God and the State (continuation)







[Liberty (UK) May, 1894]


During the time of his staying in Marseilles in October 1870 until his departure from Locarno to the Jura in April 1871, Bakunin and wrote a long, though not finished, book, the first part of which was published in July 1871 as “L’Empire Knoutogermaique et la Révolution Sociale;” of the second part, “Sophismes historique de l’école des Communistes allemandes,” only a few pages were printed but not published: this part was rewritten at the end of 1872 and I published a few extracts from it in the “Lotta sociale,” of Milan (January 1894). Of the remaining parts of the MS. a fragment was published in 1882, entitled (by the editors) “Dieu et l’Etat” (God and the State), from the continuation of the MS. of this fragment the translation of some extracts will be given here.


Bakunin exposes and criticizes that link from the system of doctrinal deism and bourgeois liberalism which holds these opinions on the function of the State: “The State, then, imposes itself on everybody as the sole representative of the Well-being, the Salvation, the Justice of all. It limits the freedom of everybody in the name of the freedom of all, the right of everybody in the name of the right of all, the individual interests of everybody in the name of the collective interest of the whole of society,”—to which Bakunin remarks:


In the name of this fiction which is called collective interest, collective right or collective will, collective liberty the Jacobin absolutists, the revolutionists of J. J. Rousseau’s and Robespierre’s school proclaim being human doctrine of the absolute right of the State, whilst the monarchist absolutists found this doctrine with much more consequent logic on the grace of God. The liberal doctrinaires, at any rate those among them who are in earnest about the liberal theories, starting from the principle of individual liberty posed at the beginning, as we know, as opponents to the principle of the State. They were the first who said that Government, that is the body of functionaries organized in one way or another and especially charged with exercising the action of the State, was a necessary evil and that all civilization consisted in diminishing more and more its attributes and rights. But in reality, whenever the existence of the State is seriously at stake, we see the liberal doctrinaires show themselves not less fanatical partisans of the absolute right of the State as the monarchist and Jacobin absolutists.

Their cult of the state by every means, which is, at any rate apparently, so much opposed to their liberal ideas, has a twofold explication: first the practical one, by the interests of their class, since the immense majority of the liberal doctrinaires are bourgeois. This so numerous and so respectable class would demand nothing better than the right or rather the privilege of the most complete anarchy for itself; all its social economy, the real basis of its political existence, is based on that single law formulating this anarchy in the words which have become so famous: Laissez-faire et laissez passer. But it likes this anarchy only for itself, under the condition only that the masses which are “too ignorant to use it without abusing it” should be kept in submission to the most severe discipline exerted over them by the State. For if the masses, tired of working for others, should revolt, all the political and social existence of the bourgeoisie would fall to pieces. Thus we see always and everywhere that, when the masses of the workers begin to move, the most exalted bourgeois liberals at once become again partisans of State omnipotence. And since the masses of the people begin to stir today like a growing and chronic evil, we see that the liberal bourgeois, even in the freest countries, become more and more converted to the cult of absolute power.

Besides this practical reason there is another of an eminently theoretical character which in equal degrees forces back the most sincere liberals to the cult of the State. They are and call themselves liberals because they take individual liberty as the basis and starting point of their theory, and precisely because they start from this basis; they must end, as a fatal consequence, by acknowledging the absolute right of the State.

Individual liberty, according to them, is not a creation, a historical product of society. They pretend that it precedes every society and that every man brings it with him, when he is born, like his immortal soul, as a divine gift. Hence it results that man is significant, nay that he is himself, a complete and, in some way, absolute being, only as apart from society. Being himself, originally and apart from society a free being he forms society, by a voluntary act and by a sort of contract, which may be either instinctive or tacit, or a product of reflection, and formulating. In short, according to this theory, individuals are not the product of society but they, on the contrary, create it, driven by some outside necessity like work and war.

It is evident that, from the standpoint of this theory, society, properly speaking, does not exist; the natural state of human society, the starting point of all human civilization, the only medium in which human individuality and liberty really can develop themselves is perfectly ignored by this theory. On the one hand it recognizes only individuals existing by themselves and free by themselves, and on the other hand, this conventional society, arbitrarily formed by these individuals and based on a formal or tacit contract; that is, the State. (They know perfectly well that no historical State was ever founded on a contract, but that all were formed by violence, by conquest. But this fiction of a free contract as the basis of the State is necessary for their theory, and they adopt it without further ceremony.)

