Bakunin was a Racist

Michael Bakunin was one of the early influential theorists of the anarchist movement and played a key role in developing and spreading its ideas. He is one of my favourite authors and I have gained a huge amount from reading him. But this does not mean that I am uncritical of Bakunin. I am against putting any anarchist, dead or alive, on a pedestal and think it is important to examine both the good and the bad aspects of what Bakunin thought. His theory contained a profound inconsistency. He advocated a society in which all systems of domination and exploitation were abolished and everybody was free. He was also an antisemite. Most of the thousands of pages Bakunin wrote contain no antisemitism. On the few occasions where he is antisemitic it is abhorrent and should be rejected by everybody. In this essay I shall explain how he was antisemitic and why it was wrong. Once I have done this, I will discuss whether or not Bakunin’s critique of capitalism and the state was fundamentally racist and then explore how historical anarchists responded to his antisemitism.

Bakunin’s Racism

Bakunin’s antisemitism took five main forms. Firstly, on a number of occasions Bakunin unnecessarily pointed out that somebody he did not like was a Jew. One of Bakunin’s main political opponents in the 1st International was a Russian Jew named Nicholas Utin, who was an ally of Marx and Engels. In August 1871 Bakunin wrote a text which was later referred to as his Report on the Alliance. Within the text he labelled Utin a “little Jew” who manipulated other people, especially women, on four occasions. (Bakunin 1913, 197, 213, 265-6, 273. For English translations see Carr 1975, 346; Bakunin 2016, 153, 158) A year later in October 1872 Bakunin again referred to Utin as “a little Russian Jew” in his unsent letter to the editors of La Liberté. (Bakunin 1973, 247. Also see Bakunin 1872b, 1) Bakunin made similar remarks about other individuals. Within Statism and Anarchy, which was published in 1873, Bakunin complained that German workers were “confused by their leaders – politicians, literati, and Jews” who “hate and fear revolution” and have as a result “directed the entire worker population” into parliamentary politics. (Bakunin 1990, 193)

On other occasions Bakunin went further. He explictly connected a person’s Jewishness with what he thought were their negative personality traits or incorrect political positions. In Statism and Anarchy Bakunin wrote that,

By origin Marx is a Jew. One might say that he combines all of the positive qualities and all of the short comings of that capable race. A nervous man, some say to the point of cowardice, he is extremely ambitious and vain, quarrelsome, intolerant, and absolute, like Jehovah, the Lord God of his ancestors, and, like him, vengeful to the point of madness. There is no lie or calumny that he would not invent and disseminate against anyone who had the misfortune to arouse his jealousy – or his hatred, which amounts to the same thing. And there is no intrigue so sordid that he would hesitate to engage in it if in his opinion (which is for the most part mistaken) it might serve to strengthen his position and his influence or extend his power. (Bakunin 1990, 141)

Bakunin later claimed that Marx was a “hopeless statist” and advocate of “state communism” because of “his threefold capacity as an Hegelian, a Jew, and a German”. (Bakunin 1990, 142-3) This point was repeated elsewhere. Bakunin remarked in his 1872 letter To the Brothers of the Alliance in Spain that Marx “as a German and a Jew” is “an authoritarian from head to foot”. Within the same letter Bakunin wrote that Marx’s “vanity, in fact, has no limits, a truly Jewish vanity”. (Bakunin 1872a. For the German version see Bakunin 1924, 117, 115)

Bakunin made similar remarks about the German state socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. He wrote in Statism and Anarchy that “Lassalle . . . was vain, very vain, as befits a Jew.” (Bakunin 1990, 177) A few pages later he declared that “Lassalle . . . was too spoilt by wealth and its attendant habits of elegance and refinement to find satisfaction in the popular milieu; he was too much of a Jew to feel comfortable among the people”. (Bakunin 1990, 180) Bakunin not only connected Lassalle’s vanity and elitism with being Jewish but also argued, just as he had done with Marx, that Lassalle’s Jewishness could be used to explain his political positions. Bakunin wrote that Lassalle advocated parliamentary politics as the means to seize state power because he was “a German, a Jew, a scholar, and a rich man”. (Bakunin 1990, 175)

Bakunin’s antisemitism was not limited to making negative remarks about a few Jewish individuals. Between February and March 1872 Bakunin wrote a letter titled To the Comrades of the International Sections of the Jura Federation. It is perhaps the most antisemitic texts he ever wrote. Within the letter he asserted that Jewish people are,

bourgeois and exploitative from head to foot, and instinctively opposed to any real popular emancipation . . . Every Jew, however enlightened, retains the traditional cult of authority: it is the heritage of his race, the manifest sign of his Eastern origin . . . The Jew is therefore authoritarian by position, by tradition and by nature. This is a general law and one which admits of very few exceptions, and these very exceptions, when examined closely confirm the rule. (Bakunin 1872b, 4)

He continues a few paragraphs later by saying that Jewish people are “driven by need on the one hand, and on the other by that ever restless activity, by that passion for transactions and instinct for speculation, as well as by that petty and vain ambition, which form the distinguishing traits of the race.” (Ibid)

The second main form of Bakunin’s antisemitism was the belief that Jewish people were united as a singular entity, rather than being a broad and diverse ethnic, cultural or religious group composed of distinct individual people acting independently of one another. Bakunin claimed in his March 1872 letter to the Jura Federation that “the Jews of every country are really friends only with the Jews of all countries, independently of all differences existing in social positions, degree of education, political opinions, and religious worship.” He continued at length,

Above all, they are Jews, and that establishes among all the individuals of this singular race, across all religions, political and social differences that separates them, a union of solidarity that is mutually indissoluble. It is a powerful chain, broadly cosmopolitan and narrowly national at the same time, in the racial sense, interconnecting the kings of finance, the Rothschilds, or the most scientifically exalted intelligences, with the ignorant and superstitious Jews of Lithuania, Hungary, Roumania, Africa and Asia. I do not think there exists a single Jew in the world today who does not tremble with hope and pride when he hears the sacred name of Rothschild. (Quoted in Draper 1990, 297. For the original French see Bakunin 1872b, 3)

Sometime between October 1871 and February 1872 Bakunin wrote a note which he titled Supporting Documents: Personal Relations with Marx. He initially intended to include the text in a letter he was writing to Italians he knew, but the note was never sent. It contained some of the most antisemitic remarks Bakunin ever wrote. (Bakunin 1924, 204. Bakunin did send a letter to Bologna in December 1871 but it has been lost and we do not know if it contained similar racist content) Within the unsent note Bakunin wrote,

Himself a Jew, Marx has around him, in London and France, but especially in Germany, a multitude of more or less clever, intriguing, mobile, speculating Jews, such as Jews are everywhere: commercial or banking agents, writers, politicians, correspondents for newspapers of all shades, with one foot in the bank, the other in the socialist movement, and with their behinds sitting on the German daily press — they have taken possession of all the newspapers — and you can imagine what kind of sickening literature they produce. Now, this entire Jewish world, which forms a single profiteering sect, a people of bloodsuckers, a single gluttonous parasite, closely and intimately united not only across national borders but across all differences of political opinion — this Jewish world today stands for the most part at the disposal of Marx and at the same time at the disposal of Rothschild. I am certain that Rothschild for his part greatly values the merits of Marx, and that Marx for his part feels instinctive attraction and great respect for Rothschild. (Bakunin 1924, 208-9)

The third main form of Bakunin’s antisemitism was the belief in an international Jewish conspiracy which played a key role in running the world via control of commerce, banking and the media. In 1869 Bakunin was critiqued by a German Jewish state socialist called Moses Hess in an article which was published in the radical paper Le Réveil. Bakunin responded in October by writing a long unpublished letter titled To the Citizen Editors of Le Réveil. Bakunin’s other title for the letter was Study of the German Jews. (Carr 1975, 369-70; Eckhart 2016, 27; Bakunin 1911, 239) Within the letter he wrote that,

I know that in speaking out my intimate thoughts on the Jews with such frankness I expose myself to immense dangers. Many people share these thoughts, but very few dare to express them publicly, for the Jewish sect, which is much more formidable than that of the Catholic and Protestant Jesuits, today constitutes a veritable power in Europe. It reigns despotically in commerce and banking, and it has invaded three-quarters of German journalism and a very considerable part of the journalism of other countries. Then woe to him who makes the mistake of displeasing it! (Quoted in Draper 1990, 293. For the original French see Bakunin 1911, 243-4. This view is repeated in Bakunin 1872b, 1)

Bakunin’s friend Alexander Herzen reacted to this racist letter by complaining to Nicholas Ogarev, “why all this talk of race and of Jews?”. (Quoted in Carr 1975, 370)

The fourth main form of Bakunin’s antisemitism was intimately connected to the previous one. Bakunin not only believed that an international Jewish conspiracy played a key role in running the world. He also believed in a specifically Jewish conspiracy against him within the 1st International. The history of the 1st International is very complicated and for the purposes of this essay all you need to know is the following. In September 1872 Bakunin was expelled from the 1st International at its Hague Congress for being a member of a secret organisation called the Alliance. Marx and Engels were mistakenly convinced that Bakunin was attempting to use the Alliance to take over the 1st International and become its dictator. Due to this false belief Marx and Engels went to great lengths to guarantee Bakunin’s expulsion from the organisation, which included them creating fake delegates. Bakunin, in contrast, correctly thought that Marx, Engels and their supporters were attempting to take over the 1st International and convert the General Council, which was supposed to perform only an administrative role, into a governing body which imposed state socialist decisions and policies on the organisation’s previously autonomous sections. One of the ironies of history is that, a key reason for why Marx and Engels did this is that they thought it was necessary in order to counter Bakunin’s non-existent attempt to become dictator of the International and impose his anarchist programme on the organisation. (Eckhart 2016. For a less in-depth history see Berthier 2015; Graham 2015)

Bakunin expressed his belief in a Jewish conspiracy against him in both public and private. In May 1872 the General Council issued a pamphlet called Fictious Splits in the International which had been written by Marx and Engels. (Marx and Engels 1988, 83-123) The pamphlet repeated a number of inaccurate claims that had been made about Bakunin during his time in the International. This included Hess’ October 1869 accusation that Bakunin attempted to transfer the location of the General Council from London, where Marx and Engels lived, to Geneva, near where Bakunin lived, and Utin’s baseless September 1871 accusation that Bakunin was responsible for the harmful actions of the Russian revolutionary Sergei Nechaev. (Eckhart 2016, 29-31, 91-3) Hess had been friends with Marx and Engels in the early 1840s, but their friendship seems to have ended by 1848. Utin, in contrast, was in close contact with Marx and Engels during the early 1870s and suggested various corrections and additions to the pamphlet. (McLellan 1969, 145-7, 158, 160; Eckhart 2016, 47, 202-3)

