The 1917 Russian Revolution and the Factory Committees

The 1917 Russian Revolution

The 1917 Russian Revolution

Every February, I get renewed interest in my posts and pages regarding the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. I imagine interest will continue as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. I included a Chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I reproduce excerpts from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology, dealing with the February Revolution and the rise of factory committees during the revolutionary upheavals in Europe that began in Russia in February 1917.

russian revolution soldiers on street

The Russian Revolution

In 1916, echoing Bakunin’s position during the Franco-Prussian War, Russian anarchists who rejected Kropotkin’s pro-war stance called for the “imperialist war” in Europe to be transformed into an all embracing social revolution (Geneva Group of Anarchist-Communists, 1916: 44-47). In February 1917, the long sought after Russian Revolution began with relatively spontaneous uprisings for which, much like the 1905 Russian Revolution, no particular group could claim credit.

For the anarchists, the “February Revolution” was another vindication of their view of social revolution. “All revolutions necessarily begin in a more or less spontaneous manner,” wrote the Russian anarchist Voline. The task for revolutionary anarchists is to work with the insurgent people to enable them to take control of their own affairs, without any intermediaries, and to prevent the reconstitution of state power. For Voline and the anarchists, effective “emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action of those concerned, of the workers themselves, grouped, not under the banner of a political party or of an ideological formation, but in their own class organizations (productive workers’ unions, factory committees, co-operatives, etc.) on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped, but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass” (Volume One, Selection 87).

The anarchists therefore opposed the Provisional Government which replaced the Czarist regime and pressed for the expropriation by the workers and peasants themselves of the means of production and distribution, a process the workers and peasants had already begun, with workers taking over their factories and peasants seizing the land that they had worked for generations. Anarchist communists expropriated the homes of the rich and called for the creation of revolutionary communes (Avrich, 1978: 125-126 & 130).

Many anarchists supported and participated in the peasant and worker “soviets” that sprang up across Russia, following a pattern similar to the 1905 Russian Revolution. The anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, described the soviets as having “been brought into being by the proletariat spontaneously, by revolutionary means, and with that element of improvisation which springs from the needs of each locality and which entails (a) the revolutionizing of the masses, (b) the development of their activity and self-reliance, and (c) the strengthening of their faith in their own creative powers” (Volume One, Selection 83).

When Lenin rejected the orthodox Marxist view that Russia had to proceed through a “bourgeois” revolution and the development of a capitalist economy before socialism could be implemented, calling for a proletarian revolution that would replace the Russian state with worker and peasant soviets modeled after the Paris Commune, he was not only recognizing what was already happening, but adopting a position so close to the anarchists that both orthodox Marxists and many anarchists regarded the Bolsheviks as the anarchists’ allies (Avrich, 1978: 127-130). Many anarchists worked with the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Provisional Government in October 1917, and to dissolve the newly elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Factory Committees

Soon after the October Revolution, some anarchists began to realize that rather than pushing the social revolution forward, the Bolsheviks were seeking to establish their own dictatorship, subordinating the soviets to their party organization. Maksimov therefore proclaimed in December 1917 that the anarchists “will go with the Bolsheviks no longer, for their ‘constructive’ work has begun, directed towards what we have always fought… the strengthening of the state. It is not our cause to strengthen what we have resolved to destroy. We must go to the lower classes to organize the work of the third—and perhaps the last—revolution” (Volume One, Selection 83).

Because the soviets, as “presently constituted,” were being transformed by the Bolsheviks into organs of state power, Maksimov argued that the anarchists “must work for their conversion from centres of authority and decrees into non-authoritarian centres,” linking the “autonomous organizations” of the workers together (Volume One, Selection 83). But as the Bolsheviks continued to consolidate their power, subordinating not only the soviets but also the trade unions to their “revolutionary” government, the anarcho-syndicalists began to emphasize the role of the factory committees in furthering the cause of the anarchist social revolution and in combatting both capitalism and the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship.

At their August 1918 congress, the Russian anarcho-syndicalists described the factory committee as “a fighting organizational form of the entire workers’ movement, more perfect than the soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies in that it is a basic self-governing producers’ organization under the continuous and alert control of the workers… With the aid of the factory committees and their industry-wide federations, the working class will destroy both the existing economic slavery and its new form of state capitalism which is falsely labelled ‘socialism’,” which the Bolsheviks were in the process of establishing (Volume One, Selection 84).

A similar approach was put forward by anarchists in Italy during the factory occupations in 1919-1920, and by anarchists in Germany. Malatesta, returning to Italy in late 1919, argued, as he had before in his debates with the syndicalists (Volume One, Selection 60), that general strikes were not sufficient to bring about a revolution. The anarchists therefore “put forward an idea: the take-over of factories,” which would constitute “an exercise preparing one for the ultimate general act of expropriation” (Malatesta, 1920: 134). The Italian factory occupation movement peaked in September 1920, with armed workers running their own factories using a factory committee form of organization, but ended that same month when reformist trade union and socialist leaders negotiated an agreement with the government that returned control of the factories to their capitalist owners.

In Germany, anarchists fought to establish a system of workers’ councils, most notably in Bavaria, where Gustav Landauer and Erich Muhsam were directly involved in the short lived Council Republic of 1919. However, the Bavarian Revolution was crushed by troops sent in by the more conservative Social Democrats, whom Landauer had been denouncing as the scourge of the socialist movement for years (Volume One, Selections 79 & 111). Landauer was brutally murdered, and Muhsam was imprisoned for several years (Kuhn, 2011: 8-10).

Both the soviet and factory committee models of revolutionary organization were very influential in anarchist circles. At the founding congress of the reconstituted anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association in early 1922, the delegates declared themselves in favour of “a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party” (Volume One, Selection 114). Nevertheless, some anarchists voiced concerns regarding the limitations of soviet and factory council modes of organization.

Maksimov pointed to the danger of the soviets being transformed into representative bodies instead of direct organs of libertarian self-management (Volume One, Selection 83). More recently, Murray Bookchin has argued that “council modes of organization are not immune to centralization, manipulation and perversion. These councils are still particularistic, one-sided and mediated forms of social management,” being limited to the workers’ self-management of production, “the preconditions of life, not the conditions of life” (Volume Two, Selection 62). Following the May-June 1968 events in France, Maurice Joyeux pointed out that factory committees need to coordinate their actions during the revolutionary process in order to spread and succeed, and then, after the revolution, to coordinate production and distribution, leading him to suggest that broader trade union federations would be better able to undertake this coordinating role (Volume Two, Selection 61).

Robert Graham

Workers' Control

Workers’ Control

Science and Technology: Anarchist Perspectives

Yoked to the Machine

Yoked to the Machine

Continuing with my installments from “The Anarchist Current,” the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist perspectives on science and technology. Although some anarchists, such as Carlo Cafiero, took a somewhat uncritical view of technology, other anarchists developed a sophisticated critique of the role of science and technology in modern capitalist societies, a critique that was sharpened by later anarchists and their fellow travellers, such as Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. As Gustav Landauer argued, this more critical perspective on science and technology helped to distinguish the views of the anarchists from other revolutionary currents, particularly Marxism, which saw technological development as the key to social emancipation.

science and tech

Science and Technology

The anarchist critique of science and technology goes back at least to Proudhon, who denounced machinery which, “after having degraded the worker by giving him a master, completes his degeneracy by reducing him from the rank of artisan to that of common labourer” (Volume One, Selection 9). Carlo Pisacane argued that technological innovation under capitalism simply concentrates economic power and wealth “in a small number of hands,” while leaving the masses in poverty (Volume One, Selection 16).

