Anarchism or communism?

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In the last article in this series we looked at the combat waged by the marxist tendency in the International Workingmen's Association against the reformist and "state socialist" ideologies in the workers' movement, particularly in the German party. And yet according to the anarchist or "anti-authoritarian" current led by Mikhail Bakunin, Marx and Engels typified and even inspired the state socialist tendency, were the foremost proponents of that "German socialism" which wanted to replace capitalism not with a free stateless society but with a terrible bureaucratic tyranny of which they themselves would be the guardians. To this day, Bakunin's criticisms of Marx are presented by anarchists and liberals alike as a profound insight into the real nature of marxism, a prophetic explanation of why the theories of Marx led inevitably to the practises of Stalin.

But as we shall try to show in this article, Bakunin's "radical critique" of marxism, like all the subsequent ones, is radical in appearance only. The response that Marx and his current made to this pseudo-radicalism necessarily accompanied the fight against reformism, because both ideologies represented the penetration of alien class viewpoints into the ranks of the proletariat.

The petty bourgeois core of anarchism

The growth of anarchism in the second half of the 19th century was the product of the resistance of the petty bourgeois strata - artisans, intellectuals, shopkeepers, small peasants - to the triumphant march of capital, a resistance to the process of proletarianisation which was depriving of them of their former social "independence". Strongest in those countries where industrial capital arrived late, in the eastern and southern peripheries of Europe, it expressed both the rebellion of these strata against capitalism, and their inability to look beyond it, to the communist future; instead it gave voice to their yearning for a semi-mythical past of free local communities and strictly independent producers, unencumbered by the oppressions of industrial capital and the centralising bourgeois state.
The "father" of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was the classical incarnation of this attitude, with his fierce hatred not only of the state and the big capitalists, but of collectivism in all forms, including trade unions, strikes, and similar expressions of working class collectivity. Against all the real trends developing within capitalist society, Proudhon's ideal was a "mutualist" society founded upon individual artisan production, linked together by free exchange and free credit.
Marx had already lambasted Proudhon's visions in his book The Poverty of Philosophy, published in 1847, and the evolution of capital itself in the second part of the century gave practical demonstration of the obsolescence of Proudhon's ideas. To the "mass worker" of capitalist industry, it was increasingly obvious that both for resisting capitalist exploitation and abolishing it altogether, only a collective struggle and a collective appropriation of the means of production could offer any hope.
On the face of it, the Bakuninist current, which from the 1860s onwards tried to combine Proudhon's "anti-authoritarianism" with a collectivist and even communist approach to social questions, looks like a clear advance over classical Proudhonism. Bakunin even wrote to Marx expressing his admiration for his scientific work, declaring himself to be his disciple and offering to translate Capital into Russian. And yet, despite its ideological backwardness, the Proudhonist current had, at certain moments, played a constructive role in the formation of the workers' movement: Proudhon had been a factor in Marx's movement towards communism in the 1840s, and the Proudhonists had helped to found the IWMA. The history of Bakuninism, by contrast, is almost entirely a chronicle of the negative and destructive work it carried out against the International. Even Bakunin's professed admiration for Marx was part of this syndrome: Bakunin himself confessed that he had "praised and honoured Marx for tactical reasons and on grounds of personal policy", the ultimate aim being to break up the marxist "phalanx" which dominated the International (cited in Nicolaevsky, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, chap 18, p 308 of the Penguin edition).
The essential reason for this is that while Proudhonism predated marxism, and Proudhonist groups the First International, Bakuninism developed to a large extent in reaction against marxism and against the development of a centralised, international proletarian organisation. Marx and Engels explain this evolution in relation to the general problem of "sects", but the target is above all the Bakuninists, since the passage is from "The Alleged Splits in the International" (1872), which was the response of the General Council to Bakuninist intrigues against the IWMA:
"The first phase in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is marked by sectarianism. This is because the proletariat has not reached the stage of being sufficiently developed to act as a class. Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practise. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement ... All these sects, though at first they provide an impetus to the movement, become an obstacle to it once it has moved further forward".

