In Theory Bakunin: Statism and Class Struggle

In a new addition to his "A to Z of theory" series, political theorist Andrew Robinson introduces, in a three-part essay, the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, "perhaps the best-known of the classical anarchists". In part one, Robinson introduces Bakunin's thoughts on statism and class struggle.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 24, 2011 10:00 - 3 Comments


By Andrew Robinson

Perhaps the best-known of the classical anarchists, Mikhail Bakunin is known for his advocacy of the “urge to resist”. There is much more to his theory than is generally known or studied. A contemporary of Marx, and his antagonist in some bitter disputes within the First International, Bakunin offers an analysis of power, classes and social life which differs from Marx’s in important ways. A re-examination of Bakunin’s thought provides a basis for considering the politics of the excluded and the structure of forces of oppression and domination.

Critique of the State

Bakunin is best-known as an anarchist theorist, who poses a thoroughgoing critique of state power, in works such as Statism and Anarchy. This theory is deduced from a particular view of how states work. Bakunin believes that the state has a fundamental nature, which can be deduced from the actions of particular states.

His view of the state is heavily inflected by a strong rejection of the military, and its repressive disciplining practices. (This may have been influenced by his own time in the military). On the whole, he associates states with all situations where power-inequalities exist. The problem lies in the fact of being governed, not in a particular form of government.

Even imaginary government is to be rejected. For instance, Bakunin also devotes considerable attention to arguing for atheism. He views belief in God as the enslavement of humans to an imaginary will, the negation of reason and the basis for earthly dictatorships.

State thought: monopolising allegiance

Central to Bakunin’s view of the state is a claim that states monopolise allegiance. Bakunin claims that states impose injustice and cruelty as a duty, and mutilate humanity, so people become citizens instead of human beings. States try to break down human solidarity by positing themselves as the final point of reference for their citizens or subjects.

The state produces a state morality and reasons of state, in which good and bad are defined by what is good and bad for the state’s power. This elevates the collective egoism of particular associations to the status of ethical categories.

In order for this morality to function internationally, it must also function domestically, and the state must seek to be as powerful domestically as internationally. This is because the state needs to keep people fixated on state morality and opposed to human morality. States are thus ‘prisons of peoples’ and sites of the arts of domination and fraud.

The state as conquest and domination

Another part of Bakunin’s argument is that states are aggressive. For Bakunin, the modern state is necessarily a military state. It is necessarily driven to conquer and subjugate, and to be aggressive. This is because it has force which it must display or mobilise. Simply to preserve its imposed unity from internal collapse or external invasion, the state needs a vast army, police force and bureaucracy. Weak and small states are vulnerable to being swallowed-up by big and strong states.

Furthermore, states do not easily tolerate equivalence, since their nature is to pursue supremacy. A bipolar world will necessarily be one of conflict (as in the Cold War). The existence of several states ensures competition, jealousy and endless war.

States therefore tend to amass total power and embark on conquest, under pain of being destroyed if they do not. States therefore always produce conquered and enslaved peoples. A universal state is impossible because the state depends on control. There have to be in-groups and out-groups.

States stem fundamentally from the military. Only conquering nations create states. For the state, the right of conquest, or of ultimate recourse to arms, is a superior principle over the state’s other principles and laws. (Bakunin here prefigures Benjamin’s distinction between law-enforcing and law-creating violence, and Agamben’s analysis of sovereignty). The predominance and triumph of force is the essence of statecraft, and right is simply a means to consecrate the outcomes of force.

Furthermore, states tend to put their sovereigns above the law. This is because the state exists to grab, and knows no bounds of its own. The idea of such an entity being driven by a civilising mission or suchlike is deemed laughable.

Bakunin’s view is here remarkably similar to that of International Relations Realists, who maintain that relations among states always tend towards war. Where Bakunin differs from Realists is in his view that the state is unnecessary and can be overthrown. He also sees states as responding as much to internal as external pressures, which goes against the Realist view.

He also attaches great importance to ethnic conflict in international relations. He believes that states stir up ethnic allegiances and tensions, often deceptively, to mobilise a different force – the ‘nation’ – against their enemies.

Today, one might imagine Bakunin emphasising how poorer states build up their capabilities either to defend themselves against imperialist invasion (Iran’s alleged nuclear programme for example), or to impose WTO and IMF agendas dictated by other states, against resistance from their own people. Either way, they come under pressure to build up immense military and police forces, far outstripping any meagre attempts at social welfare.