Other anarchists have argued that once the people take control of technology, it can be redesigned to eliminate onerous toil, much like Oscar Wilde suggested, to make workplaces safer and to increase production for the benefit of all. Carlo Cafiero recognized that in capitalist economies, the worker has reason to oppose the machinery “which comes to drive him from the factory, to starve him, degrade him, torture him, crush him. Yet what a great interest he will have, on the contrary, in increasing their number when he will no longer be at the service of the machines and when… the machines will themselves be at his service, helping him and working for his benefit” (Volume One, Selection 32).

Gustav Landauer took a more critical position, arguing in 1911 that “the capitalist system, modern technology and state centralism go hand in hand… Technology, allied with capitalism, makes [the worker] a cog in the wheels of the machine.” Consequently, the technology developed under capitalism cannot provide the basis for a free society. Rather, workers must “step out of capitalism mentally and physically,” and begin creating alternative communities and technologies designed to meet their needs in conditions which they themselves find agreeable (Volume One, Selection 79). In the early 1960s, Paul Goodman (1911-1972) suggested some criteria “for the humane selection of technology: utility, efficiency, comprehensibility, repairability, ease and flexibility of use, amenity and modesty” (Volume Two, Selection 70), the use of which would result in something which Goodman’s friend, Ivan Illich (1926-2002), described as “convivial tools,” enabling “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and… with their environment” (Volume Two, Selection 73).

Goodman the-black-flag-of-anarchism

Nineteenth century anarchists often extolled the virtues of modern science, particularly in contrast to religious belief, as part of their critique of the role of organized religion in supporting the status quo. In What is Property, Proudhon looked forward to the day when “the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism” (Volume One, Selection 8). José Llunas Pujols wrote in 1882 that in an anarchist society, “the political State and theology would… be supplanted by Administration and Science” (Volume One, Selection 36), echoing Saint Simon’s comment that in an enlightened society, the government of man will be replaced by the “administration of things”. In the conclusion to his 1920 anarchist program, Malatesta summed up what anarchists want as “bread, freedom, love, and science for everybody” (Volume One, Selection 112).

However, this did not mean that anarchists were uncritical supporters of science. One of the most widely published and translated anarchist pamphlets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Bakunin’s essay, God and the State, in which he discussed the limitations of scientific theory and research, and warned against the danger of entrusting our affairs to scientists and intellectuals. Bakunin argued that science “cannot go outside the sphere of abstractions,” being “as incapable of grasping the individuality of a man as that of a rabbit.” Because science cannot grasp or appreciate the existential reality of individual human beings, “it must never be permitted, nor must anyone be permitted in its name, to govern” individuals. Those claiming to govern in the name of science would yield “to the pernicious influence which privilege inevitably exercises upon men,” fleecing “other men in the name of science, just as they have been fleeced hitherto by priests, politicians of all shades, and lawyers, in the name of God, of the State, of judicial Right” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Even Kropotkin, who argued in Modern Science and Anarchism (1912) that anarchism “is a conception of the Universe based on the mechanical [kinetic] interpretation of phenomena” that “recognizes no method of research except the scientific one,” never suggested that scientists should have a privileged role in society, nor that scientific hypotheses should be regarded as akin to human laws that need to be enforced by some authority. He decried the introduction of “artificial modes of expression, borrowed from theology and arbitrary power, into [scientific] knowledge which is purely the result of observation” (Volume One, Selection 52), and argued that all theories and conclusions, including those of the anarchists, are subject to criticism and must be verified by experiment and observation.

Kropotkin no more endorsed “the government of science” than Bakunin did (Volume One, Selection 24). Instead, he looked forward to:

“A society in which all the mutual relations of its members are regulated, not by laws, not by authorities, whether self-imposed or elected, but by   mutual agreement… and by a sum of social customs and habits—not petrified by law, routine, or superstition, but continually developing and continually readjusted, in accordance with the ever-growing requirements of a free life, stimulated by the progress of science, invention, and the steady growth of higher ideals” (Modern Science and Anarchism: 59).

Robert Graham

modern science and anarchism mother earth

The Bakunin Bicentennial

Bakunin birthday

May 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). As 2014 comes to a close, I thought it fitting to reprint an appreciation of Bakunin written by his greatest biographer, Max Nettlau, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Much as Nettlau admired Bakunin, he did not do so uncritically. He recognized that Bakunin’s penchant for secret societies, while having a certain logic in his own time, was inconsistent with the anarchist project of creating a free society based on self-management. On the other hand, Nettlau commended Bakunin for never holding himself aloof from popular struggles, and for avoiding a narrow preoccupation with workers’ movements, as a popular social revolution requires a broad mass of support, including all the dispossessed and disempowered. I included several selections from Bakunin in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas because, as Kropotkin noted, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who established the principles of modern anarchism.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin: An Appreciation

Most centenarians, even when born much later and still among us, are but dried-up relics of a remote past; whilst some few, though gone long since, remain full of life, and rather make us feel ourselves how little life and energy there is in most of us. These men, in advance of their age, prepared new ways for coming generations, who are often but too slow to follow them up. Prophets and dreamers, thinkers and rebels they are called, and of those who, in the strife for freedom and social happiness for all, united the best qualities of these four descriptions, Michael Bakunin is by far the best known.

In recalling his memory, we will not forget the many less known thinkers and rebels, very many of whom from the “thirties” to the early “seventies” of [the 19th] century had, by personal contact, their share in forming this or that part of his personality. None of them, however, had the great gift of uniting into one current of revolt all the many elements of revolutionary thought, and that burning desire to bring about collective revolutionary action which constitute Bakunin’s most fascinating characteristics.

Courageous and heroic rebels always existed, but their aims were too often very narrow–they had not overcome political, religious, and social prejudices. Again, the most perfect “systems” were worked out theoretically; but these generous thinkers lacked the spirit to resort to action for their realization, and their methods were tame, meek, and mild. Fourier waited for years for a millionaire to turn up who would hand him the money to construct the first Phalanstery. The Saint-Simonians had their eyes on kings or sons of kings who might be persuaded to realise their aims “from above.” Marx was content to “prove” that the decay of Capitalism and the advent of the working classes to power will happen automatically.


Among the best known Socialists, Robert Owen and Proudhon, Blanqui and Bakunin, tried to realise their ideas by corresponding action. Blanqui’s splendid “Neither God Nor Master,” is, however, counteracted by the authoritarian and narrow political and nationalist character of his practical action. Both Owen and Proudhon represent, as to the means of action, the method of free experimentation, which is, in my opinion, the only one which holds good aside from the method of individual and collective revolt advocated by Bakunin and many others.

Circumstances—the weakness of small minorities in face of the brute force of traditional authority, and the indifference of the great mass of the population—have as yet no chance for either method to show its best, and, the ways of progress being manifold, neither of them may ever render the other quite superfluous. These experimental Socialists and Anarchists, then, are neither superior nor inferior, but simply different, dissimilar from Bakunin, the fiercest representative of the idea of real revolutionary action.

