Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Fourteen: The Decline of the International


4. The International and the Paris Commune

By taking over the heritage of the Commune without previously sorting over the remains, the International faced a world of enemies.

Least important were the slanderous attacks with which it was overwhelmed by the bourgeois press of all countries. On the contrary, as a result of these attacks it won, in a certain sense and to a certain degree, a propaganda weapon because the General Council was able to reply to such attacks openly and thus at least secured a hearing in the English press.

A much greater problem for the International was that presented by the necessity of assisting the numerous fugitive communards who fled to Belgium and to Switzerland, but chiefly to London. The state of its finances grew more and more unfavourable and the collection of the necessary funds to assist the fugitives met with great difficulties and necessitated great efforts. For many months the General Council was compelled to devote its chief energies and the greater part of its time to this problem, to the detriment of its normal tasks, although the latter became more and more urgent as almost all governments now began to mobilize their forces against the International.

However, even this war of the governments against the International was not its chief trouble. The campaign against the International was carried on with more or less energy in the various continental countries, but the attempts to unite all governments in a joint campaign of repression against the class-conscious proletariat failed for the moment. The first attempt of this nature was made by the French government on the 6th of June, 1871, in a circular issued by Jules Favre. But the document was so stupid and mendacious that it made little impression on the other governments, even on Bismarck, who was invariably willing to listen to any reactionary suggestion, particularly when it was directed against the working class, and who had been startled out of his megalomania by the support accorded to the Commune by the German Social Democracy, including both the Lassallean and the Eisenach fractions.

A little later the Spanish government made a second attempt to unite the governments of Europe against the International, this time also by means of a circular, issued to all governments by its Minister for Foreign Affairs. It was not sufficient, this circular declared, that individual governments should take the most severe measures against the International and its sections in their own territories. All governments should unite to exterminate the evil. This challenge might have met with greater success but for the fact that the English government immediately scotched it. Lord Granville replied that “in this country” the International had limited its operations chiefly to giving advice in strikes, and had only very limited funds with which to support such actions, whilst the revolutionary plans which formed a part of its program represented rather the opinions of its foreign members than those of the British workers, whose attention was directed chiefly to wage questions. However, foreigners in England enjoyed the protection of the laws of the country in the same way as British subjects. If they violated these laws by conducting warlike operations against any country with which Great Britain maintained friendly relations they would be punished, but for the present there was no reason for taking any special measures against foreigners on British soil. This reasonable rejection of an unreasonable demand caused Bismarck’s semi-official mouthpiece to snarl that any measures taken against the International would for the most part remain ineffective so long as British territory represented as asylum from which all the other States of Europe could be disturbed with impunity and under the protection of the British law.

Thus, although its enemies did not succeed in organizing a joint crusade on the part of the various governments against the International, the International itself did not succeed in organizing a solid phalanx of resistance to the persecutions suffered by its sections in the various continental countries. This was its chief cause of anxiety and it was made still more serious by the fact that the International felt the ground trembling under its feet in just those countries whose working classes it had regarded as its firmest bulwarks: England, France and Germany, where large-scale industrial development was farthest progressed and whose workers possessed a more or less limited franchise. The importance of these countries for the International was reflected in the fact that there were twenty Englishmen, fifteen Frenchmen and seven Germans on its General Council as against only two representatives each from Switzerland and Hungary and one representative each from Poland, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark and Italy.

From the very beginning Lassalle had organized his agitation amongst the German workers as a national affair and this had brought him bitter reproaches from Marx, but it was soon seen that this fact helped the German workers’ movement over a crisis which severely shook the socialist movement in all other continental countries. For the moment, the war against France had resulted in the temporary standstill of the German working-class movement. The two factions had enough to occupy them in their own affairs to prevent them bothering much about the International. Although both factions had declared themselves against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and in favour of the Paris Commune, the Eisenach faction, which alone was recognized by the General Council as a section of the International, had come so much into the foreground that it had been harassed by the authorities with indictments for high treason and similar disagreeable matters far more than the Lassallean faction. It was Bebel who, according to Bismarck’s own evidence, first awakened the suspicion of the latter by his fiery speech in the Reichstag in which he declared the German Social Democracy in solidarity with the Paris communards, and who caused Bismarck to deliver increasingly violent blows against the German working-class movement. However, much more decisive for the attitude of the Eisenach faction towards the International was the fact that since it had constituted itself as an independent party on a national basis it had become more and more estranged from the International.

In France Thiers and Favre had caused the monarchist-reactionary National Assembly to pass a draconic law aimed specially against the International; this law completely paralyzed the French working class, which had already been weakened to the point of utter exhaustion by the fearful blood-letting of the Versailles massacres. In their fierce desire for revenge these upholders of law and order even went so far as to demand from Switzerland, and even from England, the extradition of the fugitive communards as common criminals, and as far as Switzerland was concerned they came within an ace of being successful. Under these circumstances the connections of the General Council in France were completely broken off. In order to secure the representation of the French workers on its General Council, the International co-opted a number of fugitive communards (partly men who had already been members of the International and partly men who had distinguished themselves by their revolutionary energy in the cause of the Commune), its aim being to honour the Commune. This was a good idea as far as it went, but it weakened the General Council rather than strengthened it, for the fugitive communards suffered the inevitable fate of all emigrants and exhausted their energies in internal struggles. Marx now had to go through the same troubles and difficulties with the French emigrants as he had had with the German emigrants twenty years previously. He was certainly the last man to demand any recognition for doing what he, in any case, considered it his duty to do, but in November, 1871, the constant bickerings of the French fugitives caused him to sigh regretfully: “And that’s my reward for having wasted almost five months of my time on their behalf and for having vindicated their honour in the Address!”

