The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, compiled and edited by G. P. Maximoff, 1953.

CHAPTER 6: Jacobins of 1870 Feared Revolutionary Anarchy

. . . The Imperial administration [of Napoleonic France in 1870] could not be destroyed with a single blow, because it would be impossible to replace it immediately with another. It that were to be attempted, there would ensue, in the midst of a terrible danger, a more or less prolonged interval during which France would find itself without any administration, and consequently with no trace of government -- an interval in which the French populace, completely abandoned to itself, would become a prey to the most horrible anarchy. This might suit us all right -- us, the revolutionary Socialists -- but it does not enter into the plans of the Jacobins, State partisans beyond compare.1

In order to obviate this evil, Gambetta will no doubt send into all Departments [French provinces] proconsuls, extraordinary commissars endowed with complete powers.2

Sources of Revolutionary Strength of the Jacobins of 1793. It is now enough, [however], to be endowed with extraordinary powers in order to take extraordinary measures for public safety, in order to have the power to create new forces, to stimulate in a corrupted administration and within a populace systematically weaned away from any initiative, a salutary energy and activity. For that it is necessary also to possess what the bourgeois of 1792-1793 possessed to a high degree and what the bourgeoisie of today absolutely lacks -- even its most radical representatives, the presently republicans. In order to do that it is necessary to have revolutionary mind, will, and energy, it is necessary to have a demon within the flesh. . . .

Apart from those personal qualities, which put a truly heroic imprint upon the men of 1793, the success of the extraordinary commissars of the [390] Jacobins' National Convention was due to the fact that that convention in itself was genuinely revolutionary, and because, while depending in Paris upon the masses of the people, upon the vile populace, to the exclusion of the liberal bourgeoisie, it ordered all its proconsuls dispatched to the provinces to base themselves everywhere and always in their work upon the same rabble.3

The Commissars of the Great Revolution. The antagonism between bourgeois revolution and popular revolution did not yet exist in 1793; it existed neither in the consciousness of the people nor even in the consciousness of the bourgeoisie. Historic experience had not yet brought out the timeless truth which states that the freedom of every privileged class -- including, of course, that of the bourgeois -- is essentially based upon the economic slavery of the proletariat. This truth has always existed as a fact, as a real consequence, but it was so greatly obscured by other facts and masked by so many interests and varied historical tendencies, (especially religious, national, and political tendencies), that it did not yet stand out in its great simplicity and present-day clarity, neither for the bourgeoisie, who invests money in enterprises, nor for the proletariat, whom the bourgeoisie exploits.

The bourgeoisie and the proletariat have always been natural, eternal enemies without being aware of it, and because of this ignorance they attributed -- the bourgeoisie its fears and the proletariat its woes -- to fictitious causes and not to their real antagonisms. They believed themselves to be friends, and because of that belief they all marched united against the monarchy, against the nobility, and against the priests. It was that which gave the bourgeois revolutionists of 1793 their great power. Not only were they not afraid to unleash popular passions, but they fomented such passions by all means at their disposal as the only way to save the country and themselves from foreign and domestic reaction.

When an extraordinary commissar delegated by the Convention arrived in a province he never addressed himself to the big-wigs of that region nor to the revolutionaries in white gloves; he devoted himself to the sansculottes, to the rabble, and it was upon these elements that he depended in order to carry out, against the will of the big-wigs and the well-bred revolutionists, the revolutionary decrees of the Convention. What these commissars did then was, properly speaking, not in the nature of centralization nor of building up a new administration; they aimed rather to evoke a popular movement.

Usually they did not come to any province with the intention of imposing upon it dictatorially the will of the National Convention. They did that only on rare occasions, when they went into provinces that were decidedly and unanimously reactionary and hostile. In such instances the/ did not go alone, but were accompanied by troops who added the argument of the bayonet to their civic eloquence. But ordinarily they went [391] alone, without a single soldier to back them, and they sought their support among the masses, whose instincts invariably conformed to the ideas of the Convention.

Far from restraining the freedom of popular movements because of fear of anarchy, the commissars tried to foment it by all means at their disposal. The first thing they would do was to form a people's club, wherever none already existed; being themselves genuine revolutionists, they easily discovered the true revolutionists among the masses, and united with them in order to fan the revolutionary flames, to foment anarchy, to arouse the masses, and to organize along revolutionary lines this popular anarchy. That revolutionary organization was the sole administration and the sole executive force of which the extraordinary commissars availed themselves to revolutionize and terrorize the provinces.4

Such was the true secret of the power of those revolutionary giants whom the Jacobin pygmies of our own times admire without ever suc- ceeding in coming near to them.5

