Negation: Bakunin and Bauer

by Paul McLaughlin

I wish to supplement the first part of this essay with a brief comment (in what I would suggest as a major immediate influence on Bakunin in The Reaction: that is, Bruno Bauer's Die Posaune des jüngsten Gerichts über Hegel den Atheisten und Antichristen: ein Ultimatum (The Trumpet of the Last judgment Against Hegel the Atheist and Antichrist: An Ultimatum). In this seminal work of Left Hegelianism, Bauer seeks to tear “away the thin veil which briefly concealed the thought of the master", i.e., Hegel, and to reveal “the [Hegelian] system in its nakedness". Bauer's conclusion is that "the center point of this philosophy [is] its destruction of religion”. Indeed, Bauer draws the broader conclusion that "Hegel not only is set against the State, the Church and religion, but opposes everything firm and established". [93] Bakunin, as we have shown, does not emphasize the destruction of religion as such in The Reaction; this side of his thought would develop in time, as we will see in the next section. (It would develop chiefly under the influence of Feuerbach, though the negation of religion as such, which Bakunin later champions, is a Bauerian rather than a Feuerbachian theme. Thus Bakunin supplements the genetico‑historical approach of Feuerbach [which Bauer lacks] with a negative logic in the style of Bauer [which, perhaps, Feuerbach lacks].) What concerns us here is the passion for destruction expressed in Bauer's interpretation of the dialectic.

Bakunin adopts, and develops, two of Bauer's ideas on the dialectic, which result from his exposition of its "more dangerous points". First—versus "the mediating Hegelians", with their dialectic of "reconciliation" or "half‑measures"—the idea that "the negative dialectic [is] the central principle of Hegelianism". (Bakunin, in a passage from 1873 already cited, a passage very much in the spirit of The Reaction, subscribes to the consistent and bold findings of the Left Hegelian interpretation. He notes that it "tore away the conservative mask from [Hegel's] doctrines and revealed in all its nakedness the merciless negation that constitutes their essence". [94] The conclusion here, including the terminology, owes much to Bauer.) And, second, the idea that this negative dialectic has practical applications. As Bauer puts it, "a theoretical principle must . . . come to the act, to practical opposition, to turn itself directly into praxis and action"; furthermore, "the opposition must be serious, sharp, thoroughgoing, unrestrained, and must see its highest goal in the overthrow of the established order". [95] (Bakunin writes in The Reaction that Hegel's negative philosophy "has already gone above theory . . . and postulated a new, practical world which will bring itself to completion . . . only through an original act of the practical autonomous [or revolutionary] Spirit" [32/47].) Both Bauer and Bakunin, in other words, accept that the dialectic is, as it were, theoretically negative and practically revolutionary. Thus Bauer refers to Hegelianism as "that hellish system which would blast the Christian State [note the conjunction] sky‑high". [96]

Nevertheless, Bakunin and Bauer differ significantly on the question of motivation (or what drives the dialectic) and also on the question of agency (or who drives the dialectic). Bauer holds that the goal of the dialectical process is "the freedom and self‑pleasure of self‑consciousness. [97] Bakunin, on the other hand, holds that the (theoretical) goal of the dialectical process is the self‑consciousness of freedom. In this respect, Bakunin is closer to Arnold Ruge (when Ruge writes, for example, "Our times are political, and our politics intend the freedom of this world" [98]). On the question of agency, Bauer holds (comically, in fact) that "Philosophers are the Lords of this World, and create the destiny of mankind"; as such, they "are truly of a singular danger, for they are the most consistent and unrestrained revolutionaries". Put simply, philosophers are the agents of revolution. It is they who judge what contradicts self‑consciousness, and who sanction the overthrow of the existing order. In Bauer's words once again, “who should it be who is to declare when a temporal institution, a regulation, is no longer to be allowed validity? To whom is it given to pass final judgment upon the 'impudence' of the established and positive order? Who is to give the signal for the ruin of the actual state of affairs? Now, you know that well enough yourselves! Only the philosopher!" [99] Bakunin disputes this vanguard mentality throughout his writings (later rejecting the revolutionary projects of Marx, Saint‑Simon, and Comte as “metaphysical" attempts to establish the government of savants). He holds, even in 1842, that the oppressed majority is the proper agent of adequate revolution.


93.  The Trumpet, pp. 95, 129. Emphasis added. For valuable discussions of Bauer’s thought, see Stepelevich's introduction to his translation of The Trumpet (pp. 1‑56) and David McLellan's The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx (London: Macmillan, 1969), especially pp. 48‑81 and, in the context of the interpretation of the dialectic, pp. 18‑20.

94.  Gosudarstvennost'i anarkhiia, p. 110; Statism and Anarchy, p. 131.

95.  The Trumpet, pp. 68, 62‑63, 96‑97, 128. Emphasis added.

96.  Ibid., p. 66.

97.  Ibid., p. 97. Emphasis added.

98.  Hegel's Philosophy of Right and the Politics of our Times, trans. James A. Massey, The Young Hegelians: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Stepelevich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 211.

99.  The Trumpet, pp. 125‑27. Emphasis added.

SOURCE: McLaughlin, Paul. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Anarchism (New York: Algora Publishing, 2002), Part 1.12, pp. 68-70, (notes, 101).

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