Theory and Society

, Volume 11, Issue 6, pp 853–884

Marx's last battle

Bakunin and the first international
  • Alvin W. Gouldner

DOI: 10.1007/BF00173634

Cite this article as:
Gouldner, A.W. Theor Soc (1982) 11: 853. doi:10.1007/BF00173634


Marxism developed increasingly from a scientific to a Critical Marxism that was much more voluntaristic and stressed consciousness and conscious organization — rather than emphasizing a spontaneous economic evolution that first develops the forces of production. This long-term shift in Marxism is visible in Leninism: Leninism formulates a conception of a “vanguard” revolutionary organization more nearly akin to Bakuninism than to Marxism and adapts the old conspiratorial secret society to a Marxist rhetoric of theory and science by speaking of the vanguard cadres as “professional” revolutionaries. It also devoted increasing attention to the peasantry as an ally of the proletariat with a revolutionary potential. This increasing world drift of Marxism, toward a less economistic and more voluntaristic theory, has more usually been called a “critical” Marxism, when found in Western Europe. Critical Marxism has, therefore, seemed to some, such as Merleau-Ponty or Perry Anderson. a distinctively “Western Marxism.” This, how-ever, misses the point of the greater political success of Critical Marxism in the Third World. In less industrially advanced countries, Critical Marxism's reliance upon the peasantry has been even greater and its convergence with Bakuninism even more obvious. In Asia — including Tsarist Russia and other less developed regions, Scientific Marxism's insistence upon a prior industrialization made it seem irrelevant and generated apathy and passivity among revolutionaries who did not want to spend their lives making a bourgeois revolution. This shift suggests that there was a potential mutual transformability of Marxism into Bakuninism. Each might, under certain conditions, become the other.

My point, then, is that Bakuninism and Marxism cannot be understood as two adversaries, each external to the other. Rather, they were doctrines which had certain communalities and overlapped at important points. Each had a living part of his enemy in himself. I have already indicated that, in one part, Bakunin was a Marxist, and ready to acknowledge this debt generously. Indeed, the authoritarianism of some of Bakunin's organizational schemes sometimes “went far beyond the most extreme ambitions of the dogmatic and dictatorial Marx.”

The war between Marx and Bakunin was so bitter because it was something of a civil war within the soul of each. The enemy was all the more dangerous and had to be squashed without qualm because he was already within the fortress of the self. Marxism and Bakuninism, then, each had an interface with the other. Each — to its own horror — could become the other under certain conditions.

To characterize the development of Marxism as an “evolution,” is to imply that its earlier and originary forms — no less than later, more recent forms were partly an adaptation to the changing circumstances in which it found itself, including the competitive situation of its leadership. Marxism was thus never simply the outgrowth of earlier theories. The forms it took were never simply the result of an intellectual borrowing from the past but were also and always a response to a larger practice in the present. The problem of the forces that shaped Marxism's character thus never reduces itself to the theories it borrows or adapts, or to their truth. Anything that enabled Marxism to survive repeated failures and changed conditions, and thereby to move on, edged its way into Marxism's doctrine and political rules. To characterize Critical Marxism in particular as the product of an evolution in which it is a successor to Bakuninism is surely not to define it as identical to Bakuninism; for that, of course, would not be an evolution but mere reproduction. Finally on this point, to characterize the development of Marxism as an evolution is not at all to define it merely as responding to the “force of circumstances.” It was also a process entailing a selective response mediated by human consciousness and theoretical commitment. Yet the presence of consciousness did not preclude a good measure of blindness and false consciousness in the evolutionary process through which Marxism developed. Indeed, it is the very nature of consciousness which, in part, allows and requires that very unconsciousness.

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© Janet W. Gouldner 1982

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  • Alvin W. Gouldner

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