In June 1872 the Bulletin of the Jura Federation published Bakunin’s response. He wrote that Marx’s pamphlet was “a collection, hodgepodge as much as systematic, of all the absurd and filthy tales that the malice (more perverse than spiritual) of the German and Russian Jews, his friends, his agents, his followers and at the same time, his henchmen, has peddled and propagated against us all, but especially against me, for almost three years”. (Quoted Eckhart 2016, 212) Bakunin was correct to think that Marx was repeating claims made by Hess and Utin but their Jewishness was irrelevant. Bakunin framed these events as a Jewish conspiracy against him because he was an antisemite. Engels reacted to Bakunin’s article by writing in a letter to Theodor Cuno, “Bakunin has issued a furious, but very weak, abusive letter” in which “he declares that he is the victim of a conspiracy of all the European—Jews!”. (Marx and Engels 1989, 408)

Bakunin repeated his belief in a Jewish conspiracy against him in his October 1872 unsent letter to the editors of La Liberté. He wrote that,

Marx . . . has a remarkable genius for intrigue, and unrelenting determination; he also has a sizeable number of agents at his disposal, hierarchically organized and acting in secret under his direct orders; a kind of socialist and literary freemasonry in which his compatriots, the German and other Jews, hold an important position and display zeal worthy of a better cause. (Bakunin 1973, 246. Also see Bakunin 1872b, 1)

Bakunin was correct that Marx, Engels and their supporters conspired against him. Where Bakunin went wrong was to frame the actions of Marx as a specifically Jewish conspiracy. It happened to be the case that some of Bakunin’s main political opponents within the International were Jews – Marx, Utin, Hess and Sigismund Borkheim – but a larger number of his opponents belonged to other ethnicities, such as the German’s Johann Philipp Becker and Georg Eccarius. Bakunin appeared to have been aware of this but thought they were operating under the commands of Marx and so a Jew. Bakunin could have viewed this situation as one political faction acting against another political faction. Due to his antisemitism, he instead framed it as people who were specifically Jewish conspiring against him. This was wrong and unjustifiable.

The fifth main form of Bakunin’s antisemitism was his stereotyping of Jews as wealthy bankers. (Bakunin 1872b, 1-2) In Statism and Anarchy he asserted that the creation of the German nation state in 1871 was,

nothing other than the ultimate realisation of the anti-popular idea of the modern state, the sole objective of which is to organise the most intensive exploitation of the people’s labour for the benefit of capital concentrated in a very small number of hands. It signifies the triumphant reign of the Yids, of a bankocracy under the powerful protection of a fiscal, bureaucratic, and police regime which relies mainly on military force and is therefore in essence despotic, but cloaks itself in the parliamentary game of pseudo-constitutionalism. (Bakunin 1990, 12)

Over a hundred pages later Bakunin noted that “the rich commercial and industrial bourgeoisie and the Jewish financial world of Germany” both “required extensive state centralisation in order to flourish”. (Bakunin 1990, 138) Bakunin could have made his point about the relationship between finance capital and the state with a reference to bankers in general. He was an antisemite and so instead referred specifically to Jewish bankers and equated the rule of Jewish bankers with the rule of Jews in general. This was a common form of antisemitism during the 19th century because several of the largest banks in the world were owned by Jewish families, such as Rothschild and Sons. Such racist claims ignored that other large banks at the time were not owned by Jewish families, such as Barings. (Ferguson 2000, xxv, 20, 260-71, 284-8) It is furthermore the case that both today and in the 19th century the majority of Jews are not bankers or members of the ruling classes. Jewish workers do not benefit from the fact that some bankers happen to be Jewish. This is no different to the fact that workers who are Christians or atheists do not benefit from the fact that some bankers happen to be Christians or atheists.

This kind of antisemitism was not a one-off occurrence. Bakunin’s most widely read work is a pamphlet called God and the State, which was first published in 1882 and is a long extract from his unfinished 1870-2 text The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution. Within God and the State Bakunin wrote that,

the Jews, in spite of that exclusive national spirit which distinguishes them even to-day, had become in fact, long before the birth of Christ, the most international people of the world. Some of them carried away as captives, but many more even urged on by that mercantile passion which constitutes one of the principal traits of their character, they had spread through all countries, carrying everywhere the worship of their Jehovah, to whom they remained all the more faithful the more he abandoned them. (Bakunin 1970, 74. This view is repeated in Bakunin 1872b, 4)

In other texts Bakunin linked his antisemitic beliefs about Jewish bankers with his critique of state socialism. Bakunin’s main critique of state socialism was that social movements should not use the means of seizing state power to achieve the ends of socialism because it would not result in the abolition of all forms of class rule. The minority of people who actually wielded state power in the name of the workers, such as politicians or bureaucrats, would instead constitute a new ruling class who dominated and exploited the working classes and focused on reproducing and expanding their power, rather than abolishing it. (Bakunin 1873, 169, 237-8, 254-5, 265-70) This argument was not antisemitic and has been made by anarchists from Jewish backgrounds, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. (Goldman 1996, 390-404; Berkman 2003, 89-136. For their family history see Avrich and Avrich 2012, 7, 15)

Bakunin was, however, a racist and so argued that one of the groups which would benefit from the seizure of state power by socialists were Jewish bankers specifically. He thought that just as Jewish bankers benefited from state centralisation under Bismarck so too would they benefit from state centralisation under the rule of a socialist political party. Bakunin wrote in his unsent note Personal Relations with Marx that,

What can there be in common between Communism and the large banks? Oh! The Communism of Marx seeks enormous centralisation in the state, and where such exists, there must inevitably be a central state bank, and where such a bank exists, the parasitic Jewish nation, which. speculates on the work of the people, will always find a way to prevail . . .  (Bakunin 1924, 209)

This position was repeated in Bakunin’s unsent 1872 letter to La Liberté. He wrote that Marx argued that the state should seize the means of production and land, organise the economy and establish “a single bank on the ruins of all existing banks”. This would result in “a barracks regime for the proletariat, in which a standardised mass of men and women workers would wake, sleep, work and live by rote; a regime of privilege for the able and the clever; and for the Jews, lured by the large-scale speculations of the national banks, a wide field for lucrative transactions.” (Bakunin 1973, 258-9) Bakunin could have made the argument that state socialist strategies would benefit a minority of people who ran the national state bank. He was an antisemite and so felt the need to refer specifically to Jewish bankers and to stereotype Jewish people in general as a parasite which exploits people. Bakunin’s racism was not the main reason why he opposed state socialist strategies, but antisemitism was a component of one of the arguments he made. I have been unable to find a single example of later anarchists repeating Bakunin’s antisemitic argument.

Bakunin’s antisemitism was not remarkable for the 19th century. Antisemitism existed both within wider society and the socialist movement specifically. Bakunin lived in an antisemitic society and so expressed antisemitic views. Yet Bakunin was also raised in a patriarchal society but unlearnt this to a significant extent and advocated for woman’s emancipation. (Bakunin 1973, 83, 174, 176). Bakunin was not responsible for internalising the prejudices of his time, but he was responsible for not noticing and unlearning them. The fact that this was possible is indicated by how many socialists were not antisemitic and explictly opposed antisemitism. They did so despite the fact that they too had been raised and lived within a racist social environment. Anarchists in the Russian empire, for example, defended Jews against pogroms on several occasions by organising mobile defence units armed with pistols and bombs. A number of Russian anarchists were killed whilst doing so. The armed defence of Jews was explictly justified by Russian anarchists in 1907 on the grounds that they were “against all racial conflicts”. (Antonioli 2009, 164)

Bakunin’s antisemitism raises two important questions:

  1. Was Bakunin’s critique of capitalism and the state fundamentally racist? By ‘fundamentally’ I mean the primary reason or the foundational core. Something can be significant without it being fundamental.
  2. Were historical anarchists aware of Bakunin’s antisemitism and what did they think about it?

Bakunin’s Critique of Capitalism and the State

The answer to the first question is no. Bakunin advocated the abolition of capitalism and the state because he was committed to the view that everybody should be free, equal and bonded together through relations of solidarity. (Bakunin 1985, 46-8) This led Bakunin to argue that capitalism and the state should be abolished because they are social structures based on the economic ruling class – capitalists, landowners, bankers etc – and the political ruling class – monarchs, politicians, generals, high ranking bureaucrats etc – dominating and exploiting the working classes. For example, in an 1869 article for L’Égalité Bakunin critiqued capitalism for being based on “the servitude of labour – the proletariat – under the yoke of capital, that is to say, of the bourgeoisie”. He argued at length that,

The prosperity of the bourgeois class is incompatible with workers’ freedom and well-being, because the particular wealth of the bourgeoisie exists and can be based only on the exploitation and servitude of labour . . . for this reason, the prosperity and the human dignity of the working masses demands the abolition of the bourgeoisie as a distinct class. (Bakunin 2016, 43)

Bakunin then claimed that since the “power of the bourgeoisie” is “represented and sustained by the organisation of the state”, which “is only there to preserve every class privilege”, it follows that “all bourgeois politics . . . can have but one single purpose: to perpetuate the domination of the bourgeoisie” and the “slavery” of “the proletariat”. (Bakunin 2016, 43, 49, 45) This, in turn, led Bakunin to advocate the abolition of the state. He argued in 1870 that “one should completely abolish, both in reality and in principle, everything that calls itself political power; because so long as political power exists, there will be persons who dominate and persons dominated, masters and slaves, exploiters and the exploited.” (Ibid, 63) This is not an antisemitic argument. The exact same position was advocated by anarchists from Jewish backgrounds, such as Goldman and Berkman, and by anarchists who were not Jewish but opposed antisemitism and participated in the Jewish anarchist movement, such as Rudolf Rocker. (Berkman 2003, 7-28, 70-3; Goldman 1996, 49-51, 64-77; Rocker 2005, 1-3, 9-18)

Bakunin was, however, a racist and so thought that a key group who engaged in domination and exploitation were Jews, especially Jewish bankers. It is important to make three points about this. Firstly, Bakunin at no point claims that Jews are the only or main group who form the ruling classes. Secondly, the two propositions Bakunin believed in are logically independent of one another. The proposition that capitalism and the state are based on the domination and exploitation of the working classes does not entail the racist proposition that Jews as a group engage in exploitation via banking. Thirdly, Bakunin’s antisemitic remarks do not demonstrate that the main reason why Bakunin advocated the abolition of capitalism and the state was his antisemitism. If this was the case then one would expect Bakunin to have referred specifically to Jews or Jewish bankers most of the time when he critiqued capitalism and the state. Yet in the vast majority of cases Bakunin does not mention Jewish people at all when critiquing these institutions. He instead refers to the ruling classes in general.