His economics are not original; he accepted willingly Marx’s dissection of the capitalist system; nor did he dwell in particular on the future methods of distribution, declaring only the necessity for each to receive the full produce of his labour. But to him exploitation and oppression were not merely economic and political grievances which fairer ways of distribution and apparent participation in political power (democracy) would abolish; he saw clearer than almost all Socialists before him the close connection of all forms of authority, religious, political, social, and their embodiment, the State, with economic exploitation and submission.

Hence, Anarchism—which need not be defined here—was to him the necessary basis, the essential factor of all real Socialism. In this he differs fundamentally from ever so many Socialists who glide over this immense problem by some verbal juggle between “Government” and “administration,” “the State” and “society,” or the like, because a real desire for freedom is not yet awakened in them. This desire and its consequence, the determination to revolt to realise freedom, exists in every being; I should say that it exists in some form and to some degree in the smallest particle that composes matter, but ages of priest- and State-craft have almost smothered it, and ages of alleged democracy, of triumphant Social Democracy even, are not likely to kindle it again.


Here Bakunin’s Socialism sets in with full strength—mental, personal, and social freedom to him are inseparable—Atheism, Anarchism, Socialism an organic unit. His Atheism is not that of the ordinary Freethinker, who may be an authoritarian and an anti-Socialist; nor is his Socialism that of the ordinary Socialist, who may be, and very often is, an authoritarian and a Christian; nor would his Anarchism ever deviate into the eccentricities of Tolstoy and Tucker.

But each of the three ideas penetrates the other two and constitutes with them a living realisation of freedom, just as all our intellectual, political, and social prejudices and evils descend from one common source—authority. Whoever reads “God and the State,” the best known of Bakunin’s many written expositions of these ideas, may discover that when the scales of religion fall from his eyes, at the same moment also the State will appear to him in its horrid hideousness, and anti-Statist Socialism will be the only way out. The thoroughness of Bakunin’s Socialist propaganda is, to my impression, unique.

From these remarks it may be gathered that I dissent from certain recent efforts to revindicate Bakunin almost exclusively as a Syndicalist. He was, at the time of the International, greatly interested in seeing the scattered masses of the workers combining into trade societies or sections of the International. Solidarity in the economic struggle was to be the only basis of working-class organisation. He expressed the opinion that these organisations would spontaneously evolve into federated Socialist bodies, the natural basis of future society. This automatic evolution has been rightly contested by our Swiss comrade Bertoni. But did Bakunin really mean it when he sketched it out in his writings of elementary public propaganda?

We must not forget that Bakunin—and here we touch one of his shortcomings—seeing the backward dispositions of the great masses in his time, did not think it possible to propagate the whole of his ideas directly among the people. By insisting on purely economic organisation, he wished to protect the masses against the greedy politician who, under the cloak of Socialism, farms and exploits their electoral “power” in our age of progress!

He also wished to prevent their falling under the leadership of sectarian Socialism of any kind. He did not wish them, however, to fall into the hands and under the thumbs of Labour leaders, whom he knew, to satiety, in Geneva, and whom he stigmatised in his Egalité articles of 1869. His idea was that among the organised masses interested in economic warfare thoroughgoing revolutionists, Anarchists, should exercise an invisible yet carefully concerted activity, co-ordinating the workers’ forces and making them strike a common blow, nationally and internationally, at the right moment.

The secret character of this inner circle, Fraternité and Alliance, was to be a safeguard against ambition and leadership. This method may have been derived from the secret societies of past times; Bakunin improved it as best he could in the direction of freedom, but could not, of course, remove the evils resulting from every infringement of freedom, however small and well-intentioned it may be in the beginning. This problem offers wide possibilities, from dictatorship and “democratic” leadership to Bakunin’s invisible, preconcerted initiative, to free and open initiative, and to entire spontaneity and individual freedom. To imitate Bakunin in our days in this respect would not mean progress, but repeating a mistake of the past.


In criticising this secret preconcerted direction of movements, considered worse than useless in our time, we ought not to overlook that the then existing reason for making such arrangements has also nearly gone. To Bakunin, who participated in the movements of 1848-49, in the Polish insurrection in the early “sixties,” in secret Italian movements, and who, like so many, foresaw the fall of the French Empire and a revolution in Paris, which might have happened under better auspices than the Commune of 1871—to him, then, an international Socialist “1848,” a real social revolution, was a tangible thing which might really happen before his eyes, and which he did his best to really bring about by secretly influencing and co-ordinating local mass movements.

We in our sober days have so often been told that all this is impossible, that revolutions are hopeless and obsolete, that, with few exceptions, no effort is ever made, and the necessity of replacing semi-authoritarian proceedings like that of Bakunin by the free play of individual initiative or other improved methods, never seems to arise.

Bakunin’s best plans failed for various reasons, one of which was the smallness of the means which the movements, then in their infancy, offered to him in every respect. Since all these possibilities are a matter of the past, let me dwell for a moment on the thought of what Bakunin would have done had he lived during the First of May movements of the early [1890s] or during the Continental general strike efforts of the ten years next following.

With the tenth part of the materials these movements contained, which exploded some here, some there, like fireworks, in splendid isolation, Bakunin would have attacked international Capitalism and the State everywhere in a way never yet heard of. And movements which really create new methods of successful struggle against a strong Government, like the Suffragette and the Ulster movements, would never have let him stand aside in cool disdain, because their narrow purpose was not his own.

I fancy he would never have rested day and night until he had raised the social revolutionary movement to the level of similar or greater efficiency. To think of this makes one feel alive; to see the dreary reality of our wise age lulls one to sleep again. I am the last one to overlook the many Anarchists who sacrificed themselves by deeds of valour—the last also to urge others to do what I am not doing myself: I merely state the fact that with Bakunin a great part of faith in the revolution died, that the hope and confidence which emanated from his large personality were never restored, and that the infinite possibilities of the last twenty-five years found many excellent comrades who did their best, but none upon whose shoulders the mantle of Bakunin has fallen.

bakunin people's stick

What, then, was and is Bakunin’s influence?

It is wonderful to think how he arose in the International at the right moment to prevent the influence of Marx, always predominant in the Northern countries, from becoming general. Without him, dull, political, electioneering Marxism would have fallen like mildew also on the South of Europe. We need but think how Cafiero, later on the boldest Italian Anarchist, first returned to Naples as the trusted friend and admirer of Marx; how Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, was the chosen apostle of Marxism for Spain, etc. To oppose the deep-laid schemes of Marx, a man of Bakunin’s experience and initiative was really needed; by him alone the young movements of Italy and Spain, those of the South of France and of French-speaking Switzerland, and a part of the Russian movement, were welded together, learnt to practise international solidarity, and to prepare international action.

This alone created a lasting basis for the coming Anarchist movement, whilst everywhere else the other Socialist movements, described as Utopian and unscientific, had to give way to Marxism, proclaimed as the only scientific doctrine! Persecutions after revolutionary attempts often reduced these free territories of Anarchism to a minimum; but when Italy, Spain, and France were silenced, some corner in Switzerland where Bakunin’s seed had fallen always remained, and in this way, thanks to the solid work of Bakunin and his comrades, mainly from 1868 to 1874, Anarchy, was always able to face her enemies and to revive.

