Mikhail Bakunin: the ‘anti-authoritarian’ authoritarian who opposed the political parties needed to win republican democracy

We need political action

What comes first? Politics or economics? Mike Macnair responds to the criticisms of Robert Schlosser and upholds the general approach of the Marx-Engels team and their strategy of revolutionary patience

This is the second part of my response to some recent criticisms of the book, Revolutionary strategy - the first part appeared last week (‘Deal with the arguments’ February 22)1.

This week we are concerned with the arguments of Robert Schlosser in ‘Wider den Fetisch von Partei und politischer Macht’ (‘Against the fetish of the party and political power’), on the Communaut blog (February 10).2 I am working from a machine translation of comrade Schlosser’s article, which comrade Scott Evans acquired, since I am too slow and imprecise at reading German to work directly from the original; but a limited cross-referencing of the German text in places that seem unclear suggests that the machine translation is adequate.

Towards the end of last week’s article I quoted Mikhail Bakunin’s 1869 critique of the Eisenach Programme of the German Social Democrats: “All the German socialists believe that the political revolution must precede the social revolution. This is a fatal error. For any revolution made before a social revolution will necessarily be a bourgeois revolution ...”3

There is a distinct similarity to Bakunin’s claim in the introduction to comrade Schlosser’s article (I do not know whether he or an editor wrote it): “In particular, it is about the relationship of political and economic liberation: the overcoming of wage labour cannot be achieved by a political party, but only by the wage earners themselves, who must unite in the workplaces.”

Now it may be that Bakunin and his co-thinkers were right and Marx and Engels were wrong. Or it may be that both were wrong. To begin to address the question seriously, though, it is important to recognise that this argument was not a new discovery of the mass-strike left in the Second International, or of the 1920s council communists, on the basis of new experiences, but an argument already central to the political struggle in the First International in 1868-72.


The background to comrade Schlosser’s February 10 article is a debate on the Communaut blog, parts of which have been translated on the Angry Workers website,4 triggered by an October 16 2021 article by Katja Wagner, Lukas Egger and Marco Hamann, ‘What is to be done in times of weakness?’ The latter article was influenced by the Marxist Unity Group’s work, advocating a party formation based on a programme, and cited to Donald Parkinson, Parker McQueeney and myself for the case for a maximum and minimum programme.

The intervention of Wagner, Egger and Hamann was roundly denounced by Fredo Corvo (November 2 2021) as a “throwback to Bolshevism”. An equally irritated response came from Felix Klopotek (‘Inaccurate and dogmatic’, November 20 2021); a more substantive argument was offered by Aaron Eckstein, Ruth Jackson and Stefan Torak in ‘No mysticism in times of weakness’ (December 10 2021). Comrade Schlosser’s ‘Notes on the organisation and strategy debate’ (December 16 2021) was both more serious and more positive towards Wagner/Egger/Hamann.

There the debate seems to have stood until Egger and Hamann produced, in January 2024, a long reply to their critics, published in two parts by Communaut: ‘Forwards and (not) forgotten’ (January 17) and ‘Dilemma with no way out?’ (January 31). These make heavier use of Revolutionary strategy, and the comrades have also been translating the book; this, then, seems to be the trigger of Schlosser’s critique - that also marks a shift in his position towards a sharper anti-partyism than his December 2021 piece.

In one sense this is unsurprising. Communaut self-identifies in their ‘Ueber uns’ page by saying: “This blog is written by various groups and individuals who identify as anti-authoritarian communists and are struggling together for a classless and stateless world society.”5

CPGB comrades could agree with 95% of what the text that follows this sentence says. I emphasise the point. We have broadly common goals.

