Bakunin's anti-Jacobinism: 'secret societies' for self-emancipating collectivist social revolution.

Author:Cutler, Robert M.
Position::Michael Bakunin - Essay

The historiography of nearly the past century and a half may render surprising --if not, to some, jolting--the juxtaposition, in the title, of the noun 'anti-Jacobinism' to the possessive form of Bakunin's surname. This is the point. Bakunin's idea and practice of 'secret societies' was directed at reversing the Jacobin tradition in European socialism. To indicate and to sketch such a nucleus of the structure of his beliefs, as may be argued to have governed Bakunin's mature revolutionary practice, is the purpose of this short article. There is not enough space to review chronologically his various 'secret societies', but these have been treated in the literature. (1)

An introduction to the theme is provided by the perhaps provocative question: Was Bakunin even an 'anarchist'? The title of one of his principal programmatic tracts of the 1860s carries the term 'federalism' in its first place. (2) The complexity of his activity compelled me elsewhere to characterise him as a 'revolutionary socialist and collectivist anarcho-federalist'. (3) The question may be answered by recalling that Bakunin borrowed the term anarchie from his friend Proudhon, for whom the noun was his own attempt to translate the English word 'self-government'. (4) Etymologically the antonym to 'hierarchy', of which the Greek root signifies 'rule by a leader of the sacred rites' (i.e., by a priest), the ordinary-language confusion over 'anarchy' stems from the conflation of 'no-rule' with 'no rules'.


Bakunin's penchant for secret societies has played an inordinately large part in establishing the basis of his memory. In the historiography, this is often epitomised by the well-known Nechaev episode. Yet that operational preference, while also influenced by his personality, was at the same time significantly an artefact of the times. It was France during the 1840s that formed, so to speak, the milieu of his 'political socialisation'. In this last decade of the French Second Republic and in its revolutionary aftermath, Parisian political clubs were most prevalent, each organised around a meeting-place and sometimes a press organ loosely or closely associated with the group. This form of organisation, produced by the historical and social development of longer date, (5) was a characteristic political institution of the time and place.

Bakunin may be situated in this tradition by contrasting him with Babeuf and Blanqui, who in turn differed between themselves. Both the latter were revolutionaries, but Blanqui's spirit was that of a putschist whereas Babeuf's was not really, despite a superficial appearance of this, due in part to Buonarroti's legacy. Like Blanqui, Babeuf sought a coup d'etat-, however, Babeuf not only had a definite political programme, viz., to re-establish the Constitution of 1793, but also sought to establish his coup upon a social basis and give it popular legitimacy from the bottom up.

Bakunin sought to reverse the intrinsic Jacobinism that Babeuf inherited from having had the lived experience of the political success of Robespierre, the fall of his Committee of Public Safety and the failure of the Directory to pursue his radical path. Bakunin's chief criticism of Babouvist practice was precisely the Jacobinism of the methods, which posited that only a small committed group should take power after the revolution. This was the aspect that Blanqui came to emphasise from his reading of Buonarroti's history of the Conspiracy of Equals. Blanqui focussed his own concept and practice exclusively upon the seizure of power by military means. Yet a close reading of Buonarroti reveals that Babeuf was aware of the need for practical social-organisational preparations amongst the social basis of the post-coup order that would assist in preparing the transfer of power and imprint its forms. (6)

Talmon's classic study set out the main philosophical and practical problem with the Jacobin-Blanquist inspiration. It established that Rousseau's superficially democratic notion of the 'general will', lying behind the theory of the social contract, contained the germ of authoritarianism and eventually totalitarianism and in practice opened the way towards the usurpation of state power by a restricted clique. (7) As Bakunin put it, 'In the past there has never been a free contract.... Man does not voluntarily create society, he is involuntarily born into it.' (8) The bourgeois State recognises only citizens as equal under the law, and not human beings as equal in society.


Two basic tenets that gave content to the organisational forms that Bakunin sought to create, proceeding from his criticism of the Jacobin tradition ('anti-Blanqui'), were his opposition to participation in bourgeois politics and his opposition to any nationalist or ethno-racialist appeal to unity. Brevity encourages that these latter two tenets are denoted respectively as 'anti-Bebel' and 'anti-Bernstein', for the following reasons.

To begin at the beginning, anti-Blanquism becomes, in Bakunin's mature anarchist thought, an aspect of his atheism. That is because any theism will lead to the institutionalisation of theological doctrine through social structures characterised by privilege and oppression: i.e., it leads to rule by a priestly hierarchy, a system for which Bakunin invented 'theologism' as a denotation. 'One sole master in the heavens' was all that was necessary 'to create thousands of them on earth,' and this 'anti-doctrinaire stance applies equally to religious theology and political ideology.' One thus finds the seed of Talmon's critique of Rousseau in Bakunin's polemic against the 'political theology' of Mazzini, (9) who advocated an overtly religious concept of the (Italian) state in the form of a bourgeois republic, a theocracy supposedly democratised by the people's spiritual unity, itself in turn reified as a unitary mass consciousness. (10)

In addition to theism of any stripe, also to be avoided was participation...

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