A three-part series of articles from 1975/6, written by the Alliance syndicaliste révolutionnaire et anarcho-syndicaliste (ASRAS), published in their newspaper Solidarité Ouvrière. The articles take a critical approach to aspects of Kropotkin and Malatesta, whilst offering forward parts of Bakunin as a remedy to their faults.
The Alliance Syndicaliste on Kropotkin, Malatesta and Bakunin
Translated by Daniel Rashid
Sourced from http://1libertaire.free.fr/BrochureAlliance05.html
During 1975-76, Solidarité Ouvrière1 published a series of articles on Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta. Undoubtedly, these articles did not help reduce the suspicion some libertarians, in particular those of the Fédération Anarchiste, had about us. A rumour circulated that we were “crypto-Marxists”, a label that has remained stuck to some of us, even after the dissolution of the Alliance. Reflecting on the issue, this suspicion was not entirely unfounded, on the surface. Our concern was to restore to anarchism a theory of proletarian revolution, a theory it should have never given up, and not to justify a vague revolt against “authority”. In doing so, we could give the impression of using a language that brought us closer to Marxism: the articles below talk about “method”, “dialectic”, “class struggle”, etc.
Moreover, this series of articles did not just go against Kropotkin but also Malatesta, even if the latter was called to the rescue in order to criticise the former. It was quite iconoclastic…
Only Bakunin was doing well in the whole affair, which only made us seem all the more suspicious. Bakunin had always been kept a bit on the sidelines by the French libertarian movement; it was suspected that, despite his opposition to Marx, he was still too “Marxist”.
René Berthier, March 2008
PS. We must keep in mind that in 1976 we were very young, and that we undoubtedly had the faults of youth – categorical opinions, and a bit of arrogance. However, as I re-read these articles, I realise that my overall view of the problems addressed has not fundamentally changed, even if I have formulated them differently in my more recent studies.
René Berthier, February 2021
- 1Workers’ Solidarity, the paper of the “Alliance syndicaliste révolutionnaire et anarcho-syndicaliste”, ASRAS. The title of the paper was chosen as a reference to the Spanish Solidaridad Obrera, created in 1907, which in 1910 became the daily newspaper of the Catalan CNT, having a circulation of more than 200 000 copies. ASRAS, known as the “Alliance syndicaliste” or simply the “Alliance” (an obvious reference to Bakunin), had close links with the clandestine CNT in Spain. As the name implies, ASRAS was an alliance of syndicalists operating within the French unions to put forward revolutionary unionist ideas, to encourage militancy, and to prevent the capture of union branches by political factions.
The Scientist, the State, and the Class Struggle
Solidarité Ouvrière no. 53
Editions du Monde Libertaire has recently republished Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, a book considered by anarchists as a classic. This book deserves to be read for more than one reason. Indeed, it develops themes that are now familiar to all of today’s “left”, but which were new at the time, and of which anarchists were the first propagators. However, it also reveals weaknesses in the author’s method of analysis, weaknesses that are indicative of the direction taken by the anarchist movement after Kropotkin.
We do not intend to write a detailed analysis of either the book, or of Kropotkin’s thought. We will limit ourselves to summarising the essential themes developed, and to presenting some critical points that will allow us to understand the current evolution of the movements that claim him as their leader.
The alliance with the peasantry
The principal idea of the book is that the fundamental problem of any victorious revolution is that of bread, in the figurative sense – i.e., the supply of food to the revolutionary urban centres. Kropotkin recalls that in 1793 “the countryside starved the big cities and killed the revolution”. The “war of villages against cities” must be avoided.
In order to rally the peasants to the revolution, it is necessary to establish balanced relations of exchange between the city and the countryside, and “the city must immediately apply itself to producing those things which the peasant lacks, instead of making trinkets for the ornament of the bourgeoisie”.
The failure of the policy of alliance with the peasantry can produce the equivalent of “three or four Vendées”.1 This was one of the most important subjects of debate within the Bolshevik party between 1918 and 1928, and it was one of the main causes of the failure of the Russian Revolution.
The second important theme concerns the work of revolutionary construction. Capitalist expropriation must be total, because there are established relations of “which it is materially impossible to modify, if you only touch them in part”. The cogs of society are so intimately linked that you cannot modify a single one without modifying them as a whole.
“From the day you strike private property in one of its forms – agricultural or industrial – you will be forced to strike it in the others.”
It will be necessary to seize everything that is indispensable for production: land, machines, factories, transport, etc.
