Democracy or anarchism

Eddie Ford looks at the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin

In his recent polemic against our coverage of Genoa, our anarchist comrade, Iain McKay, begins his assault on Leninism, the CPGB, the SWP et al, by describing the sort of society outlined by the founder of modern anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, in the 1860s (Weekly Worker August 23).

In Bakunin?s model of federalism and mandated and recallable delegates ?the federative alliance of all working men?s associations ? [will] constitute the commune ? [the] communal council [will be] composed of ? delegates ? vested with plenary but accountable and removable mandates ? all provinces, communes and associations ? by first reorganisation on revolutionary lines ? [will] constitute the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces ? [and] organise revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction ? [and for] self-defence ? [The] revolution everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations ? organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation ??

Sounds like an impressive clarion call for ?libertarian? self-rule from below, and one we share - though as Marxists we have certain, albeit important, differences: eg, we oppose the principle of federalism with the principle of centralism. However, while comrade McKay plays games with the shortcomings and failings of the Russian Revolution, the fact of the matter is that Bakunin - the real Bakunin, that is - did not believe in self-liberation from below.

Present-day anarchists have taken many things from their founding father - most crucially the stress on individual freedom, freedom for the ego, freedom of the elite (especially the self-selected ?great leader?) from the common mass. ?Liberation? from capitalism does not thereby come about, and cannot come about, by an act of self-liberation from below. The masses are stupid. ?Liberation? must come about through the action of a tiny minority who then proceed to educate the population and administer the new order.

In some ways, it is a bit curious that Bakunin is such an anarchist icon. It is not often appreciated that Bakunin?s own anarchist ?career? was essentially a flash in the pan operation. He started his specifically anarchist agitation around 1868, but by 1873 he had begun to disintegrate both politically and personally. He died in 1876.

Yet one can detect a political-ideological continuum to Bakunin?s world view. That is, his life-long commitment to pan-Slavism (and hence rabid anti-Germanism/anti-semitism) and - more relevant to our debate with the anarchists - a clear life-long dedication to what Hal Draper called ?Jacobin-communist conspiratorialism? (H Draper Karl Marx?s theory of revolution vol 3, New York 1986, p57).

Beyond doubt, Bakunin was a compulsive conspiracy-monger whose central project rested on saviours from above - most notably a saviour by the name of M Bakunin. The masses, for him, were - at best - strictly cannon fodder.

This was evident from early on. In 1847 - a year before the publication of the Communist manifesto - Bakunin complained bitterly of Marx that he was ?ruining the workers by making theorists of them?. Bakunin thought a more proper activity for an individual like Marx was to hone all the skills necessary to make a revolutionary putsch. As for ?the workers?, evidently, their only role was to be directed and controlled by ?great leaders? like Bakunin.

The following year, Bakunin saw his chance for glory. Revolutions swept Europe - including Bohemia. Bakunin was one of the delegates to the Slav congress in Prague when, on the last day, June 12, an uprising broke out in the city, lasting until June 16-17. Bakunin?s advice to the Bohemian revolution is instructive: ?The revolutionary government with unlimited dictatorial power must sit in Prague ? All clubs and journals, all manifestations of garrulous anarchy, will also be destroyed, and all will be subjugated to a single dictatorial authority? (Draper ibid p57).

More significantly in terms of his future anarchist ?turn? - and for his subsequent canonisation as a libertarian saint - for Bakunin the Bohemian revolution would be organised by three secret societies, all unknown to each other, each with ?a strict hierarchy and unconditional discipline?, composed of a small number comprising ?all the talented, learned, energetic and influential people?. These, ?obeying central directions, would in their turn act invisibly, as it were, on the crowd? (ibid p57).

You could argue that here we have the antecedents of revolutionary foci-ism and black bloc-type anarchism. The job of revolutionaries is to ?excite? the crowd and to make ?something happen? (ie, a riot). The ?crowd? exists solely to be manipulated by a ?small number? of ?talented? and (very) ?energetic? people.

In his Bohemian remarks, we have the classic Bakuninist ingredients, to which he remained consistent - schemes for a leadership of invisible dictators. A secret committee of Bakunin plus a few other trusted members of the revolutionary elite should be sufficient to inaugurate and oversee the new order. Naturally, all protestations aside, Bakunin himself would begin by being its ?secret leader?, as by then ?all the main threads of the movement would have been concentrated in my hands? (ibid p58).

