GOD AND THE STATE by Michael Bakunin. Preface by Carlo Cafiero, Elysée Reclus; Introduction by Paul Avrich. eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

God&theStatesmall1GOD AND THE STATE by Michael Bakunin

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Bakunin’s classic and highly influential text setting out the anarchist critique of religion as bound up in legitimising the state.


This man was born not under an ordinary star but under a comet. — ALEXANDER HERZEN

It was nearly a century ago that Michael Bakunin wrote what was to become his most celebrated pamphlet, God and the State. At that time, anarchism was emerging as a major force within the revolutionary movement, and the named Bakunin, its foremost champion and prophet, was as well known among the workers and radical intellectuals of Europe as that of Karl Marx, with whom he was competing for leadership of the First International.

In contrast to Marx, Bakunin had won his reputation chiefly as an activist rather than a theorist of rebellion. He was born into the Russian landed gentry in 1814, but as a young man abandoned his army commission and noble heritage for a career as a professional revolutionist. Leaving Russia in 1840, aged twenty-six, he dedicated his life to a struggle against tyranny in all its forms. He was not one to sit in libraries, studying and writing about predetermined revolutions. Impatient for action, he threw himself into the uprisings of 1848 with irrepressible exuberance, a Promethean figure moving with the tided revolt from Paris to the barricades of Austria and Germany. Men like Bakunin, a companion remarked, “grow in a hurricane and ripen better in stormy weather than in sunshine.”1 But his arrest during the Dresden insurrection of 1849 cut short his feverish revolutionary activity. He spent the next eight years in prism, six of them in the darkest dungeons of tsarist Russia, and when he emerged, his sentence commuted to a life term of Siberian exile, he was toothless from scurvy and his health seriously impaired. In 1861, however, he escaped his warders and embarked upon a sensational odyssey that encircled the globe and made his name a legend and an object of worship in radical groups all over Europe.

  1. E. Lampert. Studies in Rebellion (London. 2957). p.118.

As a romantic rebel and an active force in history, Bakunin exerted a personal attraction that Marx could never rival. “Everything about him was colossal,” recalled the composer Richard Wagner, a fellow participant in the Dresden uprising, “and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength.”2. Bakunin’s “love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of adventures, which open up vast horizons, the end of which cannot be foreseen,” to quote his own words, inspired extravagant dreams in others, and by the time of his death in 1876 he had won a unique place among the adventurers and martyrs of the revolutionary tradition. His broad magnanimity and childlike enthusiasm, his burning passion for liberty and equality, his volcanic onslaughts against privilege and injustice—all this gave him enormous human appeal in the libertarian circles of his day.

  1. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (New York, 1961) p.196

But Bakunin, as his critics never tired of pointing out, was not a systematic thinker. Nor did he ever claim to be. For he considered himself a revolutionist of the deed, “not a philosopher and not an inventer of systems, like Marx”.3 He refused to recognize the existence of any preconceived or preordained laws of history. He rejected the view that social change depends upon the gradual unfolding of “objective” historical conditions. He believed, on the contrary, that men shape their own destinies, that their lives cannot be squeezed into a Procrustean bed of abstract sociological formulas. “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world,” Bakunin declared. “I cleave to no system, I am a true seeker.”4 By teaching the workers theories, he said, Marx would only succeed in stifling the revolutionary fervor every man already possesses—“the impulse to liberty, the passion for equality, the holy instinct of revolt.” Unlike Marx’s “scientific” socialism, his own socialism, Bakunin asserted, was “purely instinctive.”5

  1. Iu. M. Steklov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakounin, 4 vols. (Moscow, 1926-1927), 111, 112.
  2. Carr, Michael Bakunin, p.175
  3. M. A. Bakunin, Oeuvres, 6 vols (Paris, 1895-1913); II, 399; Steklov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin, I, 189.

