Decline and Fall of the First International - Brian Morris

This text comes from the book "Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom" by Brian Morris, published by Black Rose (but we believe out of print). In this chapter Morris looks at the decline of the International and Bakunin's conflict with Marx.

From Black Flag #215 1998.

Submitted by Fozzie on July 30, 2020

Between the Basel congress of the International in 1869 and the end of 1871 there had been a great growth of the International in both Italy and Spain, largely due to the influence of Bakunin. In 1870, at a general congress in Barcelona one hundred and fifty societies from thirty-six regions constituted the Spanish Regional Federation and adopted as their statutes those of the Jura Federation (drawn up by Bakunin). Thus, while the International was experiencing a marked decline in membership in the industrial countries, particularly in Britain where Marx lived, it was expanding in the Latin countries in leaps and bounds. And, wherever it was spreading it was doing so, as Paul Thomas writes, "under the mantle of Bakuninism."1 Thomas even hints that Marx's "The Civil War in France" was a calculated move, using the symbolism of the Paris Commune to reunify a disparate movement. But there was little awareness at that time among most adherents of the International of the doctrinal differences separating Bakunin and Marx - except in Switzerland. And it was in Switzerland that the latent schism between two very different concepts of socialism - Marxism and collectivist anarchism - first began to be articulated in institutional terms.

At the end of 1869, Nicholas Utin arrived in Geneva and in January 1870, as Bakunin was leaving for Locarno, Utin established himself as an editor of L'Égalité. Utin had an intense dislike for Bakunin and soon took every opportunity to denounce him as an advocate of Pan-Slavism - though Bakunin had long since abandoned his nationalist tendencies. A Russian exile like Bakunin, Utin also began to spread the old rumour that Bakunin was a Tsarist agent. Later that same month, January 1870, Utin organised a Russian section of the International in Geneva - in direct opposition to Bakunin's Alliance - and applied to the General Council in London for recognition. He also asked Marx, who he addressed as the "Venerable Dr Marx", to become the representative for Russia on the General Council. Marx found all this rather strange but seems to have accepted the proposal especially as Utin mentioned that it would be among the tasks of the new section to publicly "unmask Bakunin." Thereafter, Utin continued to supply Marx with a steady flow of information, or misinformation, about Bakunin and played a considerable part in poisoning relations between the two men, although Marx had long harboured quite unfounded suspicions that Bakunin was simply a political intriguer out to "wreck" the International. If anything, Bakunin did far more to expand the membership of the International than did Marx himself, who had little influence on the English trade unionists. Significantly, after having helped to destroy the International, Utin made his peace with Tsarism, returned to Russia and ended his days as a wealthy government contractor.2

In April 1870, the annual congress of the Federation Romande, consisting of sections of the International in French-speaking Switzerland, was held in the little town of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura. Utin took the opportunity, in Bakunin' absence, to launch a bitter personal attack on him, quoting from Nechaev's "Revolutionary Catechism" to imply that Bakunin recognised neither justice nor morality and that he was essentially a nihilist. This all arose in the debate regarding the application of the Geneva Section of the Alliance for admission to the Federation. Guillaume spoke in defence of Bakunin and the Alliance was admitted by a majority vote. This led to a virtual split in the International in Switzerland with the Geneva sections under Utin following Marx and the General Council, while the Jura sections became fervent supporters of Bakunin. James Guillaume and Adhemar Schwitzguebel were leading members of the latter group, which became known as the Jura Federation. The General Council eventually agreed to accept both the Geneva Federation and the Jura Federation as affiliated bodies of the International. It is important to stress that this split represents a genuine disagreement within the International between the libertarian and State socialists. G.D.H.Cole expressed this cogently. He wrote:

"This conflict of views was not the outcome of any "conspiracy" either on Bakunin's part or on that of Marx. It arose out of real differences both in attitude and in the character of the movements of which the International was made up. Bakunin and Guillaume, and the Spanish and Italian leaders, did carry on increasingly active propaganda against Marx and the General Council; but there was nothing particularly conspiratorial about it, unless one counts Bakunin's habitual tendency to give his most commonplace activities a conspiratorial tone. Marx for his part, intensely irritated by what he regarded as the unrealistic folly of the anarchists, had developed an aggravated form of conspiracy-mania which led him to see the entire anti-authoritarian movement as a sinister conspiracy directed against himself.3

The conflict between Marx and Bakunin, however, came to a head in the sham conference of the International held in London in September 1871. Given the widespread support for Bakunin and his anarchism among the Internationalists in Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Jura, it was clear that Marx and the General Council could only defeat him by upstaging him.4 The London conference was therefore largely a private and secret affair. It consisted only of the General Council and invited guests, almost entirely partisans of Marx. Two delegates were invited from Switzerland - Utin was one, but none fro the Jura Federation, only one from Spain and none from Italy. Because of the war, Germany had no delegates and France was represented only by refugees, mostly Blanquists. The dice, as E.H.Carr put it, were well and truly loaded against Bakunin. Besides implying that anarchism was almost a heresy and forbidding the formation of separate sections, one of the most important decisions taken by the conference was to declare the necessity for workers to form their own political party, independent of bourgeois parties. With the complete absence of the anarchists and the support of the Blanquists, this was easily carried.

