Peter Kropotkin. August 1896
First Published: Pierre Kropotkine, "Les Congrès Internationaux et le Congrès de Londres", Les Temps Nouveaux, Vol. II, No. 18, 29 August 1896, 1-2;
First Published in English: Peter Kropotkin, "The First International", Vanguard, Vol. 2, No. 6, January-February 1936, pp. 3-7;
Source: Anarchist Writers;
Transcription\Markup: by Zdravko Saveski, 2021.
Things happen so quickly nowadays that we very easily forget events which are of the greatest importance in contemporary history.
Among these events there is one which stands out above all the others. I am referring to the great achievements of the International Working Men's Association [The First International] in its early years and the tremendous scope of its first four Congresses from 1866 to 1869.
What made these Congresses so successful? What gave them their historic scope, a scope so great that in spite of what those who boast that they are "scientific socialists" may have to say on this question, the fact remains that the minutes of these four Congresses constitute the epitome of all modern socialism? It is there, in reality, and not in the obscure writings of Marx and Engels that we have learned the socialism of modern times, the socialism to which we adhere.
The answer is simple. The first Congresses of the International did not seek to control the socialist movement: they sought rather to find its expression. They did not pose as "Parliaments of Labour", this absurd name was invented later. They were simply places where the workers workers of the two worlds could exchange ideas.
The founders of modern socialism – of the "fourth awakening of the proletariat" to quote [Benoît] Malon – did not try to make themselves the masters of the young movement. They tried to learn; learn from some, and teach others. The great masses of workers, they said, are being stirred by new currents. It is not the communism of Fourier, or Cabet, of Robert Owen or of Pierre Leroux, nor the "governmentarianism" of Louis Blanc nor the mutualism of Proudhon, nor the neo-christianism of Lamennais. Contemporary ideas hold on, undoubtedly; but they differ essentially [from the new ones]. It is necessary, therefore, that these [new] currents of ideas grow, that they are affirmed, that they find their expression.
It is not to the bourgeoisie – not even the most highly inspired – to whom we must turn for this concrete expression. The whole mental set of the bourgeoisie is warped by its science, by its education, by the fact that it lives at the expense of the working class. It is the workers themselves – the most active and most intelligent of them, who remain in the ranks of the toiling masses, who partake of its life, of its joys and its sorrows, whom we must ask to express these aspirations. And they must do so, not by placing themselves on the field of political struggles where they surely will be swallowed up by the bourgeois gentlemen, but by remaining on the field of economic struggles – the day by day struggles against capitalist domination.
The watchword of that epoch was, "the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself." And this formula was taken literally. Later on it was replaced by the deceitful formula that the task of the emancipation of the working classes should be left to a few, chosen in the electoral lottery.
No. At that time it was understood that for the achievement of the social revolution it was necessary that the popular spirit find new forms of social organisation – forms which could not be representative government, nor a State such as was elaborated for the triumph of the Roman and Christian idea, nor the governmental Jacobinism of Louis Blanc – but something completely new arising from the needs of modern production and distribution.
Something as different from that which exists at present as the communes of the twelfth century, described by Thierry and Sismondi, were different from the feudal world against which they revolted. Something that will emerge from the struggle of the workers against capital, from their national and international unions, from the [common] interests which exist amongst the workers of the two worlds, outside of the present political forms, from the ideas germinating in their midst.
That is what the International was seeking when its work was interrupted by the war of 1870.
All the workers, however, do not think in the same fashion. The great majority, on the contrary, sees nothing outside of reforms or political revolutions. Many dream of dictatorship; a large number adore Jacobin terror. The great mass puts its faith in universal suffrage and believes in worker [parliamentary] candidates. Others do not see how much economic serfdom dominates political liberties. Lodged in the tradition of 1793 and 1848, they fail to see that the industrial worker and the peasant will remain the serfs of the rich and the nobility, whatever their political rights, so long as they themselves are not masters of the land, the factories and all the social wealth.
Consequently the International had to pursue a twofold aim.
In its daily life it would establish unions among men of various trades in each city, region and nation, and among all the trades internationally.
And through its Congresses it would carry on propaganda work – far beyond the confines of its own ranks, It would speak to the whole world and disseminate its ideas among all peoples – especially those not as yet influenced by the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.
In its Congresses the workers – the workers only – in the various trades and from various nations would learn to know each other. They would develop mutual understanding for the purpose of insuring the success of their strikes by means of regional and international solidarity. They would learn to paralyse, to stun the capitalist monster by the power of international attack. They would know how to put it in its death throes, to make it yield to the united forces of the workers.
They would study in the meantime how to produce and distribute the products of their labour by themselves. From those understandings, renewed each year by means of international exchanges of ideas, would develop the plans for the new forms of economic organisation which should eventually replace capitalist production and distribution.
