Bakunin’s expulsion from the First International

by Paul B. Smith

The First international was formed as the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) in 1864 in London. It was the initiative of French and British trade unionists – an attempt to stop British and French employers from importing foreign labour to break strikes. Marx was invited to join the platform of the first congress because his intellectual and political work on behalf of working class emancipation was appreciated both by German workers and by his British trade unionist friends. As General Secretary, Marx’s influence was decisive throughout the period of the IWMA’s short existence.

The IWMA achieved many successes. The five congresses at Geneva (1866), Lausanne (1867), Brussels (1868), Basle (1869) and London (1871) laid the foundations for international working class solidarity throughout Europe if not the world.

For example, the Geneva building workers and the Basle ribbon makers won unprecedented disputes with intransigent employers. Backed by the financial and moral support of English, French and American workers, the Swiss workers won holidays and shorter working hours despite lock outs and the hostility of the Swiss bourgeoisie to the International.

It came to an end at the Hague Congress in 1872 when Marx and Engels successfully won a resolution that the General Council be moved to New York. This congress also expelled Bakunin and Guillame, the Swiss anarchist leader, on the grounds that they were maintaining a secret organisation within the International which was conspiring to capture its leadership.

The Stalinist account of the collapse of the First International is simple. It can be found in the words of the Soviet editors of the minutes of the General Council of the International:

“Bakunin behaved as a rabid enemy of Marxism. At the 1872 Hague Congress he was expelled for his splitting activities”And:

“The Minutes, and particularly the General Council documents written by Marx, consistently demonstrate the General Council’s fight against the theoretical views and disorganising, disruptive activity of Bakunin in the International.”

The account which follows, therefore, relies on a study of the minutes.

Reference is also made to contemporary interpretations of the expulsion, including Marx and Bakunin’s own, and to recent academic work.

It is true that Marx had a low opinion of Bakunin’s theoretical abilities. He considered Bakunin’s theory to be an eclectic amalgam of the ideas of Proudhon and the Utopian socialist, St. Simon. It is also true that he sincerely believed that Bakunin was conspiring to take over the leadership of the International, attempting to replace it with his own organisation and programme: that of the Alliance of Social Democracy.

It is true that Bakunin believed that revolutionaries should organise and build secret societies. It is another matter altogether to suggest that he was deliberately trying to split the International. The evidence suggests the opposite: that through his work the International was growing rapidly in size both in Italy and in Spain; and that, once convinced of the importance of international proletarian organisation, Bakunin never swerved from a recognition that the IWMA deserved to be built and strengthened throughout the whole of Europe.

But, it has never been conclusively proved that he was able to sustain any secret organisations other than imaginary ones. Bakunin’s polemical writings were a source of revolutionary inspiration to many. His organisational theories were attractive to none save the deranged. In fact the evidence shows that when he did suggest the formation of a secret organisation to penetrate the International, he was rejected by his allies and got on with building the International in Italy, or attempting to intervene in insurrections.

Contrast the Stalinist account which, with typical stylistic elegance compares Bakunin (and by implication every anarchist) to a mad dog needing to be put down, with the classical Marxist account of Franz Mehring, the official biographer of Marx and personal friend of Engels:

“One must side with our present-day anarchists when they declare that nothing is more un-Marxist than the idea that an unusually malicious individual, a ‘highly dangerous intriguer’, could have destroyed a proletarian organisation like the International, rather than those orthodox believers whose skin begins to creep that Marx and Engels might not always have dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s to perfection”

Marx was the creator of a critical scientific method. The critique of political economy he develops can be put to practical use by every worker whose aim is social revolution and a classless society. He is not a church father whose actions are infallibly imprinted by the invisible hand of History. It is a sign of Bakunin’s revolutionary intuition that he recognised a tendency towards quasi-religious devotion within Marx’s supporters during the period of their differences.

These differences were not only concerning the goal of social revolution – of the kind of society which would realise individual freedom – but also concerning strategy and tactics – of how to get there.

