THE POSTULATE OF RENUNCIATION. Excerpts from Robert Michels’ Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) PART FIVE: ATTEMPTS TO RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE LEADERS.

Michael Bakunin (1814 –1876)


The dissolution of the democratic consciousness of the leaders may doubtless be retarded, if not completely arrested, by the influence of intellectual or purely ideological factors. “So long as the guidance and representation of the party remains in the hands of persons who have grown grey in the great tradition of socialism,”1 so long, that is to say, as the party is still dominated by vigorous socialistic idealism, it is possible that in certain conditions the leaders will retain their ancient democratic sentiments, and that they will continue to regard themselves as the servitors of the masses from whom their power is derived. We have already discussed the drastic measures that have been proposed to prevent the embourgeoisement of the leaders of proletarian origin. But it is not enough to prevent the proletarian elements among the leaders from adopting a bourgeois mode of life; it is also essential, on this line of thought, to insist upon the proletarianization of the leaders of bourgeois origin. In order to render it impossible for the socialist intellectuals to return to their former environment it has been proposed to insist that they should assimilate the tenor of their lives to that of the proletarian masses, and should thus descend to the level of their followers. It is supposed that their bourgeois instincts would undergo atrophy if their habits were to be in external respects harmonized as closely as possible with those of the proletariat.

This thesis is rooted in the records and experiences of popular history. A life in common awakens sympathy, attenuates the sentiments of class opposition, and may culminate in their entire disappearance. In the egalitarian state of Paraguay, which was founded and administered by the Jesuit order, those who were under tutelage felt themselves to be at one with the Jesuit fathers who were exploiting them, since there was no distinction between the leaders and the led in respect of clothing or general manner of life.2 During the French Revolution, the peasantry took the castles of the nobles by storm; it was only in La Vendée that the two classes made common cause in the pitiless struggle with the centralised revolutionary government in Paris, because the patriarchal life in common, the common festivals and common hunting parties, had there effected a close psychological community between the peasants and their lords.3 Similarly in Italian villages we do not usually find a well-marked hatred of the clergy, for the local curés, good-natured if uncultured individuals, are in no way elevated above the rest of the population, whose habits, and even whose poverty, they usually share.

Numerous measures, both material and ideal, have been proposed to prevent the formation of an oligarchy within the democratic parties. Speaking of the Italian students, Bakunin defines in the following terms the role that in his opinion the young refugees from the bourgeoisie ought to play in the ranks of the proletariat. “Neither guides nor prophets, neither instructors nor creators. The young intellectuals should consent to be obstetricians to the thought born of the people’s life, to raise the aspirations of the proletariat — as unconscious as they are powerful — from a state of confusion to one of clarity.”4 Bakunin saw clearly that in certain countries, such as Italy and Russia, the working-class movement could not possibly dispense with the aid of bourgeois intellectuals, but he desired that those who by birth were the natural adversaries of socialism should be subjected to a very strict regime when they adhered to the socialist cause. In this respect he may be considered a precursor of Tolstoi. Life dominates thought and determines will.” (La vie domine la pensée et determine la volonté.”) It is by this aphorism, essentially based upon the materialist conception of history, that Bakunin defines his attitude to the question under consideration. He continues: “If a man, born and raised in a bourgeois milieu, wishes sincerely and without nonsense to become the friend and brother of the workers, he must renounce all the conditions of his past existence, all his bourgeois customs, break all his ties of sentiment, vanity and intellect with the bourgeois world and, turning his back on this world, become its enemy, declare outright war against it, through himself entirely, without restriction or reserve, into the workers’ world. If he does not discover a passion for justice in himself sufficient to inspire this resolution and courage, let him not fool himself or the workers; he will never become their friend.”5

Thus it was above all for reasons of a psychological order that Bakunin demanded from the “bourgeois socialists,” from the ”intellectuals,” a complete abandonment of their former mode of life. He believed that the outer world exercises a decisive influence upon the world of mental life. Self-renunciation, sacrifice, repudiation of all the forms of bourgeois existence — such were the conditions essential to the labour leader during the long history of the Russian Revolution. In 1871 Netcháyeff wrote his famous revolutionary catechism, enunciating the principle that the true revolutionary must be a man “consecrated to the cause.” In the first paragraph we read: “He has neither personal interests nor affairs, neither feelings, attachments, nor propriety, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed in a single exclusive interest, one thought, one passion: the Revolution.”6 Thus the aim was to attain to an absolute forgetfulness of the former bourgeois existence. Even more important than this elusory internal mortification was the external or environmental mortification which, among the Russian socialists, subsequently came to constitute the substratum of their activities, and which Bakunin described as “complete immersion in the life of the people.”7 The suppression of bourgeois instincts, this was the postulate which long dominated the history of Russian socialism. The apostles of the revolution, who were in many cases of the highest birth, must effect this suppression, in accordance with established custom, by living “among the people,” by harmonising their mode of life with that of the proletariat, by confounding themselves with the latter. Such was the theory of the “narodniki” or ”populists,” and its practical consequences were endured with the greatest heroism. Abandoning their social position, bidding farewell to all the intellectual comforts of the town, renouncing study and bourgeois career, men of science, schoolmasters, nobles, Jewish girl-students, and young women of family, withdrew to remote villages. Working as agricultural labourers, wheelwrights, locksmiths, blacksmiths, etc., they endeavoured to acquire the most intimate knowledge of the common people, to gain their confidence, and whilst still keeping always in view the great revolutionary aim, they became the advisers of the people in the most varied conditions of their lives.8

