Letters to a Southerner: Comparing French Peasants to American Southerners via Bakunin’s “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis”. By: Jae SatolaRead Now
Although I am not an Anarchist by any means, I could not help but agree with the Father of Russian Anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, in his 1870 work, “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis”. In which he outlines his belief that the urban proletariat is not the only vessel for revolution in France. Rather, the peasantry is an essential part of any potential social revolution as well. Although we no longer have a peasantry, comparisons can be drawn between modern non-bourgeois Southerners in the United States and French peasants in the nineteenth century. As Bakunin outlines, Peasants tend to be religious, loyal to the emperor, and intensely patriotic. They are labeled as ignorant and they have an attachment to private property which keeps them from accepting Communism as an ideology. All of which is surprisingly similar to the modern, non-bourgeois Southerners of the United States.
According to Bakunin, peasants are religious. They are superstitious “due to their ignorance, [which is] artificially and systematically implemented by all the bourgeoisie governments” (Bakunin). This is not to say that religion as a whole is bad, rather religion inherently supports Marxism. However, religious institutions that are in the hands of the bourgeois government can work against the people and what their doctrines stand for. For example, the numerous megachurches present in the United States. These institutions operate for monetary gain and often push fear-mongering propaganda upon their members. They lock the doors to a holy house of G-d which should be open to the public with barbed wire and security guards. They request tithes from their members, much like indulgences, which insinuate that paying for faith will make one more holy. All the while being exempt from taxes. Think about how the Bible Belt infamously has some of the most conservative populations in the US. Bakunin suggests the solution to this is not to violently abolish religion, as Marx suggested, but to educate the peasants. To take this one step further, it would be best to teach real religion as it is meant to be rather than religion that has been modified by the state to be used as propaganda. Teach the help-thy-neighbor religion, not the burn-in-hell-G-dless-communists religion. After all, religion at its core has doctrines that directly align with the Communist cause. It is simply a matter of taking power away from corrupt religious institutions in collusion with the state.
The modern southern proletariat also has an intense love of private property, just as the French peasants had in the 19th century. This “fanatical commitment to the individual ownership of land”, as Bakunin puts it, seems ignorant to the urban Marxist; however, it makes sense. Why would someone who has been able to scrape together a small amount of property so that “he and his loved ones shall not die of hunger and privatization in the economic jungle of this merciless society” not cling to it dearly (Bakunin)? To the southern proletariat, their property is their livelihood; it is all they have and all they are able to use to provide for those they love. Thus, they fear those who advocate for the abolition of private property because to them it is the abolition of their livelihood. Obviously, the average Marxist knows this is not the case. They know that the southern proletariat would be better provided for and kept out of poverty after the abolition of private property, but the average non-bourgeois southerner has not had access to theory which describes this. As Bakunin puts it, “They hate and fear those who would abolish private property, because they have something to lose – at least, in their imagination, and imagination is a very potent factor, though generally underestimated today”. And bourgeoisie leaders use this power of imagination to exploit and influence the southern proletariat.
Along with a love for their leader, peasants are intensely patriotic just like the modern southern proletariat. People don American flags as clothing, they view the flag as some sort of deity to be worshiped, and they are ready to lay down their lives for a country whose interests are vested in monetary gain rather than their lives. Yet any shred of doubt about America causes disdain and upheaval within their communities. This is one of the reasons politicians are able to indoctrinate the southern proletariat so easily; they use their love of country against them. As Bakunin states, peasants are “egoistic and reactionary”. They are “petty landlords” clinging desperately to the small amounts of land they have; land that earns their livelihood (Bakunin). Yet, they still “hate the bourgeois landlords, who enjoy the bounty of the earth without cultivating it with their own hands”(Bakunin). So many southern proletarians mock the bossman behind his back as they desperately fight to put food on the table; they harbor socialist sentiments whether they like it or not. With this, Bakunin makes the point that peasants are “passionately attached to his land”; thus, making it easy to turn them against a foreign invader or anyone who poses a threat to their land. Hence, the patriotism that brews within the southern proletariat. Their land is their livelihood, it feeds their families, and their land is their country. And, as Bakunin observes, “while they are defending the land they are, at the same time, unconsciously but effectively destroying the state institutions rooted in the rural communes, and therefore making the Social Revolution”. Contrary to the thoughts of urban Marxists, the peasantry can be and is revolutionary.
Yet, the average non-bourgeois southerner has an unrequited love for their leader: the president of the United States of America. Hence the conglomerates of “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” flags which are abundant in the American south. Bakunin describes this loyalty as a “superficial manifestation of deep socialist sentiments, distorted by ignorance and the malevolent propaganda of the exploiters”. According to his logic, peasants will not donate their land, money, or lives to keep a ruler on the throne, yet they are willing to kill the rich and to take their property and give it to an emperor because they have a general hatred for the rich. Similarly, the modern southern proletariat guards their money and property so closely that they revere a leader like Trump for advocating for fewer taxes. They listen to Republicans’ calls for the people to keep their money, not knowing that the “people” the politicians speak of are the rich benefactors who donate to their campaigns. The rich keeping their wealth away from taxes overall does the opposite of what the southern proletariat wants, they just don't know this. They harbor socialist sentiments in their desire to make goods cost less, make necessities more available to them, and allow them to keep their hard-earned money; however, they listen to the pandering of politicians which convince them the way of accomplishing this is by giving more to the rich. Ronald Reagan's infamous “trickle-down economics” is a prime example of this. Bourgeois leaders do nothing but take advantage of the southern proletariat's desires for stability.
