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Bakunin's <i>Statism and Anarchy</i>

Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy
A review by Chris Gray

Statism and Anarchy (Gosudarstvo i Anarkhia) was written by Mikhail
Alexandrovich Bakunin in 1873. It is one of the most accessible of Bakunin's
writings in English translation, currently available in the Cambridge Texts
in the History of Political Thought series. The work admirably demonstrates
Bakunin's strengths and weaknesses as a political thinker. I wish to comment
here on certain aspects of the work, namely, the author's view of European
history from the sixteenth century to 1815, his Slav romanticism (and its
reverse side, anti-Germanism), his view of political power; above all it is
necessary to deal with the most glaring of Bakunin's many misrepresentations
of Marx's position in the book. To this end, it is necessary to look at the
revolutionary situation in Germany in 1848 and also at the struggle between
Marx and Bakunin in the First International.

Germany as the Fountain-Head of European Reaction

Bakunin writes that 'ever since the historical formation of the modern
concept of the state in the mid-sixteenth century, Germany (including the
Austrian Empire to the extent that it is German) has never ceased to be the
main centre of all reactionary movements in Europe' (p7).

A bit further on he adds:

< From the Reformation onward Germany never ceased to be the principal
source of all reactionary movements in Europe. From the middle of the
sixteenth century to 1815 the initiative for those movements belonged to
Austria. From 1815 to 1866 it was shared between Austria and Prussia,
although the former predominated while it was governed by old Prince
Metternich, that is, until 1848. (p10) >

Spain and, later on, France are conspicuous by their absence from this
analysis. But what, one may ask, was the Spanish army doing in the
Netherlands in the late sixteenth century but acting as the sword arm of
European reaction? And if the Spanish Armada had been victorious, would not
the same scenario have been acted out in England? Similarly in the late
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one could make out an opposing case
featuring the French monarchy as the chief reactionary power: the evidence
lies to hand in the shape of denunciations of Louis XIV's policies by the
celebrated German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (see the volume
of Leibniz's political writings in the same excellent Cambridge series). But
such an endeavour would seem to lack any useful purpose: the fact is that by
the late eighteenth century almost all European states were ruled by
absolute monarchs. The political reality of those times is perhaps better
expressed by the so-called 'Wexford Catechism' of 1798, which began:

Question: What have you in your hand?

Answer: A green bough.

Question: Where did it bud?

Answer: In America.

Question: Where did it blossom?

Answer: In France.

The second stage of the bourgeois revolution, in other words, appeared in
the 'New World' before it set down roots in Europe.

Slavs Through Rose-Coloured Spectacles

In contradistinction to German state-worship, Bakunin would have us believe,
the Slav spirit is fixedly opposed to statism. He maintains:

< By their very nature and in their very being the Slavs are absolutely not
a political, that is, state-minded, people. In vain the Czechs invoke the
memory of their Great Moravian Empire and the Serbs the empire of Dushan.
Those are either ephemeral phenomena or ancient myths. The truth is that no
Slavic nation of its own accord ever created a state. (p38) >

This is asking us to believe that the armies of the Bohemian Ottokar and the
Serb Stefan Dushan were 'ephemeral' or 'mythical', and says nothing about
other powers such as Bulgaria and Russia in the middle ages. But Bakunin
argues that because the various Slav state formations were heavily
influenced or imposed by foreigners, the Slavs themselves really had nothing
to do with their creation:

< The Polish monarchy-republic arose under the dual influence of Germanism
and Latinism after the total defeat of the peasants. and their enslavement
to the gentry --who, according to the testimony of many Polish historians
and writers (Mickiewicz, among others) were not even of Slavic origin. The
Bohemian or Czech kingdom was pasted together purely in the Germans' own
image and likeness, and under their direct influence, as a result of which
Bohemia so soon became an organic member, an inseparable part of the German
Empire. Everyone knows the history of the formation of the Russian Empire.
The Tatar knout, Byzantine blessings and German bureaucratic, military and
police [!] enlightenment took part in it. The poor Great Russians, and then
the other peoples who were annexed to the empire, the Ukrainians,
Lithuanians and Poles, participated in its creation only with their backs.
Thus it is unquestionable that the Slavs, on their own initiative, never
formed a state. They did not do so because they were never a conquering
nation. Only conquering peoples create states. (pp38-9) >

On this reasoning, the expansion of the mediaeval Polish kingdom
south-westwards into Ukraine was not a conquest at all -- it was 'ephemeral'
or 'mythical' (or both?). Or else it was carried out against the express
wishes of the Polish peasantry. The same goes for Russian expansion. One
might equally well argue on this basis that feudalism in mediaeval England
was not an expression of the 'Anglo-Saxon spirit', but was a Norman
importation -- conquest is something quite alien to the true English
character! (Tell it to the Marines.)