Bakunin first met Marx in London in 1864 during the formation of the IWMA. This was shortly after his release from a Tsarist gaol in Russia. He indicated that he would attempt to build the International in Italy where he moved for the next three years. His activity in Italy during this period, however, was dominated by the aim of gaining the support of Italian revolutionaries for the struggles of the Slav peoples against the Austrian Empire.

Bakunin became an anarchist whilst he was in Italy. He met the anarchist leader Fanelli in 1865, and was influenced by Pisacane’s doctrines that government was the source of poverty, slavery and corruption. In 1866, he wrote “Principles and Organisation of the International Brotherhood”. This spelled out his belief in the need for secret organisations of revolutionaries. It is anarchist to the extent that he rejects authority and advocates autonomous communes.

In 1867 he left Italy and joined the League of Peace and Freedom. This was an international organisation of radical bourgeois intellectuals and politicians which included within it a small group of socialists. Bakunin went on the Central Committee. His polemics at the 1868 conference of the League involved the denunciation of all states as evil: he declared that there was no difference between the Imperial State of Russia and any other European state.

The League proposed and alliance with the IWMA. In 1867 at the Lausanne conference of the International, a formal alliance with the League was rejected, but the possibility of joint work on the shared aim of the abolition of standing armies, affirmed. The IWMA’s position on peace was informed by the understanding that wars could be ended only when the working class was freed from the rule of Capital, and when free European states were established. IWMA delegates attended the League’s 1868 conference to put forward this position.

Bakunin submitted a resolution to this conference calling for the “economic and social equalisation of classes and individuals.” When it was defeated, he resigned from the League, taking fourteen others with him. After a public meeting in a cafe in Geneva, he enrolled eighty-five members to a new organisation called the “Alliance of Socialist Democracy”(ASD).

When the ASD requested of the IWMA that it affiliate in December 1868, Marx and the General Council in London refused. The ASD’s programme and rules were written by Bakunin. They stated that the ASD had a special philosophical mission to bring about the “equalisation of classes” and that local groups of the ASD could only affiliate to the IWMA with the permission of the ASD’s central council. If the IWMA had acceded to the ASD’s affiliation, then the letter’s programme would have directly contradicted the IWMA’s founding document. This stated that class rule and class society needed to be abolished. It was a point of principle for Marx. Moreover there would have been two central committees and two contending power structures.

Marx was contemptuous of the ASD’s programme, especially of its aim of the “equalisation of classes”. This phrase represented for him the idea that working class emancipation was compatible with value, money and capital. He also took exception to a clause in the ASD’s programme which rejected all forms of political action which did not have as its immediate aim the triumph of the workers’ cause against Capital. These two issues – differences between Marx and Bakunin over the nature of socialism and the tactics used to achieve it – mark the boundaries of their antagonism, and signify the beginnings of the collapse of the International.

From 1869-72, for a period of three years, the drama of the split within the IWMA unfolded – first in Switzerland, then spreading throughout Europe culminating in its collapse. It revolved around tactical questions of the relationship the IWMA should have to bourgeois democratic parties and the relationship that local sections of the International had to the General Council. Although the ASD decided to dissolve itself into the IWMA, suspicions grew that Bakunin had retained it as a secret organisation. This indeed would have been his wish were it not rejected by the majority of ASD members who entered the IWMA as individuals.

After participating in the Basle conference in 1869, Bakunin went back to Italy, rented a villa in Locarno and settled down to translating “Capital” into Russian. Bakunin had already translated the “Communist Manifesto” into Russian and was the obvious person to embark on the work of translating “Capital”. Bakunin abandoned this work (for which he had been given a substantial some of money by Marx’s publisher) shortly afterwards. This could hardly have endeared him to Marx. He was drawn back into Italian political life. In 1870, his pamphlet criticising the Italian nationalist leader, Mazzini, won him substantial support amongst the Italian working class – a support which he directed in organisational form towards the IWMA. During the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune of 1871, he went to Lyons to attempt to organise an insurrection.

