150 Years On: The Split in the First International

The Hague Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (aka the First International) took place in September 1872. After a tumultuous session, Bakunin was expelled by a majority vote and from then on, the red and black tendencies of the workers’ movement went their separate ways.

Or so it is said. 150 years on from that event we can look back with fresh eyes at what exactly happened and at the disagreements which continue to divide revolutionaries to this day.

Bakunin and Marx

Bakunin was born in 1814 to a liberal family of Russian nobility. He did a brief stint in the Russian army, only to desert and move to Moscow in 1836 with the intention of taking up philosophical studies. He became drawn to the ideas of Fichte and Hegel and befriended the likes of Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogarev, both of whom would play an important role in his later life. In 1840 he moved to Berlin, the homeland of German philosophy. Marx was born in 1818 to a liberal Jewish family. In 1835 he travelled to Bonn to likewise take up philosophical studies. Due to poor health Marx was spared military service, but his father transferred him to the University of Berlin in 1836. There Marx was also introduced to the ideas of Hegel and came under the influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach.

At the time Europe was undergoing a seismic shift. Industrialisation had uprooted old social structures, giving birth to new movements and new ideas. It was in the background of such events as the 1825 Decembrist revolt in Russia, the 1830 revolutions in France and Belgium, the 1831 Polish uprising, the Canut (silk workers) revolts in France and Chartism in Britain, that the two young men gradually moved from the realm of philosophy to that of politics. Both made their first steps among the Young Hegelian circles of Berlin, both became acquaintances of Arnold Ruge, both published their first serious tracts in 1842 (Bakunin in Dresden, Marx in Cologne), and both faced their first persecution by state authorities in 1843 (with Bakunin leaving for Switzerland and Marx for France). Both were then introduced to the socialism of Wilhelm Weitling and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and soon met them in person.

In Paris in 1844 Bakunin and Marx finally crossed paths. Bakunin would later recall:

I knew nothing at that time of political economy, I had not yet rid myself of my metaphysical aberrations, and my socialism was only instinctive. Although younger than I, he was already an atheist, a conscious materialist, and an informed socialist … We saw each other often. I greatly respected him for his learning and for his passionate devotion … There was never any frank intimacy between us – our temperaments did not permit it. He called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right; I called him vain, perfidious, and cunning, and I also was right.

Bakunin’s manuscript as quoted by James Guillaume, 1871

Marx, with the help of his new comrade Engels, was now making a clear political break with idealism and religion and beginning his study of capitalism. Bakunin’s politics on the other hand remained strongly influenced by pan-Slavism – the idea that the Slavic nations should unite in a vast democratic federation – and hamstrung by idealist and religious conceptions. The same year that Bakunin made his Appeal to the Slavs, Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto.

The outbreak of the 1848 revolutions saw both revolutionaries as active participants of struggles across Europe, Bakunin in Paris, Prague and Dresden and Marx in Brussels, Paris and Cologne. While they all recognised the importance of revolution in Poland, their assessments of the movements in Europe differed significantly. Engels in particular harshly denounced Russia and the Austrian Slavic countries as the cradle of reaction and dismissed the national aspirations of the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Ukrainians – what he called the “non-historic peoples”. It was also at this time that Marx received rumours from two different correspondents that Bakunin was a Russian spy, which he published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Upon finding out these were untrue, Marx followed it up with a clarification, and defended Bakunin’s name over the next few years, despite their public disagreements regarding pan-Slavism. Nevertheless, such baseless accusations against Bakunin were exploited by his political enemies in the future.

By the time the counter-revolution set in, both Marx and Bakunin had experienced expulsions and arrests. So when in 1849 Bakunin was captured by the Saxon authorities, it seemed as just another temporary setback. Instead, he would spend the next twelve years transferred from prison to prison and country to country, enduring beatings and torture, multiple commuted death sentences, and finally exile. It was not until 1861 that he managed to escape from Siberia and make his way to Western Europe again, where he could resume his political development. Meanwhile in 1849, Marx managed to find refuge in London, where he settled, dedicating his time to the critique of political economy.

Years of imprisonment made Bakunin bitter, and he emerged an even more stringent pan-Slavist with a rekindled hatred for Germany. He reconnected with Herzen and Ogarev and threw himself into the Polish and Italian national liberation movements. When the 1863 uprising in partitioned Poland broke out, Bakunin volunteered his services, only to be rebuffed. He then tried to make his own way to join the uprising, but the expedition failed, as did the uprising itself – the Polish insurgents were isolated and crushed. These events delivered a blow to Bakunin’s pan-Slavist hopes and finally made him reconsider his political ideas.

