Please also see: Marxism and Anarchism: The philosophical roots of the Marx-Bakunin conflict — Part one

The Dispute Over the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

With their divergent philosophical frameworks at least partially clarified, it becomes clearer why their political differences could not be resolved. Their respective political programs were tied to conflicting philosophical principles so that they were at times being pulled in diametrically opposed directions.

From Bakunin’s perspective, the most important revolutionary act aimed at the destruction of the institution of the State: “We think that the necessarily revolutionary policy of the proletariat must have for its immediate and only object the destruction of States.” [37] The State, by establishing the right of inheritance, creates economic classes and thereby introduces an “unnatural” dimension in human relations, a perversity, as it were, that can only be maintained through force which, by means of the military and the police, the State monopolizes. When the State is abolished and coercion is removed, people can immediately revert back to their “natural” condition and recapture their “natural” freedom. No transitional period is required. The dictatorship of the proletariat, as another State, would only serve to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Operating within his historical, materialist framework and placing economics first, Marx countered this analysis by arguing that the State, far from creating economic classes, was itself created by them, by the clash of opposing class interests. The ruling class, in order to consolidate its economic privileges, uses the State to create laws which enshrine its monopoly on wealth in a cloak of legal legitimacy, and it establishes a military apparatus that is prepared to implement these laws by brute force.

Consequently, from Marx’s perspective, classes could persist beyond the destruction of the bourgeois state, although with some difficulty, and the bourgeoisie could survive even after its property has been expropriated. People who have enjoyed privileges are molded by them, they tend to view their elevated position as “natural,” and accordingly seldom relinquish their assets voluntarily. As history has proven, they will often fight tenaciously to reinstate them. Hence, according to Marx, if the proletariat is truly determined to succeed, it must be prepared to use decisive force, if the situation demands. Therefore the working class must establish its own coercive apparatus, i.e. state, so that it can defend its interests and enforce a genuine form of majority rule. Otherwise it will find itself at the mercy of a counterrevolution.

In criticizing Marx’s program of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Bakunin raises this challenge: “If the proletariat is to be the ruling class, one may ask whom will it govern? There must be yet another proletariat that will be subjected to this new domination, this new state.” [38] Here Bakunin’s reaction stems from his belief that the State itself is the creator of classes so that whoever controls the state is identified with the ruling, capitalist class while those being victimized by it are the equivalent of the proletariat. But for Marx, as we just saw, the proletarian dictatorship is not aimed at any section of the working class but at the former bourgeoisie, which simply does not disappear overnight.

Bakunin, however, proceeds: “There are about forty million Germans. Are all forty million going to be members of the government?” [39] And Marx responds: “Certainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the commune.” [40]

This last criticism of Bakunin is connected with a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s program. Operating within an a-historical framework, Bakunin was quick to assume all states are basically the same. Hence, he concluded that Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat was not essentially different from the bourgeois state: “… according to Mr. Marx’s theory the people not only must not destroy it [the State] but on the contrary must reinforce it and make it stronger….” [41]

But this was not Marx’s intention. In 1852, for example, in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx argued:

“This executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, this appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores, sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy, with the decay of the feudal system, which it helped to hasten…. Finally, in its struggle against the revolution, the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of governmental power. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.” [42]

Almost twenty years later he reiterated this position: “… If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare: the next French Revolution will no longer attempt to transfer the bureaucratic-military apparatus from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” [43]

The determination to smash the bourgeois state was a cornerstone of Marx’s political program. Its destruction opens the door to the political participation of the entire working class where everyone can have a voice in shaping public policy. If the bourgeois state were to survive, the proletariat would remain hopelessly paralyzed in a bureaucratic quagmire.

Aside from the need of the dictatorship of the proletariat to guard against the bourgeoisie, Marx envisioned the establishment of a socialist society as an arduous task, requiring a transitional period in which the groundwork could be laid for a radically new society. Not subscribing to any concept of a natural, pristine condition that could serve as a point of return, Marx conceived of the revolutionary process as one that actually involved the creation of a new human being, one that was capable of acting both socially and rationally. But such an achievement could not be secured instantaneously; considerable time and effort was required for it to mature.

