PART TWO. History of The First International by G. M. Stekloff

Chapter Five. The Geneva Congress of the Anarchist International

DESPITE Engels’ assertion that the Bakuninists proposed to convene their congress in some out-of-the-way hole in the Jura mountains, the anarchists actually assembled in Geneva, and held, moreover, a fairly imposing demonstration. The sittings continued from September 1 to 6, 1873, and the Bakuninists described their congress as the Sixth General Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association,[311] for it was their contention that they, and not their Marxist opponents, were the true International. There was some justification for this view, seeing that most of the national federations had transferred their allegiance from the Marxist to the Bakuninist International.

At this congress, Great Britain was represented by Hales and Eccarius; Spain by five delegates, among whom were Farga-Pellicer, Alerini, and Paul Brousse; France by five delegates, including Pindy and (once more) Alerini and Paul Brousse; Belgium by five delegates; Holland by one delegate;[312] Italy by four delegates, one of whom was Andrea Costa; Jura by ten delegates, among whom (besides Pindy once again), may be mentioned Spichiger, Guillaume, and Nicolai Zhukoffsky. Thus the various delegations were not mainly composed of persons from the respective countries they were supposed to represent, for, apart from the purely local representation, the congress consisted chiefly of French and Prussian refugees residing in Switzerland.

After dealing with reports and various formal items, the congress proceeded, by a unanimous vote, to abolish the General Council. The question was then mooted, whether it was desirable to replace the General Council by some other form of centralised administrative body, and upon this there was sharp divergence of opinion. Paul Brousse and Andrea Costa, maintaining the anarchist theory in all its rigour, were flatly opposed to anything of the kind. Van den Abeele said that, however great his enthusiasm for the anarchist cause, he could not feel that the time was yet ripe for the complete installation of anarchism as a working policy. Hales said that some sort of executive committee was essential, and declared himself definitely opposed to anarchism: “Anarchism is tantamount to individualism, and individualism is the foundation of the extant form of society, the form we desire to overthrow. Anarchism is incompatible with collectivism, ... Anarchism is the law of death; collectivism is the law of life.” Guillaume took a conciliatory line. In the end it was decided to establish a federal bureau, entirely devoid of executive authority, and endowed only with the function of collecting statistics and of being an intermediary for correspondence. The duty of acting as this federal bureau would devolve upon whichever one of the national federations had been appointed to organise the next ensuing congress of the International.

The foregoing question occupied parts of several sittings and concurrently the general question of a revision of the rules of the International (a revision in the anarchist spirit) was under discussion. First of all a vote was taken upon the main question of principle. The majority held that the congress should not give utterance to an official opinion upon either that or any other question of principle. Congresses should only be used for the purpose of providing effective expression for various outlooks, so that any one who wished to become acquainted with these different standpoints, would merely need to study the official report. An official utterance by the International would be nothing else than a constraint of the minority by the majority, and this would be quite inadmissible.

Equally characteristic were the discussions concerning the question, Who were entitled to join the International? (This question had already been considered at the first congresses of the International, when the Proudhonists had enunciated the same views anent the intelligentsia as the anarchists were now uttering). One of the Jura delegates, insisting that none but manual workers ought to be allowed to join the International, said bluntly: “We have no need of persons whose only distinction is that they know a lot, and can confuse our minds with their fine phrases.” Guillaume protested vigorously against this proposal to exclude intellectuals and brainworkers, and showed that those whom it was proposed to shut out had an especial, immediate, and direct interest in the revolution. Viņas, one of the Spanish delegates, sensibly remarked, when criticising the views of those who wanted none but manual workers in the International, that, whilst it was of course impossible to expect the aid of the bourgeoisie as a class, there was no reason for refusing the assistance of individual bourgeois who were convinced of the justice of the workers’ cause. Finally it was agreed that others besides manual workers should be admitted.

It need hardly be said that the words “as a means” at the close of the third paragraph of the Preamble to the rules of the International did not appear in the text of the draft discussed by the anarchists at their Geneva Congress. These were the words about which there had been so much dispute with the Proudhonists, who had declared that they implied an obligation to participate in the political struggle. In this matter the anarchists were at one with the Proudhonists.

In addition, the congress discussed the question of the general strike which was thenceforward to be an article of faith with all the anarchists. The Chartists had entertained the idea of a general strike. After the downfall of Chartism it had been forgotten for a time, but was revived in 1868 at the Brussels Congress of the old International, where a resolution was passed recommending the workers “to cease all work in the event of a war breaking in their respective countries.” (See above.) At that time, however, the general strike was regarded as nothing more than one of the means to be employed in the war against war. But to the anarchists, since they rejected participation in the political straggle and were opposed to the seizure of political power, it began to assume the aspect of a panacea, to be regarded as the one and only means of bringing about the social revolution. It was at the Verviers Congress of the Belgian Federation on April 13, 1873, that the notion of the general strike as a means for the expropriation of the capitalist class was first mooted. Very natural was it that this question should have first assumed concrete actuality in Belgium, the “workshop of the Continent,” the land of perpetual strikes. It was characteristic too, that to the initiators of the idea of the general strike it should have seemed that an indirect advantage of the plan was that it would put an end to political strikes except in cases when these were absolutely inevitable.

The next Belgian congress, in August, 1873, declared in favour of the organisation of the general strike. The Dutch likewise adopted the notion. The first attempts at the practical realisation of the general strike were made in Spain during July, 1873. On that occasion the anarchists, as if to demonstrate their complete independence of political considerations during a crisis by which the whole country was convulsed, called a general strike in Alcoy and Barcelona. But this movement, far from halving as its direct aim the expropriation of the capitalist class, took the form rather of a convulsive outburst on the part of persons who had lost all sense of direction, and it therefore had no tangible result. All the more was it a failure inasmuch as it had a purely local character.

The anti-authoritarian congress at Geneva devoted a good deal of time to the discussion of this question. In presenting the report of the sub-committee which had been appointed to consider the matter, Zhukoffsky said that the sub-committee felt that the question of the general strike was subordinate to the more or less complete local and international trade-union organisation of labour, and to the statistical studies which the International had in view in connection with the general strike. On the other hand, since the general strike was nothing else than the social revolution (for the existing social order would be completely shattered by a mere (!) suspension of work for ten days), the subcommittee was of opinion that the congress did not need to come to a formal decision regarding the general strike. This would be all the more inexpedient inasmuch as such a decision would acquaint the enemy with the means whereby it was hoped to achieve the social revolution.

The Belgian delegates explained that in Belgium the general strike was looked upon as a means for inaugurating a revolutionary movement. Verrycken pointed out that if a general strike could have been called at the time of the Paris Commune, this would undoubtedly have prevented the triumph of the reaction. Costa’s view was that partial strikes were nothing more than “dust thrown into the workers’ eyes,” but that the general strike was “an excellent instrument of revolution.” Another Italian delegate, Bert, brought forward a resolution recommending that all the workers in one industry should go on strike in one locality, then all the workers in a second industry in a second locality, and so on. The increase of wages secured in each of these partial strikes should be used to support the next strike, “until a complete triumph had been secured.” Brousse opined that to organise the general strike in this way would be to organise the defeat of the workers. Guillaume, trying to find a middle course, and recognising the impossibility of completely abandoning the weapon of the partial strike, wished the congress to “recommend the workers to devote their main effort to international trade-union organisation with a view to being in a position some day to undertake a general strike, the only kind of strike competent to bring about the complete emancipation of the workers.” Spichiger, another Jura delegate, voiced similar opinions. Partial strikes must not be condemned. Of course it was essential to make the workers understand that nothing short of the general strike could emancipate labour; but, for this long-continued propaganda would be requisite, and meanwhile it would be a mistake to discountenance partial strikes, or to discourage non-revolutionary workers from striking.

Hales, one of the two British delegates, took a very different view, being strongly of opinion that the general strike was impracticable and absurd.

“In order to realise a general strike, we should have everywhere to set on foot an organisation devoted to that end; but by the time the workers have become able to perfect their organisation, the social revolution will be an accomplished fact.”

In the end, after a lengthy and involved discussion, the congress adopted a resolution to the following effect:

“The congress, considering that, in the present state of the organisation of the International, no complete solution of the question of the general strike is possible, urgently recommends the workers to undertake international trade-union organisation and to engage in active socialist Propaganda.”

In a subsequent resolution, it was declared that the International regarded it as its duty to proclaim that the Association intended to display towards all the workers of the world, whatever the organisations to which these workers might belong, complete solidarity in the struggle against capital to realise the enfranchisement of labour. It was decided that the next congress should be held in Brussels, and accordingly the Belgian Federation assumed the functions of the Federal Bureau for the ensuing year. The General Council having been abolished, it was arranged that expenses should be met by the yearly payment of ten centimes (one penny) per member The cost of correspondence and of the organisation of general congresses was to be advanced by the federation which was ailing as the Federal Bureau, and at the congress, each year, the other national federations were to settle accounts with the Federal Bureau.