Bakunin and the Creative Passion to Destroy

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.

Bibliography

Bakunin, Michael. 1990. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 thoughts on “Bakunin and the Creative Passion to Destroy”

  1. Concerning “Bakunin and the Creative Passion to Destroy”
    “Let us therefore trust in the eternal Spirit, who destroys and annihilates only because he is the unfathomable and eternally creating source of all life. – The pleasure of destruction is at the same time a creating pleasure!

    The four explanations you give to Bakunin’s famous sentence are interesting and pertinent I would say, they propose interpretations that do not present Bakunin’s thought in a negative way, which is appreciable.
    But in my opinion you miss one important point.

    First of all, in the German text it is “pleasure of destruction” and not “passion for…”. This is not a detail.
    Then you say: “I’m not particularly interested in what exactly Bakunin meant by this.”
    In my opinion you are wrong: not being interested in what an author means does not seem to me a good approach.
    You add: “I am interested in the ideas that emerge from trying to interpret his words in different ways.” This means, I think, that you are only interested in what can be said about this sentence today, and that you are not interested in the context in which it was written, whereas in my opinion this sentence is only interesting when placed in its context.
    To put this sentence in context means that we must remember that it was written at a time when Bakunin was not anarchist, and that it is therefore not appropriate to explain it as if Bakunin had been an anarchist at the time it was written.

    This famous sentence of Bakunin’s, which has been used by generations of ignorant people to label the Russian revolutionary as a pan-destroyer, becomes distressingly banal when one takes the trouble to consider it in its Hegelian context. It is, in fact, clearly nothing more than an imitation of the master, as is the case with the entire production of the Hegelian left.
    The young Bakunin, until 1842, was a passionate student of Hegelian philosophy. He was in Berlin and frequented all the personalities of the Hegelian left at the time. All these young people wrote articles in obscure language and signed with pseudonyms because of the censorship, to the extent that a text by Bakunin was attributed to Engels, and vice versa.

    “The Reaction in Germany”, signed Jules Elysard to make it “French”, is one of these exercises in obscure language that must be deciphered. In it, Bakunin analyses the political and social context of Germany in 1842, he describes the heavy atmosphere that hangs over the country and predicts that the storm will soon explode — this will be the case six years later with the revolution of 1848.
    This text is an imitation of the master, as is the case with the entire production of the Hegelian left. Hegel’s philosophy of history is a vast panorama full of civilisations that arise and collapse: thus we read in Hegel that “the existing order is destroyed because it has exhausted and completely realised its potentialities” and that progress “is intimately linked to the destruction and dissolution of the previous form of reality, which has completely realised its concept”.
    Such quotations could be multiplied. We find the same thing in Feuerbach himself: “Only he who has the courage to be absolutely negative has the power to create the new.”
    This “pleasure in destruction” is therefore extremely commonplace in the philosophical thinking of the time and merely reflects the expectation that people are wanting global change.

    It is hard to imagine today the extent taken by the enthusiasm for Hegel’s philosophy in the 1830s and 1840s; Intellectual fashion produced a host of popularisers and imitators. Kieyevsky, quoted by Benoît Hepner, recounts that “there is hardly a man who does not reason in philosophical terms, not a teenager who does not talk about Hegel, not a book, not a magazine article that is not influenced by German thought; ten-year-olds throw concrete objectivity at your head.” Now, in 1842, when he wrote The Reaction in Germany, Bakunin was still completely impregnated with this Hegelian philosophy. The idea that history is a continuous succession of destruction and construction is one of the foundations of the Hegelian philosophy of history, and only ignorance or bad faith can explain why many authors have reduced all of Bakunin’s thought to this sentence from an early writing, a sentence that was issued, moreover, at a time when he was not anarchist!

