One of the dangers of the internet is that people who don’t know what they’re talking about can make videos on any subject and be believed by their fans simply because they said it with enough confidence. Viewers rarely fact check youtubers and so as youtubers we have a responsibility to seriously research a topic before we make a video on it. I know that in the past I made the mistake of making videos having not done enough research, such as the videos on Marxism I made in 2013 which I deleted once I’d realised my errors.
A youtuber who has decided to talk about anarchism despite neither understanding it or having done enough research is the Finnish Bolshevik. In this video I shall be responding to what he says about Bakunin and freedom. According to the Finnish Bolshevik,
“Bakunin is one of the craziest people out there. Nothing much that is of any value in Bakunin really.
Bakunin certainly didn’t like the dictatorship of the proletariat. He didn’t want worker government. So here’s Bakunin in statism and anarchy: “They say that such a yoke – dictatorship is a transitional step towards achieving full freedom for the people: anarchism or freedom is the aim, while state and dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses of people, they have first to be enslaved!”
. . . As you can see from the rhetoric here anarchism is not about welfare of the people, its not about ending exploitation, its not about collective ownership. Most of all its about individual freedom. That’s what its really about.”
The Finnish Bolshevik has provided no argument here. He has provided no substantial textual evidence to support his highly un-orthodox reading of Bakunin. He has merely read a quote in which Bakunin places an emphasis on freedom and on the basis of this asserted that Bakunin only really cares about freedom and does not care about or does not place importance on the welfare of the people, ending exploitation or the collective ownership of the means of production. This reading of Bakunin is entirely false. To explain why I will have to provide a detailed overview of Bakunin’s value system.
Bakunin’s Value System
The three core values of Bakunin’s anarchism are freedom, equality and solidarity. For Bakunin these three values are inter-connected. You cannot have one without the other two. He writes, for example, that freedom can “only be realised by means of society and through the strictest equality and solidarity of each and everybody.” (Bakunin 1973, 149) What then did Bakunin mean by freedom, equality and solidarity? I shall discuss each in turn.
Bakunin defined freedom as having two components: freedom as self-determination and freedom as the development of oneself as a human. This can be seen clearly in Bakunin’s statement that,
“by freedom we mean, on the one hand, the fullest possible development of all the natural faculties of each individual, and, on the other, [the individual’s] independence — not vis-à-vis natural and social laws, but vis-à-vis all the laws imposed by other human wills, whether collective or isolated.” (Quoted in McLaughlin 2002, 17)
Bakunin consistently refers to these two aspects of freedom throughout his writing. He speaks of freedom as self-determination when he claims that,
“Freedom is the absolute right of every adult man and woman to seek no other sanction for their acts than their own conscience and their own reason, being responsible first to themselves and then to the society which they have voluntarily accepted.” (Bakunin 1972, 76)
He refers to freedom as human development when he writes that,
“I am a fanatical lover of freedom, considering it as the unique environment within which the intelligence, dignity and happiness of mankind may develop and increase. . . the freedom which consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual.” (Bakunin 1973, 196)
For Bakunin freedom so understood is inherently social. He writes,
“Man completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals that surround him, and thanks to the labor and the collective power of society. . . Society far from decreasing his freedom, on the contrary creates the individual freedom of all human beings. Society is the root, and liberty is its fruit.” (Bakunin 1972, 236)
Bakunin’s reason for thinking this is that it is society which provides people with the real possibility to lead self-determining lives in which they develop themselves. In order for society to do so it must be egalitarian and based on relationships of solidarity.
Bakunin distinguishes between “political equality” and “economic and social equality”. (Bakunin 1973, 76). By political equality he means the “[c]omplete equality of political rights for all men and all women”. (Bakunin 1973, 66) For Bakunin this includes the right to self-determine one’s own life and not be subject to domination by others. This can be seen when he refers to, “my human right, which consists in not obeying any other man and behaving only in accordance with my own convictions”. (Bakunin 1973, 148) A society based on political equality would be one in which each individual is free “to enjoy the utmost possible liberty” but lacks “the power to set himself above others or to dominate them, except through the natural influence of his own intellectual or moral qualities, which must never be allowed either to convert itself into a right or to be backed by any kind of political institution.” (Bakunin 1973, 153) In other words, everybody would be equally free to self-determine their lives but would not be free to violate the freedom of others, especially through hierarchical social structures.
