Democracy or anarchism

David Welch welch at
Sat Sep 8 09:09:41 MDT 2001

Democracy or anarchism
Eddie Ford looks at the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin

In his recent polemic against our coverage of Genoa, our anarchist
comrade, Iain McKay, begins his assault on Leninism, the CPGB, the SWP et
al, by describing the sort of society outlined by the founder of modern
anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, in the 1860s (Weekly Worker August 23)

In Bakunin's model of federalism and mandated and recallable
delegates "the federative alliance of all working men's associations ...
[will] constitute the commune ... [the] communal council [will be] composed
of ... delegates ... vested with plenary but accountable and removable
mandates ... all provinces, communes and associations ... by first
reorganisation on revolutionary lines ... [will] constitute the federation
of insurgent associations, communes and provinces ... [and] organise
revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction ... [and for] self-
defence ... [The] revolution everywhere must be created by the people, and
supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free
federation of agricultural and industrial associations ... organised from
the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation ..."

Sounds like an impressive clarion call for `libertarian' self-rule from
below, and one we share - though as Marxists we have certain, albeit
important, differences: eg, we oppose the principle of federalism with
the principle of centralism. However, while comrade McKay plays games
with the shortcomings and failings of the Russian Revolution, the fact of
the matter is that Bakunin - the real Bakunin, that is - did not believe
in self-liberation from below.

Present-day anarchists have taken many things from their founding father -
most crucially the stress on individual freedom, freedom for the ego,
freedom of the elite (especially the self-selected `great leader') from
the common mass. `Liberation' from capitalism does not thereby come
about, and cannot come about, by an act of self-liberation from below.
The masses are stupid. `Liberation' must come about through the action of
a tiny minority who then proceed to educate the population and administer
the new order.

In some ways, it is a bit curious that Bakunin is such an anarchist icon.
It is not often appreciated that Bakunin's own anarchist `career' was
essentially a flash in the pan operation. He started his specifically
anarchist agitation around 1868, but by 1873 he had begun to disintegrate
both politically and personally. He died in 1876.

Yet one can detect a political-ideological continuum to Bakunin's world
view. That is, his life-long commitment to pan-Slavism (and hence rabid
anti-Germanism/anti-semitism) and - more relevant to our debate with the
anarchists - a clear life-long dedication to what Hal Draper
called "Jacobin-communist conspiratorialism" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory
of revolution vol 3, New York 1986, p57).

Beyond doubt, Bakunin was a compulsive conspiracy-monger whose central
project rested on saviours from above - most notably a saviour by the
name of M Bakunin. The masses, for him, were - at best - strictly cannon

This was evident from early on. In 1847 - a year before the publication
of the Communist manifesto - Bakunin complained bitterly of Marx that he
was "ruining the workers by making theorists of them". Bakunin thought a
more proper activity for an individual like Marx was to hone all the
skills necessary to make a revolutionary putsch. As for "the workers",
evidently, their only role was to be directed and controlled by `great
leaders' like Bakunin.

The following year, Bakunin saw his chance for glory. Revolutions swept
Europe - including Bohemia. Bakunin was one of the delegates to the Slav
congress in Prague when, on the last day, June 12, an uprising broke out
in the city, lasting until June 16-17. Bakunin's advice to the Bohemian
revolution is instructive: "The revolutionary government with unlimited
dictatorial power must sit in Prague ... All clubs and journals, all
manifestations of garrulous anarchy, will also be destroyed, and all will
be subjugated to a single dictatorial authority" (Draper ibid p57).

More significantly in terms of his future anarchist `turn' - and for his
subsequent canonisation as a libertarian saint - for Bakunin the Bohemian
revolution would be organised by three secret societies, all unknown to
each other, each with "a strict hierarchy and unconditional discipline",
composed of a small number comprising "all the talented, learned,
energetic and influential people". These, "obeying central directions,
would in their turn act invisibly, as it were, on the crowd" (ibid p57).

You could argue that here we have the antecedents of revolutionary foci-
ism and black bloc-type anarchism. The job of revolutionaries is
to `excite' the crowd and to make `something happen' (ie, a riot).
The "crowd" exists solely to be manipulated by a "small number"
of "talented" and (very) "energetic" people.