The revolution, by transforming the form of production, will also transform the forms of compensation. “A new form of possession requires a new form of compensation”. Wages are “born with the private appropriation of the land and the instruments of production”; they will die with the destruction of capitalist production.
Parallel to this theme of the transformation of the forms of production and compensation is the theme of their very nature: the social revolution will be distinguished from previous revolutions by its goals and methods – “a new goal requires new methods”.
“[…] the very fact of abolishing private ownership of the instruments of labour (land, factories, communication routes, capital) must launch society in absolutely new directions […] it must completely overturn production in its purpose, as well as in its means […] all daily relations between individuals must be modified, as soon as land, machinery and the rest are considered to be common possessions.”
Socialism must also transform the very nature of work. Those who are engaged in the production of luxury or needless goods will be assigned to socially useful production. This will reduce individual working time in the same production. Changing life, but also changing work: “free man will create new conditions for pleasant and infinitely more productive work”.
State and capitalism
It is in his analysis of the phenomenon of the state, and of its prospects of evolution, that Kropotkin’s ideas become the most questionable. According to him, it is the state more than capitalism that is the enemy. The state is seen as a cause and not as an effect of capitalism. In the same way, it is the state which created the proletariat and “delivered” it to the exploiters; and “two-thirds” of private capital and poverty are “artificially created by the state”.2 This leads him to develop the idea that everything can go well “as long as the state doesn’t throw its heavy sword into the balance”. According to Kropotkin, we can observe a “growing movement to limit the sphere of action of the government, and to leave more and more freedom to the individual”. He is a champion of individual freedom, of “free understanding between individuals pursuing the same goal”. “The independence of each tiny territorial unit becomes a pressing need.”
“Everything that was once considered to be a function of the government is today called in question.”
Kropotkin observes that “in spite of the narrowly selfish turn given to men’s minds by market production, the tendency towards communism constantly appears and penetrates our relations in all their forms”. He cites numerous examples of this “communist tendency”, which are indicative of the perspective with which he considered the question. “Every day, millions of transactions are made without government intervention, and the biggest of them – those of commerce and the stock exchange – are carried on in such a way that the government could not even be appealed to if one of the contracting parties did not intend to fulfil their commitments”.
Another striking feature, observes Kropotkin, is “the continual expansion of the scope of enterprises due to private initiative, and the prodigious development of free groups of all kinds”. These free organisations “so advantageously replace government interference”. Examples: the Universal Postal Union, the railway unions, the learned societies, “the great industrial companies”. What is important for Kropotkin is not the class nature of these associations, but that they are made without state intervention.
It is difficult to be more mistaken than that about the nature and evolution of the state. The free associations that Kropotkin observes with such hope are only manifestations of the expansion of world capitalism, which needs an efficient and fast postal network to carry business mail, an efficient transport system to move goods and reduce tie-ups of capital stock, a rapid diffusion of scientific discoveries to be applied in industry without delay; this world capitalism is organising itself on an international level to become what we today call multinational corporations, some of the most formidable enemies of the global working class. The free organisation of the ITT trust,3 independent of the U.S. state, is in no way a step towards communism.
Except in rare cases, it is not the state that creates capitalism and the proletariat, it is the development of capitalism that creates the proletariat and conditions the development of the state.
The evolution of capitalism, far from going towards the extension of private initiative and decentralisation, instead goes towards greater control by the state and towards greater centralisation and concentration of capital.
This misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism has a cause in the methodology employed by Kropotkin; it also has serious consequences.
A mechanistic dialectic
Kropotkin professed a materialist philosophy that was dominant among scholars of the second half of the 19th century. According to this philosophy, events were totally determined and arrived in a necessary order. Malatesta said that Kropotkin, “who was very severe on the historical fatalism of the Marxist, fell into the mechanical fatalism that is much more paralysing”.
“It happened thus that criticism was discouraged, and the development of the idea was arrested. For many years, in spite of the iconoclastic and progressive spirit of anarchists, most of them in the field of theory and practice did nothing but study and repeat Kropotkin. To say something different from him was, to many comrades, almost an act of heresy.”4
For Kropotkin, communism was to necessarily flow from capitalism, and all forms of evolution of the latter were therefore progress over the previous forms. In phenomena which solidified the strengthening of capitalism and the increased exploitation of workers, Kropotkin had seen exactly the opposite – the beginnings of communism.
Finally, his conception of organisation and communalism led him to see the organisation of workers as a whole as made up of autonomous elements, each endowed with their own, independent will. To the extent that he thought that capitalism tended towards decentralisation, abandoning many prerogatives to private initiative, this was justified. Unfortunately, he saw everything upside down! For such conceptions of organisation are in clear contradiction with the needs of revolutionary action against the bourgeoisie and the state in a developed, industrial society.
