Bakunin, Marx and the state

15 05 2013

The Commune introduction to a meeting on Anarchism, Marxism and the State, at the Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair 11th May 2013, by Barry Biddulph.

In the 1870’s, Bakunin in Marxism and the State, argued that the divide between Marxists and Anarchists was this: Marxists stood for the Peoples State (workers state) and Anarchists aimed for the destruction of the state. This was not a direct polemic with the views of Marx in the 1870’s. It was an indirect attack on Marx as the pope of German Social Democracy. Therefore, when Lassalle advocated the people’s state this reflected the views of Marx.


Bakunin went all the way back to 1848, and the Communist Manifesto, where we find the following state socialist position: “the proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e. the proletariat organised as a ruling class”.  (1) But this was described as outdated by Marx in 1872, “One thing especially was proved by the commune, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose”. (2)

We have to remember the historical context of 1848. This was at the beginning of modern industrial capitalism and the working class. Industrial Capitalism had not rolled out across Europe, let alone the world. Marx developed his understanding of the nature of capitalism and class struggle as history moved on. State socialism to an extent reflected the development of class struggle at the time. The Chartists demanded the democratisation of the state with annual parliaments.

Bakunin criticised Marx for being too optimistic about the spread and development of capitalism. He did have a point.  In 1848 Marx did tend to see capitalism rolling reactionary, backward elements flat. But as we now know backward, reactionary forces embraced capitalism faced with revolt from below and modernised from the top down using the state. National unification in Germany in the 19th century took on a reactionary form under Bismark. Later, Marx’s views became more open-ended, or more multilinear, rather than unilinear.

The point is, Marx generalised from class struggle and developed his understanding of capitalism. Bakunin, although lacking a developed social theory, did have an insight in 1848 that revolution could not be advanced through the state. Later Marx studied events in France and in, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, noted the growing power of the State which in specific circumstances could rise above classes. But it was the Paris Commune in 1871 which drove the point home. It was a proletarian  revolution against the state itself. The state might have predated capitalism, but it embodied the power of capital over labour. The alternative was the self-government of the producers.

In the 1870’s Marx wrote a critique of Social Democracy’s Gotha programme. He made the mistake of keeping the criticism of the leaders of Social Democracy private, not making it public until 1890. Marx rubbished Lassalle’s concept of the people’s state. But he did step back from the clarity and boldness of his writing on the Paris  Commune. There are some ambiguous statements. For example, the democratic republic is not the final aim, but the site of the final struggle. This echoes the notes of Marx on Bakunin and the State, that the over throw of the old society is on the basis of the old society. Not the basis of the old state, but the clarity is not there.

Lenin in his, State and Revolution in 1917, did take up the theme of smashing the state, but added that the capitalist state would be replaced by a workers state, a political regime which would represent the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In this he followed Plekhanov rather than Marx. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat became a government, not the social domination of society by the working class. The State and Revolution had no influence on Bolshevism before or after 1917. Following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks rooted themselves in government and the State, rather than the Soviets and mass organisations from below. In so far as the state was damaged in 1917, they reconstructed it around their party.

The lesson of the Russian Revolution for Victor Serge, who had been an Anarchist and a Bolshevik, was that Bolshevism lacked the spirit of liberty. This echoed the views of Lenin’s left critics within the Bolshevik party that the Bolshevik government lacked confidence in the creativity and initiative of the masses.  In this sense, we can agree with the sentiments of Bakunin when he wrote: “liberty can only be created by liberty, by an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward”. (3)

1 Marx and Engels, 1848 , The Communist Manifesto,  Introduction by David Harvey, 2008 , Pluto press, p63/4

2 ibid p86

3  Mark Leier,  2006, Bakunin,   Seven Stories Press, New York,  p 318


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5 responses

15 05 2013

from “Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism”, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Progress Publishers, Moscow,1972
quote from Engels within Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution':
“The Commune was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word” – thisis the most theoretically important statement Engels makes……..The commune was ceasing(ital.) to be a state since it had to suppress, not the majority of the population, but a minority (the exploiters). It had smashed the bourgeois state machine. In place of a special(ital.) coercive force the population itself came on the scene. All this was a departure from the state in the proper sense of the word. And had the Commune become firmly established, all traces of the state in it would have “withered away” of themselves; it would not have had to “abolish” the institutions of the state – they would have ceased to function as they ceased to have anything to do.”
IMO this analysis is a more accurate statement of a Marxist position on this issue of ‘the uses of a state/proletarian dictatorship’ in its function as the defence of the gains of the revolution against the counter-attacks of the bourgeoisie, than anything contained in the summary above.
Tom Richardson Middlesbrough

15 05 2013
ACA The Underground

Would you mind if I ‘reblogged’ this?

15 05 2013

The Commune has no problem with reblogging.

16 05 2013

The issue of the armed people to suppress a minority of reactionaries came up in the discussion at the Bookfair meeting. One comrade argued some kind of state was required to suppress counter revolutionaries. But you do not need a state to defend the revolution. This is where the Bolsheviks went wrong. The dictatorship of the workers state became the dictatorship over workers and the counter revolutionary road to Kronstadt. In Spain, in Catalonia, in the first two months of 1936 , the workers militias defended the revolution at the grass roots level, before their leaders helped rebuild the bourgeois state.

21 05 2013

Good article! I came to similar conclusions myself in an article ‘The Riddle of History Solved’ at


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