It is fashionable to portray Marxism
as the source of authoritarianism. This accusation is raised repeatedly
by anarchists, reformists and all kinds of opportunists. Bakunin was
one of the more famous exponents of such accusations. But the truth is
concrete and the historical facts reveal that those same elements who
raise a hue and cry about authoritarianism are themselves the worst
bureaucrats and authoritarians… where they manage to rule the roost.
“For the rest, old Hegel has already said: A party proves itself a
victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split.” (Engels to Bebel, 20 June, 1873)
have been many splits in the history of the Marxist movement. The
enemies of Marxism seize upon this fact as proof of an inherent
weakness, an intolerant spirit, excessive centralism, bureaucratic and
authoritarian tendencies and so on. In fact, periodic crises and splits
are an inevitable consequence of development. Crises are a fact of
human existence: birth is a crisis, as is adolescence, old age and
death. Weak individuals will allow a crisis to drag them under. Men and
women of stronger character will overcome the crisis and emerge
stronger and more confident than before.
It is the same with a revolutionary tendency. The movement must
constantly strive to rid itself of sectarian and opportunist
tendencies, which partly reflect the pressures of alien classes, partly
the inability of a layer of the organization to advance to a higher
stage of development. This was the case in the First International, or
International Workingman’s Association (IWA), when Marx and Engels were
obliged to wage a ferocious struggle against the followers of the
The document that www.marxist.com recently published in instalments, Fictitious Splits in the International is
a useful reminder of the differences between Marxism and anarchism. We
believe it deserves a careful reading for the lessons it has for
Bakunin’s intrigues against the General Council began in 1871,
although he was in contact with Marx before that. In 1864 he met Marx
in London, from whom he learned of the founding of the International.
He promised to co-operate. However, Bakunin held the view that that
Marx exaggerated the importance of the working class, while he held
that the intelligentsia, the students, the lumpenproletariat and the
middle classes representatives of bourgeois democracy more likely
agents of revolution.
For this reason, Bakunin began his activity, not in the workers’
movement but in a bourgeois organization in Switzerland called The
League for Peace and Freedom (Ligue de la Paix et de la Liberté).
He was actually elected to its central committee. He thought he could
take over the League and use it as a vehicle for advancing his
anarchist doctrines. But at the League’s Berne Congress he failed to
make any impact and split away with an insignificant minority.
It was only at this point, having fallen out with and split from, the bourgeois League that he entered the Romande
Section of the IWA in Geneva. That was at the end of 1868. Bakunin hit
on the idea of forming inside the IWA an anarchist faction with himself as leader.
For this purpose, he established the “Alliance of Social-Democracy”.
His aim was to get control of the IWA and foist his anarchist ideas
But he had a serious problem: the International was led by the
General Council in London where Marx had considerable influence. In
order to achieve his aim therefore, Bakunin had to undermine the
General Council and blacken the name of Marx. This he did with no
regards to the democratic rules of the International, by factional
intrigues and personal attacks. These intrigues, directed ostensibly
against the General Council were in reality directed against the
International itself, the ideas, methods and programme of which Bakunin
was fundamentally opposed to.
Marxism and anarchism are completely opposed and mutually exclusive
ideologies. The first is a scientific theory and a revolutionary policy
reflecting the class interests of the proletariat. Anarchism is a
confused and unscientific doctrine that finds its class base in the
petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. This is not the place to
deal in detail with the ideas of Bakunin, although we may return to
this topic in the future. His programme (insofar as it existed) was a
superficial mishmash of ideas taken from Proudhon, St. Simon and other
utopian socialists. Above all, he preached abstention from the political movement – an idea that he also took from Proudhon.
As far as the rejection of political action and organization is concerned, Marx wrote:
“N.B. as to political movement: The political movement of
the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of
political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally
necessary that a previous organization of the working class, itself
arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to
a certain point.
“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working
class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to
force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For
instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular
industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by
strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the
movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class,
with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form
possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements
presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are
themselves equally a means of the development of this organization.
“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its
organization to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective
power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any
rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile
attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will
remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in
France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game
Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the
present time.” (Marx to Bolte, November 23, 1871, published in Marx and Engels Correspondence; Publisher: International Publishers, 1968)
The confused ideas of Bakunin got a certain echo in Italy and Spain,
where capitalism was still in an embryonic state and the workers’
movement still poorly developed, and to some extent in French
Switzerland and Belgium. In countries like Britain and Germany it made
little progress. In the ranks of the First International it was a small
minority. The prevailing influence in the leadership of the
International Workingmen’s Association (the General Council, based in
London) was that of Marx and Engels.