Kropotkin’s influence can still be seen today among many anarchists who see the struggle against the state as an absolute priority, who see the state as the main enemy, instead of seeing it only as an instrument of repression at the service of the bourgeoisie. We needn’t look any further to understand workers’ disaffection with the anarchist movement, and the disappearance of anarchism as an autonomous movement of the proletariat.
There is a double aspect to Kropotkin’s thought. On the one hand, there is the scholar, geographer, historian and ethnographer whose work left its mark on the era. The Great French Revolution is, up to now, one of the greatest classics on the history of the French Revolution, constantly plundered by historians for a hundred years, never cited in bibliographies… and never republished, unsurprisingly. Mutual Aid is the sum of the ethnographic knowledge of the time, whose starting point is a critique of the interpretations of Darwin’s disciples, on the thesis of the selection of species. This work can be compared to The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels. A comparison of the bibliographies of these two works shows that most of the references are in common. This aspect of Kropotkin’s work deserves to be known, appreciated and criticised; Kropotkin was well aware that historical and sociological knowledge evolves and that new material can sometimes call into question previously developed theses. It is significant that it is not this Kropotkin that Editions du Monde Libertaire chose to republish.
In this first aspect of the Russian author’s work, the militant who is indignant comes to help and gives a breath of life to the work of the scientist.
The second aspect of his work appears when the scholar fades away in front of the activist, when he gets involved in politics, in the development of a theory of organisation, in strategy. We then have a jumble of naïve assertions, of edifying truths. Let the state disappear! Let no more authority be exercised over the masses! Then, the masses will find the way to happiness and emancipation, with a touching spontaneity. Out of his books, Kropotkin understood nothing of what was going on before his eyes. He wanted to give a scientific foundation to anarchism, instead only sterilising it with pontificating formulas. Wanting to bring reality in line with his theoretical constructs, he interpreted the events of his time completely upside down. This free understanding, which he sang as the prefiguration of communist society, was only the symptom of the birth of monopoly capitalism.5
One will search The Conquest of Bread in vain for indications about the tasks of anarchists in the class struggle.
- 1[This refers to the 1793 war in the Vendée region of France; it was the most significant counter-revolutionary event in the entire French revolution. The reactionary armies were composed primarily of peasants, led by nobles.]
- 2“Only [statists] forget the lessons of history; they do not tell us to what extent the State itself has contributed towards the existing order by creating proletarians and delivering them up to exploiters. They also forget to tell us if it is possible to put an end to exploitation while the primal causes – private capital and poverty, two-thirds of which are artificially created by the State – continue to exist.”
- 3[International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT, now operating as ITT Inc.) is a multinational company founded in 1920, based in the United States, specialising in telephone communications. It bears a heavy responsibility for the dramatic events that took place in Chile in the 1970s, as well as in other Latin American countries, including Operation Condor. The declassification of relevant documents from the CIA archives has produced overwhelming evidence for this. The U.S. government Hinchley Report details, among other things, the methods used by ITT.]
- 4[From “Peter Kropotkin: Recollections and Criticisms by One of His Old Friends”, as found in Davide Turcato’s The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. In the original ASRAS article, this quotation begins with “The mechanistic fatalism was…” instead of “It happened…”.]
- 5Kropotkin was Russian and his ideas are largely determined by this fact. The Russian state was an autocratic state, which did not allow any organisation, spontaneous manifestations. On the other hand, it was the state that had a decisive role in the creation of capitalism because the national bourgeoisie was very weak. At the time Kropotkin was writing, Russian capitalism was growing and the state was beginning to relax its control over all economic activities; it was beginning to “hand over” to the bourgeoisie. In Russia, indeed, a shift was taking place to “limit the sphere of action of the government”. The limitation of the role of the state and the increase in private initiative were observable phenomena in Russia, and it was a positive evolution, though not at all communist. But, this was only valid for the very particular case of Russia, and not at all applicable to the rest of Europe.
“Pure” Anarchists and “Neutral” Unions: Malatesta and the Social-Democratic Temptation
Solidarité Ouvrière no. 55
The libertarian movement, in action, is characterised by a perpetual swing between two tendencies:
a) The dilution of the militants in the mass movements of the workers, and
b) The organisation separated from the mass movement, sectarian and cut off from reality.
