A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions

Chapter II
Marx Against Proudhonism and Bakuninism

Marx forged his Weltanschauung (world-outlook) and his tactics in a bitter ideological-political struggle; he had to struggle primarily against the rather widespread theories of Proudhon. Proudhon was the type of petty-bourgeois socialist whose bold words were combined with reactionary theories. A talented publicist, a representative of sentimental deliquescent socialism, “from head to foot a philosopher, an economist of the petty bourgeoisie” (Marx), who upbraided the bourgeoisie with the glaring accusatory formula: “Ownership is theft.” Proudhon considered himself a theoretician of the “working classes” and boldly began to come out with theoretical arguments on the philosophy of poverty. But theory seemed to be Proudhon’s heel of Achilles because he could not go beyond the borders of the bourgeois-liberal science of his time, and this is what made Marx come out sharply against Proudhon and Proudhonism. Proudhon wrote a pretentious book, The Philosophy of Poverty, in which he wanted to establish laws for the development of society. In this book Proudhon made public the following thesis, which is rather of interest to us:

Every upward movement in wages can have no other effect than that of a rise in wheat, in wine, etc., that is to say, the effect produced by a dearth. For what are wages? They are the cost price of wheat, etc., the integral price of everything. Let us go further still, wages are the proportion of the elements which compose wealth, and which are consumed reproductively each day by the mass of the workers. But to double wages is to bestow upon each of the producers a part greater than his product, which is contradictory; and if the rise only affects a small number of industries, the result is to provoke a general perturbation in exchange, in a word, a scarcity. It is impossible, I insist, for the strikes which result in an increase of wages not to lead to a general dearness; that is as certain as that two and two make four. (1)

To these high-flown and asinine arguments of Proudhon Marx caustically adds: “We deny all these assertions, except that two and two is four.” (2)

What is the political meaning of these theses of Proudhon? To keep the workers from fighting for higher wages. Since no amount of wage increases can do anything for the workers, since if wages are increased the price of foodstuffs is raised proportionately, the struggle of the workers is futile indeed.

Marx immediately grasped the essence of this reactionary philosophy and with the passion characteristic of him attacked the purely employers’ arguments of this anarchist apostle. But Proudhon did not limit himself to this. He went further along this same path, determinedly coming out against the strike movement. Here is what we read in this Philosophy of Poverty:

For workers the strike is illegal; and it is not only the penal code which says so, it is the economic system, it is the necessity of the established order.... That each workman should have the free disposal of his hand and of his person—that can be tolerated, but that workmen should undertake by combination to do violence to monopoly—that is what society can never permit. (3)

From this it is enough to see how great is the poverty of Proudhon’s philosophy. Proudhon confused everything: the law of the formation of wages, the fixing of prices for commodities, the positive significance of association. He considered it impermissible for the workers to unite for the joint struggle against the employers, i.e. he adhered to the viewpoint of the reactionary legislators of the capitalist countries of his time, who always punished the workers for forming associations. Marx knew with what he had to deal. He knew why such reactionary ideas were fashionable in France and therefore in his reply he analysed the theoretical sterility of Proudhon and his political anti-labour conclusions. Here is what Marx wrote in the Poverty of Philosophy concerning this reactionary bosh of Proudhon:

Big industry masses together in a single place a crowd of people unknown to each other. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of their wages, this common interest which they have against their employer, unites them in the same idea of resistance—combination. Thus, combination has always a double end, that of eliminating competition among themselves while enabling them to make a general competition against the capitalist. If the first object of resistance has been merely to maintain wages, in proportion as the capitalists in their turn have combined with the idea of repression, the combinations, at first isolated, have formed in groups, and, in face of constantly united capital, the maintenance of the association became more important and necessary for them than the maintenance of wages. This is so true that the English economists are all astonished at seeing the workers sacrifice a great part of their wages on behalf of the associations which, in the eyes of these economists, were only established in support of wages. In this struggle—a veritable civil war—are united and developed all the elements necessary for a future battle. Once arrived at that point, association takes a political character. (4)

Here Marx, with the clearness so peculiar to him, raised the question of the significance of the economic struggle of the proletariat (a real civil war!) and of bringing it to a higher level. But Marx did not limit himself to this. He analyses the various attitudes of the different scientific investigators towards the struggles of the bourgeoisie and the working class for their rights and interests. In reply to the purely employers’ attitude of Proudhon towards the strike movement, Marx writes:

Many researches have been made to trace the different historical phases through which the bourgeoisie has passed from the early commune to its constitution as a class.