Anarchism or democracy?
To this very day there are people who repeat the arguments of
Bakunin as if they were good coin. In particular, the arguments that
Marxism is “authoritarian” and dictatorial, and that a centralized
revolutionary organization crushes the freedom of the individual,
stifles all creative thought and prepares the way for totalitarian
dictatorship, are frequently repeated by the critics of Marxism,
although they were answered long ago by Marx and Engels.
It was Bakunin, not Marx, who engaged in dictatorial Machiavellian
politics, intriguing behind the backs of the International in order to
discredit its leaders in order to disorganize it to set up a rival
organization. It was Bakunin, not Marx, who associated with the likes
of Nechayev. Together with the latter he wrote pamphlets on a new
social order, to be created “by concentrating all the means of
social existence in the hands of Our Committee, and the proclamation of
compulsory physical labour for everyone”.
In this anti-authoritarian paradise, there would be compulsory
residence in communal dormitories, rules for hours of work, feeding of
children etc., on which Marx commented ironically:
“What a beautiful model of barrack-room communism! Here you have it
all: communal eating, communal sleeping, assessors and offices
regulating education, production, consumption, in a word, all social
activity, and to crown all, Our Committee, anonymous and unknown to anyone, as the supreme dictator. This indeed is the purest anti-authoritarianism…”
For Bakunin and his followers, the word "authoritarian" just meant
anything they didn’t like. But it is an undeniable fact that in certain
situations authority is necessary and unavoidable. As Engels says,
"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." (Engels, On Authority)
Should the revolutionary party mirror the future society?
Another oft-repeated argument of the anti-authoritarians is that a
centralised, disciplined party cannot lead to genuine socialism and
must lead to totalitarian dictatorship. How many times have we heard
this? How many times have we been told that Stalinism is the inevitable
product of Leninist centralism?
Some kind of decision-making structure is necessary at any level of
human co-operation or organization. In any community, I must
necessarily sacrifice part of my freedom to others. Even in the future
classless society, people will still have to make decisions, which will
be the decisions of the majority. And under capitalism, the workers
must organize collectively to fight to defend their interests. How is
this to be done, unless the minority submits to the will of the
It is a regrettable fact that sometimes people do not agree. What
are we to do in such circumstances? History has never produced any
better instrument for expressing the popular will than democracy. True,
even the most perfect democracy has its limitations, but to date nobody
has ever proposed anything more prefect. What is the alternative?
"Consensus"? But that only means the law of the lowest common
denominator. Or perhaps the solution is that all decisions must be
unanimous? That is the most undemocratic method of all, since the
opposition of just one individual can paralyse the will of the
majority: in other words it is the right of veto – the dictatorship of
a single individual!
The middle classes are used to individualistic methods and have an
individualistic mentality. An assembly of students can debate for
hours, days and weeks without ever coming to a conclusion. They have
plenty of time and are accustomed to that kind of thing. But a factory
mass meeting is an entirely different affair. Before a strike, the
workers discuss, debate, listen to different opinions. But at the end
of the day, the issue must be decided. It is put to the vote and the
majority decides. This is clear and obvious to any worker. And nine
times out of ten the minority will voluntarily accept the decision of
The best example of an anti-authoritarian is a strike breaker, who
declares that, no matter what his workmates decide, he or she demands
the right to express his or her free individuality – by breaking the
strike. We know these arguments in favour of the absolute freedom of
the Individual, which are proclaimed during every strike by the
bourgeois press in defence of the scabs. And we also know how the
workers on strike regard the latter and how they see the “the absolute
freedom of the Individual.”
In reality, anarchist organizations (surely a contradiction in
terms?) always suffer from the most extreme bureaucracy, because
someone has to take decisions. Who are they? In practice, decisions are
taken “spontaneously” by self-appointed groups that are elected by
nobody and responsible to nobody – that is to say, government by
cliques. That was the method of the Bakuninists in the IWA. Behind the
backs of the membership, they organized an intrigue under the slogan of
combating the “authoritarian” General Council.
