PART TWO. History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff
THE split in the ranks of the International was mainly due, as we have seen, to differences of opinion on the question of the political struggle. The communists found that the best results in the emancipation of the workers could only be achieved if a synthesis were made of all the forms of the proletarian struggle. They therefore considered that the political movement leading to the conquest of contemporary society by means of the organised forces of the workers, thus bringing about the social revolution, must constitute an integral part of the working-class movement. This was stated in the Address of the International; and the third paragraph of the Preamble to the Provisional Rules declared that “the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinated as a means.”
At that time, the workers in the majority of countries were still denied electoral rights. Nay, even in the most advanced countries, such as Great Britain and France, they were only just beginning to free themselves from the political dominance of bourgeois democracy. In Great Britain, they were fighting to secure an extension of the franchise. In France, a movement was coming into existence which aimed at inaugurating independent political activity on the part of the workers; this movement took the form of running “working-class candidates” at parliamentary elections. But the majority, even among the Parisian workers, were opposed to the plan, for they considered the running of worker candidates in opposition to the bourgeois republican candidates to be an artful trap laid by the Bonapartist police. Besides, no one ventured to speak of “the political tasks of the working class,” lest such utterances might attract the attention of the police and lead to prosecutions. Again, the words, “as a means,” which conclude the above-quoted paragraph from the Preamble, had been omitted from the French translation, and the whole dispute between Bakunin and Marx was based upon the fact of this omission. The translation had been made by the Parisian Proudhonists who, mainly governed by their fear of police persecution, and by their political indifferentism, had not seen fit to include the phrase. But at the second congress of the International, held in Lausanne in 1867, the future leaders of the anarchists, Guillaume and his comrades, actually supported the resolution in favour of the fight for political freedom.
Marxism represented the ideology of the proletariat engaged in large-scale industry, and it endeavoured to express the general interests of the working-class movement taken as a whole; Bakuninism, on the other hand, represented the ideology of the “Lumpenproletariat” (the tatterdemalion or slum proletariat) mixed with the groping aspirations of the peasantry in the backward countries, which were only beginning to be swept into the ambit of capitalist development. This explains why Bakunin found the majority of his supporters in such countries as Russia, Italy, and Spain. In these lands anarchism flourished longer than anywhere else. But in countries of more advanced economic development, such as Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, France, and Switzerland, even though the socialists supported the Bakuninists in their fight with the General Council, they always emphasised their dissent from the anarchist tactics of the Bakuninists, and soon broke away from anarchism altogether.
The Bakuninists aimed at the complete destruction of the State and any kind of government, for they maintained that government was irreconcilable with the freedom of the individual and ruinous for the workers. They absolutely repudiated “any political activity which has not as its direct aim the triumph of the working class over the capitalist class.” Their objective was an immediate social revolution, without any intervening stage of political organisation and political education of the proletariat. Owing to the absence of any experience in this direction, and in view of the existing concrete conditions (the fact, on the one hand, that the masses had no political rights, and, on the other hand, their dependence on the bourgeois parties), the Bakuninists would not admit either the possibility of or the necessity for political activity on the part of the independent workers’ party for political purposes. To them, all attempts to achieve anything of the kind seemed nothing more than endeavours to exploit socialism in the interests of bourgeois politics; and they regarded the Marxist tactics as a series of compromises which could only advantage the bourgeoisie and the capitalist State.
The Bakuninists invariably identified the political struggle with the electoral struggle, and they looked upon the latter as nothing else than an electoral pact with the bourgeois parties. They completely failed to understand Marx’s famous contention that every class struggle is a political struggle; neither could they in the least realise how needful and advantageous to the workers a political party might become, a party which would be independent of bourgeois influence and would march out against the bourgeoisie.
It was natural that those whose outlooks were so irreconcilable should soon be at one another’s throats. The London Conference of September, 1871, was to have decided the quarrel between the Marxists and the Bakuninists. At that time the question of the political tasks of the proletariat was confronting the International, no longer in an abstract form, but in a concrete form demanding immediate directives and real activity. The bloody lesson of the Commune had clarified the issues and had brought to the front the historical necessity of organising the workers into a separate political party, independently endeavouring to seize political power in the interests of the workers and their social emancipation. The German workers, towards the end of the sixties, had organised the Social Democratic Party. The program set forth the immediate tasks of the proletariat, and, in particular, drew attention to the need for the general democratisation of society and the conquest of governmental power in the interests of social transformation.
The resolution at the London Conference concerning the question of political activity marked a step forward in the development of the Marxist outlook. It was a concrete expression of Marxist theory. This resolution was an embodiment of the point made in the Address and Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association concerning the need for political activity; it likewise confirmed the resolution of the Lausanne Congress and the declaration of the General Council anent the imaginary conspiracy of the French internationalists on the eve of the 1870 referendum (plebiscite). In this declaration it had been stated that the branches of the International in Great Britain, on the Continent, and in America, had the special task, not merely of acting as centres for the fighting organisation of the working class, but also of supporting in their respective countries every political movement tending towards the achievement of the ultimate aims of the International Workingmen’s Association, i.e., the economic emancipation of the working class. The resolution went on to declare that the International was faced by an unbridled reaction which paralysed every effort of the workers to achieve emancipation, and which intended to maintain by force the distinction between the classes and the consequent political dominance of the possessing classes. Against the collective power of the possessing classes the proletariat could only act as a class by forming itself into an independent political party, standing in opposition to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes. The formation of the proletarian political party, the resolution maintained, was an indispensable pre-requisite for the triumph of the social revolution and for the abolition of class distinctions. Such a coalition of working-class forces as had been realised in the field of industrial struggle must serve as a lever to the masses in their fight against the political power of their exploiters. The resolution concluded by reminding the members of the International that, during the militant stage of working-class emancipation, industrial action and political action were indissolubly linked.
With the decisions of the London Conference the fat was in the fire! The congress of the Jura Federation held at Sonvillier in October, 1871, unfurled the flag of opposition to the General Council. The attack of the Jura Federationists upon the General Council in general, and upon administrative centralism in particular, caused the Spanish, Belgian, and Italian federations to rally to their side. The Italians even went so far as to refuse to send delegates to the Hague Congress, and they broke off all relations with the General Council. The Bakuninist branches demanded that all power should be taken from the General Council, and that it should revert to its primary role of a corresponding and statistical bureau. They were especially indignant at the idea that the General Council should endeavour to link up all the branches of the International by suggesting a unified political tactic (I need hardly say that there had been no attempt to do anything of the kind.)
The decisive encounter took place at the Hague Congress, and the opponents dealt one another mortal blows. The Hague Congress, at which Marx appeared in person because he felt that his life’s work was involved in the decisions taken by this assembly, had affirmed the resolution of the London Conference, and had carried Vaillant’s resolution concerning the political struggle of the proletariat. The victory of the social democratic outlook over the Bakuninist was largely due to the tragical experience of the Paris Commune. Up to that time the International had almost exclusively interested itself in the economic struggle. But the suppression of the Commune led the internationalists to do some hard thinking and they came to realise that the creation of an independent working-class political party was indispensable. Such a party should not only be ready to march forward in the decisive hour, but should also train its forces to deal with the political conflicts arising from day to day in contemporary society. Only through this daily work of training could the workers’ party hope to be prepared to take the field advantageously at the fateful hour.
The General Council secured a complete victory, but this same victory was also its ruin. The centralist nature of the organisation had been emphasised; the authority of the General Council had been considerably widened; the Council’s right to expel certain branches and even whole national federations had been confirmed and was to continue until the next international congress; and so forth. The disorganising activities of the Bakuninists had been severely censored; Bakunin himself and Guillaume, the leaders of the Jura Federation, had been expelled from the International. But the decision to transfer the seat of the General Council to New York, taken in the belief that thus only would it be possible to escape the risk of the International falling under the dominion of the Blanquists, was tantamount to an admission that the Association had outlived its usefulness, and that the initial stage of the international working-class movement had come to an end. The resolutions passed at the Hague Congress were the will and testament of the old International to its future heirs.
Two years later, Engels, writing to Sorge (September, 1874), showed that he had become reconciled to the idea that the work of the International was finished. He characterised the period of its existence from 1864 to 1872 in the following words: “Your resignation gives the quietus to the old International. ‘Tis just as well. The organisation belonged to the epoch of the Second Empire, when the labour movement was again beginning to become active, but when the oppressions that prevailed throughout Europe made unity and abstention from internal disputes absolutely essential. It was time when the joint cosmopolitan interests of the proletariat could come to the front. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Denmark had recently entered the movement, or were just entering it. In 1864, throughout Europe (among the masses at any rate), there was still very little understanding of the theory underlying the movement. German communism had not yet found expression in a workers’ party, and Proudhonism was too weak to impose its whimsies; Bakunin’s new-fangled idea had not yet found its way into his own head. Even the British trade-union leaders felt able to participate is the movement upon the basis of the program formulated in the Preamble to the Provisional Rules of the Association. It was inevitable that the first great success should break up this simple harmony of all the factions. The success was the Commune, which, as far as its intellectual inspiration was concerned, was unmistakably the child of the International, although the International had not stirred a finger to bring it into being – for the International is with good reason made responsible for its creation. But when, thanks to the Commune, the International became a moral force in Europe, the quarrel promptly broke out. The members of each faction wanted to exploit the success on their own account. The break-up of the organisation was inevitable, and speedily ensued. Jealousy of the rising power of those who were ready to continue working along the lines laid down in the old comprehensive program, jealousy of the German communists, drove the Belgian Proudhonists into the arms of the Bakuninist adventurers. The Hague Congress was, in fact, the end of the International, and for both parties in the International. There was only one country in which something might still be done in the name of the International, and it was a happy instinct which led the congress to decide upon the removal of the General Council to the United States. But now, even there, its prestige has waned, and any further attempts to galvanise the corpse to life would be a foolish waste of energy.”
It is true that Engels took some time to reach this conclusion. Several years experience was still needed to bring about a firm conviction that the old form of organisation had had its day, and that the powers of the workers must be consolidated in a new manner.