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Anarchism through Bakunin: A Marxist Assessment

Herb Gamberg

Platypus Review 64 | March 2014


Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin


IN THE HISTORY OF THE LEFT, anarchism has always played a strange and more or less underground part. Anarchism was there at the beginning, it has been a permanent (if small) force throughout the major events and crises of the modern period, and it continues today as a significant body of thought and action. Yet in spite of its historical continuity, anarchism appears to have little historical development. While taking on the coloration of local events, the theory of anarchism propounded in the 19th century remains almost the same in our own times. In fact, it is often asserted even by strong sympathizers that anarchism possesses no really developed theory in the first place, that whatever else it may be, anarchism is not a well-worked-out doctrine of theoretical principles. In his introductory essay to a series of articles surveying the anarchist movement throughout the world, David Apter goes so far as to write that anarchism "gives little sense of consistent accumulation of ideas and theories".1 With its emphasis on action rather than ideas, it often "makes happenings into a substitute solution for programmes."2

The response to anarchism from the Marxist left, from Marx onward and including all of its varieties, has been clear and categorical. The Marxist left not only rejects anarchism; it denies that anarchism plays a progressive role in historical development. For conventional and conservative thought, on the other hand, anarchism conjures up images of pathological violence and arbitrary terrorism. What then is this thing which has difficulty defining itself, yet which others have little difficulty in denouncing?

Since anarchism lacks any unifying body of principles, perhaps it is best summed up as a particular mood or temperamental predisposition. In a book of articles on anarchism, James Joll suggests the very same thing: “... if there is a living anarchist tradition, it should be sought in psychological and temperamental attitudes to society as much as in sociological analysis of the societies in which anarchism has flourished.”3 I have little quarrel with this definition except to add that psychological predispositions like anarchism have social roots and definite socio-political consequences. It is these latter consequences which must be addressed in any attempts to locate where anarchism may lie (if it lies clearly at all) on the political spectrum.

The psychological state which seems to come closest to grasping anarchism is one of permanent rebellion. Relentless disobedience to any and all authority seems to be the rallying call for anarchism, regardless of the creeds and tactics within which such a call is made. And while anarchism often appeals to disobedience as a collective endeavor, whether in the name of classes or nations or age groups, its first attention is to each individual's rejection of authority wherever it may be. In this sense, Rousseau's famous outcry that man (sic) is born free yet everywhere he is in chains would strike a responsive chord among anarchists. For Rousseau, one of the founders of modern liberalism, postulates the existence of the individual rebel pitted against overwhelming forces of orthodoxy and tyranny, a position so much at the root of anarchist thought that it might be suggested that anarchism originates with the bourgeois revolution.4

The rebellion that defined the bourgeois revolution was not only against the feudal monarchy but was also suspicious of all authority, especially state authority. Given the common roots of liberalism, Marxism, and anarchism in this bourgeois revolution, their more fundamental differences rest upon the question of for whom or what the rebellion is done. Whereas Marxism focuses on social classes in conflict and the working class in rebellion as the potential resolver of that conflict, the focus of rebellion in both liberalism and anarchism is the individual: The infringement on individual liberty by state power is the starting point of these outlooks. The liberal rebellion against feudal authority saw individual property ownership as the guarantee of liberty and ultimately accommodates to that state which defends property (even as the latter becomes deindividualized through monopoly). And anarchism carries the liberal project to its logical conclusion by rejecting authority in all its forms.


Godwin and Proudhon, fathers of modern anarchism

There is a modern, humanistic anarchism, one committed to human betterment through human activities and devoid of much of the millennial utopianism of earlier types of rebellion. Its father is William Godwin, a thinker spawned, as with all that begins our age, by "the expectations and disillusionments of the French Revolution . . . [Godwin is the] first architect of a rational anarchist system of thought … [which] discards the dreams of the classical age and the dogma of Christian theology.”5 Unlike earlier thinkers who rejected existing social institutions in the name of a transworldly millennium that harked back to a presumed state of perfect human innocence (much like the myth of the Garden of Eden), Godwin squarely faced what he considered the falsity and tyranny of his own society as something to be understood and changed through the application of human intelligence. For Godwin, "virtuous conduct is rational conduct of which only a thinking and civilized man is capable."6

Like later anarchists, Godwin believed that one's moral principles must be lived immediately and daily, that one's own conduct could be a microcosm and example for others who wished to live freely and independently. Like many others of this creed, he failed.7 For Godwin, social criticism and social program begin and end with the individual. It is in this sense as well that modern anarchism and liberalism "stemmed from the same utilitarian root–the principle of the greatest happiness and the greatest freedom of the individual."8

Another significant strand of Godwin's thought places it squarely within the liberal tradition and continues to weave through modern anarchism as well: It is a fundamental axiom of the liberal ethos that security of property is an unquestioned principle and that the existence of government is accepted reluctantly as the safeguard of that property. The best government, according to liberalism, is that which governs least. Moreover, what has always been implied here is that the least government means local government, putatively close to the people, as opposed to faraway, centralized national government.

