The Mailed Fist vs. the Invisible Hand

Three of early socialism's five key thinkers opposed the use of State power.


In the 20th century, socialism appears inextricably linked to statism. Whether the more radical and rigid kind of socialism usually denoted as communism or the milder variety found in Sweden and the United Kingdom and called democratic socialism, it is usually thought of in terms of expanding State power: nationalization of industries, widespread bureaucracy, high taxationgovernmental controls on society and the individual.

In the previous century, however, socialism was no more automatically and intrinsically bound to statism than to, say, vegetarianism. A sizable faction of the 19th-century socialist movement rejected not only State power but the State itself. It is well known that the Left has always been torn by dissension. Today, factions of socialists are at odds over how much State power there should be or what means are to be used to seize State power; but over 100 years ago, when the anarchist-socialist Mikhail Bakunin was ousted from the First International, the antistatist socialists and authoritarian socialists were strong contenders for the leadership of their crusade. And it is important to remember that out of the five most prominent socialist leaders of that eraMarx, Engels, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkinthree were anarchists.

How did the leading thinkers of what became known as the "libertarian" wing start with freedom and end up with socialism? How did their approach differ from that of the "authoritarian" wing of socialismMarxists in general and Karl Marx in particular? The point of considering these questions is not to convert anyone to Proudhonism, Bakuninism, or Kropotkinism. (Of course, for those who are now State-socialists to become anarcho-socialists would at least be a step in the right direction and a boost for the cause of freedomalthough not for the cause of sound economics.) As we will see, the anarcho-socialist thinkers under consideration here had certain inconsistencies in their stand on freedom. The point is, however, to recognize and respect the genuine love of liberty and hatred for oppression so evident in their writings, writings in their own way as stirring in spots as those of Frederic Bastiat or Benjamin Tucker.

Proudhon came first chronologically, but for the sake of comparison, we look first at Karl Marx.


Karl Marx's basic ideas are generally well known: the dialectic of history, the "scientific laws" of socialism, the expropriation of the expropriators, and the like. One of his most famous ideas is that of the "withering away of the State." The unsuspecting, judging only from this Marxian ideathat in the future Marxist utopia there would be no Statemight conclude that Marx was an anarchist of sorts, at least at hearta "closet" anarchist, perhaps. Turn, however, to another of Marx's famous ideas, "the dictatorship of the proletariat," and it is evident that he was not.

Leopold Schwarzschild, in his biography of Marx, The Red Prussian (a very appropriate title), shows that Marx's mentality was anything but that of a latent libertarian. Schwarzschild's portrait of Marx, based on Marx's correspondence, is one of a man in love with power and force. Writing of the Marx of the late 1840s (the time of The Communist Manifesto), Schwarzschild notes that:

More clamorously and wildly than ever he threatened all and sundry with the "mailed fist of the people," which was soon to break out. The mailed fist, power, armed force, dictatorship, war, world war, terrorhis brain no longer seemed able to function along any other lines.

Schwarzschild points out that Marx used the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" many, many times in his private writings before he first put it in public print. Apparently it was a pet phrase of his.

Suppose, however, that one does not accept the Schwarzschild portrait of Marx-as-power-luster and prefers the standard view of Marx-as-humanistic-social-critic. Even so, one finds ample evidence in Marx's works written for public consumption that he fully embraced the State and State power as a means to the Good Society. For example, there is the Manifesto, coauthored with his soulmate, Friedrich Engels. The communist program put forth there, supposed to be "pretty generally applicable" wherever the Revolution is to take place, has the following features:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

Of these ten planks in the communist platform, several are clearly of a statist nature; note the term centralization and the frequent mention of the State. Also interesting is that all are to be made liable to labor, clearly by State edict, and industrial armies are to be established. "Abolition" is a frequently used term; where something is to be abolished, obviously there must be a person or persons doing the abolishing, and it is fairly clear that those persons are to be the State—if not the old one, the new one of the Masses.

The Manifesto states that "the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class." Further, "The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class" (emphasis added).

What, then, of the withering away of the State? Since it is obviously so useful an instrument, why not keep it around? Was Marx insincere about the future Stateless society? No, his belief was probably quite genuine, but one must remember just how Marx regarded State. "The State and the structure of society are not, from the standpoint of politics, two different things. The State is the structure of society." Change the structure of society in such a way that the State is no longer needed, and it will disappear. (But while it is needed to change the structure of society, use it energetically and frequently.)

