Bakunin vs. Marx
By Ulli Diemer
I propose in this article to examine some of the most common anarchist
objections to "Marxism". The issues I shall single out
are all raised in the recent works cited in the preceding article
All of them were raised, often for the first time, by Bakunin at
the time when anarchism first emerged as a self-conscious movement
defining itself in opposition to all other currents on the left.
Therefore I will concentrate primarily on Bakunin in the following
discussion, and on some of his differences with Marx. While I realize
that Bakunin is not the only interpreter of anarchism, I think this
is a valid approach for a number of reasons: (a) it is not possible
to cover everything and everybody in a short essay; (b) the Bakunin/Marx
split was the formative event in the history of anarchism; (c) Bakunin
is still the most widely read, quoted, and admired anarchist in
the anarchist movement itself; (d) many of the key anarchist objections
to Marxism originate with Bakunin, and these objections continue
to be used today; to the extent that it is possible to call them
into question, it is possible to call into question current anarchist
pre-conceptions about Marxism and to inaugurate a genuine dialogue.
How do anarchists see the Marxist/anarchist split? What are their
The following beliefs seem to be generally accepted by anarchists:
1. Marxists believe in the creation of a "peoples' state"
or a "workers' state"; anarchists believe in the abolition
of the state.
2. "Anarchists look to a society in which real decision making
involves everyone who lives in it"; Marxism instead would set
up "a few discipline freaks pulling the strings on a so-called
3. Marx was an "economic determinist"; Bakunin "emphasized
the psychological subjective factors in revolution." Marxism
is the ego trip of intellectuals who try to fit everything into
their "theory of byzantine complexity" - dialectical materialism
- which is of "doubtful usefulness" at best and which
mainly serves to make it possible for Marxist leaders to establish
"control over the movement".
4. Anarchists believe that revolutionary organizations should be
open, egalitarian, and completely democratic; Marxists on the other
hand advocate "hierarchical, power-tripping leadership",
as exemplified by the vanguard party and democratic centralism.
5. The original split in the First International between the factions
headed by Bakunin and Marx came over the issue of authoritarianism;
Marx and Bakunin expelled from the International on trumped-up charges
because Bakunin opposed Marx's dictatorial, centralized regime over
6. Marxism is "authoritarian"; anarchism is "libertarian".
What of these objections?
1. The peoples' state
Perhaps it is not surprising that it is widely believed that Marx
originated this concept, given the number of "Peoples' Republics",
"Workers' States", etc. in the world today that call themselves
"Marxist". Both the Leninists who use the concept, and
the anarchists who oppose it, seem quite unaware that it is nowhere
to be found in Marx's writings. Marx, on the contrary, specifically
rejected it. (See for example Marx's Critique of the Gotha
It is indicative of Bakunin's methods that he repeatedly accused
Marx of advocating a "Peoples' State" (see for example
Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchy, Vintage, 1972), an accusation
that in view of his failure to cite any evidence to support it (check
the sources and see if Bakunin ever offers a single quote to back
up his claims) and in view of Marx's and Engels' repeated and explicit
repudiation of the concept, can only be interpreted as a
deliberate fabrication on Bakunin's part. And it is hardly to the
credit of several generations of anarchists that they have continued
to swallow Bakunin's fictions on this matter without ever bothering
to look for evidence to back them up.
Marx and Engels' position on the state, while not free of ambiguities
and not above criticism, was quite different from what Bakunin claimed.
It is spelled out most extensively in Marx's The Civil War in
France, but is developed in numerous other works as well. What
Marx foresaw was that during the revolutionary period of struggle
against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat would use the state apparatus
to crush the bourgeoisie: "to achieve its liberation it employs
means which will be discarded after the liberation". (Marx,
Conspectus of Bakunin's State and Anarchy, 1874-75). After
the vanquishing of the bourgeoisie, the state has outlived its usefulness.
Marx pointed to the Paris Commune as being very close to what he
had in mind; Bakunin too was enthusiastic about the commune, yet
continued to accuse Marx of secretly holding very different views.
This Bakuninist nonsense has been repeated by other anarchists as
well. For example, the anarchist writer Arthur Mueller Lehning writes
that "It is an irony of history that at the very moment when
the battle between the authoritarians and the anti-authoritarians
in the International reached its apogee, Marx should in effect endorse
the program of the anti-authoritarian tendency.... The Commune of
Paris had nothing in common with the state socialism of Marx and
was more in accord with the ideas of Proudhon and the federalist
theories of Bakunin. Civil War in France is in full contradiction
with all Marx's writings on the question of the State." (quoted
in Bakunin on Anarchy, P. 260).
