Did Bakunin advocate secret dictatorship?

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Bakunin is sometimes accused of being in favour of dictatorship. Indeed he often talks about secret dictatorships. However if you read what he actually said in detail it is quite obvious that what he was talking about was the classic anarchist position of a leadership of ideas.

In a letter ending his relationship with the notorious Russian revolutionary Nechayev he says of his secret society;(1)

Thus the sole aim of a secret society must be, not the creation of an artificial power outside the people, but the rousing, uniting and organising of the spontaneous power of the people; therefore, the only possible, the only real revolutionary army is not outside the people, it is the people itself.

The secrecy aspect may be regrettable (though understandable given the climate of Tsarist Russia) but these are not the words of one who sought to set up a dictatorship over the workers. I would also hazard a guess that many of the people who peddle the Bakunin-secret dictator line are well aware of this.

Secret liberal and socialist societies were a permanent and widespread phenomenon in Europe and had been since the end of the Napoleonic empire often for good reason. Marx and Engels joined the secret German organisation The League of the Just in 1847 and changed its name to the Communist League. The Communist Manifesto was published by this secret organisation in 1848 using the German Workers Education society as a sort of front. At the time of the major confrontation between Marx and Bakunin (1871) many sections of the international such as the Spanish one had again gone secret because of the persecution following the suppression of the Paris Commune.

1 Letter written to Nechayev June 2 1870 and reprinted from the Herzen archives by the Anarchist Switchboard , NYC.

This article first appeared in Red & Black Revolution No 1 1994