The state and difference

The state is unable to deal with the range of difference within humanity. Because it governs immense numbers from the top down, it necessarily involves minority rule (even when it has elections for leaders), and cannot fully appreciate the needs or claims of those it rules. The state necessarily uses a one-size-fits-all model, which is necessarily inappropriate for a diverse and complex reality. ‘There will always be discontented people because there will always be some who are sacrificed’, Bakunin argues.

To imagine a just state to be possible, it is necessary to believe that an individual or small group can understand all the ‘infinite multitude of interests, tendencies and actions’ of a large number of other people, which do not become uniform even when they have a united struggle. On the other hand, Bakunin proposes to view diversity in abilities as the abundance of humanity.

The public good, public safety, or will of the people is necessarily the negation of all the real wills of particular people, subordinated to an abstraction. The state is fundamentally an arbitrary being which sacrifices living beings to itself. It tries to subordinate large numbers of people to the thoughts of a particular brain.

State centralisation necessarily produces moral and intellectual decay. In some cases, he argues that states seek to lull culture into obscurity – for instance, replacing thought with rote learning in universities. This is because the state functions better if the people who are dominated are also stupefied and dulled in their thoughts and feelings. The state requires for its existence that people be kept ignorant, incapable and of low status, so that the ruling class and the state can claim to be leading humanity towards a common good.

The state as elite rule

Bakunin also argues that states necessarily involve class domination. In practice, majority rule never materialises, as parties continue to be run by elite leaderships. The working people rarely have the time or education to engage with politics. Hence, the people don’t really make the laws, they obey laws made in their name by governing minorities, and their obedience is submission to an arbitrary will.

The only advantage of elections is that the elite minorities have to flatter the ‘fleeting passions’ or deceive the people rather than ignore them entirely. Such regimes are better than monarchies, but nonetheless still forms of minority rule.

Every logical theory of the state is founded on the principle of authority: the belief that most people are incapable of self-government and must submit to an imposed wisdom and justice from above. This claim can have three possible sources: violence, religion or superiority of intelligence.

In contrast to Marx, Bakunin writes of the bureaucracy as a class. In some countries, such as Turkish-occupied Serbia, there is no bourgeoisie or nobility, but only a bureaucratic class which is directly the ruling class. In others, a class such as the bourgeoisie, aristocracy or clergy serves as the ruling class inside the state. The bureaucracy becomes the ruling class when other ruling classes are exhausted, and the state is reduced to being a machine.

He also talks about states varying in their composition. For instance, Russia was preeminently a military state, but prone to corruption. Germany was military but with its ethos socially defused, whereas France lacked the discipline to be a military state.

The military (and one might suppose, the police) are an enemy of the people because they are formed as a separate entity, an entire world in their own right. Bakunin also writes of the statists as a ‘party’ or faction counterposed to others (for instance, sometimes battling with the liberals or social-democrats).

For Bakunin, political power cannot be negotiated with or rendered harmless by deals, or bound with pieces of paper (such as constitutions and laws); the only way to pacify it is to destroy it. The liberal idea of a state resulting from a social contract is taken by Bakunin to contrast with the real nature of states. Since justice and order would stem from the arrangement of social life in such a world, the state would be reduced to a public service role (what Nandy terms the state-as-arbiter).

But the adherents of the state will not accept such a reduction and subordination to liberty; they insist on a state which directs social life (state-as-liberator) and administers public order (state-as-protector). They therefore require that people be kept powerless and submissive.

He portrays German liberals as getting corrupted over time, from revolutionaries into part of the state project. They transmute into ‘conservative-liberal reaction’, the defence of the state at all costs, and the avoidance of street battles by their supporters.

Authoritarians such as Bismarck (and Bush?) know that they can ignore liberal criticisms because the liberals will endorse their victories once they are achieved. The state develops an art of hiding despotism behind liberal and democratic forms. And in practice, the bourgeoisie usually relies on the people to make its revolutions before seizing the profits of them.

This account of liberals succumbing to the temptation of state authoritarianism is all too familiar today. It is because of this pattern of ‘conservative-liberal reaction’ that it is still imagined that the ‘security’-ravaged states of the post-911 era are still liberal democracies.