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” [44]

But in order for a moral and intellectual transformation in humans to take place, or, as mentioned above, “an alteration of man on a mass scale,” the proper economic conditions must exist because, as Marx persistently argued, humans are molded by their economic environment:

“He [Bakunin] understands nothing whatever about social revolution; all he knows about it is political phrases; its economic prerequisites do not exist for him. Since all the economic forms, developed or undeveloped, that have existed till now included the enslavement of the worker (whether in the shape of the wage-worker or the peasant, etc.) he presumes that a radical revolution is equally possible in all of them.” [45]

These economic improvements would include the abolition of the division of labor, especially between mental and manual labor, and the development of the productive forces:

“And … this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which … finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.” [46]

Therefore, the dictatorship of the proletariat was also required since it could not be assumed that relations among people will immediately proceed smoothly. Time would be needed for humanity to recreate itself along more humanitarian principles. Then:

“… after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life, but life’s prime want, after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’” [47]

Organisational Differences

Another major point of dispute centers on the form of organization needed to wage a revolution.

Although Bakunin was a member of the International Working Men’s Association, most of his organizing efforts were concentrated on the creation of secret societies which were governed by a top-down structure. The following quote gives a sense of the role Bakunin assigned to them and why they appeared to be a sensible alternative for him:

“This organization rules out any idea of dictatorship and custodial control. But for the very establishment of the revolutionary alliance and the triumph of revolution over reaction, the unity of revolutionary thought and action must find an agent in the thick of the popular anarchy which will constitute the very life and all the energy of the revolution. That agent must be the secret universal association of international brothers.

“This association stems from the conviction that revolutions are never made by individuals or even by secret societies. They come about of themselves, produced by the force of things, the tide of events and facts…. All that a well-organized secret society can do is first to assist the birth of the revolution by sowing ideas corresponding to the instincts of the masses, then to organize, not the army of the revolution – the army must always be the people – but a kind of revolutionary general staff made up of devoted, hardworking and intelligent men, and above all of sincere friends of the people, without ambition or vanity, and capable of acting as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the popular instinct.

“Therefore there should be no vast number of these individuals…. Two or three hundred revolutionaries are enough for the largest country’s organization.” [48]

There are several important points contained in the above passage. First, the emphasis is placed on the instincts of the masses for the fuel that will erupt in a revolutionary upheaval. Second, there is no emphasis on organizing the masses themselves. Third, the secret societies act somewhat as midwives, assisting in the birth of the revolution but are certainly not considered the main engine of it. They engage in translating the instincts of the masses into revolutionary concepts. Fourth, precisely because these societies are in fact secret, they are not elected by the masses, but are self-appointed representatives of the masses. They themselves determine whether they are genuinely hardworking and intelligent. Using these principles as his point of departure, Bakunin then criticized Marx for failing to appreciate the crucial role of instinct or temperament:

“Likewise, Marx completely ignores a most important element in the historic development of humanity, that is, the temperament and particular character of each race and each people, a temperament and a character which are themselves the natural product of a multitude of ethnological, climatological, economic and historic causes…. Among these elements … there is one whose action is completely decisive in the particular history of each people; it is the intensity of the spirit of revolt…. This instinct is a fact which is completely primordial and animalistic…. [I]t is a matter of temperament rather than intellectual and moral character….” [49]

And for this reason there is no need to educate the masses. In order to mount a revolution, Bakunin’s self-appointed leaders must simply mix with the oppressed so that this instinct to revolt might be ignited. Then, because instincts are true and just, one can depend on them entirely to push the revolution to a successful conclusion. Consequently, Bakunin complained that Marx was actually contaminating this natural flow of events in that Marx was “ruining the workers by making theorists out of them”. [50]

For Marx, the revolutionary process was far more complicated, requiring ongoing education of the proletariat. For example, it was crucial for him that the proletariat acquire class consciousness because, without this consciousness, it would not come to the realization that the entire capitalist system must be abolished and replaced by a system that operates in the interests of working people, as opposed to a small, extremely wealthy minority. In other words, without class consciousness, members of the proletariat assume that their miserable condition is a function of their own individual initiative, or lack thereof, or simply bad luck, as opposed to resulting from naked class exploitation. But class consciousness is not simply gained instinctively since the bourgeoisie, for example, is relentlessly on a campaign to assert ideological hegemony by arguing that capitalism represents the highest achievement in individual freedom, fairness in the distribution of wealth, etc. For these reasons, Marx was always insistent on the importance of propaganda or education:

“To assure the success of the revolution one must have ‘unity of thought and action’. [Marx is quoting Bakunin.] The members of the International are trying to create this unity by propaganda, by discussion and the public organization of the proletariat. But all Bakunin needs is a secret organization of one hundred people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea, the general staff in the background, self-appointed and commanded by the permanent ‘Citizen B’ [i.e., Bakunin].” [51]

But in order for education to take place, the working class must be organized, and one such venue is the trade union movement: “It is in trade unions that workers educate themselves and become socialists, because under their very eyes and every day the struggle with capital is taking place.” [52]

Moreover, for Marx, beyond their trade union experience, workers must be organized on a political level so that they can challenge the bourgeoisie for state power. A political party is the organ through which the working class develops and expresses its class consciousness. It is the instrument with which it articulates and promotes its own class interests in opposition to the bourgeoisie:

“Here, in order to be able to offer energetic opposition to the democratic petty bourgeois, it is above all necessary for the workers to be independently organised and centralised in clubs… The speedy organisation of at least a provincial association of the workers’ clubs is one of the most important points for the strengthening and developing of the workers’ party; the immediate consequence of the overthrow of the existing governments will be the election of a national representative assembly. Here the proletariat must see to it:

“I. that no groups of workers are barred on any pretext or by any kind of trickery on the part of local authorities or government commissioners.