In the same article (found in Selected Writings in Sociology, translated by T.B. Bottomore and edited by Bottomore and Maxmilian Rubel), Marx declared that the "existence of the State and the existence of slavery are inseparable"clearly an indication that he regarded the State as basically an evil, albeit a necessary and often wonderfully useful one. "If the modern State," Marx continued, "wished to end the impotence of its administration it would be obliged to abolish the present conditions of private life. And if the State wished to abolish these conditions of private life it would also put an end to its own existence, for it exists only in relation to them." Clearly, this is only superficially anti-State. The anarchist hates the State per se, as an instrument of coercion; Marx obviously accepted the State as a tool but disliked the State of his own era because it was coercing the wrong people. "Since the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests," as Marx defined the State, the hoped-for classless society will have no need of the State, which will then eclipse itself.

Naturally, this kind of State socialism, imbued with the sanctioning of coercion and the love of power, would have to clash with the libertarianism of those socialists who sincerely detested coercion and loved freedom. Chief among this group, and perhaps the sincerest, was Proudhon.


With Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, we leave State socialism and come to anarchism. "Although I am a strong supporter of order," Proudhon wrote, no doubt as a disclaimer of the common equation of anarchy with chaos or disorder, "I am in the fullest sense of the term, an anarchist." Proudhon saw anarchism as "the government of each man by himselfor as the English say, self-government." In such a system, "business transactions and exchange alone produce the social order. In these conditions each man could call himself his own master, which is the very opposite of constitutional monarchy." These words reveal not only what anarchy meant to Proudhon but that he saw a natural order in the private world that interventions of government only disturb; here, he has more in common with Adam Smith than with Karl Marx. In fact, as George Woodcock shows in Anarchism, Proudhon was very much the individualist in the classical-liberal tradition.

Proudhon called his system Mutualism, from the economic system of mutual exchange. This, rather than collective ownership, would be the basis for the kind of society he advocated. Proudhon described mutualism as "the synthesis of the notion of private property and collective ownership."

Its law…is service for service, product for product, loan for loan, insurance for insurance, credit for credit, guarantee for guarantee. It is the ancient law of retaliation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, as it were turned upside down and transferred from criminal law and the vile practices of the vendetta to economic law, to the tasks of labor and to the good offices of free fraternity.

Of special interest: Proudhon added, probably to contrast his system with that of the Marxists and other statists, that mutualism "demands no police force, no repression or restrictions, and can never be a disappointment or ruin for anyone."

The key to mutualism is expressed in the sentence: "All products will be paid for by products that have cost the same in effort and expense." The precise mechanics of it need not concern us here, for the most important question is not How will it work? but Who will enforce it? To his credit, Proudhon did not fall into the usual trap of summoning up a "People's State" to supplant the old one; no, the way to this ideal mutualist society would be through associations of business enterprisesnot through the abolition of such enterprises by either the State or "the People." Proudhon called for the replacement of authority by contract (voluntary agreements or associations), in a manner similar to the laissez-faire liberals of the day. Proudhon was truly, as Woodcock calls him, "a social individualist."

His notorious answer to the title question of his most famous work, What is Property?"Property is theft"could mislead people into seeing Proudhon as a hard-line collectivist wanting to abolish private property outright. It has been pointed out that he actually wanted to do away with what he considered the usurious and therefore evil uses of property rather than property itself. (For this interpretation, see Preston King's Fear of Power.) But who determines what is usurious and evil? And who will do the abolishing? Here, one should keep in mind that Proudhon also said, "God is evil," but added, "I no more want to make it a crime to believe in God than I do to abolish Property." It seems reasonable to conclude that Proudhon remained true to his libertarianism, believing that once the State was abolished the natural order, no longer hindered by police-enforced law, would work itself out to a point where private property would naturally disappear. This is a far cry from the expropriate-the-expropriators rhetoric of Marx and Engels.