    If you read French, I suggest you refer to a book I wrote,

    Bakounine avant l’anarchiste. – Première partie 1836-1847
    Du conservatisme à la révolution démocratique
    http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article79
    (Bakunin before the anarchist, Part One 1836-1847, From conservatism to the democratic Revolution)

    1. Hi,

      I wrote this a very long time ago as a writing exercise. When I said “I’m not particularly interested in what exactly Bakunin meant by this”, I meant for the purposes of this video and not in general.

      I agree with you that its important to locate ideas in their historical context and I’m familiar with Bakunin’s Hegelian phase prior to becoming an anarchist. I am also annoyed when authors refer to Bakunin as “destructive” in the negative sense based on a single quote taken out of context and written before he became an anarchist.

      I read your book on the International and liked it. Unfortunately I cannot read French (but I want to learn). I am currently proof reading my book on the strategy of historical anarchism, which is based on my PhD. Would you be interested in reading it and providing feedback?

      1. Hello,
        I would be very happy to read your work and give you my opinion, especially as the subject you are dealing with interests me a lot.
        Being able to understand several languages is an important asset when doing research. There is a remarkable tool (that you may know) for translating texts: https://www.deepl.com/translator
        It is a very reliable tool. And after all, 40% of the words in the English language are of French origin, thanks to the Normans!

        Maybe you know the site of the Cercle d’études libertaires: monde-nouveau.net: there is a section with texts in English: http://monde-nouveau.net/?lang=en

        I read two of your texts, the one on the “passion to destroy” and the one on Bakunin as a racist.
        Concerning the second one, I appreciated your concern for objectivity, your preoccupation not to “demolish” Bakunin.
        Anarchists are generally very disturbed by Bakunin’s anti-Semitic excesses, and feel a real uneasiness, which is also reflected in your text, I think.
        A long time ago I wrote a book, which I never tried to have published, and which I entitled: “Panslavism, Pangermanism and the Jewish Question: Bakunin and Marx”.

        My starting point is that Bakunin cannot be dissociated from Marx, that the anti-Slavic racism of Marx and Engels is as reprehensible as Bakunin’s anti-Semitism, and that, once again, all of this is not explainable without putting things into context.

        In particular, I would like to point out that no anti-Semitic allusion can be found in Bakunin’s work before 1869, more precisely before the Basle Congress when Marx was outvoted by the Bakuninists and Moses Hess wrote an outrageous article against Bakunin, calling him a “panslave”. Such an accusation, apart from being false, was particularly insulting to Bakunin, but maybe is it difficult to understand today to what point he was affected.
        This was the trigger for Bakunin’s anti-Semitism. There is no other way to explain why a guy suddenly becomes an anti-Semite at the age of 54.

        Bakunin’s anti-semitism is distressingly commonplace, and he uses all the most hackneyed clichés, especially the idea that the Jews are a “power”. Bakunin’s solution to the “Jewish question” is rather unusual and seems to have escaped his detractors: he says somewhere (in “Writings against Marx”, if I remember correctly but I’m not sure) that it can only be done “in the most complete freedom”, which is rather surprising for an anti-semite.
        The Jewish activists of the libertarian movement knew about Bakunin’s anti-semitism, but they were probably less stupid than the Marxist detractors of the Russian revolutionary: they simply didn’t take it seriously and understood that it was totally in contradiction with everything Bakunin said, a point you underlined in your text. There is a remarkable letter of a Spanish militant (Pellicer, maybe?) blaming Bakunin for his antisemitism.

        The bad relations between Marx and Bakunin do not date from the period of the IWA. During the 1848 revolution Marx had insinuated in the press that Bakunin was a spy for the tsar. Then when Bakunin served his 8 years in prison in appalling conditions, someone close to Marx had spread the rumour that Bakunin spent his time drinking champagne in gallant company. Marx was never directly the cause of the slanders Bakunin suffered, but it was always someone close to him. Bakunin obviously protested against these slanders, but never, until 1869, accused the Jews of them. So it actually was an event in 1869 that triggered Bakunin’s anti-semitism.

