Bakhtin and Anarchism

This is going to be an essay on Bakhtin through the anarchism of Rudolf Rocker. It’s another spin-off from Parlare the Carny which I thought needed more space to elaborate on but which would have taken the original essay too far away from its main focus. Still very much a work in process…

Although Marxism and anarchism are both – nominally – socialist philosophies there are significant and irreconcilable differences, notably regarding the rights and responsibilities of the individual and the role of the State. In this essay I would like to argue that Bakhtin’s philosophy sits far more comfortably within the Left-Libertarian tradition of anarchism than within the red bureaucracy of Marxism.

Bakhtin wrote his dissertation on Rabelais while the USSR was under the tyrannical rule of Stalin and Rabelais and His World can be seen as a coded critique of Marxist orthodoxy as well as a work of literary theory. Bakhtin and his circle suffered for their lack of Marxist orthodoxy during the Great Purge – largely because of their religion. Bakhtin was exiled to Kazakhstan, Valentin Volosinov was imprisoned, and Pavel Medvedev was arrested and shot.

Bakhtin’s work in particular represents an anti-authoritarianism alien to Marxist-Leninism, and the centrality of the marketplace to carnival does not sit well with the planned economies of State Communism. Nevertheless his sympathies are undoubtedly socialist and, as we’ll see later, responsibility is important to his view of identity.


Bakhtin’s rejection of official authority has not surprisingly brought him to the attention of anarchist theorists such as Robert Barsky, biographer of Noam Chomsky, and co-editor, with Michael Holquist, of an issue of Discours social/ Social Discourse dedicated to Bakhtin’s work.

In Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson claim that Bakhtin’s anarchism reflects the utopianism of Mikhail Bakunin.

Barsky argues that Morson and Emerson reduce Bakunin to his battle cry ‘The will to destroy is a creative will’ and identify this with Bakhtin’s carnivalesque celebration of rule breaking and cycles of renewal.

Bakhtin, Barsky contends, has closer parallels with the anarcho-syndicalism of Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), in both his interest in responsibility and his interest in language.

Rocker was a fierce critic of monologism and his book Nationalism and Culture (1937) makes a strong case for the social nature and emancipatory power of language in very Bakhtinian terms:

A common language naturally appears highly important to the advocates of the national idea because it is a people’s highest means of expression and must, in a certain sense, be regarded as a sample of its intellectual life. Language is not the invention of individual men. In its creation and development the community has worked and continues to work as long as the language has life in it. Hence, language appeared to the advocates of the national idea as the purest product of national creativeness and became for them the clearest symbol of national unity. Yet this concept, no matter how fascinating and irrefutable it may appear to most, rests on a totally arbitrary assumption. Among the present existing languages there is not one which has developed from a definite people. It is very probable that there were once homogeneous languages, but that time is long past, lost in the greyest antiquity of history. The individuality of language disappears the moment reciprocal relations arise between different hordes, tribes and peoples. The more numerous and various these relations become in the course of the millenniums, the larger borrowings does every language make from other languages, every culture from other cultures.

Consequently, no language is the purely national productof a particular people, nor even of a particular nation. Towards the development of every one of our cultural languages peoples of the most various origins have contributed. This was inevitable, because a language as long as it is spoken at all continually absorbs foreign elements in spite of all the noise of the purification fanatics. For every language is an organism in constant flux; it obeys no fixed rules, and flies in the face of all the dictates of logic. Not only does it make the most diversified borrowings from other languages, a phenomenon due to the countless influences and points of contact in cultural life, but it also possesses a stock of words that is continually changing. Quite gradually and unnoticeably the shadings and gradations of the concepts which find their expression in words alter, so that it often happens that a word means today exactly the opposite of what men originally expressed by it.

In reality, there exists no cultural language which does not contain great mass of foreign material, and the attempt to free it from these reign intruders would lead to a complete dissolution of the language — that is, if such a purification could be achieved at all. Every European language contains a mass of foreign elements with which, often, whole dictionaries could be filled…

For the development of every language the acceptance of foreign elements is essential. No people lives for itself. Every enduring intercourse with other peoples results in the borrowing of words from their language; this is quite indispensable to reciprocal cultural fecundation. The countless points of contact which culture daily creates between people leave their traces in language. New objects, ideas, concepts — religious, political, and generally social — lead to new expressions and word formations. In this, the older and more highly developed cultures naturally have a strong influence on less developed folk-groups and furnish these with new ideas which find their expression in language.

-Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture (277-278)

There’s a clear parallel here with Bakhtin’s dialogical conception of language and the carnivalising effects of polyphony and heteroglossia:

…at any given moment of its historic existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existance of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendences, schools, circles and so forth, all given bodily form. These ‘languages’ of heteroglossia intersectect other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying ‘languages’”

– Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (291)

Bakhtin and Rocker both saw totalitarianism in action: just as Bakhtin was victim of Stalinist persecution, Rocker was witness to the rise of Nazism in 1930′s Germany. Both saw attempts to ‘purify’ language into a monological whole as part of this process. Rocker shared Bakhtin’s belief in the diversity of language as vital in opposition to authority; both viewed attempts to separate utterances from  context

For Rocker, power always suppresses cultural production.

Power is never creative. It uses the creative force of a given culture to clothe its nakedness and increase it’s dignity. Power is always a negative element in history

-Rudolf Rocker, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism

Dialogism vs Dialectics

Dialogism is distinct from ‘dialectics‘. Dialectics date back to the Socratic dialogues of Plato and concern ‘dialogue’ between two or more people but in this case ‘dialogue’ is used to draw out inconsistencies and contradictions in the claims (the ‘thesis’) of an interlocutor in order to prove an ‘antithesis’. Modern dialectics is brought to us through Hegel via Marx. The Hegelian dialecticresolves contradictions through the synthesis of thesis (an abstract unity) and antithesis (concrete multiplicity) into a concrete unity. Marxist dialectics invert this. Marxism is a monological philosophy, reducing clashes of world view to a unified, monological whole through synthesis; dialogism, however, does not seek to resolve contradictions but to revel in them.

Bakhtin was influenced by Kant rather than Hagel and his judgement of dialectics was harsh:

Dialogue and dialectics. Take a dialogue and remove the voices… remove the intonations… carve out abstract concepts and judgements from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness – and that’s how you get dialectics.”

Mikhail Bakhtin, Jottings 1970-1971


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