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

Chapter Nine. The Berne Congress of the Anti-Authoritarian International

IT was in such inauspicious circumstances that the anarchists held their congress at Berne, called by them the Eighth Congress of the International Workingmen’s association (October 26 to 29, 1876).[338]

The Belgian Federation and the Dutch Federation were represented by De Paepe; the Spanish Federation by Vinas (under the pseudonym of Sanchez) and Soriano (under the pseudonym of Portillo); the French Federation by Brousse and Pindy; the Italian Federation by Malatesta, Cafiero, Vaccari, and Ferrari; the Jura Federation by eighteen delegates, among whom were Guillaume, Spichiger, and Reinsdorf;[339] and three separate branches by Ferrari (already mentioned), Dumartheray, and Zhukoffsky, respectively. In all, there were twenty-eight delegates, and twenty of these were from French-speaking Switzerland. There were also a number of fraternal delegates, among whom may be mentioned Wahlteich, a German social democrat and member of the Reichstag; and Greulich, representing tile Swiss Arbeiterbund (Workers’ League).

The proceedings at the congress made it plain to every unprejudiced person that the anti-authoritarian International was on its last legs. Manifestly this medley of discordant elements was absolutely incompetent to pass from discussions around a table to the work of practical endeavour. On the one hand, the Spaniards gloried in their political abstentionism and referred contemptuously to the use of the workers’ funds in strikes as unproductive expenditure, while at the same time the Italians boasted their exploits in the realm of propaganda by deed; on the other hand De Paepe informed the congress that in Holland and Belgium the trend of the workers was towards social democracy. His speeches conveyed the impression that this was the last anarchist congress he was likely to attend. Still the debates were by no means stormy. Their prevailing tone was one of gloom.

One of the main topics of discussion was the ferment in the Balkans and the imminence of war in that part of the world. A Manifesto to the European Workers bearing upon this question was unanimously adopted. It gave expression to the usual Internationalist attitude upon such matters, and was duly printed in the official report, but does not appear to have seen the light in any other form.

The fifth question on the agenda concerned the relationships between individuals and groups in the society of the future. This topic had been brought up by the Jura Federation, obviously in order to give the anarchists a chance of taking vengeance for the Brussels Congress, where the organisation of the public services in the society of the future had been considered. But on this matter no decision was taken. Indeed, no decision was possible, for the disputants had no common standing ground. De Paepe once more defended the idea of the people’s State. He would not, however, insist on tile word “State,” if that annoyed the anarchists, and was willing to substitute the term “public administration.” The Bakuninists stuck to their guns, insisting that it was essential to destroy the State and all State institutions. The only permissible form of social organisation was a voluntary federation of free corporations. After a lengthy discussion, which occupied two sittings, the congress left the matter open. “Naturally,” says the report, “no vote was taken upon this purely theoretical question.”

Upon the questions of solidarity in revolutionary action a resolution was unanimously voted to the effect that the workers in each country were the best judges of the means to be employed in socialist propaganda, and that they must display mutual toleration in such matters. Good intentions!

The congress had also to consider the question of inaugurating regular subscriptions payable to the Federal Bureau. It will be remembered that at the Geneva Congress of 1873, when the General Council had been light-heartedly abolished, the central fund of the International had likewise been done away with, though some arrangement had been suggested for a levy to finance the Federal Bureau (see above). It was characteristic that this proposal for the enforcement of regular subscriptions should have emanated from the Spanish Federation, the very one which in its first report had given the signal for disorganisation through substituting for its federal council an informational and statistical bureau. Since the anarchists had tied their own hands by previous divisions concerning the harmfulness of centralisation, they were now forced to come to an ambiguous decision. They rejected the idea of establishing a special fund at the disposal of the International Federal Bureau. But there was to be an international propaganda fund, in charge of the International Federal Bureau, and any national federation could draw en this fund with the consent of the other federations. The fund was to be replenished by a monthly levy of three centimes per member – about three-pence-halfpenny per annum. But the decision to establish this fund came too late to save the life of the anarchist International.