But ‘anti-authoritarian’ is usually code for acceptance of Bakunin’s critique of Marx on parties and working class political action (where it is not code for liberalism, which it is in some ‘Frankfurt school’-derived work, but clearly not in Communaut). Hence it is unsurprising that Eckstein, Jackson and Torak should say:

An understanding of the pros and cons of the strategic proposal will not be easy for two reasons. Firstly, because of its provocative style. Slapping an anti-authoritarian band of Communauters in the face with the thesis that proletarian self-liberation is ‘inevitably linked to the form of the party’ is - apart from the fact that the reasoning is not convincing - not very diplomatic.

There is a sense in which, if the Communaut comrades do not want to engage with arguments from pro-party Marxists or regard these as “not very diplomatic”, they should say something more explicit about anti-partyism (or even just anti-electoralism) in the ‘Ueber uns’ page than the mere codeword, “anti-authoritarian”.

In fact, the responses to Wagner, Egger and Hamann make clear that their critics hold divergent views on the ‘party question’. Fredo Corvo prefers the approach of the 1920s Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (KAPD), which was for a party - just one of the ‘advanced minority’ that rejects a ‘minimum programme’. Felix Klopotek, in contrast, asserts that all party forms are to be rejected. Eckstein, Jackson and Torak seem to take the same approach as Klopotek, though their argument is less clear. Schlosser in his December 2021 ‘Notes’ argues that the creation of a party is not presently posed, because of the low level of the class struggle, but shares much of Wagner, Egger and Hamann’s critique of spontaneism, criticising Klopotek on the point.


Schlosser begins with the objection that the model of the pre-1914 German Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and of the Bolsheviks, albeit in different forms, “became a decisive obstacle to economic liberation”. He argues that “this practice resulted from a theoretical understanding of the relationship between economic and political struggle that overemphasised the importance of political struggle, political party organisation and the conquest of power by this party”.

He counters this with the argument that “materialist understanding” requires the idea that the working class must first fight to improve the material life of wage labourers, and an independent movement of the class can only arise on that basis. This is, of course, the common understanding of the far left, including the ‘official communists’ and Maoists (“ML movement”, which Schlosser was engaged in in his youth), the Cliffites and Mandelites, and so on.

He goes on in the first section to criticise an interview with Alexander Gallus, which argued for unity on the basis of a maximum-minimum programme, on the ground that the theoretical differences among the left are too wide to allow for unity. The unity of the pre-1914 SPD, he argues, was actually not based on its programme, but on the theoretical hegemony of ‘orthodox Marxism’; the 1914 split was “a necessary consequence of a reformism that became blatant nationalism during the war and counterrevolution after the war, in the revolution”, and “All this happened on the basis of the much-vaunted Erfurt programme.”

In contrast to today’s left, he argues, the SPD expressed an actual movement of the class in combination with the then-fashionable theory of Marx’s Capital. Today the left has no base in the class. He goes on to make standard Bernsteinian and Eurocommunist criticisms of the arguments of Capital.

The second section is titled ‘Economic liberation as the purpose of a class-struggle labour movement and a programmatically fixed goal’. He begins with the provisions of the German Civil Code and ‘Industrial Code’ as to the authority of the employer. He argues that this issue - “the specific type of work in personal dependence that is bound by instructions and determined by others” - is not addressed in the Erfurt programme. Equally, Marx and Engels both wrote very positively about workers’ cooperatives; not so Kautsky, who was silent on the topic in The class struggle (the 1892 introduction to the Erfurt programme) and in The social revolution (1902) argued that cooperatives could not play a revolutionary role.6 The implication is a workers-control orientation, of the sort that was common to the ‘new left’ and infected part of the far left in the 1960s.

Comrade Schlosser argues - rightly - that:

As history teaches us, economic liberation on the basis of cooperative production fails if it is not generalised and the totality of cooperatives does not organise itself into a whole in order to regulate social production according to a common plan.