It might be argued in response that this was a tactical calculation by Bakunin. When writing public articles for papers such as L’Égalité he chose to hide his antisemitism and refer to the ruling classes in general but when writing in private he chose to refer specifically to Jewish people. The problem with this argument is that the majority of Bakunin’s unpublished or private critiques of capitalism and the state available in English do not mention Jewish people at all. (Bakunin 1973, 64-93, 166-74) Nor did Bakunin try to hide his antisemitism through the use of dog whistles. One of the main texts where Bakunin makes antisemitic claims about Jewish bankers is in his book Statism and Anarchy which was published by Bakunin himself. Within Statism and Anarchy Bakunin connected his critique of capitalism and the state with antisemitic claims about Jewish bankers on two occasions. (Bakunin 1990, 12, 138) In the majority of cases when critiquing capitalism and the state he does not mention Jewish people at all and instead refers to “the ruling classes” in general with such phrases as “the bourgeoisie”, “the privileged and propertied classes”, “the exploiting class” and “the governing minority”. (Bakunin 1990, 21, 23-4, 114, 136-7, 219) Bakunin does refer to banks and bankers in general on four occasions when critiquing capitalism and the state but in every instance this went alongside referring to other members of the ruling classes, such as landowners, industrialists and merchants. (Bakunin 1990, 12-3, 24, 29, 31, 138)

Given this, antisemitism was not the main reason why Bakunin advocated the abolition of capitalism and the state. Although Bakunin critiqued banks in an antisemitic manner, his opposition to capitalism and the state cannot be reduced to this antisemitism. His antisemitic remarks about banks co-existed alongside the broader argument that capitalism and the state should be abolished because they are systems of class rule which oppress and exploit the working classes.

Bakunin Was Self-contradictory

It is furthermore the case that Bakunin’s racism towards Jewish people was fundamentally inconsistent with other things that he himself wrote. Bakunin advocated universal human emancipation on several occasions. To give one example, in 1868 Bakunin insisted that the goal of a revolution should be “the liberty, morality, fellowship and welfare of all men through the solidarity of all – the brotherhood of mankind”. (Bakunin 1973, 167. Also see ibid, 86; Bakunin 1985, 52, 124, 189, 200) Bakunin not only advocated universal human emancipation but thought it could only be achieved through all of humanity forming bonds of solidarity and co-operation with one another. The abolition of capitalism and the state required “the simultaneous revolutionary alliance and action of all the peoples of the civilised world”. In order for this to be achieved “every popular uprising . . . must have a world programme, broad, deep, true, in other words human enough to embrace the interests of the world and to electrify the passions of the entire popular masses of Europe, regardless of nationality.” (Bakunin 1973, 86. Also see ibid, 173)

Bakunin made a similar point in 1873. He wrote,

since we are convinced that the existence of any sort of State is incompatible with the freedom of the proletariat, for it would not permit of an international, fraternal union of peoples, we wish to abolish all states . . . The Slav section, while aiming at the liberation of the Slav peoples, in no way contemplates the organisation of a special Slav world, hostile to other races through national feeling. On the contrary, it will strive to bring the Slav peoples into the common family of mankind, which the International Working Men’s Association has pledged itself to form on the basis of liberty, equality and universal fraternity. (Bakunin 1973, 175-6)

Bakunin thought that the achievement of liberty, equality and universal human fraternity required opposition to racism. He advocated the “recognition of humanity, of human right and of human dignity in every man of whatever race” or “colour”. (Bakunin 1964, 147) This commitment to universal human emancipation in turn entailed the advocacy of the self-determination of ethnic minorities. Bakunin thought that, “every people and the smallest folk-unit has its own character, its own specific mode of existence, its own way of speaking, feeling, thinking, and acting . . . Every people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself.” (Bakunin 1964, 325) This included groups being free to practice their religion. (Bakunin 1873, 66, 176; Eckhart 2016, 27)

Bakunin, in addition to this, opposed imperialism and colonialism. He critiqued what he termed the gradual extermination of Native Americans, the exploitation of India by the British Empire and the conquest of Algeria by the French empire. (Bakunin 2016, 175-6) He advocated,

the necessity of destroying every European despotism, recognising that each people, large or small, powerful or weak, civilised or not civilised, has the right to decide for itself and to organise spontaneously, from bottom to top, using complete freedom . . . independently of every type of State, imposed from top to bottom by any authority at all, be it collective, or individual, be it foreign or indigenous . . . (Bakunin 2016, 178)

Bakunin wrote the above remarks within his March 1872 letter to the Jura Federation. The same text where he is extremely racist towards Jewish people. The fact that Bakunin did not view the two parts of the letter as inconsistent with one another makes me very depressed. He was so prejudiced that he did not realise that a commitment to universal human emancipation and the establishment of what he called “the brotherhood of mankind” entailed an opposition to his own racism against Jewish people.

Were historical anarchists aware of Bakunin’s antisemitism and what did they think about it?

The extent to which historical anarchists were aware of and critiqued Bakunin’s antisemitism is a complex topic. Several historical texts which were written about Bakunin do not mention his racism, such as Max Baginski and Peter Kropotkin’s articles published in 1914 as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Bakunin’s birth. (Glassgold 2000, 69-71; Kropotkin 2014, 205-7) These two texts focus on only the positive aspects of Bakunin – his eventful life and important role as an anarchist revolutionary – but do not touch on his negative side – antisemitism. I am not sure why this is the case. One obvious explanation is that they wanted to present Bakunin to the public in the best light possible when celebrating the 100-year anniversary of his birth. Yet if this was the case why not talk about Bakunin’s antisemitism on other occasions? I have been unable to find any mention of Bakunin’s antisemitism in the writings of anarchists from Jewish backgrounds which are available in English, such as Berkman, Goldman and Gustav Landauer. When they do briefly mention Bakunin it is usually only to say something positive about him, explain an idea of his, or recount the split between anarchists and state socialists within the 1st International. (Berkman 2003, 184; Goldman 1996, 69, 74, 103, 138; Landauer 2010, 81, 160, 175, 208) I have asked Kenyon Zimmer, who is a historian of the Jewish anarchist movement in America, and he does not recall Bakunin’s antisemitism being discussed in their paper the Fraye Arbeter Shtime. A Jewish anarchist could have complained about the topic during a conversation but since this conversation was never written down modern people cannot learn about it.

I suspect that a significant reason for why there are so few historical sources discussing Bakunin’s racism is that he largely expressed these thoughts in obscure texts. Every single antisemitic remark I have quoted in this video comes from nine sources. These are in chronological order,

  • The October 1869 unpublished letter To the Citizen Editors of Le Réveil. Sent to Bakunin’s friends Aristide Rey and Alexander Herzen but not published by the editor of Le Reveil. First published in 1911 in Volume 5 of Bakunin’s collected works in French. (Bakunin 1911, 239-94)
  • The August 1871 Report on the Alliance. An extract was published in 1873 within the Mémoire Presented by the Jura Federation of the International Working Men’s Association to all Federations of the International. This version included two of the antisemitic remarks made towards Utin. (Appendix of Guillaume 1873, 45-58. For the antisemitism see 51-2, 57) The full text, which included all of the antisemitism, was published in 1913 in Volume 6 of Bakunin’s collected works in French. (Bakunin 1913, 171-280)
  • The October 1871 to February 1872 unsent note Supporting Documents: Personal Relations with Marx. First published in 1924 in volume 3 of Bakunin’s collected works in German. (Bakunin 1924, 204-16)
  • The March 1872 letter To the Comrades of the International Sections of the Jura Federation. Nettlau claimed in 1924 that it was yet to be published. (Bakunin 1924, 204) As far as I can tell it was first published in 1965 in Archives Bakounine Volume 2.
  • The June 1872 article Response of Citizen Bakunin published in the Bulletin of the Jura Federation. Copies of the Bulletin of the Jura Federation were most likely not widely circulated after it ceased publication in 1878, let alone the specific 15th June 1872 issue which included Bakunin’s text. (Miller 1976, 150) It was republished in 1924 in volume 3 of Bakunin’s collected works in German. (Bakunin 1924, 217-220)
  • The June 1872 letter To the Brothers of the Alliance in Spain. First published in 1924 in Volume 3 of Bakunin’s collected works in German (Bakunin 1924, 108-18)
  • The October 1872 unsent letter to the editors of La Liberté. First published in 1910 in Volume 4 of Bakunin’s collected works in French. (Bakunin 1910, 339-90)
  • Statism and Anarchy, which was first published in 1873 in Russian. Only 1,200 copies were printed. It was reprinted in Russian in 1906, 1919 and 1922. (Shatz in introduction to Bakunin 1990, xxxv) In 1878 extracts of the book were translated into French and published in L’Avant-garde under the title Le gouvernementalisme et l’Anarchie. This did not include the antisemitic passages. In 1929 the first Spanish edition of Statism and Anarchy was published. (Bakunin 1986, 1). Rocker claimed in 1937 that the Spanish version of Statism and Anarchy was the first time the book was translated from Russian “into any other European language”. (Rocker 1937, 557)
  • God and the State, which was first published in 1882 and originally written in 1871. It is a long extract from his unfinished 1870-2 text The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution. It was translated into multiple languages and was Bakunin’s most widely read work. (Bakunin 1970, viii-ix; Bakunin 1973, 111)

Of the nine antisemitic texts I have found five were letters and two of them were never sent to anybody. Only three antisemitic texts were publicly available prior to Bakunin’s death in 1876: two articles in French and one book in Russian. An additional antisemitic text, God and the State, was published in 1882 but the majority of Bakunin’s antisemitic texts were only made available in the early 20th century as part of the publication of Bakunin’s collected works in French, German and Spanish. I do not know how widely read these books were and I expect that they were largely read by a relatively small number of massive nerds interested in Bakunin’s ideas. Even those who owned the books may only have read parts of them and so happened to not come into contact with the racist passages which take up a small fraction of the thousands of pages Bakunin wrote. Any modern person whose bought a book while late night internet shopping knows how easy it is to own books without reading them. Perhaps the most antisemitic texts Bakunin ever wrote – the March 1872 letter to the Jura Federation – was not, to my knowledge, publicly available until the 1960s.

