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(en) anarkismo.net: The First International and the Development of Anarchism and Marxism by Wayne Price
Sun, 18 Jun 2017 09:21:54 +0300
Anarchism originated in the 1st International, through the Marx-Bakunin split. ---- There
are recent histories of the First International researched from anarchist perspectives,
which balance the dominant Marxist narrative. Both sides had their strengths and
weaknesses, but overall the anarchists had the better program. ---- Both anarchism and
Marxism developed in the 19th century out of movements for democracy, workers' rights, and
socialism. With this common background, they had a great deal of overlap-plus deep
divisions. They split in a bitter faction fight in the First International-officially
called the International Workingmen's Association. The International was founded in 1864
and their fight took place in the early 1870s, in the same period as the rebellion of the
Paris Commune (1871). The anarchist movement, strongly influenced by Mikhail Bakunin,
developed through the First International. On the other hand, Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels had been working out their views since the 1840s, but Marxism expanded
theoretically and practically in the First International.
By and large, most available accounts of the conflict in the International are written
from the point of view of the Marxists. However, in recent years there have been a number
of histories of the conflict in the International from the viewpoint of the anarchists.
(See Berthier 2015; Eckhardt 2016; Graham 2015-all excellent.)
Like other political fights within left-wing groups, there were personality clashes,
misrepresentation of other's views, sharp dealing, and undemocratic manipulation-on both
sides. But the issues were real and important. A century and a half later, the issues
still resonate. Radicals today can still learn from this clash among giants of our
history. Personally, I identify with the anarchist tradition, while also being influenced
by Marxism. I find this history fascinating.
Years after the final split in the International, Errico Malatesta, a colleague of
Bakunin's, stated that both the anarchists and the Marxists "sought to make use of the
International for our own party aims....We, as anarchists, relied chiefly on
propaganda...while the Marxists...wanted to impose their ideas by majority strength-which
was more or less fictitious....But all of us, Bakuninists and Marxists alike, tried to
force events rather than relying upon the force of events." (quoted in Graham 2015; 137)
(By "party" he meant movements or tendencies.)
What were the issues? In the abstract, Bakunin was to declare, once the conflict broke
out, that it was "a great struggle between two principles: that of authoritarian communism
and that of revolutionary socialism." (quoted in Eckhardt 2016; 77) But actually, there
was little direct discussion of theoretical disagreements between Marxism and anarchism.
For example, the question of whether there should be a transitional "workers' state"
("dictatorship of the proletariat") after a revolution did not come up in any major
debate. Nor did the question of whether socialism would come about through centralized
state ownership or through popular decentralized associations. (The one really political
issue will be discussed in a moment.)
Instead, Marx and his friends accused Bakunin of organizing a secret conspiracy behind the
scenes, whose aim was to take over the International-or, if it could not, to destroy it
from within. In his turn, Bakunin claimed that Marx already dominated the General Council
of the International and manipulated its congresses, in order to push for his agenda.
The anarchists and Marx (and other tendencies) agreed that the International should
promote labor unions everywhere. Marx's additional program was to demand that every
national branch of the International form a political party to run in elections. He rammed
through a resolution stating this at a completely unrepresentative gathering in London in
1871. However, Bakunin and the anarchists did not insist that the branches be forbidden to
organize parties. Instead they proposed that each section be able to decide for itself
whether to run in elections (which was how the International had been operating from its
inception). But Marx wanted the organization to be more centralized in order to demand
Marx's justification for this electoralist strategy has never been clear to me. After the
Paris Commune rebellion of 1871 (which was before the London congress), Engels wrote a new
introduction to the Communist Manifesto, quoting from Marx's Civil War in France: "One
thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply
lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes'." (Marx &
Engels 1955; 6) This insight would seem to point to a rejection of an electoral strategy.
It implies that the working class and oppressed either could not take over the capitalist
state, or, if it did, the working class could not use it for its liberation. It means the
existing state must be overturned and replaced with other institutions. Yet Marx and
Engels continued to push for workers' electoral parties, and even argued that they might
get elected to state power in some countries, such as Britain and the U.S.