This line of argument amounts to complete nonsense. Russians never a
conquering nation? Ask the Chechens.

Jewish Finance Capital Rules OK

For Bakunin, however, the chief lesson of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71
was that it established German hegemony in Europe. Yet, paradoxically, this
German reactionary hegemony conceals within itself yet another sinister

< This reaction is nothing other than the ultimate realisation of the
anti-popular idea of the modern state, the sole objective of which is to
organise the most intensive exploitation of the people's labour for the
benefit of capital concentrated in a very small number of hands. It
signifies the triumphant reign of the Yids [Bakunin's editor, Marshall
Shatz, points out that here as elsewhere 'Bakunin uses the derogatory
Russian term for Jew, zhid'], of a bankocracy under the powerful protection
of a fiscal, bureaucratic and police regime which relies mainly on military
force and is therefore in essence despotic, but cloaks itself in the
parliamentary game of pseudo-constitutionalism. (p12) >

The lack of any supporting evidence for the existence of this Jewish
'bankocracy' suggests we are dealing here not with reasoned sociology, but
with prejudice, pure and simple. This impression becomes stronger when we
read on page 177 that Lassalle was very vain, 'as befits a Jew'.

Marx in his early writings on the Jewish question panders to popular
prejudice to the extent that he equates 'Judaism' and huckstering -- the
word 'Judentum' in contemporary German usage signified both Judaism and
commerce -- but he at least acknowledged both the Pentateuch and the Talmud
as sources in which one might also find 'the essence of the present-day Jew'
(T Bottomore (ed), Early Writings, Watts, 1963, p40). Moreover, whilst
declaring that 'money is the jealous god of Israel' (p37), he asserts that
the Christian world has adopted the very same standpoint (see page 35). Marx
's mature economic writings show indeed how capitalist competition imposes
this outlook upon entrepreneurs of any or no religious persuasion. The
overall effect of Marx's philosophy is therefore calculated to undermine the
popular prejudices of the Goyim (non-Jews) in this area, whereas Bakunin's
remarks only serve to reinforce it.

The German Threat to Liberty

To his credit, Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy contains a spirited
denunciation of pan-Slavism (see especially page 76). But his real bête
noire is pan-Germanism -- a threat whose imminence and malignity tend to be
exaggerated by him. For example:

< Since the Germans are one of the most prolific nations in the world and
send out colonies everywhere, filling all the capitals of Europe, America
and even Siberia, soon the entire globe will have to submit to the authority
of the pan-German emperor. (pp122-3) >

Bakunin's observations serve to fuel popular prejudice against Germans in
exactly the same way as his remarks about 'Yids' foster an anti-Jewish
attitude. On page 140, he writes: 'The Germans have everything -- profound
thought, elevated sentiments -- but not character, and if they do have any
it is servile.' Likewise: 'In the last analysis, a German revolution cannot
be expected because there are very few revolutionary elements in the mind,
character and temperament of the German.' (pp193-4)

This last observation accords ill with Bakunin's earlier remarks about the
German working class. Speaking of the revolutionary crisis of 1848, Bakunin

< Then, as now, a more serious revolutionary element existed in Germany: the
urban proletariat. In Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt in 1848, and in Dresden,
Hanover and Baden in 1849, it showed that it was capable of and ready for a
serious uprising if only it found some intelligent and honest leadership.
(p146) >

Bakunin Versus Marx

Bakunin sees German social democracy in both its Lassallean and its Marxian
guises as part and parcel of the great pan-Germanist conspiracy. They act as
such because of their espousal of 'statism':