This is a remarkable piece of doublethink. Marx's major work on
the state is said to be "in full contradiction" with "all"
his writings on the state!
What writings on the state is Lehning referring to then? We don't
know, because he doesn't say. As always in anarchist polemics, we
have to take him in faith. Certainly Lehning cannot be referring
to the Poverty of Philosophy, written in 1847, or the Communist
Manifesto, written in 1848, or the Critique of the Gotha
Program, written in 1875, or to the private letters Marx was
writing at the same time as the publication of The Civil War
in France in 1871. All of these consistently maintain that the
state is incompatible with socialism. Together they comprise most,
if not "all" of Marx's writings on the state. But Lehning
(and Bakunin, and Dolgoff, and Avrich, and Brothers, and Murtaugh,
and...) know better. Somewhere, in some mythical world known only
to anarchists, there are to be found Marx's real views on
the state, the "People's State of Marx" (Bakunin on
Anarchy, P. 318), which is "completely identical"
with "the aristocratic-monarchic state of Bismarck". (Bakunin
on Anarchy, P.319).
How does one refute an "argument" which, without a single
shred of evidence, except racial predisposition ("as a German
and a Jew, he (Marx) is from head to toe an authoritarian"
- Bakunin in 1872) without a single quotation, attributes ideas
and concepts to Marx that Marx repeatedly attacked?
There are two alternatives: either one swallows everything Bakunin,
Dolgoff, and Co. say, on faith, because they are anarchists, or
one takes the path of intellectual integrity, and tries to discover
Marx and Engels' views on the state by reading what Marx and Engels
said about the state.
If one takes the latter course, one might start by reading Engels'
March 1875 letter to Bebel, in which he says "it is pure nonsense
to talk of a free people's state: so long as the proletariat still
uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom but
in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes
possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist.
We would therefore propose to replace state everywhere by
Gemeinwesen, a good old German word which can very well convey
the meaning of the French word 'commune.'"
It is possible, of course, to argue that the use of the state by
the proletariat in the brief transitional period is dangerous, and
could lead to the establishment of a permanent state. It must be
noted, however, that Bakunin himself envisioned a form of post-revolutionary
state, complete with elections, delegates, a parliament, an executive
committee, and an army. (Bakunin on Anarchy, P. 153) Anarchists
are curiously quiet about this however.
Nevertheless, it remains a fact that in balance, the concern Bakunin
expressed about the possible degeneration of the revolution proved
to be a valid one, and that Marx for his part failed to give sufficient
consideration to the dangers posed by this threat to a future revolution.
This criticism, however, must itself be qualified in a number of
ways; and it is certainly a far cry from the claims of Bakunin and
the anarchists that Marxism was a theory that aimed at the
subjection of society to state.
2. Dictatorship of the Proletariat .
A closely related question is that of the dictatorship of the proletariat,
one of the most abused and misunderstood terms of all of Marxism.
The question of the transition from capitalism to socialism, and
Marx's view of it, is an extremely complicated one that cannot be
covered in a few paragraphs. But the point here is simply to dispose
of the grossest misunderstandings of the term, fostered by its appropriation
by the Bolsheviks, and by the related fact that dictatorship has
come to have a quite different meaning today than it had in Marx's
time. As Dolgoff puts it, there was then a "loose sense in
which the term 'dictatorship' was used by nineteenth-century socialists
to mean simply the preponderant influence of a class, as in Marx's
'dictatorship of the proletariat'" (Bakunin on Anarchy,
Or to put it more precisely, the dictatorship of the proletariat
means the rule by the proletariat as a class, and the suppression
of the bourgeoisie as a class. It is perfectly compatible with,
and indeed presupposes, the most thorough-going democracy within
the working class. The best brief exposition of the Marxian concept,
and how it differs from the Leninist concepts of dictatorship, comes
from Rosa Luxemburg's 1918 polemic against the Bolsheviks:
"We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political
form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the
hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under
the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom - not in order to
reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied
with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create
a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy - not to eliminate
"But social democracy is not something which begins only in
the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are
created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for
the worthy people, who, in the interim, have loyally supported a
handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously
with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the
construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure
of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship
of the proletariat.
"Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the
manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination,
in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and
economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist
transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must
be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in
the name of the class - that is, it must proceed step by step out
of the active participation of the masses." (Rosa Luxemburg,
The Russian Revolution, Ann Arbor paperback, P. 77-8).