After 1870 an analogous movement, though a somewhat less extensive one, was manifest among the socialist intellectuals of other countries, and more especially among those of Italy, who for this reason were stigmatised by Marx, in a spasm of unjustified anger, as déclassés. This term, used in an insulting sense, presents the Italian socialists in a false light. Bakunin spoke of such déclassément, not as a historical fact, but as a psychological postulate of the effective socialist action of those who were not proletarians by birth. Thus in Bakunin’s view the déclassé was not a social outcast, a bankrupt, an ineffectual genius, in a word, an involuntary outcast, but the very opposite, a voluntary outcast, one who has deliberately broken with the society in which he was born, in order to adapt himself to a strange environment and one hostile to that in which he was himself brought up. He is an intentional déclassé, and apart from the end that he pursues he must inspire us with respect for his spirit of self-sacrifice and for the invincible firmness of his convictions. It is a historical fact, though one of which the proof cannot be attempted here, that the bourgeois leaders of the early Italian labour movement were déclassés, but that they were such almost exclusively in the sense in which the word is used by Bakunin and not in the sense in which the word is used by Marx. Carlo Cafiero, the best-known leader of the Italian section of the International, derived from an aristocratic and wealthy family, placed the whole of his considerable fortune at the disposal of the party, whilst himself leading the life of a poor Bohemian. He may be considered the prototype of such idealists. Similar political tactics, of which perhaps idealists alone are capable (and these only in periods dominated by strong collective emotion), are based upon the psychological experience that the most ominously dictatorial tendencies of the leaders can be weakened, if not altogether suppressed, by one prophylactic means alone, namely, by the artificial creation of a social homogeneity among the various strata and fragments of which the revolutionary socialist party is composed. It thus becomes a moral postulate that all members of the party should live more or less in the same manner. This homogeneity of life is regarded as a safety valve against the development of oligarchical forms within the working-class parties.

In our own day the principle that the leaders should practise economic renunciation and should identify themselves with the multitude is advocated only by a few isolated romanticists who belong to the anarchist wing of the socialist movement, and even by them only in timid periphrases. A similar principle, however, continues to prevail in the form of a political postulate, for the demand is made in certain working-class sections of the French and German socialist parties that the leaders should break off all social relationships with the bourgeois world, should devote themselves entirely to the party, and should have no other companions than “regularly inscribed members.” In a Guesdist congress held in the north of France a resolution was passed that it was the duty of the socialist deputies to spend their lives among their comrades. In Germany we find traces of the same order of ideas in the absolute prohibition that members of the party shall write for the bourgeois press, or take any part whatever in bourgeois society. It is obvious that these attempts, which are inefficacious and impractical, can succeed at most in creating party fanaticism. They cannot establish identity of thought and action between the leaders and the proletarian masses.

1. Heinrich Strobel, Gewerkschaften u. Sosialistische Geist, “Neue Zeit,” 9IU10 xxiii, vol. ii, No. 44.

2. J. Guevara Historia de la Conquista de Paraguay, Buenos Ayres, 1885

3. Adolphe Thiers, Histoire de la Revolution Française, Brockhaus u. Avenarius, Leipzig, 1846, vol. ii, pp. 395-6; Karl Kautsky, Die Klassengegensatse von 1789, Dietz, Stuttgart, 1889, p. 17.

4. Bakunin, Lettre inédite a Celso Cerretti, 1872, “La Société Nouvelle,” Brussels, February 1896, No. cxxiv, p. 179.

5. Bakunin, L’ Empire knouto-germanique et la Révolution Sociale, Oeuvres de Michel Bakounine, P. V. Stock, Paris, 1897, vol. ii, p. 370.

6. Le Catechisme Révolutionnaire, reprinted by Marx, L’Alliance de la Démocratie Socialiste et l’ Association Internationale des Travailleurs. A. Darson, successeur Foucault, London and Hamburg, 1873, p. 90.

7. “Il bagno nella vita del popolo” (Bakunin, II Sozialismo e Mazzini, ed. cit., p. 24).

8. Adolf Braun, Russland u. d. Revolution, p. 4. — Among numerous documents relating to this period of the Russian struggle for liberty, cf. also Geheime Denkschrift uber die Nihilistischen Umntriebe im Jahre 1875. “Deutsche Rundschau.”