PART TWO. History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff
THE program and tactics of the anarchist International were to a very large extent an outcome of the anarchists’ confident belief that the social revolution was imminent. This frame of mind was dependent upon the violent socio-political convulsions which Europe had experienced between the years 1859 and 1871. During this period there were three great European wars, the Austro-French, the Austro-Prussian, and the Franco-German, in addition to such minor conflicts as the wars of Austria and Russia with the Danes; the map of Europe had been remade; the French Empire had fallen; there had been a constitutional struggle in Prussia; Austrian absolutism had collapsed. United Italy had come into being; there had been a long-continued revolution in Spain; the Commune of Paris had been established and suppressed; serfdom had been abolished in Russia; the mass movement of the workers had begun in some of the chief countries of Europe; and so on. All these events, bearing witness to the unstable equilibrium of the Europe of those days, aroused great expectations, and awakened hopes of imminent social transformations and convulsions. The seamy side of such extravagant expectations was that those who entertained them were apt, upon the first experience of disappointment, to become low-spirited, and to sink into apathy – as happened, for instance, in the case of Bakunin. After the fall of the Paris Commune, Bakunin, despairing of the possibility of an imminent revolution and of a revolutionary impetus in the masses, decided that there was nothing for revolutionists to do in the near future, and frankly expressed this conviction to his followers. It was very natural, however, that his youthful disciples should be far from inclined to accept any such inference, which they ascribed to their teacher’s age and infirmity. The extent to which the Bakuninists were imbued with a faith in the nearness of the anarchist millennium is evidenced by the trifling but characteristic fact that when, in June, 1873, the Belgian periodical “Liberté” discontinued publication, the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” made the following comment:
“Herein we see a fresh symptom of the revolutionary frame of mind that prevails in Belgium. The day for expounding principles and teaching abstractions has passed; we have theorised enough; it is time for the Belgians to get to business!” As we have seen, the Italians, in their manifesto to the Brussels Congress, took the same view. Such was, indeed, the general opinion of the Bakuninists, including the Russian Bakuninists. Of course, Marx, too, believed the social revolution to be fairly close at hand, but he never succumbed to the illusion to the same extent as the Bakuninists. And when he knew that the International was dead and that the reaction was temporarily successful, he did not for that reason abandon hope, but, making due allowance for the new historical trend, he recognised the necessity of proceeding to the organisation of national workers’ parties. During the last years of his life he gave what assistance he could to this movement.
The fundamental drama of Bakuninism was abstention from all political activity except such as directly aimed at the triumph of the workers’ cause over capitalism, that is to say, directly aimed at the social revolution. We saw above that, in the main, this dogma was an expression of and a theoretical deduction from the actual position of affairs in the majority of European countries at that date, i.e., it was due to the lack of universal (manhood) suffrage and to the failure to make use of it where it existed. At one and the same time, the anarchists were opposed to the seizure of political power, to the use of the State machinery, and even to the workers’ State in general, for they considered that every kind of State inevitably retained an element of oppression and dominance, if not of class over class, at least of group over group, of majority over minority. Since they were adverse to any sort of struggle carried on within the four corners of the law, as being likely to “dope” the workers, to dissipate their energies, and to inveigle them into compromises with the governing classes, they refused to fight for partial reforms or palliatives, utterly failing to recognise the importance of these. Time and again their unwillingness to take even a single step in this direction made them run counter to the genuine working class movement, so that the breach between themselves and that movement continually widened. Instead of adopting a positive tactic like that of the social democrats, they practised an “abstentionist policy,” which they formulated thus; avoidance of electoral intrigues and parliamentary chatter; promotion of the organisation and federation of trade unions; energetic socialist propaganda, together with persistent criticism of bourgeois activities; the seizing of any opportunity that might offer to realise the demands of the proletariat, by way of revolution and the overthrow of government. This anarchism was the deliberate avoidance of all widely conceived national undertakings and of all the activities of real life.
Speaking generally, it may be said that the Bakuninist philosophy was a peculiar form of revolutionary “economism,” and that times without number it became manifest that Bakuninism was nothing more than revolutionary phrase-making.