Meanwhile in London, the Polish uprising and the American Civil War served as the impetus for the founding of the First International in 1864. It was a process from which Bakunin, who was now planning his relocation to Italy, was absent. However, he and Marx briefly met in London:

[Bakunin] left today for Italy where he is living (Florence). I saw him yesterday for the first time in 16 years. I must say I liked him very much, more so than previously. With regard to the Polish movement, he said the Russian government had needed the movement to keep Russia itself quiet, but had not counted on anything like an 18-month struggle. They had thus provoked the affair in Poland. Poland had been defeated by two things, the influence of Bonaparte and, secondly, the hesitation of the Polish aristocracy in openly and unambiguously proclaiming peasant socialism from the outset. From now on – after the collapse of the Polish affair – he [Bakunin] will only involve himself in the socialist movement. On the whole, he is one of the few people whom after 16 years I find to have moved forwards and not backwards.

Marx to Engels, 4 November 1864

For the next few months, the two revolutionaries continued to correspond in friendly terms and exchanged documents of the First International and early drafts of Capital. Marx’s influence within the First International grew, while in Italy, Bakunin began formulating a new doctrine, characterised by political abstentionism, anti-statism and federalism, which variously went under the names of revolutionary socialism, collectivism and anarchism. He initially looked for supporters among the radicalised followers of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Freemasons, eventually founding a secret society, the International Revolutionary Association. The “catechisms” of that secret society sum up the ideas around which Bakunin attempted to reorganise revolutionaries in an international network. In 1867, he and some of his followers left for Switzerland, where they tried to influence the newly founded League of Peace and Freedom, a bourgeois pacifist organisation opposed to the rising hostilities between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. The First International also sent a few delegates (among them James Guillaume, who became Bakunin’s close comrade), but only to point out, as Marx put it, that:

The [First International] was in itself a peace congress, as the union of the working classes of the different countries must ultimately make international wars impossible. If the promoters of the Geneva Peace Congress really understood the question at issue they ought to have joined the [First International].

Marx, On the Attitude of The International Working Men’s Association To the Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, 1867

Bakunin was elected to the Central Committee of the League, although his attempts to influence its direction were futile – its bourgeois democratic character was quite clear from the outset. He did however win a few more followers, and together they left the League following the Bern Congress of 1868. They founded the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, which now declared itself a branch of the First International. Bakunin wrote to Marx:

My dear friend, I understand more clearly than ever now how right you were to follow the great path of economic revolution, inviting us to go with you and condemning those of us who frittered away our energies in the by-paths of partly national and occasionally wholly political ventures. I am now doing what you have been doing for the last twenty years. Since my solemn and public breach with the bourgeoisie at the Bern Congress I know no other society and no other environment than the world of the workers. My Fatherland is now the International, to whose prominent founders you belong. You’ll see therefore, my dear friend, that I am your pupil, and I am proud of it. So much for my attitude and my personal opinions.

Bakunin to Marx, 22 December 1868

It seemed like the two revolutionaries would now come together in one organisation, but the Alliance intended to preserve its autonomy with the ability to hold its own sessions at annual congresses. The First International could not permit “the presence of a second international body operating within and outside” itself (IWMA General Council, 22 December 1868). Marx and Engels were also very critical of the programme of the Alliance, particularly the fact it called for the “social equalisation of classes”, not their abolition. Consequently the Alliance was asked to dissolve itself and have its members join their local sections of the International. Only on that basis did Bakunin and his followers finally join the First International in July 1869. Though, as it would emerge later, the Alliance did retain an informal organisation within the International.


The First International

The manner in which Bakunin first tried to join the First International aroused suspicion in Marx, and Bakunin’s misguided connection with Sergey Nechayev, a Russian advocate of revolutionary terror who appeared in Switzerland in 1869, seemed only to confirm them. But before this came to light, Marx and Bakunin briefly joined forces to deliver a final blow to the Proudhonists who defended private ownership of land among peasants.