Bakunin also believes that it is in ‘human nature’ for any faction to be corrupted by power. Even socialists will ultimately succumb. The implied claim here is that human nature is to act on one’s class position. He later claims similarly of the bourgeoisie, that class suicide is impossible: no bourgeois can ever want economic equality. Classes act on their interests, he suggests. This is because he views circumstances and environment as the primary source of social action. Someone’s morality depends more on their context than their will.

Bakunin would probably see today’s neo-patrimonial states (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, etc), as well as the old ‘communist’ states of Eastern Europe, as instances of a bureaucracy as a ruling class. He seems far more alert than Marx to the concrete forms of power operating in peripheral regions.

He would also be sensitive to the different relations between the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie in contexts such as Britain, in contrast to the usual Marxist approach of assuming that the state is run by the bourgeoisie. In the case of ‘growth coalitions’, a bureaucratic faction promotes and enables capital accumulation as a means to extract tribute for itself. The bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie work together in a kind of class alliance, which contrasts sharply with earlier situations in which the bourgeoisie sought to constrain the bureaucracy as a potential rival.

Whereas Marx viewed the state as simply an expression of the alienation of social life, and Marxists have persisted in viewing the state either as an instrument of bourgeois rule, a terrain contested between different classes, or an effect of a particular class composition, Bakunin effectively suggests that there is a state-class as such. The state is made up of a particular class, distinct from the bourgeoisie, which has its own dynamics and interests.

This leads to very different conclusions from Marx on the possibility of using the state as even a temporary means for social change. For Bakunin, such a move risks empowering the bureaucracy as a rival ruling class. In his analyses, the state and the ‘people’ or ‘nation’ are always discussed as two different agents.

Classes and Class Struggle

Bakunin is a class-struggle anarchist, and his analysis of class is similar to that of Marx. He explicitly endorses Marx’s view that legal and political rights actually stem from economic facts. His accounts of politics thus include classes as well as states.

The privileged classes

The relationship between the state and the bourgeoisie is friendly, but complex. The bourgeoisie wants a certain kind of state. It seeks the strongest possible state against rebellion. Hence, it wants a military dictatorship. It also, however, wants this dictatorship covered-up with forms of representation, for ideological reasons both internal to the bourgeoisie and directed at the masses.

This would seem to lead to something like Amin’s low-intensity democracy or William Robinson’s polyarchy. Ultimately, military discipline is the last word of bourgeois civilisation. However, when deprived of power, the bourgeoisie becomes a revolutionary class, aiming for armed insurrection.

While denouncing class privilege, Bakunin also sees it as a negative experience. Prefiguring postcolonial ideas of privilege as loss, Bakunin argued that privilege has a depraving effect on one’s heart and mind.

Bakunin also disagrees with Marx’s analysis of class polarisation, taking a view of class structure that is more like a graded hierarchy or pyramid.
For instance, he believes in a kind of intellectual stratum of metaphysicians (philosophical theorists) and positivists (scientific researchers), whom he considers to be reactionary. They seek power, and would be oppressors like anyone else if they got it. He suspects them of performing on society the same experiments vivisectors perform on animals. Not only this, but they are also easily fooled about the reality of the social situation, falling for ideas like the ‘civilising mission’.

He believes that intellectuals who put science or thought before life are supporters of the state, and seek to exercise dictatorial power so as to ensure that social movements are managed rationally and that life is in practice subordinated to thought. He also criticises the irrelevance of most academic activity to the life of poor peasants. There is more truth in the ‘instinctive aspirations’ and ‘real needs’ of the masses than in intellectual endeavours. Bakunin calls for the abolition of the intellectual-manual labour division and the opening of science to the people.

He also mounts an early critique of vanguard parties. A party living and acting outside the people, he maintains, needs them only as a means to power, and will necessarily betray them afterwards, allying with the defeated reactionaries. For instance, they allow the reactionaries to retain control of the army.

The popular classes

Like Marx, Bakunin believes in a fundamental class antagonism. The bourgeoisie and proletariat confront each other as enemies, with no reconciliation possible. This conflict expresses itself especially in street battles, such as the 1834 and 1848 revolts in France. These kinds of revolts shake statists deeply, and sometimes involve the defeat of the army by the people.

