[May 30 2014 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the great anarchist and syndicalist luminaries: it is only appropriate that this old article be reposted!]
THE REVOLUTIONARY TRADITION: LIBERTARIAN SOCIALISM
THE LIFE OF BAKUNIN
From the Internal Bulletin of the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) of South Africa, no. 2, March/April 1998
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1873) can be seen as the founder of libertarian socialism (anarcho-syndicalism). His ideas are our ideas. Like him, we believe in free socialism from below, in revolutionary trade unionism, women’s freedom, an end to national oppression, and a free socialist society based on grassroots worker and community councils.
As we wrote in the introduction to our booklet Basic Bakunin (R1 from WSF address):
“We do not see Bakunin as a god who never made mistakes. Of course he was not perfect.”
“He was a man, but a man who gave his all for the struggle of the oppressed, a revolutionary hero who deserves our admiration and respect.”
“From Bakunin, we can learn much about revolutionary activism. We can learn even more about the ideas needed to win the age-old fight between exploiter and exploited, between worker and peasant, on the one hand, and boss and ruler on the other.”
“The greatest honor we can do his memory is to fight today and always for human freedom and workers liberation.”
Born in 1814 in Russia, Bakunin quickly developed a burning hatred of oppression. In his 20s, he became involved in radical democratic circles.
At this time he developed a theory of which saw freedom being achieved through a general rising of the working masses, linked to revolutions in the colonies.
He was involved in the revolutionary rising in 1848- in Paris, France; and the revolts of the subject peoples of Eastern Europe.
For this he was persecuted, hounded by the rich and powerful. Captured, he was sentenced to death twice.
However, the Russian government demanded his extradition, and so he was jailed for 6 years without trial in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Release from jail was followed by exile in Siberia.
In 1861, Bakunin escaped. He spent the next 3 years in the fight for Polish independence.
But at this time, he began to realize that formal national independence -the creation of an independent government- was not an adequate guarantee for the liberation of the working and poor masses.
Instead, the fight against imperialism had to be linked to the fight for a real socialism- socialism under the control of the workers- libertarian socialism created from below, sweeping aside the bosses’ governments and capitalism through worker-peasant revolution.
In 1868, Bakunin joined the (First) International Workingmen’s Association. This was a federation of workers organizations, parties and trade unions.
Bakunin soon came to exercise a profound influence on most of the sections, notably those in south Europe and Latin America.
Bakunin’s politics of socialism from below soon brought him into conflict with Karl Marx, another well-known figure in the International.
Karl Marx argued that socialism had to come from above-the workers must try to use the government to bring about socialism, and run candidates in elections.
Bakunin disagreed. He looked forward to the replacement of the bosses’ State by free federations of free workers. Bakunin warned that any attempt to impose socialism from above through a dictatorial government would lead to a “red bureaucracy”, a new “aristocracy” who would step into the shoes of the bosses and oppress the workers. Bakunin has been proven right by the disaster in the Soviet Union.
Failing to defeat Bakunin through democratic methods, the Marxist minority resorted to a campaign of disgraceful lies and slanders. At two unconstitutional congresses, “packed” with Marxist delegates from non- existent organizations, Marx managed to expel Bakunin and change the aims of the International to his aims.
At the next conference- a genuine, representative conference- the delegates overturned Marx’s decisions and rejected the charges against Bakunin. In fact, Bakunin’s political positions were accepted. Because Marx refused to accept this democratic, majority decision, the International split in practice.
Worn out by a lifetime of struggle, Bakunin died prematurely in 1873. His legacy, however, is enormous. As the “founder” of libertarian socialism(anarchism/ syndicalism), Bakunin’s ideas would influence generations of revolutionaries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. His writings and ideas are as relevant today as ever.
His warning that socialism from above would degenerate into oppression and exploitation, his profound insights on the tasks of the workers movement, his points on the struggle against imperialism and women’s oppression-all of these are as important and true as ever.