The First International was always an uneasy alliance of political tendencies that had influence over the working class movement at the time – among them followers of Proudhon, Blanqui, Lassalle, Marx and later Bakunin. From the very beginning Marx and Engels were engaged in a struggle for political clarity within the International, to give it an orientation towards the self-emancipation of the working class. At the Geneva Congress (September 1866) only a minority of the German and Belgian delegates advocated communist ideas. At the Lausanne Congress (September 1867) their influence grew, and at the Brussels Congress (September 1868) they could finally pass motions which stated that mines, collieries, canals, railways, etc., should become common property. The French Proudhonists however still resisted socialisation of land. This was finally resolved at the Basel Congress (September 1869), with the support of Bakunin who backed the collectivist position.

There was now also general agreement on the importance of strikes and creation of trade societies. More surprisingly, Bakunin also supported a motion to extend the powers of the General Council so that it could suspend any section which acted against the principles of the International. Where disagreement between the Marxists and the Bakuninists did arise was over the question of the right of inheritance. For Bakunin, the abolition of the right of inheritance formed a key point of his programme for the Alliance, a prerequisite for social equality in the society of the future. For Marx, the whole question of the right of inheritance was a juridical distraction which would be resolved with the abolition of private property in the means of production (already approved by the International). Neither position received a clear majority and no decision was taken. Both Marx and Bakunin were relatively satisfied with the overall outcome of the Basel Congress, though the seeds of discord were planted.

This period was the height of the First International. The class struggle was advancing in Europe – ribbon-weavers, silk-dyers, buildings’ trade and compositors’ strikes in Switzerland, puddlers’ and miners’ strikes in Belgium, cotton-workers’ and miners’ strikes in France, miners’ strikes in Wales. New adherents were being won to the cause. There were attempts at insurrections, like the one in Lyon in 1870, in which Bakunin was personally involved.

In 1871 this wave of discontent finally culminated in the Paris Commune, a revolutionary uprising which broke out in the aftermath of the long anticipated war between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Though the International had only a marginal influence in Paris, Marx’s coverage of the short-lived Commune became its most well-known public defence. In the eyes of the bourgeoisie, the Paris Commune became synonymous with the First International, and its members now endured repression. Though both Marx and Bakunin in different ways saw the Paris Commune as the confirmation of their programme, relations between the two revolutionaries had deteriorated in the meantime to the point that they now threatened to divide the International itself. A number of factors had led to this.

Towards the end of 1869, rumours began circulating again that Bakunin was a Russian spy. This accusation was likely revived by Sigismund Borkheim, and repeated by Wilhelm Liebknecht. According to Bakunin, his name was cleared during a court of honour at the Basel Congress. But the attacks on his person did not stop, as Moses Hess then published a hit piece in October 1869, claiming Bakunin intended to undermine the International and transfer the General Council from London to Geneva. Bakunin responded with an – unpublished – anti-Semitic tirade against “German Jews” who allegedly conspired against him (which even Herzen and Ogarev found excessive). Both out of respect and tactical consideration Bakunin spared Marx, though he incorrectly assumed him to be the mastermind behind all these attacks. He did however confess he may shortly take up the struggle against Marx, not out of revenge, but for his alleged support for “state communism”.

The next controversy revolved around the Romande Federation, the Geneva section of the First International, where L’Egalité, edited by followers of Bakunin such as Paul Robin and Charles Perron, had made a number of complaints regarding the work of the General Council. In March 1870 the General Council circulated a response by Marx, which addressed the criticisms. However, Marx seemed to be under the incorrect impression that Bakunin was personally behind this, that having failed to influence the Basel Congress, he was now trying to discredit the General Council. Nikolai Utin, another Russian émigré with a vendetta against Bakunin, now sensed his chance and made a move to take over L’Egalité in the name of Marx. The section split, those in Geneva declaring themselves followers of Marx, those in Jura followers of Bakunin, and both claiming the Romande Federation name.

Finally, Bakunin’s association with the aforementioned Nechayev had come to light in July 1870. Nechayev was a highly controversial figure: he claimed to be the representative of a clandestine revolutionary group with a presence all over Russia, which in fact did not exist, and he was responsible for compromising the safety of other revolutionaries in Russia and even murdering one of his ex-comrades. Nechayev also convinced Bakunin to give up his work on the Russian translation of Capital (Bakunin already having received an advance payment from the publishers) so that he could focus his attention on other endeavours. Bakunin’s fondness for conspiracies blinded him to the scale of the deception and when he finally distanced himself from Nechayev, it was already too late. The likes of Borkheim and Utin now had further ammunition to feed Marx’s suspicions.

