The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, compiled and edited by G. P. Maximoff, 1953.

CHAPTER 5: Proletariat Long Enslaved

At first men devoured one another like wild beasts. Then the cleverest and the strongest began to enslave the other people. Later the slaves became serfs. And at a still later stage, the serfs became free wage-slaves.1

The Proletariat Is a Class of Well-Defined Characteristics. The city proletariat and the peasantry constitute the real people, the former, of course, being more advanced than the peasants. The proletariat . . . constitutes a very unfortunate, very much oppressed class, but at the same time one that has clearly marked characteristics of its own. As a definite, well marked-off class, it is subject to the workings of a historic and inevitable law which determines the career and the durability of every class in accordance with what it has done and how it has lived in the past. Collective individualities, all classes, exhaust themselves in the long run just as individuals do.2

Economic Crises and the Proletariat. In countries with highly developed industries, particularly England, France, Belgium, and Germany, ever since the introduction of improved machinery and the application of steam power in industry, and ever since large-scale factory production came into existence, commercial crises became inevitable, recurring at ever more frequent periodic intervals. Where industry has flourished to the greatest extent, workers have been faced with the periodic threat of starving to death. Naturally this gave birth to labor crises, labor movements, and labor strikes, at first in England (in the Twenties of this nineteenth century), then in France (in the Thirties), and finally in Germany and Belgium (in the Forties). The wide-spread distress, and the general cause of that distress, created powerful associations in those countries, at first only local, for mutual aid, mutual defense, and mutual struggle.3

Proletarian Internationalism. The city and factory proletariat, although attached by their poverty, like slaves, to the locality where they have to work, have no local interests because they have no property. All their interests are of a general character: they are not even national, but rather international. For the question of work and wages, the only question which interests them directly, actually, and vividly, an everyday question which has become the center and the basis of all other questions -- social as [200] well as political and religious -- tends now to take on, by the simple development of the almighty power of capital in industry and commerce, an unconditionally international character. It is this that explains the marvelous growth of the International Workingmen's Association, an association which, though founded less than six years ago, already counts in Europe alone more than a million members.4

Aristocracy of Labor. In every country, among the millions of unskilled workers, there is a layer of more developed, literate individuals constituting therefore a sort of aristocracy among the workers. This labor aristocracy is divided into two categories, of which one is highly useful and the other quite harmful.

Handicraft a Holdover from Medieval Age. Let us begin with the harmful category. It consists pre-eminently and almost exclusively not of factory workers but of artisans. We know that the situation of the artisan in Europe, though hardly to be envied, is still incomparably better than that of the factory workers. The artisans are exploited not by big but by small capital, which lacks by far the power to oppress and humiliate workers to the extent possessed by the vast aggregations of capital in the industrial world. The world of artisans, of handicraft and not machine work, is a vestige of the medieval economic structure. More and more it is being dislodged under the irresistible pressure of large-scale factory production, which naturally aims to get hold of all the branches of industry.

But where handicraft does persist, the workers occupied in it live much better: and the relations between the not over-wealthy employers, who themselves sprang from the working class, and their workers are more intimate, more simple and patriarchal than in the world of factory production. Among the artisans, then, one finds many semi-bourgeois, by their habits and convictions, hoping and aiming, consciously or unconsciously, to become one hundred per cent bourgeois.

But craftsmen themselves are subdivided into three categories. The largest and least aristocratic category -- that is, the least fortunate of all of them in the bourgeois sense -- comprises all the least skilled and the crudest crafts (like blacksmithing, for instance), which demand considerable physical power. Workers belonging to this category, by their tendencies and convictions, stand nearer than others to factory workers. And in their midst valuable revolutionary instincts are preserved and are being developed. One frequently finds among them persons who are capable of comprehending, in all their scope and implications, the problems involved in the universal emancipation of the workers.

There is a middle category, comprising such trades as joiners, printers, tailors, shoemakers, and many other similar handicrafts, which require a certain degree of education and special knowledge, or at least less physical exertion, and therefore leave more time for thinking. Among these workers there is comparatively more well-being and accordingly more bourgeois [201] smugness. Their revolutionary instincts are considerably weaker than in the first relatively unskilled category. But on the other hand one meets here a greater number of men who think and reason, though rather erratically at times, and whose convictions are consciously arrived at. At the same time this category contains a goodly portion of hair-splitters incapable of action because of their proneness for idle talk, and sometimes, under the influence of vanity and personal ambitions, even consciously blocking such action.

