Marx vs. Bakunin:
The Historical Relevance of Two Opposing 19th Century Socialisms
[Paul Thomas. Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980 (406 pp.) Brian Morris. Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1993 (159 pp.)]
No one can deny Karl Marx’s impact on Socialism, while Mikhail Bakunin’s collectivist anarchist theories and their historical relevance to our contemporary, heavily globalized capitalist society has been often ignored in present times. Bakunin’s insistence on a horizontal, egalitarian revolution openly conflicted with Marx’s authoritarian, self described revolution under the direction of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From 1864 until it’s collapse in 1872 (pg. 250 Karl Marx and the Anarchists) Marx and later Bakunin were both members of an institution commonly referred to as The First International (due to the existence of subsequent International Workingmen’s Associations after the original one). The two men fiercely battled each other on idealogical lines, ultimately fostering the institution’s demise because of their intrinsically opposing views on what they thought was the right way for a socialist society to develop.
Both men sincerely, and relentlessly argued through letters, pamphlets, and conferences their respective beliefs, however, Marx held the upper hand propaganda-wise and overshadowed Bakunin’s anarchism in England and Germany. The two formerly mentioned countries were the most industrially-developed European nations in which Marx held strong ties with both personally and theoretically (because of this Marx thought England and Germany were in the best situations for a revolution of the proletariat to occur). Meanwhile, Bakunin was well liked in Latin countries such as Spain and Italy where anarchism was already prevalent, and he also held influence during his lifetime in his homeland Russia along with her Slavic sister-countries because of peasant populism (a kind of anarchistic collectivism). Bakunin was popular with people from Latin countries, such as Spain and Italy, and the Slavs since their spontaneous love for rebellion and romanticism attracted them to his collective form of anarchism (pg. 337 Karl Marx and the Anarchists). The contrast between the two men’s nationalities not only facilitated their schism but defined the very nature of their differences by dividing socialism into two camps within the later years of the First International: Marx’s German authoritarianism and Bakunin’s Slavic libertarian anarchism.
In order to clearly understand the differences between the two men and their ideologies it would be necessary to analyze industrialization and it’s effect on the working class and poor in the countries they influenced. Karl Marx’s theory relied heavily upon technological and material development in order for the workers to become class conscious and take power from their oppressors. Industrialization during the 19th century had allowed a new working class to emerge whom Marx referred to as the proletariat. The urban proletariat would then become class conscious and develop a class struggle pushing towards socialism. It would be impossible then, for the peasant rabble that Bakunin spoke of to complete such a historical feat. Ironically enough, half a century later, Russia, a country under-industrialized, succeeded in a Marxist revolution with peasants. After the German Empire was created in 1871, Marx’s fatherland had the most politically powerful socialist party, and Marx’s longtime residence Great Britain was home to the most advanced trade unions. It made sense therefore, historically, that Marx depended upon centralized, one-party political organization for the proletariat to expand influence; where as Bakunin’s anarchism rejected any developments in governmental representation as retrograde to the cause of economic equality and equality in general that social revolution was supposed to bring about.
The theoretical contrast between the two thinkers was defined then by the difference that Marx sought economic equality first, and freedom and political equality later. Bakunin argued in turn that tangible, universal freedom was necessary initially for economic equality to exist and remain and that the ever spontaneous power of human will would be the key to a successful social revolution, not proletarian political centralization bringing economic equality first and foremost like Marx had insisted. This facet of Marx’s ideology was perhaps the most endearing piece of Marxism that the Bolsheviks later expanded upon with Lenin’s concept of vanguard revolutionaries. Bakunin warned against the kind of socialist despotism throughout his writings that the Bolsheviks later brought about in his native Russia. In 1871 Marx made a remark of Bakunin, saying “this ass cannot even understand that any class movement, as such, is necessarily and always has been, a political movement” (pg. 347 Karl Marx and the Anarchists) showing his utter disdain for the anarchist opposition to any kind of political power that continued the old social order through centralized institutions.
Although Marxist ideology demanded that the working classes be organized under a political party, and Bakunin argued differently, both men realized the need for mobilization of the working classes internationally. This was the purpose of the International, to unite all workers in the name of class struggle in order to resist the capitalist plutocracies that oppressed them. This was why it was ironic that the International would collapse due to an unavoidable schism based on two polar opposite socialist doctrines divided by national boundaries. It was even more congruous then that the International would fall apart because Bakunin had precipitated its expansion into Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the Slavic countries causing the institution to expand well beyond England, France, and Germany (pg. 58 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom).
