Thursday 5 July 2018

Keeping Power Homeless.

The Road Not Taken: The Workers, warned Karl Marx's contemporary and fellow revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin, “once they become rulers or representatives of the people, cease to be workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the toiling people. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who doubt this know precious little about human nature.”

WHERE DO WE GO when both the market and the state have been weighed in the balance and found wanting? How much better-off would the peoples of the world be if, instead of the towering ziggurats of global capitalism, their skylines were dominated by the equally absurd wedding-cake skyscrapers of global socialism? Would the planet be any less ravaged? Would bureaucracy be any less oppressive? Would the individual feel any freer – or less crushed?

The traditional Marxist response to these sorts of musings is that socialism, once fully established, would lead to a “withering away” of the state. Karl Marx himself equated life under communism with the manifestation of freedom in its broadest possible sense: “[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

Not a vision that would enthuse too many animal rights activists or vegans! Still, it’s easy to imagine a great many huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ Kiwis saying “Where do I sign-up?” Buried in Marx’s bucolic depiction of his communist paradise, however, is the easily overlooked phrase “society regulates the general production”. Society? Who’s that? And how does s/he “regulate the general production”? Who writes these regulations? Who enforces them? And out of which particular part of Planet Earth is all this “general production” to be extracted? You can see already how many serpents this passage sets loose in Marxist communism’s Garden of Eden!

Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx – and a fellow revolutionary – was never one to let glib phrases about society regulating production pass him by without a very close inspection. He understood intuitively that the sort of society the socialists were hoping to bring into existence would necessitate a vast and all-embracing bureaucracy. It was a prospect that gave him considerable pause for thought – and not a few misgivings:

Workers, he said, “once they become rulers or representatives of the people, cease to be workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the toiling people. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who doubt this know precious little about human nature.”

In those few lines, Bakunin describes the fatal flaw which lies at the heart of Marx’s vision. The flaw that, when Lenin’s Bolsheviks set about establishing the world’s first socialist state in post-World War One Russia, led ineluctably to the monstrous bureaucratic tyranny by which every one of the nations in which “actually existing socialism” held sway was to be so appallingly disfigured.

How to escape from this awful conundrum? Is there no way that the material abundance which human ingenuity’s technological creations make possible can be equitably distributed? Is there no way of overcoming the private and public bureaucracies so determined to preserve, at any cost, their power to create and administer scarcity? For what else is the state if not an elaborate mechanism for sorting-out (in Leonard Cohen’s arresting phrase) “who shall serve and who shall eat”?

Bakunin’s answer was as unequivocal as it was disturbing. If the state is oppressive by its very nature, then attempting to “take it over” is pointless. No matter how well-intentioned the revolutionaries may be when their banners are as yet unstained by the blood of their comrades, in the very act of exercising power over their fellow human-beings, of administering the state, the revolutionaries’ intentions are altered, distorted and, ultimately, perverted.

That being the case, said Bakunin, the only creditable aim of the true revolutionary is to smash the state: to destroy it; so that human-beings are free to take the “general production” directly into their own hands. Rather that create a brand new structure for power to dwell in, he counselled, keep it homeless. More importantly, learn to do without it altogether. In his own words: “Anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary.”

Bakunin, the revolutionary contemporary of Marx, was neither a socialist, nor a communist.

He was an anarchist.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 July 2018.


pat said...

"....... Those who doubt this know precious little about human nature."

Just as those who advocate anarchy know little about human nature.....if you wish anarchy. there are any number of failed states you can move to....and may your god go with you.

Geoff Fischer said...

Bakunin's comments apply not only to the "revolutionary workers" of the "vanguard party" but equally well to the reformists of social democratic parties who obtain governmental power by constitutional means. However his solution reeks of nihilism. The impulse to "smash the state" seems eminently justified, and western "democratic" states can no longer be counted an exception to that imperative. But on the other hand it would seem irresponsible to smash the state leaving in its place only anarchy of the chaotic kind. By building or joining institutions which provide an alternative to the state, and which exist independently of the state, we can avoid falling into the abyss of perpetual negativity, and by upholding old established universal moral codes we can set ourselves against the dangers of ideological arrogance, despotism, self-interest and intolerance. So in some ways we need to be conservative, in other ways radical. We can be critical where necessary, yet always constructive. The nature of the institutions we construct or utilize are crucial. Form and function are inseparable. None of it is particularly hard. It only requires a will.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Marx was never quite at home trying to explain what sort of utopia would arise after the revolution. I don't think he really spent a great deal of time thinking about it, compared to the time he put into analysing history. But if "socialism" (and I'm never quite sure what that means because different people have different ideas about that ranging from "anything the government does" to one-party state dictatorships) has failed, and capitalism has failed what the hell is left? Except regulated capitalism and....... Anarchy. And in spite of or perhaps because of listening to a number of anarchists discuss in my youth, I don't think that's gonna work somehow.