But when it becomes a question of rendering an account of the strikes, combinations, and other forms in which before our eyes the proletarians effect their organisation as a class, some are seized with fear while others express a transcendental disdain.

An oppressed class is the vital condition of every society based upon the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class therefore necessarily implies the creation of a new society. In order for the oppressed class to be emancipated it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be able to exist side by side. Of all the instruments of production the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organisation of the revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which can be engendered in the bosom of the old society. (5)

Marx at once noted that the bourgeois “impartial” scientists tried either to screen the economic struggle or to gloss it over. He bitterly criticises the negative attitude which the economic movement of the proletariat called forth among the bourgeois ideologists. Marx realised very well how the loud-mouthed “revolutionaries” of the type of Proudhon regard the struggle of the working class for its vital demands with “transcendental disdain.” Have we not to-day such “revolutionaries” who express “transcendental disdain” for the economic struggle of the proletariat? Although there are few of them, yet we have some even in the midst of our own communist ranks.

What was the crux of all of Proudhon’s misadventures? Engels, in his letter to Marx dated August 21, 1851, said the following on this subject:

I have read half of Proudhon, and I find your opinion fully confirmed. His appeal to the bourgeoisie, his harking back to Saint-Simon and a hundred other matters, even in the critical part, confirm that he looks upon the industrial class—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—properly speaking as identical and as brought into opposition to each other only because the revolution has not been completed. (6)

In his letter to Kugelmann dated October 9, 1866, Marx writes about Proudhon:

Proudhon has done enormous mischief. His sham criticism and sham opposition to the Utopians—(he himself is only a philistine utopian, whereas in the utopias of a Fourier, an Owen, etc., there is the presentiment and imaginative expression of a new world) attracted and corrupted the ‘brilliant youth,’ the students, and then the workmen, particularly those of Paris who, as workers in luxury trades, are strongly attached, without knowing it, to the old rubbish. (7)

In his letter to Engels of June 20, 1866, Marx deals with the “Proudhonised Stirner tendencies”; he says, “Proudhon aims at individualising humanity,” and that from Proudhon’s point of view:

History in all other countries stops and the whole world waits until the French are sufficiently mature to bring about the social revolution. (8)

Proudhon, as is well known, is the founder of anarcho-syndicalism. Thus at any rate the anarcho-syndicalists speak and write, placing him higher than Marx, the defender of the State theory. But the anarcho-syndicalists conceal the fact that Proudhon was the enemy of the right of association and the strike movement. He hated strikes so deeply that he even justified the murder of strikers. Here is what Proudhon wrote in 1846 in the same Philosophy of Poverty:

It is possible to agree to give every worker individually the liberty to dispose of himself and his hands as he pleases, but society can under no circumstances permit bands of workers, regardless of public interests and provisions of the law, to unite and violently to infringe upon the freedom and rights of the employers. To apply force against the employers and landowners, to disorganise the workshops, to stop work, to threaten capital really means to conspire to cause general ruin. For the authorities who shot down the miners in Rive de Gier it was a great misfortune. But here the authorities acted like ancient Brutus, who had to choose between fatherly love and his duty as consul; it was necessary to sacrifice his children in order to save the republic. Brutus did not hesitate and the generation that followed did not dare to condemn him for it. (9)

One might have expected Proudhon later on to give up this viewpoint, which was that of an industrialist, but no, he persisted in it to his grave. In his book, On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes, completed in 1865 (the year of his death), Proudhon quoted this excerpt from his Philosophy of Poverty and further develops his idea. (10) In this book Proudhon sharply attacked the government of Napoleon III, especially the leader of the Liberals of his time, Marcel Olivier, who argued for the right of association for workers, on the ground that what is not forbidden to some cannot and must not be forbidden to the many. Proudhon failed to realise here also that the bourgeoisie declares itself for the right of association not because of its own desires, but because it is compelled to do so under the pressure of the continual struggle of the workers. Proudhon attacks the supporters of the right of association and writes:

The law permitting association is, as a matter of fact, anti-juridical and anti-economic, contradicting every social regime and public order. Any concession made in connection with this law is an abuse and is null and void in itself—it is cause for making public charges and instituting criminal proceedings....

I especially object to the new law: association for the purpose of increasing or lowering wages is absolutely the same as association for the purpose of increasing or lowering prices of foodstuffs or other commodities. (11)

What can one say about these arguments? In such a fashion only a frenzied petty-bourgeois can argue; one who, on the one hand, shouts “‘Property is robbery!’ and, on the other, ‘Shoot down the strikers!’”

