The ill-fated uprising in Lyons of September 5, 1870, led by Bakunin, Richard, and other members of the secret vanguard organization the Alliance, occurred shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870-January 28, 1871).
The “Letter to Albert Richard”, written shortly before the Lyons uprising, is important primarily because it deals with the crucial question of the relationship between the revolutionary minority and the masses. It is also relevant because of relevance to the development of the Russian Revolution and because it sums up Bakunin’s alternative to what he saw as authoritarian revolutions.
Albert Richard (1846–1925) was a French anarchist from Lyons, where he was an active member of the Alliance and a pioneer organizer of the International. Bakunin accused him of betraying the Lyons uprising by collaborating with the provisional government. After the fall of the Paris Commune of May 1871 in which he fought, Richard wrote a pamphlet urging the restoration of Napoleon III.
Whether Bakunin’s concept of “invisible collective dictatorship” contradicts his libertarian principles is a matter of controversy. His early non-anarchist writings favored a Blanquist-type dictatorship, but his mature anarchist writings are clearly opposed to Blanquist “vanguardism”. G. D. H. Cole stressed:
“Bakunin agreed with Marx in advocating a dictatorship of the proletariat over the exploiting classes; but he held that this dictatorship must be a spontaneous dictatorship of the entire uprisen working class, and not by any body of leaders set in authority over them.”
Bakunin’s well-known predilection for the establishment of tightly organized secret hierarchical organizations, for which he worked out elaborate statutes in the style of the Freemasons and the Carbonari, can be attributed partly to his romantic temperament and partly to the fact that all revolutionary and progressive groups were forced to operate secretly. Bakunin’s secret organizations were actually quite informal fraternities of loosely organized individuals and groups connected by personal contact and correspondence, as preferred by his closest associates who considered his schemes for elaborate, centralized secret societies incompatible with libertarian principles.