< Therefore we will refrain from urging our Slavic brothers to join the
ranks of the Social Democratic Party of the German Workers, which is led
first and foremost by Marx and Engels in a kind of duumvirate [two-man rule]
vested with dictatorial power, with Bebel, Liebknecht and a few Jewish
literati behind them or under them. On the contrary, we must exert all our
efforts to dissuade the Slavic proletariat from a suicidal alliance with
this party, which is in no way a popular party but in its orientation,
objective and methods is purely bourgeois and, furthermore, exclusively
German, that is, lethal to the Slavs. (p50) >

What was the real role of Marx and Engels vis-à-vis the political movements
of the German working class in those days? In 1873, there were still two
separate strands of German social democracy: following Lassalle's death in
1864, the leadership of his party, the Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein,
passed eventually to JB Schweitzer. In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian
War of 1870-71, the Arbeiterverein split, with a breakaway section holding a
separate congress at Eisenach -- from which they became known as
Eisenachers. This group expressed its support for Marx and Engels, but the
latter refused to give them their unqualified blessing (see Franz Mehring,
Karl Marx, Allen and Unwin, 1936, p417). Marx and Engels gave the Eisenach
group the benefit of advice, especially when it was asked for, but the group
was not obliged to follow it. Bakunin is just slinging mud.

If the rest of the book were as unspeakable as this, there would be no point
in reading it, but Bakunin is capable of much better. In many ways, the best
part of Statism and Anarchy is the description of the course of German
history from 1815 onwards, especially his view of 1848. If we strip away the
various anti-Marx calumnies and an occasional unrelated inaccuracy, we are
left with a coherent and informative analysis.

The remarkable thing about the events of 1848 is how much Marx and Bakunin
agreed about them. At any rate, it is hard to envisage Marx disagreeing with
Bakunin's claim that:

< The revolution was victorious in Germany almost without bloodshed. All
chains were broken, all barriers had fallen of their own accord. The German
revolutionaries could have done anything. And what did they do? It will be
said that the revolution proved bankrupt not just in Germany but throughout
Europe. In every other country, however, the revolution was defeated by
foreign forces after prolonged and serious struggle: in Italy by Austrian
troops, in Hungary by a joint Russian and Austrian army. In Germany,
however, it was crushed by the bankruptcy of the revolutionaries themselves.
(p148) >

Here Bakunin successfully argues his case, giving the reader sufficient
detail to accept that his judgement is accurate:

< Thus the Prussian radicals saw quite clearly the danger that threatened
them. What did they do to forestall it? Monarchical-feudal reaction was not
a theory but a force, an awesome force. It had behind it the entire army,
burning with impatience to purge the shame of the March defeat in the people
's blood and restore the besmirched and insulted authority of the king; it
had the entire bureaucracy, the state organism with its enormous financial
resources. Did the radicals really think they could bind this menacing force
with new laws and a constitution, with nothing but paper? (p156) >

Curiously, Bakunin does not seem to realise that this conclusion undermines
his root-and-branch opposition to any type of state. The state is an
essential organ of class power: whilst under capitalist control it
resolutely defends the existing mode of production. The salvation of the
socialist revolution requires that it be overthrown, which can only be
achieved by the creation of an opposing armed power -- a rival state. Like
it or not, there is no other way.

Power -- An Outmoded Social Analysis

The anarchist anti-state prejudice is closely bound up with an abhorrence of
power per se. Bakunin writes that 'anyone who is invested with power by an
invariable social law will inevitably become the oppressor and exploiter of
society' (p134).

This is false -- and it had better be false, because if it is correct we can
say goodbye to socialism, anarchism or anything resembling them. The
proposition amounts to an assertion that the powerful are always exploiters.

Bakunin does not seem to be worried by this, because he seems to think that
power can simply be destroyed if it is found in the wrong hands (see page
50). But power is never destroyed: the disempowering of an individual or a
class entails the empowering of a different individual or a different class;
power -- the capacity to control -- remains. Bakunin's thesis is reminiscent
of Robert Michels' 'iron law of oligarchy': any representative system
necessarily divides the members of an organisation into those who give
orders and those who get given them, with the former tending to coalesce
into a closed caste; there is -- and can be -- no alternative, says Michels.