As in 1792 France Could Be Saved from the Prussians Only by a Great Uprising of the People. The only thing that can save France in the face of the terrible, mortal dangers which menace it now is a spontaneous, formidable, passionately energetic, anarchic, destructive, and savage uprising of the masses of people throughout France.5

A Revolutionary Approach to the Peasants. I believe that right now in France, and probably in other countries as well, there exist only two classes capable of such a movement: the workers and the peasants. Do not wonder that I am speaking of peasants. The peasants, even those of France, sin only through ignorance and not from lack of temperament. Not having abused nor even used life, not having felt the deleterious effect of bourgeois civilization, which has affected them only superficially, they have preserved the energetic temperament, and all the nature of the people. Property, and the love and enjoyment not of pleasures but of gain, have made them egoistic to a considerable extent, but they have not abated their instinctive hatred for the "fine gentlemen," and above all, for the bourgeois land-owners, who enjoy income from the land without producing it with the work of their own hands. In addition, the peasants are deeply patriotic, and nationalistic, because they have built a cult around the land, because they have a passion for it, and I believe nothing should be easier than to stir them up against the foreign invaders who want to deprive France of two vast provinces.7

It is clear that in order to arouse and carry along the peasants it is necessary to use a great deal of prudence, in the sense that one must beware, in speaking of them, of enunciating ideas and employing phrases which exercise an all-powerful effect upon the city workers but which, having teen interpreted for a long time for the peasants by all sorts of reactionaries (from the big land-owners to State functionaries and priests) in a [392] manner which made them odious and threatening to the peasants, produced upon them an effect quite contrary to their intent. No, in speaking to the peasants one has to use at first the most simple language, words which correspond best to their instincts and level of understanding.

In those villages where the platonic and fictitious love for the Emperor [Napoleon III] really exists as a prejudice and a passionate habit, one should not even speak against the Emperor. It is necessary to undermine in fact the power of the State, and of the Emperor, without saying anything against him -- by undermining the influence, the official organization, and as much as it is possible, by destroying the persons who act as functionaries for the Emperor: the mayors, justices of the peace, priests, gendarmes, and chiefs of village police -- who, I believe, can be "Septemberized" by arousing the peasants against them. It is necessary to tell them that the Prussians must be driven out of France -- this they will understand perfectly because they are patriots -- and that for this they must arm themselves, organize themselves into battalions of volunteers, and march against the Prussians.

But before they begin marching it also is necessary that, following the example of the cities, which have rid themselves of all exploiting parasites and which have turned the task of their defense over to the sons of the people, to the workers, -- the peasants, too, rid themselves of the "fine gentlemen" who exploit, dishonor, and exhaust the land by cultivating it with hired labor and not with their own hands. Then it is essential to arouse them to defiance of the village notables, the functionaries, and as much as possible, of the priest himself. Let them take whatever they want in the Church and of the land belonging to the Church -- wherever the latter owns land -- and let them take possession of the lands belonging to the State, as well as of the estates of the big land-owners, of the rich, utterly useless parasites.

And then the peasants will need to be told that since everywhere all payments have been suspended, they also must suspend their payments -- payments on private debts, taxes, and mortgages -- until perfect order has been established; that otherwise, all the money passing into the hands of the functionaries would remain with them or would pass into the hands of the Prussians. This done, let them march against the Prussians, but first let them organize, let them unite on the principles of federation, village with village, and with the cities too, for mutual support and for joint defense against both the foreign and domestic Prussians.8

Class Struggles in the Villages Will Rid the Peasantry of Its Political Prejudices. Here a question presents itself: The revolution of 1792 and 1793 could give the peasants -- not gratis but at a very low price -- the national estates, that is, the lands belonging to the Church and emigrant noblemen, all of which had been confiscated by the State. But now, it will be argued, the Revolution has nothing to give to the peasants. Has it not, though? Have not the Church and the religious orders of both sexes grown [393] rich again owing to the criminal connivance of the legitimist monarchy, and above all of the Second Empire?

True, the greater part of their wealth was very prudently mobilized in anticipation of possible revolutions. The Church, which, though preoccupied with celestial matters, has never overlooked its material interests, (being notorious for its shrewd economic speculations), doubtless has placed the greater part of its earthly possessions, which it continues augmenting from day to day for the greater good of the poor and unfortunate, in all kinds of commercial, industrial, and banking enterprises, and in private bonds of every country.

Thus it would take a veritable universal bankruptcy -- which will come as the inevitable consequence of a universal social revolution -- to deprive the Church of that wealth which now constitutes the chief instrument of its power, alas, that still formidable power. But it remains no less certain that the Church now possesses, especially in the southern provinces of France, vast land holdings, and buildings, as well as ornaments and church plate which represent veritable treasures in silver, gold, or precious stones. Well, all of that can and should be confiscated, and not for the benefit of the State but for that of the communes.9

This then, as I see it, is the only effective way of influencing the peasants in two directions -- in the direction of defending the country against Prussian invasion, and in the direction of destroying the State apparatus in the rural communes, where its principal roots are to be found -- and consequently, toward the Social Revolution.