Proletarian organisation versus petty bourgeois intrigues

The main stake in the struggle between the marxists and the Bakuninists was the International itself: nothing more clearly demonstrated the petty bourgeois essence of anarchism than its approach to the organisational question, and it is no accident that the issue which led to the open split between these two currents was not an abstract debate about the future society, but about the functioning of the proletarian organisation, its internal mode of operation. But, as we shall see, these organisational differences were also connected to different visions of the future society and the means to create it.
From the time that they joined the International at the end of the 1860s, but above all in the period following the defeat of the Commune, the Bakuninists raised a hue and cry about the role of the General Council, the central organ of the International which was based in London and thus strongly influenced by Marx and Engels. For Bakunin, the General Council was a mere cover for the dictatorship of Marx and his "coterie"; he thus put himself forward as the champion of the freedom and autonomy of the local sections against the tyrannical pretensions of the "German socialists". This campaign was deliberately linked to the question of the future society, since the Bakuninists argued that the International itself was to be the embryo of the new world, the precursor of a decentralised federation of autonomous communes. By the same token, the authoritarian rule of the marxists within the International betrayed their vision of the future: a new state bureaucracy lording it over the workers in the name of socialism.
It is perfectly true that the proletarian organisation, in both its internal structure and its external function, is determined by the nature of the communist society it is aiming for, and of the class which bears that society within itself. But contrary to the anarchist conception, the proletariat has nothing to fear from centralisation in itself: communism is indeed the centralisation of the world's productive capacities to replace the competitive anarchy of capitalism. And in order to reach this stage, the proletariat has to centralise its own fighting forces to take on an enemy which has frequently demonstrated its capacity to unite against it. This is why the marxists replied to Bakunin's taunts by pointing out that his programme of complete local autonomy for the sections meant the end of the International as a unified body. As the organisation of the proletarian vanguard, the "militant organisation of the proletarian class in every country, linked together in common struggle against the capitalists, the landowners, and their class power organised by the state" ("The Alleged Splits ..."), the International could not speak with hundreds of conflicting voices: it had to be able to formulate the goals of the working class in a clear and unambiguous manner. And for this to be the case, the International needed effective central organs - not facades concealing the ambitions of dictators and careerists, but elected and accountable bodies charged with maintaining the unity of the organisation between its congresses.
The Bakuninists on the other hand sought to reduce the General Council to "no more than an office for correspondence and providing statistics. Its administrative functions being abandoned, its correspondence would obviously be reduced simply to reproducing information already published in the Association's various journals. The correspondence office would therefore barely exist. As for providing statistics, that is a job that can be done without a powerful organisation, and even more, as expressly stated in the original Rules, without a common objective. Now since these things smack strongly of 'authoritarianism', while there should perhaps be an office, it should not be a statistical office. In brief, the General Council should go. The same logic would also disband Federal Councils, local committees and all other centres of "authority". All that would remain would be autonomous sections" (ibid).
Later on in the same text, Marx and Engels argued that if anarchy meant only the ultimate aim of the class movement - the abolition of social classes and thus of the state which guards class divisions - then all socialists were for it. But the Bakuninist current meant something different in its actual practise, since it "designates anarchy in the ranks of the proletariat as the infallible means of destroying the powerful concentration of social and political forces in the hands of the exploiters. It is therefore demanding that the International replace its organisation with anarchy - just at a time when the old world is trying to destroy it. The international police could ask no better means to prolong the Thiers republic forever, while covering it with the mantle of empire".
But there was far more to Bakunin's project than some abstract opposition to all forms of authority and centralisation. In fact, what Bakunin was against was above all the "authority" of Marx and his current; and his tirades against its alleged propensity for secret manoeuvering and plotting was fundamentally the projection of his own deeply hierarchical and elitist conception of organisation. His guerilla war against the Central Council was really motivated by a determination to set up an alternative, if hidden, centre of power.
