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A Marxist critique of Bakunin

By Louis Proyect

With the advent of "anti-globalization" protests, a very old movement seems to be picking up steam once again. This seems to have something to do with fashion, according to an article that appeared in the Style section of the April 4, 2000 Washington Post:


"Is this the Anarchist Soccer League?" asks the girl with the pierced lip and eyebrow. She catches the eye of a guy whose black T-shirt identifies him as "Poor, Ugly, Happy."

He informs her that, yes, this is the regular pickup game of the Anarchist Soccer League, held on Sunday afternoons amid the minivan-and-merlot enclaves of upper Northwest Washington.

She surveys the dusty field near Woodrow Wilson High School, where 30 players have amassed to kick a ball around to promote physical fitness, camaraderie and the defeat of global capitalism. They're mainly college-age men and women--energetic, fairly decent players. They know how to cross and dribble. They wear cleats and shin guards. "It looks too organized to be the Anarchist Soccer League," the pierced girl says dismissively. She adjusts the black bra under her white tank top, wondering whether to join in.

"I need a cigarette," she decides, and roller-blades off to find one.

But soon she'll return to get into the game. She's a punk rocker, a supporter of an activist group called Refuse & Resist. She wants to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop killer.

Her name is Barucha Peller. She wears Abercrombie & Fitch pants and carries a Nine West wallet. She's not entirely sure that she's an anarchist--"I'm 17, too young to pick any ideology"--but she definitely doesn't like The System.

It's a sunny afternoon. So, sure, she'll play some soccer.


One might legitimately question whether this will generate any long-term commitment to revolutionary politics. According to veteran left activist Walt Sheasby, a 1970 news source reported that there were an estimated 2 million U.S. citizens who considered themselves "revolutionary." As an SDS organizer, Sheasby witnessed chapters springing up overnight like mushrooms. Many of these young radicals--Ms. Peller's forerunners--were also resistant to ideology. He confesses that, "In various political activities over the last three decades, I've met hardly a handful of those I knew in the sixties. I'm willing to bet other organizers would tell the same tale. It's as if these 'revolutionaries' never lived."


Whether the revival of anarchism will turn out to more than just a passing fad is too soon to say. For Marxists, however, its reappearance presents something of a challenge. For Barbara Epstein, writing in the Marxist Monthly Review, it is not only a shot in the arm for the left, but offers the possibility of a kind of arranged marriage between the red and the black down the road.


"Actually existing" anarchism has changed and so has "actually existing" Marxism. Marxists who participated in the movements of the sixties tend to have a sharper appreciation of the importance of social and cultural equality, and of living according to our values in the present, than did many members of previous generations of Marxist activists. If a new paradigm of the left emerges from the struggle against neoliberalism and the transnational corporate order, it is likely to include elements of anarchist sensibility as well as of Marxist analysis.


All of this suggests that the marriage will combine Marxist brains and anarchist heart. It is entirely possible that the anarchist targets of Professor Epstein's affections might spurn these advances. Indeed, based on my encounters with anarchists on the Internet, I am left with the impression that not only do they have their own analysis regarded as vastly superior to Marxism, but are not bashful about saying so.

This article is the first in a series that will try to come to terms with anarchist ideology. The chief purpose is not to change anarchist minds. After all, if a movement has maintained an existence for over 150 years without any tangible victories, one might have to ask whether something other than rational expectations or practical politics keeps it afloat. We instead intend to help clarify the thinking of people like the good Professor Epstein, so that the prospects of an arranged marriage might be less risky for either party. When this kind of intimacy is involved, one should minimize risks.

For many reasons, Bakunin is a good place to start in such an investigation. Not only is he a founding father of anarchism, his career developed partly as a series of ideological and organizational challenges to Marx.

Marx and Bakunin both emerge out of the radical wing of the Hegelian School of philosophy. Since most of Europe in this period was struggling to overcome the dead weight of feudal economic and social institutions, Hegel's appeal is easily understandable. His dictum that "All that is rational is real and all that is real is rational" was not only a succinct statement of the Enlightenment, his entire philosophy revolved around the notion of an uneven and dialectical process toward a more progressive society and politics.