From the standpoint of this theory, the human individuals who, thus massed by convention, form the State, appear very strange beings full of contradictions. Endowed each of them with an immortal soul and inherent liberty or free will, they are on the one hand, infinite, absolute and, as such, within themselves, by themselves, complete beings, self sufficient and in no need of anybody; strictly speaking not even of God; because as immortal and infinite beings they are gods themselves. On the other hand, they are being brutally material, feeble, imperfect, limited and absolutely dependent on nature outside of them, which brings them into existence, keeps them and takes them away sooner or later. Considered from the first standpoint they require so little society that the latter appears rather as an obstacle to the full exercise of their existence, to their perfect liberty. And so we saw, since the beginning of Christianism, saint and austere men who were in earnest about the immortality and salvation of their souls, break off all their social relations and keep away from intercourse with men, trying to find in solitude perfection, virtue, God. They quite reasonably and logically regarded society as a source of corruption and the complete isolation of the soul as the condition of all virtues. If they sometimes left their solitude it was never done of a necessity, but of generosity, by Christian charity towards those who continued to get corrupted in society, who needed their advice, their prayers and their direction. They always did so to save others, never to save and perfect themselves. On the contrary they risked ruining their souls by re-entering this society from which they had escaped the horror, as from the school of every kind of corruption; and once their sacred work was achieved, they returned as soon as possible to their desert, to become perfect again by incessant contemplation of their own individuality, their solitary soul, in the sole presence of God.

All who today still believe in the immortality of the soul, in innate liberty or free will, should follow their example if they desire to save their souls and to prepare them properly for eternal life. I repeat once more, the anchorite Saints who, by isolation, mostly became complete imbeciles, were perfectly logical. Once there exists an immortal soul, that is a soul infinite, free and by itself,—it must suffice to itself. Only transient, limited and finite beings can complete themselves mutually; the infinite is not to be completed. On the contrary, if the infinite meets anything outside itself, it feels curtained; hence it must escape from, and ignore all that is not itself. Strictly speaking, I have said, the immortal soul could go on without God himself. A being which is infinite in itself, cannot recognize another as its equal, still less a superior being above. All such beings, equally infinite and not itself, would put a limit upon it, and, in consequence, would make it a determined and finite being. For the infinite is only infinite if it embraces all and leaves nothing outside of itself. With still greater reason an infinite being cannot, must not recognize a superior infinite being. Infinity admits nothing relative, nothing comparative; the words, “superior” and “inferior” infinity, then, are absurd. God is precisely this absurdity. Theology which has the privilege of being absurd and believes in things precisely because these things are absurd, puts above the immortal,—and, hence, infinite, human souls—the superior infinity of God. But to correct itself, it has created the fiction of Satan who represents precisely the revolt of an infinite being against the existence of an absolute infinity, against God. And likewise, as Satan revolted against the superior infinity of God, the anchorite Saints of Christianity, too humble to revolt against God, revolted against the equal infinity of men, against society.

They declared with much reason, that they required as salvation, and that, since by a strange fatality they were fallen infinites, the society of God, their contemplation of themselves in the presence of this absolute infinity was sufficient for them.

And I declare once more, all who believe in the immortality of the soul ought to follow their example. From this standpoint, society offers nothing but perdition. What, indeed, des it give to men? Material riches, before all, which can be produced in sufficient quantities only by collective labor. But for him who believes in an eternal existence ought these riches not be an object of contempt? Did not Jesus Christ say to his disciples: Do not gather wealth on this earth, for where you wealth is, there is your heart, and again; a big cord (or, in another version, a camel) will more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man will enter the kingdom of heaven. (I always think of the face of the pious and rich protestant bourgeois of England, America, Germany and Switzerland when they read these passages, so decisive and so disagreeable for them.)

To be continued.


[June 1894]


Jesus Christ is right; but conception of material riches on the salvation of the mortal souls are absolutely incompatible with each other. And if one really believes in the immortality of the soul, is it not better for him to announce the comfort and luxuries which society offers and to live up on routes is the anchorites did, and bus to save his soul for eternity, going to lose it or some dozens of years of material enjoyment. This calculation is so simple, so evidently right, but we are forced to think the pious and Rich was law, bankers, manufacturers, traders who are so extremely successful in business by the means we know Andrew at the same time always something the words of the Gospels, do not at all wrecking up on the immortality of the soul for themselves and generously abandon next to the proletariat, while sleigh humbly reserve for themselves this miserable material wealth which they accumulate Europe on earth.

Beside material wealth, what else does society gives? Carnal, human, earthly affections; civilization, And culture of the mind: all of which things are immense from the point of view of a passing an earthly humanity, which are is nothing in the face of eternity, immortality, God. Is not the greatest human folly before God?