And finally, the International lost the support which it had previously enjoyed from the English workers. Externally the breach first appeared when two reputable leaders of the trade union movement, Lucraft and Odger, who had been members of the General Council since its inception, Odger even as President so long as that office had existed, resigned from the council on account of the Address on The Civil War in France. This action gave rise to the legend that the trade unions parted company with the International owing to their moral abhorrence of the latter’s defence of the Commune. The grain of truth which this legend contains by no means represents the real issue. The breach was due to much more important and deep-lying reasons.

From the beginning, the alliance between the International and the trade unions was a mariage de convenance. Both parties needed each other, but neither ever intended to bind itself up with the other for better or for worse and till death did them part. With masterly dexterity Marx had drawn up a joint program in the Inaugural Address and the Statutes of the International, but although the trade unions were thus able to accept the program, in practice they never used any more of it than suited their purpose. In his answering despatch to the Spanish government Lord Granville correctly describes the relation between the English trade unions and the International. The aim of the trade unions was to improve working conditions on the basis of capitalist society, and in order to further this aim they did not scorn the political struggle, but in the choice of their allies and their weapons they were guided by no fundamental considerations, so far as such considerations did not apply immediately to their actual aim.

Marx was soon compelled to recognize that this egoistic peculiarity of the trade unions, which was deeply rooted in the history and the character of the English proletariat, could not be broken so easily. The trade unions needed the International in order to carry the Reform Bill, but once this was achieved they began to flirt with the Liberals, for without the assistance of the latter they could not hope to win seats in Parliament. Even in 1868 Marx had complained of these “intriguers” and had mentioned Odger, who put up for Parliament on several occasions, as one of them. On another occasion Marx justified the presence of a number of the supporters of the Irish sectarian Bronterre O’Brien in the General Council with the following significant words: “Despite their follies these O’Brienites represent a (very often necessary) counter-weight to the trade unionists in the General Council. They are more revolutionary, more definite in their attitude to the land question, less national, not open to corruption in any shape or form, and but for that they would have been turned out long ago.” He also opposed the repeated proposal that a special Federal Council should be formed for England, chiefly on the ground, given for instance in the circular of the General Council issued on the 1st of January, 1870, that the English lacked revolutionary ardour and the capacity to generalize, so that any such Federal Council would become a tool in the hands of radical members of Parliament.

After the secession of the English working-class leaders Marx accused them bluntly of having sold themselves to the Liberal Ministry. This may have been true of some of them, but it was not true of all, even if one assumes “corruption” to include other forms than that of cash payment. As a trade union leader, Applegarth enjoyed at least as big a reputation as Odger and Lucraft, and was in fact considered by both Houses of Parliament as the official representative of trade unionism. Immediately after the Basle congress of the International he had been questioned by his parliamentary patrons as to his attitude towards the decision of the congress in the question of the common ownership of the land, etc., but he had refused to let himself be intimidated by their scarcely veiled threat. In 1870 he was appointed a member of the Royal Commission upon the Contagious Diseases Acts, thus becoming the first worker entitled to be styled by his Sovereign “Our Trusty and Well-beloved,” nevertheless he signed the Address of the General Council on The Civil War in France and remained a member of the Council to the end.

The attitude of Applegarth, whose personal character is above reproach and who later refused an appointment on the Board of Trade, indicates clearly the real reasons for the secession of the trade union leaders. The immediate aim of the trade unions was to secure legal protection for themselves and their funds. This aim appeared to have been achieved when in the spring of 1871 the government brought in a bill giving every trade union the right to register itself as an approved society, thereby receiving legal protection for its funds providing that its statutes did not conflict with the law. However, what the government gave with one hand it immediately took away with the other, for the bill contained a lengthy clause which practically abolished the right of combination by confirming all the old elastic terms aimed at preventing strikes by prohibiting “violence,” “threats,” “intimidation,” “molesting,” “obstruction,” etc. It was in fact nothing but a law aimed specially against the trade unions, and every action taken by them, or by anyone else, with a view to furthering their cause was declared punishable, whilst the same actions when committed by other bodies remained legal. With politeness and restraint the historians of British trade unionism declare: “It seemed of little use to declare the existence of trade societies to be legal if the criminal law was so stretched as to include the ordinary peaceful methods by which these societies attained their ends.” For the first time, therefore, the trade unions were legally recognized and afforded protection, but at the same time all the provisions of the laws against trade union action were expressly confirmed and even intensified.

