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About Bakunin and the “Invisible dictatorship”
René Berthier (2020)
Article mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2023

par Eric Vilain

On the question of the ’invisible dictatorship’, see Iain McKay’s in-depth study

“Bakunin and the Invisible Legions, revisited”


As far as I know, the question of the “invisible dictatorship” has been dealt with in four texts :

– a letter to Albert Richard, March 12, 1870 ;
– a letter to Albert Richard, April 1, 1870.
– a letter to Tómas González Morago, May 21, 1872
– in the program of the International Fraternity, 30 August-13 September 1872 :

In order to understand Bakunin’s use of the idea of “invisible dictatorship”, one must :

♦ Take into consideration to whom he writes : Tomas Gonzalez, Albert Richard, i.e., members of the Alliance, militants very close to him. With them he can say things without any fuss.
♦ We must then take into account when he writes : March, April, May 1870, an extremely agitated period, on the eve of the war that will break out in July. In other words, Bakunin and his companions are discussing the strategy to be adopted when the crisis breaks out openly ;
♦ Finally, it must be understood that once again Bakunin’s reflections owe much to Proudhon, for whom society can be characterized by three things : it is immanent, it is always in motion, it is traversed by antagonisms, by unconscious forces to which individuals obey without realizing it.

The function of revolutionaries is not to be in the vanguard and to guide individuals or groups by compulsory decrees, but to be in the midst of the masses and to enable them to become aware of these forces, to enable them to become aware of themselves (Proudhon, De la création de l’ordre dans l’humanité, Garnier Frère, 1849, p. 6.). It is not, therefore, a group of individuals manipulating the masses, but no more and no less than an “acting minority” in the sense that revolutionary syndicalism would understand it thirty years later.

Anyone with trade-union experience knows that in an organization of, say, a thousand members, a group of twenty organized militants has the choice of directing this organization in an authoritarian manner by posing as “leaders”, or to proceed in a flexible and pedagogical manner, through discussion and persuasion : in this case, whether we like it or not, we have an “invisible dictatorship”.

But the notion of “invisible dictatorship” has another meaning.
Let’s take a closer look.
On April 1, 1870, reproaching Albert Richard – a member of the Alliance – for being a centralist, a partisan of the revolutionary state, Bakunin declares :

“you remain more than ever the partisan of centralization, of the revolutionary state. While I am more than ever the adversary, and see salvation only in revolutionary anarchy, directed in all points by an invisible collective force, the only dictatorship I admit, because only it is compatible with the frankness and full energy of the revolutionary movement.” [My emphasis]

We understand that Albert Richard is in favour of centralization and the revolutionary state while Bakunin is opposed to them. For the latter, revolutionary action is exerted “on all points, but always invisible” [Bakunin, Letter to Tómas González Morago, 21 may 1872.], “a collective, invisible dictatorship” [Bakunin, Letter to Albert Richard, 12 March 1870], an “invisible collective force – the only dictatorship I admit to” [Bakunin, Letter à Albert Richard 1 Avril 1870.], etc. In the Program of the International Fraternity, he adds :

“In revolution, we are the enemies of everything that is closely or remotely related to the authoritarian system, of any claim to the official leadership of the people, and therefore of everything that is called revolutionary dictatorship” [Bakunin, Programme de la Fraternité internationale, 30 August-13 september 1872].

Well, this “invisible dictatorship”, which is “collective” and exerts itself “on all points” is nothing other than social determinisms.

Let us recall that immanence is what exists inside the subject, what is in its own nature, as opposed to transcendence, which indicates an external and superior cause. The “invisible collective force” that exercises its “dictatorship” is simply the internal determinisms of the working class, as opposed to all the forces external to it that want to rule it.

And who constitutes this “collective, invisible dictatorship” ? In another letter to Albert Richard (12 March 1870), Bakunin wrote that “to save the revolution, to bring it to a successful conclusion, in the very midst of this anarchy”, it was necessary to constitute a “collective, invisible dictatorship, not invested with any power, but all the more effective and powerful – the natural [my emphasis] action of all the energetic and sincere socialist revolutionaries, scattered over the surface of the country, of all countries, but strongly united by a common thought and will”.

So this “invisible dictatorship” is collective and has no particular power, which means in Bakunin’s mind that it is not officially instituted. This “collective, invisible dictatorship” is opposed to the “Committees of Public Salvation and the official, ostensible Dictatorship” (letter to Albert Richard 1 April 1870)

So we can see how far we are from the conspiratorial vision that some people have of Bakunin, who probably never read him or who know him only through what Marx or, what is probably worse, what Hal Draper says about him.

Not being instituted, it is all the more “efficient and powerful” because it gives way to the spontaneity of the masses, which is not compressed. It must be borne in mind that for Bakunin, freedom consists in knowing the determinisms that materially limit this freedom, and that a social movement is “spontaneous” when it is not hindered by determinations external to it : “Freedom is the knowledge of necessity.”

The concept of “invisible dictatorship” was used over a two-year period (1870-1872) corresponding to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. It had no bearing on Bakunin’s overall tactical and strategic vision, who wrote that socialism :

“finds real existence only in the enlightened revolutionary instinct, in the collective will and in the self-organization of the working masses themselves, – and when this instinct, will and organization are lacking, the books in the world are nothing but empty theories, impotent dreams.” (Letter to a Frenchman on the Present crisis )

There are three inseparable elements in this dialectic of revolutionary development : revolutionary instinct ; collective will ; organization. We find here exactly the same pattern as Proudhon when he sets out in the Political Capacity of the Working Classes the conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.