G.V. Plekhanov

Anarchism and Socialism

Bakounine – (Concluded)

We have said that the principal features of Bakounine’s programme originated in the simple addition of two abstract principles: that of liberty and that of equality. We now see that the total thus obtained might easily be increased by the addition of a third principle, that of solidarity. Indeed, the programme of the famous “Alliance” adds several others. For example, “The Alliance declares itself Atheist; it desires the abolition of religions, the Substitution of science for faith, of human for divine justice.” In the proclamation with which the Bakounists placarded the walls of Lyons, during the attempted rising at the end of September, 1870, we read (Article 41) that “the State, fallen into decay, will no longer be able to intervene in the payment of private debts.” This is incontestably logical, but it would be difficult to deduce the non-payment of private debts from principles inherent in human nature.

Since Bakounine in tacking his various “absolute” principles together does not ask himself, and does not need to ask himself – thanks to the “absolute” character of his method – whether one of these principles might not somewhat limit the “absolute” power of others, and might not in its turn be limited by them, he finds it an “absolute” impossibility to harmonize the various items of his programme whenever words no longer suffice, and it becomes necessary to replace them by more precise ideas. He “desires” the abolition of religion. But, “the State having fallen into decay,” who is to abolish it! He “desires” the abolition of property, individually hereditary. But what is to be done if, “the State having fallen into decay,” it should continue to exist? Bakounine himself feels the thing is not very clear, but he consoles himself very easily.

In a pamphlet written during the Franco-German war, Lettres a un francais sur la crise actuelle, while demonstrating that France can only be saved by a great revolutionary movement, he comes to the conclusion that the peasants must be incited to lay hands upon the land belonging to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. But so far, the French peasants have been in favor of property, “individually hereditary,” so this unpleasant institution would be bolstered up by the new Social Revolution?

“Not at all,” answers Bakounine, “once the State is abolished they” (i.e., the peasants) “will no longer have the juridical and political consecration, the guarantee of property by the State. Property will no longer be a right, it will be reduced to the condition of a simple fact.” (The italics are Bakounine’s own.)

This is very reassuring. “The State having fallen into decay,” any fellow that happens to come along, stronger than I, will incontinently possess himself of my field, without having any need to appeal to the principle of “solidarity;” the principle of “liberty” will sufficiently answer his purpose. A very pleasant “equalization of individuals”!

“It is certain,” Bakounine admits, “that at first things won’t work in an absolutely peaceful manner; there will be struggles; public order, that arch saint of the bourgeois, will be disturbed, and the just deeds which will result from such a state of things may constitute what one is agreed to call a civil war. But do you prefer to hand over France to the Prussians?.....Moreover, do not fear that the peasants will devour one another; even if they tried to do so in the beginning, they would soon be convinced of the material impossibility of persisting in this course, and then we may be sure they would try to arrive at some understanding, to come to terms, to organize among themselves. The necessity of eating, of providing for their families, and the necessity therefore of safeguarding their houses, their families, and their own lives against unforeseen attacks, all this would soon force them individually to enter into mutual arrangements. And do not believe, either, that in these arrangements, arrived at outside all official tutelage” (italicized by Bakounine), “by the mere force of events, the strongest, the richest, will exercise a predominant influence. The wealth of the wealthy, no longer guaranteed by juridical institutions, will cease to be a power ... As to the most cunning, the strongest, they will be rendered innocuous by the collective strength of the mass of the small, and very small peasants, as well as by the agricultural proletarians, a mass of men today reduced to silent suffering, but whom the revolutionary movement will arm with an irresistible power. Please note that I do not contend that the agricultural districts which will thus reorganize themselves, from below upwards, will immediately create an ideal organization, agreeing at all points with the one of which we dream. What I am convinced of is that this will be a living organization, and as such, one a thousand times superior to what exists now. Moreover, this new organization being always open to the propaganda of the towns, as it can no longer be held down, so to say petrified by the juridical sanction of the State, it will progress freely, developing and perfecting itself indefinitely, but always living and free, never decreed nor legalized, until it attains as reasonable a condition as we can hope for in our days.”

The “idealist” Proudhon was convinced that the political constitution had been invented for want of a social organization “immanent in humanity.” He took the pains to “discover” this latter, and having discovered it, he could not see what further “raison d’etre” there was for the political constitution. The “materialist” Bakounine has no “social organization” of his own make. “The most profound and rational science,” he says, “cannot divine the future forms of social life.” This science must be content to distinguish the “living” social forms from those that owe their origin to the “petrifying” action of the State, and to condemn these latter. Is not this the old Proudhonian antithesis of the social organization “immanent in humanity,” and of the political constitution “invented” exclusively in the interests of “order”? Is not the only difference that the “materialist” transforms the Utopian programme of the “idealist,” into something even more Utopian, more nebulous, more absurd?