Prior to the London Conference of the First International in September 1871, there were attempts at conciliation. Robin, one of the critics of the General Council, was admitted to the General Council, while the Alliance in Geneva, without consulting Bakunin himself, declared itself dissolved. During the conference, Marx delivered a speech in which he criticised the Alliance for not actually having dissolved back in 1869 when it was asked to, and alleged that it existed as a secret society within the First International. He also argued that the Jura section should not use the name of the Romande Federation (though it could go under the name Jura Federation instead), and he singled out Guillaume for having published an appeal in violation of the International’s statutes, for the creation of an army in support of France during the Franco-Prussian war. The London Conference reaffirmed previous declarations of the International: for the working class, the economic movement and political action are indissolubly united.

The Bakuninists saw the London Conference as an affront, and dissent was now growing across the International. In Switzerland, the Jura section held a conference of its own, where they agreed to adopt the name Jura Federation, though they resented having been told to do so. Guillaume then drew up a circular to all federations of the International, calling for a congress to be held as soon as possible, and denouncing the General Council for authoritarianism. In Belgium, a suggestion was made to abolish the General Council altogether, while in Spain, the Marxists around Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, were expelled from the Madrid Federation. The General Council responded to these “internal squabbles” with the pamphlet Fictitious Splits in the International, drafted by Marx. In August 1872, the Italian section, under the influence of Bakunin’s followers such as Errico Malatesta and Carlo Cafiero, broke with the General Council and began organising their own congress. The scene was now set for the final confrontation between the Marxists and the Bakuninists at the Hague Congress.


The Hague Congress

The Hague Congress took place in September 1872. The first three days were taken up by formalities, discussing mandates, and the fourth day opened with the reading of a report from the General Council, condemning the persecution of internationalists in the wake of the Paris Commune. It was warmly welcomed by the 65 or so delegates. Among them were, for the first time, Marx and Engels. Bakunin was absent, but Guillaume represented the Bakuninists. The discussion then moved on to the role of the General Council in the International. A motion by Marx regarding the powers of the General Council was passed on the fifth day. The Congress then voted in favour of transferring the seat of the General Council from London to New York, a suggestion made by Engels aimed not just against the Bakuninists, but also English trade unionists and French Blanquists. A discussion on political action followed and continued into the sixth and last day of the Congress. Édouard Vaillant, one of the French Blanquists, put forward the motion for the “conquest of political power”. It was passed but, ironically, without the French Blanquists in the room who were already so outraged at the decision to move the seat of the General Council to New York that they had walked out and declared the International to have “collapsed”.

Last but not least, Theodore Cuno read out the report of a special committee of five tasked with investigating the Alliance. It advocated for the expulsion of Bakunin and his followers on the basis of their alleged membership in a secret group with “rules entirely opposed to those of the International”. The motion to expel the Swiss anarchist Adhémar Schwitzguébel did not pass, but Guillaume, who refused to defend himself, was expelled along with Bakunin. Among those voting in favour of their expulsion were not only Marx and Engels, but also veterans of the Paris Commune, Leó Frankel, Walery Antoni Wróblewski and Auguste Daniel Serraillier. For a number of reasons, it was an ugly finale to the proceedings. At least one of those on the committee investigating the Alliance later turned out to be a Bonapartist spy. And to strengthen the case against Bakunin, the special committee also accused him of theft and intimidation. This was in regard to Bakunin having received the advance to translate Capital but neither completing the project nor returning the money. It was however Nechayev, likely without Bakunin’s knowledge, who then threatened the publisher with violence.

After the Split

For a few years after the Hague Congress, two Internationals were in existence. The First International in America managed only a meagre existence. Marx stepped away from it and, though his health was failing, focused his efforts on studying and advising the burgeoning social democratic movement in Germany. The Philadelphia Conference of 1876 formally disbanded the First International in America, those present setting up the foundations for the Socialist Labor Party just a few days later. Meanwhile, immediately after the Hague Congress, and having rejected its resolutions, the anarchists regrouped in the St. Imier International. Bakunin, also in poor health, retired from public life in 1873. In his final years he fell out with both of his close comrades, Guillaume and Cafiero, and passed away in 1876. The St. Imier International made some inroads particularly in Italy and Spain, and for a while it led a much stronger existence than the First International in America, but having gone down the route of insurrectionism and individual acts of violence – so-called propaganda by the deed – it was now haemorrhaging members to social democracy, which based itself on the mass movement of the working class instead. The Verviers Congress of 1877 would be its last.