In practice, and apart from propaganda, the Jura Federation, for instance, had nothing to offer its members beyond the organisation of “trade-union fighting funds.” Repeatedly, their anarchism proved itself to be nothing more formidable than commonplace trade-union opportunism. After mouthing bombastic phrases to the effect that law-makers could only offer the workers “pitiful and utterly useless palliatives,” and after reiterating the famous tag “the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves,” they would unexpectedly tell the trade-unions that the one and only aim must be to secure a shorter working day. This arid program was solemnly contraposed to the “bourgeois” program of the social democrats. Without exaggeration we may say that the anarchist program, as elaborated in the official publications of the anti-authoritarian International, is merely a hotchpotch of British trade-unionism and Proudhonist good will. In December, 1875, the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne,” the official organ of the anarchists, published a leading article entitled Workers, if you had but the will... Here the program is set forth in the following terms: “The united workers (acting through their trade unions could form various kinds of organisations. Here are some of them: a trade-union fighting fund for each craft, and a firm federal organisation for each craft; mutual insurance against illness and unemployment; a central bureau for information and statistics; a voluntary solidarity fund; an amalgamated credit fund, mutual and federal, in order to utilise all the financial resources of the trade-union branches and federations for the development of various enterprises; the establishment of shops by the federations in the chief quarters of the towns; the foundation of workshops under the supervision of the trade-union branches or federations, and belonging to these; the opening of bookshops for the sale of socialist, scientific, and belletristic works; the foundation of a general library; the giving of public lectures and readings, the holding of debates, the organisation of socials, and so on.” Such organisations, such activities, the writer goes on to stay, would make the population of an industrial centre into a real power; would completely transform ideas, customs, family and street life ...
The very simple and true notion that it is incumbent upon the workers’ organisations to see to the enforcement of labour-protection laws, and that unless this is done the laws are apt to be void of effect, only gives the anarchists occasion to spread discouragement, leading them to dissuade the workers from any broadly conceived national undertakings, to advise against the agitation for factory acts, to blow cold upon any movement on behalf of reforms, and the like. The policy of abstentionism in political matters led the Jura Federation to formulate the tactic of “direct action” which subsequently became an article of faith among the revolutionary syndicalists. “Instead of having recourse to the State (whose whole strength is really derived from the workers), the workers must settle accounts directly with the bourgeoisie, stating their terms, and by the strength of their organisations compelling the bourgeoisie to accept these terms.” Many such passages can be found in the anarchist literature of that date; and in this sense, therefore, the Bakuninists may be looked upon as having been, to a considerable extent, the fathers of revolutionary syndicalism. The Bakuninists are likewise akin to the syndicalists in their fondness for the idea of the general strike, but the two schools are sharply differentiated by their respective attitudes towards partial strikes. Whereas the syndicalists look upon every strike, however small, as a revolutionary act, the anarchists, at the date we are now considering, were definitely opposed to partial strikes, or at best tolerated them as casual happenings it was impossible to prevent. For instance, at the Berne Congress in October, 1876, which will be more fully considered in Chapter Nine, the Spanish delegate, Sanchez (Vinas) read the report of the Spanish Federation. It contained the following passage
“Notwithstanding the oppression of the dictatorship, the Spanish workers have carried through several important strikes .... The coopers’ strike and the dyers’ strike cost the unions more than 50,000 duros (about £10,000); if this sum had been devoted to the development of revolutionary organisation, great and fruitful results might have been secured. The Barcelona stonemasons were able to get their working day reduced to seven hours. The most notable among the strikes now proceeding is that of the Barcelona locksmiths, which is costing 300 duros (£60) per week. Thus, the factory workers are squandering almost all their resources upon strikes. Still, the down-tools spirit is losing ground in proportion as the revolutionary spirit gains headway.”
The same attitude of aloofness characterised the Bakuninists in the matter of the co-operative movement. In the interests of historical accuracy, it is proper to add that the socialists in general, at that date, were not at all enthusiastic about the co-operative movement.