A legend of the Eastern Church tells us of two anchorite saints, who, by voluntary isolation for some decades on a desert island, keeping apart even from one another and passing day and night in contemplation in prayer, finally arrived at the point of losing even the faculty of language; of all their former vocabulary they had only retained three or four words which, put together, had no meaning at all, but which nevertheless expressed before God, the highest aspiration of their souls. Of course they lived on roots like herbivorous animals. From the human standpoint these two men were idiots or fools; but from the divine standpoint—that of belief in the immortality of the soul—they were far deeper calculators that Galileo or Newton. For they sacrificed a few dozen years of earthly prosperity and secular spirit, to win eternal happiness and the divine spirit.

It is therefore evident that man, if endowed with an immortal soul, and with infinity and liberty inherent in this soul, is an eminently anti–social being. And if he had always been wise enough to despise all secular good things, feelings, and vanities, concerning himself exclusively with eternity, he should have never abandoned the state of divine innocence or idiocy,* would never have formed societies. In a word, Adam and Eve should never have eaten the fruit of the tree of science, and we should all have lived like beasts in this earthly paradise which God had chosen for their abode. But when once man wanted to know, to become civilized, and humanized, to think, to speak, and to use the material wealth around them, they had necessarily to leave their state of isolation and to form society. For in the measure of their proportions as they are within themselves infinite, immortal, free, are they externally limited, mortal, feeble, and dependent on the outside world.

The mass of mankind, regarded from the standpoint of their earthly existence—that is, their real and not merely fictitious existence—present such a degraded spectacle, such a melancholy want of initiative, wheel, or spirit, that surely one must possess a great capacity for illusion to discover in them any immortal soul, or the shadow of any free will whatever. They appear before us as beings absolutely and fatally determined; determined above all by external nature, by the configuration of the soil and all material conditions of their existence; determined also by innumerable political, religious, and social relations; by customs, habits, laws, a whole world of prejudices or ideas which are the slow product of past centuries, and which men find before them when born into a society in which they are meanwhile, never the creators, being at first the products, later the instruments. Among a thousand men, hardly one will be found of whom speaking from a relative and not an absolute standpoint, it may be said that he wills and thinks for himself. The immense majority of men, not only among the ignorant masses, but equally among the educated and privileged have no aims and ideas than the aims and ideas of those around them. They no doubt believe that they have a will and ideas of their own, yet they only repeat in a servile, routine way, and with quite imperceptible and insignificant modifications, the ideas and intentions of others. This servility, this routine—inexhaustible source of commonplace—this absence of all revolt in the will and of initiative in the ideas of the people, are the principal causes of the deplorable slowness of mankind’s historical development.

To us materialists or realists, who do not believe in the immortality of the soul nor in free will, the slowness, however disappointing it may be, appears a quite natural fact. Starting from the state of the gorilla, man arrives with difficulty at consciousness of his own humanity and at realization of his own liberty. At the beginning, he cannot be possessed of this consciousness, nor this liberty. Born as a wild and enslaved animal, he humanizes and emancipates himself by degrees, and only in society, which necessarily exists prior to the genesis of his ideas, language and will. He achieves his progressive humanization and enfranchisement only by means of the collective efforts of all past and present members of the society, which forms henceforward the basis and natural starting point of his human existence. Hence it follows that man realizes his individual freedom or his personality only by completing himself through all the individuals who surround him, all being due to the work and the collective power of society, apart from which man would doubtless have remained the most stupid and the most miserable of all the wild creatures existing on this globe. According to the materialist system (which is the only natural and logical system), society, far from diminishing and limiting the freedom of the individual, creates that freedom. Society is the root; and the tree, with liberty as its fruit, is the result. It follows that man must look for his freedom at the end rather than at the beginning of history; and we may say that the real and complete emancipation of all human beings is the true and great aim, the supreme goal of history.

The standpoint of the idealists is quite different. According to their system man is produced at the beginning as an immortal, and free being, and he ends by becoming a slave. As an immortal and free spirit, infinite and complete within himself, he does not need society. Hence it follows that if he forms society he only does so by a sort of degeneration, or because he forgets and loses consciousness of his immortality and his freedom. As a contradictory being—within, an infinite spirit, but externally dependent, deficient and material—he is forced into association, not for the needs of his soul but for the preservation of his body. It amounts to real degradation and enslavement of the individual, who is within himself immortal and free, renunciation of, at any rate, a part of his personal freedom.