The immediate influence of Bakunin was reduced after he had retired from the movement in 1874, when certain friends left him; bad health—he died in June, 1876—prevented him continuing his work with fresh elements gathered round him. Soon after his death a period of theoretical elaboration began, when the methods of distribution were examined and Communist Anarchism in its present form was shaped. In those years also, after the failure of many collective revolts, the struggle became more bitter, and individual action, propaganda by the deed, was resorted to, a proceeding which made preconcerted secret arrangements in Bakunin’s manner useless. In this way, both his economic ideas, Collectivist Anarchism, and his favourite method of action alluded to, became so to speak obsolete, and were neglected.

Add to this that from about 1879 and 1880 Anarchism could be openly propagated on a large scale in France (mainly in Paris and in the Lyons region). This great extension of the propaganda gave so much new work, a new spirit entered the groups, soon arts and science were permeated with Anarchism—Elisée Reclus’ wonderful influence was at work. In Bakunin’s stormy days there was no time for this, through no fault of his.

In short, Anarchism in France and in many other countries was in its vigorous youth, a period when the tendency to look ahead is greatest, and the past is neglected like a cradle of infancy. For this reason, and because very little information on Bakunin was accessible to the Anarchists of the “eighties,” Bakunin’s influence in those years remained small. I ought to have mentioned that certain opinions of Bakunin’s gained much ground in the Russian revolutionary movement of the “seventies” and later, but cannot dwell further on this.


In 1882, Reclus and Cafiero published the choicest extract from the many manuscripts left by Bakunin: “Dieu et Etat!” (God and the State), a pamphlet which B. R. Tucker fortunately translated into English (1883 or 1884). This or its English reprint circulated in England when no other English Anarchist pamphlet existed, and its radical Anarchist freethought or thoroughly freethinking Anarchism certainly left lasting marks on the early Anarchist propagandists, and will continue to do so. Of course, the same applies to translations in many countries.

About 1896, a considerable part of Bakunin’s correspondence was published, preceded and followed by many extracts from his unpublished manuscripts, a part of which is now before us in the six volumes of the Paris edition of his works. It became possible, with the help of these and many other sources, to examine his life in detail, and in particular to give, proofs in hand, the story of the great struggle in the International, and to scatter the calumnies and lies heaped up by the Marxist writers and the bourgeois authors who followed them.

All this brought about a revival in the interest in Bakunin; but is there not a deeper cause for such a revival? When Bakunin was gone, his friends felt perhaps rather relieved, for the strain he put on their activity was sometimes too great for them. We in our times, or some of us, at least, are perhaps in the opposite situation: there is no strain at all put on us, and we might wish for somebody to rouse us. Thus we look back at any rate with pathetic sympathy on the heroic age of Anarchism, from Bakunin’s times to the early “nineties” in France. Many things have happened since then also—I need but recall Ferrer’s name; but, in my opinion at least, a complacent admiration of Syndicalism has too often replaced every thought of Anarchist action.

I say again: it is preposterous to think that Bakunin would have been a Syndicalist and nothing else—but what he would have tried to make of Syndicalism, how he would have tried to group these and many other materials of revolt and to lead them to action, this my imagination cannot sketch out, but I feel that things would have gone otherwise, and the capitalists would sleep less quietly. I am no admirer of personalities, and have many faults to find with Bakunin also on other grounds, but this I feel, that where he was rebellion grew round him, whilst today, with such splendid material, rebellion is nowhere. South Africa, Colorado, are ever so hopeful events, but think what a Bakunin would have made of them—and then we can measure the value of this man in the struggle for freedom.

Max Nettlau, Freedom, June 1914


We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It

we do not fear the book cover

AK Press now has a graphic for the cover of my forthcoming book, “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I have already posted a few excerpts on this blog. The book should be out next Spring. Here, I set forth some excerpts from the Introduction, where I provide a definition of anarchism based on the way the anarchists in the International conceived it. The quote in the title, “We do not fear anarchy – we invoke it,” is from Bakunin.

goldman quote

Defining Anarchism

During his polemics within the International against the “authoritarians” and “bourgeois socialists,” Bakunin set forth six primary grounds for distinguishing his anarchism from the views of his opponents: first, his rejection of any kind of institutional, coercive authority (anti-authoritarianism); second, his opposition to the modern state, even as a “transitional” power to abolish capitalism (anti-statism); third, his opposition to any participation in existing systems of government or “bourgeois politics” (anti-parliamentarianism); fourth and fifth, his advocacy of voluntary federation during the struggle against capitalism and the state and in a post-revolutionary society (federalism), so that the revolutionary means were consistent with the revolutionary ends (libertarianism); and sixth, his call for the immediate abolition of the state and capitalism by means of direct action, including insurrection and the expropriation by the workers themselves of the means of production (social revolution).

In identifying Proudhon as an anarchist, Bakunin focused on Proudhon’s critique of the state and private property, Proudhon’s opposition to the authoritarian politics of the Jacobins and any sort of “revolutionary” dictatorship, and Proudhon’s concept of “agro-industrial federation,” a libertarian form of socialism wherein the state and capitalism are replaced by voluntary federations of agricultural, industrial and communal organizations with no central authority above them. Where he differed from Proudhon was in his advocacy of insurrection and expropriation and in his rejection of Proudhon’s view that capitalism and the state could be gradually supplanted through the creation and ever widening expansion of voluntary associations of workers, peasants, professionals and other functional groups with access to free credit through their own credit unions, or “people’s bank.”

Following Bakunin’s approach, anarchism, whether his, Proudhon’s or someone else’s, can be distinguished from other doctrines on the basis of its anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism and advocacy of direct action. Bakunin included Proudhon in the anarchist camp despite Proudhon’s opposition to insurrection and expropriation and his gradualist approach. Bakunin recognized that despite these differences Proudhon was still an anarchist. Both advocated direct action, but with Proudhon emphasizing non-violent direct action that would gradually hollow out existing institutions and replace them with voluntary agro-industrial federations.

While Proudhon and Bakunin were both proponents of “social” revolution, Proudhon’s social revolution was conceived in gradual, pacific terms, not in insurrectionary terms, in contrast to Bakunin. Furthermore, all socialists of their era agreed on the need for some kind of “social” revolution, given the failure of the preceding “political” revolutions (the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848-1849). Consequently, advocacy of social revolution does not distinguish anarchism from other doctrines, such as socialism.

For the purposes of this study, therefore, I will proceed on the basis that anarchism can be defined as a view that rejects coercive authority, the state and participation in existing systems of government, and which advocates federalism (or voluntary association), libertarianism and direct action. This is consistent with Proudhon and Bakunin’s conceptions of anarchism and, as will be seen in the chapters which follow, the views of those members of the International who came to identify themselves as anarchists and to create an international anarchist movement.

