Marx and Bakunin, then and now

by Kevin Michaels

Anarchism as a current of radicalism has maintained a presence since at least Marx’s time. It continues to exist today in a fairly wide variety of forms and draws some toward it because of the scarcity of thoroughgoing challenges to the alienating reality that confronts us under capitalism.

Marx himself critiqued many of the figures now recognized as the progenitors of anarchism, Max Stirner and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon among them. But it was for the Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin that Marx reserved an especially penetrating criticism. Bakunin had a long career as a revolutionary, first as a proponent of a radical pan-Slavic nationalism and then as a champion of, at least in public, individual liberty. Bakunin was an extremely contradictory figure who criticized Marx’s leadership in the first International as authoritarian while at the same time he maintained a number of secret societies within the International with the aim of gaining its control.

Marx’s struggle against Bakunin within the International is the most widely known of their conflicts. Marx did not limit his opposition to Bakunin to the realm of practice, however, and one fascinating window on to his theoretical opposition is provided in his conspectus of Bakunin’s 1873 book STATEHOOD AND ANARCHY.

Marx, a tireless scholar, often critiqued ideas by copying out passages from books into notebooks, adding his own specific objections. He subjected Bakunin’s work to just such a critique in 1874-75, at a time when he was undertaking a serious rethinking of his attitude towards Europe’s peasantry and the prospects of revolution in non-capitalist countries like Russia, Bakunin’s home. This rarely commented-on document from Marx’s archives gives us some valuable insights into his thought of this period.

Two of Marx’s specific critiques of Bakunin are evident in the conspectus: their differing attitudes toward the peasantry as a revolutionary force; and the nature of the political phase after a successful revolution, what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Bakunin had long been a proponent of the Russian peasantry as a revolutionary force untouched by the corrupting influence of modernity. In STATEHOOD AND ANARCHY he represents Marx’s attitude toward the peasants as completely negative, stating that in the Marxian view, after the revolution the peasants, “being on a lower level of culture, will probably be governed by the urban and factory proletariat.” Marx, recalling well the fatal isolation of the Parisian workers of the Commune, objects to this, writing that “the proletariat…must, as the government, take steps as a result of which the situation of the peasantry will directly improve and which will bring him over to the side of the revolution.”

Later, Marx acidly comments “A fine idea, that the rule of the workers includes the enslavement of agricultural labor!” We see here evidence of that development which finds expression in the introduction to the 1882 Russian edition of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, in which Marx stated that the masses of a backward country like Russia can, in alliance with industrial workers of a capitalist one, begin on the road to a new society.

Bakunin goes on to take issue with Marx’s description of the necessity for a transitional phase of society after the bourgeoisie has been removed from power. “What does it mean,” he asks “for the proletariat to be ‘organized as the ruling class’?” Bakunin implies that Marx is advocating a new dictatorial form of rule in the wake of a revolution. In reply, Marx states that any use of force on the part of the victorious proletariat has but one end: “it can only use such economic means as abolish its own character as wage worker, hence as a class; so its complete victory coincides with the end of its domination, for its class character comes to an end.” Marx sums up his rejoinder to Bakunin’s line of argument thus: “when class domination ends, there will be no state in the present political sense of the word.”

Bakunin died in 1876. None of the tiny revolutionary groups he formed outlived him, but they did succeed in introducing anarchism as an idea into Italy and Spain. It shows how much respect Marx had for the power of ideas that he took Bakunin seriously, as a theoretical, as well as an organizational foe. A study of Marx’s conspectus shows this seriousness and, in addition, tells us some valuable things about Marx’s thought as well. Even though it is sometimes difficult to see the influence of Bakunin on the anarchism of today, this document from Marx’s archives is well worth studying to achieve a critical grasp of its roots.

NEWS & LETTERS, December 1997 

Those interested in reading these texts for themselves can consult the Cambridge University Press edition of Statism and Anarchy (1990), translated by Marshall Shatz. Marx’s long critique can be found in the “Prepatory Materials” section of Vol. 24 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. A brief selection appears online at the Marxists Internet Archive( A slightly longer excerpt appears in the second edition of Robert Tucker’s Marx-Engels Reader as “After the Revolution: Marx Debates Bakunin”

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