Well known is the sacred phraseology which in the cant of all partisans of the State and of law, expresses this degradation and this sacrifice, this first step towards human slavery. The individual who possessed complete freedom in his natural state, this is, before having become a member of society, sacrifices a part of this freedom on entering society in order that society should guarantee to him his use of what remains of it. To those who demand an explanation of this phrase, a retort is usually made by another phrase:—“The freedom of every human being must have no other limits than the freedom of all other individuals.”

Apparently nothing fairer could be said. And yet this theory contains in germ the whole theory of despotism. According to the fundamental idea of all schools of idealists and in opposition to the real facts, man appears as an entirely free being, so long, and only so long as he remains apart from society. Hence it follows that society considered and understood solely as a juridical and political society, that is as the State, is the negation of Liberty. This is the outcome of idealism, and we see that it is quite opposed to the deductions of materialism, which in accordance with real facts derives the freedom of individual men in society as a necessary consequence of the collective development of humanity.

The materialist, realist, and collectivist definition of liberty, which is quite opposed to that of the idealists, is this:—man becomes man and becomes conscious of and realizes his humanity only in society and only by the collective action of the whole of society. He emancipates himself from the yoke of outside nature, only by collective or social labor, which alone is able to transform the surface of the globe into an abode propitious to human developments. And without this material emancipation there can be no intellectual or moral emancipation for anybody. Man can only emancipate himself from the yoke of his own nature—that is, he can only subordinate the instincts and movements of hi own body to the direction of his mind, which becomes more and more developed, by education and instruction, both of which are eminently exclusively social matter; for apart from society man would have remained always a wild beast or a saint, both of which expressions mean nearly the same. Finally, the isolated man cannot be conscious of his liberty. To be free for a man, means other men around him. Liberty, then, is not a matter of isolation, but of reciprocity; not of exclusion, but on the contrary, of combination, since the liberty of each individual is nothing other than the reflection of his humanity or of his human right in the consciousness of all free men, of his brother, his compeers.

It is only in the presence of other men, and with regard to other men, that I can call and feel myself free. In presence of any inferior animal, I am neither free nor human, since such an animal is unable to conceive of and hence to recognize my humanity. I am myself human and free in so far as I recognize the freedom and humanity of all men around me. Only in respecting their human character do I respect my own. A cannibal who devours his prisoner, treating him as a wild beast might, is not a man, but a beast. Ignoring the humanity of his slaves he also ignores his own humanity. The who of ancient society furnishes proof of this: the Greeks, the Romans, did not feel themselves to be free as men; they did not consider themselves to be free by any human right. They believed themselves privileged as Greeks, as Romans, only within their own country, and so long as it remained independent, not subjugated; and they subjugated other countries under the special protection of their national gods. They were not astonished, nor did they feel they had a right and a duty to revolt, when being in their turn also vanquished they became slaves.


* It might be noted, by the way, that the words cretinism and christianism are etymologically identical, cretin, in the Girond crestin, and in the Pyrenees crestian being a local transformation of the older forms of the French chretien. Bus idiocy and Christianity are somehow connected in the peoples mind, the idea of the saintly and sickly innocence absurdity describe why Bakunin being the connected connecting link between them.—N.


[July 1894]


It is the great merit of Christianity to have proclaimed the humanity of all human beings, women included, the quality of all men before God. But how did Christianity proclaim it? In heaven; in a future life; not in this present and real life, not on earth. And after all, even this future equality is a sham, for the number of the elect is said to be exceedingly small. On this point theologians of the most differing Christian sects are unanimous. Thus the so-called Christian equality results in most bare-faced privilege for a few thousands, who are elected by the grace of God over millions who are damned. And even were this equality of all before God to be realized for everybody, still it would only be the equal nullity and slavery of all before a supreme master. Is not the root-idea of Christianity and the primary condition of salvation, the renunciation of human dignity, and the contempt of this dignity before the greatness of God? A Christian, then, is not a man inasmuch as he is not conscious of humanity; not a man too because not respecting human dignity in himself, he cannot respect it in others; and not respecting it in others, he is unable to respect it in himself. A Christian may be a prophet, a saint, a priest, a king, a minister, an official, the representative of some authority, a gendarme, a henchman, an aristocrat, an exploiting bourgeois, or an enslaved proletarian; an oppressor or an oppressed, a torturer or a victim of torture, a master or a wage-worker; but he has not the right to call himself a man, because man only become really such when he respects and love the humanity and freedom of all other men, and when his own freedom and humanity are likewise respected, loved, aroused, and promoted by all other men.

