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

Chapter Eleven. The Universal Socialist Congress at Ghent

The Universal Socialist Congress held its sessions at Ghent from September 9 to 16, 1877.[346] Five years had elapsed since there had been an international meeting of socialists belonging to various schools and representing different shades of opinion, in order to discuss topics of common interest and in the hope of cementing firmer ties. The very fact that the congress was held, bore witness to the invincible tendency towards consolidation that was characteristic of the working-class movement. Apart from this, its main significance was that of a plain demonstration of the impossibility of unity, of co-operation, between those who had represented such conflicting trends. Both parties had to become convinced that it was out of the question for anarchists and socialists to join hands. They had no common platform. There was hopeless divergence alike as regards aims and as regards methods.

There were forty-two delegates at the congress. Germany was represented by Wilhelm Liebknecht; the Swiss Arbeiterbund by Greulich; the London Kommunistischer Arbeiterverein (Communist Workingmen’s Club) by Maltman Barry who also acted as “Standard” correspondent, and was in close touch with Karl Marx; anarchist groups in Germany and German-speaking Switzerland (these groups were very small, and had little influence, by Rinke and Werner; the London Commonwealth Club, by Hales; Denmark, by Wilhelm Liebknecht; Spain, by Soriano (order the name of Mendoza), and also by Shalin; France, by Bazin, Beck (a Russian chemist, originally of Astrakhan, Bert (pseudonym), Brousse, Montels, Boufinouard, Paulin (pseudonym), Robin (pseudonym), Shaun, and Puissant; Hungary, by Leo Fränkel, the sometime Commnard; Greece by Costa; Italy, by Costa, Martini, and Zanardelli; Russia, by Levachoff (pseudonym of Kropotkin), and by the before-mentioned Josef Beck; Switzerland, by Guillaume, Brousse, Costa, Greulich, Montels, Rinke, Werner, and Zanardelli; Belgium, by twenty-four delegates, among whom were Steers, Anseele, Van Beveren, Gérombou, Coenen, Brismée, and Bertrand. Last of all must be mentioned De Paepe, who (Guillaume voices his indignation in a footnote!) was not delegated by any branch of the International or by any Belgian working-class organisation, but by the famous Oneida Community of New York State. The delegates to the Ghent Congress consisted of two sharply defined groups. The first of these comprised eleven persons who had come hot-foot from the Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International: Soriano, Morago, Guillaume, Kropotkin, Rinke, Werner, Costa, Brousse, Montels, Martini, and Gérombou. The second group comprised the following delegates: the Germans, Greulich, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Frankel; most of the Belgians; the Englishmen Hales and Maltman Barry,[347] for both of these were opposed to the anarchists upon the vital question of political action; and the Frenchmen, Bazin,[348] Bert, and Robin. Zanardelli, who represented certain Italian groups which had broken away from anarchism, and Paulin, a delegate from Lyons, wobbled between the two trends, the Marxist and the Bakuninist. On the whole, Zanardelli inclined towards the Marxist outlook.

Logically enough, both parties held that there could be no object in discussing the possibility of a working agreement (a “panel of solidarity”) until various questions of principle had been thrashed out. These matters of program and tactics were therefore considered pretty much in the order in which they had already been discussed by the anarchists at Verviers.

The first point was, the tendencies of modern production from the point of view of property. Here there was little divergence of opinion at first. In the earlier congresses of the old International, there had been partizans of private property as well as socialists; but at Ghent the delegates were all advocates of collective ownership, though divided (according to the terminology of that day) into “State communists” or social democrats and “collectivist federalists” or anarchists. But the fat was in the fire as soon as the question of methods came up for consideration, as soon as the congressists tried to decide by what means the extant social conditions could best be transformed. Then there inevitably recurred the familiar dispute between those who favoured the inauguration of the workers’ State, and those who wanted a voluntary federation of free productive groups. The advocates of State collectivism insisted that to allot the ownership of the means of production to any groups of producers within the workers’ State would endow these groups with monopolist powers. The resolution in favour of State ownership (the wording was “ownership by the State or commune,” but here “commune” meant the “community-at-large,” and not the “localised self-governing commune” of the federal-anarchists) of the means of production secured sixteen votes – there would have been more, had not the attendance of the Belgian delegates at the congress been somewhat irregular. There were only ten votes in favour of the alternative resolution, to the effect that the means of production should be in the hands of federated groups of producers. These ten were the anarchists from the Verviers Congress, minus Kropotkin, for the identity of “Levachoff” had become known to the police, and he was in danger of being arrested, and perhaps deported to Russia. Kropotkin, therefore, had been persuaded by his comrades to leave Ghent under cover of darkness and make his way back to London.

