by Pete Brown
(from Communist Voice #6, Jan. 15, 1996)
. The Detroit anarchist newspaper Fifth Estate (FE) encouraged us in CVO to look at the writings
of Mikhail Bakunin, with the thought that as soon as we did, we would immediately drop
Marxism and adopt anarchism. So I recently did some reading of Bakunin, especially his book,
Statism and Anarchy. (1) But reading it doesn't make me want to rush into adopting anarchism.
Germanophobia and Anti-Semitism
. First of all, let me just note the major stumbling block to reading Bakunin: his ultra-nationalist and racialist phrases. Bakunin purports to be an internationalist, but on every political question he gives a nationalist twist to it. His basic orientation is: Germans are bad, Slavs are good. And he throws in "the Yids" (Jews) with the Germans as even worse than bad. Marx, as a German Jew, is of course the worst of the worst. At his worst, Bakunin actually gives this kind of argument against Marx: Marx is sly and sneaky and domineering because he's a German Jew. This kind of thing makes you wonder why anyone would recommend reading Bakunin.
. Bakunin's book purports to be an explanation of the two-line struggle in the International Working Men's Association (IWA) between "statism" and "anarchy." These are Bakunin's terms for Marxism and those who support political activity of the working class, on the one hand, and his own anti-political followers. Yet most of Bakunin's book does not concern itself with Marx, or the IWA, at all. Instead it is sort of a diplomatic history, or survey of European governments, in the 19th century. As you read it, you're led to ask, what has this to do with the IWA and Marx?
. Eventually this becomes clear. The key feature in Bakunin's diplomatic history is the rise to prominence of Germany. Germany began the 19th century weak and divided into numerous small states. But eventually it gained unity under Prussian leadership. This was finally completed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. And this unity was not achieved in a progressive or revolutionary way. It was achieved by way of Prussian militarism and Bismarckian diplomacy. So Bakunin sees this as a thoroughly reactionary movement. And this was a "pro-state" movement, a movement toward the creation and consolidation of a modern nation state.
. Bakunin's method then is to paint Marxism with the brush of Prussian/Bismarckian "statism."
He tries to equate support for workers' participation in politics with support for the reactionary
bourgeois state. A lot of his arguments just boil down to nationalist prejudice bordering on
racism. His other method is to obscure the actual role of the Marxists in the history of Germany,
by giving a one-sided version of that history. Bakunin gives some facts about German history
while covering over others. For example, he creates the impression that Marx was some kind of
Prussian chauvinist; but if that's the case, why had the Prussian government stripped Marx of his
citizenship? Apparently Bismarck and the Prussian monarch had less faith in Marx's support for
Prussian "statism" than Bakunin did.
Should workers participate in politics?
. The basic issue in the fight between Marxism and Bakuninism in the IWA was the question of workers' participation in politics. The modern editor of Bakunin's book sums up the issue thusly in his introduction:
. "To the Marxists, the proletariat's participation in the political life of its respective nations seemed an effective way of pursuing the class struggle and ultimately achieving the supremacy of the proletariat and the elimination of the state. To the anarchists, however, any participation in 'bourgeois politics' was inherently corrupting. One could fight the enemy or one could join the enemy, but one could not do both. To expect to use political methods to abolish political domination was a dangerous delusion." (2)
. The editor here gives a sympathetic interpretation of Bakunin's position, much more straightforwardly than Bakunin himself does. For a sharper characterization of Bakunin's position, we turn to Marx. The following quotes are from a report Marx wrote for the IWA. First of all, the report notes what are the actual conditions under which the anarchists' dogma comes true:
". . . the old cliches regarding 'abstention from politics' . . . can become a reality only under the most absolute despotism, with the workers abstaining from any meddling in politics, much like the prisoner abstaining from a walk in the sun." (3)
. This is the reality of workers' abstaining from politics: that the prisoners are not even allowed to dream of liberation. Marx c orrectly ridiculed such an absurd dogma. But Marx also saw the undermining role played by Bakuninism inside the workers' movement:
. "Anarchy, then, is the great war-horse of their master Bakunin, who has taken nothing from the socialist systems except a set of slogans. All socialists see anarchy as the following programme: once the aim of the proletarian movement, i.e., abolition of classes, is attained, the power of the State, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions. The Alliance [Bakunin's organization] draws an entirely different picture. It proclaims anarchy in proletarian ranks as the most infallible means of breaking the powerful concentration of social and political forces in the hands of the exploiters. Under this pretext, it asks the International, at a time when the old world is seeking a way of crushing it, to replace its organization with anarchy. The international police want nothing better . . . ." (4)
. Based on their experience with Bakunin, the leaders of the IWA could see the reality behind
Bakunin's preaching of "abstention from politics." Bakunin pretended to be all for "fighting the
enemy" rather than "joining him", but to fight the enemy workers need organization in the first
place. And Bakunin in practice was undermining and disorganizing the IWA, the foremost class
organization of its time.