I am really free only when all human beings around me, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of others, far from being the limit or negation of my freedom is on the contrary its necessary condition and its confirmation. I become really free only through the freedom of others, so that the more free men there are around me, and the fuller and stronger their freedom is, the fuller, stronger, and wider does my own freedom become. The slavery of men puts a limit to my freedom. In other words their brutalization is a negation of my humanity, because—I repeat it once more—I can only call myself really free when my freedom, or what means the same thing, my human dignity, my human right, consisting in obeying no other man and determining my actions in accordance with my own convictions, reflected by the equally free consciousness of all,—are confirmed by the asset of everybody. My personal freedom established in this way by the freedom of all has no limits.

It will be seen from this that freedom as understood by the materialists, is a very positive, very complex, and above all, an eminently social matter, because it can only be realized in society, and only by means of the strictest equality and solidarity of all. We can distinguish in it three points of development, three elements; the first of which is eminently positive and social. It is the full development and the full use of all human faculties and powers, by everybody, through education, scientific instruction, and material prosperity, each of which can only be given to man by collective labor, material and intellectual, muscular and cerebral, of the whole of society.

The second element of freedom is negative. It is the element of revolt—the rebellion of the human individual against authority, divine or human, collective or individual.

It is firstly revolt against the tyranny of the supreme phantom of theology, against God. It is evident that as long as we shall have a master in heaven, we shall be slaves upon earth. As long as we believe that absolute obedience is due to him, and there is no other obedience possible against a God, we must necessarily submit passively and without exercising the slightest criticism, to the sacred authority of his intermediaries and chose ones; the messiahs, prophets, divinely inspired legislators, emperors, kinds and all their official and ministers, the sacred representatives and servants of the two great institutions which are imposed on us as being established by God himself for the direction of man: of the Church and the State. All temporal or human authority is directly derived from spiritual or divine authority. But authority is the negation of freedom. Hence, God, or rather the fiction of God, is the consecration and the intellectual and moral cause of all slavery upon earth, and human freedom will not be complete, until it shall have completely destroyed the nefarious fiction of a celestial master.

It is secondly, and in consequence of the former, the revolt of every individual against the tyranny of men, against individual and social authority, represented and legalized by the State. It is necessary that no misunderstanding should arise here, and for this reason it is essential to begin by establishing a well defined distinction between the official and consequently tyrannical authority of society organized as the State, and the natural influence and action of non-official, but natural society upon each of her members.

The revolt of the individual against this natural influence of society is much more difficult than revolt against officially organized Society, though it is sometimes inevitable as is the latter. Social tyranny, often crushing and disastrous, does not exhibit that character of imperious violence, of legalized and formal despotism which marks the authority of the State. It is not imposed as a law to which every individual is forced to submit under penalty of legal punishment. Its way of acting is gentler and more insinuating; less perceptible, but for this very reason stronger than the authority of the State. It dominates men by means of customs; by morals; by the mass of sentiments, prejudices, and habits of the material life, as well as of the spirit and the heart, which, together, constitute what is called Public Opinion. It surrounds a man from his birth, it pierces and penetrates him, and forms the very basis of his own individual existence, in such wise that each one becomes its accomplice in some way against his own very self, and for the most part without being at all aware of the fact. It hence results that to revolt against this natural influence of society over him, a man must to some extent revolt against himself; for he is, with all his material, intellectual, and more tendencies and aspirations, nothing other than a product of Society. Hence the immense power exercised by Society upon individual men.

From the standpoint of absolute morality, that is of respect for man, (and I will presently explain what I mean by these words) this power of Society may be an agent of good as well as of evil. It is beneficial when it tends towards the development of science, material prosperity, freedom, equality, and the fraternal solidarity of men. It is harmful so far as it has the opposite tendency. A man born into a society of brutes remains, with very few exceptions, a brute; born into a society led by priests, he becomes an idiot, a simpleton; born among a band of thieves, he most probably become a thief; born a bourgeois he becomes an exploiter of the labor of others; and if he is unfortunate enough to be born in the society of the demi-gods who govern his world—nobles, princes, heirs of kings—he will, according to the degree of his abilities, his means, and his power, be an enslaver of mankind, a tyrant. In all these cases, to make the individual even human, revolt against that particular society which gave him birth becomes indispensible.