Contrary to popular belief, there were multiple attempts at reunification of the two tendencies. The first of these had taken place already in 1877 in Ghent. Among the delegates of this Universal Socialist Congress were Liebknecht, Fränkel, Guillaume and Kropotkin (a recent convert to anarchism who soon became its leading theoretician). While there was general agreement on the questions of collective property and industrial struggle, the old arguments re-emerged when the subject of the state, political parties, parliamentarism and propaganda by the deed came up. No concrete measures followed the Ghent Congress but it symbolised a change in the terms of debate, the erstwhile followers of Marx and Bakunin now having become social democrats and insurrectionists respectively. In 1881, the former met in Chur to start the long process of forming the Second International, the latter met in London to create the International Working People’s Association (aka the Black International). If social democracy based itself on the creation of mass working class political parties on a national basis, the insurrectionists preached abstention and devoted themselves to violent direct action. By the time the Second International was founded, the Black International had disintegrated in the aftermath of the Haymarket massacre.

In the 1880s, despite various anti-socialist legislation, a mass international working class movement was coming into existence. Marx would only get to see its birth, as he passed away in 1883, not having completed his life’s work. When the Second International held its first congress in 1889 it was attended by hundreds of delegates representing thousands of workers. It was accompanied by the conflict between the Possibilists, led by former anarchist turned reformist, Paul Brousse, and the Marxists, led by former anarchists turned social democrats, Jules Guesde and Lafargue (Engels, despite previous disagreements, lent the latter his support, but in general placed little hope in the congress and did not attend it). As such, there were actually two congresses in Paris. Nevertheless, the Second International was born and in remembrance of the Haymarket massacre a resolution was passed famously declaring May Day an annual international demonstration of labour in the fight for the eight-hour day. Over the next few years, current and former anarchists joined the social democratic parties and their trade unions, and the likes of Malatesta and Gustav Landauer naturally began to seek representation within the new International. However, at the Zürich Congress in 1893 an attempt was made to sideline the anarchists with the following resolution:

All Trade Unions shall be admitted to the Congress: also those Socialist Parties and Organisations which recognise the necessity of the organisation of the workers and of political action. By ‘political action’ is meant that the working-class organisations seek, in as far as possible, to use or conquer political rights and the machinery of legislation for the furthering of the interests of the proletariat and the conquest of political power.

Resolution of the Second International, 1893

Even then, it left room for interpretation, and at the London Congress in 1896 the question was debated again. Malatesta argued that anti-parliamentarian socialists were still socialists, and he received the support of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, William Morris, Tom Mann and Keir Hardie. The likes of Jean Jaurès and Henry Hyndman however were vehement in upholding the Zürich resolution. Liebknecht proposed a new resolution stating that only those parties and trade unions which recognise the necessity of legislative and parliamentary action will be invited to the next congress. It was passed and the expulsion of anarchists was now official. Ironically, the Second International, although Marxist in world view, would resemble a more federal form of organisation, consisting of powerful national sections with no central organisation (until 1900 when the International Socialist Bureau was established).

Between the 1890s and 1910s confrontations between labour and capital intensified. At the same time as social democracy, purged of the anarchists, was making its first electoral successes, revolutionary tendencies were growing within its parties and trade unions. The First World War opened up a new era, which once again changed the terms of debate, but the brief coming together of Marxists and anarchists in the course of the Russian Revolution and in the Third International takes us beyond the scope of this article.

Marxism and Anarchism

So much for the history. Looking back at what drove Marx and Bakunin apart, it is impossible to put aside the grudges, misunderstandings and prejudices, as well as the negative influence of their followers. Nevertheless, there did exist real organisational, and behind them, political differences:

  • Marx saw all economic struggles of the working class as inherently political, the only question being which ideas would take sway. As such, he urged workers to form their own independent political party, lest they fall under the influence of bourgeois ideology. Such a party should make use of the political freedoms available, elections, the right of assembly and association, and the freedom of the press. This would not only allow it to propagandise the socialist programme but would also provide workers with training and experience for the battles to come.
  • Bakunin saw the working class as already socialist by virtue of their material conditions, even if unconsciously, and he considered politics to be the art of dominating the masses. As such, he urged abstention. Instead he thought all workers should combine in a single universal association in which autonomy of sections would be guaranteed. Socialists would form a minority within such an organisation and would have to work together, even if in secrecy, to propagandise the socialist programme.