Bakunin’s influence, then, as Peter Kropotkin remarked, was primarily that of a “moral personality” rather than of an intellectual authcrity. Although he wrote prodigiously, he did not leave a single finished book to posterity. He was forever starting new works which, owing to his turbulent existence, were broken off in mid-course and never completed. His literary output, in Thomas Masaryk’s description, was a “patchwork of fragments.” And yet, however erratic and unmethodical, his writings abound in flashes of insight that illuminate some of the most important social questions of his time—and of ours.

God and the State is an excellent case in point. It is disjointed, repetitious, poorly organized, and full of digressions and long footnotes that tend to soften its polemical impact. All the same, it is forceful and energetic, and packed with arresting aphorisms that testify to Bakunin’s remarkable intuitive gifts. As a result, God and the State has become the most widely read and frequently quoted of all Bakunin’s works. But perhaps the main reason for its popularity is that, in vivid language and relatively brief compass, it sets forth the basic elements of Bakunin’s anarchist creed.

The keynote of God and the State is Bakunin’s repudiation of authority and coercion in every form. In a withering passage he vents his fury, on “all the tormentors, all the oppressors, and all the exploiters of humanity — priests, monarchs, statesmen, soldiers, public and private financiers, officials of all sorts, policemen, gendarmes, jailers and executioners, monopolists, economists, politicians of all shades, down to the smallest vendor of sweetmeats.” But the leading institutions of man’s enslavement — “my two betes noires,” he calls them — are the church and the state. Every state has been an instrument by which a privileged few have wielded power over the immense majority. And every church has been a loyal ally of the state in the subjugation of mankind. Governments throughout history have used religion both as a means of keeping men in ignorance and as a “safety-valve” for human misery and frustration. More than that, the very essence of religion is the disparagement of humanity for the greater glory of God. “God being everything,” Bakunin writes, “the real world and men are nothing; God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power, and life, man is falsehood, inequity, evil, ugliness, impotence, and death. God being master, man is the slave.” No less than the state, then, religion is the negation of freedom and equality. Thus if God really exists, Bakunin concludes, inverting a famous dictum of Voltaire’s, “it would be necessary to abolish him.”

Bakunin proclaimed an all-out war against the church and the state. If men are to be free, they must throw off the double yoke of spiritual and temporal authority. To accomplish this they must bring in bear the two “most precious qualities” with which they are endowed: the power to think with an act of thought and rebellion. If Adam and Eve had obeyed the Almighty when he forbade them to touch the tree of knowledge, humanity would have been condemned to perpetual bondage. But Satan — “the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds”—persuaded them to taste the fruit of knowledge and liberty. These same weapons—reason and rebellion—must now be turned against the church and the state. And once they are overthrown there will dawn a new Eden for mankind, a new era of freedom and happiness.

But the task of liberation, warns Bakunin, will not be easy. For already a new class has emerged that aims to keep the masses in ignorance in order to rule over them. These would-be oppressors are the intellectual, above all Marx and his followers, “priests of science,” ordained in a new privileged church of superior education. The rule of the intellectuals, according to Bakunin, would be no less oppressive than the rule of kings or priests or holders of property. The government of an educated elite, like the worst religious and political despotisms of the past, “cannot fail to be impotent, ridiculous, inhuman, cruel, oppressive, exploiting, maleficent.”

With this warning Bakunin anticipated the “new class” label that later critics were to pin on Marx’s heirs in the twentieth century. He assailed the theorists and system-builders whose so-called “science of society” was sacrificing real life on the altar of scholastic abstractions. He refused to shed the fictions of religion and metaphysics merely to see them replaced by what he considered the new fictions of pseudo-scientific sociology. He therefore proclaimed a “revolt of life against science, or rather, against the government of science.” For the true mission of science and learning, he insisted, was not to govern men but to rescue them from superstition, drudgery, and disease. “In a word,” he writes in God and the State, “science is the compass of life but not life itself.” But how can this new form of despotism be avoided, Bakunin’s answer was to wrest education from the monopoly grasp of the privileged classes and make it available equally to everyone. Like capital, learning must cease to be the patrimony of the few and become the patrimony of all men, “in order that the masses, ceasing to be flocks led and shorn by privileged priests, may take into their own hands the direction of their destinies.”