At the congress of the old International, where the resolutions were mainly compiled under Marx’s supervision, little importance was attached to consumers’ co-operatives, for when co-operation was considered as a help towards the social revolution the chief hopes were based upon producers’ co-operatives. The Bakuninists, quite consistently from their standpoint, lumped the two kinds of co-operatives together. Cafiero’s attitude was a remarkable one. That enthusiast, who did not grudge money to anything which, in his opinion, was likely to help in the coming of the revolution, categorically refused to give any pecuniary aid to a co-operative workshop, although it was one of the main supports of the Jura Federation (endeared to Cafiero as the kernel of the anti-authoritarian International). Despite the intervention of Guillaume, Cafiero declared that he would not contribute a farthing towards the making of “some new bourgeois,” and that what money he could dispose of was reserved for other and more important matters, namely, the organisation of riots in the Italian villages. And yet, shortly before, Cafiero had lavished nearly all his substance (about £4,000) in establishing a home of refuge for revolutionists at Locarno. No less interesting was the attitude of the Jura Federation towards factory legislation. In Switzerland, during the year 1874, there began on the initiative of the Arbeiterbund (Workers’ League), which had come into existence not long before, an agitation in favour of the Ten Hour Day. The Jura Federation, in general, held aloof from the Arbeiterbund, and had refused to affiliate on the ground that it was a highly centralised organisation, this conflicting with the anarchist principles of federation and local autonomy. On this occasion, too, the Jura Federation poured ridicule on a purely working-class mass movement, because it could not be fitted into the rigid framework of anarchist doctrine.
“This is an excellent thing,” wrote the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne,” in a leading article on June 14, 1871, “and we should be delighted to associate ourselves with the movement ... But if the aim is to secure the Ten Hours’ Day by legislative enactment, by asking the aid of the bourgeois parties, we shall find it impossible to join hands with the Swiss Arbeiterbund, for in our view this would not be working for the workers, but against the workers.” When the terms of a Swiss Federal Factory Bill were published, the “Bulletin” was not content with criticising particular defects, but declared that no kind of factory legislation could possibly be of any use, however favourable its terms might be to the workers. On the eve of a referendum concerning this new measure, which had already been passed by the Swiss federal parliament, the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” wrote:
“The passing of a Factory Act is a matter for the bourgeoisie alone. Socialists cannot demand any such law, for this would be quite inconsistent. Those whose aim it is to do away with wage labour, to get rid once for all of salariat and proletariat, cannot be parties to any arrangement which presupposes that the existence of the proletariat is necessary and will be eternal. Such an arrangement, if consummated, would by legislative enactment place the proletariat in the condition of a caste with a status regulated by special laws. This caste would be sandwiched between that of the bourgeoisie (whose members alone have full liberty and the full right to self-government) and that of the beasts of burden (which work for others’ benefit, like the workers, and which are safeguarded to some extent against the brutality of their masters by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).” In 1876, when the Flemish socialists in Ghent, Antwerp, and other towns, initiated a great campaign in favour of the legislative prohibition of child labour in the factories, the Belgian anarchists were strongly opposed any such movement; and the Walloon socialists refused to take part in an agitation which was so utterly opposed to their “revolutionary” traditions.
It is not surprising that the Bakuninists, in view of their attitude towards all the questions that deeply and directly touched the interests of the working masses, towards all the questions that stirred the popular conscience, should have tended more and more to become a mere sect. Real life seemed to flow past them, its activities being either completely ignored by them, or else arousing no more than a contemptuous smile (unless as sometimes happened, they should feel a positive delight in others’ mishaps). In 1873, Guillaume recommended the Spanish comrades to take no part in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. In France, the anarchists rejoiced at the possibility of the overthrow of the Republic by MacMahon and the circle of monarchist conspirators that surrounded him. The Bakuninists were not unaware of their severance from the masses. In the early part of 1877, Kropotkin had come to settle for a time in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Guillaume wrote to him under date February 26, apropos of the anarchists there: “Our friends lead too isolated a life; they are too much cut off from the rest of the population. Their political abstentionism, their sectarian hostility to all genuine mass movements, the restriction of their activities to an extremely one-sided propaganda (which, moreover, only made its way into very narrow circles) – these things were proving fatal to them. It was essential to discover some heroic means of linking themselves up with the masses and revivifying their organisation. The Bakuninists believed they had found the requisite means in their policy of promoting “outbursts of insurrectionary wrath.”
In actual fact the method not merely failed to save them or to transfuse fresh blood into their veins; it hopelessly compromised them, and in addition it brought discredit upon the name of the International, to which they stubbornly clung.