How do Proudhon’s supporters reconcile these slogans? One of them, Maxim Leroix, who wrote the preface to the book De la Capacitie Politique des Classes Ouvrières, in his effort to extol the greatness of Proudhon, gives a number of quotations from Proudhon on the class struggle, on the war between Labour and Capital, and sums up the essence of Proudhonism in the following way:

The class struggle—but at the same time no call for social destruction. The class struggle—but at the same time a call to the workers to collaborate with the middle classes. The class struggle—and at the same time, prohibition of strikes.... The class struggle—but at the same time class collaboration.... (12)

How does Leroix himself solve these striking contradictions of Proudhon? He does not solve them, nor does he explain them; he claims that the crux of the teachings of Proudhon lies in mutualism, that

Proudhon did not propose either the mysticism of an emancipation catastrophe, nor a programme of war strategy, because he never imagined the working class as a class, as toilers without a master, toilers who do not know any dogmas, who crave for truth in the process of eternal becoming, as a class which executes the experiment of Saint Simon on a large scale. (13)

The conclusion of these rather vague arguments is: Proudhon “was a deeper thinker than Marx.”

If the anarcho-syndicalists prefer to have Proudhon, the enemy of strikes and the class struggle, as their teacher that is their business. As far as we are concerned, we prefer to have Marx as our spiritual teacher, Marx who defended strikes and the right of association, who all his life taught the working class how to fight the bourgeoisie, how to unite the struggle for the workers’ immediate demands with the struggle for their final goal.

Could Marx and Engels to any degree subscribe to the unprecedented confusion that Proudhon brought into the labour movement? Of course not. They quite naturally waged a bitter struggle against Proudhon and his theories.

But the Proudhonists, who at first came out against trade unions, against the right to strike, etc., were later compelled under life’s hard blows to change their point of view. Marx, in his letter to Engels, dated September 12, 1868, writes:

The fact that the Proudhonist braves Beiges (fine Belgians) and Frenchmen, who dogmatically held forth in Geneva (in 1866) and in Lausanne (1867) against the trade unions, etc., are to-day their most fanatical adherents, denotes great progress. (14)

From this letter we can see that the Proudhonists turned the theory of their teacher inside out, but this did not in any way improve his theory. Precisely for this reason Marx and Engels waged a determined struggle against the theory and practice of the Proudhonists.

The greatest of his adherents, Michael Bakunin, continued Proudhon’s course. Bakunin realised the weaknesses and short-comings in the world-outlook of Proudhon. Bakunin, who highly valued Proudhon, characterised him in the following way:

Proudhon, despite all his efforts to be a realist, has remained an idealist and metaphysician. Proudhon, despite all his efforts to shake the traditions of classic idealism, has remained an incorrigible idealist, who was inspired now by the Bible, now by Roman Law, and remained a metaphysician to the very end, as I told him two months before his death. (15)

It is difficult to give a more destructive characterisation of one’s “teacher,” as Bakunin himself often called Proudhon. It is not surprising, then, that Marx carried on a merciless struggle against the idealistic metaphysical confusion of Proudhon.

In comparison with Proudhon, Bakunin was doubtlessly an ace. Bakunin was a great revolutionary figure, a rebel, who, as Hertzen said, was always to be found “at the extreme end,” a man with tremendous energy and great organisational talent. But he was a nobleman in rebellion. His world-outlook represented a mixture of Hegel, Stirner and the Russian Pugachev movement. He did not see classes, he always referred to the people. Bakunin did not speak of the working class, he wrote more about “the labourers,” “the poor people,” “the poverty-stricken sections of the population,” “the common labouring man,” and contrasted the revolutionary spirit of the lumpen proletariat with the reactionary spirit of the labour aristocracy, among whom he included large sections of the workers. Bakunin did not approve of Marx organising circles, giving lectures to workers, etc. In his letter to Annenkov, dated December 28, 1847, he writes that Marx occupies himself with the same idle work as formerly; he spoils the workers by turning them into reasoners. (16)

What, then, did Bakuninism represent, as a system? Bakunin himself called his system “the anarchist system of Proudhon extended by us, developed and freed by us of all metaphysical, idealistic and doctrinaire frills.” (17)

Thus, we have before us a more perfected Proudhonism, which also was just as far from Marxism theoretically and politically as the pure Proudhonism.

Bakunin denied every state, political struggle or political organisation of the proletariat. The struggle between Marx and Bakunin was a struggle between two different world-outlooks, two different systems and theories; it was a struggle between two different political and tactical lines, which of course could not but be reflected in the organisational question. Thus, the organisational problem was not the cause but the occasion for the split.