But I repeat, the revolt of the individual against society is quite another and more difficult matter than his revolt against the State. The State is a historical, transitory institution, a passing social arrangement, like the Church whose younger brother it is. But it has not the fatal and immutable character of Society, which being anterior to all special human developments, and sharing fully the power of natural laws, actions and manifestations, constitutes the essential basis of all human existence. Man, though he has made a first step towards humanity, having begun to be human—that is, a more or less speaking and thinking being—is born into society as an ant is born into an ant’s nest, or a bee into a bee-hive. He does not choose it; he is, on the contrary, its product, and is as fatally swayed by all the natural laws determining his necessary development as he is at the mercy of all other natural laws. Society is anterior to each human individual, survives him like nature herself. Society is eternal as nature is eternal; or rather, having had its genesis on this globe, will last as long as this globe will last. A radical revolt against society would, therefore, be as impossible for man as a revolt against nature in totality, human society being after all nothing other than the latest great manifestation of creation of nature upon this planet. And any individual who should question the existence of society, questions the existence of nature in general, and of his own nature in particular; and thus places himself outside the conditions of real existence, throwing himself into nothingness—absolute vacuity—dead abstraction—God.

Hence it is absurd to inquire whether Society is a good or an evil, as to inquire whether nature at large,—this universal material, real, unique supreme, absolute being—is a good or an evil. It is more than either. It is an immense, positive, and primordial fact; anterior to all intellectual and moral appreciation. It is the basis—the ground—upon which, later on, that which we call good and evil necessarily develops.

This is not the case with the State; and I do not hesitate to say that the State is an evil, though a historically necessary evil; as necessary in the past, as its complete extinction will, sooner or later, be necessary in the future. It has been as necessary as were the primitive barbarism, and the theological wanderings of mankind. The State is not Society, it is only a historical phase of it which is as barbarous as it is abstract. It was originated in all countries by the combination of violence, rape and pillage; in a word, it arose out of war and conquest on one hand, and the gods, created by the theological fancy of different nations, on the other. It was at the beginning, and to this day remains, the divine sanction of brute force and triumphant iniquity. It consists even in the most democratic countries (such as the United State of America or Switzerland) of the regular [institution]* of privilege for the minority and of enslavement for an immense majority.


* A word is illegible in Bakunin’s manuscript, and is here merely guessed at.—N.


[August 1894]


Revolt against the State is much easier because there is something in the very nature of the State which provokes revolt. The State is authority, force; ostentatious and infatuated force. The State does not ingratiate—does not try to convert; or, whenever it attempts to do so, does it with the worst possible grace; for it is not its nature to persuade, but to imposed itself on men, and coerce them. However it may try to disguise its own character as the legal violator of human will, and the permanent negation of human freedom, yet even when commanding what is good it spoils it, precisely because commanding it. For every command provokes and incites to legitimate revolt for freedom; besides which, the moment it is commanded, good becomes evil from the standpoint of true morality—that is, of the morality which is not divine, but is based upon respect for human nature and its freedom. Freedom, morality, and the dignity of man consist precisely in this, that a man acts rightly, not because he is ordered to do so, but because he understands, will, and prefers right conduct.

Society, on the other hand, does not impose itself formally, official, authoritatively; but naturally. And for this very reason its influence on the individual is incomparably stronger than that of the State. It creates and forms all individuals born and developed in its bosom. It inoculates them slowly, from the day of their birth to their death, with its own physical, intellectual and moral character. It becomes, so to speak, individualized in each of them.

The human individual is no universal and abstract being. On the contrary from the moment he begins to develop in his mother’s womb, he is already determined and particularized by countless causes and influences, physical, geographical, climatic, ethnographical, hygienic, and consequently also economic influences, which together constitute the character peculiar to his family class, nation and race. And since the inclinations and faculties of men depend on the sum of all these exterior or physical influences, if follows that everybody is born with a materially determined individual character. Owing, moreover, to the relatively superior organization of the human brain, every man where he is born is possessed in varying degrees—not of innate idea and sentiments as the idealists pretend; but of the material and formal ability to feel, to think, to speak and to will. He possesses merely the faculty for forming and developing ideas, without any content whatever. What first gives him this content? Society.

