Marx, Bakunin, and the Question of Authoritarianism
Year Published: 2010
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20168
While Marxs critique of Bakunins authoritarianism is often ignored, Bakunins critique of Marx is often praised for its prescience, despite its complete distortion of Marxs ideas.
Historically, Bakunins criticism of Marx's "authoritarian" aims has tended to overshadow Marx's critique of Bakunin's "authoritarian" aims. This is in large part due to the fact that mainstream anarchism and traditional Marxism were polarized over a myth -- that of Marx's alleged authoritarian statism -- which they both shared. Thus, the conflict in the First International was directly identified with a disagreement over anti-authoritarian principles, and Marx's hostility toward Bakunin was said to stem from his rejection of these principles, his 'vanguardism', etc. This essay brings this narrative into question.
It is here, in the realm of class-consciousness and political action that the Marx-Bakunin feud actually erupted. Whereas Bakunin tended to identify freedom with natural laws and spontaneity, and thus emphasized the creation of secret groupings of revolutionaries to incite the latent instincts of the masses, Marx emphasized the necessity for the emergence of communist consciousness on a mass scale, which only comes from workers exercising for themselves the creative organizing capacities denied to them in capitalist daily life.
Ultimately, the wielding of political power by the workers has this function. The proletarians must take charge, re-organize society, and thus re-create themselves through the arduous process of self-emancipation. The exercise of political power is not contrasted with working class self-activity, but is rather the means by which the working class manages its own affairs.
Marx characterized the International as "a bond of union rather than a controlling force" and considered it "the business of the International Working Men's Association to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever." On the basis of this vision, Marx opposed secret groupings in the International and held that this type of organization "is opposed to the development of the proletarian movement because, instead of instructing the workers, these societies subject them to authoritarian, mystical laws which cramp their independence and distort their powers of reason." This perspective bears little in common with the caricature of Marxian authoritarianism that has become so widespread.... Marx's opposition to authoritarian methods of organization reflects his long-standing belief in the importance of workers' democracy.