History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff
DURING the year after the Basle Congress, down to the outbreak of the Franco-German war, the International was at the zenith of its development. The International Workingmen’s Association had by then succeeded in formulating the basic points of its program and in defining the main lines of its tactic. It is true that there did not yet exist a complete program, thoroughly elaborated, and grouped under various heads; but in the Address, the Preamble, and the Provisional Rules, in the reports of the General Council, and in the discussions and resolutions of the international congresses, were the elements of a complete communist program. The tactic of the economic struggle had already been sketched out in the decisions of four congresses. At length there had been created an organisational centre for the world movement, and its influence grew from day to day.
What was the real strength grouped round the centre? We cannot accurately determine this – were it only because, as we have repeatedly shown, the effectives of the International were in a fluid state. Unions (themselves bodies of uncertain composition) and whole localities would notify their adhesion to the International with the utmost lightheartedness, and would then, with the same levity, imperceptibly drift away from it. And even during the period when these unions or localities adhered to the International, though they might give it moral support, and at certain times endow it with considerable political influence, they did not furnish it with funds, or with enduring and actual strength. The bourgeoisie, in its alarm, was inclined to over-estimate the membership and the financial resources of the International. The police, in their turn, made a point of exaggerating the influence and power of this “secret Jacobin organisation,” to increase their own grip upon the alarmed civic population.
At the third trial of the International, which took place in Paris during June, 1870, the public prosecutor announced the membership of the International as follows: France, 433,785; Switzerland, 45,000; Germany, 150,000; Austria-Hungary, 100,000; Great Britain, 80,000; Spain, 2,728. Testut actually expresses the opinion that in Germany the adherents of the International numbered one million. In Austria-Hungary there were not more than 50,000. But he estimated the total number of rnembers in Europe and America at about five million. He adds that Albert Richard, of Lyons, writing as “one of the oldest and most trusted members of the Association,” declared in a letter printed by the Lyons “Progrès” on June 3, 1870, that the International had already organiscd seven million American and European workers.
Manifestly these figures are fantastic. They are a pure invention. The fact is that at the beginning of the seventies the popularity of the International had grown to very fair proportions, and the number, if not of actual members, at least of sympathisers, was considerable. But there was a gloomy side to the picture: the weakness and in some places the complete lack of compact and stable national centres of the working-class movement, a lack that is to say of political parties and of trade unions. National organisations existed at that day only in Great Britain (the industrial groupings of the trade unions) and in Germany the political groupings of the Lassallists and the Eisenachers, i.e., the social democracy. In other countries, the working-class movement had not yet assumed permanent shape: in such lands there was no socialist party; even the trade-union movement existed as yet only in a rudimentary form. Concomitantly with the birth and development of these national organisations, the International grew weaker, and lost ground. At that date the reciprocally inverse character of the two processes was by no means obvious. But the course of events was to prove that a firm foundation for the International could only be built upon stable national organisations; and that, during the period when the latter were coming into existence and being developed, the old International had temporarily to leave the stage.
The fundamental need of the hour was the creation of political working-class parties. The industrial struggle of the proletariat, arising out of the economic conditions of the day (capital, and wage labour), demanded international cooperation and solidarity on the part of the workers. But the political struggle of the proletariat was intimately linked with specifically national conditions; with the degree of political development, the amount of political freedom, the system of political relations, electoral rights, and so on. The proletariat was everywhere arriving at almost identical decisions as to tactics and organisational work on the industrial field; it was everywhere being recognised that an important feature of the fight was the raising of wages and the curtailment of the hours of labour; this was the main task of the trade unions (“societies for resistance”), of the co-operatives, and so forth. But in the matter of their political tasks, the workers had no common outlook. In some States, the first task was considered to be a fight for political freedom, and for the extension of the franchise; in others, the workers, having obtained electoral rights, were preparing to take part in the parliamentary fight, and were hoping to influence legislation. Elsewhere, for instance in Germany, the working class exhibited so much solidarity that it scored many successes in this field; whereas in other countries it suffered constant reverses in the new arena, and at times seemed to be a shuttlecock driven by the various bourgeois parties. This is why, though united on the industrial field, it was sundered (at first, anyhow) on the political field. In the political domain there had, indeed, already begun in the International the embittered struggle which was to lead to its disruption.
There had begun the struggle between the trend which history was to know by the name of Marxism or social democracy, and the trend which was to be denominated anarchism. Within the International the most brilliant representative of the former trend was Marx; of the latter, Bakunin.
The dramatic interest of the struggle between Marxism and anarchism derives, not only from the imposing character of both Marx and Bakunin, who incorporated the respective trends, but also from the profound historical significance of this titanic conflict. There was here a collision between two ideologies, representing two phases of one and the same world-wide movement. Anarchism was the outcome of an instinctive, tempestuous, and elemental impulse of the proletarian masses, when they were just awakening to the possibility of independent activity. Marxism was a conscious endeavour to strengthen and enrich the efforts of the proletariat along the true path of its deliverance, by way of purposive activity, by the organisation and utilisation of all the social and political possibilities of a realist activity. In this tragical and fratricidal struggle, the past of the international proletariat rose in revolt against its future, temporarily arresting the progress of the workers’ movement. But the future won the victory, thereby gave an impetus to the powers of critical self-control, and enriched the movement, both practically and theoretically. Proof of this is afforded by the fact that the broad masses of the workers, who were for a time led astray by Bakuninism from the main proletarian current, ultimately returned to the broad river of international socialism.
By temperament, Bakunin was a leader of revolt. His views were moulded during the fifth decade of the nineteenth century, a critical period of political instability, an epoch characterised by intense social and political ferment. History seemed to have broken away from its moorings. From the north to the south and from the east to the west, the whole of Europe (Russia excepted) was on the move – to quote Herzen’s phrase, it took up its bed and walked. The movement recalled what happens in our great frozen rivers when the ice bursts during the spring thaw. With a crash, the established and traditional institutions and customs were rent in fragments and swept away by the flood.
Bourgeois society emerged from the womb of history. After the first birth-pangs, after the first shock during the British revolution in the seventeenth century, and still more the French revolution at the close of the eighteenth century, and after the incubation period during the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century, came the crisis of 1848, arousing widespread hope, and inducing others besides hotheads “to mistake the second month of pregnancy for the ninth.” (The phrase, again, is Herzen’s.) The first onslaught of the bourgeoisie was repelled by the united forces of reaction; but the ferment did not subside, and the capitalistic mole continued its underground borrowings.
After a comparatively brief period of reaction, which lasted about ten years, Europe re-entered the critical phase of its history. In France, during the fifties and sixties the way was being prepared for the republic. In Prussia there was a constitutional conflict; and a revolutionary stamp was given to German life as a whole by the invincible impulse towards the formation of a united Germany that was aroused by the needs of growing bourgeois society. In Austria there was a great ferment at work, and after the two defeats sustained by absolutism in 1859 and 1867, this led to the capitulation of the feudalist regime. Spain became politically unstable, and in the late sixties entered a lengthy phase of development, a disturbed period in which the very existence of the State was menaced. In Italy there were unceasing attempts to achieve national unity and to establish a centralised capitalist State. Even Russia participated in the general movement of the age: the question of the liberation the serfs was being debated; this liberation speedily followed, giving rise to radiant anticipations of a powerful popular movement, destined to overthrow the old order. All these things, in conjunction with memories of 1848, produced a general sense of instability, and were calculated to arouse enthusiastic hopes in the anarchist camp.