On the other hand, "Bakunin's argument[was]that participating in politics would result in
the labor movement being tied to the state and thus make carrying out their
social-revolutionary demands impossible....Freedom can only be obtained by refusing to
participate in the existing power structures, destroying those power structures, and
creating new forms of community." (Graham 2015; 15)
The Marxist David Fernbach writes, "Marx hoped to transform the International's
organizations in the various countries into political parties centered on London. Already
in 1867...Marx had written to Engels, ‘In the next revolution...we (i.e. you and I) will
have this powerful engine in our hands.' ...The remaining condition for transforming the
International into a more centralized and disciplined body was a certain degree of
ideological homogeneity....[At congresses of the International]Marx and Engels...were
certainly not above using foul means when political necessity demanded." ("Introduction,"
1992; 47 & 49) (I am deliberately quoting the pro-Marx Fernbach, an authority on Marx's
life and work, rather than from pro-anarchist texts. But when referring to weaknesses of
Bakunin and the anarchists, I will cite from pro-Bakunin sources.)
Marx's "foul means" included calling congresses to which few of those on Bakunin's side
could attend, printing blank delegate papers in order to stack the congresses, passing on
false information about Bakunin's forces, using name calling and slander. For example,
Marx denounced Bakunin as being a "pan-Slavist" reactionary, even though Bakunin had
abandoned that viewpoint years ago. Marx blamed Bakunin for evil deeds carried out by a
young psychopath and nihilist named Nechayev, whom Bakunin had befriended, "...although
they knew that Bakunin was guilty of nothing worse than crass misjudgment and
gullibility." (Fernbach 1992; 49) This was used as a justification for expelling Bakunin,
his comrade James Guillaume, and other anarchists from the International in 1872. This
caused an organizational split in the International.
As for Bakunin, it was true that he had initiated an international political organization,
one which worked inside and outside of the First International. It went under various
names, sometimes the "International Brotherhood," but mostly the "International Alliance
of Socialist Democracy." In general, it was a network of Bakunin's fellow-thinkers and
friends, spread throughout Europe. At times it had a mass membership, particularly in the
Jura region of Switzerland and in Spain. Originally it had asked to join the International
as a body, but this was not allowed. The Swiss section was accepted as a branch of the
Although claiming to be dissolved, the Alliance really continued. In itself, this does not
seem to be such a terrible thing. Why couldn't the anarchists (or anyone else) have a
transnational socialist caucus inside the International? Marx argued that this secret
conspiracy existed to take over (or to destroy) the International. Actually members of the
Alliance were known to have worked hard to build sections of the International in
Switzerland, in Spain, and in Italy.
Part of the problem here was that Bakunin was notorious for constantly creating, on paper
and in his imagination, secret conspiracies run by hierarchical authorities, with himself
at the top-conspiracies which were to act behind the scenes of the mass movement. "Our aim
is the creation of a powerful but always invisible revolutionary association which will
prepare and direct the revolution." (Bakunin quoted in Dolgoff 1980; 10) " We must be the
invisible pilots guiding the Revolution...by the collective dictatorship of all our
allies[members]." (same; 180). This was balanced by contrary statements that he did not
want this association to rule over the workers or to be an overt dictatorship. Yet, as
Morris, a pro-Bakunin writer, puts it, "Bakunin's writings on secret societies often seem
to contradict his own anarchist principles...." (1993; 150) Dolgoff, an admirer of
Bakunin, writes, "Bakunin's...closest associates...considered his schemes for elaborate,
centralized secret societies incompatible with libertarian principles." (1980; 182) This
says something about the peculiarities of Bakunin, but not much about the movement. Almost
all the other anarchists (or "federalists" or "revolutionary socialists" as they often
called themselves) saw the Alliance as a loose association of comrades.
For that matter, Marx and Engels also had a loose network of friends and allies which they
sought to build. They had regular correspondence with the German social democrats. They
sent one of Marx's sons-in-law into Spain to try to out-organize the anarchist sections,
and to split them if necessary (this failed). Marx was also willing to ally himself with
the Blanquist sect, which was highly centralized and secretly conspiratorial; they
supported his drive to centralize the International.
In theory, Marx had declared that he was against the formation of sects, with their own
dogmas, inside the workers' movement. He claimed that they would dissolve in the actual
course of the popular struggle. The historical process would produce the correct general
direction. Therefore he opposed any factions based on specific, pre-established, political
views, within the International.
