Rothbard was wrong…Bakunin was not “a militant atheist”

In Intro to Libertarianism on October 1, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I have to admit that I am a bit behind on my libertarian readings. At the urging of my friend, Dr. LaBaume, I’ve spent some time pouring over the proto-libertarian writings of Murray Rothbard. Most recently, LaBaume sent me an excerpt of Rothbard’s An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, which contained the following:

 “All this reveals a spirit that often seems to animate militant atheism. In contrast to the nonmilitant variety, which expresses a simple disbelief in God’s existence, militant atheism seems to believe implicitly in God’s existence, but to hate him and to wage war for his destruction. Such a spirit was all too clearly revealed in the retort of the militant atheist Bakunin to the famous pro-theist remark of the deist Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create Him.” To which the demented Bakunin retorted, “If God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy Him.” It was this hatred of God as a creator greater than himself that apparently inspired Karl Marx.”

Having just completed a fairly comprehensive look at the beliefs of Mikhail Bakunin and his turbulent relationship with Marx, I believe Rothbard erred in his assumptions.

The relationship between Marx and Bakunin was significant for the chasm separating their philosophies. Bakunin, the prototypical libertarian-socialist, correctly forecasted that state socialism/communism would “prove bloodier” than all of the combined European monarchies. Bakunin strongly disagreed with Marx on the role of the state in a socialist economic system. While they occasionally consulted with each other on their respective socialist theories, they remained deeply divided. Marx even referred to Bakunin (in similar fashion to Rothbard) as “a demented nihilist”.

Great minds are capable of great errors. Rothbard made an enormous error with regard to Bakunin’s alleged “militant atheism”. Pyziur quotes a personal letter of Bakunin, penned in 1849:

 “You are mistaken if you think I do not believe in God. I seek God in man, in human freedom and now I seek God in revolution.”

What then, of the infamous Bakunin quote, “If God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy Him”?

The statement is true and I agree with it one hundred percent. If G-d’s existence could be proven, God would become a demotivator. Why do anything on our own? Just go to God. Bakunin did not “hate” G0d. Bakunin did not want God to become an excuse for people to sit in church, praying for revolution.

Why did Rothbard err?

Rothbard came to full in a time when communists and socialists were typified as “godless” by the American, capitalist state. What better way to malign Bakunin’s anarcho-socialism than to align it with “godless” communists and socialists? It was a time of “Truth, justice, and the American way!”

During World War II, a German (Lutheran) pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of God’s love, and he was persecuted and killed by the Nazis. In his papers he wrote, “We must live as though God does not exist.”

It is in a similar spirit that Bakunin made his assertion.

How so?

It is all well and fine, when encountering human misery and wretchedness so say, “I will pray for this poor person’s welfare.” Perhaps the prayers help? What Bonhoeffer was conveying is that the observer must do something on a personal level to alleviate the suffering he encounters.

It certainly will do no harm to pray to God that the poor person will, somehow, obtain money with which to obtain what he needs. Odds are, rationally, that the prayer will be uttered and the poor wretch will go hungry, despite the fact that a prayerful person (with money) stood next to him and did nothing, except to pray.

A rabbi I studied with put it this way: “When you encounter misery, you should not pray to God that someone else will do something about the sufferer’s misery. Don’t pray, ‘Dear God, send someone to help this unfortunate!’ God did send someone. He sent you!”

Only a chasid shoteh, a “pious fool” would stand outside of a burning house praying for God to send someone to pull the imperiled family out of the conflagration…when he, the prayerful one, should leap into action and rescue the people inside.

Murray Rothbard missed by a mile. Bakunin believed in God. However, he did not believe faith and religion were superior to individual action. So long as people see God as a magical Santa Claus, mercifully fulfilling all of the wishes of those who summon Him, they will stand idle and wait for “God to fix it”. Bakunin did not hate God. Bakunin hated the inertia created when pious people fail to act. Bakunin did not wish to destroy God. He wanted anarchists of his day to take responsibility and act.

We are vehicles through which God acts. God is not the vehicle for our wants and desires. If God were the vehicle, He would be little more than a genie we summon to do our heavy lifting. As an orthodox rabbi I once learned under observed, “If we can just order God around, He is not God and is unworthy of being worshipped. Such a being is a golem, not a God.”

I have absolute faith that God answers all prayers. Sometimes, the answer is “no”. It is my responsibility to come to grips with the possibility that God will answer my prayers with a negative response.

So, when we happen upon human misery, that’s our cue to step up. We reach in our pocket for a buck or two to give a beggar. It’s our cue to buy him a meal.

As libertarians, we abhor that the state confiscates our wealth and plays magnanimous with our money. Until we step up, we cannot stand up to protest state confiscation. In fact, the state counts on our “inertia of giving” as an excuse to continue pilfering through our purses.

Contrary to the assertions of Murry Rothbard, Bakunin knew this and it was what he meant.

  1. I don’t purport to be an expert or even have much more than a cursory knowledge of Bakunin, but I think you’re 100% wrong about Bakunin, although the ideas that you- I believe falsely- attribute to Bakunin have their merit. They only time you even quote Bakunin is when you quote Bakunin is when you quote Rothbard allegedly quoting Bakunin out of context.

    Bakunin saw rebellion against authority as one of the highest aims in life. He also saw God as a ruthless tyrant. Any belief in God was lacking in any intellectual thought to him. He even attacks theism (you appear to view him as some kind of theist, since you say he believed in God), saying that people who reject the miracles of the Bible and still believe in an all-powerful being are just as wrong as the most faithful Christian. Actually, most if not all of that can be found within a few pages of Bakunin’s quotation of Voltaire and his own reworded quote based on Voltaire.

    • Bakunin’s comments on G-d have fueled all manner of debate. If he believed in G-d, was he still an anarchist? If he didn’t believe in G-d, was his brand of anarchism ‘good’?

      Does the belief in an Invisible Friend better qualify the believer’s views on other subjects?

      Let’s look at what Bakunin said of G-d in 1849: “You are mistaken if you do not think I believe in G-d. I seek G-d in man, in human freedom and now I seek G-d in revolution.(Morris 1993)” His, was pretty much an echo of what was being said throughout and after the Enlightenment about the nature of G-d and the often different nature of religion.

      Did Bakunin backtrack? I don’t think so, and close examination of what he said later seems to support this.

      To Bakunin’s religious contemporaries “G-d” was the Church. “G-d” was religion itself. As the church did, G-d did.

      Church and state had a mutualistic relationship. Therefore, G-d and the state have the same relationship. His writings directed at rebutting Mazzini in 1871 take exactly this tone.

      One can be spiritual, and also entirely an anti-religionist.

      But, let’s suppose Bakunin evolved into a classical atheist. Does his atheism make him more palatable to anarchists? Or, are we to suppose that the anarchism of a theist is superior to that of the atheist?

      I think it’s better that we do not allow ourselves to worry too much about whether or not someone has an invisible friend or not.

      Thanks for reading!

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