One might add that the same people who were allegedly waging a
struggle for democracy and against authoritarianism, were elected by
nobody and responsible to nobody. The General Council was the elected
leadership of the International. The Bakuninist Alliance was
self-appointed and functioned outside the democratic structures of the
International. Its members represented only themselves, although their
activities were organized and orchestrated by the man referred to as
“Citizen B” (Bakunin), who in reality decided everything.
The International Social-Democratic Alliance
Bakunin was an unprincipled adventurer who was constantly scheming
and intriguing to boost his own position and prestige. For him theory
was always a secondary consideration: merely a means of his personal
self-assertion. There have been many such people in the movement both
before and since.
Marx wrote to Friedrich Bolte about Bakunin:
“He – a man devoid of theoretical knowledge – put forward the
pretension that this separate body was to represent the scientific
propaganda of the International, which was to be made the special
function of this second International within the International.
“[…] If he is a nonentity as a theoretician, he is in his element as an intriguer.” (Letter to Friedrich Bolte, 3 November 1871).
The Alliance was characterized by radical-sounding verbiage. It
declared war upon God and the State and demanded that all its members
be atheists. Its economic programme was confused and ambiguous. Instead
of fighting for the abolition of class society, it demanded the equality of all classes. Instead of the expropriation of the means of production, it limited itself to a demand for the abolition of the right of inheritance.
And in order not to frighten away the middle class and liberal
bourgeois, it was careful not to define clearly its class character.
The new society approached the General Council with the request that
it be taken into the International as a separate organization, with its
own constitution and programme. Bakunin wrote an ingratiating letter to
Marx, full of false flattery. He wrote:
“Since taking leave solemnly and publicly from the bourgeoisie at
the Berne Congress, I no longer know any other society, any other
environment, than the world of the workers. My country is now the
International, of which you are one of the most important founders. So
you see, my dear friend, that I am your disciple, and proud of my
Marx was not impressed. Up to the end of 1868 his attitude toward
Bakunin was that of extreme tolerance. He had welcomed Bakunin as a
collaborator in 1862. Now he was suspicious of the latter’s motives –
and he was not wrong. Let us remember that only four years earlier
Bakunin had written from Italy promising to work for the International.
Not only did he not keep his promise, but he devoted all his energies
into promoting a rival bourgeois movement, the League for Peace and
Freedom. Only after his efforts to take over that organization had
failed did he turn his attention to the International, which was now
obviously growing in strength and influence.
The General Council refused the Alliance’s request, and Bakunin
resorted to a manoeuvre. He announced that the Alliance would disband
and transform its sections, (which would continue to hold to their own
programme) into sections of the International. After these assurances,
the General Council agreed to admit the sections of the former Alliance
into the IWA.
The Alliance claimed to have dissolved on the 6th of August and
informed the General Council of this. But a few weeks later it
reappeared in the guise of a new “Section of Revolutionary Socialist
Propaganda and Action,” which declared itself in agreement with the
general principles of the International, but reserved itself the right
to make full use of the freedom which the Statutes and the congresses
of the International afforded.
It did not take Marx long to conclude that Bakunin had deceived the
General Council. Despite having officially disbanded his society, he
maintained its central organization intact for the purpose of taking
over the International. Subsequent events proved that the Alliance
continued to exist. It conducted a continuous guerrilla war against the
International under the guise of fighting the “authoritarianism” of the
General Council. For this purpose Bakunin and his followers did not
hesitate to resort to any means, even the basest slanders and the most
How intriguers work
It is not difficult for professional intriguers to influence honest
party activists. When dealing with this kind of individual, naive
honesty is a definite disadvantage, since honest people cannot
recognize an intrigue. They take things at face value and believe what
is said to them, since they have no reason to suspect the other
person’s motives, believing them to be honest party workers themselves.
Bakunin hatched the plan of a secret faction, the L’Alliance Internationale de la Démocratte Socialiste,
which, while formally a branch of the IWA, in reality formed a parallel
International Association “with the special mission to elaborate the
higher philosophical etc. principles” of the proletarian movement. He
“would, by a clever trick, have placed our society under the guidance
and supreme initiative of the Russian Bakunin.”
Bakunin was a skilful intriguer and soon convinced the veteran
German revolutionary and friend of Karl Marx and Engels, Johann Philipp
Becker, who lived in Switzerland, to put his name to his programme.
