Lucien van der Walt, 2004, “On Bakunin: Introduction to the South African Edition,” to “Basic Bakunin” (Zabalaza Books)

Lucien van der Walt, 2004, “On Bakunin: Introduction to the South African Edition,” in Basic Bakunin (South African edition), Zabalaza Books, Durban/ Johannesburg, no page numbers.  (Basic Bakunin, first published in the UK around 1993, can be read here).

Lucien van der Walt

This pamphlet provides an excellent introduction to the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, the “founder” of libertarian socialism (anarcho-syndicalism). Two new sections have been added to this pamphlet. On this page, we provide a short outline of the life of Mikhail Bakunin. We have also added a discussion of Bakunin’s profound positions on the fight against imperialism and racism, and the fight against women’s oppression. This discussion may be found at the end of the booklet.

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 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 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 must run candidates in elections.

Bakunin disagreed. He looked forward to the replacement of the bosses’ State by free federations of free workers.

Falling 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 nonexistent organizations, Marx managed to expel Bakunin and change the aims of the International to suit his own 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.

Additional notes:

Mikhail Bakunin was a lifelong opponent of national oppression and racism. Bakunin stated that there must be a “recognition of human rights and dignity in every man, of whatever race or colour:· For Bakunin, the task was to fight for “the triumph of equality … political, economic, and social equality, through the abolition of all possible privileges .. for all persons on earth, without regard to colour, nationality, or sex.”

An opponent of oppression and the centralized State, Bakunin was a fighter against imperialism.

For Bakunin anti-colonial revolt was inevitable and desirable. Bakunin doubted whether what he termed “imperialist Europe” could keep the subject peoples in bondage: “Two- thirds of humanity. 800 million Asiatics asleep in their servitude will necessarily awaken and begin to move. But in what direction and to what end?”

Bakunin declared “strong sympathy for any national uprising against any form of oppression,” stating that every people “has the right to be itself … no one is entitled to impose its costume, its customs, its languages and its laws”.

However, national liberation ought to be achieved “as much in the economic as in the political interests of the masses”. If the anti-colonial struggle is hi-jacked to “set up a powerful State” or if “it is carried out without the people and must therefore depend for success on a privileged class” it will become a retrogressive, disastrous, counterrevolutionary movement”.

Consequently, the independence movement requires that “all faith in any divine or human authority must be eradicated among the masses” and that the struggle against colonialism becomes an internationalist social revolution against the State and the class system.

In other words, the struggle against imperialism must not be sidetracked into replacing foreign bosses with local bosses. Instead, the struggle against imperialism must be linked to the struggle to overthrow all bosses and create international socialism.

The vehicle of that struggle could not be the State, the “graveyard” of humanity. The vehicle of the struggle would be workers mass action, not confined to one country only, but spread across all borders and uniting all workers. For Bakunin, “the homeland of the worker … is … the great federation of the workers of the whole world, m the struggle against bourgeois capital.”

“In the eyes of the law,” Bakunin noted, “even the best educated, talented, intelligent woman is inferior to even the most ignorant man.” Women are not given equal opportunities with men.”

For the poor underprivileged women, said Bakunin, there is the threat of “hunger and cold”, and the threat of sexual assault and prostitution.

Even within the family, women are too often the “slaves of their husbands, and their children are “deprived of a decent education,” condemned to a brutish life of servitude and degradation.”

Instead of this, “equal rights must belong to both men and women” (Bakunin). Women must be economically independent, “free to forge their own way of life.”
This requires united workers struggle against the bosses. As Bakunin put it:

Oppressed women! Your cause is indissolubly tied to the common cause of all the exploited workers — men and women!

Parasites (bosses] of both sexes! You are doomed to disappear.

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