Insurrectionism was a natural outcome of the Bakuninist philosophy, and at the same time was one of its determinants. A refusal to take part in the political struggle, the abandonment of constitutional methods of agitation, the repudiation of reform, the rejection of plans for the slow and methodical storing up of energy, the repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – all these had as their inevitable associate an aspiration towards a sudden and forcible revolution attended by the bursting of all political and legal bonds, by the utter disintegration of society, in order that a new society could he built from below upwards upon a voluntary association of free individuals and groups. This program was intimately linked with an ardent faith in the “revolutionary instincts” of the people, in a “revolutionary fervour” with which the masses were supposed to be unceasingly animated. These instincts, this fervour, needed nothing more than to be aroused to consciousness, to be made to germinate, and, above all, to be given an initiative by example, which would provide an outlet for the stored potential energy. Then the rush would sweep everything before it. This theory accounts for the important part played in the Bakuninist system by local risings based upon the needs and aspirations of the masses. Insurrectionism is far more characteristic of Bakuninism than the idea of the general strike, above all for the reason that Bakuninism was pre-eminently the theory of peasant anti-capitalist and anti-state movements. Bakunin himself, a typical product of unreformed Russia, and a man whose anarchist views were definitively formed during the days of his residence in Italy, hardly ever refers to the general strike as one of the instruments of social liquidation, but is perpetually looking forward to peasant risings. Even when he turns his attention to the revolution in urban areas, he still conceives it as a sort of jacquerie, in which the State goes up in flames, like a baronial castle, and in which all title-deeds, contracts, and other legal documents are consumed to ashes. It is a noteworthy fact that his views secured more cordial acceptance, and, in especial, found a wider practical application, in Russia and in Italy than elsewhere. As between these two, Italy takes the first place. The idea of the general strike, on the other hand, originated in industrial Belgium; it was adopted by the Jura Federation; and it was applied unsystematically and sporadically by the Spaniards, at a date when not a word about the matter was to be found in the anarchist literature of Russia and Italy, and when no attempt at the general strike was being made in either of those lands.
The most promising country for insurrectionism was Italy. When in November, 1872, the Italian internationalists were invited to take part in the campaign on behalf of universal (manhood) suffrage, they obstinately refused, declaring that they would maintain their abstentionist policy, and that the liberation of the workers could only be effected by autonomous federations in which the workers’ forces were voluntarily organised. Nothing could be done from above downwards; no advantage could be gained from governments or constitutions. They had decided to devote themselves to propaganda by deed. This famous slogan first appeared in print in June, 1877, when the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” announced a lecture by Costa on Propaganda by Deed (propagande par le fait). But the tactic had been formulated much earlier by Bakunin and the Italian Bakuninists, for it was in conformity with the socio-political conditions of countries where peasants and independent artisans greatly predominated, and where the transformation to capitalist conditions was only just beginning. I may refer in this connection to an extraordinarily interesting letter by Costa dated Bologna, November 28, and published in the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” on December 7, 1873. Here is an extract:
“One of the Italian delegates to the Geneva Congress declared that the Italian workers had not much understanding of industrial organisation. This is true enough. We have not, in Italy, great industrial centres, where a life in common is essential, and where association is the indispensable pre-requisite of labour. In Italy, save in a few localities, every one works for himself and upon his own account. In the same street and separated by the thinnest of walls, you will find shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanical engineers, goldsmiths, turners, etc. The only links between them will be proximity, a community of interests, a desire for emancipation, and revolutionary ardour. Industrial organisation is very difficult to achieve in such circumstances, but the revolutionists are none the worse off for that [!]. On the contrary, when the workers are thus isolated industrially, they become more aware of their own needs, so that the realisation of our revolutionary ideas grows to be for them an imperious necessity, something they are compelled to strive for. As far as the Italian proletariat is concerned, solidarity consists precisely in this sharing of sufferings and hopes, of defeats and victories; it takes the form of harmony and of the spontaneous surging up of all the active energies of the social revolution; it does not take the form of a more or less mechanical [!] association of the individual producers.”
Famine raged in Italy during the year 1874, and there were numerous bread riots. In the space of two years there were no less than sixty outbreaks occasioned by hunger. Owing to the fall in wages and the rise in the price of foodstuffs, popular indignation flamed. Shops were stormed and plundered. The Italian internationalists decided to make common cause with those engaged in such outbreaks.
“The International could take no other course, for if it had disavowed these acts performed by the populace it would have alienated all the practical supporters of the revolution. Furthermore it is the opinion of the International that the essence of the revolution is to be found in deeds far more than in words. Whenever there is a spontaneous popular outbreak, whenever the workers rise in the name of their rights and their self-respect, it is the duty of all revolutionary socialists to show their solidarity with such movements.”