“II. that everywhere workers’ candidates are put up alongside the bourgeois-democratic candidates, that they are as far as possible members of the League, and that their election is promoted by all possible means. Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory.” [52a]

Furthermore, from Marx’s perspective, these working class organizations must encompass the entire proletariat. The working class as a whole must become actively engaged so that the discussions and debates truly amount to “universal intercourse”. If only some are engaged in the decision-making process, then the decisions will reflect only these special interests so that the decisions will not be universally valid.

“Thus things have now come to such a pass, that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence… In all appropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, only when controlled by all.” [53]

Therefore, while Bakunin was intent on organizing secret societies and relying on the instincts of the masses to push the revolution to a successful conclusion, Marx was urging that the workers themselves become organized. These working class organizations not only serve as vehicles for education, but they have the potential to become powerful weapons aimed at challenging the bourgeoisie for state power. In the process of this struggle, workers not only deepen their self-consciousness as an oppressed class, but gradually acquire the realization that they are capable of seizing control of society and running it in their own interests.

Political Reforms

Bakunin consistently condemned all efforts on the part of the proletariat to improve its lot by pressing for specific legislation that seemed in its interest. The State, after all, was an unnatural excrescence, implying that any participation in it would only contaminate the revolutionary movement. Marx, on the other hand, not only regarded this political engagement as permissible but even, at times, as indispensable, provided that the conquest of state power was not on the immediate agenda, either because the objective conditions were lacking or because the proletariat had not already achieved the appropriate level of class consciousness and organization. Struggling for reforms involves a certain level of organized, self-determination and hence contributes to the transformation of the working class into active agents. Also, when these campaigns are successful, they can endow the working class with a sense of its own power, enhance its self-confidence, and consequently lead to even bolder initiatives in a revolutionary direction. Moreover, the legislation can in turn open up greater opportunities for working class self-activity, for example, by shortening the working day. Finally, as mentioned earlier, this kind of political engagement is an expression of, and contributes to, the development of class consciousness:

“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class as a class confronts the ruling classes and tries to constrain them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt by strikes, etc., in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to compel individual capitalists to reduce the working day, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc. law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a class movement, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force.” [54]

For Marx, the development of class consciousness is a slow process that traverses a number of stages. On the lowest level, a worker who is suffering from the relations of exploitation approaches the employer as an individual, pleading for ameliorated working conditions. After meeting with failure, workers eventually come to recognize that a more promising avenue lies in collective action, for example, in organizing a union and launching a strike. Here the individual’s consciousness rises one level as he or she realizes that co-workers are also suffering and collective action can be far more effective than the pleas of an isolated individual. But these struggles can in turn lead to action on a more universal plane where one realizes that one’s plight is not simply the function of a particular workplace but emanates from the capitalist system itself. Here, individuals recognize that all workers are suffering and that by organizing the entire working class, a powerful agent is created that has the capacity to change such laws as the length of the working day; and so on. The political arena offers an important opportunity for the proletariat to embark on this path of growth.

The Revolutionary Agent

Another strategical disagreement dividing Marx and Bakunin centered around the question of who would lead the revolution. Both agreed that the proletariat would play a key role, but for Marx the proletariat was the exclusive, leading revolutionary agent while Bakunin entertained the possibility that the peasants and even the lumpenproletariat (the unemployed, common criminals, etc.) could rise to the occasion. Bakunin argued, for example, that the peasants were a revolutionary class for three reasons: (1) They have retained “the simple, robust temperament and the energy germane to the folk nature.” (2) They work with their hands and despise privilege. And (3) as toilers they have common interests with workers. [55] In other words, being close to nature, the peasants are less alienated from their true, natural essence since they have suffered less corruption by the evils of society. Bakunin adopted a similar argument in relation to the lumpenproletariat:

“By flower of the proletariat, I mean precisely that eternal ‘meat’, … that great rabble of the people (underdogs, ‘dregs of society’) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase lumpenproletariat. I have in mind the ‘riffraff’, that ‘rabble’ almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization, which carries in its inner being and in its aspirations … all the seeds of the socialism of the future….” [56]

In both cases, Bakunin’s conclusions flow directly from his conviction that inherent in humanity is a natural essence which can be suppressed but never entirely extinguished. Those in society who are more distant from the State apparatus (the peasants are scattered throughout the countryside, the lumpenproletariat simply refuses to obey the laws) are accordingly natural leaders.