But Marx believed that he knew the course which history would take. He was sure that the
workers would form political parties and run in elections; that this would lead, somehow,
to the workers forming their own states and then nationalizing the economy as the
beginning of communism. Marx did not see this as a program which he was proposing to the
workers, so much as the more-or-less inevitable course of history which the workers needed
to take to move toward workers' power and socialism. It was, I believe, this certain
belief in a foreordained future which justified (to Marx) his authoritarian and "foul"
methods. Similarly, it was this sense of absolute surety which was to rationalize the
later Marxist-Leninists in carrying out their atrocities of dictatorship, mass murder, and
super-exploitation. They were sure that it would come out right in the end, in a free and
Unfortunately, Bakunin had other authoritarian traits which made his cause "foul."
Especially this included his writings (many not published at the time) which denounced
Marx for being a German Jew, and denounced both Germans and Jews in vicious racist terms.
An anarchist biographer writes, "This anti-Semitism was a vile and disturbing theme in
some of his writings in this period." (Leier 2006; 247) In 1869, he was accused by Hess of
trying to destroy the International and associating with a police spy. Bakunin responded
to this slander by "writing a lengthy response[which]degenerated into an anti-Semitic
rant...." (Graham 2015; 125)
Bakunin wrote of Marx that he showed, "subterranean intrigues, vain grudges, miserable
personal animosities, dirty insults and infamous slurs, which moreover characterize
political struggles of almost all Germans...." (quoted in Berthier 2015; 159; my emphasis)
Bakunin wrote, "Mr. Marx is a[German]patriot no less ardent than Bismarck....He desires
the establishment of a great Germanic state, one that will glorify the German
people....Marx...considers himself at least as Bismarck's successor....What unites
them...is the out-and-out cult of the State...." (in Dolgoff 1980; 314-315) He claimed
that the Slavs and Latin "races" were naturally libertarian, while the Germanic people
were invariably authoritarian. "The anti-Jewish sentiments[of]Bakunin's...were often a
byproduct of his anti-German attitude....Such remarks are not in keeping with the
anarchist ideas which Bakunin became famous for." (Eckhardt 2016; 196) (In his letters,
Marx sometimes made national chauvinist and racist comments, but they were nothing
compared to Bakunin's tirades, nor do they justify Bakunin.)
This anti-Germanism was not unique to Bakunin. His closest comrade, James Guillaume, wrote
a book, Karl Marx, Pan-Germanist. This racist anti-Germanism later played a part in
persuading a minority of prominent anarchists to support the imperialist Allies against
the imperialist Germans in World War I-including Kropotkin and Guillaume.
The Problem of Power
Overall I believe that the anarchists had the better opinions and practice in the fight
inside the First International. History has shown that the electoral strategy of the
Marxist parties led to accommodation to capitalism and its state. The anarchists were
correct to oppose this strategy.
Marx was actually not a worshipper of the state. He agreed with the anarchists on the goal
of ending the state. But his strategy was for the workers to use the state as the key
instrument for workers' rule and the beginning of socialism. The anarchists were correct
in opposing the Marxist perspective of seizing state power (whether by election or through
a revolution which replaces the capitalist state with a new state).
This issue was somewhat confused, in my opinion, due to the anarchist approach to "power."
Anarchists often declare that they are not in favor of the workers "taking power."
Actually they generally favor the workers creating councils and assemblies, in workplaces
and neighborhoods, federated to replace the state and capitalism. They are for working
people overturning all capitalist institutions, and replacing them with a new society. I
would call this "taking power." The key difference with the Marxists is that the Marxists
wanted to "take state power." They sought to create a new, "workers' state"-but the state
is an alienated social machine, with bureaucracies, regular military and police,
professional politicians, etc., standing over the rest of society and holding down the
population. This is what anarchists are absolutely against.
As Berthier puts it, the Marxists sought "the conquest of political power through
elections," while the anti-authoritarians aimed to "conquer social power, creating new and
radically different forms...through which it would be able to go forward to social
reconstruction." (2015; 13) The anarchists' goal was "having working class social power
replace bourgeois political power." (same; 80)
At the time of the split in the International, the anarchists had most of the membership
and national sections. Even groupings which had worked with Marx, such as the Blanquists
and the British union officials, fell away from him. Outside of the German socialists (who
had played little role in the International) there were few Marxists. However, over time
the Marxists came to have the largest section of the international workers' movement. Up
until World War I, the anarchists still were the mainstream of the far left within the
movement. But with the Russian Revolution, when the Marxists seemed to have shown that
they could make a revolution, the anarchists were reduced to a minority even on the far left.