Such was the powerful message of God and the State. But it did not appear in print until 1882, six years after Bakunin’s death. For it was only then that the manuscript was discovered among his papers by two well-known anarchists, Carlo Cafiero and Elisée Reclus, who had been closely associated with him during the last years of his life, when his libertarian doctrines saw their fullest flowering. The manuscript breaks off in mid-sentence, and Cafiero and Reclus, as they relate in their Preface, believing it to be part of a letter or report, undertook to search for the remainder. But their efforts were in vain, and they brought out the truncated text an a pamphlet in Geneva, having given it the title of Dieu et l’état (God and the State) by which it was to become famous. They did not suspect—nor were they ever to learn—that the manuscript was actually an unpublished segment of The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution, an ambitious work on which Bakunin had labored fitfully between 1870 and 1872 but had never managed to complete.

The Knouto-Germanic Empire —the title derives from the unholy alliance between Russian and German authoritarianism to stamp out social progress—is one of Bakunin’s longest and most important literary efforts. He himself called it his “testament,” and devoted considerable energy to its composition, ranging in characteristically discursive fashion over a wide assortment of subjects from history and politics to metaphysics and religion. Part I, written against the background of the Franco-Prussian War deals mainly with the resistance by the French to German imperialism, and was published in pamphlet form in 1871. What Cafiero and Reclus called “God and the State” was a fragment from the unpublished and unfinished Part II, for which Bakunin’s own title was “The Historical Sophisms of the Doctrinaire School of Communism,” which, apart from being unwieldy, bears but little relation to its contents. The “God and the State” section was written, as we know from Bakunin’s diary, in February and March of 1871, on the eve of the Paris Commune, but several of its themes — notably the idea that government and religion have always worked together to keep men in chains — can be traced to Bakunin’s then unpublished essay, Federalism, Socialism, and Antitheologism (written in 1867), and were to crop up again in his polemics with Giuseppe Mazzini after the fall of the Commune in May 1871.

Within a short time after its initial publication by Cafiero and Reclus, God and the State became the most widely circulated of Bakunin’s works, a distinction which, nearly a century later, it still enjoys. It has been translated into many languages, including English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Czech, Rumanian, and Yiddish. The first English translation, by the American anarchist Benjamin Tucker, appeared in Boston in 1883, scarcely a year after the original French edition. Tucker’s rendering suffered, however, from a number of handicaps. Not only had Cafiero and Reclus altered Bakunin’s text in a few places to give his French a smoother and more literary quality, but they had transposed several passages and occasionally misread Bakunin’s handwriting, which was as chaotic as his other personal traits. When the first correct French text was published in 1908, it was followed by a new English edition, which appeared in London in 1910. This was essentially the Tucker translation, revised to conform to Bakunin’s actual text, that is, without the alterations of Cafiero and Reclus. Still another edition, of which the present volume is a reprint, was brought out by Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth press in 1916, and is identical with the London version except for a few minor differences in wording and punctuation.

While the God and the State segment first appeared in 1882, it was not for another generation that the full text of The Knouto-Germanic Empire — Parts I and II, together with two additional fragments and the remainder of a long footnote — saw its way into print. It finally appeared in the six-volume French edition of Bakunin’s collected works (1895-1913), edited by the leading anarchist historian Max Nettlau (Volume I) and by James Guillaume (Volumes II-VI), Bakunin’s faithful Swiss disciple. The whole of Part II of The Knouto-Germanic Empire occupies pages 9-177 of the third volume, of which pages 18-131 contain the correct text of what Cafiero and Reclus had published under the title of God and the State. Pages 9-17 are prefatory remarks of little consequence, while the remainder (pages 132-177) is a continuation of an attack by Bakunin on the French liberal philosopher Victor Cousin (1792-1867) that begins on the final page of God and the State. Cousin was the founder of the “eclectic school” and, as the name implies, had drawn on a wide variety of theories in what Bakunin regarded as a misguided attempt to prove the existence of God and to justify the existence of the state.

