This article was last modified on May 10, 2011.

Distinctions Between Marx and Bakunin

While there are many distinctions that can be drawn between the communist Karl Marx and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, for the sake of this essay we will be focusing on three. Whether one theorist or the other is correct — or perhaps neither is correct — is not to be decided here. Rather, I am merely presenting the differences. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

Both men are known for their vitriol, sometimes towards each other. Bakunin had described state socialism as “the most vile and terrible lie that our century has created.” [Guerin: 119]

Alienation as Fuel for Revolution

Marx felt that “it is the experience of alienation or exploitation at the hands of the capitalist class that generated the desire to overcome capitalism”. [Tormey: 121] In 1844 (in his Comment on James Mill), Marx discussed how the production of commodities and private labor created alienation and a feeling of oppression:

“Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”

Bakunin was not so sure that alienation was the catalyst to change. He believed that “the desire to overcome oppression is a universal feature of human existence and thus to be found at least potentially in all individuals irrespective of class background or designation.” [Tormey: 121] In particular, Bakunin’s interpretation of history led him to regard the right of inheritance as a chief foundation of social inequality and thus oppression; human beings are unequal at birth, before they enter any waged labor.

Key Role of the Working Class

Marx saw “the identification of the working class as the agent of change to the exclusion of all others”. [Tormey: 121] Marx wrote that “The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself”. He believed that if capitalism was the enemy, the unique defeater of capitalism is the class created by that system. As capitalism grows, so does the working class. With the wages system — called by some “the quintessential instrument of capitalist exploitation” — the working class remains the group of people most oppressed, as they receive relatively little for doing so much.

The working class is the essential class to take power, from Marx’s point of view, because once they take control of something — some industry, for example — they remain the producers. They are not exploiting a lower class, as there is no lower class. And the factories become collective property rather than private property. The other classes have no such incentive to make anything public. [Molyneux 2006]

Bakunin rejected Marx, declaring that “the working class is as a class often amongst the least revolutionary elements of society, being content to agitate for better working conditions, health and safety regulations and enhanced pensions”. [Tormey: 121] History thus far has supported Bakunin on this point, where the worst working conditions get solved or improved when desperation demands it, but the capitalist system as a whole has remained largely intact.

Bakunin further “anticipated later neo-Marxists such as Marcuse, Negri, Deleuze and Guattari in pointing to the revolutionary potential of the ‘riff-raff’ or ‘multitude’ and thus opposed the privileged position accorded the working class in the Marxist revolutionary schema.” [Tormey: 121]

Bakunin in 1874’s Statism and Anarchism raised “very pertinent questions… about some of the problems which… must arise in the attempt to bring about the rule of the proletariat, in the literal sense in which Marx meant it.” [Miliband: 11] Marx and Engels rejected Bakunin’s “elitist” notion that a secret society of “a hundred powerfully and seriously allied revolutionaries” acting secretly “like invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest” could act as the spark for a Europe-wide revolution. [D’Amato : 81]

The Necessity of the State

Bakunin wrote:

“According to the theory of Mr. Marx, the people not only must not destroy [the state] but must strengthen it and place it at the complete disposal of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers — the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate humankind in their own Way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they Will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies — industrial and agricultural — under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate.” [Avrich: 93-94]

Marx saw “the necessity for a state to guide the transition from capitalism to communism”. [Tormey: 121] Engels, rather than Marx himself, explained that two reasons required a form of state ownership to be present before the people could be free. First, to take measures against the old ruling class. And second, because the transitional society cannot immediately guarantee enough for all. Some level of authority would be necessary to achieve these ends.

Richard Adamiak notes that “although Marx and Engels anticipated the demise of ‘politics’ and ‘political power’, the future communist society they envisioned was by no means anarchistic; the State was to be its one indispensable institution”. [Adamiak: 3] He goes so far as to call Marxism “a statist ideology”. [Adamiak: 17]

Bakunin wanted an immediately dissolved state, as “the state cannot be deployed for revolutionary ends. Power has a tendency to corrupt even the most ‘virtuous’ of revolutionaries.” [Tormey: 121] He drew the same conclusions as Adamiak, roughly a century sooner. Says Bakunin: “They have not learned how to dismantle the religion of the State.”


Currently, this “article” remains bare bones and is little more than a collection of notes expanded from the writing of Simon Tormey. A further exposition of Marx and Bakunin, as well as a thorough analysis of the differences, is needed. But from these simple notes we can already see differences in both theory and practice, in means and ends.


Adamiak, Richard. “The ‘Withering Away’ of the State: A Reconsideration”, Journal of Politics, XXXII (1970), pp. 3-18.

Avrich, Paul. The Russian Anarchists Princeton University Press, 1967.

D’Amato, Paul. The Meaning of Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2006.

Guerin, Daniel. Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire. Librairie Marcel Riviere, 1959.

Miliband, Ralph. Marxism and Politics. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Molyneux, John. “The Revolutionary Role of the Working Class”, written July 3, 2006. Accessed July 19, 2008.

Tormey, Simon. Anticapitalism: A Beginner’s Guide Oneworld Publications, 2004.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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