What weaknesses did the anarchists display which led to this relative marginalization? One
problem was the lack of theoretical development among the anarchists, who often succumbed
to anti-intellectualism. Bakunin had often expressed great admiration for the theoretical
work of Marx. Even in his most bitter attacks on Marx, Bakunin would repeat his respect
for Marx's political economy. Other anarchists were similarly impressed by Marx's theories
(but not his politics). Yet this was not built on by the anarchist movement. There were
valuable works by Kropotkin and others which discussed what an anti-authoritarian society
might look like. But there was little or no analysis of how capitalism worked and how the
workers' movement should react to it under varying conditions. "The disappearance of a
mass movement went hand in hand with a breakdown in the theoretical level of the
movement." (Berthier 2012; 133)
Berthier cites what he regards as one major problem in the anarchist/anti-authoritarian
movement. He believes that the anarchists overreacted against Marx's drive for
bureaucratic centralization of the International by becoming opposed to almost all
authority and organization. "There developed opposition to all forms of organization as a
reaction against the centralization and bureaucratization put in place by Marx....The very
basis of the doctrine elaborated by Proudhon and Bakunin-with federalism as its center of
gravity-would be abandoned....The great theoreticians of the libertarian
movement...advocated federalism, i.e. an equilibrium between...the autonomous action of
basic structures, and...centralization." (Berthier 2015; 154-5) While not
anti-organizational, Graham (2015) has a somewhat different opinion, but I agree with
A rejection of specific anarchist self-organization was consistent with a perspective of
individual or small group actions. Instead of working to build mass movements, through
propaganda and union organizing, many anarchists turned to small scale "propaganda of the
deed," which was often interpreted as unsupported little insurrections or individual
terrorist actions. They had hoped to inspire revolution but instead this orientation led
to isolation for the anarchists. Others (particularly the anarcho-syndicalists) reacted to
this isolation by returning to support of mass actions, including union organizing and
Some continued (or revived) the tradition of Bakunin's Alliance by organizing specific
anarchist federations-in democratic forms. Over time, this became "dual-organizationalism"
(or "neo-platformism" or "especifismo"): that revolutionary anarchists who agree with each
other form a "specific" federation. This was to improve their effectiveness when being
involved in broader organizations, such as unions or community groups or antiwar movements.
After the split in the International, the Marxists went on to build fairly large social
democratic parties in Germany and other major countries. Most of these parties were to
betray socialism by supporting their imperialist states in World War I and to oppose
revolutions afterward. Today they have abandoned any pretense of advocating a new society.
Part of the Marxist movement tried to revive its revolutionary heritage, under the
leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. This wing ended up creating monstrous authoritarian
mass-murdering state capitalisms, before collapsing back into traditional capitalism. So
far, Marxism has utterly failed in its original aim of working class revolution in the
Anarchism spread throughout the world, at various times and places creating major unions,
popular armies, and anarchist federations. Yet anarchism has so far also failed, in that
it has not led to successful revolutions of the working class and other oppressed people.
We who believe in freedom need to learn from our mistakes and our successes if we are
finally to succeed in making revolutions, before the final crises of capitalist collapse,
nuclear war, or global ecological catastrophe. Therefore we must study our history, going
back at least to the First International.
Berthier, Rene' (2015). Social Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers'
Association 1864-1877. (Trans. A.W. Zurbrug.) London: Anarres Editions.
Dolgoff, Sam (ed.) (1980). Bakunin on Anarchism. Montreal Canada: Black Rose Books.
Eckhardt, Wolfgang (2016). The First Socialist Schism; Bakunin vs. Marx in the
International Working Men's Association. (Trans. R.M. Homsi, J. Cohn, C. Lawless, N.
McNab, & B. Moreel.) Oakland CA: PM Press.
Fernbach, David (ed.) (1992). Karl Marx; The First International and After; Political
Writings; Vol. 3. London: Penguin Books/New Left Review.
Graham, Robert (2015). We Do Not Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It; The First International and
the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Oakland CA: AK Press.
Leier, Mark (2006). Bakunin; The Creative Passion. NY: Thomas Dunne Books.
Marx, Karl, & Engels, Friedrich (1955). The Communist Manifesto. (Ed. S. H. Beer.)
Northbrook IL: AHM Publishing.
Morris, Brian (1993). Bakunin; The Philosophy of Freedom. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Black
*written for www.Anarkismo.net
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