Bakunin had not, in the open, lived through a period of reaction. In prison, and in his Siberian exile, he had preserved all his old revolutionary fire. To him, therefore, the universal fermentation and the widespread instability were thoroughly congenial. Admittedly, if there ever were a time when it might have seemed possible to bring about a direct change from a feudalist and reactionary regime to one in which labour would be supreme, to one in which the workers would have secured complete social and political enfranchisement – now was the time. It was a critical moment. Bourgeois society was breaking the chains imposed on it by the pre-capitalist system, and was undermining the foundations of the old order; but it was itself still unstable, and had not yet been able to organise its strength for a fight on two fronts, with the feudalists, on the one hand, and with the developing forces of the working class on the other. The titanic figure of Bakunin seems to have been a natural out growth of this critical period when the pre-bourgeois order was giving place to the bourgeois order. His figure was an appropriate one in such an epoch, when social ties, political institutions, and ideas, were all in a state of flux. It was appropriate to days when the old governing class had been defeated, and when the new governing class was still weak but was inspired with vague though grandiose hopes - hopes begotten of the chaotic ferment that characterised this transition period. Naturally, people’s heads were easily turned, especially when the people were hotheads like Bakunin. Thus, although this historic convulsion was nothing more than that caused by the efforts of bourgeois society to throw off its swaddling-clothes, Bakunin fancied that the final collapse of capitalism was imminent. What had really arrived was the end of the first phase in the development of capitalist society; but he, taking the beginning for the end, believed that the prologue of the social revolution was being played. This mistake arose from the fact that, substantially, he was not the ideological expression of the industrial proletariat, now undergoing consolidation, and developing concurrently with the development of the bourgeoisie. What Bakunin represented, ideologically speaking, was the economically backward countries like Russia and Italy. In these, and especially in Russia, capitalism was still in the period of what is known as “primitive accumulation,” and capitalist exploitation of the workers and the semi-proletarian sections of the peasantry was only in its initial stages. In actual fact, the aspirations, instincts, and elemental protests of those among the peasants who were being ruined by capitalist developments, played a considerable part in Bakunin’s philosophy. They were the cause of his hostility to communism, and of his still greater hostility to social hostility to social democracy; they accounted for his antagonism to the State in all its forms, and for his anarchist activities; to a great extent, they determined both the form and the content of his insurrectionist philosophy.
After his escape from Siberia in 1861, and his return to the agitated environment of the Europe of that day, Bakunin, as his friend Herzen phrased it, “drank a deep draught of the heady wine of revolution, and strode with seven-league boots across the mountains and the seas, across the years and the generations.” Preaching a sort of revolutionary pan-slavism, Bakunin tried to enter into relations with the Young Slavs in Austria and the Balkans, and rendered active aid during the Polish rising of 1863-64. After the failure of these efforts, he returned to London in 1864, and then met Marx, whom he had not seen since 1848. Marx, who at this date cared more for the upbuilding of the International than for anything else in the world, accepted Bakunin as a member, for the latter promised to do his utmost on behalf of the Association. Bakunin went to Italy, where he remained until the autumn of 1867.
Accepting Bakunin’s promises at their face value, Marx sent him the Address and Provisional Rules, which were to serve him for the propaganda of the ideas of the International Workingmen’s Association in Italy. In reality, during these years, Bakunin’s activities in Italy were concerned, not with the International, but with the organisation of secret revolutionary brotherhoods having an anarchist program and an insurrectionist tactic. In the program of one of these brotherhoods, in which Bakunin had assembled a few Italians, Frenchmen, Scandinavians, and Slavs, we find the following items:
“Atheism, the complete negation of all authority, the annulment of law, the denial of civic obligations, the substitution of free humanity for the State, collective ownership”; labour was in this program represented to be “the foundation of social organisation, manifesting itself in the form of a great federation from below upwards. “
Bakunin’s endeavour was to entice into these brotherhoods the deserters from bourgeois democracy, and especially the declassed intellectuals, whom he regarded as the salt of the earth, and as the predestined leaders of the coming social revolution. It seemed to him that Marx exaggerated the importance of the proletariat, and did not realise the significance of bourgeois democracy, whereas he himself, Bakunin hoped to enlist bourgeois democracy in the service of “social liquidation.” Especially, he looked for help to the veteran democrats who had been his friends and companions-at-arms in 1848. Very soon, indeed, he was destined to suffer a grievous disappointment here.
Bakunin left all enquiries from London unanswered, and this obstinate silence began to arouse the suspicions of Marx. The latter’s uneasiness could not but be increased by the fact that Bakunin, when at length he openly entered the political arena, did not come forward as a member of the International. Instead of this, he joined a bourgeois organisation, the League of Peace and Freedom, although three years earlier he had solemnly assured Marx that henceforward he was going to confine his activities to the socialist and working-class movement. In 1867, Bakunin was present at the congress of the League, and was elected a member of its executive. At this date, his views concerning social and political questions were still in a state of confusion, as we may realise from the fact that he conceived an alliance between the international and the League to be possible. The workers were to assist the bourgeoisie in the struggle for political freedom; and the bourgeoisie, in its turn, was to co-operate in bringing about the economic emancipation of the proletariat. The second congress of the League took place, as already related, at Berne, in 1868. Here Bakunin and his associates belonging to the secret societies (Elisée Reclus, Aristide Rey, Albert Richard, Giusseppe Fanelli, Nicolai Zhukofsky, Valerian Mroczkowski, and others) brought forward certain anarchist proposals. When these were voted down by the bourgeois majority, Bakunin and his comrades seceded from the League and founded the International Alliance of the Socialist Democracy, also known as the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries.
The program of the Alliance comprises the following items. [The italicising is Stekloff’s]
1. The Alliance declares itself to be atheistic; it aims at the abolition of religious cults, at the replacement of faith by science, and of divine justice by human justice.
2. Above all, it aims at bringing about the political, economic, and social equality of the classes, and of individuals of both sexes, beginning with the abolition of the right of inheritance, in order that thenceforward there shall be equal rights in the enjoyment of the productions of all, and that, in conformity with the decisions adopted by the last Workers’ Congress in Brussels, the land, the instruments of production, and all other capital, having become the colletIive property of society, shall be at the disposal of the workers alone, that is to say, of agricultural and industrial associations.
3. It desires that children of both sexes, from birth onwards, shall receive equal opportunities for development, that is to say, equal opportunities of maintenance, education, and instruction in all stages of science, industry, and the arts; for it is convinced that this equality, though to begin with it will be purely economic and social, will by degrees bring; about a greater natural equality among individuals, by putting an end to all artificial inequalities, which are the historical products of a social organisation as false as it is unrighteous.
4. Being hostile to despotism of all kinds, refusing to recognise any other political form than the republican, and absolutely rejecting any sort of alliance with the reactionaries, it likewise rejects every kind of political union except such as aims immediately and directly at the triumph of the cause of the workers in their struggle with capital.
5. It recognises that all the political and authoritarian States actually extant, restricting their activities more and more to simple administrative functions concerned with the public services in the respective countries, will tend to disappear in the universal union of free associations both agricultural and industrial.
6. In as much as the social question cannot be definitively and effectively solved except upon the basis of the international solidarity of the workers of all lands, the Alliance rejects every policy that is founded upon so-called patriotism and rivalry between the nations.
7. It desires a voluntary universal association of all the local associations.
Within this Alliance there was formed a secret international brotherhood. The founders of the Alliance belonged to it, but they endowed Bakunin with dictatorial powers. Thus the Alliance became a hierarchical organisation at the head of which were the “international brothers.” (Into this inner circle of the international brothers were to be admitted “none but persons accepting the whole program with all its theoretical and practical implications. Not only must they be intelligent, energetic, and trustworthy; but they must unite with these qualities a conspiratorial or revolutionary ardour – in a word, must have a spice of the devil in them.”) There were also the “national brothers,” subordinate to the “international brothers,” and not even aware of the existence of the secret “international organisation.” Finally, there was the semi-secret, semi-public International Alliance of the Socialist Democracy, of which the non-secret Central Branch in Geneva acted as “the permanent delegation of the permanent executive committee.” The members of the secret organisation of the Alliance were to permeate the trade unions and the branches of the International the Workingmen’s Association in order to indoctrinate these with the aims of the Alliance – the social revolution, and the annihilation of the State.