Between the two tendencies there are all the varieties, all the possible combinations of individualism, free love-ism, vegetarianism, terrorism, whose only common point is the idea that anarchism is a “concept that must now be practised as an attitude of life”.1
We consciously set these currents aside because, as they are centred on individual behaviour as a precondition for action, they admit such a variety of behaviours to be acquired that they in practice deny any collective and concerted revolutionary action against capital and the state.
In the “mass” tendency, the militants devote themselves exclusively to union work, to such an extent that they often confine themselves to the enterprise or industrial branch. They neglect overarching action. In general, these activists do excellent organisational and educational work in their own sphere of activity, but without any overall perspective; as a result, their action benefits other groups that are organised… The attitudes of comrades who “hide” behind union work in their companies is often explained by the fact that the libertarian movement is not able to help them in their work.
In the case of the second current, the militants refuse to “lose” themselves in union action, in industrial action, judged to be “reformist”, a departure from their principles, from revolutionary purity. Their propaganda is intended to be uncompromising and of course brings them few people, which in return justifies their convictions about the inherent reformism of workers.
This explains the sieve-like character of the libertarian movement, particularly in France. Among all those that come to anarchism, the few determined enough to really act are only offered one or the other of these currents.
When one is content with claiming action, one loses sight of the objectives, and, in this “claim-game”, the reformists offer better short-term “outlets” and greater immediate efficiency.
Conversely, militants who constitute themselves into a revolutionary minority but keep the traditional scruples of the libertarian movement on the problems of authority, power, leadership, etc., often end up questioning the effectiveness of anarchist methods of organisation, and can be tempted by Marxist groups, revolutionary or not. In fact, the parties of the left and far left are made up of a good number of former anarchists, or “converted” revolutionary syndicalists.
This is one of the contradictions of today’s libertarian movement. The refusal of any form of external vanguard, political or ideological, pushes some towards anti-theoreticism, primarily anti-intellectualism, and towards “solo” action in the mass structures of the proletariat. The attachment to the rules and purity of the “idea” pushes others to neglect mass action, to underestimate it, and deprive themselves of the means to link these two forms of action.
The “neutral” unions
Malatesta’s positions are important to understand because, in many respects, they are at both extremes, and he was never able to synthesise the two in order to find forms of organisation adapted to needs. Indeed, Malatesta condemned the limitation of union action to economic demands, but he also reproached many anarchists for devoting too much time to unionism. He was aware of the role and of the strategic importance of the workers’ movement for any revolutionary action, be he refused to let himself be led by the logic of his reasoning, which normally would have led him to the leadership of the union by the anarchists.
At the International Anarchist Congress of 1907 in Amsterdam, Malatesta asserted that he had always seen the workers’ movement as a “particularly favourable terrain for our revolutionary propaganda, and at the same time a point of contact between the masses and ourselves”.
It seems that for Malatesta there is on the one hand anarchism, a theory, and on the other hand the workers’ movement, the means to put this theory into practice. However, one and the other are clearly separated. In the end, if the workers’ movement is a “favourable terrain”, it’s circumstantial; if there were other, more favourable terrains, they would do just as well.
The workers’ movement and anarchism do not appear to be indissolubly linked. One does not get the impression that anarchism is an idea that stems from the practice of the workers’ movement, and which returns to the workers’ movement in the form of theory.
Malatesta opposes “anarchist unions”, which would immediately legitimise social-democratic, republican and royalist unions, dividing the working class. “On the contrary, I want unions that are open to all workers without distinction of opinions, absolutely neutral unions”. In these “neutral” unions, the anarchists must act:
“I am for the greatest possible participation in the workers' movement. But I am for it above all in the interest of our propaganda, whose range of action would be considerably increased. It is just that this participation cannot result in our renouncing our dearest ideas. In the unions we must remain as anarchists, with all the force and breadth of the term. The workers' movement is nothing more than a means – albeit obviously the best of all the means at our disposition.”2 (Emphasis ours.)
Anarchism is thus not the theory of the proletariat, that allows the proletariat to understand capitalist society and to organise against it, opening perspectives for the construction of a society without exploitation. Anarchism thus seems to be an abstract doctrine, and not a theory elaborated through class struggle, by the hard-won experience of the proletariat. It is not the experience of the struggle of the workers that is theorised, but a theory fabricated from a certain number of philosophical presuppositions, and of which the proletariat would be the privileged instrument of realisation.
“Let me repeat: anarchists must enter the unions. Firstly, in order to carry out anarchist propaganda; secondly, because it is the only means that can provide us with groups that will be in a position to take over the running of production when the day comes.”
In Malatesta’s work, it is clear that the two temptations of the libertarian movement are united: the need for mass action, and the need for action by revolutionaries. But they meet in such a way as to make them incompatible with each other: sitting with your arse between two chairs, you end up falling on the floor.