Finally the Borne Congress discussed the question of calling a universal socialist congress in the year 1877. This proposal emanated from the Belgians. To most of the congressists it sounded like a memento mori.[340] That which many of them had pondered in secret, and perhaps sorrowfully, was now dragged forth into the daylight and submitted to public examination. It was necessary to make open acknowledgment that the anarchist International had been a failure, or at any rate that it had partially failed to fulfil its destined function. Far from becoming the centre of a world-wide working-class movement, it had held aloof from the working-class movement. Side by side with it, and apart from it, there had come into being powerful socialist organisations with a different program and a different tactic. Although it had hitherto ignored them or derided them, it had now to acknowledge their existence, to admit that they were strong and were growing ever stronger.

The objective conditions of contemporary capitalist society powerfully contribute to the international unification of the proletariat. It was inevitable that the need for this international unification should make itself felt as soon as the national socialist parties began to get a firm footing. The tolling of the knell for the old International had hardly ceased, before the socialists in different countries began to talk of the need for reviving some such organisation. Thereupon it became apparent that the Bakuninist International, with its anarchist dogmas, was a hindrance to the international consolidation of proletarian forces.

Intercourse between socialists of different countries and of various shades of opinion had always continued sporadically. We have learned how the Bakuninists and the Lassallists exchanged greetings. Fraternal delegates from socialist camps were occasionally present at the congresses of the anti-authoritarian International. In July, 1876, the Lausanne branch decided to open a subscription list on behalf of the workers’ delegation which was being sent from Paris to the Philadelphia Exhibition, and invited the German workers to join in this undertaking. The branch wrote to Wilhelm Liebknecht about the proposal, and the latter, replying in cordial terms, said : “Believe me, comrades (Parteigenossen), that I shall do everything I can to reunite the proletarian movement.”[341] The Lausanne branch wrote to Paris about the friendly scheme, and asked whether the Parisian workers would be willing to accept contributions from the Germans. The French replied with assurances that for the workers there were no frontiers and no nationalities, but only mankind. The Jura Federation sent a warmly phrased address to the Gotha Congress of the German social democrats. Both in this address and in the Germans’ answer (penned by Wilhelm Liebknecht) there were references to the desirability of uniting all proletarians. The Jura Federation approached the German Social Democratic Party with a formal proposal that the latter should send delegates to the Berne Congress. As a result, the Germans sent Wahlteich as fraternal delegate.

An impulse towards an international union of the socialists was already manifest on all hands. The Danish Socialist Labour Party sent a letter to the Berne Congress proposing that a conference of delegates from various socialist organisations should meet in Switzerland, the date suggested being January, 1877. The aim of the conference would be to found an international statistical and correspondence bureau. Thus the initiative of the Belgian Federation in favour of the summoning of a universal socialist congress was the expression of a long-felt want. The proposal was that this congress should be held in Belgium during the year 1877, in order to discuss questions of general interest connected with the emancipation of the proletariat, and in order, if possible, to reanimate the International. This suggestion aroused the apprehensions ef the anarchists. Speaking on their behalf at the Berne Congress, Guillaume, Brousse, Soriano, and others declared, on the one hand, that there could be no question of “reconstituting the International” (some of the socialist papers had used this ominous phrase), for the International was in being, and was holding that very congress of which they spoke; and, on the other, that they had no intention of sacrificing their principles and their autonomy for the sake of any international unification. Portillo insisted that the proposed universal socialist congress could be of no possible use, for, if the organisations which were to be asked to send delegates wanted to draw nearer to the International, the matter was in their own hands. Let them join up, for they would retain perfect freedom of anion. But the majority at the Berne Congress were not prepared to go to this extreme. De Paepe would not admit that it was impossible or needless to resuscitate the old International; and Wahlteich added that he hoped it would be found possible to re-establish the old International, either on its former foundations or on new ones, for then the German socialists would be glad to rejoin. After a lengthy discussion, the delegates of the Belgian, Dutch, French, and Jura Federations voted in favour of the Belgian proposal that there should be a universal socialist congress in 1877. The Spanish and Italian delegates did not vote against this, but abstained.