When Marx and Engels evoked the history of "sectarian" organisations, they were referring not just to the wooly-minded utopian ideas that often characterised such groups, but also to their political practises and functioning, inherited from bourgeois and petty bourgeois secret societies with their cloak and dagger traditions, occult oaths and rituals, sometimes combined with a propensity for terrorism and assassination. As we have seen in a previous article in this series (see International Review 72), the formation of the Communist League in 1847 already marked a definitive break with such traditions. Bakunin, however, was steeped in these practises and never abandoned them. Throughout his political career, his policy was always one of forming secret groups under his direct control, groups based more on personal "affinity" than on any political criteria, and using these hidden channels of influence to gain hegemony over wider organisations.
Having failed to turn the liberal League of Peace and Freedom into his version of a revolutionary socialist organisation, Bakunin formed the Alliance of Socialist Democracy in 1868. It had branches in Barcelona, Madrid, Lyons, Marseilles, Naples and Sicily; the main section was in Geneva with a Central Bureau under Bakunin's personal control. The "Socialist" part of the Alliance was very vague and confused, defining its goal as "the social and economic equalisation of classes" (rather than their abolition), and fixating obsessively on the "abolition of the right of inheritance" as the key to the overcoming of private property.
Shortly after its formation, the Alliance applied for membership of the International. The General Council criticised the confusions in its programme, and insisted that it could not be admitted into the International as a parallel international organisation; it would have to dissolve itself and convert its individual sections into sections of the International.
Bakunin was quite happy to agree to these terms for the simple reason that the Alliance was, for him, only a front for an increasingly esoteric maze of secret societies, some fictional, some real; for a Byzantine hierarchy ultimately answerable to none other than "citizen B" himself. The full story of Bakunin's secret societies has yet to be uncovered, but certainly behind the Alliance (which in any case was not really dissolved upon entering the IWMA) the "International Brotherhood" was an inner circle that had already been operating inside the League for Peace and Freedom. There was also a shadowy "National Brotherhood" midway between the Alliance and the International Brotherhood. There may have been others. The point is that such formations betray a mode of functioning entirely alien to the proletariat. Where proletarian organisations function through elected and accountable central organs, Bakunin's convoluted hierarchy could be accountable to no one but himself. Where proletarian organisations, even when they have to operate in clandestinity, are fundamentally open to their own comrades, Bakunin treats the "average" members of his organisation as mere footsoldiers to be manipulated at will, unaware of the purposes they are really serving.
It is therefore no surprise to find that this elitist conception of relations within the proletarian organisation is reproduced in the Bakuninist view of the function of the revolutionary organisation within the class as a whole. The General council's polemic against the Bakuninists, "The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the IWMA", written in 1873, picks out the following gems from Bakunin's writings:
"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 brothers". Admitting that revolutions can't be made by individuals or secret societies, the latter has the task of organising "not the army of the revolution - the 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 idea 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 ...".
Marx and Engels, who wrote the text in collaboration with Paul Lafargue, then comment:
"So everything changes. Anarchy, the 'unleashing of popular life', of 'evil passions' and all the rest is no longer enough. To assure the success of the revolution one must have 'unity of thought and action'. The members of the International are trying to create this unity by propaganda, by discussion and the public organisation of the proletariat. But all Bakunin needs is a secret organisation of one hundred people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea, the general staff in the background, self-appointed and commanded by the permanent 'citizen B'. Unity of thought and action means nothing but orthodoxy and blind obedience ... we are indeed confronted with a veritable Society of Jesus".
Bakunin's real hatred of capitalist exploitation and oppression is not in question. But the activities he engaged in were profoundly dangerous for the workers' movement. Unable to wrest control of the International, he was reduced to a work of sabotage and disorganisation, to the provocation of endless internal squabbles which could only weaken the International. His penchant for conspiracy and bloodthirsty phraseology made him a willing dupe of an openly pathological element like Nechayev, whose criminal actions threatened to bring discredit upon the entire International.