Naturally, the trade unions and their leaders rejected this Greek gift, but their protests succeeded only in persuading the government to divide its bill into two separate parts: a Bill legalizing the existence of the trade unions and a Criminal Law Amendment Bill embracing all the clauses against trade union activity. That was of course no real success, but merely a trap into which the trade-union leaders were invited to fall, and into which, in fact, they did fall because their anxiety for their funds was greater than their loyalty to trade-union principles. All of them, and Applegarth was even in the van, registered their organizations under the new law, and in September, 1871, the Conference of Amalgamated Trades, the representative body of the “New Unionism,” which had once been the link between the International and the unions, formally dissolved itself, “having discharged the duties for which it was organized.” Owing to the.fact that in their gradual approach towards middleclass respectability the leaders of the trade unions had come to regard strikes as one of the more primitive methods of trade union activity, it was not difficult for them to salve their consciences. As early as 1867 one of them had declared, in giving evidence before a Royal Commission, that strikes were a sheer waste of money and energies both for the workers and their employers. Therefore, in 1871, when a powerful movement in favour of the nine hour day swept over the country, the trade-union leaders did their utmost to hold back the workers, who had not participated in the “statesmanlike” development of their leaders and who were fiercely indignant at the new Criminal Law Amendment Bill against trade union activities. This movement began on the 1st of April with a strike of the engineering workers in Sunderland, spread rapidly throughout the engineering centres and culminated in the Newcastle strike which lasted five months and ended in a complete victory for the workers. The great engineering union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was definitely opposed to this mass movement on the part of the workers, and only after the strike had been proceeding for fourteen weeks did those strikers who were members of the union receive strike support, which was fixed at five shillings a week. With this and the usual unemployment support they had to carry on their struggle. The movement, which quickly spread to a number of other trades and industries, was led exclusively by the “Nine Hours League,” which had been formed for this purpose and had a very capable leader in John Burnett.

On the other hand, the Nine Hours League received vigorous support from the General Council of the International, which sent its members Cohn and Eccarius to Belgium and Denmark to prevent the agents of the employers recruiting strike-breakers there, a task which they both performed with a considerable degree of success. Whilst negotiating with Burnett, Marx was unable to suppress the bitter remark that it was a peculiar misfortune that the organized bodies of workers remained aloof from the International until they were in trouble, whereas if they came in good time it would be easier to take effective precautionary measures. For the moment, however, the course of development made it appear as though the International were about to be richly compensated by the masses for what it had lost in their leaders. New sections were formed and the existing sections greatly increased their strength, but at the same time the demand that a special Federal Council should be formed for England was raised with increasing urgency.

Marx then finally made the concession that he had refused for so long. With the fall of the Paris Commune the possibility of a new revolution had receded into the background and apparently, therefore, he no longer attached such importance to the General Council keeping its hand directly on the strongest lever of the revolution. However, his old misgivings soon proved to be justified and with the establishment of the Federal Council the traces of the International began to disappear more rapidly in England than in any other country.



5. The Bakuninist Opposition

After the fall of the Paris Commune the International had difficulties enough to face in Germany, France and England, but they were nothing compared to the troubles in those countries in which its foothold was weak. The small centre of trouble which had formed in Switzerland even before the Franco-Prussian War now spread to Italy, Spain, Belgium and other countries, and it began to look as though Bakunin’s ideas would be victorious over those of the General Council.

Not that this development was due to Bakunin’s intrigues as the General Council assumed. It is true that in the beginning of 1871 he interrupted his work on the translation of the first volume of Capital in order to devote his attention completely to new political activities, but these latter had nothing to do with the International, and in the end they seriously damaged his own political reputation. It was the notorious Netchayeff affair and it cannot be disposed of as. easily as the enthusiastic admirers of Bakunin would like when they ascribe his errors to “too great trust as a result of too great goodness.”

At the time Netchayeff was a young man in the twenties. He had been born a serf, but thanks to the patronage of liberal-minded persons he had been able to attend a seminary to be trained as a teacher. He fell in with the Russian students’ movement of the day and won a certain position in it, not as the result of his education, which was scanty, or his brain, which was mediocre, but on account of his fierce energy and his boundless hatred of Tsarist oppression. His chief characteristic was his complete freedom from all moral considerations when he thought to further his cause. Personally he asked for nothing, and when it was necessary he did without everything, but when he thought he was acting in a revolutionary fashion he was prepared to stop at nothing, no matter how reprehensible it might be.

He first appeared in Geneva in the spring of 1869, demanding double admiration as a prisoner of State escaped from the fortress of St. Peter-Paul and as a delegate from an all-powerful committee which was supposed to be secretly preparing the revolution throughout Russia. Both statements were inventions; Netchayeff had never been in St. Peter-Paul and no such committee existed. After the arrest of a number of his immediate companions he had left Russia in order, as he declared, to influence the older emigrants to use their names and their writings to stir up the enthusiasm of Russian youth. As far as Bakunin was concerned he succeeded in an almost incredible fashion. Bakunin was deeply impressed by “the young savage,” “the young tiger” (as he used to call Netchayeff), as the representation of a new generation whose revolutionary energy would overthrow Tsarist Russia. Bakunin believed so firmly in the “committee” that he placed himself unconditionally at its orders, which were given to him through Netchayeff, and immediately declared himself ready to publish a number of extreme revolutionary writings together with the latter and to send them over the Russian frontier.

There is no doubt about Bakunin’s responsibility for this literature and it is of no decisive importance whether he or Netchayeff was directly responsible for a number of its worst examples. And further, Bakunin’s authorship has never been denied in connection with the appeal issued to the officers of the Tsarist army calling on them to place themselves at the disposal of the “committee” as unconditionally as Bakunin had done, or with the leaflet which idealized banditry in Russia, or with the so-called revolutionary catechism in which Bakunin’s love of grisly ideas and fierce words was given full rein to the point of surfeit. On the other hand, it has never been proved that Bakunin had any part in Netchayeff’s reckless actions. In fact he was himself one of their victims and it was his realization of them, all too late, that caused him to show “the young tiger” the door.