“To believe that the marvellous scheme of the universe is due to chance, is to imagine that by throwing about a sufficient number of printers’ characters at hazard, we might write the Iliad.” So reasoned the Deists of the 18th century in refuting the Atheists. The latter replied that in this case everything was a question of time, and that by throwing about the letters an infinite number of times, we must certainly, at some period, make them arrange themselves in the required sequence. Discussions of this kind were to the taste of the 18th century, and we should be wrong to make too much fun of them now-a-days. But it would seem that Bakounine took the Atheist argument of the good old times quite seriously, and used it in order to make himself a “programme.” Destroy what exists; if only you do this often enough you are bound at last to produce a social organization, approaching at any rate the organization you “dream” of. All will go well when once the revolution has come to stay. Is not this sufficiently “materialist”? If you think it is not, you are a metaphysician, “dreaming” of the impossible!

The Proudhonian antithesis of the “social organization” and the “political constitution” reappears “living” and in its entirety in what Bakounine is for ever reiterating as to the “social revolution” on the one hand, and the “political revolution” on the other. According to Proudhoun the social organization has unfortunately, up to our own days, never existed, and for want of it humanity was driven to “invent” a political constitution. According to Bakounine the social revolution has never yet been made, because humanity, for want of a good “social” programme had to content itself with political revolutions. Now that this programme has been found, there is no need to bother about the “political” revolution; we have quite enough to do with the “social revolution.”

Every class struggle being necessarily a political struggle, it is evident that every political revolution, worthy of the name, is a social revolution; it is evident also that for the proletariat the political struggle is as much a necessity as it has always been for every class struggling to emancipate itself. Bakounine anathematizes all political action by the proletariat; he extols the “social” struggle exclusively. Now what is this social struggle?

Here our Proudhonian once again shows himself adulterated by Marxism. He relies as far as possible upon the Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association.

In the preamble of these Rules it is laid down that the subjection of the worker to capital lies at the bottom of all servitude, political, moral and material, and that therefore the economic emancipation of the workers is the great end to which all political movements must be subordinated as a means. Bakounine argues from this that “every political movement which has not for its immediate and direct object the final and complete economic emancipation of the workers, and which has not inscribed upon its banner quite definitely and clearly, the principle of economic equality, that is, the integral restitution of capital to labor, or else the social liquidation – every such political movement is a bourgeois one, and as such must be excluded from the International.” But this same Bakounine has heard it said that the historical movement of humanity is a process in conformity with certain laws, and that a revolution cannot be improvised at a moment’s notice. He is therefore forced to ask himself, what is the policy which the International is to adopt during that “more or less prolonged period of time which separates us from the terrible social revolution which everyone foresees today” To this he replies, with the most profound conviction, and as if quoting the Rules of the International:

“Without mercy the policy of the democratic bourgeois, or bourgeois-Socialists, must be excluded, which, when these declare that political freedom is a necessary condition of economic emancipation, can only mean this: political reforms, or political revolutions must precede economic reforms or economic revolutions; the workers must therefore join hands with the more or less Radical bourgeois, in order to carry out the former together with them, then, being free, to turn the latter into a reality against them. We protest loudly against this unfortunate theory, which, so far as the workers are concerned, can only result in their again letting themselves be used as tools against themselves, and handing them over once more to bourgeois exploitation.”

The International “commands” us to disregard all national or local politics; it must give the working-class movement in all countries an “essentially economic” character, by setting up as final aim “the shortening of the hours of labor, and the increase of wages,” and as a means “the association of the working masses, and the starting of “funds for fighting.” It is needless to add that the shortening of the hours of labor must, of course, be obtained without any intervention from the accursed State.

Bakounine cannot understand that the working class in its political action can completely separate itself from all the exploiting part ties. According to him, there is no other “role” in the political movement for the workers than that of satellite of the Radical bourgeoisie. He glorifies the “essentially economic” tactics of the old English Trade Unions, and has not the faintest idea that it was these very tactics that made the English workers the tail of the Liberal Party.

Bakounine objects to the working class lending a hand in any movement whose object is the obtaining or the extension of political rights. In condemning such movements as “bourgeois,” he fancies himself a tremendous revolutionist. As a matter of fact he thus proves himself essentially Conservative, and if the working class were ever to follow this line of inaction the Governments could only rejoice.

The true revolutionists of our days have a very different idea of Socialist tactics. They “everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things; which does not prevent them (but quite the contrary) from forming the proletariat into a party separate from all the exploiter parties, opposed to the whole “reactionary mass.”