3. "Economic Determinism"
The question of Marxian materialism and Marx's emphasis on the
relations of productions is again an extremely difficult one which
simply cannot be dealt with intelligently in a brief article. At
this point it is possible only to say that it raises difficult problems
which have to be seriously analyzed. However, while a re-examination
of Marx's theory and the admitted contradictions in it are on the
agenda, it must be said that the typical anarchist portrayals of
it and objections to it are ill-informed misconceptions that contribute
less than nothing to the discussion. For example, Marx was not an
economic determinist; he rejected economic determinism and what
he called "crude materialism" out of hand. He did not
attempt to reduce all phenomena to economic ones; it is necessary
only to read any of his political works to know this.
As Engels says, "According to the materialist conception of
history, the ultimately determining element in history is
the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither
Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into
saying that the economic element is the only determining
one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract
senseless phrase." (letter to Joseph Block, Sept. 21-22, 1890,
in Lewis Feuer, ed., Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics
and Philosophy, P. 397-398.)
Anarchists like Paul Avrich, however, have their own view of 'what
Marx really meant'. See how Avrich crudely contrasts Marx's
and Bakunin's views: (Bakunin) "rejected the view that social
change depends on the gradual unfolding of 'objective' historical
conditions. He believed, on the contrary, that men shape their own
It is unfortunate that Avrich has never read, for example, Marx's
third thesis on Feuerbach: "The materialist doctrine (of Feuerbach)
that men are the products of circumstances and upbringing, and that,
therefore, changed men are the products of other circumstances and
changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances
and that the educator himself needs educating." Or The Holy
Family: "History does nothing, it 'does not possess
immense riches', it does not fight battles'. It is men,
real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight
battles. It is not 'history' which uses men as a means of achieving
- as if it were an individual person - its own ends. History
is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
(Bottomore, ed., Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and
Social Philosophy, Pelican P. 78.)
4.5.6. The nature of the revolutionary organization; authoritarianism
These too are very complicated questions: it is impossible to do
justice to either Marx's or Bakunin's views in a short and rather
polemical articles that aims at challenging certain gross misconceptions
rather than at evaluating and criticizing their ideas and practice
in a rigorous and comprehensive way. It is necessary to understand,
first of all, that the ideas of both Marx and Bakunin, as expressed
in their writings, are in certain respects contradictory; neither
Marx, nor certainly Bakunin, was totally consistent throughout his
life. Secondly, the practice of both men was sometimes at variance
with what they advocated. Neither was able always to live up to
the standards set down. Both men displayed streaks of arrogance
and authoritarianism in their own personalities.
Nevertheless, there remains a body of writing and practice that
makes it possible to evaluate what Marx and Bakunin stood for.
I shall argue that a serious examination of the question yields
the following points:
1. Bakunin deliberately distorted and falsified Marx's views on
the issues under dispute.
2. The accusation that led to Bakunin's expulsion from the International,
that of heading a secret society which aimed to infiltrate and take
over the International, was true. (Since this seems to be accepted
by most historians, this point will not be pursued. See for example
Woodcock's Anarchism, P. 168, or Aileen Kelly's article in
the January 22, 1976 issues of the New York Review of Books.)
The only point worth noting here is that the "authoritarian"
federal structures of the International that Bakunin protested against
so vehemently in 1871 and 1872 were introduced to the International
shortly before, not on the initiative of the General council of
which Marx was a member, but on the motion of Bakunin's supporters,
with Bakunin's active participation and support. It was only after
he failed to gain control over the structures of the International
that Bakunin suddenly discovered their "authoritarianism".
3. The charge of authoritarianism and dictatorial views can be
directed against Bakunin with a great deal more justification than
they can against Marx.
Bakunin's deliberate misrepresentations of Marx's views on the
state were noted earlier. Bakunin was obsessed with the idea that
all Germans held identically authoritarian views, and consistently
attributed the views of some of Marx's bitterest enemies, such as
Bismarck and Lasalle, to Marx. Marx's fury at this tactic is a matter
of record. Bakunin, in many of his polemics against Marx, argues
from the premise that Marx must obviously be authoritarian because
he is a German and a Jew, who are by definition authoritarians
and statists. (Because of selective editing, this is not evident
in Dolgoff's Bakunin anthology.) Bakunin went even further, claiming
that Marx was part of an international conspiracy with Bismarck
and Rothschild. Such accusations are of course not worthy of reply,
but surely they make it clear that it is necessary to treat the
"facts" and arguments of the man making them with the
A similar disregard for the most elementary rules of evidence,
not to mention decency, permeated most of Bakunin's polemics against
Marx. He charged, again and again, that Marx advocated a universal
dictatorship, that he believed in a socialism "decreed from
the top down." He ignored Marx's lifelong insistence that "the
emancipation of the working classes can only be the work of the
working classes themselves," and Marx's intransigent opposition
to the state. Nor did he attempt to support his accusations with
facts or quotations. In reading Bakunin's caricature of Marx's views
- the only "version" of Marxism most anarchists have bothered
to familiarize themselves with! - readers will search in vain for
one single quotation amidst the hysterical confusion of wild, unsubstantiated
charges. There simply are none.