In contrast, Marx consistently argued that the proletariat alone was the revolutionary agent: “Of all classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.” [57] Here again their different philosophical frameworks led these revolutionaries in opposed directions. Because Marx believed human nature was shaped by the economy, he analyzed the possible revolutionary agents by analyzing how the economy would influence their development. And economic considerations led him to conclude that the peasants could not play a leading revolutionary role. For example, they do not constitute a cohesive class. Some are large landowners and hire other peasants to work for them while the latter are often landless and destitute. Moreover, the desire for land by a majority of the peasants could serve as an anchor, holding them back from a truly revolutionary perspective. Rather than rallying for a thoroughgoing, socialist revolution where private ownership of land is abolished, they often veer in the direction of seeking to augment their own modest, private property land holdings at the expense of the large landowners. But aside from these economic considerations, Marx also believed that the situation of the peasants, not only prohibited them from attaining class consciousness, but from becoming a truly revolutionary class:

“The small holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse…. Their field of production, the small holding, admits of no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science and, therefore, no diversity of development, no variety of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another small holding, another peasant and another family…. In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is a merely local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class.” [58]

Marx was even less enthusiastic about the lumpenproletariat because it was not directly related to the production process at all, being comprised of the permanently unemployed, criminals, etc.


We can now see that when Marxists and anarchists refer to such concepts as “human nature” and “freedom”, they have diametrically opposed definitions in mind and therefore are frequently talking at cross-purposes. Bakunin’s notion of spontaneity stands starkly opposed to Marx’s notion of collective, rational action. Each author, armed with his own definition, could then logically categorize the other as a tyrant. One can understand, therefore, why Bakunin labeled Marx an “authoritarian” when Marx would not concede to Bakunin’s impulsive politics. Marx, on the other hand, viewed Bakunin’s conceptual framework as mired in an antiquated 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, lacking any historical dimension, theoretically inconsistent, and parading metaphysics as if it were materialism. As far as Marx was concerned, Hegel could easily have been speaking of Bakunin when he declared:

“Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself. In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is in the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds.” [59]

Neither the early nor the later Marx was a figure of the late Enlightenment, a philosophic school which trumpeted the autonomy of the isolated individual, divorced from a human community. And Marx had little to say about socialist alternatives, except by suggesting broad parameters, since socialism, in the final analysis, is to be defined and created by the participants themselves, i.e. by “freely associated men” engaged in “universal intercourse” who in this way achieve “control and conscious mastery” of their lives.

(First Published: What’s Next, December 2003)

I would like to thank Bill Leumer, Paul Colvin and Fred Newhouser for their valuable suggestions in connection with this article.


37. Bakunin, Michael, Marxism, Freedom and the State (London, 1950), p.43.

38. Bakunin, Michael, ‘Statism and Anarchy’, in Shatz, Marshall, ed., The Essential Works of Anarchism (New York/Chicago, 1972), p.162.

39. Ibid., p.162.

40. Marx, Karl, ‘The Conspectus of Bakunin’s Book State and Anarchy’, in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (Moscow, 1972), p.150.

41. Bakunin, Michael, ‘Statism and Anarchy’, p.166.

42. Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, pp.121-2.

43. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Selected Correspondence (Moscow), p.247.

44. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Selected Works in One Volume (New York, 1968), p.323.

45. Marx, Karl, ‘The Conspectus of Bakunin’s Book State and Anarchy’, pp.148-9.

46. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, The German Ideology, pp.46-7.

47. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Selected Works in One Volume, pp.324-5.

48. Bakunin Michael, Selected Writings, p.172.

49. Dolgoff, Sam, Bakunin on Anarchy, pp.282-3.

50. Quoted in Joll, James, The Anarchists (Cambridge, 1980), p.69.

51. Marx and Engels, ‘The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association’, in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p.112.

52. McLellan, David, Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p.538.

52. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Collected Works, Volume 10, p.284.

53. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, The German Ideology, pp.84-5.

54. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Selected Correspondence, p.328.

55. Maximoff, G.P., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, p.204.

56. Dolgoff, Sam, Bakunin on Anarchy, p.294.

57. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Collected Works, Volume 6 (New York, 1976), p.494.

58. Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p.124.

59. Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford, 1979), p.43.