These dangers were magnified in the period after the Commune, when the proletarian movement was in disarray and the bourgeoisie, which was convinced that the International had "created" the uprising of the Paris workers, was everywhere persecuting its members and seeking to destroy its organisation. The International, led by the General Council, had to react very firmly to Bakunin's intrigues, affirming the principle of open organisation against that of secrecy and conspiracy: "There is only one means of combatting all these intrigues, but it will prove astonishingly effective; this means is complete publicity. Exposure of all these schemings in their entirety will render them utterly powerless" (ibid). The Council also called for, and obtained at the 1872 Hague Congress, the expulsion of Bakunin and his associate Guillaume - not because of the many ideological differences they undoubtedly had, but because their political practises had endangered the very existence of the International.
In fact, the struggle for the preservation of the International had at this moment more of a historical than an immediate significance. The forces of counter-revolution were gathering pace, and the Bakuninist intrigues were only accelerating a process of fragmentation that was being imposed by the general conditions facing the class. To the extent that they were aware of these unfavourable conditions, the marxists considered it better that the International should be (at least temporarily) dismantled than fall into the hands of political currents who would undermine its essential purpose and bring its very name into disrepute. This was why - again at the Hague Congress - Marx and Engels called for the General Council to be transferred to New York. It was the effective end of the First International, but when the revival in the class struggle permitted the formation of the Second nearly two decades later, it was to be on a much clearer political basis.

Historical materialism versus ahistorical idealism

The organisational question was the immediate focus for the split in the International. But intimately connected to the differences on organisation between the marxists and the anarchists was a whole series of more general theoretical issues which again revealed the different class origins of the two standpoints.
At the most "abstract" level, Bakunin, despite claiming to stand for materialism against idealism, openly rejected Marx's historical materialist method. The point of departure here was the question of the state. In a text written in 1872, Bakunin states the differences quite openly:
"The marxist sociologists, men like Engels and Lasalle, in objecting to our views contend that the state is not at all the cause of the poverty, degradation and servitude of the masses; that both the miserable condition of the masses and the despotic power of the state are, on the contrary, the effect of a more general underlying cause. In particular, we are told that they are both the products of an inevitable stage in the economic evolution of society; a stage which, historically viewed, constitutes an immense step forward to what they call the 'Social Revolution'" (cited in Bakunin on Anarchy, edited by Sam Dolgoff, New York, 1971).
Bakunin, on the other hand, not only defends the view that the state is the "cause" of the suffering of the masses, and its immediate abolition the precondition for their deliverance: he also takes the logical step of rejecting the materialist view of history, which considers that communism is only possible as the result of a whole series of developments in man's social organisation and productive capacities - developments which include the dissolution of the original human communities and the rise and fall of a succession of class societies. Against this scientific approach, Bakunin substitutes a moral one:
"We who, like Mr Marx himself, are materialists and determinists, also recognise the inevitable linking of economic and political facts in history. We recognise, indeed the necessity and inevitable character of all events that occur but we no longer bow before them indifferently, and above all we are very careful about praising them when, by their nature, they show themselves in flagrant contradiction to the supreme end of history. This is a thoroughly human ideal which is found in more or less recognisable form in the instincts and aspirations of the people and in all the religious symbols of all epochs, because it is inherent in the human race, the most social of all the species of animals on earth. This ideal, today better understood than ever, is the triumph of humanity, the most complete conquest and establishment of personal freedom and development - material, intellectual and moral - for every individual, through the absolutely unrestricted and spontaneous organisation of economic and social solidarity.
Everything in history that shows itself conformable to that end from the human point of view - and we can have no other - is good; all that is contrary to it is bad
" (ibid).