Marx read and liked What is Property? and wrote to Proudhon, inviting him to join in correspondence with Marx and other European socialists. Proudhon replied positively but cautioned Marx against developing a socialist "theology." "Let us not," he proposed, "set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic or of reason." And of particular pertinence to the question of the role of force is Proudhon's admonition against the revolutionary communism Marx advocated: "We must not suggest revolutionary action as the means would simply be an appeal to force and arbitrariness. In brief it would be a contradiction." He explained further:

I put the problem in this way: How can we put back into society, through some system of economics, the wealth which has been taken out of society in another system of economics? In other words, through Political Economy we must turn the theory of Property in such a way as to create what you German socialists call community and which for the moment I will only go so far as to call liberty or equality. Now I think I know the way in which this problem may be very quickly solved. Therefore I would rather burn Property little by little than give it renewed strength by making a St. Bartholomew's Day of property owners.

Does coercion rear its helmeted head in this passage? What Proudhon meant by "burning Property little by little" is not made explicit; he is certainly guilty of leaving himself open to the charge of letting statism into his philosophy via the back door. In light of his other statements, however, it would seem that by "turning the theory of Property against Property," Proudhon meant forming private (that is, noncoercive) associations of businesses in order to bring about socialism. Apparently the meaning was clear enough to Marx; according to Schwarzschild, he never wrote to Proudhon again.


Perhaps the most intransigent anti-statist, anti-Marxist socialist of all was Mikhail Bakunin, a former Russian army officer. In 1855, he had been exiled to Siberia for his anarchistic activities, but he escaped and traveled the world. The leader of the anarchist faction of the First International, Bakunin was expelled from that august body by the Marxists in 1872. Certainly the personality differences between Bakunin and Marx had much to do with the schism, but far more important were the sharp philosophical divergences between the two collectivist leaders.

Bakunin's philosophical development had been greatly influenced by his friend, Proudhon. E.H. Carr, Bakunin's biographer, writes that Proudhon was "more than any other man…responsible for transforming Bakunin's instinctive revolt against authority into a regular anarchistic creed. It was more than twenty years [after their association in the 1840's] before that creed was finally formulated. But twenty years after their meeting, Bakunin still hailed Proudhon as his teacher and forerunner."

Another great influence on Bakunin was, oddly enough, Proudhon's (and later Bakunin's) philosophical adversary, Karl Marx, with whom Bakunin was also associated in the 1840s. One can see Marx's influence in Bakunin's view of a world governed by iron, scientific laws and in his strict materialism. In later years it became obvious that the libertarian socialism of Proudhon had won out, in Bakunin's mind, over the dictatorial communism of Marxif, indeed, there had ever been a real contest.

A good example of Bakunin's anti-authoritarianism is found in his "God and the State." In it, he paraphrased Voltaire, saying, "if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him," because, Bakunin held, man can never be truly free while a God or a belief in God exists. By free, however, Bakunin did not mean free from the laws that govern the universe: "We are absolutely the slaves of these laws." Instead, he meant free from man-made restraints; and because, in this context, he demanded absolute freedom, he absolutely rejected the authority of the State.

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the savant to impose his authority on me.

The essence of "God and the State"and the essence of Bakunin's libertarianismis to be found in this sentence:

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual.

One would naturally expect such an ardent libertarian to clash with the State socialists; and clash he did, not only in the political struggles within the First International, but in the battle of ideas on paper. In an attack on the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Bakunin called such a form of rule as reactionary as the same old State the masses had been trying to overthrow for years: "Between revolutionary dictatorship and the State principle the difference is only the external situation. In substance both are one and the same: the ruling of the majority by the minority in the name of the alleged stupidity of the first and the alleged superior intelligence of the second." And:

Now it is clear why the doctrinaire socialists who have for their aim the overthrow of the existing authorities and regimes in order to build upon the latter a dictatorship of their own, never were and never will be the enemies of the State, but on the contrary that they were and ever will be its zealous champions. They are enemies of the powers-that-be only because they cannot take their places. They are enemies of the existing political institutions because such institutions preclude the possibility of carrying out their own dictatorship, but they are at the same time the most ardent friends of State power, without which the Revolution, by freeing the toiling masses, would deprive this would-be revolutionary minority of all hope of putting the people into a new harness and heap upon them the blessings of their governmental measures.

(Consider how strikingly applicable the above lines are to the "would-be revolutionary minority" of our own era, the New Left of the sixties and early seventiesincluding many self-styled "anarchists.")