Was Marx a timid bourgeois parliamentarian?
. Now let's review a couple of the historical arguments advanced by Bakunin against Marxism. In one section of his book Bakunin gives a history of the 1848 revolution in Germany. This was a democratic revolution against monarchy, feudalism, and the fragmentation of Germany. Bakunin concentrates on the Frankfurt parliament, an all-German assembly that came up during the revolution but declined to take any revolutionary measures against the reactionaries, and as a result eventually succumbed. During the revolution's high tide, the ruling princes of the different German states were powerless to prevent the Frankfurt parliament from being elected and meeting. But they bided their time and eventually made a comeback because the parliament never consolidated republicanism in Germany, never actually overthrew the monarchs and never dispersed their armed forces.
. In criticizing the errors of the Frankfurt parliament, Bakunin gives the view that the parliament failed because it did not take advantage of the revolutionary situation to press home the attack. In this respect Bakunin's recital of the parliament's errors is similar to Marx's analysis. (For Marx's analysis, as written up by Engels, see Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany. (5)) Both criticize the parliament for not taking revolutionary steps. But note: Marx's analysis was not produced 25 years after the fact, as Bakunin's was. The book by Engels was written in 1851-52, and it was based on journalistic articles Marx wrote during the course of events themselves.
. We give one example from the book by Engels, to show the revolutionary orientation of him and Marx: in his article "The Frankfort National Assembly" Engels asserts that the parliament should have
"above all . . . secured to itself an organized and armed force in the country sufficient to put down any opposition on the part of the governments."
. A similar point is made by Bakunin in his criticism of the Frankfurt parliament:
"they neglected the sole means of opposing the reactionary forces of the state -- organizing the revolutionary force of the people." (6)
, So Bakunin's assessment of the parliament's errors, given a quarter-century later, is quite similar to the assessment Marx gave at the time of the revolution. But in his book Bakunin actually obscures the position of Marx and Engels. He doesn't actually say that Marx supported the liberals in parliament -- that would be too gross a lie. But he throws out numerous slanderous remarks to the effect that Marx is a "statist" like "all Germans" and "intellectuals" (especially Jewish ones).Then in his concrete discussion of 1848 he doesn't mention, he simply leaves out of discussion, what Marx did. Bakunin does mention that there were a few sincere revolutionaries in Germany, but he neglects mentioning Marx and Engels among them. This is a glaring omission in a book devoted to attacking Marx. Bakunin adopts a revolutionary stance similar to Marx's, and then tries to use this to attack Marx -- pretty bad, Mikhail!
. As a final note on this, I should clarify that the positions of Marx and Bakunin on 1848 were not
at all similar in many respects. For one thing, Bakunin's explanation of the parliament's failures is
given a racial or nationalist slant by saying the Frankfurt parliamentarians exemplified the
German spirit of "statism" and obedience to authority. For another thing, Bakunin and Marx had
different tendencies with regard to German unification. Marx saw unification as a historically
necessary and progressive step. Bakunin generally opposed German unity, and in fact his own
practice in 1848 was aimed at rallying the Slavic nationalities against Germany. Bakunin paints
all "German unifiers" with the same brush -- they're all reactionary "statists". But with German
national unity on the historical agenda, the question was in what way this unity would be
achieved -- in a revolutionary way, as Marx advocated, or in a slow, painful, and
Prussian-monarchical way, as eventually took place.