Marx accepted that the First International, as an organisation, might become obsolete with the development of the class struggle, whereas for Bakunin the First International was the embryo of the future society. Bakunin, although initially approving of the increase in powers of the General Council, came to the conclusion that it should be reduced to a simple correspondence and statistics bureau between autonomous sections. Marx, who saw the General Council as a means to centralise action towards a common goal, responded that he would rather vote for the abolition of the General Council than for a General Council which would only be a letter-box. These were their different basic approaches and they were incompatible. They were soon vulgarised into a conflict between “centralists” and “federalists” (a distinction that Engels publicly rejected) – throughout their lives both Marx and Bakunin applied different tactics depending on the concrete situation. There were times when, for example, Marx was a member of a secret society (the Communist League), or when Bakunin advocated standing in elections and making tactical alliances with bourgeois parties (in his letters to Carlo Gambuzzi and Celso Cerretti). Likewise, both Marx and Bakunin at various times accused each other of authoritarianism, on behalf of the General Council or the Alliance respectively.

Divergent national perspectives provide some context. For Marx, centralisation (of the state, capital, means of production, property, population) was a historical tendency that was sweeping away the remains of feudalism and creating the basis for a working class movement, like in Germany. Bakunin defended the federation of individuals, associations, communes, districts, and provinces against capitalist encroachment, as he wanted to stop this process from playing out in Russia. Marx was not however a blind apologist for “progress”, and once he began studying the conditions of Russia, he theorised that the peasant commune could become the point of departure for communist development (but only in connection with the fall of Tsarism and the victory of the industrial proletariat in Western Europe). Nevertheless, it was no accident that Marx’s ideas found their stronghold in industrialised Western Europe and Bakunin’s in rural Southern Europe where capitalism had hardly gained a foothold. As Engels explained:

Bakunin has a peculiar theory of his own, a medley of Proudhonism and communism, the chief point of which is in the first place that he does not regard capital, and therefore the class contradiction between capitalists and wage earners which has arisen through social development, as the main evil to be abolished— instead he regards the state as the main evil. While the great mass of the Social-Democratic workers hold our view that state power is nothing more than the organisation with which the ruling classes, landlords and capitalists have provided themselves in order to protect their social prerogatives, Bakunin maintains that it is the state which has created capital, that the capitalist has his capital only by favour of the state. As, therefore, the state is the chief evil, it is above all the state which must be done away with and then capitalism will go to hell of itself.

Engels to Theodore Cuno, 24 January 1872

It was the allegation that Marx was a “statist” and Bakunin “anti-statist” that played the most into creating the modern-day divide between Marxism and anarchism. Marx, even at the height of his conflict with Bakunin, was keen to stress that:

All socialists see anarchy as the following program: Once the aim of the proletarian movement – i.e., abolition of classes – is attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions.

Marx and Engels, Fictitious Splits in the International, 1872

A lot of Bakunin’s attacks were in reality aimed at elements within German social democracy, not Marx. With the benefit of hindsight, we could say that Marx should have done more to publicly distance himself from the “state communists” that Bakunin lumped him with. As it stands, most of Marx’s critiques of various aspects of German social democracy are confined to personal letters and documents which were only published posthumously, and as such unavailable to Bakunin.

However, Bakunin also opposed the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat which, of course, we do find in Marx. Much ado has been made about this, but two points in particular demonstrate that, despite Bakunin’s assertions, the Marxist understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat had nothing to do with the ”people’s state” of Lassalle, let alone Bismarck:

  • For Marx and Engels the dictatorship of the proletariat meant the conquest of political power and the transition to the abolition of all classes. They did not make blueprints for how that may come about, though after the experience of the 1848 revolutions they already realised it would have to involve the breaking up of the old state machinery. The only example that Marx and Engels could give of a real life establishment of a workers’ government, of the conquest of political power, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, was the Paris Commune – “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour” (Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871).
  • At the same time, Marx and Engels made a distinction between the dictatorship of the entire revolutionary class, which they advocated, as opposed to the dictatorship of a “small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals”, the position of the Blanquists (Engels, The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune, 1874).