It is true, as indeed we have shown in this series, that the "ideal" of communism has appeared in the strivings of the oppressed and the exploited throughout history, and this striving corresponds to the most fundamental human needs. But marxism has demonstrated why, up until the capitalist epoch, such aspirations were doomed to remain an ideal - why, for example, not only the communist dreams of the Spartacus slave revolt, but also the new feudal form of exploitation which extricated society from the impasse of slavery, were necessary moments in the evolution of the conditions which make communism a real possibility today. For Bakunin, however, while the first might be considered "good", the second could only be considered "bad", just as in the text cited above, he goes on to argue that while the "comparatively higher standard of human liberty" in ancient Greece was good, the later conquest of Greece by the more barbaric Romans was bad, and so on down through the centuries.
From this starting point, it becomes impossible to judge whether a social formation or social class is playing a progressive or regressive role in the historical process; instead all things are measured by an abstract ideal, a moral absolute which remains unchanging throughout history.
Around the margins of the revolutionary movement today there are a number of "modernist" currents who specialise in rejecting the notion of the decadence of capitalism: the most logically consistent of these (eg the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, or the Wildcat group in the UK) have gone on to dismiss the marxist conception of progress altogether, since to argue that a social system is in decline obviously involves accepting that it was once in the ascendant. They conclude that progress is a completely bourgeois notion and that communism has been possible at any time in history.
As it turns out, these modernists are not so modern after all: they are faithful epigones of Bakunin, who also came to reject any idea of progress and insisted that the social revolution was possible at any time. In his "seminal" work, Statism and Anarchy (1873), he argues that the two essential conditions of a social revolution are: extremes of suffering, almost to the point of despair, and the inspiration of a "universal ideal". This is why, in the same passage, he argues that the place most ripe for a social revolution is Italy, as opposed to the more industrially developed countries, where the workers are "relatively affluent" and "so impregnated by a variety of bourgeois prejudices that, excepting income, they differ in no way from the bourgeoisie".
But Bakunin's revolutionary Italian "proletariat" consists of "two or three million urban workers, mainly in factories and small workshops, and approximately twenty million totally deprived peasants". In other words, Bakunin's proletariat is really a new name for the bourgeois notion of "the people" - all those who suffer, regardless of their actual place in the relations of production, their capacity to organise, to become conscious of themselves as a social force. Elsewhere, indeed, Bakunin lauds the revolutionary potential of the Slavic or Latin peoples (as opposed to the Germans, towards whom Bakunin maintained a chauvinistic dislike throughout his life); he even, as the General Council notes in "The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the IWMA" argues that, in Russia, "the brigand is the true and only revolutionary".
All this is entirely consistent with Bakunin's rejection of materialism: if the social revolution is possible at any time, then any oppressed force can create it, be they peasants or brigands. Indeed, not only does the working class in the marxist sense have no particular role to play in this process, Bakunin positively rails against the marxists for insisting that the working class has to exercise its dictatorship over society:
"Let us ask, if the proletariat is to be the ruling class, over whom is it to rule? In short, there will remain another proletariat which will be subdued to this new rule, to this new state. For instance, the peasant 'rabble', who, as it is known, does not enjoy the sympathy of the marxists who consider it to represent a lower level of culture, will probably be ruled by the factory proletariat of the cities" (Statism and Anarchy).
This is not the place to go into the relationship between the working class and the peasantry in the communist revolution. Suffice it to say that the working class has no interest whatever in setting up a new system of exploitation once it has overthrown the bourgeoisie. But what is revealing in Bakunin's fears is precisely the fact that he does not view this problem from the point of view of the working class, but of the "oppressed in general" - to be precise, from the point of view of the petty bourgeoisie.
Unable to grasp that the proletariat is the revolutionary class in capitalist society not merely because it suffers but because it contains within itself the seeds of a new and more advanced social organisation, Bakunin is also unable to envisage the revolution as anything more than "a vast bonfire", an outpouring of "evil passions", an act of destruction rather than of creation: "A popular insurrection, by its very nature, is instinctive, chaotic and destructive ... the masses are always ready to sacrifice themselves, and this is what turns them into a brutal and savage horde, capable of performing heroic and apparently impossible exploits ... This negative passion, it is true, is far from being sufficient to attain the heights of the revolutionary cause; but without it, revolution would be impossible. Revolution requires extensive and widespread destruction, a fecund and renovating destruction, since in this way and only this way are new worlds born" (Statism and Anarchy).