Arguably, some of these six defining characteristics can be derived from the others. For example, the state and government can be seen simply as specific examples of coercive authority, so that anti-authoritarianism is the primary defining characteristic of anarchism. As Sébastien Faure (1858-1942) put it, “whoever denies Authority and fights against it is an Anarchist.”[i] Be that as it may, in historical terms I believe that it was on the basis of these six characteristics that anarchism came to be distinguished from other political orientations. These six criteria help to flesh out the content of anarchism in a more substantive sense, providing a more robust and “political” conception of anarchism as something more than mere “anti-authoritarianism.” To define anarchism simply on the basis of what it is that anarchists oppose fails to take into account the positive anarchist alternatives to authoritarian institutions and practices that also distinguish anarchism from other doctrines.

Robert Graham

[i] Woodcock, The Anarchist Reader, 1977: 62.

what is

The First International and the Paris Commune


Returning to my series from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, this installment deals with the effect of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune on anarchist theory and practice.

The Paris Commune - Street Barricades

The Paris Commune – Street Barricades

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 had a significant impact on emerging anarchist movements. Bakunin argued that the War should be turned into a mass uprising by the French workers and peasants against their domestic and foreign masters. To bring the peasants over to the side of the social revolution, Bakunin urged his fellow revolutionaries to incite the peasantry “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil and military institution,” to “throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others” and to seize the land. He rejected any notion of revolutionary dictatorship, warning that any attempt “to impose communism or collectivism on the peasants… would spark an armed rebellion” that would only strengthen counter-revolutionary tendencies (Volume One, Selection 28).

Although it was Proudhon who had first proposed an alliance between the workers and peasants, it was Bakunin who saw the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary force. Bakunin and subsequent anarchists did not believe that a social revolution was only possible in advanced capitalist societies with a large industrial proletariat, as Marxists claimed, but rather looked to the broad masses of the exploited and downtrodden to overthrow their oppressors. Consequently, anarchists supported the efforts of indigenous peoples to liberate themselves from colonial domination and the local elites which benefitted from colonialism at their expense, particularly in Latin America with its feudalist latifundia system which concentrated ownership of the land in the hands of a few (Volume One, Selections 71, 76 & 91). In Russia, Italy, Spain and Mexico, anarchists sought to incite the peasants to rebellion with the battle cry of “Land and Liberty” (Volume One, Selections 71, 73, 85, 86, & 124), while anarchists in China, Japan and Korea sought the liberation of the peasant masses from their feudal overlords (Volume One, Selections 97, 99, 101, 104 & 105).

Bakunin argued that the best way to incite the masses to revolt was “not with words but with deeds, for this is the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda” (Volume One, Selection 28). In Mexico, the anarchist Julio Chavez Lopez led a peasant uprising in 1868-1869, in which the insurgents would occupy a village or town, burn the land titles and redistribute the land among the peasants (Hart: 39). In September 1870, Bakunin participated in a short-lived attempt to create a revolutionary Commune in Lyon, proclaiming the abolition of mortgages and the judicial system (Leier: 258). He made a similar attempt with his anarchist comrades in Bologna in 1874.

In 1877, Bakunin’s associates, Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and a small group of anarchists tried to provoke a peasant uprising in Benevento, Italy, by burning the local land titles, giving the villagers back their tax moneys and handing out whatever weapons they could find. Paul Brousse (1844-1912) described this as “propaganda by the deed,” by which he did not mean individual acts of terrorism but putting anarchist ideas into action by seizing a commune, placing “the instruments of production… in the hands of the workers,” and instituting anarchist communism (Volume One, Selection 43).
The inspiration for this form of propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris proclaimed the revolutionary Commune, throwing out their national government. Varlin and other Internationalists took an active part in the Commune. After its bloody suppression by the Versailles government, during which Varlin was killed, several Communards were to adopt an explicitly anarchist position, including Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel.

Paris commune journal

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International supported the Commune and provided refuge for exiled Communards. Bakunin commended the Communards for believing that the social revolution “could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses” (Volume One, Selection 29). James Guillaume thought that the Commune represented the revolutionary federalist negation of the nation State that “the great socialist Proudhon” had been advocating for years. By 1873, the Jura Federation of the International was describing the Commune as the first practical realization of the anarchist program of the proletariat. However, as David Stafford points out, the “massacre of the Communards and the savage measures which followed it (it has been estimated that 30,000 people were killed or executed by the Versailles forces)” helped turn anarchists further away from Proudhon’s pacifist mutualism, which was seen as completely unable to deal with counter-revolutionary violence (Stafford: 20).

Louise Michel (1830-1905) had fought on the barricades when the French government sent in its troops to put down the Commune. The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded issued a manifesto calling for “the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital” (Volume One, Selection 30). At Michel’s trial after the suppression of the Commune, she declared that she belonged “completely to the Social Revolution,” vowing that if her life were spared by the military tribunal, she would “not stop crying for vengeance,” daring the tribunal, if they were not cowards, to kill her (Volume One, Selection 30).

Anarchists drew a number of lessons from the Commune. Kropotkin argued that the only way to have consolidated the Commune was “by means of the social revolution” (Volume One, Selection 31), with “expropriation” being its “guiding word.” The “coming revolution,” Kropotkin wrote, would “fail in its historic mission” without “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings; [and] the return to the community… of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others” (Volume One, Selection 45).

With respect to the internal organization of the Commune, Kropotkin noted that there “is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.” Instead of giving themselves a “revolutionary” government, isolating the revolutionaries from the people and paralyzing popular initiative, the task is to abolish “property, government, and the state,” so that the people can “themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it in common,” and “form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself” (Volume One, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Additional References

Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas, 1987.

Leier, Mark. Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

The First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement

The First International

The First International

In this installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the First International and the emergence of a European anarchist movement. I am currently finishing the manuscript to We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, in which I deal with these matters in much more detail.

Paper of the French International

Paper of the French International

The First International

Bellegarrigue, Déjacque and Coeurderoy were dead or forgotten by the time the International Association of Workingmen (the First International) was founded in 1864 (Volume One, Selection 19). It was only after the emergence in Europe of self-identified anarchist movements in the 1870s that Pisacane’s writings were rediscovered. Of the anarchists from the 1840s and 50s, only Proudhon and Pi y Margall continued to exercise some influence, but by then both identified themselves as federalists rather than anarchists (Volume One, Selection 18). Prouhon’s followers in the First International supported his mutualist ideas, advocating free credit, small property holdings and equivalent exchange. They agreed with Proudhon that a woman’s place was in the home and argued that only workingmen should be allowed into the First International, which meant that intellectuals, such as Karl Marx, should also be excluded. They shared Proudhon’s critical view of strikes, regarding them as coercive and ineffective, but in practice provided financial and other support to striking workers.

Within the First International there were more radical elements that gave expression to a renewed sense of militancy among European workers. These Internationalists, such as Eugène Varlin (1839-1871) in France, were in favour of trade unions, seeing them as a means for organizing the workers to press their demands through collective direct action, such as strikes and boycotts. The ultimate aim was for the workers to take control of their workplaces, replacing the state and capitalism with local, regional, national and international federations of autonomous workers’ organizations.

Opposing these “anti-authoritarian” Internationalists were not only the orthodox Proudhonists, but Karl Marx and his followers, as well as some Blanquists, who favoured centralized organization and the subordination of the trade unions to political parties that would coordinate opposition to capitalism and seek to achieve state power, either through participation in bourgeois politics, revolution or a combination of both. Disagreements over the International’s internal form of organization and participation in politics would lead to the split in the International in 1872.