What rôle did the trade unions and the economic struggle play in Bakunin’s theories? In his pamphlet, Policy of the International, Bakunin writes:

The emancipation of the workers is the cause of the workers themselves, which is emphasised in the introduction to our general statutes. This is a thousand times correct. This is the chief basis of our great union. However, the workers in most cases are ignorant, they still do not know theory. Consequently, they have only one path left, the path of practical emancipation. And what should and must this practice be? It can be only one: the struggle based on the solidarity of the workers against the bosses; that is trade unions, organisations, and federations of resistance fund societies.

Convinced of this truth, we raise the question: “What policy should the International adhere to during this more or less lengthy period of time separating us from that terrible social revolution which we now foresee?”

Rejecting, in accordance with its statutes, all politics on a local as well as a national scale, the International will impart to the workers’ agitational activities in all countries an exclusively economic character, setting the goal: shorten working hours and increase wages, using as a means the consolidation of the working masses and the organised collection of resistance funds. (18)

Here we see that Bakunin refers to “purely economic agitation.” He speaks about the creation of resistance fund societies for the purely economic struggle, says that the workers are ignorant and therefore must not occupy themselves with too difficult problems, etc. The most that Bakunin permits is a federation of resistance fund societies. This shows that although Bakunin went further than Proudhon, he yet remained on one and the same path with him. He did not realise that the trade unions are centres for organising the masses, that they are the ones which prepare the masses for the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat; he failed to see just what Marx saw in the very first steps of the trade unions.

It is interesting to note the views of Bakunin on what the workers must demand. In the draft programme of the International Revolutionary Society, Bakunin writes:

The worker demands and must demand: (i) Equality—political, economic and social—for all classes and all peoples on earth; (2) the abolition of inherited property; (3) transfer of the land to the agricultural associations for use by them, and the transfer of capital and all means of production to the workers’ industrial associations. (19)

Whereas Marx raised the question of the abolition of classes, Bakunin speaks of the equality of classes. (True, later on, under the pressure of Marx’s criticism, Bakunin abandoned this formulation.) Bakunin already here expressed the idea of transferring the enterprises to the workers’ industrial associations, the idea that was afterwards taken as a basis for all the theories developed by the French, Spanish and Italian anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists. It is a theory that never has been or could have been realised in practice anywhere, although the anarchists, opposed to power, succeeded in establishing their power over considerable territories (for example, Machno in Russia).

What was the attitude of Marx and Engels towards these theories? The whole conception of Marx on the rôle of the trade unions, the relations between economics and politics, impelled him to wage a determined struggle against these petty-bourgeois theories. Although Bakunin said a great deal about the economic struggle and about “only economic demands,” he saw in the trade unions an amalgamation of ignorant people. He believed that the masses were in need of a hero who could lead them to the promised land of anarchism. Bakunin on the one hand depended upon a hero, and, on the other hand, on the spontaneous merciless revolt of the ignorant masses. Marx depended upon the masses, the class, upon organisation. This is why, during the period of the First International, Bakuninism and Marxism clashed so sharply. How deep was the gulf between Bakuninism and Marxism in questions of principle may be seen from the fact that even to-day we are still compelled to carry on the struggle against vestiges of Bakuninism in a number of the Latin-European and Latin-American countries.



1. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Poverty. Quoted by Marx in Poverty of Philosophy, Kerr edition, p. 181.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid, p. 185.

4. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 188 (Kerr edition). Italics mine.—A. L.

5. Ibid, p. 189. Italics mine.—A. L.

6. Marx and Engels, Letters, published by “Moscow Worker," 1923, edited by V. Adoratsky.

7. Marx, Letters to Kugelmann, Martin Lawrence, London.

8. Marx and Engels, Letters, edited by Adoratsky, Moscow, 1933.

9. P. F. Proudhon, Systeme des Contradictions économiques, Vol. I.

10. P. F. Proudhon, De la Capaciti Politique des Classes Ouvrières, p. 380.

11. Ibid., p. 388.

12. Ibid., pp. 22-30.

13. Ibid., p. 30.

14. Marx and Engels, Collected Works.

15. W. Polonsky, M. A. Bakunin (Russian edition), Vol. I, p. 171.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 138.

18. Bakunin, Policy of the International (Russian edition). Italics mine.—A. L.

19. Miscellany—M. Bakunin—Unpublished Materials and Articles. (Russian edition). Published by Politkatorzhan (Political Prisoners) Society, 1926.


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