Such passages not only confirm Bakunin's non-proletarian outlook in general; they also enable us to understand why he never broke with an elitist view of the role of the revolutionary organisation. Whereas for marxism the revolutionary vanguard is the product of a class becoming conscious of itself, for Bakunin the popular masses can never go beyond the level of instinctive and chaotic rebellion: consequently, if anything more than this is to be achieved, it requires the work of a "general staff" acting behind the scenes. In short, it's the old idealist notion of a Holy Spirit descending into unconscious matter. The anarchists who never fail to attack Lenin's mistaken formulation about revolutionary consciousness being introduced into the proletariat from the outside are curiously silent about Bakunin's version of the same notion.

Political struggle versus political indifferentism

Intimately connected to the organisational question, the other great point of contention between the marxists and the anarchists was the question of "politics". The Hague Congress was a battleground over this issue: the victory of the marxist current (supported in this instance by the Blanquists) was embodied in a resolution insisting that "the proletariat can act as a class only by constituting itself into a distinct political party, opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes", and that "the conquest of political power becomes the great duty of the proletariat" in its fight for emancipation.
This dispute had two dimensions. The first was an echo of the argument about material necessity. Since for Bakunin, the revolution was possible at any time, any struggle for reforms was essentially a diversion from this great end; and if that struggle went beyond the strictly economic sphere (which the Bakuninists grudgingly accepted, without ever really understanding its significance) onto the terrain of bourgeois politics - of parliament, elections, campaigns for changes in the law - it could only mean capitulating to the bourgeoisie. Thus, in Bakunin's words, "the Alliance, true to the programme of the International, disdainfully rejected all collaboration with bourgeois politics, in however radical and socialist a disguise. They advised the proletariat that the only real emancipation, the only policy truly beneficial for them, is the exclusively negative policy of demolishing political institutions, political power, government in general, and the state" (Bakunin on Anarchy, p 289).
Behind these highly radical phrases lay the anarchists' incapacity to grasp that proletarian revolution, the direct struggle for communism, was not yet on the agenda because the capitalist system had not yet exhausted its progressive mission, and that the proletariat was faced with the necessity to consolidate itself as a class, to wrest whatever reforms it could from the bourgeoisie in order, above all, to strengthen itself for the future revolutionary struggle. In a period in which parliament was a real arena of struggle between fractions of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat could afford to enter this arena without subordinating itself to the ruling class; this strategy only became impossible once capitalism had entered its decadent, totalitarian phase. Of course, the precondition for this was that the working class had its own political party, distinct and opposed to all the parties of the ruling class, as the resolution of the International put it, otherwise it would merely act as an appendage of the more progressive bourgeois parties rather than tactically supporting them at certain moments. None of this made any sense to the anarchists, but their "purist" opposition to any intervention in the bourgeois political game did not equip them to defend the autonomy of the proletariat in real and concrete situations: a prime example of this is given in Engels article "The Bakuninists at Work," written in 1873. Analysing the uprisings in Spain, which could certainly not be of a proletarian, socialist character given the backwardness of the country, Engels shows how the anarchists' opposition to the demand for a republic, their resounding phrases about immediately establishing the revolutionary Commune, did not prevent them, in practise, from tailending the bourgeoisie. Engels acerbic comments are indeed almost a prediction of what the anarchists were to do in Spain in 1936, albeit in a different historical context:
"As soon as they were faced with a serious revolutionary situation, the Bakuninists had to throw the whole of their old programme overboard. First they sacrificed their doctrine of absolute abstention from political and especially electoral activities. Then anarchy, the abolition of the state, shared the same fate. Instead of abolishing the state they tried, on the contrary, to set up a number of new, small states. They then dropped the principle that the workers must not take part in any revolution that did not have as its aim the immediate and complete emancipation of the proletariat, and they themselves took part in a movement that was notoriously bourgeois. Finally they went against the dogma they had only just proclaimed - that the establishment of a revolutionary government is but another fraud, another betrayal of the working class - for they sat quite comfortably in the juntas of the various towns, and moreover almost everywhere as an impotent minority outvoted and politically exploited by the bourgeoisie".