Definite sides were once more taken by the social democrats and the anarchists upon the questions, What should be the attitude of the proletariat towards political parties? There was quite a “breeze” between James Guillaume and Wilhelm Liebknecht. The leader of the Jura anarchists declared that, during the elections to the Reichstag, the German social democrats had talked a great deal about purely political reforms, but had been careful to keep the socialist program in the background. Here Liebknecht broke in to give Guillaume the lie direct. Guillaume said he would prove his statement next day, and the sitting was adjourned amid considerable disorder. In the morning, Guillaume produced the newspaper report of a speech made by Most at the Gotha Congress, wherein Most was made to say that it was difficult to deter the colour of socialism in the German social democrats’ election addresses. Liebknecht rejoined that the report of Most’s speech in the “Berliner Free Presse,” from which Guillaurne had been reading, was fundamentally inaccurate. Therewith the incident closed. (It is noteworthy that within two years Most became an anarchist!).

The discussions upon this topic showed that the two conflicting trends were utterly irreconcilable. The anarchists reiterated all their objections to political activity on the part of the working class. Zanardelli, who was at this time under Malon’s influence, delivered a lengthy oration in favour of “integralism,” a method in which parliamentary activity was to be wedded to barricade fighting.[349] He insisted that it was necessary to seize every opportunity of fighting against the governing classes, and ended by saying: “We must avail ourselves of all possible methods of propaganda, in law-courts and parliaments as well as on barricades; cautiously and tentatively, we must enter into conspiracies; we must make the most of the electoral struggle in order to win adherents to our cause, but must give the preference to insurrection, as speedier and more effective and decisive.” Hales, on the other hand, expressed his amazement that there should be any question of keeping out of the political arena. Political action, the use of the parliamentary vote, was essential if the goal of the socialist movement was to be attained. Finally, it was impossible to overthrow the existing governmental powers unless, as a preliminary, we had converted the masses to our way of thinking. Paulin declared that the Lyons and Vienne groups which had sent him to the congress did not agree with the Jura comrades. Though they were prepared to have recourse to insurrectionist methods, they wished to combine these with political action in case of need.

A resolution brought forward by Rodriguez (Soriano), to the effect that insurrectionist agitation and propaganda by deed were essential in order to achieve the social revolution, was rejected, although (oddly enough) De Paepe joined forces with Rodriguez and Paulin in its favour. De Paepe, apparently, had not yet shaken off his eclecticism! Still more remarkable was it that the anarchists were not able to make up their minds to vote for this insurrectionist resolution; they abstained. Perhaps they thought that their cause was already lost; or perhaps they did not want to compromise themselves by voting with Rodriguez, whose excited revolutionary mouthings had alarmed even Guillaume. Zanardelli’s proposal was likewise negatived. A resolution moved by Gérombou, Shalin, and Werner, ran as follows

“We deem it necessary to combat all political parties, whether they call themselves socialist or not, in the hope that the workers who are still enrolled in the ranks of these parties, enlightened by experience, will open their eyes, and will abandon the political path in order to enter the path of anti-governmental socialism.”

This moderately worded resolution in favour of propaganda by deed was supported by the whole anarchist group from the Verviers Congress, but was voted down by all the other delegates, not excepting De Paepe, who now for the first time sided openly against the anarchists. Last of all came a resolution which was carried by twenty-two votes against eight (three of the anarchists were absent). Introduced by Coenen, the Antwerp delegate and sometime member of the anarchist International, and Bertrand, the Brussels delegate, it ran as follows:

“Inasmuch as social emancipation is inseparable from political emancipation, the congress declares that the proletariat, organised as a distinct party opposed to all the other parties formed by the possessing classes, must make use of all the political methods tending to tiling about the social emancipation of all its members.”

This resolution was so worded as to widen the chasm between the contending factions.[350]

Unanimously (Costa abstaining) the congress passed a resolution declaring that in the industrial struggle with the possessing classes it was essential to bring about an international federation of trade unions, and pledging the delegates to do their utmost on behalf of this. It was also unanimously agreed to be desirable that an international trade-union congress should be summoned. Upon the general question of trade-union organisation, the congress voted a resolution introduced by Frainkel, with an amendment by Rodriguez, as follows: “Inasmuch as the trade unions, in the struggle against the exploitation of one human being by another, are one of the most potent instruments for the emancipation of the workers, the congress (while recognising that the aim of all working-class organisations must be to make an end of wage-labour) urges all the workers who are as yet unorganised to join up into unions.” – The clause in parenthesis was the amendment of Rodriguez. The discussion concerning the solidarity to be established among the various working-class and socialist organisations merely served to underline the fact that there were essential differences of principle among the congressists. The social democrats (Fränkel and Greulich), on the one hand, and the anarchists (Guillaume, Brousse, and Costa), on the other, were at least agreed to this extent, that no common platform was possible when there was so fundamental an opposition as regards aims and tactics. Hales shared this opinion. De Paepe, who was reluctant to contemplate a final severance from his old companions-in-arms, said that there were enough points of agreement for the two groups to make common cause. A working agreement, which would have leave the parties to it sufficient freedom of independent action, would prevent the complete and final disruption of the socialist movement. In any case, he held that on the industrial field solidarity was essential, and was possible without any formal agreement. Wilhelm Liebknecht adopted a conciliatory tone; he was in favour of concessions, mutual aid, the avoidance of recriminations, and so on. In the end the congress voted against the proposed “pack of solidarity,” which was defeated by 11 votes against 9, with 9 abstentions, and 3 absent. Thereafter it unanimously passed a resolution in favour of reciprocal forbearance. Of course the different sections of the socialist movement must retain the right of criticising one another, but socialists should continue to exhibit the mutual respect proper for persons who recognised one another to be sincere.