Was Marx a Lassallean?
. The other major historical argument Bakunin brings against Marx is to tie him to Lassalle, a major working class leader of the 1850s and 60s. But here again Bakunin's argumentation is sneaky, at best. His main point on this is that Lassalle always claimed to be a disciple of Marx. OK; but does that make Marx a disciple of Lassalle's errors?
. Bakunin himself admits that Marx "turned on" Lassalle and denounced him. Yes, the fact is, Marx did criticize Lassalle, precisely for his "statism" (Lassalle's tendency toward reformism and collaboration with the Prussian state, as well as his general line on socialism, which was a call for state aid to workers' co-operatives). The fact that Bakunin knows of Marx's critique of Lassalle makes it evident he must also have known the content of this criticism. Yet he studiously avoids giving that content. He only says that Marx was "jealous" of Lassalle.
. So here again Bakunin pursues a rotten method of argumentation. He deliberately obscures the content of Marx's critique of Lassalle, even though he must have known what it was. It was well known that Lassalle was erring more and more in a "statist" direction. Lassalle was something of a political adventurer, and held secret negotiations with Bismarck in which he offered support to some of Bismarck's expansionist schemes in return for Bismarck throwing a bone or two to the working class. But it was also pretty widely known that Marx criticized this behavior of Lassalle's.(7)
. What Marx did give Lassalle some credit for is that he did go out and build a working class political party in Germany. In fact, Marx is the one who gave Lassalle the idea of building an independent movement right among the workers, not the bourgeois liberals with whom Lassalle had previously associated. If Bakunin is going to blame Marx for Lassalle's mistakes, why doesn't he give Marx credit for Lassalle's positive achievements? But Bakunin's not interested in clarifying things, but simply in throwing mud at Marxism.
A variant of peasant revolutionism
. Anyway, this is the main content of Bakunin's book: attacking Marx by distorting German history and combining that with nationalist and racist remarks. Now, the conclusion to Bakunin's book ("Appendix A") gives his own direct advice to young, revolutionary-minded people in Russia: what they should do to overthrow the tsarist autocracy, how the movement should be organized, etc. Here Bakunin appears as the practical organizer, trying to develop an alternative to Marxism. So what kind of revolution does Bakunin foresee for Russia?
. Bakunin says there are three main features to the Russian people's "ideal," an ideal that is to be realized by the revolution:
. "Its first and principal feature is their [the Russian people's] universal conviction that the land, all the land, belongs to the people, who have watered it with their sweat and fertilized it with the labor of their own hands. Its second major feature is the belief that the right to use the land belongs not to the individual but to the whole commune, to the mir, which temporarily distributes it to individuals. The third feature, equal in importance to the preceding two, is the quasi-absolute autonomy and self-government of the commune, and hence its categorical hostility to the state." (8)
. Thus, Bakunin's idea of the revolution is a variant of peasant revolutionism. And his outlook doesn't go beyond that. Overthrowing the tsar isn't just a stage of the revolution for Bakunin; in his conception overthrowing the tsar and seizing the land is the summation of the social revolution. The overthrow of the tsarist state will free the peasant commune from its oppressive features and allow it to revert back to being a true collective, as in the good old days (before the "Germanic state" of the tsar was imposed on the good-hearted Slavic peasants). At that point all oppression and exploitation will be at an end. The peasant communes will establish some sort of relations among themselves -- Bakunin isn't too clear about this, but insists they will be "federative" and "bottoms up." He also mentions possibly establishing ties between peasant communes and urban industrial workers, but this is barely mentioned; the main emphasis is on a peasant uprising as the key to solving all problems.