When the military unleashes its full firepower, it can devastate the people, but simultaneously expose the situation of social war. For Bakunin, the only response to such military barbarism is an equally savage and ruthless force. Bakunin formulates an early version of the theory of proletarian autonomy.

The state, Bakunin argues, is based on force, not right. Therefore, the triumph of abstract right cannot be a victory over the state. Liberation can only be conquered by force. This requires autonomous forces organised outside and against the state to defeat it. Autonomy is here treated very strictly: there are to be no alliances with political forces, as the basis of power is to be social and hence anti-political. Alliances always turn to the benefit of the more reactionary force, sapping the morale of progressive forces.

One of the most noted aspects of Bakunin’s view of class is his emphasis on the worse-off, marginal or excluded workers (compare today’s idea of the precariat).

To Bakunin, the ‘flower of the proletariat’ is not the elite of ‘semi-bourgeois workers’ who could become a new ruling class – this group of workers is too corrupted by bourgeois values. Rather, it is the ‘non-civilized, disinherited, wretched and illiterates’ – the ‘rabble’ or ‘riff-raff’, termed lumpenproletarians by Marx and Engels – the excluded and hyperexploited layers of workers and peasants.

Bakunin sees this group as relatively unpolluted by capitalist ideas and carrying in its heart the seeds of revolution. Presumably, he means that the urge to resist is strongest in this group.

Whereas Marx treats inclusion in capitalism as having civilising effects, Bakunin treats it as a kind of corruption and debasement. He looks to marginal groups who are less contaminated, and who retain vital energies of life.

He effectively believes in a certain primacy of active force, which is actualised to some degree in localised social life, but is repressed or turned against itself in capitalist and statist organisations. It is hence a force which exists everywhere, but is stronger at some points than at others, and strongest at the points which are least integrated.

Peasants usually appear in Bakunin’s account as a revolutionary force. He enthusiastically contrasts his own praise of peasant resistance to Marx’s contempt for the peasantry. Being less connected than urban workers to the core functioning of capitalism, the peasants are taken to retain the instinct of rebellion.

This said, Bakunin also recognises that the peasantry are not always revolutionary. In Russia, he criticises their stance of splitting in relation to the state: worshipping the imaginary state in the figure of the tsar, while hating the real brutality of the state as experienced in their own lives.

Bakunin has an interesting explanation for the absence of peasant revolt. He believes the Russian peasant villages, or communes, are unable to create a popular insurrection due to their isolation and self-containment. To offset this, he calls for connections to be made between these different local worlds, while introducing the energies of revolutionary thought. This prefigures the ideas of de- and re-composition in autonomism, and provides an interesting model for thinking about organising networks of resistance today.

Nations and races

States and classes are only two of the three main categories in Bakunin’s account of politics. Controversially, he also extends his account of social groups to nations and ‘races’.

In his view, nationality is not universal, but local and contingent. Nevertheless, as a local, contingent fact, it needs to be recognised. Every nation has an individuality, and like every individual, it has a right to be itself. It does not, however, have a right to preoccupy itself with nationalism (or individuality) as a ‘special principle’, transcending all other contingent facts.

Bakunin here distinguishes the nation as ‘fact’ from the nation as a Stirnerian spook or as an essence, suggesting that no particular aspect of existence should be privileged over other aspects. Each state has its own peculiar characteristics, or ‘special historical character’. So, too, does each particular ‘race’ or ‘people’. Each has a temperament and character which derive from a range of historical and geographic causes.

Once formed, this character shapes history aside from economic causes, and even affects economic developments. Most importantly, the intensity of the instinct to revolt varies between different peoples. This idea of a ‘historical character’ of the nation makes simple for Bakunin matters which are difficult for Marxists to explain – for instance, the election of reactionaries by popular voters.

The state and nation both have special historical characters, but they are separate forces, as is shown in wars. Wars can be divided into those which become ‘national’ wars – in which the nation enthusiastically fights alongside the state – and those which do not.

Defensive wars against invaders or occupiers often become national. Offensive wars rarely do so, except when motivated by a revolutionary or religious ideal. Offensive wars are usually ‘political’ wars, aiming simply to make the state stronger. And the oppressed people have little interest in any such war. The people either obey only under coercion, or disobey when they can.