Marx wrote with regret: “brave old Becker, always anxious for action,
for something stirring, but of no very critical cast of mind, an
enthusiast like Garibaldi, easily led away”. (Marx To Paul and Laura Lafargue, 15 February 1869)
The way in which they set to business, was characteristically
dishonest. They sent their new programme, placing Becker’s name at the
head of the signatures, thus hiding behind the moral authority of a
veteran of unquestionable honesty. Then, behind the backs of the
General Council they sent emissaries to Paris, Brussels, etc. (In those
days they did not possess the Internet, which would have saved them a
lot of time and effort). Only in the last moment, did they communicate
the documents to the London General Council.
The General Council took action to stop these factional intrigues.
On 22 December 1868, a unanimous decision of the General Council
declared the rules of the Alliance laying down its relations with the
International Working Men’s Association null and void and refused the
Alliance admittance as a branch of the International Working Men’s
Association. All the branches of the IWA approved the decision.
Becker was resentful towards Marx for this, but, as Marx wrote to
the Lafargues: “with all my personal friendship for Becker I could not
allow this first attempt at disorganizing our society to succeed.” (Marx To Paul and Laura Lafargue,
15 February 1869). Bakunin reacted by declaring that the Alliance was
“dissolved”, when in fact it remained in being as a secret organization
working behind the backs of the International.
The Nechayev affair
An indication of Bakunin’s adventurism was his association with the
notorious Russian terrorist Nechayev, who was tried for the murder of a
young student member of his group in Russia and ended his life in a
tsarist prison, having seriously compromised the revolutionary cause.
It was partly to divert attention away from this scandal that Bakunin
intensified his attacks on Marx and the General Council.
There were profound differences between the ideas advocated by
Bakunin and those of Marx. Bakunin utterly rejected the idea of the
proletariat seizing power. He denied any form of political struggle
insofar as it had to be conducted within bourgeois society, which had
to be destroyed. Ryazanov sums up the essence of Bakunin’s creed:
“First destroy, and then everything will take care of itself.
Destroy – the sooner, the better. It would be sufficient to stir up the
revolutionary intelligentsia and the workers embittered through want.
The only thing needed would be a group composed of determined people
with the demon of revolution in their souls.” (D. Ryazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, p. 185)
This is a completely false conception of the class struggle. The
working class can only learn through struggle. Without the day-to-day
struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist revolution would
be impossible. The struggle for reforms, higher wages, better
conditions, a reduction of working hours, etc. creates more favourable
conditions for the class organization of the proletariat. At a certain
historical stage, the economic struggles of the working class
necessarily become political, as in the fight for democratic rights,
freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, the right to vote
etc. It is unthinkable that the working class could remain indifferent
to such questions.
The slogan of political abstentionism merely means that the working
class would remain politically subordinate to the parties of the
liberal bourgeoisie, as the example of England already showed clearly.
In order to achieve independence from the bourgeoisie in the political
sphere the proletariat must fight for its own independent political
party. That was why Marx considered the political struggle and the
political organization of the proletariat for the conquest of political
power indispensable. But for the Bakuninists this was a book sealed by
As we have seen, Bakunin’s adventurism was completely exposed by the
Nechayev affair. Nechayev was a young fanatic, a revolutionary
adventurer who turned up in Geneva in the spring of 1869, claiming to
have escaped from the fortress of St. Peter-Paul. He also claimed to
represent an all-powerful committee that would overthrow Tsarist
Russia. This was a pure invention. He had never been in St. Peter-Paul
and the committee never existed.
Nevertheless, Bakunin was impressed by “the young savage,” “the
young tiger” as he used to call Nechayev. Nechayev was a devoted
disciple of Bakunin. But unlike his master, Nechayev was always
characterized by an iron consistency. Bakunin had preached that the lumpenproletariat
were the real carriers of the social revolution. He regarded criminals
as desirable elements to be recruited into the revolutionary movement.
So it was logical that his loyal disciple Nechayev should conclude that
it was necessary to organize a group of lumpens for the purpose of
“expropriation” in Switzerland.
In the autumn of 1869 Nechayev returned to Russia with a plan to set
up a Bakuninist group there. There is no doubt that he went with
Bakunin’s full support. He carried with him a written authorization
from Bakunin which declared that he was the “accredited representative”
of a so-called European Revolutionary Alliance – another invention of
Bakunin. He even issued an appeal to the officers of the tsarist army
calling on them to place themselves unconditionally at the disposal of
the “committee”, although it did not exist.
When a member of Nechayev’s group, a student called Ivanov, began to
doubt the existence of the secret committee, Nechayev murdered him.