It is only by this kind of propaganda, only by a social revolution thus understood, that one can fight against the reactionary spirit of the villages, that one can succeed in overcoming it and transforming it into a revolutionary spirit.

The alleged Bonapartist sympathies of the French peasants do not alarm me. Such sympathies are merely the surface symptoms of the socialist instinct led astray by ignorance and exploited by malice, a skin disease which will yield to the heroic treatment of revolutionary Socialism. The peasants will not give away their own land, their money, nor their lives to preserve the power of Napoleon III, but they will willingly give for that purpose the lives and property of others, because they detest those others. They entertain the utmost, altogether socialistic hatred of men of labor against men of leisure, against the "fine gentlemen."10

Antagonism Between Peasants and City Workers Due to Misunderstanding. If we want to be practical, if, tired of day-dreaming, we make up our minds to fight in earnest in order to bring about a revolution, we stall have to start by ridding ourselves of a number of doctrinaire, bourgeois prejudices, unfortunately taken over to a great extent from the bourgeoisie by the city proletariat. The city worker, more highly developed than the peasant, too often despises the latter and speaks of him with [394] an altogether bourgeois contempt. Nothing is more irritating than disdain and contempt -- that is why the peasant answers this contempt on the part of the industrial workers with hatred. And this is nothing short of a misfortune, for such contempt and hatred divide the people into two camps, each of which paralyzes and undermines the other. Between these two parties there are in fact no conflicting interests; there is only a vast and baneful misunderstanding which should be smoothed out at any price.11

The more enlightened, more civilized Socialism of the city workers, a Socialism which because of this very circumstance takes on a somewhat bourgeois character, slights and scorns the primitive, natural, and much more savage Socialism of the villages, and since it distrusts the latter, it always tries to restrain it, to oppress it in the very name of equality and freedom, which naturally makes for dense ignorance about city Socialism on the part of the peasants, who confound this Socialism with the bourgeois spirit of the cities. The peasant regards the industrial worker as a bourgeois lackey or as a soldier of the bourgeoisie and he despises and detests the city worker as such. He hates the latter so much that he himself becomes the servant and blind tool of reaction.

Such is the fatal antagonism which hitherto has paralyzed the revolutionary efforts of France and of Europe. Whoever wants the triumph of the Social Revolution, must first of all smooth out this antagonism. Since the two camps are divided only by misunderstanding, it is necessary that one of them take the initiative in explaining and conciliating. The initiative by right belongs to the more enlightened parry; that is, it rightfully belongs to the city workers. In order to bring about that conciliation, those workers should be the first to render an account to themselves of the nature of the grievances which they have against the peasants. What are their principal grievances?12

There are three of them: the first is that the peasants are ignorant, superstitious, and bigoted, and that they allow themselves to be led by priests. The second grievance is that the peasants are devoted to the Emperor. The third is that the peasants are ardent partisans of individual property.

Peasant Ignorance. True, the French peasants are grossly ignorant. But is that their fault? Has anyone been concerned about providing thea with schools? And is their ignorance a reason for despising and maltreating them? If so, then the bourgeois, who without doubt arc more learned tlui the industrial workers, should have the right to despise and maltreat the latter; and we know a goodly number of bourgeois persons who say so, and who base on this superiority of education their right to dominate the city workers and to demand subordination from them. What constitutes the greatness of those workers as against the bourgeoisie is not their educr tion, which is very small, indeed; it is their instinct and the fact that they stand for justice that make for their incontestable greatness. But do the peasants lack that instinct for justice? Look well and you will find among [395] them this same instinct, though it is manifest in different forms. You will in them alongside of ignorance a deep common sense, admirable shrewdness, and that energy of labor which spell the honor and the salvation of the proletariat.13

Religious Bigotry Among the Peasants Can Be Overcome by Correct Revolutionary Tactics. The peasants, you say, are superstitious and bigots, and they let themselves be led by the priests. Their superstition is the product of their ignorance, which is systematically and artifically fostered by all bourgeois governments. For that matter, the peasants are not so superstitious and bigoted as you make them out to be; it is their wives that are so. But then are all the wives of the city workers completely free from the superstitions and doctrines of the Roman Catholic religion?