The German army, for example, is particularly prone to what would later be called the ‘authoritarian personality’: obedience to superiors and contempt for anyone deemed inferior, with a particular hatred for revolutionaries. He sees this particular personality as a product of a particular regime of drilling and rote learning which turns the soldier from a man into a monster.

Germany is viewed as the last sovereign state in Europe, because the other states are ‘mere vice-royalties’ (today, this might make America the only true state). Germans are taken to have developed a cult of state power and an authoritarian social instinct. They are taken to feel no need for liberty, only for an all-devouring state.

Germans are taken to have a deep passion for slavery and domination, oscillating between the two poles. Hence, Bismarck’s popularity grew when he started acting despotically. The English and Americans are likened to the Germans, and contrasted with the Latin nations and the Slavs. The French nation, in contrast, lacks the organic statism necessary for military dominance, partly because, unlike Germans, French people do not tolerate discipline.

At the other extreme of his analysis are the Slavs. According to Bakunin, the Slavs never formed states, because they are not conquering peoples. However, the Slavs cannot liberate themselves by copying the means of the conqueror, forming their own state which would amount to a Slavic yoke.

Instead they should look to a revolution of all oppressed peoples, and the destruction of all states. Against pan-Slavists who celebrated the Russian Empire, Bakunin argues that Russia is a source of blessings only for various levels of officials, and a source of misery and torture for the masses.

Viewed sympathetically, his analyses in ‘Statism and Anarchy’ can be seen as prefiguring class composition analyses of the state. Bakunin viewed particular states and ‘peoples’ as having different kinds of inner structures or compositions, varying among other things with the particular arrangement of elements in the state and the power of different classes in society.

The German state is efficient, whereas the Russian state is corrupt. Different compositions arise from different circumstances. Germany, for instance, overdeveloped its military and lagged behind in everything else due to its limited coastline. This foreshadows later ideas of land and coastal powers with different characteristics in international relations.

Bakunin also foreshadows the problems of anti-colonial revolutions: that newly formed states often imitate the very projects of modernist dispossession, military buildups and centralised power which the liberation movement was meant to overthrow.

He implicitly argues that the ultimate failure of the anti-colonial revolutions is contained in their duplication of the forms of power established by the coloniser: states, nations, militaries. This echoes contemporary critiques that, for example, Japanese militarism, Hindu communalism and Chinese nationalism have sought independence from the west by copying western forms of power. They replace the ruler but not the structure of rule.

Bakunin is instead arguing for an anti-colonial revolution which destroys all states, including an alliance of oppressed and colonised peoples across the world – something like an anarchist Bandung, conducted through links between ‘peoples’ rather than states. Today we might think of this in terms of networks of social movements. If we replace his ‘national characters’ of Germans and Slavs with ideas of post-imperial and post-colonial societies, his analysis could be useful in examining national narratives and trajectories of rebellion today.

In Bakunin’s account, imperialism is deemed a risky business, as with the Roman conquest of the Germanic peoples, which ended with the latter sacking Rome. This foreshadows postcolonial ideas that the colonial power, by making its history elsewhere, bring the outside inside and destroy themselves. One might compare this to the incorporation of vast swathes of the world in ‘globalisation’ – leading to vulnerabilities to similarly ‘globalised’ attacks.

On the negative side, Bakunin’s use of national typologies slips across all too easily into racism. It is his anti-Semitism which is more noticeable to the later reader – he views Jews as commonly allies of centralised states, and recycles the Jew-as-financier stereotype among other things. He also says some decidedly Orientalist things about the Chinese, and is generally rather Eurocentric in his approach.

It seems strange that a theorist committed to class analysis would fall into such clumsy racial and national stereotyping. It might serve as a warning that ideas of national ‘character’ should be left well alone. On the other hand, it might simply suggest that Bakunin sometimes applied his nascent compositional analysis of national identity too clumsily.

Part Two is published on July 1st.
Part Three is published on July 8th.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.



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In Theory – Bakunin (II) – Bakunin vs Marx – Ceasefire Magazine
Jul 1, 2011 9:01

[...] here for Part One. Part Three is published on July [...]

Mark Leier
Jul 1, 2011 18:28

I very much enjoyed these thoughtful, careful essays, and look forward to part 3. Best wishes, Mark Leier

In Theory – Bakunin (III) – The Urge To Resist – Ceasefire Magazine
Jul 8, 2011 9:29

[...] also: Parts one and two of this [...]

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