Proudhon, who we know had not an overwhelming sympathy for “politics,” nevertheless advised the French workers to vote for the candidates who pledged themselves to “constitute value.” Bakounine would not have politics at any price. The worker cannot make use of political liberty: “in order to do so he needs two little things – leisure and material means.” So it is all only a bourgeois lie. Those who speak of working-class candidates are but mocking the proletariat. “Working-class candidates, transferred to bourgeois conditions of life, and into an atmosphere of completely bourgeois political ideas, ceasing to be actually workers in order to become statesmen, will become bourgeois, and possibly will become even more bourgeois than the bourgeois themselves. For it is not the men who make positions, but, on the contrary, positions which make the men.”

This last argument is about all Bakounine was able to assimilate of the materialist conception of history. It is unquestionably true that man is the product of his social environment. But to apply this incontestable truth with advantage it is necessary to get rid of the old, metaphysical method of thought which considers things one after the other, and independently one of the other. Now Bakounine, like his master, Proudhon, in spite of his flirtation with the Hegelian philosophy, all his life remained a metaphysician. He does not understand that the environment which makes man may change, thus changing man its own product. The environment he has in his mind’s eye when speaking of the political action of the proletariat, is the bourgeois parliamentary environment, that environment which must necessarily fatally corrupt labor representatives. But the environment of the electors, the environment of a working-class party, conscious of its aim and well organized, would this have no influence upon the elected of the proletariat? No! Economically enslaved, the working class must always remain in political servitude; in this domain it will always be the weakest; to free itself it must begin by an economic revolution. Bakounine does not see that by this process of reasoning he inevitably arrives at the conclusion that a victory of the proletariat is absolutely impossible, unless the owners of the means of production voluntarily relinquish their possessions to them. In effect the subjection of the worker to capital is the source not only of political but of moral servitude. And how can the workers, morally enslaved, rise against the bourgeoisie? For the working class movement to become possible, according to Bakounine, it must therefore first make an economic revolution. But the economic revolution is only possible as the work of the workers themselves. So we find ourselves in a vicious circle, out of which modern Socialism call easily break, but in which Bakounine and the Bakounists are for ever turning with no other hope of deliverance than a logical “salto mortale.”

The corrupting influence of the Parliamentary environment on working-class representatives is what the Anarchists have up to the present considered the strongest argument in their criticism of the political activity of Social-Democracy. We have seen what its theoretical value amounts to. And even a slight knowledge of the history of the German Socialist party will sufficiently show how in practical life the Anarchist apprehensions are answered.

In repudiating all “politics” Bakounine was forced to adopt the tactics of the old English Trade Unions. But even he felt that these tactics were not very revolutionary. He tried to get out of the difficulty by the help of his “Alliance,” a kind of international secret society, organized on a basis of frenetic centralization and grotesque fancifulness. Subjected to the dictatorial rule of the sovereign pontiff of Anarchy, the “international” and the “national” brethren were bound to accelerate and direct the “essentially economic” revolutionary movement. At the same time Bakounine approved of “riots,” of isolated risings of workers and peasants which, although they must inevitably be crushed out, would, he declared, always have a good influence upon the development of the revolutionary spirit among the oppressed. It goes without saying that with such a “programme” he was able to do much harm to the working class movement, but he was not able to draw nearer, even by a single step, to that “immediate” economic revolution of which he “dreamed.” We shall presently see the result of the Bakounist theory of “riots.” For the present let us sum up what we have said of Bakounine. And here, he shall help us himself.

“Upon the Pangermanic banner” [i.e., also upon the banner of German Social-Democracy, and consequently upon the Socialist banner of the whole civilized world] “is inscribed: The conservation and strengthening of the State at all costs; on the Socialist-revolutionary banner” (read Bakounist banner) “is inscribed in characters of blood, in letters of fire: the abolition of all States, the destruction of bourgeois civilization; free organization from the bottom to the top, by the help of free associations; the organization of the working populace (sic!) freed from all trammels, the organization of the whole of emancipated humanity, the creation of a new human world.”

It is with these words that Bakounine concludes his principal work Statism and Anarchy (Russian). We leave our readers to appreciate the rhetorical beauties of this passage. For our own part we shall be content with saying that it contains absolutely no human meaning whatsoever.

The absurd, pure and simple – that is what is inscribed upon the Bakounist “banner.” There is no need of letters of fire and of blood to make this evident to any one who is not hypnotized by a phraseology more or less sonorous, but always void of sense.

The Anarchism of Stirner and of Proudhon was completely individualist. Bakounine did not want individualism, or to speak more correctly, one particular phase of individualism. He was the inventor of “Collectivist-Anarchism.” And the invention cost him little. He completed the “liberty” Utopia, by the “equality” Utopia. As these two Utopias would not agree, as they cried out at being yoked together, he threw both into the furnace of the “permanent revolution” where they were both at last forced to hold their tongues, for the simple reason that they both evaporated, the one as completely as the other.

Bakounine is the “decadent” of Utopism.


Last updated on 19.7.2004