The underground organisation of the Italian International, whose executive instrument was the before-mentioned Italian Social Revolutionary Committee, likewise decided to turn these bread riots to account. In the first issue of its periodical bulletin the Committee made the following declaration: “The peaceful propaganda of revolutionary ideas has had its day; it must yield place to the clamorous and solemn propaganda of the rising and the barricades.” In the second number we read: “People are sick of hearing that the day of the struggle is drawing near.” The struggle must be actually begun by stirring up a few armed risings, and these, it was assumed, would give the signal for the social revolution throughout Italy. The outlook of the Italian Bakuninists was admirably expounded in a letter by Malatesta and Cafiero, published in the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” on December 1876. They said
“The Italian Federation believes that the insurrectionary deed, intended to affirm socialist principles by actions, is the most efficient means of propaganda, the only one which, neither cheating nor depraving the masses, is able to make its way effectively into the lowermost social strata, and to direst the living forces of mankind into the support of the international struggle.”
It was at the date when the Italian Bakuninists had decided to have recourse to propaganda by deed that they despatched to the Brussels Congress the previously quoted message to the effect that the day of congresses was over. (See above p.293). In July, 1874, they instigated the notorious outbreak at Bologna, in which the moribund Bakunin was implicated. In this affair, the bourgeois republicans (the Mazzinists and the Garibaldists) were to collaborate with the internationalists, the aim of the insurrection being the overthrow of the monarchy. Thus it was that, with the illogicality peculiar to the anarchists, the orthodox Bakuninists, headed by Bakunin himself, came to participate in a movement which had a purely political character. The Bakuninists had imagined that the rising initiated in Bologna would spread to other parts of Italy, to Romagna, the Marches, and Tuscany. As a matter of fact, the whole undertaking was a fiasco. The expected thousands of insurgents were conspicuous by their absence, and the few who did put in an appearance were arrested or else took to flight. Simultaneously with the Bologna rising, an analogous attempt was made in Apulia by Malatesta and some of the other comrades. Here, instead of the several hundred conspirators who had promised to take part only six persons turned up. Armed with a few ancient percussion muskets, they wandered through the villages, and endeavoured to incite the peasantry to revolt; but they secured no sympathy whatever, and when some soldiers were sent in pursuit of them they ran away. A subsequent call to arms by the anarchists aroused no response (“very naturally,” says even Guillaume).
But these failures were far from discouraging the indomitable Bakuninists. The Italian insurrectionists were convinced that spoken and written propaganda were quite ineffective. If they were to make themselves intelligible to the masses, there must be an ocular demonstration of things which could never be learned in a living and concrete way from any number of theoretical disquisitions. The masses must be taught socialism by facts, by experiences which they could see, feel, and handle. The Bakuninists fancied that they could give the Italian peasants an object lesson which would teach what society would be like when government and property owners had been abolished. For that, in their opinion, it would suffice to organise an armed band able to hold together for a time while moving from village to village and realising before the very eyes of the people “socialism in action.”
The means for carrying out the plan were supplied to them by the Russian socialist Smetskaya, and by Cafiero who spent upon this the remnants of his little patrimony. ‘The insurrectionists procured weapons, and began to get ready for their campaign, in which Stepniak (Kravchinsky) was also to take part – he went by the name of Rubleff, a merchant from Kherson. Since there was a traitor in the camp, the conspirators decided to waste no time, and not to wait until they had all been arrested. Thus originated the famous Benevento “putsch,” which made a good deal of noise in its day.
In the beginning of April, 1877, Stepniak took a house at San Lupo, a village in the province of Benevento. This house was to serve as an arsenal for the conspirators. On the 5th, the carabinieri, suspicious of the comings and goings of strangers to this house, tried to arrest some of the conspirators, and shots were exchanged. Then the conspirators, not yet having had time to organise themselves properly, took refuge in the countryside. They visited a few villages, burning the communal archives and distributing to the villagers whatever moneys they found in the treasuries; the insurgents also made speeches to the peasants, declaiming against the rich, against taxes, and so on. After a few days the rebels, tired out, wet to the skin, and chilled to the bone, were surprised by the soldiers and were taken prisoner without striking a blow. Thus ended the attempt at an anarchist revolution, and the failure was a terrible blow to the Bakuninists.