By 1868 the International had adopted a policy in favour of strikes and collective ownership of the means of production. However, collective ownership did not necessarily mean state ownership, as many Internationalists advocated workers’ control of industry through the workers’ own organizations and continued to support other aspects of Proudhon’s mutualism, such as workers’ mutual aid societies, cooperatives and credit unions. Varlin, for example, organized a cooperative restaurant with Nathalie Lemel (who later converted Louise Michel to anarchism). Some Geneva Internationalists proposed that half of the cooperatives’ profits be paid into the workers’ “resistance” funds, with the cooperatives also providing workers with financial aid and credit during strikes (Cutler, 1985: 213, fn. 69).


Bakunin: “We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it”

Bakunin had begun to articulate a revolutionary anarchist position in the mid-1860s, prior to his entry into the International in 1868. He advocated socialism and federalism based on “the most complete liberty for individuals as well as associations,” rejecting both bourgeois republicanism and state socialism (Volume One, Selection 20). He rejected any “call for the establishment of a ruling authority of any nature whatsoever,” denouncing those revolutionaries who “dream of creating new revolutionary states, as fully centralized and even more despotic than the states we now have” (Volume One, Selections 20 & 21).

“We do not fear anarchy,” declared Bakunin, “we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction.” The new social order will be created “from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center… not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin opposed any attempts to justify the sacrifice of human lives in the name of some ideal or “abstraction,” including patriotism, the state, God or even science. Someone who is “always ready to sacrifice his own liberty… will willingly sacrifice the liberty of others” (Volume One, Selection 20). The revolutionary socialist, “on the contrary, insists upon his positive rights to life and to all its intellectual, moral, and physical joys.” In addition to rejecting any notions of individual self-sacrifice, Bakunin argued against revolutionary terrorism as counter-revolutionary. To “make a successful revolution, it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods, to destroy property and the State. It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and be condemned to suffer the sure and inevitable reaction which no massacre had ever failed and ever will fail to produce in every society” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin argued that the means adopted by revolutionaries should be consistent with their ends. Accordingly, the International should itself be organized “from the bottom up… in accordance with the natural diversity of [the workers’] occupations and circumstances.” The workers’ organizations would “bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” Consequently, he rejected the view that the majority of the workers, even within the International itself, should accept the “fraternal command” of those who claimed to know what is best for them, as this would divide the International “into two groups—one comprising the vast majority… whose only knowledge will be blind faith in the theoretical and practical wisdom of their commanders,” and a minority of “skilled manipulators” in control of the organization (Volume One, Selection 25).

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin’s anarchist critique went well beyond attacking property, religion and the state. In addition to arguing against hierarchical and authoritarian organization within the revolutionary movement itself, Bakunin sought to free women from their domestic burdens, with society taking collective responsibility for raising and educating children, enabling women to marry and divorce as they please. Bakunin rejected patriarchy in general, denouncing the “despotism of the husband, of the father, of the eldest brother over the family,” which turns the family “into a school of violence and triumphant bestiality, of cowardice and the daily perversions of the family home” (Volume One, Selection 67).

With respect to education, Bakunin argued that “one who knows more will naturally rule over the one who knows less.” After the revolution, unless differences in education and upbringing are eliminated, “the human world would find itself in its present state, divided anew into a large number of slaves and a small number of rulers” (Volume One, Selection 64). Bakunin looked forward to the day when “the masses, ceasing to be flocks led and shorn by privileged priests,” whether secular or religious, “may take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Bakunin argued against the rule of the more learned, the savants, the intellectuals and the scientists, whether within the International or in society at large. His targets here were the followers of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx, with their pretensions to “scientific government” and “scientific socialism.” To confide “the government of society” to any scientific body, political party or group would result in the “eternal perpetuation” of that group’s power “by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently in need of its government and direction” (Volume One, Selection 24). Bakunin was perhaps the first to develop this critique of the role of intellectuals, the “new class,” and their rise to power, either by taking over leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement or through control of the state bureaucracy, for the “State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the priesthood, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and finally, after every other class has been exhausted, the bureaucratic class, when the State falls or rises… into the condition of a machine” (Volume One, Selection 22).

Noam Chomsky has described Bakunin’s analyses and predictions in this regard as being perhaps “among the most remarkable within the social sciences” (Volume Two, Selection 68). Subsequent anarchists adopted Bakunin’s critique (Berti, Volume Two, Selection 67) and his suggestion that the inequalities that arise from differences in knowledge can be prevented by “integral education,” which breaks down the barriers between practical and scientific education, and by the elimination of any distinction between manual and “intellectual” or “brain” work (Volume One, Selection 64). In his highly influential book, Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898), Peter Kropotkin set forth practical alternatives to the present “division of society into brain workers and manual workers,” with all its “pernicious” distinctions, advocating, much like Fourier had before him, a daily combination of manual and intellectual work, human-scale technology and the integration of the fields, factories and workshops in a decentralized system of production, providing for “the happiness that can be found in the full and varied exercise of the different capacities of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 34).

Bakunin was instrumental in spreading anarchist ideas among revolutionary and working class movements in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia and within the International itself. According to Kropotkin, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who “established in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (1912).

Robert Graham

The Anarchist International

The Anarchist International

Additional references

Cutler, Robert. Ed. From Out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.

Kropotkin, Peter.  Modern Science and Anarchism (1912). In Evolution and Environment. Ed. G. Woodcock. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995.

European Anarchism Before 1848

Prelude to Revolution

Prelude to Revolution

This is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I discuss some of the revolutionary ideas that were emerging in Europe prior to the European revolutions of 1848-1849.


Revolutionary Ideas in Europe

In the 1840s there was an explosion of radical ideas and movements in Europe, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-49. In Germany, radical intellectuals inspired by and reacting against the philosophy of Hegel, sometimes referred to as the “Young” or “Left Hegelians,” began developing a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” as Marx put it in 1843. The previous year, Bakunin had published his essay, “The Reaction in Germany,” in which he described the revolutionary program as “the negation of the existing conditions of the State” and “ the destruction of whatever order prevails at the time,” concluding with the now notorious phrase, the “passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Volume One, Selection 10). Max Stirner’s masterpiece of nihilistic egoism, The Ego and Its Own, came out in 1844 (Volume One, Selection 11). Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent of the “Young Hegelians,” called for “the abolition of all government” in favour of “an ordered anarchy… the free community… of men who make their own decisions and who are in all respects equal comrades” (Nettlau: 53-59).

Three aspects of the Young Hegelian critique had a lasting impact on Bakunin, and through him on the development of anarchist ideas. The first was the Young Hegelian critique of religion. The second was the development of a materialist worldview, from which all “divine phantoms” were banished. The third, which followed from the first two, was atheism. Bakunin and later anarchists were to denounce the alliance of Church and State, particularly the role of religion in pacifying the masses and in rationalizing their domination and exploitation, advocating a materialist atheism that emphasizes human agency because there are no divine or supernatural forces to protect or deliver the people from their earthly misery. The people can only liberate themselves through their own direct action.


Max Stirner

Max Stirner (1806-1856) took the Young Hegelian critique of “divine phantoms” to its furthest extreme, attacking all ideal conceptions, whether of God, humanity, or good and evil, as “spooks” or “wheels in the head” which dominate the very consciousness of the unique individual, preventing him or her from acting freely.