In his Bohemian remarks, we have the classic Bakuninist ingredients, to
which he remained consistent - schemes for a leadership of invisible
dictators. A secret committee of Bakunin plus a few other trusted members
of the revolutionary elite should be sufficient to inaugurate and oversee
the new order. Naturally, all protestations aside, Bakunin himself would
begin by being its "secret leader", as by then "all the main threads of
the movement would have been concentrated in my hands" (ibid p58).

Bakunin's mania for plots and intrigues went hand in hand - quite
logically - with a near pathological aversion to democratic
accountability. In his mind, accountability equalled what he
termed `authoritarianism'. This was made explicit in a message, or
manifesto, sent in 1870 to Albert Richard of Lyon and read out to a mass
meeting. In that year a popular uprising had taken control of the city.
Hopes were high, especially Bakunin's. The message proclaimed: "And in
order to save the revolution, to lead it to a successful conclusion in
the very midst of anarchy, [there is need of] the action of a collective
dictatorship of all the revolutionists, who are not invested with any
official power whatever, and [are] all the more effective [for it]" (my
emphasis, ibid p94).

In other words, "official power" (ie, one which is accountable) is
abhorrent, but `unofficial power' is OK - as long as it helps to promote
one of Bakunin's hair-brained schemes. This sets the tone for his
notorious `dual organisation' principle, upon which he based his Alliance
for Social Democracy and the International Brotherhood - ie, you have a
public front and then behind that a secret cadre of controllers. With
this elitist-conspiratorial strategy he led his acolytes into the
International Working Men's Association. Unsurprisingly, Bakunin's
organisation within an organisation within an organisation turned into
the `enemy within' for the leaders of the International, first and
foremost Marx. 

Bakunin's aims were clear. As he privately explained to Richard, the goal
was "revolutionary anarchy led on all points by an invisible collective
power". Bakunin stressed repeatedly that he was for this "collective
dictatorship" by his "invisible" secret band of conspirators who imposed
their hidden control over an anarchic revolution, without any open
political structure. Bakunin then explained that "the partisans of open
dictatorship" will want to reconstitute the state; but we, having
created "anarchy", are "as invisible pilots amidst the proletarian
tempest; we must direct it, not by an open power, but by the collective
dictatorship of the Alliés [Alliance members - EF]: a dictatorship
without any badges of office, without titles, without official rights,
and all the stronger in that it will have none of the appearances of
power. That is the only dictatorship that I accept" (ibid p95).

In a letter dated June 2 1870, sent to his one-time accomplice, the semi-
crazed, criminal adventurer, Sergei Nechayev, we get a fuller view of his
ambitions. His "invisible force" is now described as "the collective
dictatorship of our organisation", the "secret organisation" of the
invisible controllers, whom Bakunin called the "invisible legion" or
the "invisible network."

Imagine yourself in a successful revolution, continues Bakunin. "But
imagine," he excitedly adds, "in the midst of this general anarchy, a
secret organisation which has scattered its members in small groups over
the whole territory ... firmly united ... an organisation which acts
everywhere according to a common plan. These small groups, unknown by
anybody as such, have no officially recognised power, but they are strong
in their ideal ... strong also in their clearly realised purpose among a
mass of people struggling without purpose or plan" (ibid p95).

Logically, the prime function of his "anarchy" was to destroy all other
organisations, which by definition were "authoritarian". So the "secret
collective dictatorship" - definitely not the dictatorship of the
proletariat - would hold the real reins of power. Our progenitor of the
black bloc calculated that "for the International throughout Europe 100
serious and firmly united revolutionaries would be sufficient" - while
elsewhere Bakunin indicated that between 50 and 70 revolutionary bravados
could control a whole continent (say Africa), through his devices
of "anarchy" and his secret, invisible "brotherhood".

As Draper waspishly puts it, "If you took the conception held by a
particularly ignorant village constable of the `dictatorship of the
party' exercised by Red Subversive Bolsheviki, and stripped it of most
rational elements, you would get - Bakunin's orgasmic dream of his Secret
Dictatorship" (ibid vol 4, p96).

