'When you don't know where you're going it's important to remember where you came from.' African Proverb
In the opening pages of Bakunin: the Philosophy of Freedom I offered a quote from the Ghanaian poet Ayi Kwei Armah: 'The present is where we get lost--if we forget our past and have no vision of the future'. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Michael Bakunin and he is certainly a figure from our past that we should not forget. In this essay, I want to pay tribute to Bakunin by exploring his understanding of the human subject.
What initially prompted me to defend Bakunin's legacy was the welter of abusive and dismissive critiques published by liberal and Marxist scholars: Isaiah Berlin and Aileen Kelly; Hal Draper, George Lichtheim and Pat Stack. These critics said very little about Bakunin, but a lot about the political bias, naivety and the intellectual shallowness of liberal and Marxist scholarship (Morris 1993: 136-50, McLaughlin 2002: 2-12, Leier 2006: 177-208). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two very different currents have emerged. On the one hand, Bakunin's legacy has been acknowledged and re-affirmed (Cutler 1992, McLaughlin 2002, Leier 2006). On the other hand, Bakunin has been subjected to yet another barrage of dismissive critiques, this time by postanarchists. Like Bakunin's earlier critics, postanarchists imply that Bakunin was a philosophical waif and they dismiss his humanism and naturalism as hopelessly out of date (Rousselle 2012: 120). One of the most misleading and oft-repeated criticisms that postanarchists have levelled at Bakunin is that he held a 'humanist' or 'essentialist' conception of the human subject. In this essay I shall challenge this one-sided misreading of Bakunin's work and discuss Bakunin's complex triadic ontology of the human subject with reference to three key concepts--nature, society and liberty.
EVOLUTIONARY NATURALISM AND THE HUMAN SUBJECT
Postanarchists express their critique of Bakunin's 'essentialist' or 'humanist' conception of the human subject in two contrasting forms. The first is that Bakunin posits the human person as having a fixed, immutable, benign metaphysical 'essence' (May 1994: 63, Newman 2004, Patton 2000: 8, Koch 2011 and critiques, Morris 2004:187, Antliff 2011:165, Franks 2011: 173). The second is to dismiss Bakunin as a 'modernist', not only for relying on scientific rationality but also for holding a 'Cartesian concept of human subjectivity' (Call 1999: 100).
What exactly did Bakunin's evolutionary naturalism imply? Bakunin could be regarded as one of the founding ancestors of the Darwinian left in that he would not '[d]eny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable' (Singer 1999:60). His conception of reality, like that of Darwin and Marx was materialist, evolutionary and deterministic. Bakunin was both a historical (dialectical) and an ecological thinker. He combined humanism and naturalism. For Bakunin nothing in the world has a permanent or an independent existence: there are no essences, everything being determined and conditioned within what he describes as a 'universal causality'. As he put it: 'nature, notwithstanding the inexhaustible wealth and variety of beings which it is constituted does not by any means present chaos, but instead a magnificently organized world wherein every part is logically correlated with the other parts' (Maximoff 1953:54-56). Nothing therefore is static or unchanging; everything is active, mobile, and in a state of flux and transformation. Like Hegel, Bakunin viewed the world itself as a creative process of becoming.
There is then continuity between the physical, the organic and the human spheres of existence, for the anarchist conceived of reality as a kind of evolutionary process. Human society and consciousness was thus a natural development (Maximoff 1953:175). Bakunin denied any dualism between spirit (culture) and matter, or between humans and nature or between the mind and body, considering such radical separations, inherent in religious (Cartesian) thought, as 'ridiculous' (Maximoff 1953:92). A hundred years before Deleuze, Bakunin expressed a 'philosophy of immanence' viewing all religious concepts--god, deities, ancestral spirits, angels, fairies and witches--as essentially products of the human imagination. (Morris 1993: 82-84, McLaughlin 2002:129-151)
Bakunin seems to have had a rather urban aesthetic feeling towards nature, in contrast to Elisee Reclus and Peter Kropotkin and he lacked their ecological sensibility (Morris 2000, Clark and Martin 2004, cf McLaughlin 2002: 230-233). However, his philosophical writings on nature present in embryonic form an ecological approach to the world, one that is materialist and historical, and which...