The utopian views of liberalism as well as of much subsequent anarchism appear to flow from these premises. In Godwin they are fused into an image of a world of simple agricultural life "which rejects property and government and secures liberty and equality...based on a decentralized confederacy of small independent local groups.”9 The slight difference between liberalism and anarchism appears to be the greater antipathy to government found in anarchism; otherwise, there is a striking similarity between the anarchism of Proudhon, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and even Gandhi and the liberalism of Jeffersonian democracy. It might be noted that what they oppose is not only government per se, but bigness in government, as well as bigness in everything else. Both seem to be involved with the romance of the small producer against the encroachments of government and economic monopoly.

This interconnection between anarchism and liberalism is continued in the person even more closely associated with the origins of modern anarchism: Proudhon. It is in Proudhon that we also see why modern anarchism, while often claiming itself to be socialist, is also often quite contradictory to the socialist tradition. Socialism, whatever its form, has always been fully committed to the advantages of larger, technically proficient enterprise. Proudhon, on the other hand, was in the main against the introduction of machine production, which he saw as the destroyer of the small independent producer. Thus Proudhon was not against property per se but against what he considered the abuses of property involved in big industrialized units. He also had a singular distrust of majority rule by parliamentary democratic process since he conceived of individual men (sic) as thinkers and of collectivities as mobs.

The common perception of society as broken into an elite of thinkers and a mass of sheep, a perception which still resonates through much scholarly and popular thought, owes much to Proudhon. Implicit to this conception has always been one of the major dilemmas of anarchism: Since rebellion against political elites appears to be perhaps the one consistent plank in an uncertain anarchist platform and since the untrustworthy masses are the agents of rebellion, what are the means by which the masses become virtuous and knowledgeable? Does this not demand the intervention of some training mechanism, some leadership to forge rebellion into progressive directions? And since any leadership is, to anarchism, ultimately as untrustworthy as the masses themselves, how is the conundrum to be resolved? Proudhon's rejection of all conventional politics, constitutions, and states in the name of a free confederation of individual producers contains the kernel of all later anarchist thought. Along with this kernel remains a profound distrust of all political entities (except perhaps oneself) to act as the stimulus for social transformation.10

Proudhon’s paternity resides in the fact that he led a large popular movement that represented his ideas in 19th century France. This was fully recognized by perhaps the best-known and greatest representative of modern anarchism: Michael Bakunin.


Bakunin: the almost complete anarchist

Michael Bakunin was born in 1814 to a liberal family of landed nobility, and like many more liberal families of this class, members were deeply involved in the Decembrist plot to overthrow the Czar in the late 1820s (in fact, a second cousin of Bakunin’s mother was one of those hanged in the repression that followed).11

Bakunin’s life and the thought that suffused his life are so fully enlivened with an anarchist animus that it is important to pay more attention to biographical detail in his case. That the adult Bakunin was the almost complete anarchist there can be little doubt. Apparently burning with revolutionary fervor at every moment, he spent a lifetime in political activity and never once became involved in work of a usual kind. He wrote little and did not develop a system of integrated principles, but this in itself is symptomatic of the anarchist animus, since one of its major postulates is the rejection of too fixed a doctrine. This often makes anarchism much more at one with the personality of the anarchist than with the exposition of a doctrinal system. Carr captures this point when he writes:

The personality of Bakunin is one of those phenomena which cannot be explained in rational terms. His ambitions were ill-defined and chimerical. His writings, though "rigorous, were incoherent; and, both in his writings and his actions, he seldom finished what he had begun. His chequered career was void of any concrete attainment. Yet he produced on his contemporaries an impression of overwhelming vitality and power.12

Yet there must be some at least minimal strains of thought which allow us to call acts and thoughts by the name of anarchism and these strains can be found in Bakunin. The emphasis on strains of thought is important here since it is not only the case that Bakunin lacked theoretical coherence; his type of thought makes a virtue out of such incoherence. The whole thrust of his theorizing is to be anti-theory; he expresses the anarchist credo as an aggregate of spontaneous passions. Carr seems to suggest that this confusion and incoherence is simply a matter of Bakunin’s personality or circumstance, but this is not the case. These characteristics appear intrinsic to the outlook for which Bakunin so clearly stands. This outlook is defined by this most representative practitioner, by his particular spirit and emotional texture; this texture then is undergirded by specific ideological components by which anarchism may be defined.