The destructive activities of Bakunin and his "brotherhood" earned the
wrath of Engels and Paul Lafargue in their classic 1873 pamphlet, The
Alliance of the Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men's
Association. It was a brilliant demolition job of the Bakuninists'
pretence at abolishing political power. After quoting one of Bakunin's
madcap blueprints for the new order, the authors exclaim: "We are thus
confronted with a perfect reconstruction of all the elements of
the `authoritarian state'; and the fact that we call this machine
a `revolutionary commune organised from bottom to top' makes little
difference. The name changes nothing of the substance ... Indeed Bakunin
himself admits as much when he describes his organisation as a `new
revolutionary state'" (ibid pp145-146).

The state which was thus to be reconstructed by the anarchists under
another label was as contemptuous of democracy as the state it replaced -
if not more so. In the document referred to above, Bakunin writes that to
give `anarchy' its proper direction "it is necessary that in the midst of
popular anarchy, which will constitute the very life and energy of the
revolution, unity of thought and revolutionary action should find an
organ. This organ must be the secret and worldwide associations of the
international brethren" (ibid p146).

Engels and Larfague reply harshly: "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 100 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. Perinde ac cadaver [like
a corpse]. We are indeed confronted with a veritable Society of Jesus"
(ibid p147).

We need such `anti-authoritarianism' like we need a hole in the head - so
thought Engels. In an 1872 letter, he writes: "In this society [the
Bakuninist ideal future society] there will above all be no authority,
for authority equals state, equals absolute evil. (How these people
propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without a
will that decides in the last resort, without single management, they of
course do not tell us). The authority of the majority over the minority
also ceases" (ibid p137).

In their work and life, Marx and Engels fought not against authority -
they both revelled in the use of the word `authoritarianism' - but for
democratising and demystifying all authority. Or in Draper's concise
words: "The crux can be summed up this way: the answer to bureaucratic
tendencies in the world is the democratisation of authority, not the
abolition of authority - that is, the imposition of control from below on
all authority" (ibid p143).

In comrade McKay's article, we have echoes of Bakunin and his flat
rejection of "the authority of the majority over the minority" (ie,
democracy). The comrade asks rhetorically: "What does it mean
to `subordinate' yourself `democratically' to `the [working] class'? Does
it mean having a referendum of the whole working class every time you try
to make a decision? What if `the class' decides that all anti-capitalist
protestors should be shot? Or does it mean that we `subordinate'
ourselves to the decisions of the majority of protestors?" - and so on.
The comrade finally answers: "Anarchists argue for free agreement between 
equals. We do not `subordinate' ourselves to others [even if it is the
democratic will of the majority - EF], but will work with them. This
means self-management within the anti-globalisation and labour movements,
not hierarchy" (Weekly Worker August 23).

Bakunin lives?

Finally, Bakunin's fervent anti-semitism cannot be avoided. Draper
describes Bakunin as having a "race-saturated mentality" (ibid p292). He
was one of the first (the first?) to articulate and promulgate racist
anti-Jewry, as opposed to the dominant economic anti-Jewry. As if he was
the author of the Protocols the Elders of Zion (fabricated between 1895
and 1900, and published in 1905), Bakunin sent a circular in December
1871 to the Bologna section of the International, which read: "Well now,
this whole Jewish world which constitutes a single exploitative sect, a
sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised
in itself, not only across the frontiers of states, but even across all
the differences of political opinion - the world is presently, at least
in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the
Rothschilds on the other.

"I know that the Rothschilds, reactionaries as they are and should be,
highly appreciate the merits of the communist Marx; and that in his turn
the communist Marx feels irresistibly drawn, by instinctive attraction
and respectful admiration, to the financial genius of Rothschild. Jewish
solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through
all history, united them." In a final flourish, Bakunin declared
that "every Jew" is an authoritarian - "it is the heritage of the race"
(ibid p296). According to Bakunin, then, anarchists are presumably duty
bound to be anti-semitic.

Present-day anarchists include within their ranks many fine and dedicated
revolutionaries. The vast majority would reject the politics of `race'
with the contempt it deserves (Green Anarchist, Alternative Green,
Richard Hunt et el are not typical). In our view our anarchist comrades
should also reconsider their dogmatic and essentially elitist rejection
of democracy. Far from representing a barrier to genuine self-liberation -
which must be the act of the majority - democracy is our main weapon
against capitalism, bureaucracy and counterrevolution.

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message

More information about the Marxism mailing list