That same evening some of the delegates held a private meeting to which the anarchists were not invited. There were present the Flemings, the Germans, the German-Swiss, the British, and some of the French and Italian delegates. The following resolution was adopted:

“Inasmuch as the proletariat, organised in a separate party opposed to all the parties of the possessing classes, must avail itself of all the political means tending to promote the liberation of its members; and inasmuch as the struggle against the dominion of the possessing classes must be worldwide in its scope and not merely local or national, and success in this struggle will depend upon harmonious and united activity on the part of the organisations in different lands – the undersigned delegates to the Universal Socialist Congress at Ghent decide that it is incumbent on the organisations they represent to furnish one another with material and moral support in all their industrial and political endeavours.[351] With this end in view, they have established a Federal Bureau, whose headquarters will be at Ghent until the next congress. The bureau will summon that congress, and will undertake all the necessary work in connection therewith.”

This was signed by Greulich, Hales, Coenen, Robin, De Wit, Bertrand, Brismée, Stems, Frankel, De Paepe, Maltman Barry, Zanardelli, André Bert, and Wilhelm Liebknecht.

Guillaume gives a rather inaccurate account of the meeting, and adds the following gloomy comment:

“Thus there has been organised, in opposition to the International Workingmen’s Association, a new group, which is not an association (for no rules have been drawn up), but, nevertheless, is a sort of special party composed of the various organisations having a program akin to that of the German socialists.”

The statement was not quite correct. The new union was premature and transient.

Still, Guillaume was so far right in that he was aware that the first step had been taken towards the formation of a new Socialist International, and that the death blow had now been dealt to the already moribund Anarchist International.

The Ghent Congress also discussed the question of the foundation of a central bureau for correspondence and for the tabulation of working-class statistics, whose business it would be to collect and publish information as to wages, working hours, factory regulations, food prices, etc. In the course of this discussion it was frankly admitted that there would in future be two distinct Internationals, each with its own federal bureau, and that neither federal bureau could possibly act as a centre of correspondence and statistics for both organisations. It was therefore agreed by twenty-two votes against three (those of the irreconcilables, Brousse, Costa, and Montels) to found a Correspondence and Statistics Office for Working-class Socialists – the name was suggested by Rodriguez. It was to be established at Verviers, and would be a neutral ground on which the members of the two Internationals could still collaborate. In actual fact, it never came into existence.

The anarchists were in very low spirits when the Ghent Congress came to an end. They knew that their organisations were decaying and disintegrating. They knew that whole battalions of those who had so recently been friends and fellow-soldiers had deserted to the enemy. Under their very eyes the socialist parties which had adopted the social-democratic aims and methods were continually gaining strength, and were attracting the waverers in large numbers. They realised that their own day was over, that their scheme had failed, that the new International (when a new International really came into existence) would not be an Anarchist International but a Socialist International. They were utterly disheartened when they shook the dust of Belgium off their feet. Nor did those who, only a little while before, had set out from Switzerland as a compact group, return thither in the same fashion. As if feeling that there was nothing left for them to do at their old centre of activity, they dispersed upon the road. Costa went to Paris; Rinke and Werner to Germany; while Kropotkin had already gone to London.

“Of the seven delegates, all members of the Jura Federation,” writes Guillaume, “who had visited Verviers and Ghent as representatives, respectively, of France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Jura, Brousse and I were the only two to resume our places in the ranks of the Jura socialists. As far as the five others were concerned, a chapter in their existence had closed.”[352]

Here is the conclusion of the whole matter according to Paul Brousse:

“But we anarchists, though we gained a victory over the Marxists, nevertheless committed a blunder. We attempted to squeeze the whole international into the narrow framework of our theoretical teachings. At the Geneva Congress in 1873, we vanquished the ‘governmentalism’ of Eccarius and Hales; at the Berne Congress, we came out victorious in the fight with De Paepe’s ‘State socialism.’ We were dominant in the International, but we were isolated, and we lacked energy in the conflict with the bourgeois mass. This was united against the working class, which, unfortunately, was split into factions. Henceforth the International was, for all practical purposes, dead.”[353]