What is Authority?
Online Version: Essays by Bakunin and Bakunin Internet Archive, marxists.org 1999;
HTML Markup: Brian Basgen.
What is authority? Is it the inevitable power of the natural laws which
manifest themselves in the necessary linking and succession of
phenomena in the physical and social worlds? Indeed, against these laws
revolt is not only forbidden - it is even impossible. We may
misunderstand them or not know them at all, but we cannot disobey them;
because they constitute the basis and the fundamental conditions of our
existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements.
thoughts and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only
show their omnipotence.
Yes, we are absolutely the slaves of these laws. But in such
slavery there is no humiliation, or, rather, it is not slavery at all.
For slavery supposes an external master, a legislator outside of him
whom he commands, while these laws are not outside of us; they are
inherent in us; they constitute our being, our whole being, physically,
intellectually, and morally; we live, we breathe, we act, we think, we
wish only through these laws. Without them we are nothing, we are not.
Whence, then, could we derive the power and the wish to rebel against
In his relation to natural laws but one liberty is possible to
man - that of recognising and applying them on an ever-extending scale
of conformity with the object of collective and individual emancipation
of humanisation which he pursues. These laws, once recognised, exercise
an authority which is never disputed by the mass of men. One must, for
instance, be at bottom either a fool or a theologician or at least a
metaphysician, jurist or bourgeois economist to rebel against the law by
which twice two make four. One must have faith to imagine that fire will
not burn nor water drown, except, indeed, recourse be had to some
subterfuge founded in its turn on some other natural law. But these
revolts, or rather, these attempts at or foolish fancies of an
impossible revolt, are decidedly the exception: for, in general, it may
be said that the mass of men, in their daily lives, acknowledge the
government of common sense - that is, of the sum of the general laws
generally recognised - in an almost absolute fashion.
The great misfortune is that a large number of natural laws,
already established as such by science, remain unknown to the masses,
thanks to the watchfulness of those tutelary governments that exist, as
we know, only for the good of the people. There is another difficulty -
namely, that the major portion of the natural laws connected with the
development of human society, which are quite as necessary, invariable,
fatal, as te laws that govern the physical world, have not been duly
established and recognised by science itself.
Once they shall have been recognised by science, and then from
science, by means of an extensive system of popular education and
instruction, shall have passed into the consciousness of all, the
question of liberty will be entirely solved. The most stubborn
authorities must admit that then there will be no need either of
political organisation or direction or legislation, three things which,
whether they eminate from the will of the soverign or from the vote of a
parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform
to the system of natural laws - which has never been the case and never
will be the case - are always equally fatal and hostile to the liberty
of the masses from the very fact that they impose on them a system of
external and therefore despotic laws.
The Liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys
natural laws because he has himself recognised them as such, and not
because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will
whatsoever, divine or human, collective or individual.
Suppose a learned academy, composed of the most illustrious
representatives of science; suppose this academy charged with
legislation for and the organisation of society, and that, inspired only
by the purest love of truth, it frames none but the laws but the laws in
absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science. Well, I
maintain, for my part, that such legislation and such organisation would
be a monstrosity, and that, and that for two reasons: first, that human
science is always and necessarily imperfect, and that, comparing what it
has discovered with what remains to be discovered, we may say that it is
still in its cradle. So that were we to try to force the practical life
of men, collective as well as individual, into strict and exclusive
conformity with the latest data of science, we should condemn society as
well as individuals to suffer martyrdom on a bed of Procrustes, which
would soon end by dislocating and stifling them, life ever remaining an
infinitely greater thing than science.
The second reason is this: a society which should obey
legislation emanating from a scientific academy, not because it
understood itself the rational character of this legislation (in which
case the existence of the academy would become useless), but because
this legislation, emanating from the academy, was imposed in the name of
a science which it venerated without comprehending - such a society
would be a society, not of men, but of brutes. It would be a second
edition of those missions in Paraguay which submitted so long to the
government of the Jesuits. It would surely and rapidly descend to the
lowest stage of idiocy.
But there is still a third reason which would render such a
government impossible - namely that a scientific academy invested with
a soverignty, so to speak, absolute, even if it were composed of the
most illustrious men, would infallibly and soon end in its own moral and
intellectual corruption. Even today, with the few privileges allowed
them, such is the history of all academies. The greatest scientific
genius, from the moment that he becomes an academian, an officially
liscenced savant, inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses his
spontenaity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and
savage energy characteristic of the grandest geniuses, ever called to
destroy old tottering worlds and lay the foundations of new. He
undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom,
what he loses in power of thought. In a word, he bocomes corrupted.
It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged
position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether
practically or economically, is a man depraved in mind and heart. That
is a social law which admits of no exception, and is as applicable to
entire nations as to classes, corporations and individuals. It is the
law of equality, the supreme condition of liberty and humanity. The
principle object of this treatise is precisely to demonstrate this truth
in all the manifestations of social life.
A scientific body to which had been confided the government of
society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all,
but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all
established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering
the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more
in need of its government and direction.
But that which is true of scientific academies is also true of
all constituent and legislative assemblies, even those chosen by
universal suffrage. In the latter case they may renew their composition,
it is true, but this does not prevent the formation in a few years' time of a
body of politicans, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting
themselves exclusively to the direction of the public affairs of a country,
finally form a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy. Witness the United
States of America and Switzerland.
Consequently, no external legislation and no authority - one,
for that matter, being inseparable from the other, and both tending to
the servitude of society and the degradation of the legislators
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a
thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the
bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of
the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I
apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor
the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to
them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence,
their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable
right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting
a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare
their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I
recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions;
consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the
sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any
person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even
to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into
a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.
If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my
readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me
necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because
their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God.
ions and even their directions Otherwise I would repel them with horror,
and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their
services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty
and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of
lies, as they might give me.
I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed
on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in
all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of
human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a
comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for
industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I
receive and I give - such is human life. Each directs and is directed
in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a
continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary
authority and subbordination.
This same reason forbids me, then, to recognise a fixed,
constant and universal authority, because there is no universal man, no
man capable of grasping in all that wealth of detail, without which the
application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the
branches of social life. And if such universality could ever be realised
in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage thereof to impose
his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive this man out of
society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to
slavery and imbecility. I do not think that society ought to maltreat
men of genius as it has done hitherto: but niether do I think it should
indulge them too far, still less accord them any privileges or exclusive
rights whatsoever; and that for three reasons: first, because it would
often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; second, because, through
such a system of privileges, it might transform into a charlatan even a
real man of genius, demoralise him, and degrade him; and, finally,
because it would establish a master over itself.