A breach opened up between the Young Hegelians and their tutor over his belief that such progress was identifiable with the Prussian state. In many ways, Hegel's tendency to idealize the Kaiser's regime is reminiscent of the efforts of a modern version of Hegelianism, namely Francis Fukuyama's "End of History," which apotheosizes the modern liberal imperialist state.

In the early 1840s, as both Marx and Bakunin were struggling to transcend the Hegelian framework, they made contact with socialist and communist circles led by thinkers such as Moses Hess, Wilhelm Weitling and P.J. Proudhon. What unites these early thinkers is their tendency to see the struggle for a classless society in moral or philosophical terms. They hoped to lead European society to a better future through a kind of prophetic denunciation of contemporary ills. Proudhon's notion that "property is theft" epitomizes this approach.

Marx eventually came to the conclusion that a critique of capitalism had to be rooted in political economy rather than ethics. Written in 1846-47, "The Poverty of Philosophy" is not only an answer to Proudhon's "Property is Theft," it also contains some of the basic economic insights that would be more fully developed in Capital.

Lacking an analysis of the laws of capitalist accumulation, any attempt to develop a new revolutionary movement would be open to the inconsistencies and moralizing that characterize Proudhon's socialism, Bakunin included.

First and foremost, Bakunin's ideology is Hegelianism in reverse. Where Hegel tends to put a plus on German politics and society, Bakunin puts a minus. Instead of looking to the Prussian Junkers state as the embodiment of the impulse to freedom and self-actualization, Bakunin looks to another nationality to lead humanity forward, namely the Slavs.

Although you can find this theme throughout Bakunin's writings, its most concentrated form appears in "Statism and Anarchy," an uncompleted book representing his most mature thinking, to put it generously. On nearly every page, you find stereotypes about Germans and Slavs. The former have "a passion for state order and state discipline" because of "German blood, German instinct, and German tradition," while the latter "lack this passion." (Statism and Anarchy, p. 45) Furthermore, as if referring to a thoroughbred horse, Bakunin refers to Czech peasants as representing "one of the most splendid Slavic types." "Hussite blood flows in their veins, the hot blood of the Taborites, and the memory of Zizka lives within them." Since the Hussite rebellion took place in the 15th century, the Czechs must have a very long memory.

Lacking even the rudiments of an understanding of the contradictions of the capitalist system, Bakunin can of course not detect changes taking place beneath the surface. There is virtually no attempt to analyze German society as a product of class contradictions. Bakunin regards the workers "as confused by their leaders--politicians, literati and Jews," even though, as he admits, "scarcely a month or a week goes by without a street disturbance or sometimes even a clash with the police in some German city." Bakunin can scarcely keep his frustration under wraps as he rails at working class willingness to vote for socialists rather than just going out and making a gosh-darned revolution. If he Bakunin understands how evil the system is, why can't they? While reformism was certainly a problem in the German social democracy, one might doubt whether Bakunin's petulant outbursts would have had much affect. Mostly what they boil down to is an appeal to workers to abandon their trade unions and parties, an appeal heard from the ruling class that was mixed with a generous dose of repression.

Bakunin's fixation with "blood" and "instinct" appears elsewhere. You can frequently detect an element of 19th century social Darwinism, even though Bakunin tends not to cite anybody like Herbert Spencer. In the most bizarre expression of this, he tries to explain patriotism as being rooted in biology:

"Those who are in agriculture or gardening know the costs of preserving their plants from the invasion of the parasitic species that join battle with them over the light and the chemical elements of the earth, without which they cannot survive. The strongest plant, which is best adapted to the particular conditions of climate and soil and which still develops with relative vigor naturally tends to stifle all others. It is a silent struggle, but one without truce. And the whole force of human intervention is required to protect the preferred plants against this deadly invasion.