. From this scenario we can see that Bakunin has not thought too deeply about the economic basis of socialist society. Bakunin tosses out the thought that the communes might have some relations, and he mentions the existence of merchants also. Presumably these self-contained communes will want to trade with one another. So there you would have the basis of commodity production, again; separate enterprises producing goods and then trading with one another. This is the basis for capitalist development. In fact, this would be quite a progressive thing; a capitalist Russia could develop much more rapidly than a tsarist, semi-feudal Russia. But Bakunin creates the impression that you just throw off the tsar, and BANG! -- all social issues are resolved, and you're in communism.
. With the development of capitalism would come class divisions, regardless of what Bakunin says. Merchants would collaborate with the more successful peasants, and the latter would concentrate their power inside the communes. At the same time the merchants would be setting up some kind of force to regulate and guarantee trade. They might not call it a state, at first -- they might call it the "organization of patriotic revolutionaries for pan-Slavic fraternization" -- but it would be a state, nonetheless. It would suppress bandits, regulate trade and commerce, and eventually, if threatened by revolts of poor peasants, it would (try to) suppress them also. There you'd have the further development of the class struggle in a post-revolutionary society.
. Bakunin doesn't even consider this. In his view all you need is revolutionary zeal to overthrow the tsar, and after that, by overthrowing the government, you've ipso facto done away with all oppression of any kind.
. Bakunin expressed the small peasants' frustrated economic aspirations and their hatred for the autocracy. But his hardening these ideas into anarchist dogmas shows the limitations of small-peasant ideology. There's no consideration here of how to develop a modern industrial society. There's not even a recognition of commodity economy and what that implies. Instead there's just a conservative yearning for the mythical good old days before those modern newfangled inventions like governments, parliaments, etc. came into vogue.
. In his general ideology Bakunin took the peasants' angry cry, "Smash the tsarist government", and converted that into the dogmatic call: "Smash all government, and this will solve all problems; and in the meantime boycott all politics." But the latter call turns into something reactionary, as it urges the working people to abstain from looking for a way out of their oppression.
. Even though Bakunin called himself an historical materialist, he never recognized the economic basis of the state, that it's a product of class antagonisms. He didn't recognize that to do away with the state you have to do away with classes, and to do this you have to do away with the capitalist economy rooted in commodity production. His simple-minded approach -- just "attack the state" and all will be well -- sounds ultra-militant, but in fact is a conservative approach that would leave the revolution stuck at the level of a peasant uprising (if it got that far).
. Note that Bakunin's orientation toward the peasantry as the most revolutionary class is not
restricted to Russia. For Western Europe as well Bakunin looks to what he calls "more
traditional" sections of the working people -- workers just coming off the land in Italy and Spain,
as opposed to the established urban industrial workers of Germany and England. The latter he
charges with being bourgeoisified, with being "taken in" by capitalist society. The "more
traditional" working people he says are more likely to revolt because they still have the
communal agricultural spirit and are not yet degraded by capitalism. And in the West, as well as
in Russia, Bakunin's idea of socialism was of local communes tied somehow into federative
relationships; he always opposed the idea of nationally-organized socialist societies, even in
countries with well developed large-scale industry.
A theory of duplicity
. Now we have a general idea of Bakunin's theory of social revolution. It remains to examine his theory of revolutionary organization. This is something that anarchists, following Bakunin himself, always make much of in accusations against Marxists that they are "authoritarian", "centralist", etc. According to them the anarchists are all for the masses, while the Marxists are "dictators." But what is the truth of these accusations?
. In Bakunin's own day, assessing his organizational ideas was a very complex affair that required much work on the part of Marx, Engels and the entire General Council of the IWA. (9) To give a quick summary: Bakunin came into the IWA calling for extreme centralization, demanding that everyone obey all the directives of the General Council. At this time Bakunin expected to be co-opted into the IWA leadership, and expected that his followers would be able to muster a majority in the IWA's central bodies. But things didn't work out that way; the General Council was reluctant to turn the IWA over to Bakunin. So Bakunin then had groups under his leadership affiliate as local bodies, and paid lip service to the IWA's general leadership. But in practice Bakunin maintained his own organization, and the IWA locals under his control prohibited political activity by workers in their areas. This went against general policy of the IWA, so the General Council issued some criticism of these locals. At this point then Bakunin turned into a fierce advocate of "federalism," "local independence," etc.