At the centre of Bakunin's anarchism is hostility to all authority and sympathy for those who are actually or potentially hostile to authority. While suspicion of authority is connected to liberalism and to other creeds, the engagement with underdogs against their more powerful oppressors is more unique to anarchism. Whenever there was an issue of oppression of one group by others with power, Bakunin felt it incumbent upon himself to leap into the fray. Since the variety of oppressed groups is usually very great, so Bakunin's life is wondrous in the degree to which it flits about from place to place and from issue to issue. The picture of Bakunin that emerges is that of a mobile revolutionary who, when rebellion was breaking out everywhere in 1848, left Paris to make revolution in Posen and then on to Dresden, having no plans and no connections, with just the spirit of revolution to guide him.13 At that time immersed in Pan-Slav nationalism, he jumped from a moderate Pan Slav congress where he represented Russia virtually alone (since there was no organization which authorized his presence) to the barricades of a student/worker insurrection in Prague. When this was put down, he simply slipped away. From Bakunin we confirm this image of anarchism as not so much a doctrine as an individual spirit of restless rebellion, with the anarchist more significant than the principles that s/he may espouse.


A barricade at the Paris Commune, 1871

A barricade at the Paris Commune, 1871


Yet it would be unfair to Bakunin to claim that he lacks all coherence, as certain enduring issues animated definite stages of his life. During the bourgeois revolutions of 1848, Bakunin made more purely liberal demands of the social order; these demands included the abolition of serfdom, aristocracy, and inherited privilege, those demands which were the core of the French Revolution in the 18th century. With the defeat of these revolutions, Bakunin, along with all those who were radicalized by the meekness and cowardice shown by the bourgeoisie in its own revolution, changed from a more narrowly political revolutionary to a more totally social one. With Marx, Bakunin saw the need for a total transformation of society rather than reform of its political institutions. And, again with Marx, Bakunin sometimes emphasized the centrality of class conflict as the motor force in this transformation. That the bottom of society is exploited and oppressed, and that this bottom has the right, indeed the duty, to overthrow the ruling elite in order to usher in a new world of equity and justice is a position upon which there was solid agreement between Bakunin and Marx. And on this basis, there evolved many points of alliance and common political work in the lives of these great protagonists.

Much of Bakunin’s thought points in the direction of a rationalism which, like Marx’s thought, does lead to some positive stance towards science. Bakunin’s acceptance of the need for technical development as the precondition for overall social development likewise elevated the scientific spirit. Unlike the anarchist tendencies of Thoreau, Gandhi, or some modern communalists, Bakunin was no exponent of a pristine return to a more natural, simpler life. For Bakunin, as for most modern anarchists, natural science as the handmaiden of technical advancement was both necessary and right.

Yet Bakunin had fundamental differences with Marx, differences which in the end made mortal enemies of them. Whereas Marx and Marxism have always seen themselves as a continuation of the bourgeois revolutionary engagement with reason (only rejecting that revolution because it was not reasonable enough), anarchism has often rejected reason in the name and spirit of instinct and raw passion. Bakunin is the prototype of this type of rebellion. For Bakunin, all conventions and laws are simply limits to the instinctive human desire for freedom from all limits. The ideal of freedom is to be realized by continual rebellion against all established order. To be human and free is to be undefined, unpredictable, and against all authority. Bakunin therefore demonstrated a particular revulsion to the application of science to revolutionary social change.


Bakunin’s Romantic Rebellion

The early 19th century was set off from other times by its reaction to the harbinger of the modern era, the French Revolution. Ushering in liberal capitalism with its great promise of prosperity, peace, and cooperation for all, it fell short in its actualization. Early capitalist industrialization in Europe was so ghastly in its exploitation of labor and its creation of brutalizing, slum-ridden cities that it set rebellion in motion everywhere. Marx represented the most optimistic prognostications to flow from the hiatus between liberal promise and capitalist reality. By applying the tools of a rationalist science to human history, Marx uncovered the agents of progress in the very disasters produced by industrial capitalist development. For Marx, science and technology were positive, but limited by their bourgeois nature. Therefore, the task was to deepen our understanding of social reality by applying a new scientific method and a different political action to that reality. In fundamental ways, Marxism was a progressive development of the thought and actions activated by bourgeois society itself–which, indeed, was something of which Marxism was accused by Bakunin.

Another rebellion was generated by this early crisis in industrial capitalism: the romantic rebellion. While accepting the tremendous advances produced by natural science in its application to technology–to reject these would have been foolhardy and only occurred amongst a hardy minority of medievalists–this rebellion occurred mainly in the realm of history and social thought. Bakunin's thought on these matters appears rooted in this particular 19th century rebellion. In it swelled up the great divide between nature and society, between the objectivity of science and the alleged freedom of human action. The romantic rebellion against science and technical progress could not frontally attack the obvious advances made in natural science because the Newtonian revolution in physics (and later the Darwinian in biology) became too firmly rooted in popular and intellectual consciousness. But capitalist society had clearly demarcated the private life of intimacy and emotion from the public life of far-flung markets and work outside the home; and for the romantics, the latter became the institutionalized focus of objectivity and science, such that science and industrial work took on the coloration of dullness, order, obedience, and emotionless routine. Science and its concomitant industrial development was seen as suffused with all that was not human.