Given the above, the only antisemitic text which was definitely widely read and available in multiple languages in the 19th and early 20th century was God and the State. The racism within God and the State consisted of one significantly antisemitic paragraph which claimed that Jewish people migrated all over the world because of their “mercantile passion which constitutes one of the principal traits of their character” (Bakunin 1970, 74) In other parts of the text Bakunin does make more general critiques of Judaism as a religion, such as describing Jehovah as a jealous God. Even though these passages were written by an antisemite I have not noticed any obvious antisemitic content within them. (Ibid, 69-71, 85). Nor is it antisemitic in and of itself to critique Judaism as a religion. Anarchists from Jewish backgrounds were often themselves very critical of Judaism as a religion and instead identified as Yiddish speakers who shared a culture. (Zimmer 2015, 15-6, 24-8) This can be seen in the fact that the Jewish anarchist Saul Yanovsky translated God and the State into Yiddish in 1901 and altered the text such that Bakunin’s criticism of “Catholic and Protestant theologians” also referred to “Jewish Theologians”. (Torres 2016, 2-4)

This is not to say that historical anarchists were unaware of Bakunin’s antisemitism. James Guillaume was Bakunin’s friend and the main editor of Bakunin’s collected works in French. He was definitely familiar with Bakunin’s views on Jews but does not mention them in the biographical sketch of Bakunin he wrote for Volume 2 of Bakunin’s collected works in French. (Guillaume in Bakunin 2001, 22-52) Guillaume appears to have deliberately altered a Bakunin quote such that it no longer contained any anti-semitism. He quotes Bakunin’s remark that Marx was authoritarian from head to foot but does not include Bakunin’s explanation for this: Marx was a German Jew. This topic is made confusing by the fact that Guillaume claims he is quoting an 1870 manuscript, but the passage cited is word for word identical with Bakunin’s 1872 letter. As a result, Guillaume could be referring to a different version of the text Bakunin wrote which contains no racism, but this seems unlikely. (ibid, 26. For the original French see Bakunin 1907, xiv. Compare to Bakunin 1872a; Bakunin 1924, 117) I have been unable to find a place where Guillaume acknowledges Bakunin’s racism, but it should be kept in mind that the vast majority of his work has never been translated into English.

Other anarchists explicitly opposed Bakunin’s antisemitism. In May 1872 Bakunin sent a letter to the Spanish anarchist Anselmo Lorenzo which included antisemitism. Within his 1901 memoirs Lorenzo correctly argued that Bakunin’s racism towards Jews “was contradicting our principles, principles that impose fraternity without distinction along race or religion and it had a distastefulness effect on me.” Max Nettlau, who edited Bakunin’s collected works in German, similarly opposed Bakunin’s “anti-Jewish remarks”. (Quoted Eckhart 2016, 509, notes 112 and 113. For a description of the letter see ibid, 196) There are, in addition to these critiques of Bakunin, several examples of anarchists rejecting antisemitism in general. This includes Kropotkin opposing the 1905 pogroms against Jews in Russia, the Jewish anarchist Landauer campaigning in 1913 against antisemitic conspiracy theories, and Rocker critiquing the oppression of Jews by the Nazi’s. (Kropotkin 2014, 472-3, 481; Landauer 2010, 295-9; Rocker 1937, 249-50, 327-8) In 1938 Goldman wrote that she considered it “highly inconsistent for socialists and anarchists to discriminate in any shape or form against the Jews.” (Goldman 1938)


Bakunin was one of the early influential theorists of the anarchist movement, but anarchism does not consist in repeating what Bakunin wrote. Anarchism was not created by one individual. It was collectively constructed by the Spanish, Italian, French, Belgian and Jurassian sections of the International. Its programme incorporated the insights of a wide variety of individuals. Some well-known, such as Errico Malatesta, and others whose names have largely been forgotten, such as Jean-Louis Pindy who was the delegate of the Paris Construction Workers’ Trade Union at the 1st International’s 1869 Basel Congress and a survivor of the Paris Commune of 1871. From the 1870s onwards the anarchist movement spread around the world and its theory and practice was pushed in new directions by anarchists in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Oceania and Africa. This included a large number of anarchists from a Jewish background. Between the beginning of the 20th century and the start of WW1 in 1914 the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement was the largest in the United States. Yiddish-speaking anarchists also played a key role in England’s anarchist movement. (Zimmer 2015, 4-6, 15, 20; Rocker 2005).

A significant amount of Bakunin’s anarchist beliefs were not original to him but common positions within the social networks he was a part of. This included his advocacy of the collective ownership of the means of production and land, the view that trade unions should prefigure the future society, and the rejection of parliamentary politics as a means to achieve emancipation. (Eckhart 2016, 12-6, 54, 106-8, 159-60; Graham 2015, 109-21) Anarchism was above all else the creation of workers engaged in class struggle against capitalism and the state. As the group of Russian anarchists abroad explained in 1926,

The class struggle created by the enslavement of workers and their aspirations to liberty gave birth, in the oppression, to the idea of anarchism: the idea of the total negation of a social system based on the principles of classes and the State, and its replacement by a free non-statist society of workers under self-management. So anarchism does not derive from the abstract reflections of an intellectual or a philosopher, but from the direct struggle of workers against capitalism, from the needs and necessities of the workers, from their aspirations to liberty and equality . . . The outstanding anarchist thinkers, Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, did not invent the idea of anarchism, but, having discovered it in the masses, simply helped by the strength of their thought and knowledge to specify and spread it.

Anarchists are not Bakuninists. We believe in the programme of anarchism which evolves and is updated over time, rather than treating what an individual man with a large beard happened to write in the late 19th century as scripture. Anarchists in the past shared this attitude. Malatesta claimed in 1876 that anarchists were not “Bakuninists” because “we do not share all the practical and theoretical ideas of Bakunin” and “follow ideas, not men . . . we reject the habit of incarnating a principle in a man”. (Quoted in Haupt 1986, 4) Kropotkin similarly recalled in his autobiography that during his 1872 visit to the Jura Federation,

in conversations about anarchism, or about the attitude of the federation, I never heard it said, ‘Bakunin had said so,’ or ‘Bakunin thinks so,’, as if it clenched the discussion. His writings and his sayings were not a text that one had to obey . . . In all such matters, in which intellect is the supreme judge, everyone in discussion used his own arguments”. (Kropotkin 2014, 104)

This is a position Bakunin himself agreed with. In his 1873 letter of resignation from the Jura Federation he wrote that “the ‘Bakuninist label’ . . . was thrown in your face” but “you always knew perfectly well, that your tendencies, opinions and actions arose entirely consciously, in spontaneous independence”. (Bakunin 2016, 247-8)

In conclusion, Bakunin should still be read today and there is a great deal of insight within the thousands of pages he wrote. He should, however, be read critically and his antisemitism was wrong, unjustifiable and fundamentally at odds with the principles of anarchism which seeks the abolition of all forms of domination and exploitation, including all forms of racism. The preamble to the 1866 Statutes of the 1st International declared: “this Association, and every individual or society joining it, will acknowledge morality, justice and truth as the basis of their conduct toward all men, without distinction of nationality, creed, or colour”. (Berthier 2012, 165) Socialist movements have on too many occasions not lived up to these words and it is essential that socialists today, be they anarchist or not, ensure that they do and oppose all systems of domination in both words and deeds.

One of the main lessons of Bakunin’s life is that somebody who thinks they are a genuine advocate of universal human emancipation can still have oppressive beliefs without being aware that they do. None of us are responsible for being socialised to be prejudiced towards others but, just like Bakunin before us, we are all responsible for noticing and unlearning it. As the Jewish anarchist Landauer wrote in 1913 in response to antisemitism, “socialism means action among human beings; action that must become reality within these human beings as much as in the outside world. When independent peoples propose to create a united humanity, these propositions are worthless when even a single people remains excluded and experiences injustice”. (Landaur 2010, 295)


Primary Sources

Antonioli, Maurizio. ed. 2009. The International Anarchist Congress Amsterdam (1907). Edmonton: Black Cat Press.

Bakunin, Michael. 1872a. To the Brothers of the Alliance in Spain.

Bakunin, Michael. 1872b. To the Comrades of the International Sections of the Jura Federation.

Bakunin, Michael. 1907. Oeuvres Tome II. Edited by James Guillaume. Paris: P.V Stock.

Bakunin, Michael. 1910. Oeuvres Tome IV. Edited by James Guillaume. Paris: P.V Stock.

Bakunin, Michael. 1911. Oeuvres Tome V. Edited by James Guillaume. Paris: P.V Stock.

Bakunin, Michael. 1913. Oeuvres Tome VI. Edited by James Guillaume. Paris: P.V Stock.

Bakunin. Michael. 1924. Gesammelte Werke, Band III. Edited by Max Nettlau. Berlin: Verlag Der Syndikalist.

Bakunin, Michael. 1964. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Bakunin, Michael. 1970. God and the State (New York: Dover Publications)

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Bakunin, Michael. 1986. Obras Completas, Volumen 5. Madrid: Las Ediciones de la Piqueta.

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

Bakunin, Michael. 2001. Bakunin on Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A.W. Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Berkman, Alexander. What Is Anarchism? Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003.

Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Edited by Alix Kates Shulman. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Goldman, Emma. 1938. “On Zionism”.

Guillaume. James. 1873. Mémoire présenté par la Fédération jurassienne de l’Association internationale des Travailleurs à toutes les Fédérations de l’Internationale. Sonvillier: Au Siège du Comité Fédéral Jurassien.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Landauer, Gustav. 2010. Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader. Edited by Gabriel Kuhn. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1988. Collected Works, Volume 23 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1989. Collected Works, Volume 44 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Rocker, Rudolf. Nationalism and Culture. Los Angeles: Rocker Publications Committee, 1937.

Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004.

Rocker, Rudolf. The London Years. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2005.

Secondary Sources

Avrich, Paul, and Karen Avrich. 2012. Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Berthier, René. 2015. Social-Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864-1877. London: Anarres Editions.

Draper, Hal. 1990. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume 4: Critique of Other Socialisms. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Graham, Robert. 2015. We Do Not Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Eckhart, Wolfgang. 2016. The Fist Socialist Schism: Bakunin VS. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Ferguson, Niall. 2000. The House of Rothschild: The World’s Banker 1848-1998. New York: Penguin Books.

Haupt, Georges. 1986. Aspects of International Socialism 1871-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, Martin A. 1976. Kropotkin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McLellan, David. 1969. The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx. London: Macmillan.

