In 1842 Mikhail Bakunin famously remarked “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!”
For the purposes of this short article, I’m not particularly interested in what exactly Bakunin meant by this. Rather I am interested in the ideas that emerge from trying to interpret his words in different ways. I’ve come up with four main ideas.
Firstly, there’s the idea that the desire to destroy the society in which we live emerges not merely from a negative hatred of existing society, but also from a positive aspiration for a better society. In, for example, the desire to destroy a homophobic society we aren’t merely hating the homophobic society, but also longing for a society without homophobia. In the desire to destroy what is, there is thus also the desire to create something new. Indeed, we reject society as it precisely because we want and aim for an entirely different society.
Secondly, there’s the idea that in order to create we must also destroy. This comes from the fact that we cannot go to an imaginary land and create a new society out of thin air. Instead, we find ourselves in a society which is structured in a particular way and is full of people with particular beliefs who engage in particular kinds of actions. Changing society thus requires that we change how society is currently structured and how people currently think and act. Doing so in turn requires us to destroy those dominant institutions which reproduce existing society. If we do not do so, then we cannot create a new society as the dominant institutions will simply continue to maintain the status quo. For example, the state uses violence to enforce private property. As a result, any movement which attempts to create a society without private property must overthrow the state. If they do not do so, then the state will continue to enforce private property and crush any serious attempt at abolishing private property. Destruction is thus a necessary precondition for creation. We must destroy to create the space in which we can create.
As Bakunin remarks in ‘Statism and Anarchy’, the “passion for destruction” is “far from sufficient for achieving the ultimate aims of the revolutionary cause. Without it, however, that cause would be inconceivable, impossible, for there can be no revolution without widespread and passionate destruction, a destruction salutary and fruitful precisely because out of it, and by means of it alone, new worlds are born and arise.” (Bakunin 1990, 28)
Thirdly, when people struggle against oppressive structures they simultaneously both destroy and create at the same time. So, for example, when someone smashes a bank window during a protest they are both destroying the bank window and creating a situation in which banks and private property are not being respected and treated according to the norms of capitalist society. Or to take a different example, when feminists won women the vote they simultaneously destroyed the social relations in which women did not have the vote and created a new set of social relations, namely one in which women did have the vote. Destruction and creation can then be viewed not as opposed entities, but rather as two elements of a single overarching process of changing society.
Fourthly, the act of destruction is itself a creative act. Destroying oppressive social relations takes a certain skill and finesse which is developed through struggle. People experiment and try out new ways of fighting the police. Or they reflect on what went well and what went badly the last time they fought the police. They refine their Molotov cocktail making skills. They come up with new ways of building barricades, or making decisions, or changing discourse.
Bakunin, Michael. 1990. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.