In contradistinction to the objectivity of the world of nature, there arose amongst the romantics the view that the world of the really human, the historically human, was not subject to scientific analysis. Since scientific analysis was delimited to objectified nature which, in its predictability was inhuman, the truly human became the agent of pure subjectivity, of freedom from all limitations except "natural" ones. Human behavior is here not the predictable, determinable phenomenon that is amenable to science; instead it is more whimsical, indeterminate, and willful. And human history can never be seen in the law-like terms of science; it cannot be analyzed as exhibiting predictable tendencies, but can only be grasped by the intuitive understanding of free creatures. Bakunin's anarchism is clearly situated in this romantic conception of human behavior and human history. Bakunin did not merely reject particular substantive elements of Marx’s scientific analysis of history; he objected to the entire project itself, disclaiming the very possibility of a science of history and considering the very attempt to comprehend humans in this way to be wrongheaded. The first human reality for Bakunin is the free individual whose desires and passions will lead to a free society after individuals decide to do away with the corrupting social powers that delimit their inherent freedom.

Bakunin believed that any attempt to develop a science of society was tyrannical since it would undercut the natural human instinct to revolt against any system of rules. Social science can do little but articulate abstract laws, which cannot grasp living concrete individuals.14 When Bakunin proclaimed the need for science to become everyone's property,15 he meant natural science, for this would mean the freeing of humans from pretensions to social science. It is on this basis that Bakunin saw Marxism as not merely false, but as part of the ideological apparatus of oppression within his intellectual climate. To Bakunin, rebellion against all conformity to rules, even intellectual rules which construct knowledge, is of the essence of that freedom to which all should aspire. If Bakunin hated anything more than the state, he hated the idea of a science of society and any attempt to organize around such a science.16


Bakunin, Marx, and the First International

Bakunin’s long involvement with the First International initiated by Marx could rightly be seen as a conscious attempt at undermining the whole organizational thrust of that project. As justification for this position, Bakunin condemned Marxism as intrinsically tyrannical. Marx himself, said Bakunin, "lacks the instinct of liberty–he remains from head to foot an authoritarian.”17 In the most direct way, Bakunin elaborated upon the liberal credo that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely: "Nothing is as dangerous for man's personal morality as the habit of commanding."18 Bakunin’s distrust did not stop at state power; it extended to any permanent groupings consciously utilizing and seeking power. He saved his most striking barbs for those revolutionary groups which were conscientiously political. If, argued Bakunin, a revolutionary group means to organize for the control of state power, that political group and the regime it assumes, if successful, will be no different from all other states. Bakunin warned that Marx’s state "will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes."19 Here Bakunin reveals both his antipathy for conscious political organization in either pre-state or state forms as well as his profound suspicion for a scientific approach to the problem.

Underlying this rejection of political leadership, especially for those oppressed classes in need of revolution, was Bakunin's faith in the spontaneous revolutionary possibilities of those classes. "The great mass of workers...because of its social position, is more truly socialist than all the scientific and bourgeois socialists combined."20 Not only does ultimate wisdom reside in the people, a view held in general by all progressive views, but immediate wisdom resides there as well. Yet Bakunin was neither romantic nor foolish enough to believe that the people are one homogeneous and unified mass of spontaneous goodness. He saw oppressed classes as variegated and uneven in outlook and attitude, with elite members holding more advanced ideas than others, and saw the more backward members of these classes as in need of assistance, education, and example to facilitate their movement forward. In short, Bakunin clearly recognized the existence of leadership in all social groupings, and he also clearly recognized that oppressed classes can only overcome their oppression with good rather than bad leadership. This lead Bakunin, and all of anarchism, into its most profound conundrum.

If all conscious political leadership is inherently undemocratic at the same time at which leadership is a necessary element in revolutionary transformation, then how is it possible to square this circle? Bakunin's solution, the one which has been common to anarchism throughout contemporary history, appears in a way to compound the dilemma: The revolution to succeed needs a directorate, one that is secretive, and in its secretiveness influences rather than commands the already revolutionary ideas of the populace. It is necessary, said Bakunin,

 for the triumph of the Revolution over reaction that the unity of ideas and of revolutionary action find an organ in the midst of the popular anarchy which will be the life and the energy of the Revolution. This organ should be the secret and universal association of the International brothers.

