I’m currently reading Sam Dolgoff’s sizable Bakunin on Anarchism, a collection of Michael Bakunin’s writings from his entire career. It’s organized chronologically, and designed to show how Bakunin came upon the idea of anarchism and what he called “the Social Revolution.” If you just want his most famous essays, I’d advise a smaller collection. But in terms of a complete portrait, I’m finding it very satisfying.
The title is from an article he wrote in the spring of 1869. In it he ponders the political questions that still exists today- can you change the system from within? During the political movements of the 19th century, certain parts of the bourgeoisie tried to convince the working class that voting and parliaments were the best path to political and economic equality. Accepting or rejecting the political process is a choice all groups must make. In America there are elements that criticize a path of assimilation- a documentary called Lifting the Veil, released a couple years ago, discusses the Democratic Party as “the graveyard of social movements.”
Bakunin was emphatically against using the existing political apparatus, created by the bourgeoise for their benefit. The whole culture and background of these institutions sustains the culture of inequality and exploitation. Even if a working class activists were elected to office, they would quickly cease to be part of the working class. One cannot go through the process of nomination, campaigning, election, and service unchanged. The specific nature of the office and its power moulds the individual more than the peculiarities of the individual mould the office. In short, positions make men.
There is a belief among liberal Democrats and some independents that getting good, progressive, people into office can change Congress and the Presidency. Elizabeth Warren was the head of this most recent vanguard of this hope, four years before that it was Barack Obama. Yet Obama seems to be more like his predecessor as time goes on- is he shaping the Presidency as much as it is shaping him?
If economic and political equality is desired, it should be said that the existing process are poisoned tools. Election law, legislative regulation, methods for amendment and change- they were created by groups that saw the existing power dynamics as good and wished to keep them that way. Bakunin said it was time to create change directly through the power of those that are oppressed- revolution.
Direct action, nonviolent struggle, economic boycotts work outside the system because no good general fights on ground specially chosen by the opponent. The ultimate goal of them is a system shaped by real people, not people shaped by an old system.
People do not need positions. They are their own power.
One thought on “men do not make positions; positions make men”
To counter such political conditions, Lenin said that a professional revolutionary organisation was necessary to organise and lead the most class-conscious workers into a politically coherent movement. About the Russian class struggle , in the book What Is to Be Done? (1902), against the “economist” trend of the socialist parties (who proposed that the working class would develop a revolutionary consciousness from demanding solely economic improvements), Lenin said that the “history of all countries bears out the fact that, through their own powers alone, the working class can develop only a trade-union consciousness”; and that under reformist, trade-union leadership, the working class could only engage spontaneous local rebellions to improve their political position within the capitalist system, and that revolutionary consciousness developed unevenly. Nonetheless, optimistic about the working class’s ability to develop a revolutionary class consciousness , Lenin said that the missing element for escalating the class struggle to revolution was a political organisation that could relate to the radicalism of political vanguard of the working class, who then would attract many workers from the middling policies of the reformist leaders of the trade unions.