But he does not address the problem of transition and the continued presence - both today and in any transition in which capital loses power - of the petty-proprietor classes (small business operators, peasantry, petty proprietors of intellectual property in skills and information). And he argues, without offering any support other than the fate of the Bolshevik revolution, that “Nothing enables a political party or state organs to organise production in an alternative way, free from domination.”7

The third section is directed to criticism of my arguments round the democratic republic in Revolutionary strategy. This is largely negative criticism denouncing the book for not proposing a strategic line centred on workers’ control issues, because “What remains for the wage labourers is the right to vote, to vote out of office and, get this, the right to bear arms!” - and because “Voting at general assemblies in the various sites of social production, plebiscites at the social level, etc play no role in this ‘democratic republic’.”

As with several of the Trotskyist critics of the book in 2008, my explicit cross-references in the book to the CPGB’s Draft programme are ignored, and thus Draft programme sections 3.9 (on the limits of trade unions, including the need to organise workplaces beyond the trade unions), 3.10 (on councils of action) and 4.3 (on economic measures under workers’ rule) are also ignored.

The second argument in this section is the standard Trotskyist objection that it is a “stages theory”, disproved by the social character of the Russian and German revolutions - which I addressed last week in responding to the similar objection of Steve Bloom.

Finally, comrade Schlosser argues:

Today, the democratic republic is the dominant form of political rule by the propertied classes in developed capitalist societies. These are certainly not republics in which the democratic principles of the Paris Commune have been realised. However, democracy is organised in such a way that class struggles can unfold quite freely.

This claim can only be made on the basis of comrade Schlosser internalising the intense regulation of the class struggle by the capitalist state in the form of judicial strike controls, rules of registration of political parties and other anti-democratic devices, requirements of police permission for public assemblies, and so on, as ‘normal business’. The class-struggle frog is being boiled slowly, but it is still being boiled. If the left will not oppose the constitutional regime, willingness to openly oppose the state-control regime then falls into the hands of the extreme right. That even the political descendants of the KAPD have internalised the regime of state control sufficiently to imagine that the plutocratic regime is ‘democratic’ and that “democracy is organised in such a way that class struggles can unfold quite freely” is utterly extraordinary.

Comrade Schlosser quotes Revolutionary strategy for the proposition:

The left must ... break off the endless series of failed ‘quick fixes’ that characterised the 20th century. It needs a strategy of patience, similar to Kautsky’s: but one that is internationalist and radically democratic, not one that accepts the existing order of nation-states (p138).

Draft programme

As above, his immediate objection is that demands for social/economic reform play no role in my argument; and again the short answer to this is my cross-references in Revolutionary strategy to the CPGB’s Draft programme, which has plenty of material on this topic. He goes on to argue that Kautsky’s political version of Hans Delbrück’s Ermattungsstrategie (‘strategy of attrition’) failed, and in Germany and Russia the monarchies were overthrown in what Delbrück called a Niederwerfung or, as Schlosser puts it, a “schnellen Lösung” (a ‘quick solution’).

He continues:

It is astonishing that someone who sees himself as a revolutionary should build such a fetish out of patience that he wants to base an entire strategy on it. Without the impatience of wage earners, there would have been no labour movement at all.

I wondered at first reading whether there might be a translation issue here, as there was with Daniel Bensaïd’s title Une lente impatience into An impatient life in English (the problem being that impatience has different senses in French and English).8 But German Geduld has the same range of overtones as English ‘patience’: that is, including persistence at a prolonged task; not just meaning putting up with things as they are.9 It is this sense of persistence at a prolonged task in spite of lack of immediate returns, which is what I mean by a “strategy of patience”.10

So at first sight I thought that comrade Schlosser is just playing word games here. In reality, he is not. His argument is that “the patient path leads via elections, collective bargaining by trade unions, via the courts, etc, while the impatient path always leads via resistance actions that refuse social partnership, right up to mass strikes”.