There need not be a great number of these men. One hundred revolutionaries, strongly and earnestly allied, would suffice for the international organization of all of Europe.21

This secret band of revolutionary brotherhood is supposed to act everywhere to maintain the revolutionary direction of the people's raw energy. Upon revolutionary victory, the band will simply disappear as the federation of autonomous localities and regions will usher in the future in need of no leadership and no state. Bakunin thus solved the problem of political corruptibility by postulating a temporary body of leaders–leaders, he asserted, without leadership, which he abjured. In his own lifetime he remained true to his creed as he perpetually recruited people (often after one night of heated discussion) into secret revolutionary brotherhoods and perpetually expelled them in moments of disagreement and conflict. His hatred of leadership (while spending his life trying to lead) was so great that he was forever critical of all public and open manifestations of political action while he hatched secret societies whose existence was often lodged only in his imagination.22

This mixture of rejection of intelligible understanding and adherence to secret organization to lead without leading makes the anarchist project of this arch-anarchist a strange one. How is it decided who deserves to belong to the brotherhood (sic) of revolutionaries? Since anarchist thought denies the possibility of a body of principles by which revolutionaries may band together–in fact, it considers the very idea of such principles a symptom of dreaded political authority–and since anarchist thought only accepts leadership which is in continual opposition to its right to lead, the basis of recruitment to the brotherhood appears to be extremely tenuous and hazy. Without any principles for membership and with only begrudging acceptance of the need for criteria of recruitment, anarchist organization is usually based on the fickleness of personality, on the vagaries of style, or on presumed high moral sentiments.

Bakunin's antipathy to Marxist theory, indeed to all attempts at theory, is connected to his commitment to the spontaneous rebellion of sections of the population whenever and wherever it may occur. The greater the degree of rebellion against the established order demonstrated by any group, the greater the probability that Bakunin would define that group as the revolutionary hope of the moment. Bakunin was always preparing for the Great Revolution that would destroy the past and usher in the future in one stroke; he condemned those strata which appeared to be demanding change in a piecemeal fashion through relatively stable organizations for their dull, plodding reformism, for their absence of true revolutionary militancy. Thus Marx’s engagement with the construction of working-class trade unions involved with bettering immediate economic conditions was seen by Bakunin as a dampening of real revolutionary militancy. Conflict which is in any way institutionalized was, to Bakunin, no conflict at all.

This passion for spontaneous upsurge or nothing at all led Bakunin to downplay the industrial working class because it appeared to be integrated into the new industrial order. He expected much greater things from other classes because their marginality appeared to generate more overt and intense passion. Thus the peasantry came in for special treatment: In contradiction to Marx's reference to the idiocy of rural life, an idea rooted in a whole theory of social development, Bakunin raised the peasantry to the heights of revolutionary grandeur. The revolutionary movement must be “spontaneous, uncompromising, passionate, anarchic, and destructive.”23 The peasantry was suited for this type of action because, being “only slightly affected by the pernicious influence of bourgeois society, the peasants still retain their native energy and simple unsophisticated folkways.”24 Bakunin goes on to indicate the anti-working-class nature of this embrace of the peasant:

The more sophisticated–and by that very circumstance, slightly bourgeois-tinged-socialism of the city workers, misunderstands, scorns, and mistrusts the vigorous, primitive peasant socialism, and tries to overshadow it.25

In these passages we see many of Bakunin's assumptions about the social order and his ideas about its transformation. He distrusted any theory based on the predictable behavior of any class, a predictability which could lead to sustained and long-range organization and activity by that class. A sustained class-consciousness is, according to Bakunin, corrupted, simply because it is regular and predictable. He could thus reject not only Marx's theory, which perceived one class as more revolutionary as a product of the predictable dynamics of the capitalist system, but also that very class, as it demonstrated its predictability through organizational forms. Bakunin did not reject working-class trade unions because they manifested bourgeois characteristics; rather, he saw the very existence of such organizations as retrogressive. Bakunin glorified the peasantry for its lack of regularized connection to capitalism, for its potential for chaotic rebellion without organization. Any stratum not against the whole system, ready to destroy it at a moment, is to be condemned as co-opted, sold out, and reformist.

In both the economic and political realm, Bakunin scorned program in the name of total revolution. "Let us talk less about revolution and do a great deal more. Let others concern themselves with the theoretical development of the principles of the Social Revolution, while we content ourselves with spreading these principles everywhere, incarnating them into facts".26 This amounts to eschewing theory in the name of revolutionary action. Bakunin defined revolutionary action as totally pure activity devoid of the taint of compromise. Since all social theory, Marxist or otherwise, is built on the basis of some order of factual regularity, and since all action based on such theory must take into account the dealing with such regularity, then some aspect of compromise (with reality) is demanded by theoretically-based action. Bakunin would have none of this. In the realm of economic action he scorned the everyday demands of the trade unions for better working conditions; these predictable demands of a class developing its own organization were seen as dangerous compromises since they undermined the instinctive desire of the class to completely overthrow the whole system. To Bakunin, then, all demands for economic reform are by definition reformism, and all political advocates of such reforms are sellouts.