Bakunin?s mania for plots and intrigues went hand in hand - quite logically - with a near pathological aversion to democratic accountability. In his mind, accountability equalled what he termed ?authoritarianism?. This was made explicit in a message, or manifesto, sent in 1870 to Albert Richard of Lyon and read out to a mass meeting. In that year a popular uprising had taken control of the city. Hopes were high, especially Bakunin?s. The message proclaimed: ?And in order to save the revolution, to lead it to a successful conclusion in the very midst of anarchy, [there is need of] the action of a collective dictatorship of all the revolutionists, who are not invested with any official power whatever, and [are] all the more effective [for it]? (my emphasis, ibid p94).

In other words, ?official power? (ie, one which is accountable) is abhorrent, but ?unofficial power? is OK - as long as it helps to promote one of Bakunin?s hair-brained schemes. This sets the tone for his notorious ?dual organisation? principle, upon which he based his Alliance for Social Democracy and the International Brotherhood - ie, you have a public front and then behind that a secret cadre of controllers. With this elitist-conspiratorial strategy he led his acolytes into the International Working Men?s Association. Unsurprisingly, Bakunin?s organisation within an organisation within an organisation turned into the ?enemy within? for the leaders of the International, first and foremost Marx.

Bakunin?s aims were clear. As he privately explained to Richard, the goal was ?revolutionary anarchy led on all points by an invisible collective power?. Bakunin stressed repeatedly that he was for this ?collective dictatorship? by his ?invisible? secret band of conspirators who imposed their hidden control over an anarchic revolution, without any open political structure. Bakunin then explained that ?the partisans of open dictatorship? will want to reconstitute the state; but we, having created ?anarchy?, are ?as invisible pilots amidst the proletarian tempest; we must direct it, not by an open power, but by the collective dictatorship of the Alli?s [Alliance members - EF]: a dictatorship without any badges of office, without titles, without official rights, and all the stronger in that it will have none of the appearances of power. That is the only dictatorship that I accept? (ibid p95).

In a letter dated June 2 1870, sent to his one-time accomplice, the semi-crazed, criminal adventurer, Sergei Nechayev, we get a fuller view of his ambitions. His ?invisible force? is now described as ?the collective dictatorship of our organisation?, the ?secret organisation? of the invisible controllers, whom Bakunin called the ?invisible legion? or the ?invisible network.?

Imagine yourself in a successful revolution, continues Bakunin. ?But imagine,? he excitedly adds, ?in the midst of this general anarchy, a secret organisation which has scattered its members in small groups over the whole territory ? firmly united ? an organisation which acts everywhere according to a common plan. These small groups, unknown by anybody as such, have no officially recognised power, but they are strong in their ideal ? strong also in their clearly realised purpose among a mass of people struggling without purpose or plan? (ibid p95).

Logically, the prime function of his ?anarchy? was to destroy all other organisations, which by definition were ?authoritarian?. So the ?secret collective dictatorship? - definitely not the dictatorship of the proletariat - would hold the real reins of power. Our progenitor of the black bloc calculated that ?for the International throughout Europe 100 serious and firmly united revolutionaries would be sufficient? - while elsewhere Bakunin indicated that between 50 and 70 revolutionary bravados could control a whole continent (say Africa), through his devices of ?anarchy? and his secret, invisible ?brotherhood?.

As Draper waspishly puts it, ?If you took the conception held by a particularly ignorant village constable of the ?dictatorship of the party? exercised by Red Subversive Bolsheviki, and stripped it of most rational elements, you would get - Bakunin?s orgasmic dream of his Secret Dictatorship? (ibid vol 4, p96).

The destructive activities of Bakunin and his ?brotherhood? earned the wrath of Engels and Paul Lafargue in their classic 1873 pamphlet, The Alliance of the Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men?s Association. It was a brilliant demolition job of the Bakuninists? pretence at abolishing political power. After quoting one of Bakunin?s madcap blueprints for the new order, the authors exclaim: ?We are thus confronted with a perfect reconstruction of all the elements of the ?authoritarian state?; and the fact that we call this machine a ?revolutionary commune organised from bottom to top? makes little difference. The name changes nothing of the substance ? Indeed Bakunin himself admits as much when he describes his organisation as a ?new revolutionary state?? (ibid pp145-146).