Bakunin insisted that if it should come to pass that the masses could revolt and capture the State, they should at once begin to destroy it; the Marxists held that the State, once captured, should be strengthened and reinforced, and then, in Bakunin's words, "transferred in this form into the hands of its benefactors, guardians, and teachers, the chiefs of the Communist partyin a word, to M. Marx and his friends, who will begin to emancipate it in their own fashion."

Addressing the second Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, a liberal organization, Bakunin declared in 1868 that he was not a communist but a collectivist. The distinction, according to him, was that collectivism is liberatarian in nature and communism is not; he hated communism because it "is the negation of liberty and because humanity is for me unthinkable without liberty." He explained, "I want to see society and collective or social property organized from below upwards, by way of free association, not from above downwards, by means of any kind of authority whatsoever."

That last sentence has a strong touch of Proudhon, and we can see in much of Bakunin's thought the same libertarian socialism found in his intellectual mentor. Bakunin, however, went beyond Proudhon to advocate revolutionary terrorbombs and weapons-bristling barricades and the other violent trappings with which anarchism came to be so closely linked in the public mindas a means of bringing about the Stateless society. Was this a deviation from Bakunin's stand against coercion? Was he not setting up himself and his followers as authorities, ruling men or trying to rule men by "the mailed fist of force"?

Study of his writings and pronouncements leads one to believe that the main and perhaps only detectable inconsistency in Bakunin's anticoercion, pro-freedom philosophy was in his position on inheritance. Bakunin advocated its abolition. Such abolition obviously would be an intrusion on the freedom of the person who wishes to bequeath property to his heirs, as well as the freedom of the heirs claiming the property bequeathed them. Apparently Bakunin either did not consider this or was thinking of inheritance only in terms of a feudal or semifeudal society such as his native Russia, where inheritance served only to propagate a system of property ownership founded and maintained by State force, where "private property" applied only to property held by the land-owning minions of the State. Would Bakunin have banned inheritance in the case of bequeathing true private property, that is, property not obtained through force or fraud? He should probably be given the benefit of the doubt in view of his other statements, particularly in "God and the State" and his address to the League of Peace and Freedom.

Revolutionary violence against the State, it can be deduced from Bakunin's view of authority on the whole, is justified because the State has no right to exist in the first place. If the State be no more than a gang of socially approved murderers and thieves, existing only by force and the threat of force, shooting or blowing up the members of such a gang would be as much self-defense as, and no more a violation of "free association" than, violent action taken against some private gang of murderers and thieves. As modern libertarian theorists like to put it, it is the initiation of violence, not the violence itself, that is immoral; and the State, by its very nature, is the initiator of violence directed against those it controls or seeks to control.

In sum, judging Bakunin and his philosophy as a whole, and at its best, Bakuninism was Proudhonism with a clenched fistthe fist directed, not downward, as with State socialism, but upward, at the State itself.


Proudhon to Bakunin to Kropotkinthere is a connection beyond the obvious fact that the three belonged to the same general political movement. There is a connection of personal acquaintance and intellectual influence. Proudhon knew and influenced Bakunin, and Bakunin in turn knew and influenced Peter Kropotkin. Unlike Bakunin, however, Kropotkin had a positive dislike of violence, even anarchist violence, although logically, as James Joll points out in The Anarchists, he felt compelled to accept it: he was not a strict, Tolstoyan pacifist. Unlike Proudhon, his vision of the ideal society was one of free communes with all holding property in common, rather than the bourgeois Proudhonian society with small property holders and merchants banded together in local associations.

This Russian prince turned anarchist, this soldier turned scientist, also saw, as Bakunin saw, certain natural laws operating in the universe. For Kropotkin, the basic rule of nature was evolutionnot the fang-and-claw, survival-of-the-fittest evolution of the Social Darwinists, but a benevolent evolution leading to greater and greater free cooperation, mutual aid, among the species.

Beyond that, Kropotkin's thought can be seen as a continuation of Bakunin's, and thus of Proudhon's. For example, Kropotkin, like Proudhon, was very much an individualist and saw the growth of individualism"the endeavors of the individual towards emancipating himself from the steadily growing powers of capital and the State"as leading to increased socialism (which he invariably referred to as communism, although Bakunin had tried to make this term a synonym for State socialism). Socialism would evolve as individuals, gaining more and more freedom, turned more and more to cooperating with one another for the public good. This idea is set forth in his "Anarchist Communism," in which he declared, probably with Marx in mind:

We are communists. But our communism is not that of the authoritarian school: it is anarchist communism. It is a synthesis of the two chief aims pursued by humanity since the dawn of historyeconomic freedom and political freedom.