Marx posited that revolution would have to take place on its own timetable in relation to the greater historical scheme of things so that a country must become industrialized before the proletariat could successfully revolt against their masters. This meant that workers who lived in countries like Italy and Spain where feudalism had not been overtaken by capitalism yet were left ignored in the snail pace cycle of Hegelian historical process. Even though Bakunin was also influenced by Hegel, he saw no use in arbitrary theory to dictate the extended suffering of the working class. In fact, social revolution was still considered by Bakunin to be a Hegelian negation, yet Bakunin did not see Marxist revolution as a universal social one, but as a political revolution that ended in a dictatorship that was no worse than that of Europe’s bourgeois predecessors (pg. 140 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom). Bakunin was right then in his prediction that Marxist ideology would ultimately lead to a more despotic dictatorship than previous bourgeois states, paving the way for Bolshevism and the rise of the extraordinarily despotic and oppressive Joseph Stalin.
Thus, it was true that Bakunin’s theory of social revolution was loosely akin to Bolshevism because Bakunin desired to unite the peasants and proletariat together to form a truly social revolution as opposed to a political revolution that the proletariat would bring about on their own- “Only a wide-sweeping revolution embracing both the city workers and peasants would be sufficiently strong to overthrow and break the organized power of the state, backed as it is by all the resources of the possessing classes. But an all-embracing, that is, a social revolution, is a simultaneous revolution of the people of the cities and of the peasantry” (pg. 142 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom). Yet Bakunin as an anarchist had no interest in bringing about a worker’s state, even though he advocated the use of secret societies to help organize people and propagate social revolution. Bakunin accepted that the suffering of the masses socio-economically was not enough, but that the people must have an ideal expounded by secret societies and the like which advocated freedom and equality brought about by collectivist anarchism (pg. 147 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom).
The most important and contrasting difference between Bakunin and Marx was government as an institution in and of itself. Bakunin denied that government could fairly represent the people’s interests and so only the people could organize and control society through collectives united under federalism “A truly popular organization begins from below, from the association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the organization of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organization of popular life” (pg. 111 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom). Federalism allowed individual collectives and communes to have autonomy, which Bakunin thought guaranteed liberty. Without that autonomy “…a confederation would simply be a disguised centralization” (pg. 112 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom) according to Bakunin, and the people would have no political rights otherwise. In contrast, Marx praised centralization as key to giving the proletariat the power it needed to consolidate the revolution and bring about economic equality before any so called withering of the state could occur.
The First International was never intended to be ruled by a single socialist dogma, and thus its demise revealed Marx as a reactionary and Bakunin as not only an advocate of anarchism, but also capable of transmuting anarchism from doctrine into a movement in itself within and without the International (pg. 352 Karl Marx and the Anarchists). And although Marx was the dominant influence cited by revolutionaries throughout the twentieth century, Marx was wrong to assert that socialist revolution was solely the business of the proletariat. Indeed, revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere were supposed to be based on the tenants of Marxism, however, all of these revolutions involved the rural peasant class as the major catalyst for revolution, not the urban proletariat (pg. 128 Bakunin The Philosophy of Freedom). Bakunin therefore was even more relevant in the twentieth century than advocates of Marxism would suggest. And although this relevance has its importance, it does not fully answer questions regarding a 21st century social revolution.
Mikhail Bakunin’s significance was that he placed human liberty before political centralization and power because he believed that any kind of government would bring about tyranny, whether it was controlled by the working class or not. This stopped being theory and became a reality with the oppression of Communist dictatorships throughout the twentieth century. Capitalism has in fact solidified the grip of democratic plutocracies with the advent of neoliberalism and its effect on the global economy. Globalization and capitalism have, in the late twentieth and early twenty first century, allowed for ruling classes to retain power and attain wealth to the point where stratification has become dangerously unrestrained. Bakunin’s focal argument for horizontal revolution has become more historically relevant today because globally unifying forces such as the internet have allowed mass instant communication that would make an egalitarian social revolution more tangible now. If the fall of the Soviet Union in twentieth century verified that top down revolution as deemed necessary by Marx would ultimately lead to despotism and failure, then the rise of globalized society by way of the internet has demonstrated that Bakunin’s horizontal revolution has yet to be proven wrong. As seen through the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, the kind of mass communication between the latest generation of oppressed Arabs should allow for a deeper analyzation of Bakunin’s theories that increase in historical relevance to this day.