"In the animal world the same struggle recurs, only with more dramatic commotion and noise. The extinction is no longer silent and insensitive. Blood flows; the devoured, tortured animal fills the air with its cries of distress. Man, the animal, that can speak, finally utters the first word in this struggle, and that word is patriotism." (Open Letters to Swiss Comrades, 1869-1871)

Of course, this is complete nonsense. If anything, patriotism is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, very much associated with the rise of the nation-state. Since Bakunin lacks an analysis of the origin of the state, it should come as no surprise that he confuses it with the garden.

One would be at a loss to determine where Bakunin came up with such hare-brained notions. Since there are never any scholarly citations in his work, one must assume that he was simply reflecting commonplace ideas floating around in the European middle-class of his age. One imagines that he was too busy fomenting insurrections to find time to go to a library. Then again, perhaps Bakunin would have not gotten much use out of a library given anti-intellectual prejudices such as these:

"By contrast to all metaphysicians, positivists, and scholarly or unscholarly worshippers of the goddess science, we maintain that natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result. Life develops out of its own inexhaustible depths by means of a succession of diverse facts, not a succession of abstract reflections; the latter, always produced by life but never producing it, like milestones merely indicate its direction and the different phases of its spontaneous and self-generated development." (Statism and Anarchy, p. 135)

Allowing that this formula has a certain kind of raffish 1960s charm, it is practically useless as a guide for the intelligent pursuit of science. To state that social life precedes thought is a truism. But how exactly do we develop a method that can make sense out of the natural world and society? That is the real question. By all evidence of Bakunin's work, there is no indication that such a method was of any interest to him. Rather you find vulgar opinionating worthless to anybody trying to make sense of European society of the mid 19th century, let alone the world we live in today.

One of the key differences between Bakunin and Marx is over what we might call "agency," a term designating the social class capable of transforming society through revolutionary action. Despite the fact that the industrial proletariat had not achieved the sort of numerical strength and social power that it would later in the century, Marx staked everything on this emerging class. The reasons for this are developed extensively throughout his writings, but suffice it to say at this point that it is related to his analysis of the capitalist economy. Since the capitalist system can only survive through competition and revolutionizing the means of production, it would of necessity introduce machinery and--hence--a proletariat. In struggles over wages and working conditions--as well as a host of ancillary issues--the two classes will confront each other in revolutionary battles for power. While the post-WWII era left much of this in doubt, we are witnessing a return to the 'classic' norms of the 19th century, as modern capitalism does everything in its power to destroy the welfare state and the trade unions.

Although Bakunin was no friend of the bourgeoisie, he never seemed to be able to make up his mind on the 'agency' question. Addressing Marx's belief that the proletariat be "raised to the level of a ruling class," Bakunin pointed out that some other class, like the "peasant rabble," might end up under the working class boot. This concern is obviously related to Bakunin's preference for the warmhearted Slavic peasant over the anal-retentive, authority-worshipping German worker: "If we look at the question from the national point of view, then, presumably, as far as the Germans are concerned it is the Slavs who "will occupy in regard to the victorious German proletariat that the latter now occupies in relation to its own bourgeoisie." Absent from Bakunin's discussion is the economic and social weight of the working class, which could counter that of the ruling class. Furthermore, the peasant was far too differentiated socially to rule in its own name. Lacking any specific analysis of the agrarian question, Bakunin was content to dwell in fantasies about the uncorrupted peasant. (Statism and Anarchy, p. 177)

In what might be described as a bet-hedging strategy, Bakunin was not above making appeals to the royalty to carry out his program. In 1862 Bakunin wrote "The People's Cause: Romanov, Pugachev, or Pestel." The three figures respectively stood for various social layers: Romanov the aristocracy, Pugachev the peasant firebrand and Pestel the privileged intelligentsia. Romanov was best qualified to lead the revolution:

"We should most gladly of all follow Romanov, if Romanov could and would transform himself from a Petersburg Emperor into a National Tsar. We should gladly enroll under his standard because the Russian people still recognizes him and because his strength is concentrated, ready to act, and might become an irresistible strength if only he would give it a popular baptism. We would follow him because he alone could carry out and complete a great, peaceful revolution without shedding one drop of Russian or Slav blood."