The second dimension of this dispute over political action was the question of power. We have already seen that for marxists, the state was the product of exploitation, not its cause. It was the inevitable emanation of a class-divided society and could only be done away with for good once classes had ceased to exist. But, contrary to the anarchists, this could not be the result of a grand, overnight "social liquidation". It required a more or less long period of transition in which the proletariat would first have to take political power in its own hands, and use this power to initiate the social and economic transformation.
By arguing, in the name of freedom and opposition to all forms of authority, that the working class should refrain from conquering political power, the anarchists were thus preventing the working class from getting to first base. In order to reorganise social life, the working class had first to defeat the bourgeoisie, to overthrow it. This was of necessity an "authoritarian" act. In Engels' famous words:
"Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? 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 if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough? Therefore, either one of two things: either the anti-authoritarians don't know what they are talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction" ("On authority", 1873).
Elsewhere, Engels pointed out that Bakunin's demand for the immediate abolition of the state had shown its true value in the farce of Lyons in 1870 (i.e shortly before the real workers' uprising in Paris). Bakunin and a handful of his supporters had stood on the steps of Lyons Town Hall and declared the abolition of the state and its replacement by a federation of communes; unfortunately, "two companies of the bourgeois National Guard proved quite sufficient, on the other hand, to shatter this splendid dream and send Bakunin hurrying back to Geneva with the miraculous decree in his pocket" ("Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the IWMA").
But because the marxists denied that the state could be decreed out of existence, this didn't mean that they aimed to set up a new dictatorship over the masses: the authority they stood for was that of the armed proletariat, not that of a particular faction or clique. And, following Marx's writings about the Commune, it was simply a slander to claim, as Bakunin repeatedly did, that the marxists were in favour of taking hold of the existing state, that along with the Lassalleans they were for a "people's state" - a notion savaged by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (see the article in this series in International Review 78). The Commune had made it clear that the first act of the revolutionary working class was the destruction of the bourgeois state and the creation of new organs of power whose form corresponded to the needs and aims of the revolution. It is of course an anarchist legend to claim that, in the immediate aftermath of the Commune, Marx opportunistically dropped his authoritarian views and came round to the positions of Bakunin: that the experience of the Commune vindicated anarchist principles and refuted the marxist ones. In fact, reading Bakunin on the Commune (particularly in his The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution), one can only be struck by how abstract his reflections are, how little they attempt to assimilate and relay the essential lessons of this momentous event, how they trail off into some rather vague ramblings about God and religion. They cannot be compared at all to the concrete lessons Marx drew from the Commune, lessons about the real form of the proletarian dictatorship (arming of the workers, revocable delegates, centralisation "from below" - see the article in this series in International Review 77). As a matter of fact, even after the Commune, Bakunin was quite incapable of seeing how the proletariat could organise itself as a unified political force. In Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin argues against the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat with naive questions like "Will perhaps the proletariat as a whole head the government?", to which Marx replies, in the notes he wrote about Bakunin's book (known as the "Conspectus of Bakunin's Book Statism and Anarchy", written in 1874-5 but not published until 1926): "Does in a trade union, for instance, the whole union constitute the executive committee?". Or, when Bakunin writes "The Germans number nearly 40 million. Will, for example, all 40 millions be members of the government?", Marx replies "Certainly, for the thing begins with the self-government of the Commune". In other words, Bakunin had utterly failed to see the significance of the Commune as a new form of political power which was not based on a divorce between a minority of rulers and majority of ruled, but permitted the exploited majority to exercise real power over the minority of exploiters, to participate in the revolutionary process and ensure that the new organs of power did not escape their control. This immense practical discovery of the working class provided a realistic answer to the oft-posed question about revolutions: how do you prevent a new privileged group usurping power in the name of the revolution?. The marxists were able to draw this lesson even if it required correcting their previous position on the possibility of seizing the existing state. The anarchists, on the other hand, were only able to see the Commune as a confirmation of their eternal principle, indistinguishable from the prejudices of bourgeois liberalism: that all power corrupts, and it is best to have nothing to do with it - a conception unworthy of a class which aims to make the most radical revolution of all time.

