Discussion between Bakunin, Marx, and Warm-Fork

I was reading this recently – it’s some extracts from a book by Bakunin (prominent Russian anarcho-communist) which Marx had written notes in (the online text, on libcom, unfortunately doesn’t distinguish between who’s saying what, but I think I’ve worked it out from context – who’s calling who an idiot, generally). The topic, as one might expect, is the ‘workers’ state’ and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (hereafter DOTP). It stimulated some thoughts in my brain, so I reproduce some of the exchanges, with my comments.

My sympathies are mixed – partly I agree with Bakunin, partly with Marx, and I think a lot of the time their exchange may be clouded by their rivalry and dislike of each other.

Bakunin: We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the workers, if not as final ideal then at least as the next major aim — the foundation of a people’s state, which, as they have expressed it, will be none other than the proletariat organized as ruling class. The question arises, if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state.

Marx: It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.

Warm-Fork: Is Bakunin denying that the proletariat is likely to have many enemies, even after the threshold of revolution has been passed? Surely not. Nor, presumably, is he denying that the proletariat will have to ‘struggle’ with them in some sense, nor that it will have to meet force with force, nor that it will have to organise itself for such purposes.

So the precise dispute is when Marx says “it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means”, about which Bakunin says “It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination”. So what is meant by ‘governmental means’ – my instinctive definition would be ‘establishing a centralised apparatus for initiating physical force against not-immediately-violent targets’. It’s certainly a plausible allegation that this inevitably makes people other than the intended counter-revolutionaries vulnerable to such an apparatus.

Bakunin: e.g. the common peasant folk, the peasant mob, which as is well known does not enjoy the goodwill of the Marxists, and which, being as it is at the lowest level of culture, will apparently be governed by the urban factory proletariat.

Marx: where the peasant exists in the mass as private proprietor, where he even forms a more or less considerable majority…either he hinders each workers’ revolution, makes a wreck of it, as he has formerly done in France, or the proletariat (for the peasant proprietor does not belong to the proletariat, and even where his condition is proletarian, he believes himself not to) must as government take measures through which the peasant finds his condition immediately improved, so as to win him for the revolution…easing the transition from private ownership of land to collective ownership, so that the peasant arrives at this of his own accord, from economic reasons. It must not hit the peasant over the head, as it would e.g. by proclaiming the abolition of the right of inheritance or the abolition of his property…Still less should small-holding property be strengthened, by the enlargement of the peasant allotment simply through peasant annexation of the larger estates, as in Bakunin’s revolutionary campaign.

Warm-Fork: Marx’s comments to a certain extent seem to bear out Bakukin’s accusation. He speaks of what “the proletariat…as government” must do with regards to peasant property, even in cases where peasants are the majority. This seems to imply that, as Bakunin says, the peasant mob…will…be governed by the urban factory proletariat“. For all that Marxists declare the DOTP to be ‘the most rigourously democratic form of government’, this is a little disconcerting.

Marx’s idea, I think, is to preserve the ‘proletarian’ character of the revolutionary movement, and not ‘dilute’ it away from communism by bringing in a majority of aspiring property-owners – and I can empathise with that. But the problem arises precisely from his insistence on ‘governmental means’. Does the DOTP send its army, police force, militia, into the countryside? Does it impose its law onto the peasantry by force? If Marx doesn’t support that, he doesn’t make it clear, and events in the Russian Revolution hardly dispel the idea. But how is this anything but a military occupation, however supposedly benevolent?

I’ve argued before for something like a DOTP – an association preserving its proletarian character by restricting membership to those who forswear property claims. But this has to be consistent with the idea of democracy, which means it must be something less than a government. But it can still wield enormous power by non-governmental means – offering its protection, its technical aid, its products, etc.

Bakunin: If there is a state, then there is unavoidably domination, and consequently slavery. Domination without slavery, open or veiled, is unthinkable — this is why we are enemies of the state. What does it mean, the proletariat organized as ruling class?

Marx: It means that the proletariat, instead of struggling sectionally against the economically privileged class, has attained a sufficient strength and organization to employ general means of coercion in this struggle. It can however only use such economic means as abolish its own character as salariat, hence as class.

Warm-Fork: If the proletariat can only use such economic means as abolish its own character, why not also say it can only use such political means as do so – whatever such a constraint amounts to? That is, if we are to uphold some such ‘constraints’ against unrestricted ‘the-ends-justifies-the-means’ necessity, why not those that (sensible) anarchists insist on?

Bakunin: The Germans number around forty million. Will for example all forty million be member of the government?

Marx: Certainly! Since the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.

Warm-Fork: Though I inclined towards Bakunin’s side earlier, here Marx certainly seems to have the better of it – if there is to be decision-making on large scales (and if there isn’t, global warming at least will eat us all) then we must suppose direct democracy a practical possibility at whatever level. Though I do wonder – at what point does the label ‘state’ become misleading?

Bakunin: By people’s government they understand the government of the people by means of a small number of leaders, chosen (elected) by the people.

Marx: Asinine! This is democratic twaddle, political drivel.

Warm-Fork: They continue in this way for a bit. It sometimes seems that Bakunin has a grossly unfair idea of what Marx is advocating (something like of our ‘representative democracy’, or worse, one-party rule), and Marx a grossly unfair of what Bakunin is advocating (a disorganised collection of ineffectual communities growing their own pot). Might they both be reasoning to themselves ‘this person misrepresents me so outrageously, they must be an idiot – so their position must be idiotic’?

Bakunin: But those elected will be fervently convinced and therefore educated socialists. The phrase ‘educated socialism’…

Marx:…never was used.

Bakunin:… ‘scientific socialism’…

Marx:…was only used in opposition to utopian socialism, which wants to attach the people to new delusions, instead of limiting its science to the knowledge of the social movement made by the people itself; see my text against Proudhon.

Bakunin:…which is unceasingly found in the works and speeches of the Lasalleans and Marxists, itself indicates that the so-called people’s state will be nothing else than the very despotic guidance of the mass of the people by a new and numerically very small aristocracy of the genuine or supposedly educated.

Warm-Fork: In fairness to Marx, the idea of rule by the educated is not something I’ve ever found in his writing. In fairness to Bakunin, it does seem to have been found there by other ‘Marxists’.

3 Responses to “Discussion between Bakunin, Marx, and Warm-Fork”

  1. missivesfrommarx Says:

    How is a direct democracy going to work in a nation with millions? It takes a group of 30 Quakers three years just to decide what’s for dinner! This is a serious question; I really don’t understand most of Marx’s positive recommendations.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well, speaking for myself rather than for Marx, I think the idea is that you have pure direct democracy at the levels where it does work (whether that’s articulated more in a workplace way, a community way, or both) and then build higher-level institutions out of that in such a way as to make them concretely dependent on and controllable by those base-level bodies – through having the latter organised day-to-day (or week-to-week, I dunno) and thus able to make real-time decisions to swiftly and easily mandate or recall the delegates from within their ranks.

    I have a post on the issue of labels here: https://directionlessbones.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/defining-political-systems/

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