. So advocating "local control" and "autonomy" is by no means a Bakuninist principle, as anarchists and sympathetic commentators like Shatz try to argue. (10) Shatz has been taken in by Bakunin's later advocacy of federalism and his numerous calls for "bottoms-up" organization.But in practice Bakunin pursued a line of advocating whatever organizational form he thought would most quickly gain him ascendancy. Centralism was fine when he thought he could dominate the center; but if not, then he advocated local autonomy (while still practicing centralism for his own secret faction inside the IWA).
. So in practice Bakunin evolved what could best be described as a "duplicitous" theory of
organization. In public forums Bakunin was the fierce ultra-democrat preaching "bottoms up"
and "against dictatorship." But among friends and supporters Bakunin preached centralism and
"total dedication" to his own organization. In his theoretical writings this culminated in Bakunin's
advocacy of two kinds of politics, one for the masses and one for the revolutionary elite. For the
workers, they were to be satisfied with calls to "abstain from politics"; in other words, they were
to remain disorganized and confused. But for the elite -- well, they would take care of the masses,
behind the scenes.
The secret elite
. Bakunin's theory of the elite comes out in his letter to Sergei Nechaev dated June 2, 1870.(11)Now, in 1870 Sergei Nechaev was Bakunin's closest friend and collaborator. Nechaev presented himself to Bakunin in Switzerland as a Russian émigré who had direct ties to the revolutionary youth and intelligentsia in Russia. Bakunin was excited about being in direct touch with the rising generation of radicals in his home country, and through Nechaev hoped to influence the building of revolutionary organization in Russia.
. So in this letter Bakunin expresses his views, to a close collaborator, on how they should proceed to build such organization. And here Bakunin says:
. "We are the most pronounced enemies of every sort of official power -- even if it is an ultra-revolutionary power. We are the enemies of any sort of publicly declared dictatorship, we are social revolutionary anarchists. But, you will ask, if we are anarchists, by what right do we want to influence the people, and what methods will we use? Denouncing all power, with what sort of power, or rather by what sort of force, shall we direct a people's revolution? By a force that is invisible, that no one admits and that is not imposed on anyone, by the collective dictatorship of our organization which will be all the greater the more it remains unseen and undeclared, the more it is deprived of all official rights and significance." (12)
Bakunin goes on to describe the post-revolutionary situation:
. "Imagine yourself in the midst of a triumphant, spontaneous revolution in Russia. The state and with it all forms of social and political organization have been demolished. . . .
. "But imagine that in the middle of this universal anarchy there were a secret organization, dispersing its members in small groups throughout the empire, but nevertheless firmly united and inspired with a single idea . . . . These small groups, unknown to anyone as such, would have no officially declared power. But . . . these groups would finally have the strength of that close solidarity which binds isolated groups in one organic whole . . . . These groups would not seek anything for themselves, . . . and they would be in a position to direct popular movements . . . . This is what I call the collective dictatorship of a secret organization." (13)
. Now of course Bakunin argues that this organization would not violate the freedom of the people, would be closely linked to them, and would express their aspirations. That all sounds good, except -- how can an organization be closely linked to the masses when the masses don't even know of its existence? Bakunin's remarks here have the impression of sounding concerned for the masses, but they are not the remarks of someone concerned with building up the consciousness of the masses.On the contrary, they express the same old ruling-class distinction between the elite and the masses. Bakunin's conception is that the intellectual elite, the revolutionaries, should secretly manipulate the masses; there is no conception of the masses learning to liberate themselves.
. It's quite revealing to see such passages from an anarchist, because we know from experience
that the anarchists are the fiercest enemies, supposedly, of "hierarchy", "parties",
"authoritarianism" and all the rest. But here they are, advocating the worst kind of
authoritarianism -- a secret dictatorship!