Torres, Anna Elena. 2016. “Any Minute Now the World’s Overflowing Its Border”: Anarchist Modernism and Yiddish Literature. PhD Thesis, UC Berkeley.

Zimmer, Kenyon. 2015. Immigrants Against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

What Did Bakunin Think About Religion?

The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is one of the most famous atheists of the 19th century. Almost a century and a half before rational men on youtube ruined anti-theism for everyone else Bakunin was advocating “the abolition of [religious] cults” and “the substitution of science for faith” (Bakunin 2016, 33). He argued that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” (Bakunin 1973, 128) Why did Bakunin think this and what were his views on religion?

For Bakunin religion was based on human beings subordinating themselves to a divine power which they themselves had imagined and attributed distinctly human characteristics to. Borrowing heavily from the German philosopher Feuerbach Bakunin wrote,

All religions, with their gods, their demigods and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attainted the full development and full possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but a mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovers his own image, but enlarged and reversed – that is, divinized. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur and decline of the gods who have succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a power, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy. Thanks to this modesty and pious generosity of believing and credulous men, heaven has grown rich with the spoils of the earth, and, by a necessary consequence, the richer heaven became, the more wretched became humanity and the earth. God once installed, he was naturally proclaimed the cause, reason, arbiter, and absolute disposer of all things: the world thenceforth was nothing, God was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave. (Bakunin 1973, 124)

The genuine belief in this metaphysical subordination was then exploited by God’s self-proclaimed representatives on earth to justify their very real material oppression of others. He wrote,

God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence and death. God being master, man is the slave. Incapable of finding justice, truth and eternal life by his own effort, he can attain them only through a divine revelation. But whoever says revelation says revealers, messiahs, prophets, priests and legislators inspired by God himself; and these, once recognized as the representatives of divinity on earth, as the holy instructors of humanity, chosen by God himself to direct it in the path of salvation, necessarily exercise absolute power. All men owe them passive and unlimited obedience; for against the divine reason there is no human reason, and against the justice of God no terrestrial justice holds. Slaves of God, men must also be slaves of Church and State, in so far as the State is consecrated by the Church. (Bakunin 1973, 124-5)

The harm of religion so understood was profound. For Bakunin religions destroy people’s

reason, the principle instrument of human emancipation, and reduce them to imbecility, the essential condition of their slavery. They dishonor human labour, and make it a sign and source of servitude. They kill the idea and sentiment of human justice, ever tipping the balance to the side of triumphant knaves, privileged objects of divine indulgence. They kill human pride and dignity, protecting only the cringing and humble. They stifle in the heart of nations every feeling of human fraternity, filling it with divine cruelty instead. All religions are cruel, all founded on blood; for all rest principally on the idea of sacrifice – that is, on the perpetual immolation of humanity to the insatiable vengeance of divinity. In this bloody mystery man is always the victim, and the priest – a man also, but a man privileged by grace – is the divine executioner. (Bakunin 1973, 126)

Bakunin did not, however, blame workers and peasants for believing in God but held it was a product of the society they lived in. According to Bakunin,

Nothing is more natural than that the belief in God, the creator, regulator, judge, master, curser, savior, and benefactor of the world, should still prevail among the people . . . The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments, who consider this ignorance, not without good reason, as one of the essential conditions of their own power. Weighted down by their daily labour, deprived of leisure, of intellectual intercourse, of reading, in short of all the means and a good portion of the stimulants that develop thought in men, the people generally accept religious traditions without criticism and in a lump. These traditions surround them from infancy in all the situations of life, and artificially sustained in their minds by a multitude of official poisoners of all sorts, priests and laymen, are transformed therein into a sort of mental and moral habit, too often more powerful even than their natural good sense. (Bakunin 1973, 117-8)

One of the main reasons why workers and peasants clung to religion was because it enabled them to escape from “the wretched situation to which they find themselves fatally condemned by the economic organization of society in the most civilized countries of Europe.” They were “reduced, intellectually and morally as well as materially, to the minimum of human existence, confined in their life like a prisoner in his prison, without horizon, without outlet, without even a future.” (Bakunin 1973, 118) Religious people should therefore not be blindly attacked but empathized with since their belief in God was grounded in “a deep discontent at heart” and “the instinctive and passionate protest of the human being against the narrownesses, the platitudes, the sorrows, and the shames of a wretched existence.” (Bakunin 1973, 123)

Bakunin was nonetheless an anti-theist who advocated the abolition of religion. In so doing he was not arguing that people should be forced to be atheists. In 1872 he advocated “the most profound and sincere respect for the freedom of conscience of all” and “the sacred right of all to propagate their ideas”. This of course also included his right to “attack the divine idea in its every manifestation – religious, metaphysical, political and juridical”. (Bakunin 2016, 218) Nor did Bakunin think that the socialist movement should exclude believers in God. He explicitly argued that the 1st International should not be officially committed to atheism because it had to attract the millions of workers who believe in God in order to become a genuine mass movement capable of overthrowing capitalism and the state. (Bakunin 2016, 211)

Bakunin instead held that the abolition of religion could only occur through transforming society as a whole because what people thought was a product of their daily experiences and the social structures they were a part of or effected by. He wrote, “thinking flows from life, and to modify thinking, one must transform life. Give a people a broad and humane life and it will astound you by the profound rationalism of its ideas.” (Bakunin 2016, 14) Given this, Bakunin argued that the abolition of religion could only be achieved by a social revolution which abolished capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. (Bakunin 1973, 123)

This is what Bakunin thought but what should we as modern anarchists make of Bakunin’s views on religion? I myself am an atheist and have been my entire life but I think Bakunin makes too strong a case. Religion does regularly coincide with authoritarianism but it can also result in emancipatory politics, as can be seen in the history of liberation theology in Latin America or, to give an earlier example, the true levelers in England who used the bible to advocate the abolition of class society in the 17th century hundreds of years before the anarchist movement even emerged. Nor am I convinced that religion would be abolished after a social revolution. This is because even under an anarchist society where suffering was greatly reduced people would still be drawn to religion in response to the inescapable suffering of human existence, such as death, heartbreak, and existential terror.


Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts: 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Beyond the Bread Book

One of the main texts anarchists recommend to newcomers wanting to learn about anarchism is the Conquest of Bread by Kropotkin. Its itself become a massive meme. People refer to it as the bread book and reading it as being bread pilled. Bread tube is itself named in honour of Kropotkin’s book. Someone even made this amazing website for the book.

There’s a lot of love for Kropotkin and I understand why. He talks about the expropriation of the ruling classes and looks like Santa. What’s not to like? I’m myself a big Kropotkin fan and think the Conquest of Bread is one of his best books. But despite this I don’t think it should be the first thing we tell newcomers to anarchism to read. The Conquest of Bread was never meant to be a straight forward introduction to anarchism. It instead is an attempt to persuade readers that an anarcho-communist society is desirable and could be feasibly created during and immediately after a social revolution given the available technology at the time. It is an attempt to explain what an anarcho-communist social revolution would look like and the kinds of problems it will have to overcome if it is to be successful, such as organising food production. In effect Kropotkin is outlining what he thinks a successful Paris Commune would look like.

The Conquest of Bread was first published in 1892 in French and then translated into English in 1906. It was based on articles which were originally published in the anarchist paper Le Révolté after Kropotkin’s release from prison in 1886. As a result, there are lots of important aspects of anarchism Kropotkin doesn’t talk about in the book and if he does only briefly. The reason why is that Kropotkin assumes someone who reads these articles in Le Révolté will also read the other articles he wrote for the paper or which were published as separate pamphlets.

Modern readers aren’t aware of this context and so can easily misunderstand the Conquest of Bread due to reading it in isolation and without any background knowledge about 19th century anarchist and socialist theory. For example, people can assume from only reading it that Kropotkin thinks a revolution will spontaneously come out of nowhere and people will just automatically know how to organise effectively. But if you’d read Kropotkin’s other articles from the 1880s you’d know he doesn’t think this. Kropotkin instead held a revolution would emerge out of a prior evolutionary phase during which workers were transformed through their experiences of direct struggle against capital within trade unions and that, given this, anarchists should focus on participating within the trade union movement in order to spread anarchist values, goals and strategy.

This can be seen in a series of articles Kropotkin wrote for Le Révolté in 1881. According to Kropotkin anarchists do “not expect that the day of the revolution will simply fall from the sky”. Anarchists instead hold that “only by means of repeated acts of war, undertaken daily and at every opportunity” can “one prepare for the decisive battle” and “victory over capital”. To this end they must focus on “creating a vast workers’ organisation” which will become “a powerful force” and “on the day of the revolution, impose its will upon exploiters of every sort”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305-6, 311)

Kropotkin made this point again and again. He wrote that,

We have to organise the workers’ force – not to make them into a fourth party in Parliament, but in order to make them a formidable MACHINE OF STRUGGLE AGAINST CAPITAL. We have to group workers of all trades under this single purpose: “War on capitalist exploitation!” And we must prosecute that war relentlessly, day by day, by the strike, by agitation, by every revolutionary means.

And once we have worked on such organisation over two or three years, once the workers of every land have seen that organisation at work, taking the workers’ interests into its hands, waging unrelenting war on capital, castigating the employer at every opportunity; once the workers from every trade, from village and city alike, are united into a single union, inspired by an identical idea, that of destroying capital, and by an identical hatred, hatred of the exploiters – then, separation of bourgeoisie and worker being complete, we can be sure that it is on his own account that the worker will throw himself into the Revolution. Then, but only then, will he emerge from it victorious, having crushed the tyranny of Capital and State for good. (ibid, 294-5)

If you want to go beyond the bread book and learn more about what Kropotkin thought about revolutionary strategy I highly recommend you read the Kropotkin anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital. If you want to learn about Kropotkin’s analysis of the state and his critique of state socialism read the latest AK press edition of Modern Science and Anarchy.

You might now be thinking so if the Conquest of Bread isn’t an ideal introduction to anarchism what is? In my opinion the best two historic texts to read in order to learn about anarchism are Malatesta’s 1899 anarchist programme followed by his 1891 pamphlet anarchy. Both are in the method of freedom anthology. The reason why I recommend these texts is because they give a modern reader a very clear understanding of what anarchism is, why anarchists want to abolish capitalism and the state, what anarchism aims for and in-depth theory on how to bring about social change. They in addition have the benefit of being very clearly written and very short. Malatesta’s anarchist programme is only 14 pages and his pamphlet anarchy is only 39 pages. Compare that to the Conquest of Bread which is 195 pages and contains lots of stuff that feels very irrelevant to a modern reader such as Kropotkin talking about how amazing green houses and dish washers are.

