By Kevin Ovenden
LAST WEEK we looked at some of the earliest critics of capitalism, the utopian socialists Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen. This week our occasional series continues by looking at the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the best known founders of anarchism.
MIKHAIL Bakunin was born into a well to do Russian family in 1814. But he broke with his background to take part in many of the workers’ struggles against capitalism in the 19th century. In the process he developed his “anarchist” ideas, which at various points since have been held up as an alternative to Marxism as a guide to overthrowing capitalism.
Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin had much in common. They were much the same age and lived through the same events. They were both influenced by the early 19th century critics of capitalism we discussed last week.
Marx and Bakunin were both revolutionaries. They met in 1844 in Paris and fought in the wave of revolutions against the European monarchies in 1847-9. But despite this common ground they drew different conclusions about how to defeat capitalism. Marx saw how the growing industrial working class had the power to bring capitalism to a halt.
Bakunin thought that the factory workers tended to be “corrupted” by capitalism. He looked instead to peasants and poor city dwellers who were on the margins of the working class. Despite his views, Bakunin became drawn to workers’ struggles as they did indeed move centre stage.
The greatest workers’ struggle of the 19th century was the Paris Commune of 1871. It showed the differences between Marx and Bakunin sharply. The working class and poor of Paris rose up that year and managed to hold on to the city from 18 March to 21 May. They established a new form of political power.
Delegates were elected, but could be recalled immediately by the electorate. They were paid the average worker’s wage. The Commune broke the old capitalist state machine and began replacing many of its functions with new forms of organisation. For Marx, it became the model of how workers could form their own political power, a workers’ state, and use it to crush the capitalists. They could then move towards a society where class divisions were abolished and production was for need, not profit.
Marx’s main criticism of the Commune was that it did not centralise its power and use it to the full. That allowed the French state to eventually crush the Commune, drowning it in blood. Bakunin, however, took a different view.
He argued that the problem facing the mass of people was not really capitalism, but authority-any exercise of power over other people
At first glance there does not seem to be much of a difference. All socialists reject the “authority” of the boss, the police, the head teacher and so on. But Bakunin, and anarchists, said any form of authority breeds exploitation and oppression.
Denouncing all “authoritarianism” could sound superficially radical. But fighting the capitalists requires organised power-the picket line in a strike, majority decisions at mass meetings, occupations, militant mass demonstrations which unite against the enemy, and so on. Bakunin, like every serious anarchist, in practice recognised this. He travelled to the French city of Lyons the year before the Paris Commune to put himself at the head of a short lived uprising. He announced that the state was “abolished” and with it all “authoritarianism”. He then called for capital punishment for anyone who “interfered in any way whatsoever” with the new society he and his 20 supporters had declared! The death penalty is, of course, a highly authoritarian act.
Marx saw how workers could establish a collective democratic power. He called for socialists to be organised openly inside the working class.
A revolutionary party had to fight over every political question and seek to win over the mass of workers. Bakunin’s alternative was hopelessly contradictory, less than revolutionary and highly authoritarian.
He rejected democracy as the authoritarian rule of the majority over the minority. So his own political organisation was undemocratic. He thought that 100 members of his secret International Brotherhood, with half a dozen people issuing orders, could act as “invisible pilots” directing mass struggles.
He attacked Marx for “teaching the workers theories”. Bakunin believed people should just rely on instinct instead. He thought revolutionaries would gain influence by voicing “the instincts of the people” rather than by open argument in mass democratic organisations. So he spent his life rushing from one place to another trying to artificially spark uprisings. He died in 1876, bitter at the mass of people for not listening to him.
Bakunin is a symbol of revolutionary opposition to capitalism. But his ideas do not offer a way to overthrow it.
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