The Semi-Bourgeois Category. And, finally, there is a third category of hand trades producing luxury commodities and therefore tied up by their own interests with the existence and preservation of the well-to-do bourgeois world. Most of the workers belonging to this environment are almost completely permeated with bourgeois passions, bourgeois conceit, bourgeois prejudices. Fortunately, in the general mass of workers, these constitute only an insignificant minority. But where they do predominate, international propaganda moves very slowly and frequently takes on a clearly anti-social, purely bourgeois tendency. In these circles we see predominating the craving for an exclusively personal happiness, for individual -- that is, bourgeois -- self-promotion, and not for collective emancipation and happiness.

The wages of this category of workers are incomparably higher, their work being at the same time more of the white-collar type, lighter, cleaner, more respectable than in the first two categories. That is why there is more well-being, more rudimentary schooling, self-conceit, and vanity among them. They become Socialists only during commercial crises which, because of the concomitant slump in wages, remind them that they are not bourgeois but only day-laborers.

Bourgeois Socialism Finds Its Support Among Workers of the Third Category. It stands to reason that during the last ten years, when the peaceful co-operative system was still in the hey-day of its high-blown dreams and expectations, bourgeois Socialism found its principal support not in the world of factory workers but in that of artisans and mainly in the last two categories -- the most privileged and the nearest to the bourgeois world. The universal failure of the co-operative system was a beneficent ksson to the detrimental workers' aristocracy.

The True Labor Aristocracy: the Revolutionary Vanguard. But along with the latter there also exists an aristocracy of a different kind, a beneficial and useful aristocracy; an aristocracy not by virtue of position but by that of conviction of revolutionary class-consciousness and of rational, energetic passion and will. Workers who belong to this category are the thorough enemies of every aristocracy and every privilege -- that of the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and even that of some workers' groups. They can be called aristocrats only in the most literal or original meaning of the word in the sense of being the best people. And indeed they are the best [202] people, not only among the working class but in society as a whole. They combine in themselves, in their comprehension of the social problem, all the advantages of free and independent thought, of scientific views combined with the sincerity of a sound folk-instinct.

They would find it quite easy to rise above their own class, to become members of the bourgeois caste, and to rise from the ranks of the ignorant exploited, and enslaved people into those of the fortunate coterie of exploiters -- but the desire for that kind of personal advancement is foreign to them. They are permeated with the passion for solidarity, and they do not understand any other liberty and happiness but that which can be enjoyed together with all the millions of their enslaved human brothers. And it stands to reason that those men enjoy a great and fascinating, although unsought, influence over the masses of workers. Add to this category of workers those who have broken away from the bourgeois class, and who have given themselves to the great cause of emancipation of labor, and you get what we call the useful and beneficent aristocracy in the international labor movement.8

Proletarian Humanism Tempered by Sound Sense. If true human feelings, so greatly debased and falsified in our days by official hypocricy and bourgeois sentimentality, are still preserved anywhere, it is only among the workers. For the workers constitute the only class in existing society of whom one might say that it is really generous, too generous at times, and too forgetful of the atrocious crimes and odious betrayals of which it is frequently the victim. The proletariat is incapable of cruelty. But at the same time the proletariat is actuated by a realistic instinct which leads it straight toward the right goal, and by common sense which tells it that if it wants to put an end to evil-doing, it must first curb and paralyze the evil-doers.6

An Irrepressible Class. There is no power now in the world, there is no political nor religious means in existence, which can stop, among the proletariat of any country, and especially among the French proletariat, the drive toward economic emancipation and toward social equality.7

The great mass of unskilled workers in Italy, as well as in otbe countries, constitute in themselves the whole life, the power, and the future of existing society. Only a few persons from the bourgeois world have joined the workers, only those who have come to hate with all their souls the present political economic, and social order, who have turned their backs upon the class from which they sprang, and who have devoted all their energies to the cause of the people. Those persons are few and far between, but they are highly valuable, provided, of course, that they have stifled within themselves all personal ambition; in which case, I repeat, they are indeed highly valuable. The people give them life, elementary strength, and a soil from which they draw their sustenance, and in return they bring their positive knowledge, the power of abstraction and generalization, [203] and organizational abilities, to be used in organizing labor unions, which in turn create the conscious fighting force without which no victory is possible.8

Possible Allies of the Proletariat. Deep as our scorn is for the modern bourgeoisie, with all the antipathy and distrust which it inspires within us there are still two categories within this class with regard to whom we do not give up the hope, of seeing them, in part at least, become converted sooner or later by Socialist propaganda to the people's cause. One of them, driven on by the force of circumstances and the necessities of its own actual position, and the other by a generous temperament, they are without doubt bound to take part with us in wiping out existing iniquities and in the building of a new world.

We are referring to the petty-bourgeoisie and to the youth in the schools and universities.9