Polly. said...

I read your article several times.
Your title and piece "Keeping Power Homeless" and some of the words 'bureaucratic tyranny" that you used in clarification, would surely drive a sane population to insanity in short time.
That probably did happen to parts of the Soviet Union population.
The Labour Party are the benefactors of such prose. they now look angelic and calming.
They should thank you.
Good writing.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of anarchists, I worked my way through Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread recently. It's an incredibly naive work in many respects, but I thought it raised two interesting points:

(1) The Left has a fetish for a "Napolean of Socialism" - the dream of some great leader who will sweep in, and fix everything, rather than getting down and dirty ourselves.

(2) Revolutions tend to get hijacked by the middle-class obsessing with abstract rights. All the ordinary people want is bread on the table.

Anonymous said...

So the author of: “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism” wasn't a socialist? Bakunin was an anti-authoritarian and Marx's main rival in the Socialist International. Most anarchists are socialists - they ridicule the idea of capitalist "libertarians" - and Bakhunin was a self-identified one.

Jays said...

Marxism is an ideal that has never worked and will never work.
As stated, it lives in a fairy land where people are egalitarian rather than self interested .
Each and every time Marxism has been implemented, disaster has ensued often involving mass genocides.
Nazi Germany, Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Venezuela, China.

Jens Meder said...

And how can anarchy survive if it has no power or enforceable rule to prevent people scheming, planning and organizing themselves ?
Why cannot we have a rational discussion on the pros and cons of the concept of Ownership Democracy, aiming towards at least a minimally meaningful level of personal (retirement) wealth ownership by each individual eventually, to be started off with the $1000.- KiwSaver kick-start unconditionally to all who have not received it yet, "from cradle to grave" ?

peteswriteplace said...

Not socialist states, but socialist dictatorships. Social democracy or democratic socialism is the closest we will have to workable socialism. NZ had it for a few years until WW2 intruded and the NZ state became involved in the war effort.

mikesh said...

As George Orwell said in Animal Farm:
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Geoff Fischer said...

Jays said: "Marxism is an ideal that has never worked and will never work.
As stated, it lives in a fairy land where people are egalitarian rather than self interested. Each and every time Marxism has been implemented, disaster has ensued often involving mass genocides.Nazi Germany, Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Venezuela, China."
Others must have deemed this comment as undeserving of a response, but however misinformed it may be, I will take it as a statement of opinion with some currency in New Zealand political discourse and therefore worthy of rebuttal.
"Marxism.. has never worked". Actually, it has "worked". The Soviet Union was able to repel the Nazi invasion, launch the first artificial earth satellite and send the first man into space. The Chinese communists successfully resisted attack from the Japanese empire, and transformed a once moribund state into the world's second largest and most dynamic capitalist economy, and even little North Korea has been able to build nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Meanwhile "democratic" New Zealand can't solve the housing crisis and unmanageable traffic congestion in its largest city - which every Marxist regime seems capable of doing. Food for thought there. Not that we should follow the Marxist model, but that we should look at it objectively.
"a fairy land where people are egalitarian rather than self interested". People have always been both selfless (egalitarian?) and selfish. I am fortunate to see more of the selfless side of human nature, but no one should be deluded into thinking that human beings do not combine those opposing qualities as they have through all history.
"mass genocides...Nazi Germany, Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Venezuela, China." Nazi Germany was totalitarian but definitely not Marxist. Mass deaths or even executions, however repugnant, are not equivalent to genocide. And the western democratic states, including New Zealand, were responsible for many if not most of the untimely deaths in Russia, China and most especially Vietnam. The New Zealand sponsored ecocide in Vietnam (product of the Dow Chemical plant in New Plymouth) exacts a continuing and terrible toll upon the people of Vietnam. Finally, I fail to see anything in Venezuela that meets the definition of genocide.
Bakunin, like Marx, and every last one of us, was right about some things and wrong about others. That doesn't matter, so long as we do not believe that Marxism, or Bakuninism for that matter, is an "all or nothing" proposition, and so long as we are able to have a positive faith in humanity and a well-founded hope for its future. Cynicism and nihilism may be a sign of the times, and well represented in the comments posted above, but however bad things get, we should not succumb to their blandishment.
Jens Meder: If you want to explain and explore "the concept of Ownership Democracy" then you are welcome to do so on my website

Erin Winslow aka Itsbugart said...


Do you have a citation for your Bakunin quote (at the beginning)?