Indeed, when one insists:
1) On the idea that trade unions must be neutral, without any political colouring, open to all without distinction of opinions, and
2) On the idea that anarchists must go into the workers’ unions to “provide us with the groups that will be in a position to take over the running of production when the day comes”;
That is to say, when you pose the problem in the same terms as social-democracy, you cannot stop on the way. You have to be social-democratic to the end. This is precisely what Malatesta refused.
A true revolutionary
To break this deadlock, Malatesta had, in our opinion, only two solutions: to adopt the Marxist theses of the party-union division of labour, which would have been the logical outcome of his ideas, or to return to the Bakuninist conceptions of the mass/vanguard dialectic. We could also say of Malatesta what Bakunin said of Proudhon:
“He had the instincts of a genius and he glimpsed the right road, but hindered by his idealistic thinking patterns, he fell always into the old errors. Proudhon was a perpetual contradiction: a vigorous genius, a revolutionary thinker arguing against idealistic phantoms, and yet never able to surmount them himself…”3
Malatesta was unable to make a synthesis between the “mechanical conception of the universe”, the proletariat alienated and caught up in the cycle of economic demand, and the “faith in the efficiency of the will”, revolutionary action.
However, our criticisms of his ideas do not prevent us from recognising that Malatesta was an authentic revolutionary all his life. During the First World War, he strongly condemned those who fell into nationalist mystification, and called on the fighters of all countries to rise up against their exploiters; he refused to leave Italy, even when the fascists took power. He also supported the Italian revolutionary syndicalist movement in spite of the differences he had with it; he organised the first unions in Argentina, and so on. He was a premier supporter of the Italian revolutionary movement.
It is certain that the period that followed the crushing of the Paris Commune (1871) and the death of Bakunin (1876) was a low point in terms of revolution. The behaviour of the militants faced with the problems of mass action and revolutionary organisation necessarily had to change.
We were in one of those periods of ebb, defined by Bakunin, following the great historical catastrophes, where “everything breathes decadence, prostration and death…”.
But this is not enough to explain Malatesta’s positions. In fact, if he witnessed the ebb following the Commune, he also experienced the rise of the revolutionary movement after the Russian Revolution. Malatesta also supported the foundation of the Unione Syndicale Italiana, a revolutionary syndicalist organisation that had a great role in the Italian council movement. However, the relations between the Unione Anarchica Italiana and the USI only reflected, once again, the opposition between the two tendencies of the libertarian movement, which did not succeed in synthesising their modes of intervention.
According to whether one favours mass development or not, according to whether one approaches the proletariat with “a real and living understanding of its real evils” or whether one considers that it is necessary to form “the staff, the well-organised and well-inspired networks of the leaders of the popular movement”, as Bakunin said at the same time, one will either make concessions on the objectives so as to develop the required number, or make concessions on the number to be developed so as to preserve the objectives.
Choosing one or the other alternative is a false choice, a false choice not present in Bakunin. In both cases, it means failure. Communist anarchists have never, with a few exceptions, been true “leaders of the popular movement” because being a leader means being “authoritarian”, it’s not anarchist.
On the other hand, the anarcho-syndicalists, preoccupied above all by the necessities of mass development, did not seize the opportunities that had presented themselves; they often lacked perspectives, had a distorted vision of the problems, or had too much confidence in their numbers.
- 1Freedom, 21st of June 1975, pg. 2.
- 2[Malatesta’s full speech can be found with all the other contributions at the Congress at http://www.fdca.it/fdcaen/historical/amsterdam07/index.htm. Malatesta’s speech in question was given at the 11th session of the Congress, on the afternoon of Thursday, the 29th of August.]
- 3[As cited in chapter II of James Guillaume’s biography of Bakunin, found here: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/guillaume/works/bakunin.htm.]
Bakunin: Dispelling Misunderstandings
Solidarité Ouvrière no. 59
In the centenary year of Bakunin’s death, a census of all the gibberish that has been written about Bakunin would require a considerable amount of work. Without any hesitation, we can award the grand prize for falsification to Jacques Duclos, the former leader of the Parti Communiste Français, who has devoted a large book of several hundred pages to the relations between Marx and Bakunin; it is a masterpiece of historical lies.
So, it’s not a question of establishing an anthology of the falsifications that have been made against Bakunin. For, if Duclos holds – along with Marx himself – the pathetic privilege of being the greatest conscious falsifier of Bakunin’s thought, then the anarchists themselves are without question the greatest unconscious falsifiers. Among the points in common that may exist between the two leaders of the First International, perhaps the primary one is that their thought was distorted by their followers to an identical degree.