The bourgeois writer, Emile de Laveleye, gives the following picturesque account of the affair, his description being compiled from the journals of the day:
“The band advance towards the neighbouring village of Letino, with a red and black flag at their head. They take possession of the town hall. The councillors demand their discharge; it is given to them in these terms: ‘We, the under-signed, hereby declare that we have seized the municipality of Letino by armed force in the name of the social revolution.’ Then follow the signatures. They carry out to the market-place, to the foot of the cross that stands there, the cadastral surveys and civil registers, and set them on fire. The peasants quickly crowd around, while one of the insurgents makes a great speech. He explains that the movement is a general one, and that the people are free. The king has fallen and the social republic has been proclaimed. Applause follows. The women demand the immediate partition of the lands. The leaders reply: ‘You have arms you are free. Make the partition for yourselves.’ The curé Fortini, who was also a municipal councillor, mounts on the pedestal of the cross and says that these men, who are come to establish equality, are the true apostles of the Lord, and that this is the meaning of the Gospel. He then places himself at the head of the band and leads them to the neighbouring village of Gallo, crying, ‘Long live the Social Revolution.’
“The curé of Gallo, Tamourini, comes forward to receive them and presents them to his flock. ‘Fear nothing,’ he says, ‘they are honest folk; there has been a change of government and a burning of the register.’ The crowd appear delighted. The muskets of the national guard are distributed among them. The registers are carried out to the public square and make a great blaze. At the mill the people destroy the hated instrument for calculating the tax to be paid for the grinding. The enthusiasm reaches its height. The vicar embraces the leader, who wears a red belt. The women weep for joy. No more taxes, no more rent; everybody equal; general emancipation! But soon they hear that the troops are approaching. The band flies for safety into the forest of Matesa. Unhappily, the elements are less merciful than the peasants. Everything is buried in snow, and the cold is intense. The liberators die of hunger. They are taken, and, in the month of August, 1878, they are brought up at the Assizes of Capua. The leaders were Count G., of Imola, C., a doctor of law, and M., a chemist. The two curés were included among the thirty-seven prisoners.
“The upshot of the adventure was not the least extraordinary part. The counsel for the accused pleaded that the matter was a political offence, and was covered by the amnesty granted by King Humbert on coming to the throne. The jury acquitted them. Meanwhile one of the two carabinieri wounded on April 5th had died, and the other was crippled for life.”
The Italian anarchists were in raptures over this adventure. They regarded it as the first practical demonstration of an “anarchist revolution,” and it filled their minds with rainbow-tinted hopes. But socialists in general looked askance at what seemed to them a foolhardy exploit. Thus Jules Guesde, who had until recently been in close touch with the anarchists, but had broken with them after his return to France when he came into contact with the mass movement of the workers, now took a strong line against the disorganisatory tactics of the Bakuninists. The Leipzig “Vorwärts” likewise made an onslaught on the Benevento putschists, declaring that they had no connection with the International, and suggesting that the whole business might be a police manoeuvre, the work of provocative agents. Greulich, writing in the Zurich “Tagwacht,” also ascribed the adventure to provocative agents, and compared the insurrectionists to the Napoleonic “white smocks” (blouses blanches). In this the social democrats were mistaken, for Malatesta, Cafiero, and their associates, were devoted to the cause, however wrongheaded their opinions.
But whose fault was it that the doings of the Italian Bakuninists gave rise to such unpleasant suspicions? Only such hopelessly doctrinaire champions as Guillaume can maintain that the socialist criticism of the Benevento insurgents was the outcome of “personal vindictivenes” (cf. the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne”). Even to this day the anarchists who champion propaganda by deed consider every criticism of their activities as a “deliberate calumny,” and have never realised the ludicrousness of their idea of “decreeing” the social liquidation. None the less, the Benevento affair gave ample demonstration of the absurdity of the anarchist method of “annihilating the State” and of inaugurating the social revolution.
No doubt there is good grain in the idea of propaganda by deed; but, as with all the anarchist grain, it is lost in a mass of chaff. The method tends towards self-destruction. The theory is that a practical demonstration of revolutionary activity will stir the masses, will act on them like the prick of a goad, will incite them to agitate for the satisfaction of their own essential needs; that personal participation will then inspire the masses with confidence in their own strength, and will convince them that their real enemies are the members of the property-owning class. It is quite true that such influences, though not all-powerful, will sometimes give an impetus to the organisation of the workers’ forces. But if these attempts are made under conditions in which defeat is inevitable, if they lead the movement into a blind alley, then the result will be the very opposite of that which the over-sanguine leaders desire. The masses will abandon hope; their conviction that the power of constituted authority is irresistible will grow stronger than ever; they will lose faith in their own strength, will lose faith in the revolution as a general aim, and will lose faith in those who advocate the revolution.