Both Bakunin and Netchayeff were accused by the General Council of the International of having sent innocent persons to their doom in Russia by sending them letters, material or telegrams in such a form as inevitably to draw down on them the attention of the Russian police, although Bakunin’s reputation might reasonably have been expected to protect him from such accusations. After his exposure Netchayeff admitted the real state of affairs. He acknowledged openly and with the utmost impudence that it was his custom to compromise deliberately all those who were not completely in agreement with him, in order either to destroy them or to draw them into the movement completely. In accordance with the same reprehensible principles he would, in a moment of excitement, persuade people to sign compromising declarations, or he would steal compromising letters in order afterwards to be able to exercise extortionate pressure on their authors.

When Netchayeff returned to Russia in the autumn of 1869 Bakunin had not yet learnt of these methods and Netchayeff was provided with a written authorization from Bakunin which declared that he was the “accredited representative,” naturally not of the International and not even of the Alliance of Socialist Democracy, but of a European Revolutionary Alliance which Bakunin’s inventive genius had founded as a sort of branch of the Alliance for Russian Affairs. This organization probably existed only on paper, but in any case, Bakunin’s name was enough to secure a certain support from amongst the students for Netchayeff’s agitation. His chief method of obtaining influence was still the myth of the “committee,” and when one of his newly-won supporters, the student Ivanov, began to doubt the existence of this secret authority, he disposed of the inconvenient sceptic by assassination. The finding of Ivanov’s body led to numerous arrests, but Netchayeff succeeded in slipping over the frontier.

At the beginning of January, 1870, he again appeared in Geneva and the old game started anew. Bakunin came forward as his fiery defender and declared that the murder of Ivanov was a political and not a common crime and that the Swiss government should therefore not grant the request of the Tsarist government for his extradition. For the moment Netchayeff kept so closely in hiding that the Swiss police could not find him, but he played his protector a nasty trick. He persuaded him to abandon the translation of the first volume of Capital in order to devote himself completely to revolutionary propaganda and promised to come to an agreement with the publisher in the question of the advance which had already been paid. Bakunin, who was living in the narrowest of straits at the time, could only assume that this promise meant that either Netchayeff or the mysterious “committee” would refund the 300 roubles advance to the publisher. However, Netchayeff sent an “official” letter on a piece of notepaper bearing the name of the “committee” and decorated with an axe, a dagger and a revolver, not to the publisher but to Liubavin, who had acted as intermediary between Bakunin and the publisher. Liubavin was forbidden to demand the repayment of the advance from Bakunin on pain of death. An insulting letter from Liubavin was the first intimation Bakunin had of the business. He immediately sent Liubavin a new acknowledgment of the debt and repeated his promise to pay it back as soon as his means permitted, and at last he broke off his relations with Netchayeff, about whom he had in the meantime discovered still worse things, such as the plot to hold up and rob the Simplon post.

The incredible, and for a political leader unpardonable, gullibility which Bakunin displayed in this, the most adventurous episode of his life, had very unpleasant results for him. Marx heard about the affair in July, 1870, and this time from an irreproachable source, namely the thoroughly reliable Lopatin, who during his stay in Geneva in May had vainly tried to convince Bakunin that no such “committee” existed in Russia, that Netchayeff had never been a prisoner in St. Peter-Paul, and that the throttling of Ivanov had been an utterly senseless murder. If anyone was in a position to know the truth it was Lopatin, and it was only natural that his information confirmed the unfavourable opinion Marx now had of Bakunin. After the Russian government had discovered the truth about Netchayeff’s activities as a result of the numerous arrests which were made in connection with the murder of Ivanov, it exploited the favourable opportunity to the full, and in order to ridicule and expose the Russian revolutionaries in the eyes of the world it arranged for the first time a political trial in public and before a jury. The proceedings in the so-called Netchayeff trial opened in St. Petersburg in July, 1871. There were over eighty accused, most of them students, and the majority of them were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or to forced labour in the Siberian mines.

Netchayeff himself was still at liberty and he remained variously in Switzerland, London and Paris, where he went through the siege and the Commune. He fell into the hands of the police only in the autumn of 1872 – the victim of a spy. Bakunin and his friends issued a leaflet on his behalf, published by Schabelitz in Zurich, opposing his extradition as a common criminal. This action does Bakunin no dishonour and this is also true of a letter he wrote to Ogarev, a man who had also been completely deceived by Netchayeff, so much so in fact that he had handed over either wholly or in part, the Batmetiev funds which he had administered after the death of Herzen: “Something within me tells me that this time Netchayeff, who is utterly lost and certainly knows it, will retrieve all his old energy and steadfastness from the depths of his character, which may be confused and vitiated, but is not low. He will go under as a hero and this time he will betray no one and nothing.” In ten long years of suffering in a Tsarist prison up to the day of his death Netchayeff justified these expectations. He did everything he could to repair his earlier errors and maintained an iron energy which even made his warders give way to him.

The Franco-Prussian War broke out just as Bakunin had parted company with him. It immediately gave Bakunin’s ideas another direction. The old revolutionary reckoned that the invasion of France by German troops would give the signal for the social revolution in France. The French workers must not remain inactive in the face of an aristocratic, monarchist and military invasion unless they wished to betray not only their cause but the cause of socialism. A victory for Germany would be a victory for European reaction. Bakunin was right in declaring that a revolution at home need not paralyze the resistance of the French people to the foreign enemy, and he appealed to French history in particular to prove his point, but his proposals to persuade the Bonapartist and reactionary peasant class into joint revolutionary action with the urban workers were thoroughly fantastic. The peasants should not be approached with any decrees or communist proposals or organizational forms, as that would cause them to revolt against the towns, Bakunin declared. Instead one should draw the revolutionary spirit from out of the depths of their souls – and other similarly fantastic phrases.

After the fall of the Second Empire, Guillaume published an appeal in the Solidarité calling for the formation of armed bands of volunteers to hurry to the assistance of the French Republic. It was a downright act of folly, particularly coming from a man who had opposed with nothing short of fanaticism any participation of the International in politics, and it produced no result but laughter. However, Bakunin’s attempt to proclaim a revolutionary commune in Lyons on the 28th of September must not be placed in the same category. Bakunin had been called to Lyons by the revolutionary elements there. The Town Hall had been occupied, the “administrative and governmental machinery of the State” abolished and the “Revolutionary Federation of the Commune” proclaimed in its place, when the treachery of General Cluseret and the cowardice of a number of other persons gave the National Guard an easy victory. Bakunin had vainly urged that energetic measures should be taken and that, above all, the representatives of the government should be arrested. He was taken prisoner himself, but released almost immediately by a detachment of volunteers. He remained a few weeks in Marseilles in the hope that the movement would revive again, but when this hope proved baseless he returned at the end of October to Locarno.

The ridiculing of this unsuccessful attempt might reasonably have been left to the reaction, and an opponent of Bakunin whose opposition to anarchism did not rob him of all capacity to form an objective judgment wrote: “Unfortunately mocking voices have been raised even in the social democratic press, although Bakunin’s attempt certainly does not deserve this. Naturally, those who do not share the anarchist opinions of Bakunin and his followers must adopt a critical attitude towards his baseless hopes, but apart from that, his action in Lyons was a courageous attempt to awaken the sleeping energies of the French proletariat and to direct them simultaneously against the foreign enemy and the capitalist system. Later the Paris Commune attempted something of the sort also and was warmly praised by Marx.” That is certainly a more objective and reasonable attitude than that of the Leipzig Volksstaat, which, adopting a well-used tactic, declared that the proclamation issued by Bakunin in Lyons could not have been better suited to Bismarck if it had been drawn up in the latter’s own press bureau.

The failure of the movement in Lyons deeply depressed Bakunin. He had believed the revolution almost at hand; now he saw it disappear into the far future, particularly after the overthrow of the Paris Commune, which had filled him with new hope for the moment. His hatred against the revolutionary propaganda carried on by Marx increased because he thought it chiefly responsible for the indecisive attitude of the proletariat. In addition his personal situation was very pressing. He received no assistance from his brothers and there were days when he had not even five centimes in his pocket to purchase his usual cup of tea. His wife was afraid that he would lose his energy and go to seed. However, he decided to set down his opinions on the development of humanity, philosophy, religion, the State and anarchy in a work which was to be written piecemeal in his free moments and to represent his political testament.

This work was never concluded. His unruly spirit was not permitted much peace. Utin had continued his incitement in Geneva, and in August, 1870, he had secured the expulsion of Bakunin and a number of his friends from the central section in Geneva on the ground that they were members of the Alliance section. Utin had then spread the lie that the Alliance had in fact never been admitted into the International by the General Council, and that the documents in the possession of the Alliance bearing the signatures of Jung and Eccarius were forgeries. In the meantime, however, Robin had emigrated to London and had been made a member of the General Council despite the fact that he had attacked it so vigorously in l’Egalité. With this action the General Council gave a proof of its objectivity, for Robin had never ceased to be a sworn supporter of the Alliance. On the 14th of March, 1871, he had proposed that the International should call a private conference to settle the dispute in Geneva. On the eve of the Paris Commune the General Council had thought it desirable to reject this proposal, but on the 25th of July it decided to call a conference on the Geneva dispute for the following September. In the same session it confirmed, at the instance of Robin, the authenticity of the documents signed by Jung and Eccarius informing the Alliance of its admission to the International.

This letter had hardly arrived in Geneva when the Alliance section voluntarily dissolved on the 6th of August and informed the General Council of this step immediately. The idea was to create a good impression; after the section had been vindicated by the General Council against the lies of Utin, it sacrificed itself in the interests of peace and reconciliation. As a matter of fact, however, as Guillaume later admitted, other motives had been decisive. The Alliance section had sunk into complete unimportance and appeared, particularly to the Commune fugitives in Geneva, as nothing but the dead remnant of personal squabbles. Now Guillaume regarded these fugitives as suitable elements for the conduct of the struggle against the Federal Council in Geneva on a broader basis. Therefore the Alliance section was dissolved and its remnants united a few weeks later together with the communards in a new “Section of Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action,” which declared itself in agreement with the general principles of the International, but reserved itself the right to make full use of the freedom which the Statutes and the congresses of the International afforded.

In the beginning Bakunin had nothing to do with this at all. It is significant of his alleged omnipotence as the leader of the Alliance that its section in Geneva had not even bothered to consult him before it dissolved itself, although he was near at hand in Locarno. Yet it was not wounded sensibility, but because he felt that under the circumstances the dissolution of the section was a cowardly and underhand trick, which caused him to protest sharply: “Let us not be cowards under the pretext of saving the unity of the International.” At the same time he began to work on a detailed description of the Geneva confusion in order to demonstrate the principles which in his opinion were at stake in the dispute, and this was to serve as a guide to his supporters at the London conference.

Considerable fragments of this work are still extant and they differ very favourably from the Russian leaflets drawn up by him together with Netchayeff a year before. With the exception of one or two forceful expressions they are written calmly and objectively, and no matter what attitude one may take up to Bakunin’s particular ideas, they certainly do prove convincingly that the cause of the confusion in Geneva had deeper roots than the shifting sands of personal squabbles could have offered, and that as far as the latter played a role at all, the greater part of the responsibility rested on the shoulders of Utin and his friends.

Bakunin never for one moment denied the basic differences between himself and Marx on the question of the latter’s “State communism,” and he did not handle his opponents with kid gloves. However, Bakunin did not present Marx as a worthless fellow pursuing nothing but his own reprehensible ends. He described the development of the International from out of the masses of the people with the assistance of capable men devoted to the cause of the people and added: “We seize this opportunity of paying our respects to the famous leaders of the German Communist Party, citizens Marx and Engels in particular, and also citizen Ph. Becker (our former friend and now our irreconcilable enemy), who, as far as it is given to individuals to create, are the real creators of the International. We acknowledge their services all the more readily because soon we shall be compelled to fight against them. Our respect for them is deep and wholehearted, but it does not go so far as to idolize them, and we shall never consent to play the role of their slaves. And although we do full justice to the tremendous service which they have done and are still doing the cause of the International, nevertheless we shall fight to the hilt against their false authoritarian theories, against their dictatorial presumption and against their methods of underground intrigues and vainglorious machinations, their introduction of mean personalities, their foul insults and infamous slanders, methods which characterize the political struggles of almost all Germans and which they have unfortunately introduced into the International.” That was certainly frank enough, but Bakunin never let himself be provoked into denying the immortal services which Marx had rendered to the working-class movement as the founder and leader of the International.

However, Bakunin did not finish this work either. He was engaged on it when Mazzini published violent attacks on the Commune and on the International in a weekly publication which he issued in Lugano. Bakunin immediately came to grips with him in The Answer of an Internationalist to Mazzini, and when Mazzini and his supporters took up the gauntlet this was followed by other leaflets in the same tone. After all his recent failures Bakunin now enjoyed complete success: the International, which up to then had found only a very narrow foothold in Italy, began to gain ground rapidly. This success was achieved by Bakunin not as the result of his “intrigues,” but as the result of the eloquent words with which he released the tension which the Paris Commune had caused amongst the Italian youth.

Large-scale industry was still undeveloped in Italy. The developing proletariat was awakening to class-consciousness only very slowly and it possessed no legal weapons either of offence or defence. On the other hand the struggles of half a century for national unity had developed and maintained a revolutionary tradition amongst the bourgeois classes. Innumerable insurrections and conspiracies had aimed to win national unity until finally it had been obtained in a form which necessarily represented a great disappointment to all revolutionary elements. Under the protection first of all of French and then of German arms the most reactionary State in the country had founded an Italian monarchy. The heroic struggles of the Paris Commune roused the revolutionary youth of Italy from the depression into which it had fallen. On the edge of the grave Mazzini turned away from the new light which irritated his old hatred of socialism, but Garibaldi, who was a national hero to a far greater extent, honestly welcomed the rising sun of the future” in the International.

Bakunin knew perfectly well from what sections of the population his supporters flocked, and in April 1872 he wrote: “What Italy has lacked up to the moment was not the correct instinct, but the organization and the idea. Both are now developing so rapidly that, together with Spain, Italy is perhaps at this moment the most revolutionary country. Something exists in Italy which is lacking in other countries: an ardent, energetic youth, without hope of a career, work or a solution, a youth which despite its bourgeois origin is not morally and intellectually exhausted like the bourgeois youth in other countries. To-day it is plunging head first into revolutionary socialism with our whole program, the program of the Alliance.” These lines were written by Bakunin to a Spanish supporter and were intended as encouragement to further action. However, it was no amiable illusion, but an undeniable fact when Bakunin estimated his successes in Spain, where he exercised influence only through friends and not by his presence, just as high, if not higher, than his successes in Italy.

In Spain also industrial development was still very backward and where any proletariat in the modern sense existed it was bound hand and foot, lacking all legal rights, so that all that remained to it in its desperation was the weapon of armed insurrection. The great Spanish manufacturing town Barcelona has more barricade struggles in its history than any other town in the world. In addition, long years of civil war had disturbed the country, and all revolutionary elements had been greatly disappointed, after having driven out the Bourbon dynasty in the autumn of 1868, to find themselves under the (very shaky) dominance of a foreign king. In Spain also the sparks flung into the air from the revolutionary conflagration in Paris fell on heaped up tinder. The situation in Belgium was somewhat different from the situation in Italy and Spain because in Belgium there was already a proletarian mass movement in being, although it was limited almost exclusively to the Walloon districts. The extremely revolutionary miners of the Borinage formed the backbone of this movement, and any idea of improving their class situation by legal means had been crushed in its infancy by the bloodbaths in which their strikes were drowned year after year. Their leaders were Proudhonists and therefore inclined towards the opinions of Bakunin.

If one follows the development of the Bakuninist opposition in the International after the fall of the Paris Commune, one finds that it came forward under Bakunin’s name because it hoped to solve with his ideas the social antagonisms and tensions from which it really sprang.



6. The Second Conference in London

The conference which the General Council decided to call for September in London was intended to take the place of the annual congress which was about to fall due.

The congress in Basle in 1869 had decided that the next congress should take place in Paris, but the campaign of incitement which Ollivier organized against the French sections of the International to celebrate the plebiscite caused the General Council to use its authority to alter the venue of the congress, and in July 1870 it decided that the congress should be held in Mayence. At the same time the General Council proposed to the National Federations that its seat should be moved from London to some other place, but this proposal was unanimously rejected. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War made it impossible to hold the congress in Mayence and the Federations then instructed the General Council to convene the congress at its own discretion and in accordance with the circumstances of the moment.

The development of events made it appear undesirable to call the congress for the autumn of 1871. The pressure exerted on the members of the International in the various countries made it appear likely that they would not be able to send delegates to the congress as freely as was desirable, and that those few members who were able to attend the congress would be exposed to the visitations of their governments more than ever upon their return. The International was very unwilling to do anything which might increase the number of victims because it already had more than enough to do to assist its persecuted members, and this task made the greatest demands on its energies and its resources.

The General Council, therefore, decided that for the moment it would be better to call a closed conference in London, similar to the one which had taken place in 1865, rather than a public congress. The poor attendance at this conference completely confirmed the misgivings of the General Council. The conference took place from the 17th to the 23rd of September and only 23 delegates were present, including six from Belgium, two from Switzerland and one from Spain. Thirteen members of the General Council were also present, but six of them had only an advisory vote. Amongst the extensive and numerous decisions of the conference were a number dealing with working-class statistics, the international relations of the trade unions, and agriculture, all of which under the existing circumstances had only an academic significance. The chief tasks of the conference were to defend the International against the furious attacks of the external enemy and to consolidate it against the elements which threatened to undermine it from within, tasks which, on the whole, coincided.

The most important decision of the conference referred to the political activity of the International. It appealed first of all to the Inaugural Address, the Statutes, the decision of the Lausanne congress and other official announcements of the International declaring the political emancipation of the working class to be indissolubly bound up with its social emancipation. Then it pointed out that the International was faced with a ruthless reaction which shamelessly suppressed every effort of the working class towards its emancipation and sought by brute force to perpetuate indefinitely the class differentiation and the rule of the possessing classes based upon it. It declared that the working class could resist this violence offered to it by the ruling classes only by acting as a class, by constituting itself into a special political party against all the old party organizations of the possessing classes; that this constitution of the working class as a special political party was indispensable for the victory of the social revolution and its final aim, the abolition of all classes; and finally, that the unification of the isolated forces which the working class had already carried out up to a point by means of its economic forces must also be used as a weapon in the struggle against the political power of the exploiters. For all these reasons the conference reminded all members of the International that the economic movement and the political movement of the fighting working class were indissolubly connected.

In organizational matters the conference requested the General Council to limit the number of members which it co-opted and at the same time not to favour one nationality more than another. The title, General Council, was to apply to it exclusively, the Federal Councils were to take their names according to the countries they represented and the local sections were to be known according to the name of their particular locality. The conference prohibited the use of any sectarian names such as Positivists, Mutualists, Collectivists and Communists. Every member of the International would continue, as previously decided, to pay one penny per year towards the support of the General Council.

For France the conference recommended vigorous agitation in the factories and the distribution of leaflets; for England, the formation of a special Federal Council to be confirmed by the General Council as soon as it had been recognized by the branches in the provinces and the trade unions. The conference declared that the German workers had fulfilled their proletarian duty during the Franco-Prussian War, and it rejected all responsibility for the so-called Netchayeff conspiracy. At the same time it instructed Utin to prepare a resumé of the Netchayeff trial from Russian sources and to publish it in l’Egalité, but to present it for the approval of the General Council before publication.

The conference declared that the question of the Alliance was settled, now that the Geneva section had voluntarily dissolved itself and the adoption of sectarian names, indicating a special mission apart from the general aims of the International, had been prohibited. With regard to the Jura sections, the conference confirmed the decision of the General Council of the 29th of June, 1870, recognizing the Federal Council in Geneva as the only representative body for the Latin Swiss members, but at the same time it appealed to the spirit of unity and solidarity which must inspire the workers more than ever, now that the International was being persecuted from all sides. It therefore advised the workers of the Jura sections to affiliate once again to the Federal Council in Geneva and suggested that if they found this impossible they should call themselves the Jura Federation. The conference also gave the General Council authority to disavow all alleged organs of the International which, like the Progres and the Solidarité in the Jura, discussed internal questions of the International before the bourgeois public.

Finally the conference left it to the discretion of the General Council to decide the time and place of the next congress or to replace it by a further conference.

On the whole it cannot be denied that the decisions of the conference were guided by a spirit of objective moderation. The solution it offered the Jura sections, namely to call themselves the Jura Federation, had already been considered by the sections themselves. Only the decisions with regard to the Netchayeff affair contained a personal note of hostility which could not be justified by objective considerations. Naturally, the bourgeois press exploited the revelations in the Netchayeff affair against the International, but this represented no more than the usual slanders which were flung at the International day in and day out, and there was no particular necessity to refute them. In similar cases the International had contented itself with kicking the rubbish contemptuously into the gutter, but if it wished to make an exception in the Netchayeff case it should not have chosen a hateful intriguer like Utin as its representative, a man from whom Bakunin might expect just about as much regard for truth as from the bourgeois press.