It is the itinerary of this deformation of Bakunin’s positions that we wish to trace, first of all; then we will expose what we think is his true theory of revolutionary action.
In Bakunin there is a constant dynamic between the mass action of the proletariat and the action of organised revolutionary minorities. Neither of these two aspects of the struggle against capitalism can be disassociated from each other. Yet the libertarian movement, after Bakunin’s death, will divide itself into two tendencies, emphasising one of the two points whilst neglecting the other. The same phenomenon will be found in the Marxist movement with reformist social-democracy in Germany and radical, Jacobin social-democracy in Russia.
In the anarchist movement, one current will advocate the development of mass organisations, action in the class structures of the proletariat exclusively, achieving a form of apoliticism completely foreign to Bakunin’s ideas; another current will reject the very principle of organisation, because it is considered to be the germ of bureaucracy. Instead, the creation of “affinity groups” is to be favoured, in which individual revolutionary initiative and exemplary action will make it possible to pass – without transition – to an ideal communist society in which each person produces according to their strengths and consumes according to their needs: work in joy, and take from the pile.1
The former advocate mass action of the workers in a structured organisation, the collectivisation of the means of production and the organisation of these means in a coherent whole, and the preparation of the workers for social transformation.
The latter refuse any authority, any discipline of organisation; tactical sense is considered to be a delay in the struggle against capital. This current is defined in an essentially negative way: against authority, hierarchy, power, legal action. Its political programme can be found in the conceptions of communal autonomy directly inspired by Kropotkin, and in particular The Conquest of Bread. This current triumphed at the CNT Congress at Zaragoza in 1936, whose resolutions expressed ignorance of the economic mechanisms of society, and contempt for economic and social reality. In its final report, the Congress developed the “confederal concept of libertarian communism”, based on the model of the plans for the organisation of the future society that abounded in the socialist literature of the 19th century. The foundation of the future society is the free commune. Each commune is free to do what it wants. Those who refuse to integrate into the industrial society outside the agreements of the “collective coexistence” will be able to “agree to other types of coexistence, for example the naturists and nudists, and will have the right to an autonomous administration, free from general compromises”.2
In today’s vocabulary, it would seem that Bakunin’s successors are divided into a “right-wing deviation” called traditional anarcho-syndicalism, and a “left-wing deviation”, called anarchism. The first emphasises mass action, economic organisation and methods. The second insists on the objectives, the “programme”, independently of the immediate reality. Each of the two currents claim – often pro forma – Bakunin. Among the deformation of Bakunin’s thought, we have noted four principal ones.
At times, Bakunin is a champion of the spontaneity of the masses; at other times, he asserts the need for political leadership over the masses. Generally, the anarchists have retained the first aspect of his thought and completely abandoned the second.
In reality, Bakunin said that what the masses lacked in order to be able to emancipate themselves was organisation and science, “precisely the two things that now constitute, and have always constituted, the power of governments”.3
“In moments of great political or economic crises, when the instinct of the masses, heated red-hot, opens up to all happy inspirations; when these herds of human slaves, bent, crushed, but never resigned, finally revolt against their yoke, but feel disorientated and powerless because they are completely disorganised; in such moments, ten, twenty or thirty well-heard and well-organised men among them, who know where they are going and what they want, will easily lead one hundred, two hundred, three hundred or even more.”4
Further on, he also says that in order for the minority in the International Workingmen’s Association to become the majority, each member must be well versed in the principles of the International. “It is only on this condition”, he said, “that in times of peace and calm it will be able to effectively fulfil the mission of propagandist and apostle, and in times of struggle that of a revolutionary leader”.
The instrument for the development of Bakunin’s ideas was the Alliance of Socialist Democracy. Its mission was to select revolutionary cadres and to guide mass organisations, or create them where they did not yet exist. It was an ideologically coherent grouping.
“It is a secret society formed within the International itself, to give it a revolutionary organisation, to transform it and all the popular masses outside of it into a power organised sufficiently to annihilate bourgeois-political-clerical reaction, to destroy all the legal, religious and political institutions of the states.”
It is difficult to see spontaneity here. Bakunin was only saying that if revolutionary minorities must act among the masses, they must not replace the masses. Ultimately, it is always the masses themselves who must act, and for their own purpose. Revolutionary militants must impel the workers to organise and, when circumstances require, they must not hesitate to take up the leadership. This idea stands in stark contrast to what anarchism has subsequently become. Thus, in 1905, when the Russian anarchist Volin was pressured by the insurgent Russian workers to take over the presidency of the St. Petersburg soviet, he refused, because he was not a worker, and because he did not want to act as an authority. Finally, the presidency fell to Trotsky, who took the position after the first president Nosar was arrested.
