An invisible dictatorship was a term coined by Mikhail Bakunin to describe clandestine revolutionary leadership. Bakunin also used the terms invisible legion and invisible network to describe his concept of invisible dictatorship.
In nineteenth century Europe the discussion of how a transitional revolutionary government might act took place since the days of Gracchus Babeuf. In 1828 Philippe Buonarroti published Conspiration pour l'Egalité dite de Babeuf, suivie du procès auquel elle donna lieu which proved to be very influential on Auguste Blanqui and the revolutionaries of 1848, from Louis Blanc to Bakunin. From this arose the concept of a small band of revolutionaries instituting an Educational Dictatorship which would raise the consciousness of the masses to the point that democracy could be introduced.
In the French February Revolution of 1848, the provisional government assumed power extralegally, through an announcement before a mass demonstration. Louis Blanc advocated that the provisional government should "regard themselves as dictators appointed by a revolution which had become inevitable and which was under no obligation to seek the sanction of universal suffrage until after having accomplished all the good which the moment required." He also reiterated the idea of the "dictatorship of Paris" over the country. Bakunin, having received funds from Blanc's provisional government, threw himself into the revolutionary movement in Bohemia. He subsequently described his aim as the establishment of a "government with unlimited dictatorial power," in which "all will be subjugated to a single dictatorial authority," through three secret societies based on "strict hierarchy and unconditional discipline." Hal Draper claims this was the first appearance of his concept of a "secret dictatorship" exercised by "Invisible Dictators." Bakunin also saw Prague playing the role of Paris: "The revolutionary government with unlimited dictatorial power must sit in Prague ... All clubs and journals, all manifestations of garrulous anarchy, will also be destroyed, and all will be subjugated to a single dictatorial authority." Eddie Ford has described this as a '‘dual organisation’' principle, with a secret cadre of controllers manipulating a public front.
In 1866 Bakunin abandoned the idea of state or centralized authority, and his ideas of what a secret society should be changed accordingly:
Anarchist theorist George Woodcock developed the idea of what he called a "pure anarchism", defining it as "the loose and flexible affinity group which needs no formal organization and carries on anarchist propaganda through an invisible network of personal contacts and intellectual influences." However he argued that this was incompatible with mass movements like anarcho-syndicalism as they "make compromises with day-to-day situations" and because they have to "maintain the allegiance of masses of [workers] who are only remotely conscious of the final aim of anarchism." However this viewpoint has been rejected by other anarchists such as Sam Dolgoff, who countered "There is no "pure" anarchism. There is only the application of anarchist principles to the realities of social living."
Bakunin's use of the term 'invisible dictatorship' has been criticised from a number of view points, sometimes in an attempt to discredit anarchism by associating it with this term. Some anarchists have rejected these criticisms with the claim that anarchism is innately incompatible with the concept of coercion, quoting Bakunin himself on this. The concept of the invisible dictatorship is based more on intellectual leadership and carries no connotation of forced leadership.