In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that through upbringing, education and indoctrination, people internalize abstract social norms and values, putting the individual “in the position of a country governed by secret police. The spy and eavesdropper, ‘conscience,’ watch over every motion of the mind,” with “all thought and action” becoming “a matter of conscience, i.e. police business.” Anticipating radical Freudians like the anarchist psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), Stirner observed that everyone “carries his gendarme within his breast.”

Stirner advocated freedom “from the State, from religion, from conscience,” and from any other power or end to which the individual can be subjected. He rejected any concept of justice or rights, arguing that the unique individual is free to take whatever is in his or her power. Whenever the egoist’s “advantage runs against the State’s,” he “can satisfy himself only by crime.” After Stirner’s writings were rediscovered in the late 1890s, this aspect of his critique was developed by individualist anarchists, such as Albert Joseph (“Libertad”), into the doctrine of “illegalism,” which was used by the Bonnot Gang as an ideological cloak for their bank robberies in the early 1900s in France (Perry, 1987).

Stirner denounced socialism for seeking to replace the individual capitalist with a collective owner, “society,” to which the individual will be equally subject, but nevertheless argued that the workers need only stop labouring for the benefit of their employers and “regard the product of their labour” as their own in order to bring down the State, the power of which rests on their slavery.

Another aspect of Stirner’s thought that was to have some influence on later anarchists is his distinction between insurrection and revolution. Revolutions seek to rearrange society into a new order. Insurrection or rebellion, by contrast, is “a rising of individuals… without regard to the arrangements that spring from it” (Volume One, Selection 11). In light of the defeats of the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, Herbert Read (1893-1968) sought to revive Stirner’s distinction, arguing that anarchists must avoid creating “the kind of machinery which, at the successful end of a revolution, would merely be taken over by the leaders of the revolution, who then assume the functions of government” (Volume Two, Selection 1). During the 1960s, many of the younger anarchists endorsed the notion of “spontaneous insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 51). More recently, Hakim Bey has argued in favour of the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” which can be seen as “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (Volume Three, Selection 11).

Anarchy is Self-Management

Anarchy is Self-Management

Proudhon: Machinery and Worker Self-Management

In one passage in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner described individuals as mere cogs in the “State machine.” In Proudhon’s 1846 publication, The System of Economic Contradictions, he argued that the first and “most powerful of machines is the workshop” The workshop degrades “the worker by giving him a master.” The “concentration of forces in the workshop” and the introduction of machinery “engender at the same time overproduction and destitution,” rendering more and more workers redundant, such that in a capitalist economy it is continually necessary to “create new machines, open other markets, and consequently multiply services and displace other” workers. Industry and wealth, population and misery, “advance, so to speak, in procession, one always dragging the other after it” (Volume One, Selection 9).

This focus on and opposition to relationships of subordination in both the economic and political spheres sharply distinguished Proudhon and the anarchists from many of their socialist contemporaries. In his sarcastic attempt to demolish Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dismissed Proudhon’s critique of factory organization and machinery as a reactionary demand for a return to a pre-industrial utopia of skilled craft production. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), co-written with Friedrich Engels, Marx called for the centralization of “all instruments of production in the hands of the State… to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would require the establishment of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”

Proudhon’s solution to this problem was neither to advocate a return to a pre-industrial craft economy nor the creation of industrial armies, “for it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves” (Volume One, Selection 9). While Proudhon argued that free credit should be made available so that everyone would have the opportunity to engage in whatever productive activity they chose, he recognized from the outset the advantages of combining one’s labour with the labour of others, creating a “collective force” that in existing society was being exploited by the capitalists who reaped the benefit of the resulting increase in productive power. “Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours,” Proudhon wrote in What Is Property, “do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days?” (Volume One, Selection 8).

Proudhon therefore advocated workers’ control or worker self-management of industry, later referred to in France as “autogestion,” an idea that became a major tenet of subsequent anarchist movements (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 49). In Proudhon’s proposals, all positions in each enterprise would be elected by the workers themselves, who would approve all by-laws, each worker would have the right to fill any position, “unpleasant and disagreeable tasks” would be shared, and each worker would be given a “variety of work and knowledge” so as to avoid a stultifying division of labour. Everyone would “participate in the gains and in the losses” of the enterprise “in proportion to his services,” with pay being “proportional to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents, and the extent of responsibility” (Volume One, Selection 12).

Robert Graham

Additional References

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Perry, Richard. The Bonnot Gang. London: Rebel Press, 1987.


Bakunin: For Reasons of State

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

As part of the 200 hundredth anniversary of the birth of the revolutionary anarchist, Michael (Mikhail) Bakunin (1814-1876), I have been posting some of his writings. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections by Bakunin on libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, science and authority, revolutionary action, the Paris Commune, integral education and the nature of the state. One of the passages was taken from Bakunin’s critique of Rousseau’s social contract theory of the state. I am reproducing a portion of it here in response to the various wars that continue to grip this planet, and as an antidote to the propaganda celebrating the 100 hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the First World War.


For Reasons of State

The existence of one sovereign, exclusionary State necessarily supposes the existence and, if need be, provokes the formation of other such States, since it is quite natural that individuals who find themselves outside it and are threatened by it in their existence and in their liberty, should, in their turn, associate themselves against it. We thus have humanity divided into an indefinite number of foreign states, all hostile and threatened by each other. There is no common right, no social contract of any kind between them; otherwise they would cease to be independent states and become the federated members of one great state. But unless this great state were to embrace all of humanity, it would be confronted with other great states, each federated within, each maintaining the same posture of inevitable hostility.

War would still remain the supreme law, an unavoidable condition of human survival.

Every state, federated or not, would therefore seek to become the most powerful. It must devour lest it be devoured, conquer lest it be conquered, enslave lest it be enslaved, since two powers, similar and yet alien to each other, could not coexist without mutual destruction.

The State, therefore, is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. It protects its own citizens only; it recognizes human rights, humanity, civilization within its own confines alone. Since it recognizes no rights outside itself, it logically arrogates to itself the right to exercise the most ferocious inhumanity toward all foreign populations, which it can plunder, exterminate, or enslave at will. If it does show itself generous and humane toward them, it is never through a sense of duty, for it has no duties except to itself in the first place, and then to those of its members who have freely formed it, who freely continue to constitute it or even, as always happens in the long run, those who have become its subjects. As there is no international law in existence, and as it could never exist in a meaningful and realistic way without undermining to its foundations the very principle of the absolute sovereignty of the State, the State can have no duties toward foreign populations. Hence, if it treats a conquered people in a humane fashion, if it plunders or exterminates it halfway only, if it does not reduce it to the lowest degree of slavery, this may be a political act inspired by prudence, or even by pure magnanimity, but it is never done from a sense of duty, for the State has an absolute right to dispose of a conquered people at will.

This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue. It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one’s own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.