Two kinds of secrecy
. Now someone might ask, "But wasn't it necessary for revolutionaries under tsarism to maintain secrecy?" Yes, of course it was necessary to maintain security from the tsar's police. But that's not the same thing as maintaining secrecy from the masses. Marxists have always recognized the need for varying amounts of organizational secrecy, depending on the political circumstances of the country. But even under the worst oppression, Marxists advocate that a party representing the masses be known to the masses. And they search for ways to integrate party life with the life of the masses, so that the working people can develop political awareness in their everyday life. What this passage clarifies is that Bakunin isn't worried about keeping the organization secret from the police, because he's talking about a situation after the revolution, when the state has already been smashed -- there are no more police! And yet even then, he insists, the elite revolutionaries must keep their organization completely underground, unknown to the masses they are leading.
. The same conception appears in Bakunin's letter to Albert Richard (14), only there the stress is
on building such an organization today, before the revolution; and there he's addressing the
situation in France instead of Russia. But in both cases Bakunin stresses the need to keep such an
A non-class conception of the state
. These letters of Bakunin's also bring out his non-class conception of the state. Bakunin insists that the revolutionary elite should be people who are dedicated, sincere, not vain, not power-hungry or venal, etc. Thus his dictators are to be people who are pure, not in it just for the money or to make a name for themselves. The trouble is, Bakunin thinks that's all there is to the state -- fat cat politicians trying to make a name for themselves. He ignores the basic fact about the state, that it's a class dictatorship. It never occurs to him that the bourgeoisie might have self-sacrificing, sincere state administrators. He thinks that if he somehow eliminates corruption (by revolutionary will), he will have eliminated the state.
. Similarly, Bakunin thinks that what makes an organization a state is that it is official -- that is,
it's open and declared, it has laws publicly known. As opposed to that he proposes rulership by a
closed, secret organization. Now, it's OK to criticize public parliamentary debate for its
hypocrisy. But Bakunin's way off the rails here. He's actually arguing that secret, unknown
rulership is better for the masses than open, declared rulership. This is completely off the bat. It
shows that Bakunin should have condemned himself, first of all, when he issued his
denunciations of "would-be dictators."
Bakuninism and Fifth Estate
. So why did Fifth Estate recommend Bakunin to us? What is there about Fifth Estate that is Bakuninist? Well, generally, like other anarchists, the writers for Fifth Estate are anti-state and anti-politics. For example, they're opposed to running in elections. In the latest issue of their newspaper (15), for example, in their letters column, they debate some other anarchists who advocate running for office.
. But FE does support political activism around issues they're interested in. For example, protests against the war in Vietnam (in a retrospective article); GI mutinies; blocking road construction in Britain; picketing the Indonesian embassy in Moscow as a protest against the occupation of East Timor; protests in Moscow against the war in Chechnya. And in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, FE simply endorses the list of activities promoted by left-liberal groups active in Mumia's defense: write the governor, etc. So FE is not universally opposed to any political activity.
. But what really distinguishes FE is their eco-anarchism, their consistent denunciation of modern technology. All political issues are looked at through this lens. For example, in the letters column of their latest issue, they discuss an article that appeared in their Winter 1995 issue, "A Treatise on Electronic Anarchy and the Net" by Sunfrog. The gist of this article, apparently, was to denounce e-mail and the Internet. (FE also prints e-mail addresses of various organizations, though, so they're not completely consistent on this.) Now it's reasonable to point out that the Internet, like other utilities and forms of communication, remains enmeshed in the capitalist-imperialist system, that capitalists are designing it for their own profit-making and political purposes, and they don't intend for it to get out of their control. At the same time, it's unreasonable to suggest boycotting this modern means of communication. The telephone system is also enmeshed in capitalism and dominated by telecommunications monopolies, but I doubt if Sunfrog boycotts telephones.