Having organised itself, the non-secret Alliance applied to the General Council in December, 1868, demanding acceptance as part of the international, and expressing the wish to retain its own special program and organisation. It was to have equal rights with the General Council as regards accepting branches of the International, and when the International held its congresses, the Alliance was to be entitled to hold special congresses side by side with these; and so on. The General Council, scenting a dangerous enemy in this Bakuninist organisation, and convinced that it would sow dissension in the ranks of the International, rejected the demand of the Alliance. Thereupon the Alliance informed the General Council that it had decided to disband its organisation, and that it was prepared to transform its branches into branches of the International, with the proviso that they were to be allowed to preserve their theoretical program. The General Council was careful to avoid passing an opinion upon the worth of this program – although the latter was amended in certain respects in accordance with suggestions made by the Council. As a matter of principle, the General Council agreed to accept branches of the sometime Alliance as branches of the International. The first branch admitted to the International by the General council was the Genevese Central Branch of the Alliance; but the French-Swiss Federal Council (upon the instigation of Nicolas Utin – who subsequently became a renegade, and was at this date fiercely hostile to Bakunin) refused to accept the branch as part of the French-Swiss Federation. Therewith began the dissensions which were at first confined to Switzerland, but subsequently spread throughout the International Workingmen’s Association.
Indeed, the split was inevitable, quite apart from the petty motives previously enumerated, and for the following reasons. Persons holding the most conflicting views had joined the International, for its members ranged from moderate reformists to the Blanquists and the anarchists. The working-class movement was young and inexperienced. The membership of the International had increased very rapidly, and the members entertained extravagant hopes, whose immediate realisation was impossible because the necessary objective conditions were not yet forthcoming. There were two additional reasons why Switzerland should become the centre of the opposition to Marxism. First of all this land was predominantly petty bourgeois in character, and thus gave rise to two anti-Marxist trends: that of Coullery and Co., middle-class elements and persons of moderate views; and that of Guillaume and Co., who were anarchists and insurrectionists. Furthermore, the Swiss members of the International were especially exposed to the influence of Bakunin and the group of political refugees which formed around him – these were Russians, Spaniards, Italians, and Frenchmen, and it was especially after the suppression of the Commune of Paris that they sought an asylum in Switzerland.
The disbanding of the Alliance did not really take place. In actual fact the organisation continued to exist. Prior to 1873, indeed, it did not succeed in establishing itself as a stable international organisation; but the Alliance persisted as a permanent conspiracy against the International, as an unemitting endeavour to create a secret organisation within the framework of the International, to change its form and structure – a secret organisation that pursued private aims, and attempted to securc the adoption of these aims by the various national federations of the International Workingmen’s Association. Not all the members of this secret Alliance were equally initiated into the aims of its organisers and least of all into the aims of Bakunin. Maybe the organisers of the Alliance did not, to begin with, plan the destruction of the International. They may have merely wanted to make themselves independent of the General Council, and to secure for themselves the possibility of taking active steps on their own account should favourable circumstances arise, and should they not succeed in capturing the International by the simple process of securing a majority in its counsels. But conspiracies have their own logic, and it was inevitable that the conspiracy within the International should result sooner or later in the disruption of that body. Meanwhile, the result of the Bakuninist intrigues was that, instead of friendly discussions leading to advantageous solutions, there were paltry quarrels about local differences of opinion, and such dissensions continued to grow. By degrees, however, there emerged from these disputes evidence of wide divergences concerning both program and organisation. At length the General Council was compelled to take part in the disputes, and the upshot was the complete break-up of the International.
The trouble began with the secession of the Jura members of the International, owing to what they styled the opportunism of the Genevese internationalists and of the Coullerists. Coullery, a medical practitioner in the Bernese Jura, had long been an exponent of democratic and humanitarian ideas in French-speaking Switzerland. He joined the International at the very outset, and was instrumental in founding a number of branches in Swiss towns. He was, however, fundamentally bourgeois in his general outlook, and his views were altogether hazy, so that, by his vacillations he became a source of disturbance, and did serious harm to the cause of the International. He was prepared, sometimes, to enter into an electoral alliance with the Neuchatel liberal monarchists, whereas at other times he would induce the working-class socialists to follow the lead of the radical politicians. The ultimate result of this see-saw was to disgust the workers with political activity and to make them decide to abstain from participation in the electoral struggle. The Swiss Bakuninists were not slow to turn this circumstance to account, their leader in the anti-political movement being James Guillaume of Locle, a school teacher by profession, and a man able to exercise considerable influence in the Jura region, especially upon the watchmakers. These workers, engaged in home industry, were passing under the dominion of capital; but they still, to a considerable extent, had the characteristics of independent artisans, and for this reason they were readily influenced by anarchist propaganda. Isolated in their mountain districts, and scattered in small groups among the peasant and petty-bourgeois masses, they were unable by their own strength to defend their class interests, or even to exercise any notable influence upon the political life of Switzerland or of its cantons. For this reason they were naturally inclined to abstentionism in politics, and to the idea that the social problem could be solved without participation in the political struggle. Being affected by a narrow craft spirit, they had an instinctive antagonism to the skilled operatives in the Genevese watch-making industry, whom they stigmatised as “factory hands.” But the Genevese were inspired with definitely Marxist views, and were enthusiastic members of the International. In the struggle with the Genevese watchmakers, the Jura members of the International were supported by the unskilled labourers – as, for instance, by the builders’ labourers, etc.
When the anarchists thought of political action, they had in mind unceasing compromises with the bourgeois parties. The idea of independent political activity on the part of the working class never entered their heads; such independent activity would have seemed to them impossible within the framework of capitalist society. The suggestion that the workers should avail themselves of all the means of struggle at their disposal in capitalist society, and especially the suggestion that the workers ought to participate in the political struggle, seemed to the anarchists a betrayal of the revolutionary cause. They considered that the socialists who were trying to secure legal reforms beneficial to the working class were little better than renegades, for they held that such reforms could only serve to strengthen the existing order. They completely failed to understand the agitational value of the struggle for legislative reforms, whether carried on within the walls of parliament and other representative assemblies, or elsewhere. The task of revolutionary socialists, in their view, was to bring about the destruction of the State, which was essentially founded upon the principles of authority, force, and government – and, of course, also upon exploitation. Even in a republican and democratic State, there could be nothing but oppression and exploitation of the many by the few. Consequently, from the workers’ outlook, the attempt to democratise the State was false tactics, for any and every State was hostile to the workers’ interests. It was, they declared, quite a mistake to believe that political changes could improve the condition of the masses. The view that political emancipation must be an essential preliminary to the economic emancipation of the proletariat, was, in their opinion, a no less dangerous delusion. Especially disastrous was the theory that the proletariat, for the sake of its economic deliverance and in order to bring about the foundation of a socialist society, must seize political power and become the preponderant influence in the State. Such an attempt, said the anarchists, would be likely to lead the workers into the blind alley of compromises with the bourgeoisie, for every political movement was in its essence a bourgeois movement. The “people’s State” which the German social democrats of that day aspired to bring into being, would be just as great an imposture as any other kind of State. Every State was intimately associated with dominance on the one hand and subordination on the other. Representatives, even though drawn from the working class, as soon as they became the representatives or administrators of the people, would promptly be transformed into rulers and persecutors, and would look upon the people from the point of view of governors, that is to say, of enemies. Thus the dictatorship of the proletariat would be merely a new form of dominance and exploitation. It was an insane notion that the people could ever be set free by any sort of government. The State and all its institutions must be uprooted and utterly destroyed.
In order to attain this end, the only end worth attaining, there was no need to enter the political arena, or systematically to rally our forces for the conquest of political power. Those who suffered in the contemporary regime were the majority. The people was instinctively revolutionary, and its ideal was the annihilation of the State and of all forms of exploitation. Even if some of the skilled workers, led as astray by Marxist propaganda, had lost the revolutionary spirit, the masses of the peasants and workers, especially in the lower strata (the Lumpenproletariat, the most impoverished section), were ready for the social revolution.
“It may be,” wrote Bakunin, “that the social revolution is nearer in Italy than anywhere else. In many other countries of Europe, there already exists a special stratum of the workers which forms, as it were, a privileged class. These workers secure high wages, are well educated in the literary sense, and are so permeated with bourgeois principles, aims, and ostentation, that they can hardly be distinguished from the bourgeoisie. But in Italy there is no such stratum ... The Italian proletariat is, mainly, the very poor proletariat which Marx and Engels – and, aping them, all the German social democrats – speak of with supreme contempt. They are wrong for among the poorest workers, and not among those who belong to the before-mentioned prosperous section, not among those who have adopted bourgeois modes of life and thought, shall they find the spirit and the strength of the coming social revolution.”
Bakunin’s criticisms of the working-class aristocracy contain a large measure of truth, and also a good deal of judicious prophecy. We shall find much that is sound, likewise, in his criticism, of bourgeois parliamentarism, “democratic” illusions, universal suffrage and social democracy. But the trouble with Bakunin, and with the Bakuninists in general, was that they had no understanding of the historical process. Bakunin assembled under one head all kinds of distinct phenomena, so long as they had the common quality of being distasteful to himself.
When he thus spoke of the working-class aristocracy as that part of the proletariat through whose instrumentality a bourgeois influence was exercised over the workers, Bakunin in had in mind, not only the leaders of the highly-skilled workers organised in the British trade unions (who did in truth form a trade-union bureaucracy), and not only the similar but as yet little developed sections of the working class in other countries. He included also under the idea of “aristocracy” all the advanced workers who did not approve of anarchist tactics. It meant nothing to him that these forward elements of the proletariat were those in whom a working-class consciousness had first become active, that they had created the first beginnings of independent industrial organisations, and that their activities were awakening the broad masses of the workers. To Bakunin, all were anathema who proclaimed the need for the political struggle, for the seizure of power by the proletariat, for intelligent organisation of the revolution. A mere doubt of his anarchist panacea or of the possibility of achieving the social revolution by the insurrectionist method was enough to enrage him. All such opponents were denounced by him as persons tainted with bourgeois prejudices; as persons who despised the more downtrodden members of the proletariat; as persons who aimed at establishing their own authority over the disinherited masses; and so on.
When Bakunin spoke of the working-class aristocracy, he was lumping together (as his own words show) the whole working class, with the exception of the lowest strata, whom he referred to as the “common people,” the “labouring masses,” etc. From the working-class aristocracy he went at one stride to the “lowest stratum of the proletariat,” to the Lumpenproletariat of the Communist Manifesto, to the slum-dwelling proletariat. This lowest stratum he put on a pedestal, regarding it – in defiance of obvious facts, and wilfully ignoring the whole history of the workers’ movement – as the essential motive force of the social revolution and of the subsequent reconstruction. But in reality the mass of the workers, those intermediate between the two extremes exclusively considered by Bakunin, are far more numerous than those comprising the “poles” as it were, far more numerous than the slum-dwellers and the members of the working-class aristocracy taken together. These ordinary workers form the essential substance of the working class, and supply the only material out of which a historical working-class movement can be created. When this mass moves, the poles, the “aristocracy” and the slum-dwellers, join in the movement and keep step. The working class aristocracy is doubtless prone to come to terms with the bourgeoisie, is inclined towards political opportunism. Sometimes, even, it will deliberately betray the general interest of the workers. The Lumpenproletariat, on the other hand, in so far as it is ready for action at all, will in the best event riot aimlessly and fruitlessly, and will in the worst event become a blind tool of the reaction and provide the fighting forces of fascism. The slum-dwellers in general have no capacity for organisation, no steadfastness, no faculty for purposive endeavour. But the real substance of the working class, the majority to whose existence Bakunin was blind, consists of these who will prepare, organise, and lead the struggle for the deliverance of labour from the yoke of capital.
Marx realised the weak side of the working-class aristocracy quite as much as Bakunin, but he understood something which Bakunin failed to understand. He saw that up to a certain point the development of the working-class aristocracy promoted the general advance of the working-class movement; that the exceptionally favoured workers took the initiative in that movement, helping to wake up the sluggish and to attract them onward. In some cases, indeed, the working-class aristocracy held aloof from the general movement, and showed itself backward as compared with the awakening masses; and sometimes it even acted as a brake on the movement. At other times, however, it was faithful to the general interest of the workers, and played the forward part which rightly belonged to it in virtue of its intelligence, stability, and ripe experience. Up to the present time the leading place in the labour parties and the trade unions has generally been taken by some of the skilled workers (the engineers, for instance), who, notwithstanding their comparatively privileged position, form the vanguard of the working class in its struggle for freedom. History does, indeed, record examples to the contrary, and we shall see from Marx’s attitude towards the British trade union leaders that he was no less ready than Bakunin to denounce the working-class aristocracy for any betrayal of the workers’ movement.
Furthermore, Marx was well aware that there was only one way of preventing the working class aristocracy from deserting the workers’ movement, of compelling the “favoured labour caste” to serve the general interest of the proletariat. This was by the creation of a stable mass organisation embracing the majority of the working class; an organisation that would enrol the bulk of the average workers; that would rally them and enlighten them, would deliver them from the influence of bourgeois ideology and from all inclination towards sectionalism. In a word, it was essential to establish an organisation exercising so powerful an attractive force that the entire proletariat would become aware of the historic mission of the workers and would cluster around this central nucleus. To alienate the whole working-class aristocracy (if by this term we are to understand, not merely the opportunist and treacherous leaders, but all those workers who have attained a fairly comfortable position), would result in the isolation of the mass of the workers. These latter would then be deprived of the co-operation of the working-class intelligentsia, of the aid of those who are the natural leaders of the proletariat. Such a tactic would doom the working class to inevitable destruction. This would be a far worse blunder than that of the Proudhonists, whose aim had been, in the early days of the International, to slam the door in the face of the socialist intelligentsia of bourgeois origin. Marx knew that without the help of the working-class intelligentsia – to which Bakunin especially referred when he spoke of the “aristocracy” – the proletariat would never be able to fulfil its historic mission or to free itself from the yoke of capitalism.
A yet more serious mistake made by Bakunin was his idealisation of the Lumpenproletariat, which, as we have seen, he regarded as the very “spirit and strength of the coming social revolution.” If this assertion had been no more than a picturesque criticism of the reactionary part which the leaders of the working-class aristocracy were beginning to play towards 1870, it might have been forgiven. If, on the other hand, when Bakunin spoke of the “lowest strata of the proletariat,” he had really been thinking of the masses of the workers, apart from those who were comparatively well off, his contention would not have been entirely devoid of historical truth – although even in that case there would have been gross exaggeration, seeing that there is no warrant for excluding the working-class aristocracy (in the widest sense of the term) from the general movement of the workers. But whenever Bakunin spoke of the “lowest strata of the proletariat,” he had really been thinking only of the Lumpenproletariat. This is clearly shown, both by his mention of contemporary Italy and by his reference to the following well-known passage in the Communist Manifesto.
“The slum proletariat, which is formed by the putrefaction of the lowest strata of the old society, is to some extent entangled in the movement of a proletarian revolution. On the whole, however, thanks to their conditions of life, the members of the slum proletariat are far more apt to become the venal tools of the forces of reaction.
Now, in actual truth, the slum-dwellers are not of a purely proletarian character, being recruited not only from among the manual workers, but also from among the wreckage of the lesser bourgeoisie (ruined independent artisans, peasant farmers, minor officials, and the like). Besides this, of all divisions of the proletariat, the lumpen-proletariat shows least capacity for organisation, least staying power, and – generally speaking – least inclination towards class conscious activity. The whole history of this particular section of society shows how readily it can become a tool of the reaction. The fact has been proved in France, in Spain, and also in the country to which Bakunin particularly refers, Italy.
A proletarian revolution can never be carried out by the Lumpenproletariat although the slum population, at the supreme hour of such a revolution, may join hands with the fighting proletariat. But even then the slum-dwellers are likely to indulge in mob violence owing to their fundamentally anarchical outlook, and in that case it will become necessary to repress their disorderly outbreaks. Bakunin, however, envisaged the social revolution as a simple insurrection, and never dreamed of the conquest of power by the proletariat organised into a political party. For him the change was to be an anarchist liquidation of the existing order. All the defects of the slum population were glorified as virtues; its limitations became intelligence, and its weakness was extolled as the driving force of the coming transformation.
The problem was even simpler where Russia was concerned. Here the “providentially destitute or labouring mass” was replaced by the criminal class. The Russian peasants, says Bakunin, have a way of saying, “Who can stand up against the world?” But there is one person in all Russia, he continues, who dares to stand up against the world, and that is the bandit. That is why the figure of the bandit assumes historical significance in Russia. Pugachoff and Stenka Razin were bandits, Bakunin reminds us.
It is plain that Bakunin’s anarchist views are, to a considerable extent, a generalisation of the confused revolt of the peasantry in backward lands, and especially in Russia, against the police State when it tends to assume the modern European aspect (as under the tsars Alexei Mihaelovich and Peter the Great, and under Catherine the Great). But Bakunin’s opinions showed the influence of Russian life in another way than this. I am thinking of the predominant role to be assumed by the revolutionary intelligentsia in the early period of the movement towards emancipation, for Bakunin held that the revolt of the intelligentsia was the indispensable preliminary to the anarchist revolution. That is why he held that the “young folk of the educated classes” were to play a decisive part in the work of “universal destruction” side by side with the most down-trodden among the workers. In 1869, writing about Russia, he expressed himself very plainly as follows:
“I believe exclusively in the peasant community, and in the educated community of irreconcilable youths for whom there is neither place nor occupation in Russia. A phalanx forty thousand strong, these youths, whether they know it or not, belong to the revolution.” He expresses similar hopes as regards the Czech youth, and, indeed, as regards all the educated young men of the Slavic lands. Thus his general outlook was an ideological reflex of the life of economically backward nations. The historical philosophy of his Alliance was specially created for such nations, so that where the Italian intelligentsia was concerned, he idealised the declassed elements in almost exactly the same fashion. Writing to a Spaniard, Francisco Mora on April 5, 1872, Bakunin said:
“You know, doubtless, that in Italy, recently, the International and our beloved Alliance secured widespread support. The population, in town and country alike, is in a purely revolutionary, that is to say (!) in a desperate economic condition. The masses are beginning to organise themselves effectively; their interests are being transformed into ideas. Up to the present time there has been no lack in Italy either of revolutionary impetus or of revolutionary organisation and ideas. For this and other reasons it seems likely that in days to come Italy, following Spain or side by side with Spain, will prove to be a very revolutionary country. In Italy we find what other countries lack. We find an ardent and energetic youth, thoroughly declassed, without prospect of a career, without any prospects at all. These young people, although they are of bourgeois origin, are not effete in a moral and intellectual respect like the bourgeois young folk of other countries. To-day these young men are impulsively adopting revolutionary socialism, are accepting our whole program, the program of the Alliance."
Now, the carrying out of this program would involve the speedy destruction of the State, or, in Bakunin’s own words an anarchist “social liquidation; ... the annihilation of bourgeois civilisation a voluntary organisation from below upwards in the form of free associations; the organisation of the unbitted and unbridled downtrodden masses, and of the whole of free humanity; the establishment of a new universal peace” Bakunin held that rapid progress towards the annihilation of authority could be achieved by means of abolition of the right of inheritance, the proclamation of individual and social bankruptcy, and the destruction of all existing institutions – the State, the Church, the legal system, the banks, the universities, the army, and the police. “A very effective measure at the present juncture would be to make a bonfire of all documents, so as to destroy the legal basis of the family and of property.” [This is nothing but a peasant’s view of the social revolution; in times of elemental revolt, the peasantry always makes a bonfire of title deeds, feudal inventories, and the like.] The desired end can be achieved by incessant revolts, even though these are only local and partial; for, in Bakunin’s opinion, “every revolt, however unsuccessful it may appear, is useful.” Ineffective revolts ultimately lead to a general rising of the people, which culminates in universal destruction. Bakunin does not claim that this universal destruction will inaugurate the ideal social organisation; but he affirms:
“What I am certain of is that the new organisation will be a thoroughly live one, a thousand times better than that which now exists. Open, on the one hand, to the active propaganda of the towns, and incapable, on the other, of being fixed and so to say petrified by the protection of the State and the law, it will progress freely. It will be able to develop and perfect itself without formal organisation, but always living and free, and never subjected to decrees and laws. Thus in the end it will attain a development as intelligent as can be hoped for in our days.
Here we have the kind of ideas which were to be opposed to the Marxist philosophy within the International. Marx and his stalwarts considered the immediate tasks of the proletariat from a totally different standpoint. In the days of the Communist Federation, Marx, in opposition to the insurrectionists Willich and Schapper, had insisted upon the systematic cultivation of class consciousness:
“We say to the workers: ‘For 15, 20, 50 years, you will have to carry on civil and international warfare, not only in order to change external conditions, but also in order to change your very selves and to fit yourselves for the political State.’ You, on the other hand, say: ‘We must immediately win power; if not, we may as well go to sleep.’ If we ignore the words about “winning power,” which was opposed to Bakuninist principles, there was after all, not much difference between the opposing views. In actual fact, the rapid success of the International had aroused even in Marx unduly optimistic hopes that the social revolution was at hand. In the late sixties, all the sincere friends of the workers believed that the longed-for economic emancipation of the working class was imminent. Despite the fundamental realism of his outlook, Marx’s mind was filled with the vision of the complete emancipation of the workers, and at times his revolutionary ardour led him to entertain rainbow-tinted hopes. But, being a strict realist, he never succumbed to the temptation of revolutionary phrase-making, and never lost sight of the preliminary conditions essential to the social revolution – those preliminary conditions whose mention made the romantically minded utopist Bakunin so wrathful. Every one knows that Marx attached great importance to economic reforms, and especially to those that were secured by the independent activity of the working class. Let me again remind the reader of the words of the Address (supra, p.47): “The Ten Hours Bill was not only a great practical success, it was the victory of a principle.”
Marx did not expect that the social revolution would be brought to pass through the one and only process of an enormous worsening of the condition of the workers. It is true that he put forward the “theory of increasing misery”; the theory that in capitalist society the position of the proletariat grows steadily more intolerable; the theory which, in late years, the “revisionists” under the leadership of Eduard Bernstein were to challenge with very little success. But, while recognising that in the capitalist order the position of the working class tends towards progressive deterioration, Marx knew perfectly well that, by organising its forces and fighting on two fronts (industrial and political), the proletariat was able unceasingly to counteract this elemental tendency of the capitalist regime. He knew that, thanks to dissensions within bourgeois society, thanks to a favourable conjuncture of economic conditions, the working class could, now and again, wrest partial reforms from the capitalist class. Above all, by exercising pressure upon the government “the executive committee of the capitalist class – the proletariat could compel it, in order to safeguard the general interests of the bourgeoisie, to sacrifice the special interests of particular bourgeois groups. At one time, the interests thus sacrificed would be those of the landowners; at another time, those of the manufacturers; and so on. When the workers extorted partial reforms from the capitalist government, when the workers compelled the bourgeois State to intervene in the domain of “free contract between employers and employed,” Marx perceived (to quote the Address once more) “a ... victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property.”
Marx attached immense importance to this victory, alike practically and as a matter of principle. Experience showed that, by an organised struggle, certain sections of the working class, if not the proletariat as a whole, could secure improved conditions within the framework of capitalist society. This was clearly proved by the history of the campaign for a shorter working day. The first step in Britain was the legal limitation to ten hours. Subsequently, thanks to working-class activity (which was vigorously supported by the International), the reduction to nine hours was achieved.
No one knew better than Marx that the struggle for partial reforms was far from comprising the whole historic mission of the proletariat; no one knew better than he that it was not by that road, not exclusively by that road, that the workers would secure their freedom from exploitation. Nay more, he knew that the bourgeoisie was a master of the art of utilising reforms for the consolidation of its political and economic supremacy, for the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation, for the doping of the workers, for the sowing of dissension in the ranks of the proletariat, for the material or moral bribery of certain sections of the working class, and, above all, the working-class aristocracy. He was unsparing in his castigation of all reformist deviations from the working-class movement; and he was never tired of unmasking the futile theorists who preached the all-saving efficacy of palliatives, or the treacherous leaders who were ready to sell the revolutionary birthright of the proletariat for a mess of reformist pottage. But, on the other hand, Marx regarded as hopeless utopists and as obstacles to the advance of the proletariat those anarchist romanticists who could not understand the importance of the daily struggle of the working class for reforms – the importance of that struggle both as a means of immediate achievement and as a means by which ground could be gained for a further struggle. Both these extremes, the one and the other dependent upon a failure to understand the position of the proletariat in capitalist society – the reformist extreme, renouncing revolution in the name of petty palliatives, and the anarchist extreme, renouncing the struggle for reforms in the name of a hazy ideal of social liquidation – were rejected by Marx and by the whole of the International in its palmy days.
Marx understood that the fight for reforms was important to the working class, not only from a practical point of view, but also, and even more, as a matter of principle. He was concerned with the agitational value of the movement, as well as with its immediate material success. It is true that the bourgeoisie, when it is compelled to make concessions, endeavours to utilise these reforms as a means of strengthening its own position. But simultaneously the workers can and must use the reforms to consolidate their class position. Reforms that are wrested by the workers from their class antagonists are blows that shape the bourgeois State, and when frequently repeated they may shake it to its foundations. Whereas to the bourgeoisie partial reforms seem buttresses that are needed to strengthen the capitalist building, in the hands of the working class these same reforms may become levers used to shake the stability of the edifice provided always that those who are to utilise the reforms in this way have a true understanding of the general course of the historical struggle of the proletariat. The anarchists have never been able to grasp this characteristic of social evolution.
Moreover, the struggle for reforms encourages the workers to feel independent, over comes the sense of diffidence which the dominion of capital tends to produce in them. They acquire a fighting spirit, and become inspired with revolutionary energy. Reforms have a peculiar significance when they are achieved by the independent activity of the workers, and when they are wrested from the governing class. The capitalists try to convince the workers that the struggle against bourgeois authority is hopeless, but the fight for reforms puts an end to the apathy of despair. The proletarians no longer believe that the strength of the capitalists is invincible.
But the workers are strong only in so far as they stand shoulder to shoulder, only in so far as they organise their forces. The struggle for reforms unites the scattered proletarians, cultivates a sense of solidarity, makes the workers realise that their interests are one. In a word, it stimulates class consciousness. What, indeed, is a strike but a fight for partial advantages – for reforms of a local and limited character? Now, the significance of strikes in the history of the working-class movement is well-known. Few, even, of the anarchists deny it. If, however, the fight for reforms within such narrow limits as those of a single factory or district be of great importance, all the more is the fight for reforms important when conducted upon a national scale and by the proletariat operating as a united whole.
By training the workers in activity, the struggle for reforms likewise enriches their experience and widens their outlooks. This struggle, of which strikes are merely a part, transforms the separate movements of various groups and localities into a class movement of the proletariat as a whole. And the conviction that reforms can achieve very little, that the freeing of the workers cannot be effected without the social revolution, without the expropriation of the capitalists, without the seizure of power by the working class – this conviction is arrived at, not by way of abstract reasoning, but by way of the direct struggle for reforms, whether the struggle is successful or unsuccessful.
It has long been known that strikes are favourable to the growth of working-class organisations. Strikes have this effect whether they are won or lost. It may sometimes happen that after the failure of strikes there may be a decline in working-class organisations, and even a very serious decline. But, speaking generally, we may say that the industrial struggle, conducted by means of strikes, has been the main factor of working-class organisation. The struggle for reforms has precisely the same significance. The statement applies, indeed, to all the collective struggles of the workers, including the revolutionary struggle in the narrower sense of that term. Of course, from time to time, an unsuccessful struggle for reform may end in the destruction of the working-class organisations which that struggle has called into existence. Such was the fate of the Chartist movement. Nevertheless, the usual effect of the struggle for reforms is to promote the growth of working-class organisations. We must not generalise unduly. Sometimes the realisation of reforms for which a struggle has been in progress, will take the fire out of large sections of the working class, and may even lead to the temporary arrest of the whole working-class movement. That is what happened in Britain, for instance, during the late sixties and the early seventies of the nineteenth century (see below). In other cases, the impossibility of achieving the reforms that are desired by the proletariat has the same result. But the converse may happen. A fresh stimulus to working-class organisation may arise equally well out of the successful and out of the unsuccessful struggle for reforms.
This is why the struggle for reforms is of vital importance as a means of agitation. Such, indeed, may be considered the most essential aspect of the reform movement. It does not matter whether the struggle is successful; the thing that matters is that there should be a struggle. From this outlook, the agitation to secure reforms, even though even know them to be unattainable so long as the capitalist system endures, has from the historical point of view more importance than the practical realisation of reforms. That is why Marx and Engels were inclined to make fun of the “revolutionary” reasoning of Wilhelm Liebknecht, who at one time (in the late sixties and early seventies) was disposed upon this question of reforms to take up, if not an anarchist, at any rate a purely utopist position – denying the importance, not only of reforms, but also of the struggle to secure them.
Ultimately, Liebknecht broke off his flirtation with the bourgeois democrats, and also got the better of his “revolutionary” scorn for the agitation to secure reforms. This was a great advantage to the German working-class movement alike in the political and in the industrial fields.
The agitation for reforms has a stimulating influence upon the sluggish sections of the workers, upon those who have not yet become class conscious in the revolutionary sense; it draws them into the main stream of the working-class movement. Consequently, there results a progressive narrowing of the base upon which bourgeois dominion is founded, and therewith a proportional widening of the foundation of the proletarian struggle. In the second part of this book the reader will see how the anarchist International cut the soil from beneath its own feet and severed its own vital thread by its lofty contempt for the struggle to secure reforms. The doctrinairism of the anarchists isolated them from the working masses and made them utterly deaf to the powerful call of reality. On the other hand, in all countries the labour parties, from the seventies onwards, grew to a considerable size, thanks to their correct understanding of historical reality, and thanks to their ability to keep in touch with the masses, who were endeavouring to wrest a series of concessions from the capitalist class and the bourgeois State. Coming to our own day, there can be no doubt that the Third International will ere long gain much from the tactic of the “united front,” based upon a recognition of the enormous agitational value of the struggle to extort concessions from capital.
Nevertheless, the behaviour of the socialist parties that were combined to form the Second International showed into what a Slough of Despond the working class could be led by the struggle for reforms, if that struggle were conceived and concluded in a “reformist” instead of in a “revolutionary” spirit. Had Bakunin’s criticisms been solely directed against reformism in this sense, there would have been much force in them. There can be no doubt that he foresaw such a misuse of the movement to secure reforms; but the unfortunate fact remains, that he could see nothing else. Marx and Engels, however, did not look upon the struggle for reforms in the light in which it was regarded, in actual subsequent practice, by the majority of the social democrats. But at the first manifestations of social-reformist tendencies, Marx and Engels condemned them in the strongest terms. For, in their view, the struggle for reforms was an inseparable part of the general revolutionary struggle of the workers. It was but one of the means for bringing about the social revolution, for the seizing of power by the proletariat, and for the radical transformation of existing social relationships. The fact that social democracy was not competent to bring about an organic union of all the manifestations of the proletarian movement, and, in especial, was unable to make use of the struggle for reforms in order to speed the coming of the social revolution, is a condemnation of social democracy, but not of revolutionary communism.
This leads us to the question of the struggle for political liberty, and for the democratisation of the bourgeois State. While Marx recognised the immense importance of political freedom and of the democratisation of social and political conditions, no one understood better than he the limited significance of these advantages. He was the last person in the world to regard them as panaceas.
More effectively than any others, Marx and his school have shown up the spuriousness of bourgeois democracy, and the falseness of political freedom in the capitalist regime. Repeatedly, in his letters, Marx declared that freedom in capitalist society meant freedom for the worker to sell himself into slavery, and freedom for the capitalist to exploit the worker.
As late as 1867-8, Bakunin and his friends were members of the executive committee of the bourgeois-democratic League of Peace and Freedom, and at that date their minds were still full of bourgeois prejudices. Already in the forties, Marx and Engels, above all in the Communist Manifesto, had pitilessly analysed the fundamental ideas and illusions of bourgeois democracy. Subsequently the Marxist school was at all times and in all places persistently engaged in this task of explaining the real character of bourgeois democracy. In France, for instance, during the late seventies and the early eighties, Guesde and Lafargue were thus busied. Lafargue forged invaluable weapons for the anarchists by his ruthless criticism of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism. Indeed the anarchists stole the Marxists’ thunder, arrogating to themselves the honour of having cast down the idol of bourgeois democracy.
Fate played her usual pranks with them. There is some truth, and even a certain amount of accurate prophecy, in their various criticisms. But a close examination of their assertions discloses that what is true is not new and what is new is not true. Their general views regarding the significance of political freedom in bourgeois society, regarding parliamentarism, universal suffrage, participation by the workers in elections, the struggle for electoral rights, etc., lack historical perspective, are nourished upon abstractions, are quite out of touch with the real working-class movement; and, though to all appearance these views are extremely “revolutionary,” they are in fact most reactionary.
In order to render clear Marx’s position in this matter, I need merely remind the reader of what has already been said concerning the historical significance of the proletarian struggle and of the agitation on behalf of reforms within bourgeois society. The struggle for political liberty and for universal struggle – in a word, the struggle for the democratisation of the bourgeois State – is no more than one aspect of the struggle for reforms, for the partial concessions that can be wrested from the bourgeoisie for the benefit of the working class. As far as the broad masses of the workers are concerned, nothing but personal experience will convince them of the limitations and the illusory character of political freedom under bourgeois democracy, of parliamentarism, and of universal suffrage. Herein, of course, lies the advantage of the struggle. Only through personal experience of the futilities that underlie the fair seeming of bourgeois democracy, can the masses free themselves from the illusions which are deliberately instilled into them by the governing class. Not until then can they enter the one road by which they can find deliverance. None but utopists, remote from the actualities of life, could fancy that a whole class could be heed from illusions by a sort of exorcism, or that abstract propaganda could serve as a substitute for the personal experience of the masses. The methods pursued by such utopists tend only to keep the working class at the lowest possible level of political development.
The anarchists’ hopeless lack of interest in the struggle for democratic and political freedom is but one more proof of their utter inability to look at things from the historical standpoint. What concerns us is not that, at a definite stake in its development, the proletariat is apt to succumb to democratic illusions; the important point is that, under definite historical conditions, the workers can and must, in their own interests as a class, make use of the forms of bourgeois democracy, or turn to account the struggle for bourgeois democracy. The fighting proletariat has learned from bitter experience that, in the capitalist system, the want of political freedom hinders its development and cramps its organisation. The Lausanne Congress of the International, in the wellknown resolution, gave expression to this view. The still more disastrous experience of the Paris Commune proved to the proletariat that the lack of a workers’ political party, mobile and disciplined, imbued with the spirit of revolutionary communism, makes it practically impossible to throw off the yoke of capitalism. Thus the workers have come to learn that political liberty – however illusory, if regarded as an end in itself, and as a final achievement – can and must be turned to account for the strengthening of working-class organisations and as a vantage ground for further struggle.
The agitation on behalf of political liberty and to secure universal suffrage, is of no less importance to the working-class movement. Police tyranny and political inequality are extremely galling to the workers, and impair their sense of human dignity. The political agitation against these especially obvious forms of class rule and class oppression, wakes up even the most backward strata of the proletariat, which are thus induced to participate in the general struggle of the working class. Through participation in the political struggle, the masses are brought into the next phase of development, and attain to a higher form of class consciousness. That is the real value of electoral campaigns, which in all countries play a decisive role in attracting the majority of the workers to take part in the political struggle, and in popularising socialist ideas.
Whatever we may think of the value of political liberty and formal democracy in the abstract, our present concern is to understand what they mean for the proletariat in the capitalist regime. Anything extorted from the bourgeoisie in these domains weakens the stronghold of capitalist exploitation. The workers wrest from the governing class one position after another, every such gain becoming a vantage ground for the progressive attack upon the foundations of the capitalist system. Thereby they compel the bourgeoisie to throw off the mask, to repudiate the simulacrum of democratic forms, and openly to instal the dictatorship of capital [fascism]. This, in its turn, forces the workers to consider the question of their own class dictatorship, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The anarchists never understood these things. In fact, the fundamental difference between them and the communists was, not so much a matter of varying views concerning the significance of economic and political reforms within the framework of capitalist society, as a divergence of outlook upon the basic question of the social revolution, the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In his writings against the anarchists Marx chiefly emphasised this question.
The anarchist idea of establishing by means of the social revolution a society without any government, did not in itself arouse the opposition of Marx and Engels. The idea was, indeed, expressed clearly enough in the Communist Manifesto which document nevertheless aroused the antagonism of Bakunin and his followers. Here is the relevant passage from the Manifesto:
“When, in the course of social evolution, class distinctions have disappeared, and when all the work of production has been concentrated into the hands of associated producers, public power will lose its political character. Strictly speaking, political power is the organised use of power by one class in order to keep another class in subjection. When the proletariat, in the course of its fight against the bourgeoisie, necessarily consolidates itself into a class, by means of a revolution makes itself ruling class, and as such forcible sweeps away the old system of production – it therewith sweeps away the system upon which class conflicts depend, makes an end of class, and abolishes its own rule as a class. The old bourgeois society, with its classes and class conflicts, will be replaced by an association in which the free development of each will lead to the free development of all."
Obviously, the dispute between the Marxists and the anarchists must not be formulated by saying that the Marxists wished to maintain the existence of the State m perpetuity, but the anarchists wished to annihilate it. The real dispute has always been how the State is to be annihilated. The communist view is that the suture will see the rise of a free association, a society wherein neither class nor government shall exist. But such a society can only be born “in due time,” as the result of a transitional period characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship will be temporary, but is historically inevitable. In order that the destruction of the State may become possible, it is necessary, first of all, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship will be the ultimate form of class dominion, in fact I may say it will be the ultimate form of the political State. The dictatorship must inevitably lead to the annihilation of political dominion. Without it neither the destruction of the existing State nor the inauguration of a society without government would be possible.
“The first step in the workers’ revolution is to make the proletariat the ruling class, to establish democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy in order, by degrees, to wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all the means of production into the hands of the State (this meaning the proletariat organised as ruling class, and, as rapidly as possible, to increase the total mass of productive forces.
The creation of a society without government is the ultimate aim of the movement. The immediate aim is the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Let me quote the Communist Manifesto once more:
“The communists’ immediate aims are identical with those of all other proletarian parties: organisation of the proletariat on a class basis; destruction of bourgeois supremacy; conquest of political power by the proletariat.”
Marx returned to the charge in the pamphlet issued by the General Council in 1872, when the struggle with the Bakuninists was at its height
“What all socialists understand by anarchism is this: as soon as the goal of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, shall have been reached, the power of the State whose function it is to keep the great majority of the producers beneath the yoke of a small minority of exploiters, will disappear, and governmental functions will be transformed into simple administrative functions. The Alliance turns the thing upside down. It declares anarchism in the ranks of the workers to be an infallible means for disrupting the powerful concentration of social and political forces in the hands of the exploiters. Under this pretext, it asks the International, at the very time when the old world is endeavouring to crush our Organisation, to replace organisation by anarchism. The international police could wish for nothing better... !”
We see clearly that herein lies the fundamental difference between Marxism and Bakuninism. As far as the anarchists are concerned, the annihilation of the State by decreeing its suppression at the moment of the social revolution would be no more than an empty form of words. For the communists, on the other hand, the suppression of the State would be the natural sequel of communist tactics, for the communists hold that the proletariat must seize political power in order to destroy the class division of society. Thus, the existence of the State will become impossible owing to the annihilation of its foundations. Marx saw plainly that the lamentations of the anarchists about the “authoritarian” character of communism, like anarchist tactics in general, played a definitely reactionary role and involved a direct opposition to the historical movement of the working class.
Whoever opposes the dictatorship of the proletariat, does, in fact, help to perpetuate the existence of the bourgeois State. Whoever designs to overthrow every kind of authority at a time when the socialist order has not yet been fully established, and when the resistance of the possessing classes has not yet been definitively crushed, is playing, whether he desire it or not, into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and is helping to disarm the proletariat when faced by the united forces of the old world.
There is certainly no reason to be surprised that those who held such hopelessly conflicting theories should become involved in a fierce struggle.
The conflict between the Bakuninists and the General Council was yet further complicated by differences of opinion concerning methods of organisation.
It is a familiar fact that differences of principle find expression in differences of organisation. To each general historico-philosophical outlook there corresponds a peculiar tactic and a special scheme of organisation. The primary aim of the Marxists, both nationally and internationally, was the conquest of political power and the establishment of their own authority over the State, that they might make use of the organised forces of society in order to bring about a social transformation. To this political theory there corresponded a centralised and disciplined organisation, whereby the scattered forces of the various parts were intensified to a degree proportional to the harmony of outlook and the solidarisation of activity. The anarchists, on the other hand, regarded destruction as their primary aim; they hoped by means of incessant insurrections to bring about a dissolution of all social ties, and thus to secure a clean slate. Upon the ground thus cleared, they were to build a new social organisation from the foundation upwards, would establish it by the general consent of free individuals and groups. To this political theory, there corresponded a decentralised and federative type of organisation, wherein the branches had unlimited local autonomy.
I have already pointed out, and the trend of events within the International confirmed the fact, that Marx looked upon the Workingmen’s Association as the germ of an international workers’ party, with communist leanings; he considered the General Council, on the other hand, to be the germ of the executive committee of such a party. This seemed easily realisable in those days when in most countries no political parties of the workers were as yet in being. The idea of an international party of the proletariat could not meet with opposition from national parties which did not at that time exist, nor had the executive committee of such a projected party any need to be on guard against possible friction that might have arisen between a and the executive committees of such national parties. Not being thus hampered, it could make a direct appeal to the masses, and constitute itself their leader. Actually, an international labour party established under such conditions would have lacked the support of the masses, would have been quite out of touch with, and without influence upon, the unstable and unorganised generality of the workers. It would thus have had no solid foundations. But the fact was not to become obvious until much later, and as yet there were no apprehensions upon this score.
The program of the International, in so far as it is set forth in the Introductory Address, in the resolutions of the international congresses, and in the manifestoes of the General Council, declared that the aims of the movement were the annihilation of class dominion and the establishment of a socialist system through the conquest of political power by the working class. As is explained in the Preamble, this program presupposes a simultaneous revolution, if not in all countries, at least in the leading capitalist lands. Such, indeed, was the purpose with which the International Workingmen’s Association was founded, for it aimed at bringing about an international organisation, not only of the political and industrial daily struggle of the workers in the various countries, but also of their decisive attack on bourgeois society, their final attempt to seize power and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Hitherto the workers had been unsuccessful in their attacks upon the capitalist system, owing to dispersal of energies and lack of co-ordination. The liberation of the proletariat was not a local problem or a national problem; it was one in which the workers of all capitalist countries were jointly concerned. The only way of avoiding the old mistakes would be to found an international organisation which would realise the historic mission of the proletariat and would be competent to direct all its forward movements, including the final onslaught that was to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Obviously the International, if it were to fulfil such functions, must be a centralised and disciplined body, and its General Council must have large powers.
This was especially necessary because of the lack of political organisations in the various countries, the lack of organisations competent to lead the incipient mass movement and also because of the diversified tendencies then prevailing in the working-class movement. From this point of view, the endeavour of Marx and those who shared his outlook to strengthen party discipline, and to equip the General Council with effective powers, becomes extremely significant and has full historical justification. Obviously that was why Marx was so fiercely opposed to the Bakuninists’ fantastic idea of introducing the principle of anarchy into the very core of the International, and to the advocacy of local autonomy for the branches.
In the early days of the International, there was no active opposition to the attempt to make of it a co-ordinated, centralised, and disciplined body. On the contrary, at the Lausanne and the Basle congresses, the powers of the General Council were yet further extended, and the extension was supported by such men as Guillaume and Bakunin, the future leaders of the autonomist and separatist movement. It was only when the General Council made use of its powers and interfered in the local dispute between the Marxists and the Bakuninists in Switzerland, that a fierce campaign was opened against it. (This matter will be fully considered in the sequel.) The Council was accused of despotism, autocracy, authoritarianism, and other deadly sins against the unconditional and unrestricted autonomy of the branches. Even the decision of the General Council to postpone the forthcoming congress because of the Franco-Prussian war, was stigmatised as the fruit of the base intrigues of the Marxist “clique.” The Bakuninists were at work everywhere, writing letters and sending secret envoys from country to country. In the Latin countries there was an unceasing conspiracy against the International itself, so that from day to day its disorganisation was further advanced. All the more difficult was it to make headway against the enemy within the gates, because the intention of the General Council was fully engaged elsewhere: first of all, by the events of the Paris Commune; and, subsequently, by the necessity of caring for the numerous refugees from France after the suppression of the Commune.