This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries – statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors – if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

Michael Bakunin, 1868

smash the state

Bakunin: The Principle of the State (1871)

BakunyinportreIn Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from the writings of Michael Bakunin, who helped inspire the first anarchist movements in Europe. Shawn Wilbur is working on a “Bakunin Library,” translating Bakunin’s major works into English. In anticipation of his 200th birthday (Bakunin’s, not Shawn’s), I reproduce below a short excerpt from one of Shawn’s translations, this one from a fragment on the state and morality written in 1871. That states are in a condition of real or apprehended war at all times remains as true today as when Bakunin wrote this.


The Principle of the State

At base, conquest is not only the origin, it is also the crowning aim of all States, great or small, powerful or weak, despotic or liberal, monarchic, aristocratic, democratic, and even socialist, supposing that the ideal of the German socialists, that of a great communist State, is ever realized. That it has been the point of departure for all States, ancient and modern, can be doubted by no one, since each page of universal history proves it sufficiently.

No one contests any longer that the large current States have conquest for their more or less confessed aim. But the middling States and even the small ones, we are told, think only of defending themselves and it would be absurd on their part to dream of conquest. Mock as much as you want, but nonetheless it is their dream, as it is the dream of the smallest peasant proprietor to increase to the detriment of his neighbor, to increase, to enlarge, to conquer always and at any price.

It is a fatal tendency inherent in every State, whatever its extensions, its weakness or its strength, because it is a necessity of its nature. What is the State if it is not the organization of power; but it is in the nature of all power to not be able to tolerate either superiors or equals–power having no other object than domination, and domination being real only when everything that hinders it is subjugated. No power tolerates another except when it is forced to, when it feels itself powerless to destroy or overthrow it. The mere fact of an equal power is a negation of its principle and a perpetual threat against its existence, for it is a manifestation and a proof of its powerlessness. Consequently, between all States that exist side by side, war is permanent and their peace is only a truce.

It is in the nature of the State to set itself up, for itself as well as for all its subjects, as the absolute object. To serve its prosperity, its grandeur, its power is the crowning virtue of patriotism. The State recognizes no others [of its kind]: everything that serves it is good, and everything that is contrary to its interests is declared criminal. – Such is the morality of the State.

Michael Bakunin, Locarno, Switzerland, 1871

Bakunin quote

Kropotkin: Celebrating Bakunin’s Anniversary

bakunin proudhon kropotkin

May 30, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail (“Michael”) Bakunin (1814-1876), the Russian anarchist who was instrumental in the founding of an international anarchist movement in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Europe. This month also marks the publication of Iain McKay’s anthology of Piotr (“Peter”) Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press. While Kropotkin and Bakunin never met, Kropotkin was introduced to revolutionary anarchism by Bakunin’s associates in the Jura Federation, a Swiss section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), although he was already familiar with Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism. Kropotkin later credited Bakunin with establishing “in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (Modern Science and Anarchism). Here I reproduce a letter Kropotkin wrote on the 100th anniversary of Bakunin’s birth, in which he sets forth his assessment of Bakunin’s role in the development of modern anarchism in more detail, and which is now included in Direct Struggle Against CapitalVolume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas contains extensive excerpts from the anarchist writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon.

direct_struggle_against_capitalDear Comrades

I am sorry that I cannot be with you for the commemoration of the birthday of our great teacher, Mikhail Bakunin. There are few names which ought to be as dear to the revolutionary working men of the world as the name of this apostle of the mass revolt of the proletarians of all nations.

Surely, none of us will ever think of minimizing the importance of that labour of thought which precedes every Revolution. It is the conscience of the wrongs of society, which gives to the downtrodden and oppressed ones the vigour that is required to revolt against those wrongs.

But with immense numbers of mankind, quite an abyss lies between the comprehension of the evils, and the action that is needed to get rid of these evils.

To move people to cross this abyss, and to pass from grumbling to action, was Bakunin’s chief work.

In his youth, like most educated men of his times, he paid a tribute to the vagaries of abstruse philosophy. But he soon found his way at the approach of the Revolution of 1848. A wave of social revolt was rising then in France, and he flung himself heart and soul into the turmoil. Not with those politicians who already prepared to seize the reins of power as soon as monarchy would fall under the blows of the revolted proletarians. He foresaw, he knew already, that the new rulers would be against the proletarians the moment they would be at the head of the Republic.

He was with the lowest masses of the Paris proletarians ― with those men and women whose vague hopes were already directed towards a Social, Communistic Commonwealth. Here he represented the so-much-needed link between the advanced parties of the Great Revolution of 1793 and the new generation of Socialists, a giant trying to inspire the generous but much too pacific Socialist proletarians of Paris with the stern daring of the sans-culottes of 1793 and 1794.

Of course, the politicians soon saw how dangerous such a man was for them, and they expelled him from Paris before the first barricades of February 1848, had been built. He was quite right, that bourgeois Republican Caussidière, when he said of Bakunin: “Such men are invaluable before the Revolution. But when a Revolution has begun ― they must be shot.” Of course they must! They will not be satisfied with the first victories of the middle classes. Like our Portuguese worker friends [who participated in the 1910 Portugese Revolution], they will want some immediate practical results for the people. They will want that every one of the downtrodden masses should feel that a new era has come for the ragged proletarian.

Of course, the bourgeois must shoot such men, as they shot the Paris workers in 1871. In Paris, they took the precaution of expelling him before the Revolution began.

Expelled from Paris, Bakunin took his revenge at Dresden, in the Revolution of 1849, and here his worse enemies had to recognize his powers in inspiring the masses in a fight, and his organizing capacities. Then came the years of imprisonment in the fortress of Olmütz, where he was chained to the wall of his cell, and in the deep casemates of the St. Petersburg and Schlüsselburg fortresses, followed by years of exile in Siberia. But in 1862 he ran away from Siberia to the United States, and then to London, where he joined the friends of his youth ― Herzen and Ogaroff.

Heart and soul he threw himself into supporting the Polish uprising of 1863. But it was not until four years later that he found the proper surroundings and ground for his revolutionary agitation in the International Working Men’s Association. Here he saw masses of workers of all nations joining hands across frontiers, and striving to become strong enough in their Unions to throw off the yoke of Capitalism. And at once he understood what was the chief stronghold the workers had to storm, in order to be successful in their struggle against Capital ― the State. And while the political Socialists spoke of getting hold of power in the State and reforming it, “Destroy the State!” became the war-cry of the Latin Federations, where Bakunin found his best friends.

The State is the chief stronghold of Capital ― once its father, and now its chief ally and support. Consequently, Down with Capitalism and down with the State!

All his previous experience and a close friendly intercourse with the Latin workers made of Bakunin the powerful adversary of the State and the fierce revolutionary Anarchist Communist fighter he became in the last ten years of his life.

Here Bakunin displayed all the powers of his revolutionary genius. One cannot read his writings during those years ― mostly pamphlets dealing with questions of the day, and yet full of profound views of society ― without being fired by the force of his revolutionary convictions. In reading these writings and in following his life, one understands why he so much inspired his friends with the sacred fire of revolt.

Down to his last days, even amidst the pangs of a mortal disease, even in his last writings, which he considered his testament, he remained the same firmly convinced revolutionary Anarchist and the same fighter, ready to join the masses anywhere in their revolt against Capital and the State.

Let us, then, follow his example. Let us continue his work, never forgetting that two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution ― two things, as one of my comrades said in the trial at Lyon: an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action ― guided by the force of Anarchist thought.

Peter Kropotkin



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