The glories of pounding rocks
. Other examples of their anti-techno bias abound. A Summer 1994 article by T. Fulano, "Insurgent Mexico", opposed the Zapatistas demanding TV sets, washing machines, stoves, etc.as "consumerism." In reply, a resident of Mexico wrote to them saying:
. "T. Fulano, I assume you have gotten rid of your own stove and refrigerator and you don't wash your clothes in a washing machine if you are going to say that an indigenous woman should not have a machine that could save hours of drudgery. I don't imagine you've ever spent several hours a day scrubbing clothes on a rock by a river. Not just one day, but every day for the rest of your life. Not just your own clothes, but clothes for an entire family. Not just clothes that smell a little funky under the armpits, but clothes soiled with dirt from the fields. . . ." (16)
. T. Fulano responded by saying:
". . . As a matter of fact, I have washed my clothes by hand, with water drawn from a village well. In Portugal, where I lived for a time in a small village, I didn't reap the rich experience of local women, who did it as a group activity one day every week or so. But I know what hard work washing is, and I rather think there is something to be said for it." (17)
. So Fulano glorifies the "rich experience" of pounding clothes on rocks and living without running water. It never occurs to Fulano that the Portuguese women who make washing a group activity are doing their best to get over a bad situation, and no doubt they, like the women of southern Mexico, are thirsting for a way out. Incidentally, Fulano's response later confesses, "...my life in Detroit is decidedly different than it was in the village. I use a washing machine, a car, and many other industrial processes and machines. "(18)
. Another example: in what looks like their editorial page, "Tales from the planet", the producers of FE criticize anarcho-syndicalism. They criticize it, not -- as Marxists would do -- for being anarchist (and hence promoting a losing strategy for the workers' movement), but for promoting industrialism and workers' control. There they say, ". . . the [anarcho-syndicalist] perspective rarely challenges the fundamental precepts of industrialism and would wind up with a similar mechanical world only [only!] administered more fairly. Also, as the modern world cranks along, much of what would be controlled by workers councils (actually more to do as the work day is completed) has become increasingly absurd." (19) As example, they point to some consumer items they consider silly; they question what do you do with fellow workers involved with producing such items. Anyway, the point is, their criticism of anarcho-syndicalism is another example of their anti-technology orientation. (As an aside, I must admit this is a novel argument against socialism, that it would just be too much to do! The anarchists don't want to participate in running society because -- they're tired!)
. Their lead articles in the summer '95 issue are retrospectives on the Vietnam war. Here they denounce U.S. imperialism for its crimes against the people of Southeast Asia. But instead of clarifying the economic basis of imperialism they give the impression that imperialism is rooted in an idea, that of Westward expansion, of subduing the Natives, and of bringing Nature under the control of science and technology:
"This was only the latest unfolding in that westward movement, the empire's relentless drive to destroy and subdue Wilderness, the 'savages' who inhabited it, and all of nature." (20)
. And further on:
"This quintessentially technobureaucratic campaign against Vietnam flowed from the same hatred and poverty of spirit that fueled the wars against the indigenous peoples of this continent. It was a deep-seated hatred, founded upon guilt and a sense of separation, so it had to be manifested in a war against the earth itself." (21)
. Here they reach the point of saying that the actual cause, or motive, of the war was ecological destruction in itself; it was a war of "technology" against "the earth."
. What follows from such an absurd analysis? Should the workers all run away from their jobs,
avoid industry, join rural communes and pound clothes on rocks? If such phrases are taken as
serious analysis, these are the sorts of "solutions" that would follow. And in fact these are the
sorts of solutions offered by FE.
Two faces of technology
. Is there a connection between this type of view and that of Bakunin? Bakunin was certainly no environmentalist. But there is a common thread in that Bakunin was also opposed to modernism and didn't care for the industrial proletariat.
. Bakunin also glorified the more backward workers, those "more traditional" in his words, those coming fresh off the land. He had a class bias toward the more backward peasantry and against the industrial proletariat. So there's a conservative streak in Bakuninism, and this is reflected in FE's opposition to technology. There's also the same confused, small-producer type of opposition to capitalism.
. Capitalism has created an enormous engine of technology. This has various effects -- some positive, some negative. In this situation the anarchists throw up their hands and say "it all sucks." And that includes the workers involved in capitalist production. We're all tainted by having something to do with this technology.
