Nettlau on Bakunin and syndicalism (1914)

Here Bakunin’s Socialism sets in with full strength: mental, personal, and social freedom to him are inseparable – Atheism, Anarchism, Socialism an organic unit. His Atheism is not that of an ordinary Freethinker, who may be an authoritarian and an anti-Socialist; nor is his Socialism that of an ordinary Socialist, who may be, and very often is, an authoritarian and a Christian; nor would his Anarchism ever deviate into the eccentricities of Tolstoi and Tucker. But each of these three ideas penetrates the other two an constitutes with them a living realisation of freedom, just as all our intellectual, political and social prejudices and evils descend from one common source – authority. Whoever reads “God and the State,” the best known of Bakunin’s many written expositions of these ideas, may discover that when the scales of religion fall from his eyes, at the same moment also the State will appear to him in it horrid hideousness, and anti-Statist Socialism will be the only way out. The thoroughness of Bakunin’s Socialist propaganda is, to my impression, unique.

From these remarks it may be gathered that I dissent from certain recent attempts to revindicate Bakunin almost exclusively as a Syndicalist. He was, at the time of the International, greatly interested in seeing the scattered masses of the workers combining into trade societies or sections of the International. Solidarity in the economic struggle was to be the only basis of working-class organization. He expressed the opinion that these organisations would spontaneously evolve into federated Socialist bodies, the natural basis of future society. This automatic evolution has been rightly contested by our Swiss comrade Bertoni. But did Bakunin really mean it when he sketched it out in his writings of elementary public propaganda? We must not forget that Bakunin – and here we touch on one of his shortcomings – seeing the backward dispositions of the great masses in his time, did not think it possible to propagate the whole of his ideas directly among the people. By insisting on purely economic organisation, he wished to protect the masses against the greedy politician who, under the cloak of Socialism, farms and exploits their electoral “power” in our age of progress! [[7]]

I say again: it is preposterous to think that Bakunin would have been a syndicalist and nothing else – but what he would have tried to make of Syndicalism, how he would have tried to group these and many other materials of revolt and to lead them to action, this my imagination cannot sketch out, but I feel that things would have gone otherwise, and the capitalists would sleep less quietly. I am no admirer of personalities, and have many faults to find with Bakunin also on other grounds; but this I feel, that where he was rebellion grew round him, whilst to-day, with such splendid material, rebellion is nowhere. South Africa, Colorado, are ever so hopeful events; but think what a Bakunin would have made of them – and then we can measure the value of this man in the struggle for freedom. [[11]]

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Max Nettalu, “Michael Bakunin” in Writings on Bakunin (London: Carl Slienger, 1976), pp 7, 11.

The book’s notes indicate that the essay was originally published in Freedom, June 1914.

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