A society organised according to political equality would be one in which each individual belonged to a community of equals who formed a horizontal, rather than a hierarchical, association. This is because if individuals live in groups and if each individual has an equal right to self-determine their life then it follows that when a group makes decisions they must do so collectively and each individual must have an equal say in decisions which affect them. As Bakunin says, “[o]rder in society must be the outcome of the greatest possible development of all local, collective and individual liberties” The consequence of this is that “[t]he political and economic organization of society must . . . not flow downwards, from high to low, and outwards, from centre to circumference, as it does today on the principle of unity and enforced centralization, but upwards and inwards, on the principle of free association and free federation.” (Bakunin 1973, 65)
This takes us to social and economic equality. Bakunin defines social equality as “equality at the outset”, or in other words, equality of opportunity. Bakunin thinks that society should be structured such “that each human individual born into it may find . . . equal means for his development from infancy and adolescence to coming of age, first in upbringing and education, then in the exercise of the various capacities with which each is endowed by nature.” (Bakunin 1973, 76-7) Equality of opportunity is essential for individual freedom because without it each individual will lack the resources they need to develop themselves, such as having enough food or access to a dance teacher.
In order for there to be social equality Bakunin thought that there had to be economic equality by which he meant the communal ownership and management of the means of production. Bakunin writes, “equality must be established in the world by the spontaneous organization of work and of the collective ownership of producers’ associations, freely organized and federated into communes, and by the equally spontaneous federation of these communes, but not by the overriding and enslaving activity of the state.” (Bakunin 1973, 197) By spontaneous Bakunin doesn’t mean that this will just appear out of nowhere and happen. Nor does he mean that it will occur without conscious planning or organisation. He means that it will be a product of voluntary co-operation and collective self-determination, rather than being imposed on people by an external authority.
This advocacy of collective ownership is not a one-off occurrence. Bakunin advocates it throughout his writings. In 1868 Bakunin states that, “instruments of labour, land and all forms of capital should become the collective property of society, as a whole, and should be used only by workers, that is to say by industrial and agricultural associations.” (Bakunin 2016, 34) In 1869 Bakunin explains that the “full emancipation of labour and of labourers” requires “the creation of collective property”. Collective property is according to Bakunin “the absolute precondition for real, universal equality, for freedom, justice and meaningful fraternity.” (Bakunin 2016, 36)
In Appendix B of the Marshall Shatz edition of Statism and Anarchy, the book which the Finnish Bolshevik quotes from, Bakunin proclaims that the
“[a]bolition of the state, the right of property, and the juridical family alone will make possible the organization of popular life from below upward, on the basis of collective labor and property . . . This will be achieved by means of the completely free federation of separate individuals into associations or autonomous communes . . . and the federation of communes into nations and of nations into humanity.” (Bakunin 2005, 219)
The idea that Bakunin does not advocate, value or place importance on collective ownership is therefore entirely false. One of the main reasons why Bakunin advocates the collective ownership of the means of production was that it would end the domination and exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. He writes,
“Have you understood that there is an irreconcilable antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and that this is the inevitable consequence of their respective economic positions? That the prosperity of the bourgeois class is incompatible with workers’ freedom and well-being, because the particular wealth of the bourgeoisie exists and can be based only on the exploitation and servitude of labour; and that for this reason, the prosperity and the human dignity of the working masses demands the abolition of the bourgeoisie as a distinct class. And that in consequence the war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is a matter of life and death, and it can end only with the destruction of the former?” (Bakunin 2016, 43)
In this passage Bakunin not only advocates the abolition of exploitation but also clearly argues that a capitalist economy damages the wellbeing, and so welfare, of the working class. Elsewhere he argues that a socialist economy would promote human wellbeing. He claims that the socialist revolution aims to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100) Note the explicit reference to happiness. In another passage he writes that, “I am a convinced supporter of economic and social equality, because I know that, outside that equality, freedom, justice, human dignity, morality, and the well-being of individuals, just as much as the prosperity of nations, will never be anything but lies.” (Bakunin 1973, 197)