. But Marxism takes a more rational approach of sorting out the good from the bad. The modern engine of technology has enormous potential for expanding the control of human beings over their lives, hence for bringing about a truly humanistic society (and a humanized earth). What's blocking the realization of this potential is not workers' "guilt", but workers' enslavement to capital. Until the workers take control of society -- and with it, of technology -- capitalist production will continue to generate racism, pollution and war just as regularly as it produces trains, planes and automobiles. But for the workers to take control, they must be organized -- and not just in small groups and communes, as Bakunin and FE advocate -- but in national- (and international)-level bodies; and in the first place in political organizations.
. The two faces of technology are rooted in the twofold division of society into exploiters and exploited. This is the basic, underlying problem that FE never clarifies. In this respect they follow Bakunin, who never grasped the economic basis of politics. But ranting against "the state" or "technology" in general does not help resolve this basic problem. On the contrary -- it undermines the workers' attempts to build revolutionary class organization. And this is what's needed, today, to advance on the road toward communist society. <>
1. Bakunin's book Statism and Anarchy was written in the summer of 1873. Its subtitle is "The Struggle of the Two Parties in the International Working Men's Association." In this book Bakunin attempted to explain to his Russian followers what happened in the International, and to give them guidance for developing the revolutionary movement in Russia. It was published in Switzerland in late 1873 and then smuggled into Russia.
. The edition I read was translated and edited by Marshall S. Shatz, professor of history at University of Massachusetts, Boston. It's one of a series -- Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought -- published by Cambridge University Press. It was printed in 1990. (Return to text.)
2. From Shatz's "Introduction" to Statism and Anarchy, p. xxx. (Text)
3. See the report, "Fictitious Splits in the International", in The General Council of the First International: Minutes, published by Progress Publishers, Moscow. This quote is from p.406.(Text)
4. From the report, "Fictitious Splits" cited above, p. 407. (Text)
5. This book is a collection of articles originally written as a series on the German revolution for the New York Daily Tribune. In writing this series Engels utilized his files of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the paper edited by Marx during the revolutionary period. He also consulted with Marx, and in fact the articles were printed under Marx's byline. The collection I consulted was published by Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1977. (Text)
6. Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, p. 156. (Text)
7. For Marx's assessment of Lassalle and an explanation of how his assessment of Lassalle changed over time, see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, with explanatory notes, translated by Dona Torr and published by International Publishers, New York, 1942. See Marx's letter to Kugelmann of February 23, 1865, on p. 193; and Marx's letter to Schweitzer of October 13, 1868, on p. 250. (Text)
8. Statism and Anarchy, pp. 205-6. (Text)
9. See The General Council of the First International: Minutes published by Progress Publishers, Moscow. See especially the volume on 1871-72, with the article "Fictitious Splits in the International", a report by the General Council to its branches on the Bakuninists' undermining activities in the IWA; also the article "The General Council to all the members of the IWA", a report on the Bakuninists' factional activity. The latter report served as the basis on which Bakunin was expelled from the IWA. (Text)
10. On p. xxxi of Shatz's "Introduction" he says, "To the anarchists, the International must serve as a direct model for the new society, a microcosm of the free future order. Therefore they envisioned it as a true federation, with local sections enjoying the greatest possible degree of autonomy." (Text)
11. This is contained in the volume Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings edited and introduced by Arthur Lehning. Translations by Steven Cox and Olive Stevens. Published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1973. (Text)
12. Lehning, pp. 191-92. Italics are in the original. (Text)
13. Ibid., pp. 192-93. (Text)
14. Bakunin's letter to Albert Richard is dated April 1, 1870. It begins on p. 178 of the Lehning volume. (Text)
15. Fifth Estate, Summer 1995, Vol. 30 #1 (346). See p. 29 for the debate on running in elections. FE can be reached at 4632 Second Ave., Detroit MI 48201; phone (313) 831-6800.(Text)
16. Ibid., p. 30, col. 4. (Text)
17. Ibid., p. 31, col. 1. (Text)
18. Ibid., col. 2. (Text)
19. FE, Summer '95, p. 2, col. 4. (Text)
20. Ibid., p. 14, col. 1. (Text)
21. Ibid., col. 3. (Text)
Last changed on October 19, 2001.