What I’m trying to say is that although Malatesta’s beard was inferior to Kropotkin’s his work makes for a better introduction to anarchism, especially for an over-worked tired worker whose attention span has been ruined by spending too much time online with a ridiculous number of tabs open.


Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

August Reinsdorf – The Unsuccessful Anarchist Terrorist

One of the most unsuccessful terrorists in history is the German anarchist August Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf’s first plot was to dig a tunnel under the Reichstag, plant explosives at the buildings few supports and ignite them while the Reichstag was in session. Reinsdorf made the mistake of explaining his plan in a letter dated September 1st 1880 to his associate Johann Most, a German anarchist who at the time lived in London and edited the anarchist journal Freiheit. Oskar Neumann, a spy living in London, heard of the plan and subsequently informed the Berlin police. Reinsdorf was arrested on the 14th November while carrying a long dagger near the home of the Berlin chief of police, Guido von Madai, who he likely planned to assassinate. (Carlson 1972, 285)

Despite this initial failure Reinsdorf decided to undergo a second attempt at blowing up Germany’s ruling classes. As he explained in an 1882 letter to an American comrade only the bomb could “inject the whole bourgeoisie and their slaves with total terror” and achieve “complete and utter revenge” “for all the dirty tricks and atrocities” they committed. (Quoted in Linse 1982, 210) This time Reinsdorf and his associates in the town of Elberfeld planned to use dynamite to kill Wilhelm I, alongside many other key members of the German ruling classes, at the inauguration of the Niederwald Monument on the 28th September 1883.

Due to a sprained ankle Reinsdorf was unable to go himself and two of his associates, the saddler Franz Rupsch and the compositor Emil Küchler, went in his place. The day before the event they concealed the dynamite in a drainage pipe which lay underneath the only road leading to the monument and attached a fuse that they led to a nearby tree. The next day Küchler saw the Emperor’s party approaching and gave the signal to Rupsch to ignite the fuse. The fuse, however, failed to burn as it was soaking wet after a night of heavy rain fall. Küchler had been instructed by Reinsdorf to buy a waterproof fuse but had decided to purchase the slightly cheaper normal fuse instead.

After their initial failure Rupsch and Küchler decided to make a second attempt. They moved the dynamite to the nearby town of Rüdesheim and placed the explosives against a wall of the Festhalle where an evening concert was being given. Unknown to them the hall was full of local civilians with the Emperor and his party having gone to the city of Wiesbaden. They ignited the dynamite which blew a hole in the wall of the kitchen. The explosion shattered glass and blew food and wine across the kitchen into the caterer Porsberger. The explosion was so loud that the bartender Johann Lauter was unable to hear for several hours. Fortunately, nobody was killed by the explosion. Realising their total failure Rupsch and Küchler returned to Elberfeld.

On the 29th October an explosion severely damaged the Frankfurt Police Headquarters, which was unoccupied at the time. In reaction the police, despite lacking evidence, arrested Reinsdorf in January and his associates over the course of the next few months in connection with this attack. By December Reinsdorf and his group were on trial for the attempted assassination of the Emperor in Nielderwald and the following bombing of the Festhalle in Rüdesheim, the news of the plot having been publicly announced on the 24th April 1884. It turned out that one of Reinsdorf’s associates, the weaver Carl Palm who had donated 40 marks towards Rupsch and Küchler’s travel expenses, was in fact a police spy and had been informing on the group from the very beginning.

During the trial Reinsdorf actively sought to become an anarchist martyr and went to great lengths to antagonize the jury. He claimed that “the quickest death” was best for a “hunted proletarian” like himself and that if he had ten heads he would gladly lay them all on the block for the cause of anarchism. He went so far as to exclaim that “[t]he people will one day have enough dynamite to blow up all of you and every other member of the bourgeois.” In uttering these words Reinsdorf was trying very hard to secure an execution. The reason being that he was terminally ill and would die anyway. His choice was between a slow death in a hospital bed or a quick death on the executioner’s block. As he said in his last letter to his parents, “Sick as I am, and with a prospect of long suffering, it should be looked upon as a blessing when such an existence is put to a quick death.”

On the morning of February 7th 1885 Reinsdorf and Küchler were executed, with Rupsch having had his death sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. Reinsdorf’s last words before he was decapitated were “I die for humanity, down with barbarism, long live anarchism.” The last words of Küchler, in contrast, were “I die an innocent man, my poor wife, my poor children.” As he said children his head was cut off. The execution lasted a mere fifteen minutes. (Carlson 1972, 288-301)

Although many may wish to consider Reinsdorf an anarchist martyr it should be kept in mind that his plots caused a significant amount of harm to the German socialist movement. Bismarck deliberately ensured that Reinsdorf’s assassination plot against the Emperor was revealed just as the anti-socialist laws, which banned socialists from organising, outlawed trade unions, and shut down socialist newspapers, were up for renewal. The laws were consequently extended in May 1884. (Carlson 1972, 293) Nor did Reinsdorf personally adhere to anarchist principles since he was caught raping a ten year old girl in 1881. After running away from the police and going into hiding he was eventually ruled innocent by a judge because the witnesses, the victim and her mother, were deemed to be unreliable. Reinsdorf is therefore one among many men on the left who has gotten away with sexual violence because women are not believed. (ibid, 286)


Carlson, Andrew. 1972. Anarchism in Germany, Volume 1: The Early Movement. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Linse, Ulrich. 1982. “‘Propaganda by Deed’ and ‘Direct Action’: Two Concepts of Anarchist Violence”. In Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth and Twentieth century Europe, edited by Wolfgang J Mommson and Gerhard Hirschfeld, 201-229. London: The Macmillan Press.

What Do Anarchists Think About Animal Liberation?

Anarchism aims for a society free from oppression and domination. These values have in turn led many anarchists to become vegetarians and vegans, or, at the very least, advocate improved animal welfare. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, for example, claimed that “civilized man . . . will extend his principles of solidarity to the whole human race, and even to the animals.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 136) This view was most consistently and fully articulated by the French anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, who wrote against the oppression of animals by humans as early as 1896 and 1901.

For Reclus, meat eating rests on a simultaneous process of violence against and degradation of non-human animals. He writes,

Today’s domestication of animals exhibits in many ways moral regression since, far from improving animals, we have deformed and corrupted them. Although through selective breeding we have improved qualities such as strength, dexterity, scent, and speed in racing, as meat-eaters our major preoccupation has been to increase the bulk of meat and fat on four legs to provide walking storehouses of flesh that hobble from the manure pile to the slaughterhouse. Can we really say that the pig is superior to the wild boar or the timid sheep to the courageous mouflon? The great art of breeders is to castrate their animals and create sterile hybrids. They train horses with the bit, whip, and spur, and then complain that the animals show no initiative. Even when they domesticate animals under the best possible conditions, they reduce their resistance to disease and ability to adapt to new environments, turning them into artificial beings incapable of living spontaneously in free nature.

Such degradation of species is itself a great evil, but civilized science goes even further and sets about exterminating them. We have seen how many birds have been wiped out by European hunters in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and the polar archipelagos, and how many walruses and other cetaceans have already disappeared! The whale has fled the waters of the temperate zone, and soon will not even be found among the ice shields of the Arctic Ocean. All the large land animals are similarly threatened. We already know the fate of the aurochs and the bison, and we can foresee that of the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, and the elephant. (Reclus 2013, 134-5)

This mistreatment of other animals is itself symptomatic of how people destroy the natural environment in order to meet their own ends. Reclus writes,

Isn’t this moreover the way that we act in relation to all of nature? Let loose a pack of engineers in a charming valley, in the midst of meadows and trees, or on the banks of a beautiful river, and you will soon see what they are capable of doing to it. They will do everything in their power to make their own work conspicuous and hide nature under piles of gravel and coal. They will be quite proud to see the sky crisscrossed by streaks of filthy yellowish or black smoke from their locomotives. (ibid, 158)

The violent and non-caring treatment of non-human animals in turn acts as a foundation for violence against fellow humans. Reclus asks how Europeans who committed atrocities when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China came to be “wild beasts with human faces who take pleasure in tying Chinese people together by their clothing and pigtails and then throwing them into a river? How is [it] possible for them to finish off the wounded and force prisoners to dig their own graves before shooting them?” (ibid, 158-9) Reclus replied,

But isn’t there a direct causal relationship between the food eaten by these executioners, who call themselves “civilizers,” and their brutal deeds? They often praise bloody flesh as a source of health, strength, and intelligence. And without disgust they go into butcher shops with slippery reddish pavement and breathe the sickly sweet odor of blood! How much difference is there between the dead carcass of a cow and that of a man? Their severed limbs and entrails mixed in with one another look quite similar. The slaughter of the former facilitates the murder of the latter, especially when an order resounds from a superior, or when one hears from afar the words of his royal master, ‘Show no mercy!’ (ibid, 159)

For Reclus,

It is in no way a digression to mention the horrors of war in connection with massacres of cattle and carnivorous banquets. People’s diet corresponds closely to their morality. Blood calls for blood. (ibid, 159)

The murder of non-whites by Europeans rested, according to Reclus, on the same kind of thinking that underlies meat eating culture, such as the notion that it is wrong to kill cats but ok to kill pigs. The morality of white supremacy,

holds that there are two laws for mankind, one law for those with yellow skin and another law that is the prerogative of the whites. Apparently in the future it will be permissible to kill or torture the former, while it will still be wrong to do so to the latter. But isn’t morality equally flexible when applied to animals? By goading dogs on to tear a fox to pieces, the gentlemen learns how to send his marksmen after the fleeing Chinese. The two kinds of hunt are part of one and the same ‘sport,’. (ibid, 159)

To overcome forms of sectarianism such as nationalism or racism humans must come to view one another as part of an international human family. As Reclus writes, “[e]ach individual must be able to address any of his peers in complete brotherhood”. (ibid, 231) Likewise humans should come to consider non-human animals as part of an extended family composed of all living things. We should come to understand that what we are taught to consider “meat on feet” in fact “loves as we do” and “feels as we do”. For the vegetarian,

the real concern is to recognize the bonds of affection and kindness that link man to animals. . . The horse and the cow, the wild rabbit and the cat, the deer and the hare – these are more valuable to us as friends than as meat. We are eager to have them either as respected fellow workers, or simply as companions in the joy of living and loving. (Ibid, 160)

Or as Reclus says elsewhere, vegetarians seek to make other animals “neither our servants nor our machines, but rather our true companions. (ibid, 136) Coming to view other animals as friends rather than food is merely an expansion of what humans already do with their favourite animals. Reclus writes,

just as there are many carnivores today who refuse to eat the flesh of man’s noble companion, the horse, or that of those pampered guests in our homes, the dog and the cat – in the same way it is repugnant to us to drink the blood of the steer, an animal whose labour helps supply us with bread. We no longer want to hear the bleating of sheep, the bellowing of cows, or the grunts and piercing cries of pigs as they are led to the slaughterhouse. (ibid, 161)

The process of coming to treat other animals as friends rests on nourishing, rather than destroying, the natural environment that we share with all other life forms. Reclus writes that we must “develop the part of the earth that falls to us so as to make it as pleasant as possible, not only for ourselves, but also for the animals of our household.” (ibid, 160) As Reclus wrote elsewhere,

To develop the continents, the seas, and the atmosphere that surrounds us; to “cultivate our garden” on earth; to rearrange and regulate the environment in order to promote each individual plant, animal, and human life; to become fully conscious of our human solidarity, forming one body with the planet itself; and to take a sweeping view of our origins, our present, our immediate goal, and our distant ideal – this is what progress means. (ibid, 233)


Kropotkin, Peter. 1993. Fugitive Writings. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Reclus, Elisée. 2013. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus. Edited by John Clark and Camille Martin. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Anarchism and Love

Something which doesn’t get enough attention is the role of love in anarchist politics. Love is a recurring theme in the writings of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta.