After Bakunin was imprisoned in 1851, he wrote a "Confession" to Czar Nicholas I. This self-debasing document was not wrested out of torture, but was a ploy to win early release through flattery. It contains page after page of the most embarrassing kind of toadying up to the Russian despot, among which you can find appeals for a "revolution from above" of the kind suggested in the 1862 pamphlet, when Bakunin was enjoying freedom. In the Confessions, we find the following sort of thing:

"A strange thought was then born within me. I suddenly took it into my head to write to you, Sire, and was on the point of starting the letter. It too contained a sort of confession, more vain, more high-flown than the one I am now writing--I was then at liberty and had not yet learned from experience--but it was quite sincere and heartfelt: I confessed my sins; I prayed for forgiveness; then, having made a rather drawn-out and pompous review of the current situation of the Slav peoples, I implored you, Sire, in the name of all oppressed Slavs, to come to their aid, to take them under your mighty protection, to be their savior, their father, and, having proclaimed yourself Tsar of all the Slavs, finally to raise the Slav banner in eastern Europe to the terror of the Germans and all other oppressors and enemies of the Slav race!"

We should hasten to add that this is the same Czar who made Russia a living hell for peasant and Jews alike. According to Cecil Roth, of the legal enactments concerning the Jews published in Russia from 1649 to 1881, no less than one half, or six hundred in all, belong to Nicholas the First's reign. Roth writes:

"By the Statute Concerning the Jews of 1835, the Pale of Settlement was yet further narrowed down. Jews were excluded from all villages within fifty versts of the western frontier. Synagogues were forbidden to be erected in the vicinity of Churches, a strict censorship was established over all Hebrew books. Later, the Jews were expelled from the towns as well as the villages of the frontier area. Special taxation was imposed on meat killed according to the Jewish fashion, and even on the candles kindled on Friday night." (History of the Jews)

It is entirely likely that Bakunin's anti-Semitism prevented him from worrying much over such matters. If this is the case, we can certainly explain it as a function of his social roots in the Russian gentry. Whether this makes him an appropriate symbol of the unquenchable struggle for freedom and social justice is another question altogether. Whatever else one might think about 19th century Enlightenment values in this postmodernist age, the commitment to the emancipation of the Jews was laudable. It is unfortunate that Bakunin's revolt against Hegel allowed him to embrace anti-Enlightenment prejudices of the worst sort.

If appeals to the Czar went unheeded, there were always tightly knit and highly secretive conspiratorial circles that could be relied on. Such pure expressions of the anarchist spirit would be immune to the blandishments of bourgeois society. This revolutionary priesthood understands the tasks of the oppressed far better than they ever could themselves:

"This revolutionary alliance excludes any idea of dictatorship and of controlling and directive power. It is, however, necessary for the establishment of this revolutionary alliance and for the Triumph of the Revolution over reaction that the unity of ideas of revolutionary action find an organ in the midst of 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.

"This association has its origin in the conviction that revolutions are never made by individuals or even by secret societies. They make themselves; they are produced by the force of circumstances, the movement of facts and events. They receive a long preparation in the deep, instinctive consciousness of the masses, then they burst forth, often seemingly triggered by trivial causes. All that a well-organized society can do is, first, to assist at the birth of a revolution by spreading among the masses ideas which give expression to their instincts, and to organize, not the army of the Revolution-the people alone should always be that army-but a sort of revolutionary general staff, composed of dedicated, energetic, intelligent individuals, sincere friends of the people above all, men neither vain nor ambitious, but capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the instincts of the people."

"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. Two or three hundred revolutionaries will be enough for the organization of the largest country." ("The Program of the International Brotherhood", 1869)

Even the worst caricature of Leninist vanguard would pale in comparison to this kind of elitism. Nowhere is there the slightest awareness in Bakunin of the need for a working class revolutionary leadership to emerge from its participation in the mass movement. In a revolutionary situation, workers will not rally to people who have been sitting around in the sewers hatching conspiracies by candlelight. They will gravitate to the men and women who have risked jail and beatings to win reforms that make a difference in their day-to-day lives.