Mass action and action by revolutionary minorities are inseparable to Bakunin, but the action of revolutionary minorities has meaning only in relation to the mass organisation of the proletariat. Isolated from the organised proletariat, revolutionaries are condemned to inefficiency.
“Socialism finds a real existence only in the enlightened revolutionary instinct, in the collective will and in the organisation of the working masses themselves. And when this instinct, this will, this organisation is lacking, the best books in the world are nothing but empty theories, impotent dreams.”5 2. Apoliticism
Anarchism has been presented as an apolitical, abstentionist movement, playing with words and giving it a different meaning to that which the Bakuninists gave it. At the time, political action meant parliamentary action. Therefore, being anti-parliamentary meant being anti-political. As Marxists at the time did not conceive of any other political action for the proletariat than parliamentary action, the refusal of electoral mystifications was assimilated to opposition to any form of political action.
To the accusation of abstentionism, the Bakuninists replied that the term was unclear, and that it did not mean political indifference but a rejection of bourgeois politics, in favour of “worker politics”. Abstention is a radical challenge to the rules of the political game of the bourgeoisie.
“The International does not reject politics in a general manner; it will be forced to intervene as long as it is forced to fight against the bourgeois class. It only rejects bourgeois politics.”6
Bakunin condemns the notion of universal suffrage as an instrument of the emancipation of the proletariat; he denies the usefulness of running candidates. But, he did not raise abstentionism to the level of an absolute principle. He recognised a certain interest in communal elections, and even circumstantially advised his friend Gambuzzi to intervene in parliament.
Nowhere in Bakunin’s work can one find these hysterical and visceral condemnations, dear to the anarchists after his death. Elections are not condemned for moral reasons but because they risk playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie in the long run. On this point, Bakunin was right about the Marxists up to Lenin. Anti-parliamentarianism was so unusual among the Marxists that during the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks – at least at first, in the European workers movement – passed as Bakuninists!
3. Refusal of authority
The Bakuninists called themselves “anti-authoritarian”. The confusion made possible by the word was cheerfully reprised after Bakunin’s death. Authoritarian, in the language of the time, meant bureaucratic. Anti-authoritarians were simply anti-bureaucratic, as opposed to the Marxist tendency.
It was therefore not a moral attitude or a personality type, which would stem from a temperament. It is political behaviour. Anti-authoritarian means “democratic”. The latter word existed at the time, but it had a different meaning. Less than a century after the French Revolution, it qualified the political practices of the bourgeoisie. It was the bourgeoisie that were “democrats”.
When it was applied to the workers’ movement, the word “democrat” was accompanied by “social” or “socialist”, as in “social-democrat”. The worker that was “democratic” was therefore either social-democratic or anti-authoritarian. Later, democracy and proletariat were associated in the expression “workers’ democracy”; the so-called authoritarian tendency was accused of practising bureaucratic centralisation.
But, Bakunin was far from opposing all authority. His tendency accepted power derived directly from, and controlled by the proletariat. To the Jacobin-type revolutionary government, he opposed insurrectional proletarian power through the class organisation of the workers. This is not political power in the narrow sense, it is social power.
After Bakunin’s death, the anarchists rejected the notion of power in itself. They will only refer to critical writings on power, and to metaphysical anti-authoritarianism.7 They will abandon the method of analysis based on real facts, they will abandon even the foundations of Bakunin’s theory based on materialism and historical analysis. And with that, they will abandon the terrain of the mass struggle of the proletariat in favour of a particular form of radicalised liberalism.
4. Shifts between classes
Bakunin’s political strategy did not start from an abstract conception of relations between classes, which would have been established in perpetuity. When the proletariat was weak, he did not advocate fighting indiscriminately against all fractions of the bourgeoisie. Not all political regimes are the same from the point of view of the struggle of the working class. He was not indifferent to whether the working class struggles under the regime of Bismarck or the Tsar, or under that of a parliamentary democracy.
“The most imperfect republic is a thousand times more valuable than the most enlightened monarchy.”
In 1870, Bakunin recommended using the patriotic reaction of the French proletariat to convert it into a revolutionary war. In “Letters to a Frenchman”, he makes a remarkable analysis of the relations between the different fractions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and he develops, a few months in advance, and in a prophetic manner, an idea of what the communes of Paris and the provinces will become.