Almost as bad are those anarchists who lambaste Marx for his "advocacy"
of "democratic centralism" and the "vanguard party."
Is it really necessary to point out that these concepts were developed
long after Marx's death, that Marx never belonged to an organization
practising either; that he consistently opposed the tiny conspiratorial
sects of his day; that he made it a condition of his joining the
Communist League that they scrap their closed, undemocratic organizational
forms; that he always, and angrily, refused attempts by socialists
of his day to single him out for special honours or titles in the
And has it been completely forgotten that one of Marx's chief themes
in his criticism of Bakunin was the latter's eternal fascination
with conspiratorial, manipulative, sectarian politics?
For there is, unfortunately for those who believe in anarchist
fairy tales, a substantial body of evidence for the contention that
Bakunin held precisely those "authoritarian" views which
he brazenly attributed to Marx. Those who seek evidence of a penchant
for dictatorial, Machiavellian politics will find a good deal of
material in the writings not of Marx, but of Bakunin. (This is not
to say that Bakunin consistently held such views; there are serious
contradictions in his thought amounting to a basic polarity.)
Bakunin's advocacy of a post-revolutionary state, which continued
most of the forms of the pre-revolutionary state, such as elections,
parliament, army, etc., was noted earlier, and can be found, for
example, in Bakunin on Anarchy, P. 153. Similarly, despite
his much-vaunted opposition to any form of independent political
action by the working class, one can find him advocating, in his
letters, not simply political action, but working-class support
and action on behalf of bourgeois political parties. (See
for example Bakunin on Anarchy, P. 219.) And elsewhere, one
finds him advocating that anarchists should run for Parliament (Bakunin
on Anarchy, P. 218).
Nor are these merely products of his naive, youthful days, which
are so often used to excuse some of his grossest aberrations, as
for example when we find the 'young' Bakunin (at age 35) writing
appeals to the Czar, while Marx, four years younger, is advocating
the revolutionary overthrow of the state. No, these pronouncements,
and many others like them, are issued privately at precisely
the time that Bakunin is publicly proclaiming his opposition
to Marxism because it advocates political action by the working
class, and a transitional dictatorship of the proletariat in the
immediate post-revolutionary period.
It is also worth contrasting Bakunin's proclamation of the principle,
for the future anarchist society, of "from each according to
his ability, to each according to his work" (my emphasis)
with Marx, who held to the much more radical principle, "from
each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
Or consider Bakunin's Rules for his International Alliance, not
a passing whim, but the organization to which he gave his primary
allegiance while participating in the First International. Here
is a sample, written in 1869: "it is necessary that in the
midst of popular anarchy, which will make up the very life and all
the energy of the revolution, the unity of revolutionary thought
and action should be embodied in a certain organ. That organ
must be the secret and world-wide association of the international
"...the only thing a well-organized secret society can do it
to assist the birth of revolution by spreading among the masses
ideas that accord with the instinct of the masses, and to organise,
not the army of the revolution - that army must always be the people,
but a revolutionary General Staff composed of devoted, energetic
and intelligent individuals who are above all sincere - not vain
or ambitious - friends of the people, capable of serving as intermediaries
between the revolutionary ideas and the popular instincts."
"The number of these individuals should not, therefore, be
too large. For the international organisation throughout Europe
one hundred serious and firmly united revolutionaries would be
sufficient. Two or three hundred revolutionaries would be enough
for the organisation of the largest country."
As the authoritarian Marx said of this libertarian idea: "To
say that the hundred international brothers must 'serve as intermediaries
between the revolutionary idea and the popular instincts,' is to
create an unbridgeable gulf between the Alliance's revolutionary
idea and the proletarian masses; it means proclaiming that these
hundred guardsmen cannot be recruited anywhere but from among the
When one sees the views of Bakunin and Marx side by side, it is
difficult to remember that it is Marx, not Bakunin, who is supposed
to be the father of "Marxism-Leninism" and Bakunin, not
Marx, who is supposed to be the father of "anarchism".
Bakunin's authoritarian tendencies were at their most extreme at
precisely the time that he was splitting the International. This
was the time of his association with the notorious Nechaev. Most
anarchists sources treat this as a passing aberration on Bakunin's
part, and indeed he did repudiate Nechaev when he found out the
true nature of his activities.