        It has also been said that Bakunin was anti-Semitic because it was a dominant feeling in Russian society. I dispute this because he was brought up in an atmosphere dominated by the Enlightenment culture. His father had lived in Italy for a very long time and only returned to Russia with reluctance.

        There is one point you could have raised if you had wanted to accuse Bakunin of “racism”, and that is his alleged “Germanophobia”. An absolutely unfounded accusation because Bakunin specifies that what he never attacks the German people or the German proletariat, but German bourgeois civilisation. On the other hand, the anti-Slavic racism of Marx and Engels is indisputable. (James Guillaume wrote a book, “Karl Marx Pan-German” that seems to have shocked a lot of present-day anarchists. See: James Guillaume: “Karl Marx Pan-German and the International Workers’ Association” (1915), http://monde-nouveau.net/ecrire/?exec=article&id_article=659)

        I considered in my manuscript that it was necessary to draw a parallel between Bakunin’s anti-Semitism and that of Marx, which is, it is true, limited to his correspondence, but which manifests itself there with great abundance. See for example:

        July 30, 1862:
        “The Jewish nigger Lassalle who, I’m glad to say, is leaving at the end of this week, has happily lost another 5,000 talers in an ill-judged speculation. The chap would sooner throw money down the drain than lend it to a ‘friend,’ even though his interest and capital were guaranteed. … It is now quite plain to me—as the shape of his head and the way his hair grows also testify—that he is descended from the negroes who accompanied Moses’ flight from Egypt (unless his mother or paternal grandmother interbred with a nigger). Now, this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must inevitably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow’s importunity is also niggerlike.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 41, p. 388)

        One last point: there are many pages where Bakunin makes a historical and geopolitical approach: he examines for instance the different nationalities in Central Europe and gives population statistics. Concerning the population of Austria, for example, he says how many Moravians, Poles, Ruthenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Romanians, etc., there are, and concludes that there are “9,000,000 Germans and Jews”.
        This assimilation between Germans and Jews is explained because what he retains of the latter is their historical function as propagators of the Germanisation of the Slavic territories conquered by the Germans. For Bakunin, this is a simple observation, there is nothing antisemitic about it.

        Well, I’ll stop here, I hope I haven’t annoyed you with my digressions.
        As I said, I’d be glad to have a look at your book.

        All the best
        René

      2. Clarification:

        1. The exact quotation from Bakunin is as follows, and is indeed found in “Ecrit contre Marx” (Editions Champ libre, vol. III, p. 7):
        “this power has been created by more than twenty-five centuries of persecution. Only the broadest freedom will be able to dissolve it; but to achieve this goal, many more centuries will be needed.”

        2. It is not Pellicer but Anselmo Lorenzo who expresses his disagreement:
        Bakunin’s anti-Semitic remarks had bothered some internationals close to Bakunin. Anselmo Lorenzo recounts that the mention of Marx’s Jewishness produced “a disastrous effect” on him, as “this was opposed to our principles of fraternity without difference of race or creed. (quoted by Arthur Lehning, Champ libre editions, vol. II, introduction, p. XIV)

        1. Hi,

          Glad you liked the essay on Bakunin’s antisemitism. I used deepl when researching it to double check the various English translations I was using were correct.

          I’m unsure about what led to Bakunin’s antisemitism. He could have been antisemitic prior to his negative experiences in the 1st international but not expressed it in writing. Or he could have been slightly antisemitic before and then become much more antisemitic in his 50s. Given the limited nature of the evidence I didn’t want to make strong claims about how x event made him an antisemite.

          I knew about the very offensive things Marx and Engels wrote about slavs and the Lasselle letter. I wanted to avoid arguing like a Marxist and so decided not to respond to Bakunin’s antisemitism by discussing Marx’s and Engels views.

          I cite the Lorenzo quote in my essay but due to only being able to speak English I got it via Eckhart quoting it.

          What is your email address? I can send you my book. I’m especially interested in what you think about the chapters on syndicalism.

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