Yet Bakunin recognized the importance of bread and butter issues to the development of working-class consciousness. The militant worker, wrote Bakunin, by slow accretion of real experience in struggle and solidarity "ends by recognizing himself as a revolutionist, an anarchist, and an atheist, without in the least knowing how he became such.”27 Implicit in this statement is not only a rejection of theory as concomitant of experience, but also a single-purposed attitude toward the economic demands of trade unionists. These demands, to Bakunin, were not deserving of respect in their own terms, but only as stimuli (and unconscious ones at that) to higher more noble purposes. While Marxists have often been accused of taking an instrumentalist approach to the everyday demands of the working class, of using these demands only as a springboard to revolution, this instrumentalism applies much better to anarchism. In its dedication to the Revolution as the great conflagration which, in a moment, destroys the past and creates the future, anarchism usually defines anything less than Revolution as ignoble or merely useful for the higher end. Bakunin, however, still recognized the efficacy of economic demands in leading toward his desired revolution and, while remaining antipathetic to the idea of organization in general, accepted the necessity of trade union organization for the working class. In his commitment to localism as the ultimate source of real democracy, he also saw trade unions as the potential building blocks of the future (and thereby prepared the way for later syndicalist directions).


The State

In his attitude toward more distinctly political activity, Bakunin revealed a more fundamental intransigence. He was not so foolish as to reject politics in its broadest sense, since he clearly realized that ideological positions of all stamps have implications for social change. Rather, he opposed all actions which could be defined as political in the narrower sense of accepting the need for state power. Here Bakunin reveals the most basic idea of all anarchism, the idea which demarcates it from all other creeds: the state is the source and origin of all evil. Any actions which accept the presence of the state, either implicitly or explicitly, are counterrevolutionary. "The State", wrote Bakunin, "is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity.”28

There is often misunderstanding of the difference between anarchism and Marxism on the question of the state since both viewpoints consider the state as a pernicious agency and both favor its dissolution. Marxism sees the origin of a centralized organization of violence (Marxism’s definition of a state) in the rise of class societies and sees its dissolution to result only from the creation of a classless society. Anarchism, as stated before, does not appear to have a theory of the state (or of classes), which leads it to postulate that a ruling class which controls property and a ruling group which controls power are often one and the same thing. Nonetheless, in much anarchist writing, the state is given primacy over all other institutions and is therefore seen as the most fundamental roadblock to social transformation. Thus, in discussing the elements of a successful revolution, Bakunin argued that “it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods; to destroy property and the State."29 But Bakunin went further: “The revolution as we understand it will have to destroy the State and all the institutions of the State, radically and completely, from its very first day."30

On the basis of this position, Bakunin attacked Marxism for its acceptance of a state form upon the accession to revolutionary power. Revolutionary Marxism (of both Marx in his discussion of the Paris Commune and Lenin in State and Revolution) saw a socialist revolution as demanding the destruction of the old state, the bourgeois state, but not the destruction of all states all at once; instead, a new type of transitional state must be created, a working-class state, which is supposed to prepare the way for future classlessness and statelessness. Bakunin saved his most pointed barbs for this idea. Any revolution, he wrote, which intends to construct a "powerfully centralized revolutionary State, would inevitably result in military dictatorship and a new master.”31 Thus, for Bakunin and for all anarchism, the Marxist idea that the working class should fight for state power is considered a fundamentally counterrevolutionary idea. Whether the state proclaims itself capitalist or socialist makes little difference since its very existence makes that state equally pernicious. That the 20th century revolutions that created proletarian states have moved neither to classlessness nor statelessness has clearly strengthened the prophecies of doom on the score articulated by anarchism since Bakunin.

At the time of the split in the International Workingmen’s Association between Bakunin and Marx near the end of Bakunin's life, Bakunin advocated for all political questions to be banned from the International and argued that "we should seek to strengthen this association solely in the field of economic solidarity."32

Since Bakunin demonstrated a reluctance to get involved with daily economic demands because their satisfaction could and would lead to cooptation, what could he have meant by the "field of economic solidarity"? This phrase can be understood only by recognizing that Bakunin’s real emphasis is on the solidarity. But again, what could he have meant by a solidarity that rejected any program, whether economic or political, which might build and maintain collective strength? Solidarity in Bakunin's sense could only have meant the unity and collective spirit that arises and continues to percolate from the spontaneous rebellion of working people as a dominated class. Only one aspect of that solidarity interested Bakunin: that aspect which existed in a pure form and, with a mighty violent swoop, would destroy the old order and usher in the new. While it waits for the day of reckoning, anarchism has the right and the duty to disparage and destroy all organizations which work upon the idea that solidarity is a social process which, to be built, must have a developmental plan based on theory and analysis. In response to this position, Marx castigated Bakunin for being a destructive force in the First International.