Bakunin was absent from the split in Switzerland which led to the collapse. However, the idea that he was leading a conspiracy against the IWMA took root and is clearly expressed in the slanderous “Confidential Communication” of 1870 to which Marx contributed an introduction and close. This alleged that Bakunin was being closely watched “as a suspected Russian”.

Bakunin was first accused of being a Tsarist secret agent in a confrontation with German democrats during the 1848-49 revolution. This allegation first found expression in the pages of the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”, the radical democratic German newspaper which Marx edited in the 1840’s. The allegation was sustained throughout the period of Bakunin’s involvement in the International twenty years later. At least three German leaders: Borkheim, Hess and Liebknecht were to repeat the allegation. These allegations were never substantiated and it was only after the collapse that Engels fully disassociated himself from them.

Like similar allegations made against dissidents at future times within the history of the communist movement, suspicions of this nature can serve to isolate an unpopular opinion and give sustenance to those who do not wish to engage in critical debate with it.

In the earlier revolutionary period of 1848-49, Engels and Bakunin had crossed swords. The suspicions that follow Bakunin’s later political career in the IWMA have their origins in this period. They are therefore worth following. Both Marx and Engels and Bakunin were influenced by the German philosopher Hegel. A crude account of Hegel’s views on history involves a picture of humanity’s evolution advancing in ever higher stages – the highest stage being embodied in the civilization of a particular nation. For those German democrats influenced by Hegelian ideas and struggling against absolute princes for a secular democratic German republic, the last stage of this evolution was to be realised in the unified civilisation of the German people.

It was easy for the Muscovite Hegelians in Russia, to transfer this schema to the Slav peoples and to suggest that the future hopes of mankind would pass from the German nation to the Slav nation. It was this idea that was known as “pan-Slavism”. Engels used the term to characterise Bakunin’s thought as “democratic pan-Slavist”.

In 1848-49, the differences between Engels and Bakunin were fundamental. Engels argued that the Slav peoples had no revolutionary role to play and that risings of Slavs against German and Polish landowners would play into the hands of Tsarist reaction.

He was right. The Slav risings gained Tsarist support and played a part in limiting the European Revolution. However, in justifying his position against Bakunin, Engels denied the Slavs any historical role to play, comparing them to “relics” and “ruins” of peoples. He not only denied the Slavs any right to national self-determination but placed conditions upon Bakunin and other Slavs that they renounce their nationality if they were to be accepted as revolutionaries.

Bakunin, for his part, believed that the focus of world revolution would be in Russia. He wrote:

“… Russia is the goal of the revolution; its greatest power will manifest itself there, and there too it will achieve its perfection … in Moscow from a sea of blood and fire, the star of the revolution will rise high and nobly to become the guiding star for the salvation of all liberated humanity.”

He believed that every Slav nation had the right to determine their future and that the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians should be consulted about whether they wished to stay with a re-united Poland which incorporated them.

The legacy of this earlier conflict of opinion left its mark. Bakunin thought of Marx and Engels as “pan-Germanists” who hated Slavs and rejected the peasant revolution because it was Slavic. But the opposite was true: they had rejected the Slav revolution, not because it was a Slav revolution but because it was a peasant revolution. The class composition of the Slav revolution meant that it was manipulated by reaction to attack the potential for a proletarian revolution in Germany. Whilst arguing that a democratic united republic of Germany was a progressive demand, Marx and Engels were never German nationalists. They never nurtured the illusions of their German democratic friends that the interests of the German bourgeoisie or the German proletariat necessarily represented those of humanity as a whole.

Throughout his contact with the IWMA twenty years later, Bakunin was still fired by the goal of liberation for the Slav peoples. He believed that the social revolution which Latin and Slav workers would lead would be “… infinitely broader than that which is promised by the German or Marxist programme”.  His perception of which social groups were revolutionary and which were not was influenced not only by ethnic considerations but by the different levels of the proletarian development to be found in the West and in the East. In the East, peasant revolution was bloody and insurrectionary. But in the West, Bakunin tended to lump together factory workers struggling for the right to vote with the oppressor as bourgeois, especially if they were German factory workers, whom he considered anti-Slav.

The past also very much coloured his perception of the expulsion. According to Bakunin, it was the German temperament which drew German workers to Marx’s opinion that tactical alliances could be made with radical bourgeois democrats in the struggle for the vote. The authoritarianism that he condemned in Marx’s ideas of socialism go hand in glove with the false beliefs that Marx was a pan-Germanist and that Marx thought that Germans were superior to the Slavs and Latins.

Bakunin compared Marx to Bismarck and described Marx’s communism as: “… a regime of privilege for the able and clever; and for Jews, hired by the large scale speculations of the national banks, a wide field for lucrative transactions”.

It is clear from this quote that even if he had completed translating “Capital” into Russian, he had no understanding of Marx’s work. The bitterness he felt after his expulsion caused him to hint that Marx was in alliance with the Rothschild banking family – two dangerous leaders of a Jewish world united by a common interest in maintaining the state.   It is historically ironic that the father of modern anarchism should also be the father of the idea of a conspiracy between communists and Jewish financiers so ably used as propaganda by 20th. Century fascists.

Further grounds for suspicion that Bakunin was a Tsarist agent were given in his bitter response to the experience of German hostility to his ideas and his fondness for secrecy as a method of revolutionary organisation.

Bakunin spent many years in a Tsarist goal for his insurrectionary activities during 1848-49. He was released after writing a controversial “Confession to the Tsar”. In this document he describes his loathing for German democrats. He recalls being denied the right to speak at a German democratic club on the issue of self determination for the Slavs after which he found the sound of the German voice and language so repulsive that when approached by a German beggar boy for money he felt like assaulting him.

An advocate of secret methods of organisation, Bakunin befriended a young Russian nihilist called Netchayeff in 1870. Impressed by Netchayeff’s revolutionary fervour, Bakunin conjured the name of a secret revolutionary organisation out of his head and sent Netchayeff back to Russia with letters indicating he had the authority of an international network of revolutionaries led by Bakunin to agitate on their behalf.

Netchayeff proved to be a disturbed, unscrupulous character who murdered one of his friends and robbed Bakunin of money. In correspondence with Netchayeff, Bakunin reveals his ideas of revolutionary organisation. He stresses what he calls the “collective invisible dictatorship” based on an anonymous, secret organisation of revolutionaries. The organisation would draw up a plan which would be discussed and determined beforehand. They would then use this plan to direct the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the masses. The masses would have no awareness of the dictatorship exercised over them.

Bakunin believed that the dictatorship would be free from “self-interest, vainglory and ambition” because it would be composed of the strongest, cleverest, most knowledgeable and most experienced revolutionaries. He believed that the influence of the dictatorship would be the stronger the more it was invisible and unknown.

A contrast can be made here between Bakunin’s notion of the relationship between secrecy and revolutionary organisation and Marx’s. This contrast vividly illustrates some of their differences.

In 1848, when the Communist League was disbanded, Marx told a meeting of its leading members that the League was “not a conspiratorial but a propagandist” organisation. He argued that where revolutionaries enjoyed democratic rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, then there was no need for secrecy. Conversely, where these basic democratic rights are yet to be won or withdrawn by the State, there is such a need. The importance of the struggle for democratic rights is the extension of the democratic freedoms of the bourgeoisie to workers and their political and intellectual leaders: communists. This extension is necessary if the consciousness of the proletariat is to advance towards an awareness of their historical role.

Bakunin, however, makes no distinction between despotic states which deny democratic freedoms, and states which allow them. All states are by nature forms of despotism because they express the interests of a ruling class. It follows that if the oppressed are deceived into making alliances with bourgeois democrats, revolutionary failure is inevitable. This means that the only consistent path revolutionaries can take is the path of insurrection. No state will tolerate those who advocate insurrection. Thus secrecy is always a necessity.

Bakunin’s ideas on insurrection do not entail a conspiracy which, through the act of coup d’etat, takes over and transforms the state. Bakunin believes in secret organisations completely immersed within the spontaneous movement of the masses: fighting in the streets, on the barricades – directing that movement towards a victory which will destroy the forces of the state at one stroke.

The mistake Bakunin makes is to oppose mass insurrection as a means in principle opposed to propaganda work – especially if propaganda calls on the masses to struggle for democratic rights confined within the limits of the bourgeois state. Bakunin’s followers such as the Italian Malatesta were to realise after his death that mass insurrection also required propaganda and that if propaganda were to reach the masses, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech were to be fought for. Without these freedoms, the call to boycott of the ballot box and for worker’s self-organisation could not become effective.

Bakunin’s conception of revolutionary organisation has its origin within a long tradition of peasant revolt. All leaders of peasant revolts have, of necessity, had to organise covertly – bound by oath to death within a secret fraternity. In the 1848 revolution and until his death, he placed his hopes for world-wide revolution upon a mass revolt of the peasantry in the East, and, in particular, in Russia. Yet the same peasants with whom Bakunin invested so much of his revolutionary hopes, were in a state of abject slavery. For them the very ideas of democratic rights and freedoms were alien. Bakunin reflects the methods of peasant revolt against feudal despotism in his revolutionary aspirations. For example, in his “Confession to the Tsar” he expresses a desire to destroy all castles, and burn all documents of an administrative, governmental and judicial nature. His desire accurately mirrors the reality of what happens in peasant revolts: the destruction of everything associated with the oppressive yoke of the feudal master. It has nothing in common with Marx’s conception of social revolution – of workers liberating the productive forces from their social form as Capital, preserving them and developing them for the satisfaction of human need.

Bakunin’s thinking is also replete with the language of the 18th century enlightenment. He appeals to the masses in the language of the French Revolution calling for justice, humanity, liberty, equality, fraternity, and independence. His clarity on the question of the right of the Slav peoples to self- determination is derived from this enlightenment tradition. He has a vast confidence in the collective will of the people. His statements on the question of nationalities is of such generality that it can be applied to every oppressed group of whatever nature. He demands just one thing throughout his life:

“… that every people, that every tribe, great and small, be given the full opportunity and right to act according to its will.”

Bakunin’s appeal to the collective will of the people, to their natural rights to liberty, equality and fraternity and his belief in the power of mass revolt to destroy oppression, justifies a description given to him by Braunthal as a “revolutionary of another age”. He is the revolutionary of the peasant masses being transformed into a landless proletariat; the revolutionary of the dispossessed from both the land and from the regular wage; the revolutionary who attempts to organise the amorphous body of free-floating labour-power yet not fully crystallised into abstract labour; the revolutionary who attempts to bring into being a collectivity with no other interest but the destruction of everything that already exists and the hope of the creation of something completely new.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Bakunin had only an intuitive understanding of the social forces which were changing the face of Europe. In the East and South the advance of Capital presaged a terminal crisis for those remnants of feudalism which clung on to the past. The peasant’s personal degradation and humiliation before the feudal lord would soon be transformed into an impersonal degradation before Capital as land became subject to the commodity form and the peasantry found themselves either stripped of their means of production or turned into absolute slaves. Dispossession of land meant either a move into generalised small scale commodity production or a fall into the position of the landless labourer forced to compete for a wage in town or countryside where Slav confronted German as capitalist farmer or factory proletariat.

The backward looking aspects of Bakunin’s thought reflects a peasant hostility to a system which is destroying their means of subsistence. His lack of a critical method for understanding the process of social change had been criticised by Engels who scoffed at his use of moral categories based on natural rights theory. Marx in his review of Bakunin’s book “Statism and Anarchy” echoes this perception when he remarks:

“He wants the European social revolution, premised on the economic basis of capitalist production, to take place at the level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples, not to surpass this level. .. The will and not the economic conditions, is the foundation of his social revolution.”

We can explain Bakunin’s fondness for secret conspiratorial organisation by sympathetically entering into the pictures he has in his mind – the mind of someone steeped both within the Slav history of peasant revolt and within the philosophical and political tradition which fed into and was transformed by the French Revolution.

From the latter too he would have learnt of the need for secret societies. The bourgeois revolutionaries needed protection from feudal and theocratic reaction. Thus they had used Freemasonry as the means by which the republicanism and materialism of the English revolution could be transmitted safely to fuel revolution in Europe. Bakunin joined the Freemasons in Paris in the 1840’s. This was a natural step for a revolutionary republican to make. Garibaldi and many other Italian republicans were Freemasons, Garibaldi being elected to the position of Grand Master of the Florentine lodge in May 1864. It was logical that Bakunin should be active in Masonic circles whilst he was in Italy if he were to realise his overriding revolutionary goal: support from radical republicans for the realisation of Slav self-determination.

However, the Masons were also fertile grounds for international espionage.  Many 18th century radicals acted as spies for their different governments. The international network of lodges was a useful means of gaining information on the court and governmental intrigues of other countries. Secrecy and the strong fraternal bonds which Freemasonry encouraged protected spies from detection.

I have attempted to explain why there would be formed a suspicion about Bakunin’s activities and motivations in the minds of the German democrats and socialists who befriended Marx. However a suspicion is not a fact. Moreover even if it were true that Bakunin was a Tsarist agent conspiring to capture the leadership of the IWMA this does not explain its collapse.

The collapse can be explained as a manifestation of the contradiction between the uneven development of the social forces of the world proletariat and the organisational form necessary for its emancipation.

The uneven development of the world proletariat has already been referred to obliquely in terms of the transformations of a peasantry into a proletariat which were underway in the East and South of Europe. Yet even in those countries where the working class was relatively mature, there were important differences. In Britain, the objective strength of the working class, had grown hand in glove with the development of finance capital and imperialism.

Throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s the unions had fought and won significant political and economic battles with employers. By the 1860’s, skilled workers had achieved a standard of living which demanded that they be included within the bourgeois political process. Their trade unions were legal, and, with the Reform Act of 1867, they had gained a voice in the British parliament. Their leaders were becoming the representatives of what Lenin was later to describe as an “aristocracy of labour”.

In Switzerland, however, strikes were abnormal. In Belgium they were acts of war. In France, unions had only been legal since 1864. They suffered from severe legal restrictions. In Germany they were even weaker.

The struggles for democratic rights for workers: for free trade unions, freedom of speech and assembly, were at different levels in different countries. This demanded different tactics which could not be co-ordinated from a Central council in London.

Ostensibly the collapse took the form of a disagreement over tactics and goals. Marx was of the opinion that an international proletarian political party could be built out of the practical solidarity that the IWMA gave to different working class struggles in different parts of the world. He knew that he would be co­operating with workers who did not share his conception of a classless society. He was careful not to jeopardise unity by magnifying theoretical differences into political antagonisms. He deliberately restricted the wording of the draft programme of the IWMA to points which would allow for the immediate agreement of workers, knowing that he was co-operating with French workers influenced by Proudhonist thought. This taught that workers should be indifferent to political action. By the time of the Basle conference in 1869, the Proudhonist influence on the IWMA was on the wane.

One of Marx’s reactions to Bakunin’s programme for the ASD was to argue that Bakunin’s thinking on political action was a re-iteration of Proudhon’s doctrines. However the clause on political action did not reject political action per se, but political action which did not have as its Immediate and direct aim the triumph of the workers’ cause against Capital. There is a difference here between Bakunin and Proudhon, even if the effect of adopting the clause would have meant workers’ abstention from campaigns for democratic rights for workers in those countries where they were denied.

The inability of the IWMA to discuss and resolve these differences can be explained by the fact that the form of organisation, centralised in London and dominated by English trade unionists who had the direct experience of bourgeois political parties advancing workers democratic and economic rights, could not evolve, as Marx wished, into that of an independent world party of the proletariat with national sections. In fact, a party form of organisation, whether of a reformist or revolutionary type, was impossible given the uneven development of the proletariat in different parts of the world.

That the beginnings of the collapse should have emerged in Switzerland is instructive of both the above points. The Swiss working class consisted of, on the one hand, the “fabrique” – highly skilled, well paid workers of local origin in the jewelry and watch making industries. On the other hand, it included the “grosmetiers” – building workers of German origin, compelled to fight one strike after another to maintain decent working conditions. The former possessed the franchise, the latter did not. The former made electoral alliances with bourgeois radicals. These alliances worked against the interests of the latter. The latter were attracted to the idea of political action aimed at the overthrow of Capital itself. The composition of the Swiss working class was further complicated by the recruitment of’ the Jura watch makers to the IWMA. These were domestic workers scattered in villages and unused to mass organisation. They were a section of the working class in decline, soon to lose their social existence in competition with new forms of American mass production.

The organisational form of the International was unable to respond to the conflicting appearance of the needs of a working class with such an uneven development. The primary function of the representatives of the IWMA was to give practical solidarity in the form of money to striking workers from workers elsewhere in the world. However, this function also permitted the International to exercise political influence over workers.

The first representative of the IWMA, a man called Coullery, had led the Jura workers into an electoral alliance with both bourgeois and monarchist radicals. The workers felt betrayed. They were disillusioned with the political leadership of the International. They chose their own: a local teacher, Guillame, a former member of the ASD who was to be expelled along with Bakunin in 1872. Anarchist ideas of free federated communes were more fitted to the domestic workers economic and social reality, than the idea of a classless society. On the other hand, the hatred of pacts with bourgeois parties was shared by both the Jura workers and the “gros metiers”.

The split in Switzerland erupted on the editorial board of the International’s newspaper in Geneva, “L’Egalite” in 1870. It was never resolved. There emerged two organisations claiming to represent the IWMA: one with a base in the “fabrique”, the other with a base in the Jura watch makers and the “gros metiers”. The former tried to prevent the latter holding the official franchise of the International by all means possible. The leader of the former, a rich Russian émigré of Jewish origin called Nikolas Utin fed Marx information on the split. Utin accused Guillame of denouncing the “fabrique” workers as “hateful bourgeois”. However no notice was taken by Marx and the General Council of the fact that these highly paid workers in the luxury trades of Geneva had concluded, according to Franz Mehring, deplorable electoral compromises with bourgeois political parties. There is no mention in the minutes of the General Council of any awareness by Marx of divisions within the Swiss working class and how these might have effected the controversy. Stories of Bakunin’s intrigues (and, no doubt, of the anti-Semitism rife within the radical intelligentsia of the day) were fed to Marx by Utin, a man who returned to Russia to join the Tsarist army in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. If it is ever helpful to point a finger of suspicion at anyone for being an agent of an oppressive state – and I doubt whether it ever is – then Utin deserves as much attention as Bakunin.

The collapse of the first International was historically unavoidable. The European bourgeoisie had woken up to the potential threat of the International to its existence. The objection to the dictatorship of the General Council which spread beyond Switzerland to almost every country after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 was covered with great delight by the bourgeois press. Anarchist sources were used. Marx’s eloquent defence of the Commune was an anathema to the ruling class. Although the International had had nothing to do with the formation of the Commune, Marx was targeted as the demonic influence behind it. The whole of the reactionary world was organised against the Commune and its conspiratorial leaders: the atheist Dr. Marx and his sinister friends. Attacking Marx personally helped to mobilise latent anti-Semitism within the working class. Even the Pope was moved to speak out against him.

Marx had held false hopes that an international proletarian political party would emerge out of the International. But the IWMA was not the organisational form within which it was possible to realise this goal. The General Council was an unelected body within the rules of the IWMA. It was composed of those English and French trade unionists who had originally formed it. The objection to its dictatorship resolved itself in two ways: first the formation of an anarchist International; secondly, the creation of national working class political parties guided by the conditions of their existence within the nations of which they were a part. These parties were to come together in the Second International.

