Bakunin and Proudhon / Authority and Anarchy


If (in the passage from God and the State discussed in the last post) Bakunin has not simply changed the meaning of the word “authority” from one paragraph to the next, as he moves from his general critique to his consideration of “the authority of the bootmaker,” then we presumably have a case in which authority must indeed be rejected when considered in general, but cannot be spurned or simply pushed away (repoussé) in the messy realm of practice, where the limits of our knowledge and the limitations of our animality confront us on a regular basis. We find ourselves forced to reject authority and not spurn it because these same limitations apply to all human beings. So we are forced to accept, however reluctantly, apparent authority on a temporary basis and we seek to limit the damage by seeking confirmation from other sources. That’s “life,” Bakunin tells us: alternating instances of command and subordination, imposed but never legitimated by our material conditions and offset as much as possible by the division and association of labors.

This should all really look quite familiar. Think of Proudhon’s developing thought on the question of property. Only a couple of years had passed after his declaration that “property is theft” when, in his Arguments to the Public Prosecutor of the Right of Property, he argued that the way to neutralize property was to generalize it. His mock-reassurance to the members of the jury is probably one of the funniest things he ever wrote:

I have only written one thing in my life, gentlemen jurors, and I will tell you that thing right away, so there is no question: Property is robbery. And do you know what I have concluded from that? In order to abolish that species of robbery, it is necessary to universalize it. I am, you see, gentlemen, as conservative as you; and whoever would tell you the contrary, would prove by that alone that they have understood nothing of my books, and, I would say, nothing of the things of this world.

And, of course, as we see so many places in his work, the answer to injustice is equal distribution and balance, even when it is a question of distributing and balancing potential evils:

Thus, profit, interest, the right of increase, property or suzerainty, is a usurpation, a theft, as Diderot said, more than a century ago, and yet society could live only with the aid of that theft, which will no longer be one, as soon as by the irresistible force of institutions it will become general, and which will cease completely when an integral education has rendered all the citizens equal in merit and in dignity.

The claim that “society could live only with the aid of that theft” should probably be read, in Bakunin’s language, as a recognition of conditions imposed by our individual limitations.

So, perhaps, rather than an instance of Bakunin’s sloppiness or a “legitimate” exception to our general anti-authoritarian stance, we are looking at a clue to something fundamental about the anarchist project. Anarchism is, after all, the ongoing and ever more rigorous application of an anti-authoritarian ideal to conditions that are anything but in harmony or sympathy to it. The question becomes: What does the advance of that project look like? How does we oppose authority in practical terms? Proudhon framed the project in terms of “the elimination of the absolute.” Now, the character of the absolute is that it does not mix and mingle, does not offer itself up for comparisons and second opinions, and encourages us to make the leap (in the terms we’ve been using here) from necessity to legitimacy. But the necessary is (in those terms) just the stuff we have to deal with, right here and right now. If we cannot simply push it away, without leaving the realm of good or common sense, we need not give it any power not imposed by very specific, generally transitory circumstances.

The anarchist project, then, would not be some doomed opposition to the inevitable, but a matter of knowing the very narrow limits of any particular inevitability. This is perhaps some of what Proudhon was getting at when, in the “Study on Ideas” in Justice, he said:

I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.

The various parts of this program are in large parts simply different sides of the same act. When we really “put each thing in its place,” the spell of the absolute is necessarily broken. As we identify that “place” in time and space, other times and spaces, other things, naturally emerge as alternatives. Anarchy emerges less in the form—or formlessness—of specific institutions, but in the practical application of a perspective that refuses to linger too long or grant too much significance to any of the things the world presents to us. And that restless perspective—something like Fourier’s papillon passion—is probably nothing more than a sane response to the real conditions of what Bakunin called our human animality.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.