Elsewhere, in a statement summarizing the ideal of his kind of socialism, Kropotkin stated that it "seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects."

Kropotkin attacked State socialism directly in a pamphlet called "Revolutionary Government." The only proper slogan for a true socialist revolutionary, he said, is "No government!" rather than "A Revolutionary Government!" The concept of revolutionary government was considered by Kropotkin a contradiction in itselfa "white blackbird." Further, Kropotkin attacked both proposed forms of revolutionary government: the elected, parliamentary kind and the revolutionary dictatorship varietythe former, because once elected the revolutionary officials would become typical government officeholders, interested primarily in their own power; the latter, because "this idea of a dictatorship is never anything more than a sickly product of government fetish-worship."

Again, as with Bakunin, the problem of force arises. It is clear enough that Kropotkin, with his belief in mutual aid and free cooperation among emancipated individuals, saw his communism as a voluntaristic socialism. Yet this sunny utopian landscape is darkened on its horizons by the familiar cloud of coercion: in The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin clearly advocated expropriation of property to achieve his ideal society. Whoever did the expropriation would ipso facto be that alleged "white blackbird," the revolutionary government, even if Kropotkin saw the expropriators as mutually cooperating individuals banded together in free brotherhood, voluntarily confiscating someone else's property. Obviously, there is a contradiction here.

Expropriation could be reconciled with the rest of Kropotkin's philosophy when the property has been acquired through previous State conquest and confiscation. As suggested in the case of Bakunin, perhaps Kropotkin was thinking here only in terms of his own semi-feudalistic Russia, where the landowning class and the State would often have been one and the same. To confiscate in such a case would not be confiscation as much as it would be liberation.

On the other hand, perhaps there is no reconciliation. Perhaps Kropotkin simply contradicted himself. In that case, he would not be the first to advocate a "liberation" that in practice would be quite different from true freedom: think of the liberté-loving ideologues of the French Revolution. As with Bakunin, however, although more tentatively, perhaps Kropotkin should be given the benefit of the doubt. It appears that Bakunin and Kropotkin believed, however mistakenly, that property owners and the political ruling class, if not always one and the same, were in collaboration, so that an attack on the State would be an attack on Property, and vice versa. They (Kropotkin in particular) might have concluded that it would be impossible for a man to own land without that land having been first expropriated for him by the State. They did not make the distinction between the economic and political spheres, between Power and Market, a distinction Proudhon seems to have been aware of.

At any rate, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin each in his own way advocated a socialism based on the inviolability of the individual and on an abhorrence of the rule of man over man. Whether or not each was consistent in this advocacy is another matter. Whatever the contradictions in their respective philosophies, they seem inconsequential compared to the rabid statism of Marxmore so in the present age, with the double specter of two Marxist police-state superpowers looming over the world. Marx won out in the political arena; but as powerful an influence over 19th-century socialism as Marx undoubtedly was, he was not powerful enough to lead these three other influential socialists away from their individual beliefs in freedom.

A free-lance writer, Mr. Chadwick lives in New York City. He reports that his western, Mackinnon, "is now finding a publisher."

A by-no-means exhaustive bibliography presented for the benefit of those who would like to learn more about the anarcho-socialists.

Bakunin, Michael. Marxism, Freedom, and the State. Translated and edited, with a biographical sketch, by K.J. Kenafick. London: Freedom Press, 1950.

___. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff, with a biographical sketch by Max Nettlau. New York: Free Press, 1953.

Eltzbacher, Paul. Anarchism: Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy. Translated by Steven T. Byington, edited by James J. Martin. New York: Libertarian Book Club, 1960.

Joll, James. The Anarchists. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

King, Preston. Fear of Power: An Analysis of Antistatism in Three French Writers. London: Frank Cass, 1967.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Conquest of Bread. New York: Vanguard, 1927.

___. Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets. Edited, with introduction, biographical sketch, and notes, by Roger N. Baldwin. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1927.

Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. Selected Writings of P.-J. Proudhon. Edited by Steward Edwards, translated by Elizabeth Fraser. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1969.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism. Cleveland: Meridian, 1962.