Marx Versus Bakunin

The kernel of Bakunin's criticism of Marx appears on pages 178-9 of Statism
and Anarchy. Bakunin declares:

< If there is a state, then necessarily there is domination and consequently
slavery. A state without slavery, open or camouflaged, is inconceivable --
that is why we are enemies of the state. What does it mean, 'the proletariat
raised to a governing class'? Will the entire proletariat head the
government? The Germans number about 40 million. Will all 40 million be
members of the government? The entire nation will rule, but no one will be
ruled. Then there will be no government, there will be no state; but if
there is a state, there will also be those who are ruled, there will be

< In the Marxists' theory this dilemma is resolved in a simple fashion. By
popular government they mean government of the people by a small number of
representatives and rulers of the state elected by the people. So-called
popular representatives and rulers of the state elected by the entire nation
on the basis of universal suffrage -- the last word of the Marxists, as well
as of the democratic school -- is a lie behind which the despotism of a
ruling minority is concealed, a lie all the more dangerous in that it
represents itself as the expression of a sham popular will.

< So, from whatever point of view we look at this question, it always comes
down to the same dismal result: government of the vast majority of the
people by a privileged minority. But this minority, the Marxists say, will
consist of workers. Yes, perhaps of former workers, who, as soon as they
become rulers or representatives of the people will cease to be workers and
will begin to look upon the whole workers' world from the heights of the
state. They will no longer represent the people but themselves and their own
pretensions to govern the people. Anyone who doubts this is not at all
familiar with human nature.

< The Marxists. offer the consoling thought that this dictatorship will be
temporary and brief. They say that its sole concern and objective will be to
educate the people and raise them both economically and politically to such
a level that government of any kind will soon become unnecessary and the
state, having lost its political, that is, ruling, character, will transform
itself into a totally free organisation of economic interests and

< There is a flagrant contradiction here. If their state is to be truly a
people's state, then why abolish it? But if its abolition is essential for
the real liberation of the people, then how do they dare call it a people's
state? Our polemics against them have forced them to recognise that freedom
or anarchy -- that is, the voluntary organisation of the workers from below
upward -- is the ultimate goal of social development, and that any state,
including their people's state, is a yoke which gives rise to despotism on
the one hand and slavery on the other. (pp178-9) >

What is conspicuous here is the denial of the possibility of any class
establishing a special institution to discipline itself as well as other
classes -- for that is what the proletarian semi-state proposed by Marx (and
Lenin in The State and Revolution) involves. It is a far cry from Xerxes'
Greek adviser's description of his fellow-countrymen: 'They are free, but
they have a master over them -- the law.'

The whole structure depends on the smallest self-contained democratic unit,
that is, in Marx's version, the Commune. Marx describes in The Civil War in
France how the Communards of Paris envisaged the democratisation of French
political life:

< In a rough sketch of national organisation which the Commune had no time
to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form
of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the
standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely
short term of service. The rural communes of every district were to
administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central
town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the
National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and
bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The
few but important functions which still would remain for a central
government were not to be suppressed. but were to be discharged by Communal,
and therefore strictly responsible, agents. (Marx and Engels, Selected
Works, Volume 1, Moscow, 1958, p520) >

Marx bases his ideal after this squarely on the experience of the Commune.
This comes across in his observations on Bakunin's book, 'Conspectus of
Bakunin's Book State and Anarchy' (the translation is that of Moscow).
Commenting on Bakunin's question 'Will the entire proletariat head the
government?', Marx observes:

< Does in a trade union, for instance, the whole union constitute the
executive committee? Will all division of labour in a factory disappear and
also the various functions arising from it? And will everybody be at the top
in Bakunin's construction built from the bottom upwards? There will in fact
be no below then. Will all members of the commune also administer the common
affairs of the region? In that case there will be no difference between
commune and region. 'The Germans [says Bakunin] number nearly 40 million.
Will, for example, all 40 million be members of the government?' Certainly,
for the thing begins with the self-government of the commune. (Marx, Engels
and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Progress Publishers, 1972,
pp149-50) >

This is indeed representative democracy -- it has to be, in a society where
questions of the day cannot be decided via a popular vote over the internet.
Bakunin makes much of Rousseau's insight (expressed in The Social Contract)
that the people's representatives are no sooner elected than they begin to
advance their own interests to the detriment of those of the people. Here
Bakunin seizes upon a real problem -- one which Marx tends to skate over, as
can be seen from his comment about former workers ceasing to be workmen,
which he does not recognise as a problem, because in the same way a
manufacturer today does not 'cease to be a capitalist on becoming a town
councillor' (p151). Marx here ignores the fact that the gulf between a
capitalist and a town councillor is considerably less than that between a
shop-floor worker and a political representative. The only recourse we have
here is the right of recall. The only other recourse is periodic work on the
shop floor (or the equivalent) for workers' representatives, which is less
effective. An MP who spends a month or so working as an ordinary operative
remains, in terms of individual life-style and outlook, an MP: far more
effective is the power to deselect and thereby 'reduce to the ranks'.

