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Political conflict in the International Workers’ Association, 1864-1877
A W Zurbrugg
Article published on 10 December 2014

by Eric Vilain

Socialism it has been said, has two souls. The content of this metaphor may be explored in the conflict in the International Workers’ Association (First International) between Social-democratic ‘authoritarians’ and Anarchist ‘anti-authoritarians’. This conflict is still an evocative moment in labour history and resonates today, continuing to strike cords – or discords – amongst socialists.
When one considers terms such as Communist, Party, Politics and Union not all is as it might seem – the meaning of these terms differed as they were defined in varied contexts. Ideas of class were shaped by particular factors with distinct resonances. Many workers were seen as servants, lacking human dignity whilst the family’s bread-winner – often an independent (male) artisan, was of a higher status, above the manual unskilled worker or the women worker – whatever skill she might have. The International Worker’s Association (IWA) would discuss if its membership should be confined to manual workers; intellectuals were sometimes viewed as outside and distinct from the working class. This was an age of migration. French, German, Italian and other migrant communities would preserve distinct identities in new locations; they would organise and publish newspapers in their own languages, helping to shape new socialist traditions drawing on experience from older homelands. The experience of migrants varied: some found it easier to assimilate, other were not respected and were seen as social inferiors.
Conflicts over priorities among Social-democrats and revolutionary socialists (who would later call themselves anarchists) addressed relations between varied forms of organisation, with a variety of priorities, working in several contexts, with varied levels of development. For example: ‘The International does not repel politics in general; it cannot avoid getting itself involved as long as it is constrained to struggle against the bourgeois class. It rejects only bourgeois politics and religion, because the one creates the exploitation and domination of the bourgeoisie whilst the other blesses and sanctifies it.’ In this perspective ‘politics’ focussed on the construction and development of solidarity across a range of class structures and movements. This was the politics of the ‘Commune-republic’; viewing large nation states as a militaristic, nationalistic nemesis bent on the destruction of more accountable localised community structures. Others viewed electoral politics as an excellent avenue for propaganda; they saw the strength of the International best exemplified in the German Social-democratic Workers’ Party. Parties were like armies, and as with armies a strong central leadership was crucial; for them centralised states, despite the intentions of their rulers might serve to facilitate progressive change.
National antagonisms were commonplace and unhelpful. Marx and Engels were wont to disrespect other nationalities, most especially Slavs. They saw Russia as a centre of reaction, and had called for a new Germany to come together in a war against Tsarist Russia. Bakunin asked: was there anything to choose between a pan-Germanic Empire and a Tsarist Empire? In his view both were brutal, but the German Empire was both brutal and ‘savant’ [scientific]. He saw Bismarck as the leader of reaction. He cast empires as monsters.

Their very principle is that civilized nations should conquer barbarians. It is the application of Darwin’s law to international politics. As a consequence of this natural law, civilised nations, being ordinarily stronger, must either place barbarian peoples under the yoke of the exploiter, or exterminate them; or so they say, civilise them. Thus is permission given for North Americans to gradually exterminate Indians, for Britons to exploit oriental Indians, for the French to conquer Algeria and lastly for the Germans to civilise Slavs...

Bakunin, provoked by repeated accusations that he was a spy for the Tsar, used abusive ‘German Jewish’ epithets against his accusers. A new industrial power emerged in the newly united Germany after the Franco-Prussian war. Italian unification was also advanced in this crisis. France had been an Empire and became a republic, but only after a period of civil war and the decimation of radical Paris. A short lived republic was set up in Spain. This was a time in which the form and content of states was changing. Years later, in 1914, James Guillaume would motivate support for the defence of France in terms of resisting reactionary German imperialism.
Social or socialist democracy, or social-democratic-republican might cover a multitude of sins. In the Swiss Jura region one Social-democratic-republican party broke up when some members sought to build an alliance with royalists for a first-past-the-post election. Their leader, a Dr Pierre Coullery, had been a pioneer of the IWA, and had edited and produced a journal Le Voix de l’Avenir that circulated for some time as the organ of the French-Swiss Romande IWA federation. In southern Germany Social-democracy emerged in symbiosis with democratic and populist bourgeois parties. Members of the International Workers’ Association had varied priorities and often found themselves in disagreement with one another.
However conflict was not the whole story. There was also co-operation between those who would later become enemies. Those who later became known as ‘Anarchists’ would value Marx’s Capital. Marx would send a letter of appreciation to Carlo Cafiero thanking him for his popular abridgement of Capital. In its short life the Paris Commune involved partisans of various radical persuasions, and both Bakunin and Marx recognised its heroic features. In London Marx befriended Paul Robin, before and after his bitter critic. And in Geneva Johann Philipp Becker, worked openly in close proximity with Bakunin for over a year in the Alliance for Socialist Democracy. Both supported a strike of local building workers’, and sought to promote the labour movement both in the region and further afield. This Alliance – later denounced by Marx and Engels as a dread and secret conspiracy out to destroy the International – had Becker as its Vice-President. It was set up as an ‘Enemy of every despotism, recognising no political forms other than the republican form, absolutely rejecting every reactionary alliance, and every political activity which did not have as its aim the immediate and direct triumph of the cause of labour against Capital.’ Despite the hard feeling created by the congress of the Hague in 1872, a range of ‘anti-authoritarians’ and ‘authoritarians’ came together at the IWA’s Bern congress of 1876, and agreed to meet together for a Universal Socialist Congress. For a time the Socialist Party was conceived of as a diverse body encompassing diverse streams. So, despite disagreements, there were times when all sorts of socialists looked some common ground.
Bakunin has been labelled by historians as an Anarchist, but that was not the label that he used. Anarchism may have been evolving before 1875, but it was only later in the century that those who were to call themselves Anarchists began to adopt the Anarchist label; earlier they had more often described themselves as federalists, collectivists and revolutionary socialists, in opposition to the bourgeois socialists who worked with and became much like liberal bourgeois politicians. Bakunin and his collaborators believed that much ‘politics’ divided the movement; they had in mind the two sorts of ‘politics’ that they encountered: the politics of the bourgeoisie – a politics, which might be radical or liberal, but did not seek labour emancipation; and the politics of electoral socialists. The latter may have had labour emancipation in mind, but through their use of hierarchical and bourgeois state forms they placed workers in the service of the bourgeoisie, subordinating economic liberation to the winning of the battle for ‘democracy’. Bakunin and his allies had another concept of politics – the politics of promoting responsible, accountable, federal structures where labour interests might predominate.