This reading of Bakunin shows that his entire work is nothing but a constant search for the relations that can exist between the fractions composing the ruling class, and their opposition to the proletariat. The strategy of the workers’ movement is intimately linked to the analysis of these relations, and it can in no way be separated from them, any more than it can be separated from the historical moment in which these relations are situated.
In other words, not every moment is a good moment for making revolution, and a correct understanding of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and working class can help to not miss favourable opportunities, and to avoid making tragic mistakes.
In contrast, Bakunin’s posterity considers that there existed an immutable, constant type of relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and that the specifics of these relations between classes should in no way be taken into account when determining revolutionary action.
In the first case, a number of basic principles, considered to be essential, have been attached to the project; the aim is then to implement them more or less remotely, irrespective of the circumstances of the moment. Thus, the report of the Zaragoza Congress, already mentioned, could have been written at any time. It is situated absolutely out of time. On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, the military problem, for example, the unrest in the army, was resolved in one sentence: “there are thousands of workers who have marched in the barracks, and who are acquainted with modern military techniques”.
In the second case, it is thought that the relations of force between classes are unimportant, since the proletariat must act spontaneously; it is not subject to any social determinism, rather, to the flukes of exemplary actions. Thus, the whole problem consists in creating the right detonator. The history of the anarchist movement is full of these brilliant, useless and bloody actions. In the hope of stirring up revolution, dozens of town halls and city halls are stormed, speeches are made, libertarian communism is proclaimed – often with general indifference – and local archives are burned, whilst waiting for the police to intervene.
Whether it’s in the wait-and-see attitude, or in the voluntarism, in both cases the reference to Bakunin is abusive. Very often, the libertarian movement has replaced the scientific method of analysing relations between classes with magical incantations.
The scientific, sociological character of Bakunin’s analysis of social relations and political action was completely denied by the libertarian movement. The intellectual decline of the libertarian movement will be furthered by the accusation of “Marxism”, directed at any attempt to introduce the slightest notion of scientific method into political analysis. Malatesta, for example, said: “Today I find that Bakunin was too Marxist in political economy and in the interpretation of history. I find that his philosophy struggled, with no way out, with the contradiction between the mechanical conception of the universe, and the faith in the effectiveness of will over the destinies of man and the universe.”
The “mechanical conception of the universe”, is, in the spirit of Malatesta, the dialectical method that makes the social world a moving whole, whose laws of general evolution can be determined. The “efficiency of the will” is the revolutionary, voluntarist action. The problem is therefore reduced to the relation between mass action in society and the action of revolutionary minorities, and Malatesta is incapable of understanding the interdependent relations which exist between the two.
Malatesta does not understand the relationship that exists between man and his environment, between man’s social determinism and his capacity to transform his environment.
The individual is not separated from the environment in which he lives. But, if he is largely determined by his environment, he can act on it and modify it on the condition that he takes the trouble to understand its laws of evolution.
* * *
The action of the working class must be the synthesis between understanding the “mechanics of the universe” – the mechanisms of society – and the “efficiency of the will” – conscious revolutionary action. This is the foundation of Bakunin’s theory of revolutionary action.
There are not two Bakunins, one libertarian, anti-authoritarian, who glorifies the spontaneous action of the masses; the other “Marxist”, authoritarian, who advocates the organisation of the vanguard.
There is only one Bakunin who applies, at different moments, in different circumstances, principles of action deriving from a clear understanding of the dialectic between masses and vanguards.
- 1“Take from the pile”, an expression found in "The Conquest of Bread", is often interpreted in the anarchist movement to refer to a situation of abundance, through which all needs will be satisfied. The words that follow this formula are often forgotten: in fact, the complete sentence says: “take from the pile that which is in abundance; ration that which is in limited quantity”. The standard English translation renders the sentence as “offer freely from the common store everything which was to be found in abundance, and dole out whatever was limited in quantity”.
- 2[Taken from the text of the final resolution, as found here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-confederal-concept-of-libertarian-communism.]
- 3From the “Protest of the Alliance”.
- 4Œuvres, VI, pg. 90.
- 5Œuvres, IV, pg. 31.
- 6Œuvres, VI, pg. 336.
- 7[For an example, one can look at Max Nettlau’s biography of James Guillaume, where he cites Guillaume’s penchant for composing music as an example of authoritarian tendencies: “He loved music very much, but exercised it much less in practice than as a composer; I take this also to be an authoritarian characteristic, as the composer disposes of the tunes from above, ordering them, whilst the practical player experiments and constructs as an evolutionist.” Sourced from: https://jguillaume.hypotheses.org/74.]