and intellectual despot, who, as Belinsky remarked of him in the 1830s, demanded absolute liberty for all, but woe betide those who did not share his views on the weather and his taste for porridge. I repeat—Bakunin’s view of freedom, with its crude and comical contradictions, conveyed in a mixture of dialectical claptrap and a radical patter based on the most naïve of the assumptions of the Enlightenment, is the view of a profoundly irresponsible and shallow man who persisted all his life in the belief that contradictions between liberty and dictatorship, ends and means, could be circumvented in the real world by the same verbal ingenuity through which, by turning concepts and values on their heads, he had confounded his Moscow friends.

I can only interpret Mr. Wieck’s defense of these shoddy and all-too-familiar devices for the dressing up of force as freedom, as offering additional evidence of the phenomenon with which my review was concerned: the curious hold exercised on men’s minds by a concept of freedom which cannot stand up to critical scrutiny—in other words, the fatal charm of the millennium.

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