Mikhail Bakunin and antisemitism.

Chapter Thirty-Six of The Authority of the Boot-Maker by Mal Content.

I like Bakunin a lot, I have great regard for this tireless revolutionary, who spent several years in prison chained to a wall and whose personal history shows him to have been also a kind and generous man. He influenced not only the collectivist strand of anarchism with which he is associated, but nihilism and anarcho-syndicalism. He warned against the authoritarianism of Marx and his followers, and correctly predicted the horrors of state Communism. The title of this work is taken from one of his more famous quotes – and he was always good for a quote.

I’m by no means a ‘Bakuninist’ however, any more than I’m a Marxist or an ‘Einsteinian’. Had we been contemporaries I would have had serious differences with him. In his personal correspondence he made a number of statements of crude antisemitism I find repellent and unworthy. He blamed a Jewish conspiracy for capitalism, as Churchill and Hitler would later blame one for Bolshevism. In fact, he seized on Marx’s enthusiasm for a central bank as evidence that he too was in thrall to this conspiracy.

“5.  Centralization  of  credit  in  the  banks  of  the  state,  by  means  of  a  national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.”

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: “Manifesto of the Communist Party”

The ugliest and most frequently repeated of the antisemitic rants attributed to Bakunin, which amid lurid accusations of sectarianism and parasitism claims “this Jewish world today stands for the most part at the disposal of Marx and at the same time at the disposal of Rothschild” might be a caricature*. Allegedly from a letter to the Bologna section of the International in 1871, the earliest source I have been able to find is a German publication from 1924, when there were other agendas at work.

* And somewhat nonsensical, as absurd as Marx’s allegation that Bakunin was a Russian agent.

In his published works, Judaism is only referred to in the context of his critique of religion in general. Was he simply using ‘Jewish’ colloquially as a synonym for bourgeois? Populist antisemitism was opportunistically appropriated by some 19th Century revolutionary movements, especially in central Europe. The perennial myth that Jews belonged to a secret transnational society, that they possessed hidden wealth, power and influence* resulted from ignorance and suspicion, as ever. Arguments framing them as moneylenders, profiteers and oppressors of the Slavs, must have seemed facile even at the time. The victims were not bankers but Working Class Jews and surely Bakunin had personal dealings with such people.

* Like Freemasonry, which Bakunin briefly dabbled in.

None of these factors, nor his bitter rivalry with Marx and other intellectuals who happened to be Jewish, nor his natural disdain for the social hegemony of the Abrahamic religions, excuse these comments. They are at odds with the rest of his work, for example his assertion that: “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free.” Or “The freedom of all is essential to my freedom.”

Proudhon was also a paranoid anti-Semite, but do not come away with the idea that antisemitism is a founding principle of anarchism nor that it has any place in the movement. There is a long and noble tradition of anarchist thought and action in the Jewish communities of Russia, Britain and the United States, and they have always been in the forefront of the fight against fascism. Peter Arshinov, in his eponymous history of the Makhnovist Movement relates that Nestor Makhno, on coming across an antisemitic poster, asked who had put it up. When the man stepped forward, Makhno drew a revolver and shot him. The rest of his unit, being recent defectors from a nationalist contingent were immediately stood down and sent home.

Ideas should not be tied to personalities or they become tainted. People will always judge the personality rather than the idea because it’s less effort. The recent fashion of dismissing a person’s entire canon for any ill-conceived word or action is not anarchist, it’s clearly rooted in liberalism, as is guilt by association. Ideas can stand or fall on their merits regardless of the character of the person articulating them, this requires quite a mature perspective. The modern habit of using social justice issues as a stick with which to beat one’s political rivals is borrowed from Marx and Engels, via Lenin & co. The point is that people are flawed, I can’t be any different, nor can you. As the man himself wrote:

“Real humanity presents a mixture of all that is most sublime and beautiful with all that is vilest and most monstrous in the world.”

― Mikhail Bakunin: God and the State

So we are safest when we follow ideas rather than people, and trust our own judgement. In the words of someone who never, so far as I know, expressed any political views but comes across as a great humanitarian:

“Research your own experiences: absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own”

– ‘Bruce’ Lee Jun Fan.

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