In Theory: Bakunin vs Marx

In the second of his three essays on Mikhail Bakunin, political theorist Andrew Robinson addresses Bakunin’s intellectual clash with Karl Marx, notably their different conceptions of freedom and revolution.

By Andrew Robinson

Bakunin’s Critique of Marx

There are so many Marxian themes and concepts in Bakunin’s work that, were he not Marx’s contemporary, he would no doubt be considered a neo-Marxist. Indeed, he often praises Marx’s economic analyses as groundbreaking. Why, then, did he disagree so sharply with Marx?

In the essays collected in Marxism, Freedom and the State, Bakunin summarises his disagreement with Marx as a disagreement over means rather than ends. Bakunin seeks to destroy the state, whereas Marx seeks to capture and use it. Marx thus ends up on the side of authority, against liberty.

Bakunin counterposes what he takes to be Marx’s aim to impose truth on the ‘ignorant masses’ with his own goal to propagate it horizontally, encouraging the excluded to act on their own initiative. Bakunin believes that he and Marx are seeking the same outcome, but by different means: Marx believes, wrongly, that it can be achieved through top-down imposition.

He accuses Marx of being a carrier of the Germanic ‘cult of the state’. For instance, Marx believes that historical instances of state centralisation, and even the defeat of peasant revolutions, are ultimately progressive, providing the foundations for revolution. He views Marx as following the pan-German position of dominance over Europe for a civilising mission. However, Marx is forced to be revolutionary as the existing political structure would have to be swept away for him to take power.

Bakunin also accuses Marx of wanting to impose a very strong government in order to give people welfare and equality. For Bakunin, economic emancipation is impossible without destroying the state. Bakunin also takes communists to believe that the state should replace the capitalists as sole employer and proprietor, including seizing the land from the peasantry.

He thinks that Marx is a big fan of the state, to the point of trying to institute a government inside the First International. He also claims that Marx’s project would lead to a kind of barracks regime, with armies of workers and farmers under the command of managers.

Such a regime seems to offer justice and equality instead of liberty, but would fail to achieve these also. Also, any state except a universal state is incompatible with internationalism, since states rupture solidarity through war. And any state is incompatible with proletarian freedom because the state requires the subjection of the masses.


Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

Leave a Reply