Firstly, love is integral to Malatesta’s vision of an anarchist society and so the goal which anarchists are struggling for. Malatesta claims that anarchists “seek the triumph of freedom and of love.” (Malatesta 2015, 60) He writes that anarchists “aim at the good of all, the elimination of all suffering and the extension of all the joys that can depend on human actions; we aim at the attainment of peace and love among all human beings; we aim at a new and better society, at a worthier and happier mankind.” (ibid, 15)

Malatesta argues that,

Since all the present ills of society have their origin in the struggle between men, in the seeking after well-being through one’s own efforts and for oneself and against everybody, we want to make amends, replacing hatred by love, competition by solidarity, the individual search for personal well-being by the fraternal cooperation for the well-being of all, oppression and imposition by liberty, the religious and pseudo-scientific lie by truth. (ibid, 19)

Secondly, Malatesta says that he is an anarchist because it furthers his desire for a society based on love. He writes,

I am an anarchist because it seems to me that anarchy would correspond better than any other way of social life, to my desire for the good of all, to my aspirations towards a society which reconciles the liberty of everyone with cooperation and love among men. (ibid, 18)

Thirdly, Malatesta argues that love is essential to anarchist politics because it is the emotion that motivates us to not oppress others and to act for the good of others. He writes,

By definition an anarchist is he who does not wish to be oppressed nor wishes to be himself an oppressor; who wants the greatest well-being, freedom and development for all human beings. His ideas, his wishes have their origin in a feeling of sympathy, love and respect for humanity: a feeling which must be sufficiently strong to induce him to want the well-being of others as much as his own, and to renounce those personal advantages, the achievement of which, would involve the sacrifice of others. If it were not so, why would he be the enemy of oppression and not seek to become himself an oppressor? (ibid, 16)

Malatesta makes this same point in more detail when he writes,

Apart from our ideas about the political State and government. . . and those on the best way to ensure for everybody free access to the means of production and enjoyment of the good things of life, we are anarchists because of a feeling which is the driving force for all sincere social reformers, and without which our anarchism would be either a lie or just nonsense. This feeling is the love of mankind, and the fact of sharing the sufferings of others. If I . . . eat I cannot enjoy what I am eating if I think that there are people dying of hunger; if I buy a toy for my child and am made happy by her pleasure, my happiness is soon embittered at seeing wide-eyed children standing by the shop window who could be made happy with a cheap toy but who cannot have it; if I am enjoying myself, my spirit is saddened as soon as I recall that there are unfortunate fellow beings languishing in jail; if I study, or do a job I enjoy doing, I feel remorse at the thought that there are so many brighter than I who are obliged to waste their lives on exhausting, often useless, or harmful tasks.

Clearly, pure egoism; others call it altruism, call it what you like; but without it, it is not possible to be real anarchists. Intolerance of oppression, the desire to be free and to be able to develop one’s personality to its full limits, is not enough to make one an anarchist. That aspiration towards unlimited freedom, if not tempered by a love for mankind and by the desire that all should enjoy equal freedom, may well create rebels who, if they are strong enough, soon become exploiters and tyrants, but never anarchists. (Ibid, 17)

Fourthly, Malatesta claims that love motivates anti-authoritarian people in general. He speaks of non-anarchists possessing an anarchist spirit, by which he means:

that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind. (ibid, 110)

From this I hope it’s clear that Malatesta loves love. As radicals we must remember that love isn’t the exclusive domain of hippies and ‘spiritual’ people. Love for 19th century radicals was primarily about building communism and we need to make love about communism again.


Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland CA: PM Press.

What Do Anarchists Think About Violence?

In the popular imagination anarchism is synonymous with violence. But what do anarchists actually think about violence? In this video I’ll be examining what the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who wrote during the late 19th and early 20th century, had to say about violence.

Malatesta held that the “main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations” (Malatesta 2015, 45) because violence is “the essence of every authoritarian system” (Malatesta 2014, 188). For example, Malatesta advocates the abolition of the state because it is in practice “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” (Malatesta 2014, 115) and so is based on the “coercive, violent organisation of society” (Malatesta 2015, 45). Malatesta likewise critiques capitalism because private property was historically established through “violence, robbery and theft, legal or illegal” (Malatesta 2005, 47), such as the English enclosure movement, and is still to this day protected by the violence of the legal system and the police.

If anarchism aims for a non-violent society then one might expect that Malatesta opposes violence completely. This is, however, not the case. Malatesta of course understands that a free non-violent society cannot be violently imposed on people. As he writes,

it would be ridiculous and contrary to our objectives to seek to impose freedom, love among men and the radical development of human faculties, by means of force. One must therefore rely on the free will of others, and all we can do is to provoke the development and the expression of the will of the people. (Malatesta 2014, 282-3)

But Malatesta is not naive and realizes that “those who benefit from existing privileges and who today dominate and control all social life” will oppose the creation of a free society “with brute force”. The ruling classes “have police forces, a judiciary, and armies created for the express purpose of defending their privileges; and they persecute, imprison, and massacre those who would want to abolish those privileges and who claim the means of life and liberty for everyone” (Malatesta 2014, 283) Not only is contemporary society “underpinned by force of arms”, it is also the case that “[n]o oppressed class has ever managed to emancipate itself without recourse to violence; the privileged classes have never surrendered a part, the tiniest fraction, of their privileges, except because of force or fear of force.” (Malatesta 2014, 201)

It is because of this that in order to achieve an anarchist society the masses must rise up and “get rid of the armed force which defends existing institutions”. This decision to engage in violent action “is not the result of our free choice, but is imposed upon us by necessity in the defence of unrecognized human rights which are thwarted by brute force.” (Malatesta 2014, 189) As Malatesta summarizes,

We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition. We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government. We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest. We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. (Malatesta 2015, 47)

In short, “violent revolt . . . [is] a factor of progress in a society based on violence . . . [and is] a necessary means of resolving the social question when the privileged have the guns on their side and are, as they demonstrate day by day, determined to use them.” (Malatesta 2016, 384)

For Malatesta, the violence of revolution is not only a necessity, but also moral, since “slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence” against “those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude.” (Malatesta 2015, 50, 49) Revolutionary violence must therefore not be ethically evaluated in the abstract, but instead be judged relative to the violence perpetuated by those institutions which revolutionaries seek to abolish. He writes that,

There is no doubt that the revolution will cause much misfortune, much suffering. But it might cause a hundred times more and it would still be a blessing compared to what we endure to-day. It is a well-known fact that in a single battle more people are killed than in the bloodiest of revolutions. It is a well-known fact that millions of children of tender age die every year for lack of care, that millions of workers die prematurely of the disease of poverty, that the immense majority of people lead shunted, joyless, and hopeless lives, that even the richest and most powerful are much less happy than they might be in a society of equals, and that this state of things has lasted from time immemorial. Without a revolution it would last indefinitely, whereas one single revolution which went right to the causes of the evil could put humanity for all time on the road to happiness. So let the revolution come! Every day that it delays means an enormous mass of suffering inflicted on mankind. (Malatesta 2014, 157-8)

Malatesta not only defended revolutionary violence but also critiqued three other main perspectives on violence which were held at the time. Firstly, Malatesta is opposed to the idea that we should be “opposed to all violence whatever, except in cases of personal defense against direct and immediate attack.” This is because doing so “would mean the renunciation of all revolutionary initiative, and the reserving of our blows for the petty, and often involuntary agents of the government, while leaving in peace the organizers of, and those chiefly benefited by, government and capitalist exploitation.” (Malatesta 2014, 187) In other words, if we should only engage in immediate self-defence then we should only use violence against the police or soldiers who are attacking us and not the members of the ruling classes who, while not personally attacking us with their bodies, do control the means of violence and have it deployed in their interests. Therefore,

as Anarchists, we cannot and we do not desire to employ violence, except in the defence of ourselves and others against oppression.  But we claim this right of defence – entire, real, and efficacious. That is, we wish to be able to go behind the material instrument which wounds us, and to attack the hand which wields the instrument, and the head which directs it. (Malatesta 2014, 189)

The second view on violence Malatesta rejects is strict pacifism. According to this view “we must endure oppression and degradation in our own cases and in those of others rather than do harm to the oppressor” and so not use “every available means to defend” ourselves or others. Malatesta is opposed to strict pacifism because someone who engages in it would “in practice and much against his will. . . be simply terrifically selfish. . . to let others suffer oppression without trying to come to their defence”, such as preferring to rather “see some class ground into misery, some people downtrodden by the invader, some man suffer trespass against his life and liberty . . . than that a hair on the head of the oppressor be harmed”. Therefore, “Tolstoyans . . . [are] those who would let the whole of humanity be ground down by the weight of the greatest suffering rather than trespass against a principle.” (Malatesta 2014, 203-4)

Against this highly abstract view of morality, Malatesta holds that our morals must be grounded in the actual conditions that we are acting in. He writes that “[t]he means we employ are those that circumstances make possible or necessary. It is true that we would prefer not to hurt a hair of anybody’s head; we would like to wipe away all tears and not to cause any to be shed.” (Malatesta 2014, 156-7) But we are unfortunately “forced to struggle in the world as we found it, on pains of remaining sterile dreamers, who leave untouched all the existing evils, and do good to no one, for fear of doing wrong to anyone.” (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 22)

The third view on violence Malatesta rejects is one in which violence is celebrated and transformed into an end in and of itself. Malatesta rejects “needless, harmful violence” because, “anarchists should not and cannot be avengers; they are liberators. We bear hatred towards none; we are not fighting to avenge ourselves or to avenge anyone else; we seek love towards all, liberty for all.” As a result,

let us have no unnecessary victims, not even in the enemy camp. The very purpose on behalf of which we struggle requires us to be kind and humane even in the heat of battle; so I fail to understand how one can fight for a purpose like ours without our being kindly and humane. And let us not forget that a liberating revolution cannot be born of massacre and terror, these having been – and ever so it shall remain – the midwives to tyranny. (Malatesta 2014, 203)

Instead of viewing violence as an end in and of itself anarchists “must be like the surgeon who cuts when he must but avoids causing needless suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 159) Given this, while Malatesta is in favour of violence when it is necessary, he does prefer “passive resistance” when it is an “effective weapon” because “it would be the most sparing one in terms of human suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 204)


Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Cafe. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

3 Reasons Why Radical Education Matters

I want to suggest three reasons why radical education matters.