As was already pointed out, the First International was always an uneasy alliance of political tendencies. In theory, there is no reason why Marx, Bakunin and their followers could not have co-existed within it, next to the medley of Proudhonists, Blanquists, Lassalleans and others. But, split or no split, the era of the First International had passed. In their private letters, Marx and soon Bakunin recognised this. It would take years for the working class movement to recover from the repressions that followed the Paris Commune. But when it did, it emerged in a different world. The so-called second industrial revolution which began in the 1870s accelerated the growth of a global working class. The centre of gravity of the workers’ movement shifted from France to Germany. In the capitalist metropoles, the era of barricades was coming to an end, and the era of the mass strike was beginning.

150 Years On

Since the days of the First International, anarchism has splintered into many more tendencies, often expressing contradictory positions. Some have abandoned revolutionary perspectives altogether, by taking sides in imperialist conflicts or giving up on the working class as the revolutionary subject. Others, like Bakunin himself, have accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism (if not the whole of his materialist method). What still unites us communists with certain anarchists remains the aim of the self-emancipation of the working class and the creation of a stateless society. The positions that communists uphold today are derived from the study of the development of capitalism and from the experience of past workers’ struggles. They are not carved in stone, but are the product of a continuous process of reflection. Marx gave the working class movement the much-needed materialist grounding, but it does not mean that every tactic he espoused in the early days of capitalism is still applicable to today. So what relevance, if any, does the conflict between Marx and Bakunin have 150 years on?

Capitalism has (so far) weathered the storms of crisis, war and revolution. It is now a global system, in the throes of its latest cycle of accumulation. It has more or less eliminated the peasantry as a class in its heartlands, imposed wage labour on the great majority of the world’s population, and developed the means of production to the point that a socialist alternative is viable. The state machinery has expanded, finance capital dominates, and the start of new cycles of accumulation is now impossible without massive devaluation of capital through the mass destruction of global war. Imperialist competition and environmental degradation is threatening life on earth. In this admittedly bleak context, national perspectives are inadequate. The different conclusions that Marx and Bakunin reached regarding the national development of Germany and Russia have been resolved, in their own way, by history. Capitalism reigns supreme in both countries and furthermore they have become contending imperialist powers. The possibility of using parliaments as a revolutionary tribune, let alone as a means to gradually conquer power, has likewise been exhausted. Modern day democracy is only a fig leaf behind which lies the dictatorship of capital with organised repression and a vast propaganda machine at its disposal. Today, mass parties and trade unions serve to integrate the working class into the state. The true synthesis of authority and freedom rests in the workers’ councils, a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist state, discovered by the working class in 1905.

As such, internationalism, anti-parliamentarism, self-organisation of the class struggle, and the rule of workers’ councils, all serve as potential points of rapprochement. The key differences which remain – such as the necessity for an international political organisation united round a clear programme to act as a political compass, or the unavoidable transitional phase to communism where the workers’ councils must hold exclusive power – cannot be settled through sheer will and appeals to unity which, as history confirms, simply throw up the same differences again in much more acute opposition. In this light we can see that the split and end of the First International was a setback for the young working class movement. It was not however the disaster that were the failings of the Second International (which, corroded by reformism, collapsed in the face of imperialist war) or the Third International (which ended up as the foreign policy arm of a new imperialist state that emerged from the defeat of the Russian and international revolution in the 1920s). The state capitalist heirs of both remain opponents of real proletarian emancipation but we remain committed to the creation of a future international, which will unite revolutionaries based not purely on self-ascribed labels, behind which all kinds of confusion and deception can hide, but on agreement on a common programme which reflects the situation of wage workers everywhere in a decrepit capitalist system that has nothing progressive to offer anyone. We do not claim to have all the answers and we are always open to dialogue over our own platform which we believe encompasses crucial lessons learnt from the tortuous history of class struggle, economic crises, war and revolution, which have settled political questions that were still open in Bakunin and Marx’s day.

At this crucial historical juncture, when every day that capitalism continues to survive is a threat to the very existence of humanity, we call on all who see themselves as anarchists devoted to the class struggle to reconsider how things have changed on that long road towards the self-emancipation of the working class since 150 years ago.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
June 2022

Some Further Reading:

  • ICT Platform
  • On the Future International
  • Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (1918) by Franz Mehring
  • History of The First International (1928) by Yuri Steklov
  • Michael Bakunin (1937) by Edward Hallett Carr
  • A History of Socialist Thought, Volume II: Marxism & Anarchism 1850-1890 (1954) by George Douglas Howard Cole
Friday, September 2, 2022

Revolutionary Perspectives

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