At the same time the regional and international Congresses would serve as a powerful medium for the propagation of the socialist idea as well as for the elaboration of new ideas.
Each Congress would decide upon two or three important problems to be studied in preparation for the following Congress. These questions would be posed and discussed, in the period between the two Congresses, at first in the local workers groups, then in small regional or national Congresses and finally in the annual international Congress.
Men of good will would come together and prepare elaborate reports summarising the local and regional discussion; these reports would be used as the basis for discussion at the next Congress. After being published in the minutes they would be used as material for discussion and for propaganda in newspapers.
No scientific congress was ever better organised in this respect than the Congresses of the International – for this organisation was not the work of a single individual but the fruit of the practical collective spirit.
That is why, in the realm of everyday practical life, each Congress marked a step in advance in the establishment of mutual understanding among the various trades. One saw trades which formerly were at odds with each other – for example, the Swiss clockmakers and building workers – now united for common action; one saw nations, formerly enemies, now united to hold common council in a strike.
Likewise, each Congress marked a step in advance in the realm of ideas. The International shattered many old prejudices. [Gustave Adolphe] Lefrançais presented his splendid thesis against dictatorship; Liebknecht (in 1869) launched his formidable attack upon parliamentary action and against the political fakers who attempted to drag the proletariat into electoral struggles. In the sphere of economics there was, at the Lausanne Congress, in 1867, a free discussion of the public utilities and on the role of the State, on the land question at Brussels (1868), and on property in general at Basle (1869) – each of these marked a new step in the evolution of ideas, each report being a major piece of work rising from the heart of the International.
The Basle Congress was the last of this kind.
In 1870 there came the war. France raised the flag of the Commune and was bled under the heels of the French murderers as well as under the heel of Bismarck. The Germans, inflamed by their military successes which they attributed to the "governmental organisation" of Moltke and Bismarck, to "discipline", to the political State, devoted themselves body and soul to governmentalism, to politicalism. From being "socialist" they turned into "socialist democrats", into Jacobins, into ultra-Statists.
Germany had conquered France; was that not sufficient evidence of the value of "strong government"? Socialism, therefore, required a strong government.
From then on all the Congresses, including the current fiasco in London, had as their aim establishment of a socialist government.
Those who believe that we are exaggerating need only to read the invectives in the social-democratic press against the anarchists who place obstacles in the way of the formation of such a government. The establishment of an international socialist government became, from that time on, the goal of all the international Congresses.
At the Conference of 1871, held in London, the Marxists of London, supported by the infamous [Nikolai Isaakovich] Utin, promulgated the doctrine of "the conquest of political power" while laying down the bases of an international government.
At the Hague, in 1872, the Marxists, supported by the French Blanquists, preferred to exclude the Jura Federation and Bakunin, to split the International in two and to send the General Council to New York to die an ignominious death – "to kill the International" – rather than to see an International which (in France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and in Switzerland) did not recognise the authority of the Marxist General Council.
In Ghent, in 1878, [there was the] same attempt to establish the international socialist government – an attempt that fails again, thanks to the resistance of the embryonic federation of France (represented by [Paul] Brousse), of Spain, of Italy, of Switzerland and, partly, of Belgium – failure that Vorwärts, the organ of the German social-democrats, always blames, with reason, the nine anarchist delegates for.
Finally, in Paris and Zurich, the whole struggle against the anarchists was just a struggle to oust from the international labour movement those who do not want an international socialist government.
Everything was sacrificed in this struggle. All forces were exhausted by this fight.
And what is the result?
While the anarchists worked continually on the development of their conceptions of a society without government, while they were working out the problems and questions of production, distribution, cooperation, of the aims of production, of morality, or philosophy – the other party remained absolutely stationary.
Since the Basle Congress – that is to say, since twenty-eight years ago – not a single idea, not a single thought which might indicate a forward step in socialist evolution, has issued from the International Congress. For to say: "Let us be numerous in Parliament and vote for an eight-hour law" is not to express an idea. This is not a contribution to the immense social problem. It is merely a pious wish, a pious fancy.
And while international Congresses of various trades are being held (such as the international Congress of glass-workers which has just ended), while international conferences (conducted without ballyhoo) of American and British dockers together with Belgian workers, are preparing for large-scale international action which shall reduce working hours and may perhaps lead to the expropriation of the docks – while all this is taking place the international socialist worker Congresses [Second International] have been for the past twenty-eight years precisely what the last Congress was: the arena for the display of personal feuds and ambitions.
That is where we are.
As for the London Congress and the end which was pursued by parliamentarians; we discuss that in a forthcoming issue, with all the necessary details.