The future society: anarchisms's artisan vision

It would be a mistake simply to ridicule the anarchists or deny that they ever had any insights. If one plunges into the writings of Bakunin or a close associate like James Guillaume, one can certainly find images of great power together with snatches of wisdom about the nature of the revolutionary process, in particular their constant insistance that "the revolution must be made not for the people but by the people and can never succeed if it does not enthusiastically involve all tthe masses of the people ..." ("National Catechism", 1866). We may even surmise that the ideas of the Bakuninists - who were talking about revolutionary communes based on "imperative, responsible and revocable mandates" at least as early as 1869 (in the "Programme of the International Brotherhood" which Marx and Engels quote from extensively in their "The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the IWMA") - had a direct impact upon the Paris Commune itself, especially since some of its leading members were followers of Bakunin (Varlin for example).
But as has been said on several occasions, the insights of anarchism are comparable to the stopped clock which tells the right time twice a day. Its eternal principles are a stopped clock indeed; what it lacks, however, is a consistent method that would enable it to grasp a moving reality from the class standpoint of the proletariat.
We have already seen this to be the case when anarchism deals with questions of organisation and political power. It is no less the case when it comes to its prescriptions for the future society, which, in certain texts (Bakunin's "Revolutionary Catechism", 1866, or Guillaume's "On building the new social order", 1876, published in Bakunin on Anarchy), amount to real "cookbooks for the recipes of the future" of the kind that Marx always declined to write. Nonetheless these texts are useful in demonstrating that the "fathers" of anarchism never grasped the root problems of communism - above all, the necessity to abolish the chaos of commodity relations and place the productive forces of the world in the hands of a unified human community. In the anarchists' description of the future, for all their references to collectivism and communism, the artisan's standpoint is never transcended. In Guillaume's text, for example, it may be a good thing for the land to be tilled in common, but the crucial thing is that the agricultural producers win their independence; whether this is obtained through collective or individual ownership "is of secondary importance"; by the same token, the workers will become owners of the means of production through separate trade corporations, and society as a whole will be organisaed through a federation of autonomous communes. In other words, this is a world still divided into a multitude of independent owners (individual or corporate) who can only be linked together through the medium of exchange, through commodity relations. In Guillaume's text this is perfectly explicit: the various producers associations' and communes are to be connected through the good offices of a "Bank of Exchange" which will organise the business of buying and selling on society's behalf.
Eventually, Guillaume argues, society will be able to produce an abundance of goods and exchange will be replaced by simple distribution. But having no real theory of capital and its laws of motion, the anarchists are unable to see that a society of abundance can only come about through a relentless struggle against commodity production and the law of value, since the latter are precisely what is holding the productive capacities of mankind in thrall. A return to a system of simple commodity production certainly cannot result in a society of abundance. In fact such a system cannot exist on a stable basis, since simple commodity production inevitably gives rise to expanded commodity production - to the whole dynamic of capitalist accumulation. Thus, while marxism, expressing the standpoint of the only class in capitalist society that has a real future, looks forward to the freeing of the productive forces as the foundation for an unlimited development of human potential, anarchism, with its artisan's standpoint, is caught up in the vision of a static order of free and equal exchange. This is not a real anticipation of the future, but nostalgia for a past that never was.


In the ensuing part of this series we will begin to look at the way the marxist movement of the 19th century addressed the "social questions" posed by the communist revolution - questions such as the family, religion, and the relationship between town and country.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Political currents and reference: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: