Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Bakunin’

Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet

February 20, 2013 1 comment

«Kapitalismus aufbrechen!»

A decades ago John Holloway shook up the Marxist academy with the publication of his book, Change The World Without Taking Power”. Holloway’s argument was that the Marxist preoccupation with taking power was not only obsolete, it was counterproductive, serving only to divert energy and time to a quixotic effort that leaves Marxists banging their heads bloody against the brick wall of capitalist relations of production. Said Holloway:

The world cannot be changed through the state. Both theoretical reflection and a whole century of bad experience tell us so. ‘We told you so’, say the satisfied ones, ‘We said so all along. We said it was absurd. We told you that you couldn’t go against human nature. Give up the dream, give up!’

A decade after it was published, I think it an examination is called for, the purpose of which is to see how Holloway’s critique of post-war Marxism stands up to time.

Read more…

Bakunin’s Anarchism, Marxists Dogmas and Marx

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

K. Marx (L) and M. Bakunin


I set out to write a piece on Murray Rothbard and communism. Instead, I got bogged down by this detour into Marx’s theoretical differences with Anarchism. The day progressed, Marx and Bakunin would not stop their bickering and let me leave.

Alas, Murray will have to wait for another day.


There is an interesting response given by Karl Marx to a denunciation of his views by Mikhail Bakunin in notes on quotations Marx pulled from Bakunin’s book, Statism and Anarchy.

Bakunin writes:

They say that their only concern and aim is to educate and uplift the people (saloon-bar politicians!) both economically and politically, to such a level that all government will be quite useless and the state will lose all political character, i.e. character of domination, and will change by itself into a free organization of economic interests and communes. An obvious contradiction. If their state will really be popular, why not destroy it, and if its destruction is necessary for the real liberation of the people, why do they venture to call it popular?

Marx replies to this:

Aside from the harping of Liebknecht’s Volksstaat, which is nonsense, counter to the Communist Manifesto etc., it only means that, as the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside. Mr Bakunin concludes from this that it is better to do nothing at all… just wait for the day of general liquidation — the last judgement.

The answer Marx gives to Bakunin is extremely telling not simply in relation to Anarchist ideology, but — more important for our times — in relation to the present day Marxists.

In Bakunin’s understanding Marx was making the argument that some definite period of time after the overthrow of the political rule of the capitalist class, the working class would not immediately abolish its own coercive political rule, but would embark on some period of a transitional ‘worker’s state’ (a term Marx accepted in another context, but did not endorse). In Marx’s model, says Bakunin, during this period the worker’s state would “uplift the people … both economically and politically…” to some certain level of social development where the worker’s state, and its coercive functions, would become obsolete.

Bakunin proposes that a contradiction lay at the heart of Marx’s position: If the worker’s state is truly popular — that is, if it truly enforces certain rules that are commonly and overwhelmingly supported — why can’t this coercive power be done away with entirely? And, if its coercive power must be done away with for the society to enjoy real unfettered association, why is Marx calling it a popular power?

Marx corrects Bakunin to clarify that his position is expressed in the Communist Manifesto and not in the words Bakunin employs to describe them. He then continues to explain the basis of the ideas in the Manifesto: First, upon coming to power the Proletariat takes political control of society under definite economic conditions, and not on the basis of some idealist notions independent of those economic conditions. Since, in Marx’s theory, the State arises from the material conditions of society and does not exist independent of those conditions, it is not possible for coercion to just disappear until the conditions giving rise to it disappears as well. Try as society may like to abolish the functions of state power on the morning of the new order, still the actual economic conditions on which this new order rests have their reciprocal influence on society. Bakunin’s argument that in no case should the Proletariat establish its political rule amounted to a demand that it not take power until it could immediately abolish itself, its condition of existence up until that time, and all other classes in society, i.e, until Capital having completed its historic role of developing the productive forces of society and run its course, collapsed on its own.

Second, Marx’s meaning in this context is not always properly understood — and, this is where Marxists get themselves into hot water. State power is always coercive — it is the imposition on the individual of conditions of her own activity against which the individual naturally rebels. The coercive functions of the ‘worker’s state’ are no different in this regard to the coercive functions of any previously existing state. It may be uncomfortable for us to assert this fact, but it in no way can be ignored — for the individual the coercion of a ‘worker’s state’ is, in its effect, no different than the coercion of the capitalist state. With regards to the individual this rule is despotic, and the fact that, in this case, the despotic hand is encased in a democratic glove does not change its despotic nature in the least.

However, the discussion of this despotic rule is wrongly limited to the actual machinery of state, as if the coercion of capitalist society consisted entirely of an armed body of men and women enforcing the naked rule of the capitalist class. In fact, coercion here has to be seen in a broader context: it is also coercion that the worker, deprived of all means of production, must sell herself into slavery in exchange for wages. It is also coercion that no one may access the means of consumption in society except on the basis of exchange of equal values — of money exchange. It is also coercion that the worker cannot sell her labor for wages except on condition that she work a period of time in excess of the value of these wages for the exclusive benefit of the capitalist. Each of these examples is a form of coercion prevalent in capitalist society. And, each is understood by all members of society to be the conditions under which the whole of capitalist economic activity is carried on. So pervasive are they, that these forms of coercion appear to us not a forms of coercion at all but a basic and eternal condition of human existence. Moreover, in many cases these forms of coercion appear altogether accidental — for instance, it is possible to strike it rich in the lottery, write a best seller, or start a successful rock band and be able to avoid having to spend your days in a cubicle sending or answering email or working the checkout counter at WalMart.