An important tendency can be found within a study of the collapse of the First International. This is the articulation of a consciousness within the working class of the need for its complete emancipation from its subordination: of a growing recognition of its historical role not only to emancipate itself but also the whole of humanity from all forms of oppression.

It is also to be found in the differences of opinion on how workers should understand this goal and the types of political action which might realise this goal.

On the one hand there was articulated for the first time within mass working class discussions and debates, the idea that the state was an expression of a class society. Abolish the conditions which perpetuate class society – capital, wages, money, and value – and you abolish the conditions which perpetuate the state.

On the other hand there was articulated that the state was the cause of oppression in all its forms, including the oppression of workers. Abolish the state, by overthrowing it in insurrectionary activity, and you abolish the conditions which perpetuate oppression.

On the one hand there was formulated the position that in those states where the working class had achieved limited democratic rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, a proletarian party should be created which can use electoral politics in order to advance the political consciousness of the working class.

On the other hand there was the position that because all states, whatever their form – despotic or formally democratic – were oppressive, then the working class should abstain from involvement in electoral politics. The vote, rather than advancing consciousness, would retard it, inevitably compromising its leadership and generating divisions within the class ensuring its continued subordination to the ruling class.

These positions live on, in forms distorted and rigidified by Stalinism and Social Democracy, in the Marxist and anarchist movements of today.

10 thoughts on “Bakunin’s expulsion from the First International

  1. Thanks for this post. A very detailed look into these events in a way that avoids the propaganda by both Stalinist and Anarchist sources. Bakunin’s criticism and expulsion seem to be the main reason of dislike that Anarchist have against Communism and Marxism and if we manage to present the real truth behind this events, perhaps both sides might realize that we have much more in common than not.


  2. February 18, 2009

    This is an interesting read. Thank you.

    But, there is a point I think needs attention.

    The following letter by Marx from 1853 shows that Marx knew Bakunin personally long before the formation of the IWMA, from before the 1848 revolution:

    Note especially where Marx says here, “In the latter part of August, 1848, I passed through Berlin, saw Bakunin there, and renewed with him the intimate friendship which united us before the outbreak of the revolution of February.”

    If Marx had an intimate friendship with Bakunin prior to the February 1848 revolution, then it would seem that the assertion above that, “Bakunin first met Marx in London in 1864 during the formation of the IWMA,” needs correction.

    Am I misunderstanding something?


  3. “Bakunin’s criticism and expulsion seem to be the main reason of dislike that Anarchist have against Communism and Marxism…” Can’t believe that someone thinks this. Anarchists hate autoritarian communism for many good reasons, and for backstabbing and persecuting progressive activists wherever they can, up till now. Read Orwell about the Spanish revolution, or Berkman about Kronstad if you want to learn anything about that.


  4. Yes, so it is strange that the piece above has them meeting for the first time in 1864. I wonder what happened there. This piece is in other ways quite good.


  5. Kees, I think you have this right. Db0, the issues just go deeper than the 1872 expulsion. But, you are right, there is a great deal of commonality that is too often overlooked between anarchists and Marxists.


  6. I understand that there is a dislike because of other events between Marxist-Lenninists and Anarchists but I’m not defending those, or their branches. Marxism from my understanding has always been libertarian but many Anarchists seem reject it outright and deny any such possibility (ie Libertarian Marxism isn’t _Marxism_)


  7. Marx and Bakunin knew each other in in the mid-40s when both were in Paris. Bakunin and Marx both met Proudhon as well, with Bakunin becoming a life-long friend, while Marx’s enmity toward Proudhon dates of Proudhon’s rejection of Marx’s suggestion that they collaborate during this period.


  8. As for Marxism being libertarian, that is the case only if you ignore history. The dispute between Bakunin and Marx was over the question of centralization of authority as much as it was about different paths to the future.


  9. “a regime of privilege for the able and clever; and for Jews, hired by the large scale speculations of the national banks, a wide field for lucrative transactions”

    Can someone tell me the source of this?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s