While Marxists and the urban proletariat may view the southern proletariat as wrong, evil, or hypocritical, when they hold views that directly contradict their wellbeing as the working class, the true nature of their beliefs lies in their ignorance. As Bakunin states, “the peasants, like other Frenchmen, do wrong, not because they are by nature evil but because they are ignorant”. It is not the fault of the peasant that they are misinformed when no one provides them proper education. Just as it is not the fault of American southerners that their allegiances lie with politicians who directly contradict the wellbeing of the working class and with conspiracy theorists. They are misinformed because of a lack of comprehensive education in the American south. Criticizing them for this without acknowledging that their education is not prioritized, nor is it funded comprehensively by the government, is inherently classist. The bourgeois claim that superior education is what entitled them to dominate the city workers. The proletariat obviously disagrees, so why must the radicalized urban proletariat use the same logic to discredit their brothers in arms: the southern proletariat? After all, Bakunin was correct when he wrote that “the superiority of the workers over the bourgeoisie lies not in their education, which is slight, but in their human feelings and their realistic, highly developed conception of what is just”. The urban workers must recognize that the southern proletariat is not an enemy, but an ally. And they should be afforded the same resources as those in urban areas. Regardless of their ignorance, there is honest hope for the peasants: “alongside their ignorance there is an innate common sense, an admirable skillfulness, and it is this capacity for honest labor which constitutes the dignity and the salvation of the proletariat”(Bakunin). They are by no means useless in a revolutionary context. They struggle the same way as their more educated counterparts, they just need the extra hand from their urban brethren.
Hence, the solutions Bakunin provides to the “peasant problem”. The urban proletariat and the peasantry tend to staunchly oppose each other just as the urban and southern proletariat tend to oppose each other. This stems from classism and elitism in the ranks of urban Marxists and the like. This alienation of two classes only causes infighting which makes the proletariat as a whole less powerful against the bourgeoisie and institutions of the state that operates in favor of it. Thus, although he was an anarchist, Bakunin poses many valid arguments and solutions to the alienation of the French Peasantry which can be applied to the modern, Southern Proletariat.
Bakunin proposed an end to the elitism of urban Marxists and an end to the verbose nature of Marxist theory. Many people in the rural south lack proper education due to low funding and the American government's negligence; thus, when they are faced with a volume like Das Kapital, it seems overwhelming. Hence why, as Bakunin suggested, theory needs to be communicated in layman's terms. Urban proletarians cannot view themselves as superior to non-bourgeois southerners just because they are able to comprehend complex volumes of theory; this is counterproductive. It is inherently classist to look down upon those who cannot afford and lack access to higher education. If theory is communicated to non-bourgeois southerners in layman's terms, they may be able to see the truth in it and apply it to their lives. However, the only way this can be accomplished is through destigmatizing the elite nature of theory and making it more accessible to those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to comprehend it or devote time to decoding it.
Urban Marxists also must not antagonize non-bourgeois southerners for their beliefs. They must not antagonize them for supporting a leader like Donald Trump, rather they should undermine the establishment through which the State and President wield their influence. As Bakunin put it, “the mayors, justices of the peace, priests, rural police, and similar officials, should be discredited” (Bakunin). The urban proletariat needs to not view themselves as better than non-bourgeois southerners simply because they are less ignorant. This view is ignorant in itself because the urban proletariat is using its education as a way of oppressing and putting down the less privileged which is almost identical to what the bourgeoisie does to the urban proletariat: “Because the city worker is more informed than the peasant, he often regards peasants as inferiors and talks to them like a bourgeois snob. But nothing enrages people more than mockery and contempt, and the peasant reacts to the city worker’s sneers with bitter hatred”(Bakunin). This classism and elitism do nothing but pit the urban and rural proletariat against one another, instead of against the bourgeoisie.
Thus, although I am not an anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin makes excellent points in his 1870 work, “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis”. Points I believe modern, American Marxists can learn from. It is imperative to the success of our cause for us to band together as one working class. And the only way for this to be possible is to break down the animosity between the southern and urban proletariat; to recognize their revolutionary potential. The only way to do so is to make our ideology and our theory more accessible and to not make villains of the ignorant because of the government's negligence towards their education. Where there is fear and lack of education, there is potential for indoctrination. Anyone can become a victim. It is up to modern Marxists to amend this “peasant problem” and unite into one dictatorship of the proletariat.
Bakunin, Mikhail. “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis.” Works of Mikhail Bakunin 1870, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1870/letter-frenchman.htm.
Jae Satola is 18 years old and has been interested in Marxism for the past five years. They have a passion for making theory and education accessible to the masses. They hope to major in History in university and have a particular fascination with the Russian revolution and Eastern Europe.
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