The first reason emerges from the fact that we have all been and continue to be socialised by this society. Socialisation refers to the process whereby human beings learn the norms and values which exist in their society. When people speak of socialisation they often limit their discussion to the socialisation of children, such as children learning table manners or children learning to associate pink with girls and blue with boys. While the socialisation of children is really important, we should not act as if socialisation is only something which happens to children. The truth is that since we always live in society we never stop being socialised by our society. We are always being conditioned. For example, daily workplace experiences, listening to the news, seeing adverts, going shopping etc have an effect on our consciousness, whether we want to admit it or not. Likewise, sexism, racism, homophobia etc are not just things that we learn as children, but are rather constantly being taught to us as we go about our day. For example, Muslims being regularly depicted as terrorists on TV, in the news, and in films.

Radical education is therefore important because it equips people with the knowledge and tools that are needed to oppose this on-going socialisation. After all, if we’re constantly being socialised into harmful norms and values by this society, then unlearning what this society teaches us must be a never ending process. Prior to learning about socialism a person may watch a film in which unions are depicted as the enemy and allow this idea to drift unopposed into their mind. While once this person has learned about socialism they are able to see the ways in which the film contains pro-capitalist messages which attack working class people for resisting their oppression. Radical education, in short, enables people to engage in intellectual self-defence.

The second reason why radical education matters is that intellectual self-defence must occur not only at the level of opposing negative messages projected by others, but also at the level of one’s own thoughts. For example, a non-binary person may have constant mental arguments with themselves over whether or not they should be proud or ashamed of their gender identity. The knowledge that comes with reading feminist and queer theory will help such a non-binary person resist their tendency to hate themselves due to the internalisation of queerphobia. This will in turn help them learn to love themselves and to feel comfortable being who they are. Radical education in such situations is not then a purely academic or theoretical affair, but is instead necessary for survival and well-being.

The third reason why radical education matters is that learning theory enables people to change how they act towards others. For example, an able-bodied person learns that lots of people have disabilities which are not immediately obvious from looking at them, such as chronic fatigue or legg-calve perthes disease (which is what I have). This in turn stops the able-bodied person assuming that a person isn’t disabled if they’re not in a wheelchair or are not missing limbs. Or, to take a more class war example, a worker interacts with management differently after reading the communist manifesto. They no longer see a manager as just another worker, but instead view them as a class enemy whose institutional role is subordinating labour to the control of capital.

It is often the case that theory changes a person both internally and in terms of how they interact with others. For example, a women reads a feminist article on why women shouldn’t shave their body hair if they don’t want to. This not only leads them to stop shaving, but also helps them learn to stand up to men who tell them that they should shave their body hair. In so doing they are both resisting a given individual man and reclaiming their body as their own, rather than as something which exists purely for men to find sexually attractive, and thereby changing their own relationship with their body.

Forgotten Radicals: The Anarcha-Feminists of Women’s Voice

One of the depressing features of historic anarchist movements is insufficient attention being given to women’s emancipation. When attention was given, it often came in the form of not very good articles or pamphlets written about women’s emancipation by men, instead of by women. For example, a 1901 article published in ‘The Rebel’ states that “Woman should be free, completely free—to think, to work and to love, but always sheltered and safeguarded by man.” (Suriano 2010, 95) This often went alongside the view that the main role for women as revolutionaries was to be a radical housewife. Their task was to ensure that the home was a “coveted paradise of love, the charm of our ideals” and that children were taught to hate religion, nationalism, and the state and thereby prepared to be the revolutionaries of the future. (Ibid, p96) The patriarchal gendered division of labour remained, albeit in service to radical rather than bourgeois ends. While in theory anarchists were opposed to patriarchy, marriage, and the nuclear family, in practice such ideals were postponed till after the revolution. In the meantime, women were expected to accept their fate as victims of male domination.

Several women, unsurprisingly, reacted angrily to the sexism within the anarchist movement. One of the best examples is the Argentinian newspaper called ‘women’s voice’. The paper, which was written explicitly by and for women, held that women were the most oppressed in contemporary society because they faced the dual oppression of capitalism and patriarchy. The first issue of women’s voice was published January 8th, 1896. The newspaper ran for a year, released nine issues, and printed between 1,000 and 2,000 copies per issue. (Molyneux 1986, 132, 124, 130)

Women’s voice first editorial read,

fed up as we are with so many tears and so much misery; fed up with  the never ending drudgery of children (dear though they are); fed up with asking and begging; of being a plaything  for our infamous exploiters  or vile husbands, we have decided  to raise our voices in the concert of society and demand, yes, demand our bit of pleasure in the banquet of life. (Molyneux 1986, 126)

The response by the anarchist movement to the first issue ranged from praise, to silence, to hostility. (Molyneux 1986, 126). In the second issue, the editors of women’s voice responded to men critical of their paper in no uncertain terms. They wrote,

When we women, unworthy and ignorant as we are, took the initiative and published women’s voice, we should have known, Oh modern rogues, how you would respond with your old mechanistic philosophy to our initiative. You should have realized that we stupid women have initiative and that is the product of thought. You know-we also think . . . The first number of women’s voice appeared and of course, all hell broke loose: “Emancipate women?  For what?” “Emancipate women?  Not on your nelly!” . . . “Let our emancipation come first, and then, when we men are emancipated and free, we shall see about yours.” (Molyneux 1986, 128)

The writers of women’s voice proceeded to label sexist men who opposed women’s liberation as “false anarchists” who only wanted to have a “submissive compañera” at their side to raise their children, cook their food, and do their laundry. “To you,” they said, “a woman is nothing more than a pretty piece of furniture”. Such men “better understand once and for all that our mission is not reducible to raising your children and washing your clothes and that we also have a right to emancipate ourselves and to be free from all kinds of tutelage, whether economic or marital.” Perhaps best of all, the angry anarcha-feminists of women’s voice threatened to go to the homes of sexist anarchist men and reveal to their wife and family that they were “all a bunch of chickens and crabs who talk about freedom but only want it for themselves.” (Suriano 2010, 95)

This opposition to patriarchy, both within the movement and society at large, stemmed from the anti-authoritarianism of these women. As issue 4 of women’s voice phrases it, “We hate authority because we aspire to be human beings and not machines directed by the will of ‘another,’ be this authority, religion, or any other name.” A supporter of women’s voice aptly labelled authority by any other name when she signed herself, “No God, No Boss, No Husband.” (Molyneux 1986, 129)


Molyneux, Maxine. 1986. “No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina.” Latin American Perspectives, Issue 48, Vol.13, No.1, 119-145. (for summary see)

Suriano, Juan. 2010. Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Despair and Being Nice to Other Leftists

Something I’ve noticed a lot online is leftists treating other leftists terribly. I try to be nice to people online. I don’t of course always succeed. Some days I’m in a bad mood and I let it out on a random stranger whose wrong about the history of the Russian Revolution.

In my video ‘how should anarchists talk to liberals’ I argued that being nice to people online is important for actually having a worthwhile discussion and changing people’s minds. The likelihood that they’ll listen decreases in proportion to how much of a dickhead you’re being. But this isn’t the only reason.

Another reason is that existence is difficult, especially in as awful a society as ours. I don’t think my default setting in a social interaction should be to increase the difficulty of another person’s existence. This is only more true when dealing with a fellow leftist.

The reason for this is that when interacting with a fellow leftist you’re likely to be interacting with someone who cares as much as you do and experiences as much angst over the state of the world as you do.

I find that the knowledge that comes with being left wing results in a constant overwhelming sense of despair. The kind of despair that just gradually eats you alive. Each day you wake up and are confronted by a capitalist, racist, sexist, queer-phobic, authoritarian society. You walk around and see advertising everywhere. You overhear conversations between people whose ambition in life is advancing up a corporate job ladder or getting just the right t-shirt with just the right brand label.

You read the news and its just full of so much human suffering that you want to break down in tears. You want to cry not only because other humans are suffering, but also because of your own sense of powerlessness and inability to substantially decrease the amount of screams in the world.

This absolute terror only increases when you read a history book. You try to think positive and remind yourself that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Women are no longer the legal property of men. Homosexuality is no longer a crime punishable by death. But this knowledge of progress is incredibly bitter. Bitter because you are confronted by a past in which generation after generation of fellow humans, who were as aware and sensitive as you are, went through their lives under amounts of oppression that you just can’t fathom. You had to deal with school and authoritarian teachers. A black child in the 18th century had to deal with slavery and the constant fear that they’ll be torn from their family and sold to a distant plantation.

Your knowledge of the past and present brings with it a further burden. Its not just that you’re aware of how terrible things are, you’re also able to see through illusions and lies that other people just don’t notice. You’re aware that Great Britain was never great; that the Democrat Party isn’t going to save us; that human extinction is an imminent possibility and that using energy saving light bulbs and canvas bags isn’t going to stop the ice caps melting; that the racism of the police won’t be reformed away. But part of you wishes you were deluded, because the price of knowing is the inability to function.

Maybe this is just me. But I don’t think I’m alone. As a result, when I interact with another left wing person, I try to remind myself that perhaps existence is difficult enough already. I don’t need to make it worse by being a dickhead to someone and if I’m going to treat anybody right, it should be someone who shares my sense of despair and terror at living in a fundamentally hierarchical society based on domination, alienation, violence and death.