This led to numerous arrests, but Nechayev himself managed to avoid
arrest. The Nechayev trial opened in St. Petersburg in July, 1871 and
the whole ghastly affair was publicly exposed. There were over eighty
accused, mostly students, Nechayev himself having conveniently escaped
The Nechayev affair did a lot of damage to the movement in Russia
and internationally. It affected the IWA because Nechayev let people
believe that he was acting in the name of the International, whereas in
fact he was an agent of Bakunin. Later, in order to explain away this
wretched affair and absolve Bakunin from his personal responsibility
for it, it had been claimed that Bakunin fell under the influence of
Nechayev who tricked him and used him for his own purposes.
But it was Bakunin who provided him with fake documents that
purported to be from the International and were signed by him. It was
Bakunin who wrote most, if not all, the proclamations and manifestos of
the non-existing “committee” and it was Bakunin who defended Nechayev
after he had fled from the scene of his crime, describing the murder of
the unfortunate Ivanov as “a political act”. Meanwhile, the majority of
the students that were put on trial were sentenced to long terms in
prison or to a living death in the Siberian mines.
The Basle Congress
It was at Basle that Bakunin first made his appearance, and his
faction was well represented there. But as he was still feeling his
way, he was cautious about putting forward his real programme.
Ironically, the same Bakunin who had always been violently opposed
opportunism, confined himself to demanding the immediate abolition, not
of private property, but of the right of inheritance.
As usual, Bakunin stood everything on its head. It is not the right
of inheritance that is responsible for private property, but the
existence of private property that gives rise to the right of
inheritance. After the seizure of power, the proletariat will deal with
this question, along with many other related secondary issues. But the
main task is the expropriation of large-scale private property through
the nationalization of the land, the banks and private monopolies. But
this is a political act, and therefore anathema to the anarchists.
To propose the abolition of the right of inheritance in general,
apart from its clearly utopian character, leaves out of account the
fact that a large part of the middle class, peasants and even a section
of the working class would be affected. A workers’ state would not
expropriate the small property owners, but only large scale private
property. In the meantime, it would be sufficient to impose a heavily
graduated tax on wealth and limit the right of inheritance.
For Bakunin, however, these concrete circumstances were irrelevant.
His scheme of social revolution was a pure abstraction, outside of time
and space. As usual, his empty demagogy only served to sow the maximum
confusion. When the question was put to the vote neither of the
resolutions won a sufficient majority, and the whole affair was left in
a confused state, which was the inevitable result of the anarchists’
“theoretical” interventions. Having made a bid mess, Bakunin then
forgot about the right of inheritance and passed onto something else.
This was absolutely typical conduct on his part: a) beat the drum
loudly on some issue or other, b) cause the maximum confusion, c) move
on to some other matter. The disorganizing results of this conduct are
It is interesting to note that the "authoritarian" structures of the
International that Bakunin protested against so vehemently in 1871 and
1872 were introduced to the International on the motion of Bakunin’s supporters, with Bakunin’s support.
That was at a time when he was aiming to gain control of the
International. Only when this plan failed did Bakunin suddenly
discovered the "authoritarian" character of the International’s
structure and rules. Bakunin always ruled his own faction, the
Alliance, with a rod of iron. Certainly, the charge of authoritarianism
and dictatorial tendencies can with far greater justice be directed
against Bakunin than against Marx.
About this time Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, after a sharp
factional struggle with the Lassallean Schweitzer, had succeeded in
establishing a separate party at the Eisenach convention (1869) based
on the programme of the International. Bakunin’s activity in the League
for Peace and Freedom were discussed and rejected by this party
congress. The next Congress was supposed to take place in Germany but
it could not be convened. Immediately after the Basle Congress tensions
between France and Prussia were deteriorating fast and the outbreak of
war was imminent.
To the degree that the members of the International became aware of
the disorganizing conduct of Bakunin and his followers, they reacted
against. Marx wrote to Engels on 30 October 1869:
“Apropos. The secretary of our French Genevan committee is utterly
fed up with being saddled with Bakunin, and complains that he
disorganises everything with his ‘tyranny’. In the Égalite, Monsieur Bakunin indicates that the German and English workers have no desire for individuality, so accept our communisme autoritaire. In opposition to this, Bakunin represents le collectivisme anarchique. The anarchism is, however, in his head, which contains only one clear idea — that Bakunin should play first fiddle.” (MECW, Volume 43, p. 363)