Utin began the task entrusted to him with one of his usual blood and thunder stories. In Zurich, where he intended to carry out his task and where, according to his own statement, his only enemies were a few Slav supporters of the Alliance under Bakunin’s orders, eight Slavs allegedly attacked him one fine day in a quiet place near a canal. They beat him, flung him to the ground and would have finished him off completely and flung his body into the canal, but for the fact that four German students happened to come along and saved his precious life, thus making possible his future services to the Tsar.

With this one exception, the decisions of the conference undoubtedly offered the basis for an agreement, all the more so as the whole working-class movement was surrounded by enemies and internal agreement was absolutely necessary. On the 20th of October the new Section for Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action, which had been formed in Geneva from amongst the remnants of the Alliance and a number of fugitive communards, approached the General Council with a request for affiliation. After the General Council had consulted the Federal Council in Geneva the request was rejected, whereupon La Révolution Sociale, which had taken the place of the Solidarité, began a vigorous attack on the “German Committee led by a brain à la Bismarck,” this being in the opinion of the editors of La Révolution Sociale a correct description of the General Council of the International. However, this slogan quickly found an echo so that Marx wrote to an American friend: “It refers to the unpardonable fact that I was born a German and that I do in fact exercise a decisive intellectual influence on the General Council. Nota bene: the German element in the General Council is numerically two-thirds weaker than the English and the French. The crime is, therefore, that the English and French elements are dominated (!) in matters of theory by the German element and find this dominance, i.e., German science, useful and even indispensable.”

The Jura sections made their general attack at a congress which they held on the 12th of November in Sonvillier, although only 9 out of 22 sections were represented by 16 delegates, and most of this minority suffered from galloping consumption. However, to make up for this they made more noise than ever. They felt deeply insulted at the fact that the London conference had forced a name on them which they had themselves already considered, but nevertheless they decided to submit and call themselves in the future the Jura Federation, whilst revenging themselves by declaring the Latin Federation to be dissolved, a decision which of course was without any practical significance. However, the chief achievement of the congress was the drafting and despatch of a circular to all the Federations of the International attacking the validity of the London conference and appealing from its decisions to a general congress to be called as quickly as possible.

This circular, which was drawn up by Guillaume, proceeded from the assumption that the International was on a fatal and downward path. Originally it had been formed as “a tremendous protest against any kind of authority,” and in the Statutes each section and each group of sections had been guaranteed complete independence, whilst the General Council as an executive group had been given definitely limited powers. Gradually however, the members had come to place a blind confidence in the General Council and this had led in Basle to the abdication of the congress itself, as a result of the fact that the General Council had been given authority to accept, reject or dissolve sections, pending the decisions of the next congress. The author of the circular made no reference to the fact that this decision had been adopted after Bakunin had spoken vigorously in its favour, and with Guillaume’s own approval.

The General Council, the circular continued, which had consisted of the same men and sat in the same place for five years, now regarded itself as the “legitimate head” of the International. As in its own eyes it was a sort of government, it naturally regarded its own peculiar ideas as the official theory of the International and the only one permissible. The differing opinions which arose in other groups were regarded by the General Council as heresy pure and simple. Thus an orthodoxy had gradually developed in the International with its seat in London and its representatives in the members of the General Council. It was not necessary to complain of their intentions because they were acting according to the opinions of their own particular school, but one must fight against them vigorously because their omnipotence necessarily had a corrupting effect. It was quite impossible that a man who held such power over his equals could retain a moral character.

The London conference had continued the work of the Basle Congress and taken decisions which were intended to transform the International from a free association of independent sections into an authoritarian and hierarchical organization in the hands of the General Council. And to crown it all the conference had decided that the General Council should have power to determine the time and place of the next congress, or of a conference to replace it. Thus it was being left to the arbitrary discretion of the General Council to replace the general congresses, the great open sessions of the International, by secret conferences. Therefore it had become necessary to limit the powers of the General Council to the fulfilment of its original mission, namely that of a simple bureau for correspondence and the collection of statistics, and to obtain by the free association of independent groups that unity which the General Council wished to establish by means of dictatorship and centralization, In this respect the International must be the precursor of the future society.

Despite the gloomy colours in which it painted the situation, or perhaps just because of them, this circular of the Jura sections did not achieve its real aim. Even in Belgium, Italy and Spain its demand for the calling of a congress as quickly as possible met with no support. In Spain the sharp attacks on the General Council gave rise to the suspicion that jealousy between Marx and Bakunin was behind it all. In Italy the members felt no more inclined to let themselves be ordered about by the Jura than by London. Only in Belgium was a decision adopted for an alteration of the Statutes of the International, in the sense that the latter should declare itself expressly an association of completely independent federations and its General Council as “a Centre for Correspondence and Information.”

To make up for this lack of appreciation, however, the circular of Sonvillier was welcomed enthusiastically by the bourgeois press, which pounced on it as a rare tidbit. All the lies which it had spread, particularly since the fall of the Paris Commune, about the sinister power of the General Council were now confirmed from within the ranks of the International. The Bulletin Jurassien, which in the meantime had taken the place of the short-lived Révolution Sociale, had at least the pleasure of printing enthusiastic articles of approval from the bourgeois newspapers.

The noisy echo of the Sonvillier circular caused the General Council to issue an answer to it, also in the form of a circular, entitled: Les prétendues Scissions dans l’Internationale.


Last updated on 27.2.2004