We need not here examine how the first notions and ideas in primitive society were formed; for the most part they were naturally very absurd. All that we can say with full certainty is that they were not at first severally and spontaneously created by the miraculously illuminated spirit of inspired individuals, but by the collective and generally imperceptible work of the spirit of all individual who formed part of these societies; of which spirit the remarkable individuals—the men of genius—could never do more than give the fittest and most forcible expression. Men of genius have ever, like Voltaire, “picked up their good things wherever they found them.” Thus the collective intellectual labor of primitive societies created the first ideas. These ideas were at the outset nothing but simple, and obviously very imperfect statements of natural and social facts, together with still less accurate conclusions drawn from these facts. This was the beginning of all human perceptions, imaginations, and thoughts. The content of these thoughts, far from having been created by a spontaneous act of the human spirit, was first given by the real world, external to man, as well as the world within him. The spirit of man—that is, the organic and entirely material activity and the way in which he performs the function of his brain, as brought about by the external and internal impressions transmitted to it through the nerves—only adds the formal work of comparing and combining these impressions of things into systems, which may be right or wrong. In this way ideas first originated. By the use of language these first ideas, or rather suppositions, were determined and fixed, through being transmitted from one human being to another; thus the individual suppositions of each person were met, controlled, modified, and completed by those of other persons; and being more or less consolidated into one system they ended by forming the common consciousness, the collective thought of society. These thoughts, transmitted by tradition from generation to generation, and always more or less developed by the intellectual labor of centuries, constitute the intellectual and moral patrimony of a society, a class, a nation.

Each new generation finds from the cradle a whole world of ideas, suppositions, and sentiments which it accepts as the heritage of past centuries. This world of idea is not presented to the new-born infant under its ideal aspect as a system of notions and ideas,—as a religion, a doctrine; a child would not be able to apprehend and understand it under this form; but it is imposed as a world of facts embodied and realized in all persons and things around him, and which he sees from the first day of his life. For human ideas, having been originally nothing but the products of realities, natural and social, in the sense of being the reflex or echo of such realities in the human brain, together with their ideal and more or less discriminate representation by this absolutely material organ of human thought,—these ideas and notions, having become well established in the way described in the collective conscience of society, later acquire in their turn the power to act as causes, producing new facts, not merely natural but social. They end by slowly modifying and transforming the existence, habits, and institutions, in short all the social relations of men; and being incorporated in the most usual matters of everyday life, they become perceptible, palpable, for everybody, even for children. In this way each new generation is penetrated by them from infancy; and having grown to the age when the proper work of its own thought begins, accompanied of course by the application so fresh criticism, it finds within itself and in surrounding society, a whole world of established ideas and notions which are its starting point, furnishing in some way the raw material for its own intellectual and moral work. To this world of ideas belong those traditional and general forms of thought which metaphysicians, deceived by the insensible and imperceptible way in which they enter and are impressed on the brains of children from without, even before self-consciousness beings,—erroneously call “innate ideas.”

Of this kind are the general abstract ideas of deity and the soul; ideas in themselves altogether absurd, but which inevitably and determinately arose during the historic development of the human mind. The human spirit, arriving only slowly and after the lapse of many centuries at a rational and critical understanding of itself and its own proper manifestations, always starts from the absurd to arrive at the truth, and from slavery to conquer freedom. These ideas (of deity and the soul) have been sanctioned by universal ignorance, and by the stupidity of ages, as well as by the well considered interests of the privileged classes, to such a degree that even today it is impossible to speak in open and popular language against them without alienating a considerable part of the people, and risking being stoned by bourgeois hypocrisy.

Besides these quite abstract ideas, and always in close connection with them the adult meets in society, and also within himself, and owing to the all-powerful influence of society on his own childhood, a number of other notions and ideas of a far more determined kind, touching more closely on real life and his own daily experience. Such notions are those on nature and man, on justice, the duties and rights of individuals and classes, on social conventions, on the family, property, and the State, beside many other notions on the relations existing between men. All these ideas which a child finds embodied in things and in man and which are impressed on its own mind by education and instruction before he has even arrived at self-consciousness, all these ideas he will find later on in life consecrated, explained, commented upon by those theories which express the universal conscience or the collective prejudice, and by all religious, political, and economic institutions of the society to which he belongs. And he will be so impregnated with them himself that, whether or not he is personally interested in their defense, he has become involuntarily, by all his material, intellectual and moral habits their accomplice.

We must not wonder, therefore, at the all powerful influence over the bulk of mankind, of these ideas which express the collective conscience of society, but on the contrary we should rather wonder at the fact that, in this mass, individuals are found who have the intelligence, will and courage to combat them. For the pressure of society on the individual is immense and there is no character nor intelligence which would be strong and powerful enough to pretend to be entirely safe from attacks of this equally despotical and irresistible influence.

Nothing proves the social character of men as this influence does. We might say that the collective conscience of a society, incarnated as well in the great public institutions as in all the details of its private life, and being the basis of all its theories, forms a kind of milieu, of an intellectual and moral atmosphere, obstructing but absolutely necessary to the existence of all its members. By it they are at the same time dominated, penetrated and sustained, being bound together among themselves by customary rapports which are necessarily determined by this collective conscience itself and which insure to everybody security, and constitute for all, the supreme condition of the existence of the majority, banality, common-place routine.