But the fact remains that Bakunin did enter into partnership with
Nechaev, and under his influence wrote a number of tracts that displayed
a despotic, Machiavellian approach to revolution that far surpassed
anything he ever accused Marx of. The authorship of some of the
pieces in question has been disputed, but the relevant point is
that Bakunin allowed these pamphlets to be published bearing his
name and actively worked to distribute them knowing they bore his
In these pamphlets, Nechaev and Bakunin advocate a new social order,
to be erected "by concentrating all the means of social
existence in the hands of Our Committee, and the proclamation of
compulsory physical labour for everyone," compulsory residence
in communal dormitories, rules for hours of work, feeding of children,
and other minutae. As the "authoritarian" Marx put it:
"What a beautiful model of barrack-room communism! Here you
have it all: communal eating, communal sleeping, assessors and offices
regulating education, production, consumption, in a word, all social
activity, and to crown all, Our Committee, anonymous and
unknown to anyone, as the supreme dictator. This indeed is the purest
When one looks at Bakunin's views on authority and revolution in
detail, it is hard to disagree with Marx's and Engels' assertion
that Bakunin and his followers simply used the word "authoritarian"
to mean something they didn't like. The label "authoritarian"
was then, and remains today for many libertarians, a way of avoiding
serious political questions.
The fact is that not all authority is bad; that in certain situations
authority is necessary and unavoidable. As Engels says, "A
revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it
is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon
the other part by means of rifles, bayonets, and cannon - authoritarian
means, if such there be at all."
And some form of authority, i.e. decision-making structure, is
necessary in any form of interaction, co-operation, or organization
that is social rather than individual. In a socialist society, it
will still be necessary to makes decisions about things; these decisions
will necessarily reflect the will, i.e. the authority, of the majority.
This is not a violation of collectivity, but an absolutely indispensable
component of it. To say, as many anarchists do, that they reject
all forms of authority, even that which is willingly accepted; even
that which is the result of democratic decision-making, is simply
to advocate either rule by a minority, or a return to the purest
form of free-market capitalism, as is advocated by the "libertarian"
right. No amount of talk about "consensus" or local autonomy
or individual initiative will alter this fact. Consensus is not
always attainable, because sometimes people do not agree. Then a
decision-making process is necessary, and if it is democratic, the
minority will have to accede to the majority. Autonomy and individual
initiative can still have the fullest possible play, but this does
not alter the fact that the authority of the majority has prevailed
in the question at hand.
There is another aspect of Bakunin that must be confronted because,
like his ill-defined views on authority, it has remained a part
of the anarchist movement. Running through all of Bakunin's
thought and subsequent anarchist thought and practice is a dark
thread, an infatuation with violence, with destruction for the sake
of destruction, action for the sake of action, distrust of logic,
intellect, and knowledge, and a love for conspiratorial, tightly
controlled organizations. For the most part, these things remained
subsidiary to his - and his successors' - genuinely libertarian
and humanistic instincts.
During the period of Bakunin's association with Nechaev, who was
attracted solely by Bakunin's dark side, this aspect took over.
Then, confronted with the realization of this dark side in practice,
in the person of Nechaev, Bakunin shrank back in genuine horror.
However, as Aileen Kelly notes, "even then he managed to integrate
Nechaev's villainy into his own fantasies, writing to his astonished
friends that Nechaev's methods were those of a "pure"
and "saintly" nature who, faced with the apathy of the
masses and intellectuals in Russia, saw no other way but coercion
to mold the latter into a force determined to move the masses to
revolution. Such reasoning, Bakunin concluded, 'contains, alas!
Kelly continues: "This grotesque assessment of Nechaev is
very revealing. At a time when the gap between man's empirical and
ideal nature seemed enormous, Bakunin, albeit reluctantly, concluded
that if men do not wish to liberate themselves, it might be necessary
for those with their highest interests at heart to liberate them
against their will."
To Bakunin's credit, he continually struggled against the implications
of this aspect of his thought. Always fascinated by all 'revolutionary'
shortcuts, he nevertheless strove to remain loyal as well to his
libertarian instincts, and it is this aspect of his remarkably polarized
vision that he left as his lasting heritage. The anarchist movement
he fathered has also been plagued by the same polarity, by the tension
between real libertarianism on the one side, and the sometimes irresistible
attraction of anti-intellectualism, terrorism, and conspiracy, on
the other. The anarchist movement needs to come to grips with Bakunin's
ambiguous heritage. And to do so, it also needs to come to terms
Published in The
Red Menace, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1978, along
with a companion article, Anarchism
Menace home page
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