Anarchist ambivalence: politics and violence in the thought of Bakunin, Tolstoy and Kropotkin
European Journal of Political theory
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There appear to be striking contradictions between different strands of anarchist thought with respect to violence – anarchism can justify it, or condemn it, can be associated with both violent action and pacifism. The anarchist thinkers studied here saw themselves as facing up to the realities of violence in politics – the violence of state power, and the destructiveness of instrumental uses of physical power as a revolutionary political weapon. Bakunin, Tolstoy and Kropotkin all express ambivalence about violence in relation to political power. Instead of reading this ambivalence as a mark of inconsistency, or of abdication of responsible judgement, we argue that it signals a profound recognition of the dynamics of violence in both repressive and resistant politics. Kropotkin and Bakunin seek a cooperative collective political effort which is negated by individual acts of violence although it cannot be committed to non-violence as such. Tolstoy by contrast in his recognition of the organised violence of political power, turns from politics to morality, from organisation to individual renunciation. Tolstoyan non-violence is the opposite of Kropotkin’s mutual aid, and paradoxically Tolstoyan renunciation has effects only when it is underpinned by violence. Tolstoy leaves violence in its place, in his renunciation of it; and Bakunin and Kropotkin leave violence in its place in their plans for its undoing.