The large majority of men, not only of the people but also of the privileged and educated classes (and the latter often in a larger degree even than the people) only feel at ease and peace in their minds when, by their ideas and all their acts, they narrowly, blindly follow tradition and routine: “We must think and act like this, because our fathers did so formerly and everybody around us thinks and acts in the same way. Why should therefore we do otherwise?” These words express the philosophy, the conviction and the practice of ninety-nine out of every hundred of mankind, taken at random in all classes of society. And, as I have already observed, there lies the greatest obstacle to progress and the more rapid emancipation of humanity.


[September 1894]


What are the reasons of this deplorable slowness, which almost resembles stagnations, and which constitutes, as I think, mankind’s greatest hindrance? There are many reasons for it. One of the chief causes lies undoubtedly in the ignorance of the masses. Being generally and systematically deprive of all scientific education through the paternal care of governments and the privileged classes,—who think it useful to keep them as long as possible in ignorance, piety, and credulity (three nearly synonymous words)—the masses ignore both the existence and use of criticism, that instrument of moral and social revolution. The masses in whose interest it always lies to revolt against the established order, are still more or less attached to that order by the religion of their fathers,—the providence of the privileged classes.

The privileged classes, which, whatever they may profess, have no longer any piety or belief, are for their part attached to the existing state of things by their own political and social interests. But it is impossible to assert that this is the only reason for which they cling passionately to the predominant ideas. However low may be my estimate of the actual intellectual and moral worth of these classes, I cannot admit that interest alone is the main-spring of their thoughts and actions. No doubt in every class and in every party there exists a larger or smaller number of intelligently audacious and knowingly dishonest exploiters—hommes forts (strong men)—who, void of all intellectual and moral prepossessions, and equally indifferent to all convictions, are ready to utilize any such, on occasion, and in order to further their own ends. But these distinguished persons never, in the most corrupted classes, form more than a very small minority. The bulk of these classes is as sheepish as the proletariat itself. They are of course subject to the influence of their own special interests; and these make reaction a condition of their existence. But it cannot be admitted that in fostering reaction, they are prompted merely by selfish sentiment. No large mass of men, however corrupted, could collectively act in this depraved way. In all large associations, and especially in traditional, historical associations—as classes, and even though they have degenerated and become absolutely noxious and antagonistic to the rights and interests of all,—there exists a moral principle, a religious, a belief of some sort; no doubt an irrational and mostly a ridiculous and narrow-minded belief, but still sincere; and constituting the moral condition indispensible to their existence.

The common and fundamental error of all idealists,—an error which by the way is a perfectly logical consequence of their who system,—consists in trying to find the basis of morals in the isolated individual, whilst as a fact it only exists, and can only be shown forth in the individual as a social being. To prove this, let us settle once for all with the isolated and absolute individual of the idealists.

This abstract and solitary human individual is a fiction of like character with the God-fiction; both having simultaneously originated in the childish, unreflecting, empirically observant but fanciful mind of primitive mankind, and afterwards developed, expounded, and dogmatized upon by the theological and metaphysical theorists of transcendentalism. Each, as standing for an abstraction void of all content, and corresponding with no reality, leads—Nowhere. I think I have proved the immorality of the God-fiction. Later on, in the Appendix, I should point out its still more glaring absurdity. Here I will demonstrate as both immoral and absurd, the fiction of the absolute and abstract human individual, which the moralists of the idealist school use as the basis for their political and social theories.

It will not be difficult to show that the human individual, as help up and adored by these thinkers, is an entirely non-moral being. He is the personification of egoism, the anti-social being par excellence. Endowed with an immortal soul, he is infinite and complete within himself, in need of no other, not even God, still less other men. Logically, he ought not to suffer the existence of any equal or superior being,—immortal and infinite as himself, or more immortal and infinite than himself,—beside him, or above him. He should be the only man on earth, nay, in the universe. For the infinite, meeting with anything whatever beyond itself, meets a barrier,—is no longer the infinite. Two infinites meeting, annihilate one another.

Why do theologians and metaphysicians, who are otherwise such subtle logicians, commit and continue to commit this inconsistency of admitting the existence of many men all equally immortal,—that is, all equally infinite, and above them a God who is still more immortal and infinite? They are forced to do so by the absolute impossibility of denying the real existence, the mortality as well as the mutual dependence of millions of human beings who have lived and who live on this globe.

Conclusion of Extracts.


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