Bakunin: Dispelling Misunderstandings

Submitted by sherbu-kteer on February 27, 2021

Solidarité Ouvrière no. 59
June 1976

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.

1. Spontaneism

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:]
  • 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:]