For all of the misunderstandings about the Leninist concept of a vanguard, it is useful to refer to "What is to be Done" for clarification:

"Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny...It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm's refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against 'obscene' publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc."

Despite the tendency of some modern anarchists to claim that they are following the Zapatistas' footsteps, there is powerful evidence that this movement has much more in common with Lenin's concept than the small conspiratorial circles favored by Bakunin. In many respects, their descent on Mexico City in March 2001, culminating in one of the largest "anti-globalizations" actions to date, was designed to win support for legislation that would improve the material, cultural and political conditions of Mayan Indians. In an article in the March 25, Los Angeles Times on March 25, Subcommandante Marcos is reported to have "slammed the failures of revolutionary movements of past decades for not standing up for the rights of indigenous peoples and other disenfranchised groups, including homosexuals." In reality, this has been the task of the socialist movement from the days of Marx and Lenin. If particular socialist groups have been inattentive to these sorts of issues, it is to be blamed on "What is to be Done," which calls for involvement in "every sphere and in every question of social and political life."

In reality, the biggest question dividing anarchists and Marxists is not the theory of the state. It is rather the value of political action, including action designed to win reforms of the kind that would improve the lives of Mayan Indians, for example.

If you turn to August Nimtz's Summer 1999 article in Science and Society titled "Marx and Engels--Unsung Heroes of the Democratic Breakthrough," you will discover how engaged they were in struggles against despotism. Rather than philosophizing about future utopias, they committed themselves to fighting alongside working class organizations on the front lines. While the goal of these organizations was to replace feudal absolutism with political democracy, the logic of the struggle was toward social and economic democracy as well. This was the original meaning of democracy: rule by the people (demos).

As I have pointed out, they did not start out with this outlook. In the early 1840s, they gravitated to socialist circles that held disdain for political action. What changed them? It was the Chartist movement in Great Britain that taught them the need for political struggles by the working class. While the fight for the ballot was crucial, Engels emphasized in "Conditions of the Working Class in England" that political democracy was not an end in itself, but a means for social equality. He writes, "Therein lies the difference between Chartist democracy and all previous political bourgeois democracy."

While Marx and Engels would eventually call for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, they never abandoned the idea that the communists should constitute the most "advanced" or "extreme wing" of the "democratic party" as they put it.

In the first wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, Marx and Engels discovered that although democratic rights were in the interest of all classes arrayed against the feudal gentry and clergy, the only class that would fight resolutely was the working class. In Germany, the middle-class radical democrats lost their nerve in the fight against absolutism. This led Marx to theorize a "permanent revolution" which would combine democratic and socialist goals led by the workers.

After the suppression of the 1848 revolutions, a decade-long lull set in. What gave Marx and Engels encouragement was the emancipation of serfs in the Russia and John Brown's uprising against slavery in the USA. They saw these events as precursors of "a new era of revolution" which had opened up in 1863. The revival of a democratic movement would surely lead to an upsurge in the working class movement, as Marx indicated in a letter to Lincoln in 1864 on behalf of the International Working Man's Association (IMWA): "The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so would the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes."

In 1870, a big struggle opened up in the IMWA over Marx's proposal that two goals set the strategic agenda of the organization: "To conquer political power has...become the great duty of the working classes" and "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working class themselves." In other words, the original inspiration from the Chartist movement lived on. His two main opponents were British trade union bureaucrats, who while giving lip service to the idea of working class independent politics, were aligned with the Liberal Party. The other was Bakunin.

(This article was intended to be the first in a series on anarchism. Because of the political upheavals taking place around the September 11th events, the issues that generated this article have been superseded for the foreseeable future. I may return to them in the future as dictated by political exigencies.)

-- Louis Proyect, on 09/23/2001

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