The state which was thus to be reconstructed by the anarchists under another label was as contemptuous of democracy as the state it replaced - if not more so. In the document referred to above, Bakunin writes that to give ?anarchy? its proper direction ?it is necessary that in the midst of popular anarchy, which will constitute the very life and energy of the revolution, unity of thought and revolutionary action should find an organ. This organ must be the secret and worldwide associations of the international brethren? (ibid p146).

Engels and Larfague reply harshly: ?So everything changes. Anarchy, the ?unleashing of popular life,? of ?evil passions? and all the rest is no longer enough. To assure the success of the revolution one must have ?unity of thought and action?. The members of the International are trying to create this unity by propaganda, by discussion and the public organisation of the proletariat. But all Bakunin needs is a secret organisation of 100 people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea, the general staff in the background, self-appointed and commanded by the permanent ?Citizen B?. Unity of thought and action means nothing but orthodoxy and blind obedience. Perinde ac cadaver [like a corpse]. We are indeed confronted with a veritable Society of Jesus? (ibid p147).

We need such ?anti-authoritarianism? like we need a hole in the head - so thought Engels. In an 1872 letter, he writes: ?In this society [the Bakuninist ideal future society] there will above all be no authority, for authority equals state, equals absolute evil. (How these people propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without a will that decides in the last resort, without single management, they of course do not tell us). The authority of the majority over the minority also ceases? (ibid p137).

In their work and life, Marx and Engels fought not against authority - they both revelled in the use of the word ?authoritarianism? - but for democratising and demystifying all authority. Or in Draper?s concise words: ?The crux can be summed up this way: the answer to bureaucratic tendencies in the world is the democratisation of authority, not the abolition of authority - that is, the imposition of control from below on all authority? (ibid p143).

In comrade McKay?s article, we have echoes of Bakunin and his flat rejection of ?the authority of the majority over the minority? (ie, democracy). The comrade asks rhetorically: ?What does it mean to ?subordinate? yourself ?democratically? to ?the [working] class?? Does it mean having a referendum of the whole working class every time you try to make a decision? What if ?the class? decides that all anti-capitalist protestors should be shot? Or does it mean that we ?subordinate? ourselves to the decisions of the majority of protestors?? - and so on. The comrade finally answers: ?Anarchists argue for free agreement between equals. We do not ?subordinate? ourselves to others [even if it is the democratic will of the majority - EF], but will work with them. This means self-management within the anti-globalisation and labour movements, not hierarchy? (Weekly Worker August 23).

Bakunin lives?

Finally, Bakunin?s fervent anti-semitism cannot be avoided. Draper describes Bakunin as having a ?race-saturated mentality? (ibid p292). He was one of the first (the first?) to articulate and promulgate racist anti-Jewry, as opposed to the dominant economic anti-Jewry. As if he was the author of the Protocols the Elders of Zion (fabricated between 1895 and 1900, and published in 1905), Bakunin sent a circular in December 1871 to the Bologna section of the International, which read: ?Well now, this whole Jewish world which constitutes a single exploitative sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised in itself, not only across the frontiers of states, but even across all the differences of political opinion - the world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other.

?I know that the Rothschilds, reactionaries as they are and should be, highly appreciate the merits of the communist Marx; and that in his turn the communist Marx feels irresistibly drawn, by instinctive attraction and respectful admiration, to the financial genius of Rothschild. Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them.? In a final flourish, Bakunin declared that ?every Jew? is an authoritarian - ?it is the heritage of the race? (ibid p296). According to Bakunin, then, anarchists are presumably duty-bound to be anti-semitic.

Present-day anarchists include within their ranks many fine and dedicated revolutionaries. The vast majority would reject the politics of ?race? with the contempt it deserves (Green Anarchist, Alternative Green, Richard Hunt et el are not typical). In our view our anarchist comrades should also reconsider their dogmatic and essentially elitist rejection of democracy. Far from representing a barrier to genuine self-liberation - which must be the act of the majority - democracy is our main weapon against capitalism, bureaucracy and counterrevolution.