The continuation of God and the State consists of thirteen numbered paragraphs, peppered with critical asides and footnotes, in which Cousin’s doctrines are summarized and refuted. Paragraph thirteen breaks off in mid-sentence, and no conclusion has been found. Near the end, however, there is the beginning of a footnote which also breaks a in mid-sentence but the remainder of which was discovered by Max Nettlau and published (it runs to some sixty pages) in the first volume of Bakunin’s collected works. Unfortunately, Nettlau headed the note “God and the State,” thereby adding to the confusion, for when subsequent writers refer to “God and the State” it is sometimes hard to tell whether they mean Nettlau’s footnote or the famous essay d the same name.

Nettlau apparently chose the title because the footnote elaborates upon a passage from God and the State, in which Rousseau is denounced as “a prophet of the doctrinaire state” and “the real creator of modern reaction.” Resuming the attack, Bakunin rejects Rousseau’s notion of social contract — by which men surrender part of their liberty to the state in exchange for security and harmony — as a shameless fiction and a subterfuge for tyranny. He refuses to accept even the smallest limitation of human liberty. “Every enslavement of men,” he writes, “is at the same time a limit on my own freedom.” “I am a free man only so as I recognize the humanity and liberty of all men around me. In respecting their humanity, I respect my own.” The social contract, moreover, while recognizing the individual and the state, overlooks society, which for Bakunin is the “natural mode of existence of people living together.6

  1. Oeuvres, 1, 264-326. The whole of the Knouto-Germanic Empire, Part II, including God and the State, the continuation on Cousin, and the long footnote are conveniently brought together in a single volume of the Russian edition of Bakunin’s collected works Izbrannye sochineniia (Petrograd, 1922), II, 123-264.

Apart from the continuation of God and the State and the footnote on Rousseau, there are yet two more segments of The Knouto-Germanic Empire which did not appear in print till long after Bakunin’s death. The first of these is a loosely constructed “Appendix” with the grandiloquent title of “Philosophical Considerations on the Divine Phantom, on the Real World, and on Man.” Written in the autumn of 1870, it is divided into five sections: System of the World; Man: Intelligence, Will; Animality, Humanity; Religion; Philosophy, Science.7 The second, called “An Essay Against Marx,” was drafted in November and December of 1872, shortly after the Hague Congress of the First International, at which the controversy between Marx and Bakunin reached a dramatic climax with the latter’s expulsion from the organization. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Marx should be the villain of the piece. Bakunin assails him as “the dictator of the International,” and compares his worship of the state and centralized authority with that of his fellow German, Bismarck. Marx, he says, impelled by his Teutonic urge to dominate, has forgotten his own stirring words from the program of the International: “The emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves.”8

  1. Oeuvres, III, 179-405. For a summary with extracts in English, see K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx (Melbourne, 1948), pp. 331ff.
  2. Oeuvres, IV, 397-510; Archives Bakounine (Leiden„1965). 11. 169-219.

When Bakunin wrote this final segment of The Knouto-Germanic Empire, he had less than four years to live. But for generations to come his disciples continued to proclaim his anarchist message and to shower abuse upon the proponents of “scientific socialism.” Again and again they warned that political power is evil, that it corrupts all who wield it, that government of any kind stifles the revolutionary spirit of the people and robs them of their freedom. Like Bakunin before them, they called for the overthrow of the church and the state, from whose ruins they foresaw the emergence of a Golden Age of justice and equality, a shining era of freedom in which men would direct their own affairs without interference from any authority. — PAUL AVRICH, New York,January, 1970