Edmund Burke explained to the electors of Bristol why, in his view, he
should be allowed to put forward his own point of view: 'Your representative
owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead
of serving you, if he sacrifices his own opinion.' (Selected Prose, Falcon
Press, 1948, p30) But the electors of Bristol (the majority of them) saw
things differently, and they refused to re-elect him. If an elected workers'
representative betrays a mandate then that person runs the risk of
forfeiting the workers' confidence and accordingly ceasing to represent
them. Only when socialist society develops enough economically for classes
to disappear will this problem also disappear, when, in Marx's words,
representative functions cease to be political, whereupon: '(1) government
functions no longer exist; (2) the distribution of general functions becomes
a routine matter and does not entail any domination; (3) elections
completely lose their present political character' (Marx, 'Conspectus', op
cit, p150).

As Engels pointed out, as far back as the Communist Manifesto he and Marx
had the conception of the withering away of the state. In the Manifesto
itself we read:

< When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared,
and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association
of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.
(Selected Works, Volume 1, p54) >

Meanwhile, we are left with the existing political form of elections.
Bakunin speaks in favour of:

< . anarchy, meaning the free and independent organisation of all the units
and parts of the community and their voluntary federation from below upward,
not by the orders of any authority, even an elected one, and not by the
dictates of any scientific theory, but as a result of the natural
development of all the varied demands put forth by life itself. (p198) >

But even if elected 'authorities' can and do err, the best approach, on
balance, is to accept what the majority favours, if at all possible. The
alternative, basically, is that conflicts should be decided by a simple
trial of strength, that is (if necessary) by violent means. This is costly
and highly unpleasant: ritualised decision-making on the basis of a vote is
a much more civilised way of dealing with the problem of conflicting 'varied

The Split in the First International

Bakunin asserts that Lassalle 'founded a sizeable and primarily political
party of German workers, organised it hierarchically, and subjected it to
strict discipline and to his own dictatorship -- in short, he did what Marx
in the last three years wanted to do in the International. Marx's endeavour
proved a failure, but Lassalle's was a complete success' (p175). Where is
the evidence for this? Marx was well aware of the disparate political
traditions which came together in the International, which included in its
initial stages English trade unionists, French Proudhonists, German exile
socialists plus delegates from Belgium and Switzerland. What brought them
together was the clear need for coordinated international action on the
trade union front. Anarchist influence à la Bakunin did not make itself felt
until the Geneva Congress of 1866, and the conflict between Marx and Bakunin
only began to take centre stage from 1868. According to GDH Cole:

< Marx's idea of the International was that of a movement working under
central and unified direction, even if a good deal of latitude had to be
left to the national sections to shape their own policies in accordance with
varying national conditions, whereas Bakunin, supported in this matter by
most of the International's adherents in the Latin countries, insisted that
each national -- and indeed each local -- movement should have complete
freedom to shape its own policy without any direction from a controlling
centre. (GDH Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, Volume 2, Macmillan,
1961, pp116-7) >

Bakunin exaggerates the degree of centralised control desired by Marx; he
also personalises the issue unduly by accusing Marx of wishing to subject
the movement to 'his own dictatorship'. Marx was surely realistic enough to
know he could not in fact impose his own will on the International even if
he ever entertained a desire to do so -- which seems extremely unlikely.
(For an assessment of Marx's influence on the organisation during 1864-69,
see Cole, op cit, p133.)


Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy is certainly worth reading as a revelation of
his own opinions, but it seems to me that his deficiencies as a political
thinker outweigh his achievements. Apart from various distinctive
exaggerations and superficialities, Bakunin's faults are those of anarchism
in general. Anarchism is basically a form of utopian socialism. It has its
virtues -- including above all a readiness to embrace direct action when
this is called for -- but as a strategy for the working-class movement, it
leaves much to be desired.