When my ex-partner was a trade union activist, in the 1970s-80s, she encountered the Cliffite Socialist Workers Party arguing, both in the civil service union and later in the teachers’ union, against official trade union action, on the ground that it was essential that action taken should be unofficial if it was really to promote rank-and-file mobilisation. This is the gist of comrade Schlosser’s argument here. This sort of line is occasionally useful - when people want to take action, but the officials are opposed - but, an awful lot of the time, merely demoralising and demobilising.


He segues into the question of the problem of authority. I argue that some decisions have to be taken at national (or, indeed, continental or global) level. I have argued explicitly against Paul Cockshott that the method of plebiscites (which comrade Schlosser supports - quotation above) is to be rejected. This is on the grounds that the current use of plebiscites is visibly anti-democratic (Louis Bonaparte; Hitler; Khomeini; Brexit, etc); and that a version that was not anti-democratic would entail every individual drowning in the millions of plebiscites that would arrive every day.11 Hence elected or sortition12 bodies are essential to filtering the range of possible decisions. It is in this context that I argue that a government was necessary, but that the Soviet constitution failed to deliver effective supervision of the Council of People’s Commissars because the supreme soviet was not a standing body.

Comrade Schlosser argues the contrary: Soviet power had no time to develop because

Their fate was sealed in bloody repression or the domination and takeover of government by a single political party, the Bolsheviks, who set out to establish state socialism in a country. The Kronstadt uprising as an attempt to defend the councils as an “alternative centre of authority” against the Bolshevik party was also bloodily crushed.

This is cold war theory (as the historical aspects of comrade Schlosser’s argument more generally are): the failure of the revolution is blamed on the bad faith of the Bolsheviks. The story radically underestimates the difficulty of the situation faced by the revolutionaries (not just the Bolsheviks) in the former tsarist empire in 1918-22. By doing so, it erases the responsibilities of Hindenburg-Ludendorff for stabbing the German army in the back by refusing to make peace with the Soviet regime in late 1917-early 1918, and the responsibility of the Entente powers for making war on the Soviets from August 1917 on.

It also, because it has this character, erases the responsibility of the Bolsheviks and Comintern, not for the decisions they took in intolerably difficult circumstances, but for their decision to theorise these decisions as general principles - ones that were in the long term disastrous for the international workers’ movement.13

Finally in this section, comrade Schlosser argues from the decline of mass parties in the late 20th to early 21st century (an argument, it should be said, that was also pushed by academic political scientists in the 1950s-60s) and poses Marx’s The civil war in France as advocacy of the immediate abolition of the state, as opposed to its ‘withering away’, and the immediate abolition of class as such: “The councils were always organisations of a spontaneous revolutionary mass movement” (which ignores the role of the Mensheviks in promoting them, both in spring 1905 and in spring 1917); and:

The workplace and social authority of the councils was less an expression of the “rule of the working class” than an expression of the endeavour to eliminate all class rule. The workplace councils in particular aim at relations of production without command over and appropriation of other people’s labour, without exploitation. If these relations of production are generalised, as commodity production and wage labour are today, then there is no longer a working class! It is then also nonsensical to speak of the leadership of “society as a whole” by the working class, as Macnair does in the context of his vision of a “democratic republic”.

Again, in spite of the citations to The civil war in France, this is very straightforwardly Bakunin’s critique of Marx. And it should be completely clear that it involves, as a logical necessity, the rejection of any period of transition, in favour of forcible collectivisation of the holdings of the petty-proprietor classes. The results if such a policy obtained mass support would be those of the chaos of ‘war communism’ in 1918-21 or of ‘Year Zero’ in Cambodia.

In reality, there is no prospect of such a policy winning mass support or getting even close to it. Comrade Schlosser’s arguments rest entirely on ‘left’ communist (anti-parliamentarist) or council communist judgments of the events of 1914-23. A century later, there have been endless attempts to make one or other of these policies work, and neither of them has achieved more than occasional ‘spectaculars’ like ‘Occupy’ and small circles. OK, I accept that none of the left’s policies have actually ‘won’. But some of them have got closer to achieving things than others.