For Bakunin, the triumph of revolution was no more than the spontaneous growth of the “goddess of revolt;”33 the organization which develops spontaneously was the actual microcosm of a revolutionary society. On these grounds he could claim that:

The true program, I will repeat it a thousand times, is quite simple and moderate: the organization of solidarity in the economic struggle of labour against capitalism. On this foundation, at first exclusively natural, will rise the intellectual and moral pillars of the new society.34

Perhaps Bakunin felt this comment was necessary to justify his own right to revolutionary legitimacy (since he originated in the Russian landowning class), but it was a strange admission from one who downgraded all theory and leadership in the name of popular revolutionary instinct.

Two major anarchist ideas flow from the glorification of spontaneous rebellion. The first is distrust of all social groupings other than the most local ones, for if instinct is the source of rebellion, then this only occurs in its true form at the immediate and face-to-face level. The second idea is the expectation that broader types of social organization in a future society will involve the automatic and voluntary confederation of local groups; if the state is to be rejected in all its forms then only voluntary association can be the glue of wider social formations. By seeing rebellion in this instinctive form not only as the source of revolutionary change, but furthermore as the microcosmic blueprint for all future change, the anarchist tends to see him/herself and his/her closest political grouping as the living locus of the new society. As a consequence, this seemingly most broad-spirited and often internationalist viewpoint, by rejecting analysis and systematically presented ideas about groups, processes, and future change, actually often ends up with little more than each anarchist strongly holding the sentiment that “the revolution, C'est Moi,”–or, if not exactly Moi, then, at best, “the revolution, C'est Nous.” Bakunin’s thought leads in this direction near the beginning of modern anarchism, and this sentiment is more forcefully articulated in later manifestations, especially among the New Left of the 1960s.

In its unapologetic lack of theoretical clarity, Bakunin's continual condemnation of the state in all its forms indicates another characteristic common to anarchism: a confusion about the concepts of the state, of government, and of leadership, terms which Bakunin uses almost interchangeably throughout his written works. James Guillaume’s sympathetic biographical sketch of Bakunin quotes him as saying that "it is absolutely impossible for a man who wields power to remain a moral man.”35 In this statement, Bakunin rejects the very idea of societal power regardless of the particular manifestations it may take. But is it possible to imagine any social formation without some aspects of power in it? Even a friendship between two people is not based on the absence of power but on equal acceptance of the effective energy of each partner in the friendship. When we proceed to more complex social groupings characterized by a complicated division of labor then some sort of coordinating or managing role becomes necessary.


Marxist Assessments

At the end of Bakunin' s life, the difference between his outlook and Marx's was symbolized by the expulsion of Bakunin and his group from the International in the early 1870s. However, the truly great divide between anarchism and Marxism did not assume real importance until well after the death of the originators of these two movements. The reasons for this are manifold. In the first place, socialist thought first arose in the 19th century and all of its early protagonists were busy affirming its first principles and demarcating it from non-socialist thought. Although divisions quite obviously arose in the socialist movement itself, divisions which are already mentioned in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1847, these differences were often theoretical; the working class movement was still small and immature, and while many shades and nuances contended within it, these were all tolerated in the face of much larger and more powerful enemies. Even a concept so central to Marxism as the dictatorship of the proletariat did not take theoretical form until the working class faced its first real possibility of holding power in the Paris Commune of 1871, and this concept most clearly demarcated the Marxist from the anarchist viewpoints on the nature of the state. Thus, although there was much rancor and distrust between anarchism and Marxism in these early formative years, it can be said that both were recognized as legitimate progressive forces, fighting in sometimes different ways for common goals.

Much of this changed in the late 19th century when the working class became a real force on the political scene and what had earlier appeared to be "mere" theoretical disagreements become divisions of great practical significance. Engels' response to the anarchist engagement with the Paris Commune was quite representative of his and Marx's views on the subject: "either the anti-authoritarians [meaning anarchists] don't know what they are talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction."36

Lenin, writing at a time when the issue of opportunism was more pointed and directly involved in the problem of revolutionary transformation, was also forceful in his condemnation of anarchism. He asserted that anarchism has "no doctrine, revolutionary teaching, or theory. – Fragmentation of the working-class movement. – Complete fiasco in the experiments of the revolutionary movement (Proudhonism, 1871; Bakuninism; 1873). –Subordination of the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of the negation of politics."37 The allusion by Lenin to bourgeois politics refers to the overall consequences of anarchist activity–that it results in the conserving of the bourgeois order of things. Marxism would consider that anarchism's emphasis on individual liberty means that its origins and manifestations are petit bourgeois i.e., rooted in small property ideology.