As to the influence of the priests, it is only skin-deep; the peasants follow the priests inasmuch as domestic peace requires it and in so far as it does not run counter to their interests. Their religious superstition did not prevent them after 1789 from buying the properties of the Church which had been confiscated by the State, despite the curses hurled by the Church against the buyers as well as against the sellers of its properties. Hence it follows that in order to destroy definitely the influence of the priests in the villages, the Revolution has to do only one thing: to place the interests of the peasants in a position where they will necessarily clash with the interests of the Church.14

Realism and Sectarianism in the Struggle Against Religion. It has always annoyed me to have to listen not only to the revolutionary Jacobins but also to the Socialists brought up in the school of Blanqui and even to some of our intimate friends who have been indirectly influenced by the latter school, advancing the completely anti-revolutionary idea that the coming republic will have to abolish by decree all public cults and shall likewise decree the forcible expulsion of all priests. To begin with, I am the absolute enemy of a revolution by decrees, which is the application of the idea of a revolutionary State and a sequel of it; that is, a reaction disguised by revolutionary appearances. As against the system of revolutionary decrees I oppose the system of revolutionary action, the only effective, consistent, and true system. The authoritarian system of decrees, in seeking to impose freedom and equality, destroys them. The Anarchist system of action evokes and creates them in an infallible manner, without the intervention of any official or authoritarian violence whatever. The first leads inevitably to the ultimate triumph of an outspoken reaction. The second system establishes the Revolution on a natural and unshakable foundation.15

Religion Cannot Be Effectively Fought by Revolutionary Decrees. Thus, taking this example, we may say that if abolition of religious cults and expulsion of priests are going to be decreed by law, you can rest assured that even the least religious peasant will rise up in defense of the [396] banned cult and the expelled priests; they may do it either because spirit of contradiction, or because a natural and legitimate sentime -- a sentiment which is the foundation of liberty -- rises up in the heart of every man against any imposed measure, even if it be done in the name of freedom. One can be sure then that if the cities commit the folly of decreeing abolition of religious cults and expulsion of priests, the peasants will take the side of the priests, will rise in revolt against the cities, and become a terrible instrument in the hands of reaction.

But does it follow that the priests should be left in full enjoyment of their power? Not at all. It is necessary to fight against them most energetically, not, however, because they are priests, nor because they are ministers of the Roman Catholic religion, but because they are Prussian agents. In the villages as well as in the cities, it should not be the revolutionary authorities, not even though they be a Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, that should strike down the priests. It should be the populace itself (the workers in the cities and the peasants in the villages) which takes action against the priests, while the revolutionary authorities outwardly protect them in the name of respect for freedom of conscience. Let us copy the wisdom of our adversaries. See, for instance, how all governments expatiate on liberty while being thoroughly reactionary in their actions. Let the revolutionary authorities go easy on phrases, but while using as moderate and pacific language as possible, let them create the Revolution.16

In Time of Revolution Deeds Count More Than Theories. This is quite the opposite of what revolutionary authorities in all countries have hitherto been doing. Most frequently they have shown the greatest vigor and revolutionary quality in their language, while appearing very moderate, if not altogether reactionary, in their acts. It can even be said that the vigor of their language, in most cases, has served them as a mask with which to fool the people, to disguise the feebleness and lack of constency in their acts. There are people, many of them among the so-called revolutionary bourgeoisie, who, by uttering some revolutionary phrases, believe that they are creating the Revolution, and once they have delivered themselves of those phrases and precisely because of that fact, they deem it permissible to be lax in action, to show a fatal inconsistency, and to indulge in acts of a purely reactionary character. We, who are truly revolutionaries, must act in quite a contrary manner. Let us speak less of revolution, and do a great deal more. Let us leave to others the task of developing theoretically the principles of social revolution and content ourselves with widely applying those principles, with embodying them into facts.17

Those among our allies and friends who know me well will be astonished at my using this language, I who have worked so much in theory, who have shown myself to be a jealous and ferocious guardian of revolutionary principles. But times have changed. A year ago we were [397] preparing for a revolution, which some expected quickly, others at a later time -- but now, whatever blind people may say, we are in the midst of a revolution. Then it was absolutely necessary to hold high the standard of theoretical principles, and to present those principles in all their purity, in order to form a party, small in numbers yet consisting exclusively of people sincerely, wholly, and passionately devoted to those principles, so that everyone of us, in time of crisis, could count upon all the others.

But now the issue is no longer that of recruiting people for such a party. We have succeeded, well or badly, in forming a small party -- small in respect to the number of persons who are joining this party with full knowledge of what it stands for, but vast in respect to the great mass of people whom it represents better than any other party. Now all of us have to embark upon the revolutionary high seas, and henceforth we shall have to spread our principles not through words, but through actions, for that is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda. Let us somehow keep silent about our principles whenever this may be required by policy; that is, whenever our temporary impotence in relation to a power hostile to us, demands it -- but let us ever be ruthlessly consistent in our actions. Therein lies the salvation of the Revolution.18