Marx and Bakunin: A Conversation

30 May

Below is an excerpt from the marginal notes Marx made in 1874, while reading Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy. Copying passages from the work, Marx then made comments on each, the result reading like a dialogue:

Bakunin: … in the election of people’s representatives and rulers of the state — that is the last word of the Marxists, as also of the democratic school — [is] a lie, behind which is concealed the despotism of the governing minority, and only the more dangerously in so far as it appears as expression of the so-called people’s will.

Marx: With collective ownership the so-called people’s will vanishes, to make way for the real will of the cooperative.

Bakunin: So the result is: guidance of the great majority of the people by a privileged minority. But this minority, say the Marxists…

Marx: Where?

Bakunin: …will consist of workers. Certainly, with your permission, of former workers, who however, as soon as they have become representatives or governors of the people, cease to be workers…

Marx: As little as a factory owner today ceases to be a capitalist if he becomes a municipal councillor…

Bakunin: and look down on the whole common workers’ world from the height of the state. They will no longer represent the people, but themselves and their pretensions to people’s government. Anyone who can doubt this knows nothing of the nature of men.

Marx: If Mr Bakunin only knew something about the position of a manager in a workers’ cooperative factory, all his dreams of domination would go to the devil. He should have asked himself what form the administrative function can take on the basis of this workers’ state, if he wants to call it that.

See: “On Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy” in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 563. Translation modified.

Below is perhaps the most concise summation of the premises of “historical materialism” Marx ever wrote:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life….

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

ibid, The German Ideology, 160, 164


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