I argue in Revolutionary strategy (p9) that “Under capitalism there is an objective dynamic of the working class to create for itself permanent organisations to defend its immediate interest - trade unions and so on.” Comrade Schlosser criticises this on the basis that

Insofar as wage workers can create permanent organisations to defend their immediate interests (trade unions and so on), this is already a subjective reaction to the “objective dynamic”. And this subjective reaction depends not only on existing class-consciousness, but also on spontaneously growing indignation about working and living conditions.

It is probable that this difference is a philosophical one about what counts as “objective” and “subjective”, and I do not want to pursue that here.14 There are, however, also very fundamental issues of history.

Comrade Schlosser argues that there is a radical decline of unionisation in Europe, which tells against the alleged objective dynamic. This is again a repetition of a Eurocommunist trope; and one which relates to decline relative to the period in the 1950s, in which the US government promoted social-democratic and Christian-democratic corporatism in the European ‘front-line states’, in order to make the ‘west’ appear more attractive than the Soviet regime. As to earlier times, the Trotskyists’ 1938 Transitional programme stated, perfectly accurately:

Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20%-25% of the working class, and, at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labour movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organisations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally soviets.

Comrade Schlosser goes on to cite Engels’ 1845 Condition of the working class in England for the frequency of strikes. He argues that “These spontaneous struggles were the basis for the emergence of trade unions and the Chartist movement in England.”

Chartism, in fact, was a political movement: the six points of the 1838 Charter were universal manhood suffrage; the secret ballot; annual parliamentary elections; constituencies of equal size; pay for MPs; and the abolition of the property qualification for MPs. This political movement inherited ideas from early 19th century Radicalism. It was the basis of the idea of the political demands of the ‘Marx-Engels party’, which were denounced by the Proudhonists and later by the Bakuninists. It began after the defeat of a wave of strike struggles, but, as it grew as a mass movement in the early 1840s, it also stimulated strike struggles and unionisation.

Trade unions were much older: they were already criminalised in England by the Confederacies of Masons Act 1425 for building workers, or at ‘common law’ by the prosecution of journeymen tailors of Cambridge in 1721 for ‘conspiracy to raise wages’.

The actual existing mass permanent organisations of the working class have been captured by the capitalist class, primarily by complex carrot-and-stick state interventions. However regrettable that is, it does not alter the fact that the class movement involves an interplay between the permanent organisations, on the one hand, and spontaneous mass movements, on the other. The mass movements need hope as well as anger; and that hope is supplied by the belief that a better world is possible. That belief, in turn, depends on the ability to organise beyond the momentary strike struggle - if for nothing more, in order to produce counter-media to the bribe-taking (advertising-funded) capitalist media.

The final section of comrade Schlosser’s argument asserts that he is not a “fundamental opponent of the political organisation of communists”; but that in the absence of spontaneous mass movements only theoretical work is possible. He does, in fact, proceed to summarise “a few key points of a communist programme today”.

These points would be of some interest for the conception of the transition to communism - if the capitalist state power had first been destroyed. Without that condition, comrade Schlosser’s points would amount to no more than a repetition of the declaration of the 1870 Lyon commune that “the state’s administrative and governmental machine, having become powerless, is abolished” (the French state proceeded within days to abolish the commune).


Comrade Schlosser’s piece is titled ‘Against the fetish of the party and political power’. The boot is, in fact, on the other foot. The CPGB, and I as an individual, support spontaneous strike movements. We advocate self-organisation at the base and oppose bureaucratic-centralist control. In our Draft programme, we argue:

In any decisive clash of class against class, new forms of organisation which are higher, more general, more flexible than trade unions emerge. In Russia they have been called soviets, in Germany Räte, in Britain councils of action.

Embracing and co-coordinating all who are in struggle, such organisations have the potential to become institutions in the future, workers’, state. Communists encourage any such development.