Lenin saw the growth and influence of anarchism as due to the immaturity of the working class movement; according to Lenin, anarchism was a passing thing which would disappear with the growing strength and political maturity of the working class. In response to questions about anarchists in Germany following the Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote:

By polemicising with them we merely give them publicity. They are too unintelligent; it is wrong to take them seriously; and it is not worth being angry with them. They have no influence among the masses, and will acquire none, unless we make mistakes. Let us leave this tiny trend to die a natural death; the workers themselves will realize that it is worthless.38

Anarchism did not die the natural death predicted by Lenin; it has since seen major rebirths in Spain, in the New Left, and in various other smaller upsurges. Whether this is due to the continuing political immaturity of the working class as Lenin contended (an immaturity which he saw as nearly over in his own time) appears somewhat debatable. Even if this immaturity remains a factor in explaining the staying power of anarchism, it must be considered that other forces are at work here; and if anarchism is a result of immaturity, it does not appear to be something which is normally and easily outgrown.

When anarchism finds itself in the socialist camp, it carefully delineates itself from other socialism by declaring itself libertarian socialist. This liberty is not fundamentally a freedom that derives from and is fostered by social circumstances, but is a disembodied mystique of pure voluntary will. While anarchism seemingly objects only to state power over the individual, it actually rejects the limits set by any social organizational form. The anarchist is an uneasy member of any social organization, always prepared to reject its dictates for the sake of individual want, need, or whim. Moreover, since s/he also rejects the need for any theory that gives justification for such membership, the anarchist is always capable of finding justification for quitting membership in any group. Single-issue politics joined at the height of militancy only to be dropped with the rise of another exciting issue is most common to anarchist activity because this mode of politics fits so well with this restless, continually rebellious spirit.

If anarchism is more of a mood than a stable theory and analysis, then the core political emphasis of this mood is perpetual impatience. Anarchism cannot be seen, then, as a congealed doctrine which fights and either clearly wins or clearly loses; rather, anarchism, as a persistent undercurrent of liberalism, is always part of a society that nurtures liberal individualism and will remain so as long as the liberal tradition holds sway in the world.|P

  1. David Apter, “The Old Anarchism and The New Some Comments,” in Anarchism Today, eds. David Apter and James Joll (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1972), 4-5. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. James Joll, “Anarchism A Living Tradition,” in Apter and Joll (eds.), Anarchism Today, 260. 

  4. Joll says just this when he claims that “anarchism owes more to conventional liberalism than some of its exponents are willing to admit.” [Ibid.] 

  5. Atindranath Bose, A History of Anarchism (Calcutta: The World Press Private Ltd., 1967), 77. 

  6. Ibid., 82. 

  7. Ibid., 108-109. 

  8. Ibid., 113. 

  9. Ibid., 103. 

  10. That this solipsism and even nihilism are not adventitious to anarchism is represented most clearly in Stirner, the quintessential individualist anarchist, who postulates himself as the beginning and end of all existence. 

  11. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (London: Macmillan and Co., 1937), 5. 

  12. Ibid., 143. 

  13. Ibid., 153. 

  14. Mikhail Bakunin, “God and the State” in Bakunin on Anarchy, ed. Sam Dolgoff (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972), 232. 

  15. Ibid., 233. 

  16. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin, 437. 

  17. James Guillaume, “Biography of Bakunin” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 26. 

  18. Mikhail Bakunin, “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 145. 

  19. Mikhail Bakunin, “The International and Karl Marx” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 319. 

  20. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Policy of the International” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 166. 

  21. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Program of the International Brotherhood” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 154-55. 

  22. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin, 182. 

  23. Mikhail Bakunin, “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 186. 

  24. Ibid., 189. 

  25. Ibid., 192. 

  26. Ibid., 195. 

  27. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Program of the Alliance” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 254. 

  28. Mikhail Bakunin, “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 133. 

  29. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Program of the International Brotherhood” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 151-152. 

  30. Ibid., 152. 

  31. Ibid., 151. 

  32. Mikhail Bakunin, “Letter to La Liberté” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 278. 

  33. Mikhail Bakunin, “The International and Karl Marx” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 308. 

  34. Ibid., 303. 

  35. James Guillaume, “Biography of Bakunin” in Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy, 44. 

  36. Friedrich Engels, “On Authority” in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism: Selected Writings by Marx, Engels, and Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 104. 

  37. Vladimir Lenin, “Anarchism and Socialism” in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, 186. 

  38. Vladimir Lenin, “A letter to the German Communists” in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, 339. 


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