Such was frequently the upshot of the anarchist attempts at “propaganda by deed.” The Benevento outbreak never had a dog’s chance of success, any more than the Lyons rising engineered by Bakunin in the year 1870 (see p.191 Chapter 12). The failure in these cases was not so much the outcome of any specific blunders, though there was no lack of these in the anarchist attempts at revolution! The essential cause of the disasters was the radical falseness of the theories underlying anarchist practice. This is plainly illustrated by the Benevento putsch.
Let us consider some matters of detail first. There was absolutely no preparation for the rising. The masses were not told betimes that anything of the kind was contemplated, so that what happened was utterly unexpected. There was no preliminary agitation. Even for the instigators themselves, the affair was unexpected. According to their own admission, it began prematurely, owing to the sudden appearance of the carabinieri on the scene. There was no sort of organisation. The firearms the Bakuninists distributed among the populace were antiquated and worthless; and if the peasants in the two occupied villages had dreamed of using them, this would only have led to useless bloodshed and needless slaughter – bloodshed and slaughter among the peasants, through the bursting of the rusty barrels, for the poor old muskets would have done no harm at all to the carabinieri.
But the main trouble was not connected with these matters of detail (though a failure to get the details right was inseparable from anarchist tactics); the essential fault was a direct outcome of anarchist principles. Relying on “propaganda by deed,” initiating putsches (local riots, futile and abortive attempts at insurrection), out of which in accordance with the anarchist theory a general rising of the oppressed would inevitably ensue, the anarchists made no attempt whatever to deal with the citadel of capitalist power; they quite ignored the State with its army and its police. Under such conditions, even if local outbreaks were to spread until considerable areas became involved, the insurgents, being committed to the anarchist plan of campaign, would none the less inevitably be defeated. Nay more, even if the rebels should succeed in destroying the bourgeois State apparatus, they would not replace it by a powerful and centralised fighting apparatus of their own (as they ought to do for the whole period of social reconstruction), and they would therefore infallibly be overthrown, either by a bourgeois counter-revolution, or else by armed intervention on the part of foreign capitalist States. Whatever the course of events, the anarchists, and the masses who follow the anarchist lead, are foredoomed to failure.
The anarchists were outraged by a Marxist witticism anent the Lyons outbreak. The Marxists said that the Bakuninists, after having “abolished” the bourgeois State on paper, were confronted by the State incorporated in two battalions of national guards, and were compelled to eat their words. But there was no insult, it was the simple truth. The same thought was expressed in other terms by the peasants of Letino and Gallo, the two villages seized by the Benevento insurgents. Malatesta himself admits as much in his previously mentioned letter to the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne,” which was written when the events related were still fresh in his memory. When the anarchists invited the peasants to undertake a general seizure of the land, including that of the great landlords, these simple but hard-headed folk replied: “This parish cannot defend itself against the whole country. There is no general revolution. To-morrow the soldiers will come and shoot us down.” Malatesta adds: “We could not but acknowledge the truth of what they said.”
But if so, then the anarchist tactic was fundamentally wrong. If so, anarchism is powerless and sterile. Before the peasants could venture upon expropriating the landlords and upon using the land for social purposes, it was necessary that they should be safeguarded against punishment for such an infringement of capitalist law; it was essential that, in the first instance, the insurgents should seize the powers of State, and should change the armed forces of the State from an instrument of oppression into an instrument of popular enfranchisement. This was obvious; but the anarchists had not the courage to admit the fact. They found it easier to whine about the slanders of the “Marxist clique.”
The anarchists cannot have it both ways. Should local outbreaks lead to a generalised insurrection, they will inevitably result in a direct conflict with the capitalist State, leading to the revolution, to the seizure of power, and to the establishment of the dictatorship of the working class. Such would be the necessary result of the anarchist tactic were it to be successful, though in reality failure is absolutely certain. Failure is the sole alternative, with, as an infallible sequel, the defeat of the revolutionary movement, the triumph of the counter-revolution, increased oppression of the workers, and a long period of reaction. Such was the actual result of anarchist attempts at revolution in France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere.