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

Chapter Six. The Brussels Congress of the Anarchist International

THE second anti-authoritarian congress, whose participants called it the Seventh General Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, was held in Brussels from September 7 to 13, 1874.[313] There were present at the congress: for Britain, Eccarius; for Belgium, nine delegates, among whom were Brismée and Coenen; for Spain, Farga-Pellicer, passing by the name of Gomez; for France, Van Wedemer, delegated by one of the Paris branches, but probably a Belgian; for Italy, Verrycken, a Belgian; for Jura, Schwitzguébel; and for Germany, two Lassallists[!], Frohme and Faust (Paul Kersten), both members of the General Union of German Workers, but, being unable legally to represent that body, delegated by German groups in Belgium. Obviously, the French, British, and German delegations were purely fictitious, and can only be described as “window-dressing.” The Italian delegation was no less mythical, for the Italian Social Revolutionary Committee (Comitato italiano per la Rivoluzione soziale – see below) had written saying that no delegates would or could be sent to Brussels; Verrycken was supposed to represent the Socialist Propaganda Circle of Palermo, but apparently that body had ceased to exist some time before. Thus the only genuine delegations at the congress were those representing the Spanish, Jura, and Belgian federations; and the Belgian delegates completely outnumbered the others. There was likewise a Russian recommended by the Russian members of the Geneva Propaganda Section. His identity is uncertain.[314]

There was read at the congress a very characteristic manifesto addressed to the gathering by the before-mentioned Italian Social Revolutionary Committee. From this I shall make a few extracts in order to show the extremes to which the Italian revolutionists were led by the logical development of anarchist theory

“Italy will not be represented at the congress, for in Italy the International no longer has any public existence, and no group of our underground organisation is disposed to lose one of its members who might to-morrow, arms in hand, render a very different kind of service to our cause. Yes, in Italy, the International no longer exists publicly. For this fortunate [!] issue, we are wholly indebted to the government. The Italian masses, who have a leaning towards conspiracy, were inclined, at the outset, to be suspicious of the International. Their mistrust was not directed towards the principles of our great association, but towards the fact that it was organised above ground .... However, the truth and justice of our principles triumphed in the end, and the International began to spread more and more widely, but at the same time its organisation assumed a very different form from that which had been adopted in other lands. This organisation made of the International in Italy a huge conspiracy organised in the full light of day. That simple definition suffices to show the absurdity of such a system.”

Governmental persecution compelled the Italian Internationalists to found a secret society under the banner of anarchism and collectivism. Having made up their minds to put the Bakuninist theory of insurrectionism to a practical test, they proceeded, as we shall see presently, to organise bands for insurrectionary purposes, and at the close of their manifesto to the Brussels Congress they categorically declared that for them the epoch of congresses was over and done with. We shall see in due course that this declaration was a trifle premature.

The Brussels Congress published a manifesto to all workers, in which an attempt was made to represent the split in the International as a dispute between the principle of authority and centralism, and the principle of autonomy and federation; but the manifesto glossed over the questions upon which there was a profound cleavage of opinion among those present at the congress, such as the question of the political struggle, that of State power in the society of the future, and so on. But, try as the anarchists might to escape these rocks, which were for the moment deeply submerged beneath the flood of their hatred for the Marxist “clique,” their irreconcilable differences could not fail to come to light. That is what happened in the discussion concerning the political struggle, and in that concerning the organisation of the public services in the society of the future.

The question of the organisation of the public services was the one to which the Brussels Congress devoted most of its time. The report upon this matter was presented by De Paepe in the name of the Brussels branch.[315] After enumerating the public services in contemporary society, after showing which of them will be retained in the society of the future and which will disappear, and after considering to what extent entirely new kinds of public service will have to be established, the writer goes on to ask by whom these services will be organised and carried out. The answer runs thus: “The following services are matters for the Commune, matters of local government: the services that ensure safety (police, justice, etc.); civic registration and local statistics; public assistance, the protection of minors, invalids, etc.; medical service and local public hygiene; ... all kinds of municipal activities; ... the building and repair of houses; the provision and upkeep of market-places .... The following services are matters for the Federation of Communes, matters of State concern [summarised]: roads, posts, telegraphs, railways, drainage, irrigation, the clearing of waste lands, forestry, steamboat communication, insurance, etc., etc. Finally, to the Worldwide Federation must be allotted such undertakings as are too comprehensive for any one country to tackle unaided, such as the irrigation of the Sahara, scientific exploration, world statistics, and the like.” The report speaks of the utilisation of agriculture for the general good, instead of for private gain; of a transformation of the extant method of grouping the workers by crafts, seeing that this segregation of types will tend to disappear with the disappearance of the extant kind of division of labour; of the developments thanks to which the worker will no longer be tied for life to one particular kind of labour but will be free to engage simultaneously or successively in a number of different occupations: and so on. De Paepe concludes as follows:

“To the Jacobin conception of the omnipotent State and the subjugated Commune, we contrapose the notion of the emancipated Commune, empowered to appoint all its own executive officers, passing its own laws, administering its own justice, and controlling its own police. To the liberal conception of the police-State we contrapose the notion of the State which is not based upon armed force, but whose function it is to educate the younger members of the population and to centralise such public activities as can be better performed by the State than by the Commune. Thus the Commune will be essentially equipped with political functions or with those functions that are often termed political legislation, justice, public safety, the guaranteeing of contracts, the protection of the helpless, the various activities of civil life; but at the same time it has charge of all the local public services. The State will become the organ of scientific unity, and will undertake the public services for which a maximum of centralisation is requisite. Political decentralisation and economic centralisation, these should be the outcome of this new conception of the duplex role of the Commune and the State, a conception based upon a study of the public services which can most reasonably be assigned to one or to the other of these organs of the collefive life.”[316]

Two other reports dealing with the same topic were presented to the congress, one (rather short) from one of the Belgian branches, and the other from the Geneva Propaganda Section; the latter contemplates the upkeep of an army for frontier defence and of a navy for the policing of the seas; but neither of these reports has any notable significance

The fundamental defect of De Paepe’s report can be summarised in a word or two. It failed to draw a clear distinction between the ultimate outcome of the social revolution, and the transition period through which alone the ideals of the revolution can be attained. Lavroff realised this when he wrote (referring to the various reports):

“It would have been better, and the authors’ work would have been of enormously greater value, if they had confined their attention to this matter of contemporary interest, to this immediately practical task of the proletariat” [Lavroff is thinking of the transition period, before the power of the enemies of socialism has been finally shattered] “instead of mixing up the problem with the comparatively remote concern of the upbuilding of society in accordance with the ideas of working-class socialism. This mixing up of the final aims of the social revolution (aims as to which the writers are not perfectly clear) with the means by which alone the proletariat can achieve its victory (and upon these matters they are much better informed) is accountable for the errors which astonish their readers.” Lavroff rightly assumes that De Paepe would logically have regarded the problem of the State in two very different ways according as he was considering the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat (which Lavroff himself looked upon as likely, though undesirable – see his notes on p.59 of the pamphlet), or the period in which a socialist society had been definitively established. Here and there De Paepe instinctively approximates to this formulation of the question, which was, as we have learned in the first part of the present work, an essential feature of the dispute between the communists and the anarchists; but he soon strays of again. Thus, in §4 of his report he admits that in many countries it will be possible for the workers to seize power and to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. He writes (Compte rendu officiel du septième congrès général, pp.103-104) : “In view of the political trend of the working class in certain lands, and notably in Britain and Germany, a political trend whose impetus is constitutional to-day but may be revolutionary to-morrow, one which does not aim at overthrowing the extant State organised from above downwards, but at seizing the State and at utilising for the purpose of emancipating the proletariat the gigantic centralised power at the disposal of the State; in view of the repercussions probable or possible, which such an event in any one of these countries might have upon the others – we may well ask ourselves whether this reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, this organisation of the State from below upwards, instead of being the starting-point and the signal of the social revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result ... we are led to enquire whether, before the grouping of the workers by industry is adequately advanced, circumstances may not compel [!] the proletariat of the large towns to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population, and this for a sufficiently long revolutionary period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class. Should this happen, it seems obvious that one of the first things which such a collective dictatorship would have to do would be to lay hands on all the public services, to expropriate for the public benefit the railway companies, the mining companies, the canal companies, the steamship companies, the great engineering works – to declare that all their possessions, machinery, buildings, and land, had become State property, had passed under public ownership.”

To the orthodox anarchists this must have sounded extremely heretical, all the more seeing that ever and above the conclusions thus clearly drawn by De Paepe, there were other natural inferences from his admission that there would be a transition period of proletarian dictatorship. Some of these inferences were made by Lavroff in his comments on the report. For instance:

“The period of the dictatorship, in this country or that, really belongs to the period of struggle and not to the period of triumph ... During this period there will be needed troops for forcible suppression,[317] police to keep order, prisons and executions.”

No wonder that the anarchists took fright. No wonder that a heated discussion ensued on the topic of De Paepe’s report, which definitely broke with Bakuninism, as the anarchists were not slow to perceive.”[318] Verrycken was opposed to the State, to the workers’ State just as much as to any other, and he reiterated all the commonplaces of anarchism. By establishing a workers’ State, we should only have put the workers in the saddle instead of the bourgeoisie. The public Services must be organised by free communes and a free federation of communes. The management of the services would naturally be in the hands of groups of producers; their supervision would be entrusted to bodies of delegates, sent by the trade unions in the commune, and by the communes in the district federation of communes. Schwitzguébel, the delegate of the Jura Federation, said it was plain that the issue lay between the State and anarchism. The aim of the anarchists was to do away with the State altogether, and to bring about an absolutely free organisation of workers, and communes. Every worker must be entitled to stay outside the trade union, every group of workers outside the organisation of groups, and every commune outside the federation of communes. The harm that might result from this freedom could never equal the harm that would result from the reconstitution of the State.

De Paepe hastened to take up the gauntlet. In an extraordinarily interesting and characteristic speech, he emphasised the fact that among those who had joined the antiauthoritarian International there were a good many who did not hold anarchist views. He said:

“It was generally believed that, after the revolt of the federations of the International against the authoritarian proceedings of the Hague Congress, and after the consecration of the principles of autonomy and federation as essential parts of our Association, the idea of the ‘workers’ State’ was over and done with. It is not so, however. The alternatives of the ‘workers’ State’ and ‘anarchy’ still confront one another. Since 1868 and 1869, when the vital question of property was under discussion,[319] no matter has come up for consideration by the International equal in importance to that with we are now concerned under the caption: ‘By whom and how will the public services be undertaken in the society of the future?’ The whole social problem is involved in this matter. The way in which we contemplate the problem and the way in which we solve it will determine the trend we try to give to revolutionary happenings whenever circumstances call us to intervene. It is a noteworthy fact that anarchy is favoured in Spain, Italy, and the Jura, whereas the idea of the workers’ Suite is preferred in Germany and Great Britain. Belgium seems to float between the two extremes.”

De Paepe went on to say that it would be a more practical course if the federations, instead of launching out into the unknown and unforeseen, were to grasp the tiller of the State, were to transform the various States into ‘workers’ States. That was certainly the course things would take in most countries, where the workers would find it much simpler and easier to seize the extant States, than to sweep everything away and start to build up the whole organisation anew. In other countries, however, as in Spain, for instance, owing to internal convulsions the position was becoming more and more anarchical, and here it was the most natural thing in the world that people should contemplate the possibility of a complete remodelling of institutions. In any case, an anarchist form of revolution would seriously imperil the cause of the workers’ emancipation, for there would be a lack of general guidance, and, thanks to the prevailing ignorance, it might be easy for self-seeking and ambitious persons to get control of the movement and to lead it astray.[320]

Eccarius, Marx’s old companion-in-arms, was also adverse to anarchist utopism, and spoke in the characteristic trade-union vein.

“The workers,” he said, “take a far more practical view. They are not inclined to count their chickens so early. Before talking about the social revolution, it will be well to shorten working hours, so that the workers can educate themselves, and can become enabled to understand social questions. Anarchism would bring us back to the Middle Ages, when the guilds were sometimes at war with one another.”

The final decision was that no vote should be taken on the question how and by whom the public services were to be organised in the society of the future. The matter was to be referred back for discussion by the federations and branches, and would be reconsidered at the next general congress. It was manifest that the anti-authoritarian International was essentially sterile, not merely because it refrained from coming to any definite conclusions upon questions of principle, but also because it was constitutionally incapable of coming to such conclusions. It was rent in sunder by two conflicting trends, which diverged more widely day by day. This was disclosed even more plainly when the congress went on to discuss the problem of political action.

It is true that, in order to keep up an appearance of formal unity, the delegates began by proclaiming the impossibility of imposing a uniform line of political behaviour upon the whole international. But this idyllic unanimity could only be preserved so long as the participants in the congress refrained from quitting the field of pure theory. When matters of practice came up for consideration, a split was inevitable. Even in the domain of pure theory there were manifest essential divergences of outlook, foreshadowing the conflict between the antagonistic elements that was inevitable in the near future.

Eccarius and the two German delegates were strongly in favour of the conquest of political power by the working class, whereas the Spanish delegate, the Jura delegate, and the Belgian delegates were no less strongly convinced of the necessity for abstaining from parliamentary and governmental political activity.

Frohme and Faust expressed the views of the German socialists on the question of political action. A socialist workers’ party would commit suicide were it to stand aside and to allow the bourgeoisie, unchallenged, to dominate the State. The workers’ party, must wrest political power from the bourgeoisie, and, when it had done this, must transform the bourgeois State into a socialist State. The German socialists did not succumb to the illusion that they would be able to effect the change by peaceful means ... But they regarded constitutional and parliamentary activity as a method of agitation and self-protection[321]... The value of the method from the propaganda point of view could be judged by results. Any attempt to divert the German workers from political action would be futile.

Bastin and Verrycken expounded the ideas of the Belgian workers. For them there could be no question of political action, seeing that [!] they had not secured universal [manhood] suffrage. Having thus unwittingly revealed one of the causes of the prevalence of anarchism in those days, the speakers went on to ask, “Why not begin the struggle for the vote?” The reason was, they said, that the workers knew perfectly well that the vote would be of no use to them. They hoped nothing from parliament. They would continue to concentrate their energies upon trade-union organisation. When this organisation had been perfected, the social revolution could be brought about.

If the Belgians were anarchists chiefly because they did not possess the parliamentery franchise, the Jura members of the International were anarchists because they would not use their votes. In the name of the Jura Federation, Schwitzguébel declared that the Jura socialists, although they had the vote, had been led by experience to become abstentionists. When first founded, the branches of the International had usually supported political parties. They had discussed the possibility of working-class candidatures; the bourgeois parties had promised concessions, but had only fooled the credulous socialist workers. Having learned their lesson, the Jura socialists had thenceforward held aloof from political activity. Thus did Schwitzguébel disclose another of the causes of the anarchism of his day, namely, complete scepticism of the value of political action, a disillusionment with the weapon which the anarchists had never learned to use!

What was really needed was this. Instead of supporting the bourgeois parties and relying on their promises, the workers had to organise a political party of their own and to run their own candidates against the bourgeoisie, as the Germans were doing. But the solution of the problem was only feasible in those countries in which there was a very numerous industrial proletariat; and consequently in Jura, Italy, and Spain, it was at that date practically impossible.

As an upshot of the discussion summarised above, the Brussels Congress of 1874 adopted the following resolution unanimously: “As regards the question to what extent political action by the working class may be necessary or advantageous to the cause of the social revolution, the congress declares that it must be left to each federation and to the social democratic party in each country to decide upon its own line of political behaviour.”

The anarchists were not slow to recognise that the trends of thought which found expression in De Paepe’s report and in the debates at the Brussels Congress were dangerous to their organisation. The “Bulletin de la Féderation Jurassienne” attacked the concessions to “the State idea” made in the report. Of course, all attempts to bridge over the manifest cleavage of opinion were fruitless. The call of life proved stronger than any doctrinaire prejudices. Day by day, in proportion as the sterility and disorganisatory character of anarchist tactics grew plainer, the chasm widened, until, in the end, it became a huge gulf separating the socialists from the anarchists.