We do not fetishise either the party or political power. Rather, we recognise that partyism, as opposed to theoretical circles, and attention to questions of the constitutional order and high politics, is an element of the workers’ movement - alongside trade unions, co-ops and so on - which is missing in the modern practice of the left and needs to be developed.

Comrade Schlosser, on the other hand, does fetishise: he fetishises the non-intervention of the communists in high politics and the purely economic aspect of the class struggle. This fetishism is evidenced in his inability to contemplate the possibility that there might be explanations other than the malign influence of partyism for the failure of the revolutions of 1917-20; or to offer any explanation of the persistent failure of ‘anti-parliamentary left’ politics - not only in the present times, but also in conditions of strong forward movement of the masses, like those of the late 1960s-70s. It is evidenced in the considerable artificiality of his arguments for the exclusive dominance of spontaneous movements, discussed above.

Cooperatives - if they are not to be simply forms of the ‘formal subsumption of labour to capital’, controlled by their materials suppliers and output purchasers - need political backing from a party that attacks the capitalist order as a whole and promotes the idea of the communist alternative. The same is true of strikes and factory occupations, which can be crushed by judicial action or isolated by media operations in the absence of a disloyalist - that is, communist - alternative media.

The point is not that the party is the whole of the movement. It is that we need a party, and currently do not have one. And that grouplets defined by theoretical agreement (as comrade Schlosser argues is necessary) cannot do the job.

  1. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1479/deal-with-the-arguments.↩︎

  2. communaut.org/de/wider-den-fetisch-von-partei-und-politischer-macht.↩︎

  3. libcom.org/article/critique-german-social-democratic-program-mikhail-bakunin.↩︎

  4. www.angryworkers.org/2022/02/10/the-organisation-debate-communaut; www.angryworkers.org/2024/01/17/forwards-and-not-forgotten-continuation-of-the-organisational-debate; www.angryworkers.org/2024/01/31/dilemma-with-no-way-out. I say ‘parts’, because it is clear that there is more on the Communaut site (the debate at communaut.org/index.php/de/organisationsdebatte), and related is Schlosser’s ‘Legenden über die “revolutionäre” Sozialdemokratie’, January 6 2024.↩︎

  5. communaut.org/de/ueber-uns; their English version.↩︎

  6. www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/pt1-3.htm. The context is probably an exaggerated opposition to the Lassalleans’ arguments for state-supported cooperatives as the central strategy.↩︎

  7. Perhaps “Nothing can give a political party or state organs the ability to …”; the German text seems more emphatically negative than the translation.↩︎

  8. See ‘Daniel Bensaïd: repeated disappointments’ Weekly Worker July 31 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1021/daniel-bensaid-repeated-disappointments.↩︎

  9. en.langenscheidt.com/german-english/geduld. One example there is “Diese Aufgabe verlangt Zeit, Geduld, harte Arbeit und Glück” (‘This task requires time, patience, hard work and luck’).↩︎

  10. I add that I should flag again, as I have done repeatedly after the publication of Revolutionary strategy, that the strategy itself is actually August Bebel’s. Kautsky’s analysis of it as an Ermattungsstrategie is part of the mass-strike debate of 1910-12, which involved a ‘negative dialectic’ where the left embarked on the road which led to the 1921 ‘March Action’, while Kautsky moved towards the right.↩︎

  11. ‘Representation, not referendums’ Weekly Worker June 30 2010: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/824/representation-not-referendums.↩︎

  12. I argue in ‘Representation, not referendums’ against the immediate adoption of sortition on the ground that the open representation of the petty proprietor classes is necessary in order to avoid their covert representation through apparatus cliques (a significant part of what happened to the Soviet regime).↩︎

  13. I have argued the point further in ‘1921 turning point’ Weekly Worker March 11 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1338/1921-turning-point.↩︎

  14. See ‘Against philosopher kings’ Weekly Worker December 11 2008: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/749/against-philosopher-kings.↩︎