For Bakunin freedom and equality as actually existing social phenomena are maintained over time by relations of solidarity between human beings. By solidarity Bakunin meant individuals co-operating with one another in pursuit of a common goal and forming reciprocal caring relationships in which they preserve the freedom and equality of one another. This can be seen in Bakunin’s statement that “solidarity” is “the confirmation and realization of all liberty, drawing its strength not from any political law but from man’s own collective nature, according to which no man is free if all the men around him and all those who have the slightest influence on his life are not equally free.” (Bakunin 1973, 259-60) Bakunin understood that a free life is a life in which we are positively connected with other humans. For me to view myself as a self-determining human is for others to treat me as one. For me to develop myself as a human is for others to help, teach, support and encourage me. Bakunin writes,
“Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection, for the liberty of any individual is nothing more or less than the reflection of his humanity and his human rights in the awareness of all free men — his brothers, his equals.” (Bakunin 1973, 147)
The Finnish Bolshevik’s claim that Bakunin values individual freedom is therefore highly misleading to the uninitiated. It suggests that Bakunin thinks of freedom in terms of isolated individuals who are separated from other people. Yet, as I have shown, Bakunin thinks that in order to be free an individual must be immersed within friendly social relations with other humans, such as having loving friends or belonging to a highly connected community.
I hope the listener now has a better understanding of what Bakunin actually thought. With everything I’ve just said in mind lets re-listen to what the The Finnish Bolshevik had to say:
“anarchism is not about welfare of the people, its not about ending exploitation, its not about collective ownership. Most of all its about individual freedom. That’s what its really about.”
We can now see just how wrong this statement is. Bakunin clearly cared about human wellbeing and advocated the abolition of exploitation and the establishment of collective ownership of the means of production. Bakunin clearly held that individual freedom was inherently social and that it could only be realised in and through a free society. The Finnish Bolshevik talks as if caring about these things is in some sense in opposition to or in tension with caring about freedom. But for Bakunin we should care about these things precisely because we care about freedom.
Things are, however, much worse than they appear. We might forgive the Finnish Bolshevik for not having read enough Bakunin but he cannot be forgiven for failing to read the source that he himself cites. The Finnish Bolshevik has clearly not read the entirety of Statism and Anarchy. I know this because there is only one complete edition of the book available in English and the sentence he quotes uses a different translation. The translation that the Finnish Bolshevik relies upon is Sam Dolgoff’s translation, which is publicly available on the Marxist internet archives. In the extracts which Dolgoff translates Bakunin explicitly critiques exploitation and argues that in order to be both free and happy the working class must self-manage society through workers’ councils. Bakunin writes,
“Modern capitalist production and bank speculation inexorably demand enormous centralization of the State, which alone can subject millions of workers to capitalist exploitation. Federalist organization from the bottom upward, of workers’ associations, groups, communes, cantons [counties], regions, and finally whole peoples, is the sole condition for true, non-fictitious freedom, but such freedom violates the interests and convictions of the ruling classes, just as economic self-determination is incompatible with their methods of organization.”
“The exploitation of human labor cannot be sugar-coated even by the most democratic form of government … for the worker it will always be a bitter pill.”
He also says that,
“We think that people can be free and happy only when organized from the bottom up in completely free and independent associations, without governmental paternalism though not without the influence of a variety of free individuals and parties.”
Given this, the Finnish Bolshevik is either deliberately misrepresenting Bakunin, or has not actually read the text which he quotes from, or, and I think this is most likely, decided to make a video having not re-checked if the source he read a while ago actually supports his conclusions. Either way it doesn’t look very good, especially when we consider how strongly and confidently he stated his inaccurate understanding of Bakunin.
Bakunin. Michael. 1972. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. Vintage Books.
Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Michael. 2005. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge University Press.
Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions
McLaughlin, Paul. 2002. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Anarchism. New York: Algora Publishing.