Occupy Book Club#2: “Critique of the Marxist Theory of State” by Bakunin

(Have you checked out my book yet? Only $2.99. You know you want it!)

I am currently reading three books at once; all are quite long, the longest being Marx’s Capital V. 1, which I will probably do a couple posts on once I finish reading it. I’m currently at page 400.

As a filler in the mean time, let’s look over some essays by Marx’s primary contemporary opponent, Mikhail Bakunin, whose influence on the Occupy movement is huge-he was one of the most cited thinkers in conversations I had with the most dedicated Occupiers, and because his ideas have never been attempted on a large scale, a much easier figure to romanticize than Marx is, though I would argue despite many questionable conclusions, Marx is the greater thinker. More on that when I post my reading of Capital.

Since Statism and Anarchy is obscenely overpriced, even used, I’ve begun with a sampling available for free at marxists.org. I’m going to cover each individually.


This is a very short piece laying out in a concise if confused fashion the primary objections of Bakunin to Marx’s theory of social progress. A couple good points are mixed in with a lot of self-contradictory rheotric.

He opens with maybe his most questionable position in the essay, a statement of pretty strict theory/praxis dualism:

Theory is always created by life, but never creates it; like mile-posts and road signs, it only indicates the direction and the different stages of life’s independent and unique development.

I’m not sure that Marx would even disagree with this statement in any of his non-prescriptive writings. Marx believed that the ideological positions, religious and secular, of a given time period come from a need to rationalize the economic organizations/means of production. I would argue, falling equally into the metaphysical trap, that in fact Foucault was probably closer to the answer with his idea of an economy of discourse-to say that people never act on theory/metaphysics is to make Bakunin’s very writing of this essay problematic. The reality exists not in a middle ground between the two positions but in a much more complex relationship than I think either every conceived of.

Bakunin elaborates:

We are convinced that the masses of the people carry in themselves, in their instincts (more or less developed by history), in their daily necessities, and in their conscious or unconscious aspirations, all the elements of the future social organization.

This passage is pretty densely informed by Bakunin’s own positions. His belief in agency is encapsulated in the use of “in themselves”. Gertrude Stein responds:

There was no past or present in her, there was existence in her, there was a character to her but there was nothing important inside her, but she had existence enough to make of her a really existent thing inside her, existence was strong in her every moment in her, strong enough to make it to be real inside her, she did not need others around her to make existence inside her.

Obviously this is a puzzle too complex for a single response essay, mine or Bakunin’s. Still, we come to the problem of the basis of theory of state on an “inherent” “nature” of man. Which is not to say there aren’t behaviors and narratives that seem to repeat themselves on a grand or small scale throughout history and our own experiences. To boil these down to such a small construct would be to boil most of them off.

Bakunin is very concerned, and as it borne out entirely correctly, with Marx’s notion of the necessary transitional state that had to follow capitalism before the establishment of the ideal worker’s state. Bakunin here sees through the rationalist rhetoric of Marx and to a lesser extent the questionable posturing of sociology as “science” (and it should be noted that Marx, throughout Capital draws a lot of analogies to chemistry and questionably will derive principles by analogy):

The principal vice of the average specialist is his inclination to exaggerate his own knowledge and deprecate everyone else’s. Give him control and he will become an insufferable tyrant. To be the slave of pedants – what a destiny for humanity! Give them full power and they will begin by performing on human beings the same experiments that the scientists are now performing on rabbits and dogs

And questions whether Marx actually came to a new system at all:

The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.

In this quote, I see the genesis of Occupy’s resistance to electoral politics. It seems fairly reasonable. On the other hand, that there would need to be a transitional period between capitalism and what comes after also seems reasonable, for the exact reason that Bakunin tossed out at the beginning of his essay: the ideology of the population has to become amenable to the new form of organization, if only by a mass flushing of the old ideas. God makes the Jews wait for 40 years before allowing them into the promised land so those possessed of a “slave mentality” are flushed out etc.

Bakunin seems to suggest in his further attack on Marx’s elite that the defining element of character and agency, contrary to his own stated positions, is socially determined:

The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people.

It would seem then that the necessary transitional state shouldn’t focus on a concentration of power, and I can accept this without much quibbling. However, the answer would have to lie in the educational system, which, unlike in the communist states that have hitherto existed, would have to be carefully and precisely separated, if possible, from the propaganda system. I’ll go into this option more fully when I cover Neil Postman’s The End of Education and maybe some Dewey too if I feel up to it.

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