The communist movement of society has the aim not simply of abolishing the machinery of state — the body of men and women who arrest you if you violate the law of equal exchange of value by pilfering in WalMart, the judge who presides over your trial, the district attorney who prosecutes you, the jailor to whose care you are remanded after conviction, and the politicians who passed the law into being — it also has the task of ending exchange of values and all other forms of economic coercion as the basis for the individual’s activity.

In the conditions under which Marx carried on his debate with the ideas of the Anarchist Bakunin, it is clear that society had in no way been prepared for the immediate abolition of the State in its entirety. Capital had not by any means so transformed the social economic landscape that Marx could imagine it prepared for not only the abolition of the political rule of the capitalist class, but all class rule and classes themselves. The economic development of society had definitely not reached the stage that the Proletariat could abolish itself as a class.

And, why is this? In my opinion, every scenario Marx could see of a possible assumption of power by the Proletariat, society was still in the grip of scarcity. Although, as he acknowledged, Capital had performed a prodigious feat of transforming the conditions under which labor was undertaken by society, society had not yet made the abolition of necessary labor possible. Taking power under those conditions would, of necessity, involved realizing a communism of relative poverty — the sharing of the conditions of scarcity under a more or less ‘equal’ apportioning.

And, what did Marx think was the rule under which this scarcity would be shared out? “From each according to his labor, to each according to his work.” Access to the common fund of consumption had to be on the basis of the labor of each member of society. Each would receive from this common fund no more than she contributed to this fund. Even if we assume the immediate abolition of the entire machinery of the old State and its replacement by the association of society — and Marx made precisely this assumption — nevertheless society would be imposing on the former capitalist and State officials the same coercive conditions of activity that nature imposed on it:

“Do you want to eat? Get a job! If you won’t work because you are too dainty and work is beneath you, then you will starve!”

Thus, society would take a step forward in its historical development in that, for the first time, labor would be required of all members of society. But, this step was not the final one to be taken: the final step consisted of the abolition of this very requirement imposed equally on all members of society to engage in labor. The replacement of the rule: “From each according to his labor, to each according to his work”, by a new rule, “”From each according to his labor, to each according to his need”, required not simply the assumption of power by the Proletariat, but a certain definite material condition — the emergence of a society of abundance.

He did not hesitate to make his opinion known to the Anarchists on this issue, and he did not hesitate to make it known to his so-called followers as well, when, as happened in the Gotha Program, they came up with all sorts of silly ideas. Marx’s response the Gotha was pretty blunt: Upon taking power the Proletariat would break the monopoly of the capitalist class over the means of production. Workers would not receive the entire proceeds of their labor, but only a portion; the rest of which would go to cover replacement of the common means of production, expansion of those means, and insurance against losses. From the remaining fund would be deducted general social costs of administration, means for common satisfaction of needs like medical care and education, and means for those who are not able to work. What portion of the common labor would be needed for these items could only be decided democratically by the whole commons — and, in all probability those who lost the vote would feel coerced by the majority, since these costs would still be deducted from them despite their disagreement. What was left after this had been accomplished would then be divided according to their contribution.

Marx continues:

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 birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

At this point, however, Marx is not finished: he goes on to explain why even this seeming logical and just division of the product of labor among the members of society actually conceals an unequal distribution, because although the return for work is the same, people are not. Although this inequality in fact is abhorrent — an indifference to the particular circumstance of each individual — there is, in his mind, no other basis that such division can be made. Thus, for Marx, the end aim of the transition is not an equal return on the labor contribution of each, but ending all connection between the labor each member of society contributes and the means they can access. The rule that everyone must work is itself abolished — or withers away.

And, this is where Marxists get into hot water — they impose on Marx’s comments the completely unhistorical dogma that the communist movement of society is necessarily split between the period beginning with the political overthrow of the capitalist State and the period during which the transitional form of Proletarian rule comes to an end. They are only parroting Marx in his argument with Bakunin, while understanding none of his argument.

At the beginning of this period of social transformation the political rule of the Proletariat is “stamped” with the conditions of the capitalist society that has just been overthrown. It follows from this that Marx is not making an unhistorical division between this point in time and the point where the Proletarian rule ends, but is precisely emphasizing that the actual conditions governing capitalist society, when this event takes place, must be studied and understood. It follows that his comment cannot be taken as a hard and fast rule, still less elevated into a dogma as the Marxists do, that there is some necessary period of transitional state between the overthrow of capitalist rule and a stateless, classless society. Capitalist society is by no means the same creature in 1874 that it is in 1917, 1929, or 2011. In each case the practical tasks imposed by the assumption of political power by the Proletariat must be different as the new society is being “stamped” with a decidedly different set of circumstances.

What are those conditions today? Are they the same as they were in 1874 or 1875? Are they even the same as they were in 1929 or 1970? Does Marx’s words have the same meaning in his day as they do now that Fascist State expansion — the continuous destruction of surplus value and its replacement by ex nihilo pecuniam — has become a condition for all economic activity?

Marxists have no answer to these questions because instead of making an analysis of present day conditions of capitalist society, they insist on taking Marx’s debate with Anarchists completely out of its historical context and worshiping dogmas.