Radical Fallacy: Voegelin on Bakunin and Marx

The founding father of modern anarchism and nihilism, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) once voiced the belief that “the social environment” is “stronger than the will and the intelligence of the strongest and most energetic individual.” In response, political philosopher Eric Voegelin notes the persistent fallacy in ignoring the interaction between man and institutions:

Bakunin is aware that the opportunities of the environment can be a temptation; he seems not to be aware that the fundamental structure of any social environment has something to do with the nature of man which creates it…. Bakunin gives the appearance of having never thought of the possibility that on the morning of the revolution human nature will set to work to create a new environment with opportunities for doing evil, which perhaps will not be precisely the same as the ones just abolished but still will be a comparable substitute (From Enlightenment to Revolution).

The Russian anarchist urged destruction of the old order in the belief that it would give rise to a new world, not only socially but also psychologically. Such ideological eschatology is invariably vague, even in the case of Communism. Marx daydreamed that work would be transformed into the “self-activity” of perpetual hobbies and loafing while people’s material needs were miraculously provided for. Of course, it may be in the best interests of the revolutionary to keep one’s expectations (as well as the timetable for change) as ill-defined as possible. In this way disappointment and criticism can be continually deflected, and the imperfections of the revolution itself can always be justified, whether it’s something as dramatic as the Bolshevik coup d’etat or as inane as the current demonstrations on Wall Street.

Voegelin describes Bakunin and Marx as being “demonically closed against transcendental reality.” The kind and quality of social institutions will be determined by individual character and not, as Marx held, the other way around. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,” he wrote, “but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” In another passage, Marx unveils the core of what Voegelin terms his logophobia when he complains that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in their various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” This represents the ultimate “anti-philosophy,” a sort of political alchemy, in its desire to circumvent the laws of the physical universe.

For more on Voegelin, see my earlier post.

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