The Swiss groups of the International, all Bakuninists and hostile to Marx, immediately organised their own conference at Sonvillier in the Jura in November 1871. Bakunin could not attend, and the leading spirits of the meeting were Guillaume, Spichiger and Schwitzguebel. They immediately repudiated the London decisions, refusing to recognise that the London conference was a properly constituted organ of the International. They denounced the autocratic powers assumed b the general Council and called for the reaffirmation of an International that was composed of a free federation of autonomous sections rather than one governed by a General Council. The congress produced the "Sonvillier Circular", which demanded an immediate congress of the International to debate its structure. The circular was sympathetically received not only in Span and Italy, but also Belgium. As a result, the General Council was obliged to announce a congress at the Hague in September 1872. It was clear that this meeting would prove to be an important encounter between the Marxist and anarchist (i.e. Bakuninist) sections of the International. as it turned out, it proved to be the last real meeting of the First International.

The Sonvillier Circular was a critique of the basic doctrine formulated by the General Council of the International, namely the importance of the "conquest of political power by the working class." The circular counterposed this doctrine with the notion that a social revolution should involved the "emancipation of the workers by the workers themselves" and that:

The future society must be nothing else than the universalization of the organisation that the International has formed for itself. We must therefore strive to make this organisation as close as possible to our ideal. How could one expect and egalitarian society to emerge out of an authoritarian organisation? it is impossible. The International, embryo of the future society, must form now on faithfully reflect our principles of federation and liberty, and must reject any principle tending toward authority and dictatorship.5

Bakunin enthusiastically welcomed the Sonvillier Circular and devoted his energies to actively propagating its principles. Marx responded to it by issuing, as a circular from the General Council, a pamphlet entitled " Fictitious splits in the International." it was printed in Geneva and sent out to all sections of the International. It outlined Marx's own views on Bakunin, and his opinion of events surrounding the formation of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. Marx was critical of Bakunin on a number of grounds : his advocacy of total abstention from politics; his attempt to create and "international within the International" thereby creating confusion between the programme of the International Working Men's Association (identified with Marx's own ideas) and Bakunin's makeshift programme; his assertion that making the International an embryonic egalitarian society would only weaken the organisation in its fight against the exploiters. Marx seems to have seen Bakunin's Alliance as a kind of sectarian organisation like those of the early utopian socialists, which could only inhibit the formation of the International as a "militant organisation of the proletarian class of all countries." He also saw the various radical manifestos by Bakunin as "verbiage" which would be useful in promoting the aims of the reactionaries, the implication being that one shouldn't publish radical manifestos in case they upset or helped the bourgeoisie. Yet Marx's pamphlet indicates an underlying ambivalence, for he wants to believe that the splits in the International are all of a "fictitious" nature and that the Bakuninist groups are "sham sections" that have either no reality or are small cliques composed not of real workers but of "lawyers, journalists, and other bourgeois doctrinaires". This coming form a man who studied law at university, earned a living as a journalist (as well as being supported by Engels) and whose whole lifestyle was thoroughly bourgeois. Marx was also obsessed with the idea that Bakunin was an intriguer who intended to replace the General Council with his own personal dictatorship. Guillaume and other supporters of Bakunin found Marx's pamphlet full of personal slander. Bakunin is said to have described it as a "heap of filth".

The all-important congress at the Hague was duly held in early September 1872. Sixty four delegates attended the congress, the majority of whom were supporters of Marx, for the Italians had decided to boycott the meeting. In August 1872 , the first national congress of Italian Socialism was held in Rimini and there formed an Italian Federation of the International. The congress denounced the "slander and mystification" of the General Council, and Marx's "lust for authority". and therefore resolved to break all solidarity with the General Council. It proposed "to all those sections who do not share the authoritarian principles of the General Council to send their representatives to Neuchatel in Switzerland for the purpose of opening..... (an) anti-authoritarian congress".6

Bakunin, who could not attend the congress, lost much of his support at the congress, and only six delegates, two from the Jura and four from Spain, were supporters of Bakunin. The General Council made up largely of Marx's followers and Blanquists and the German state socialists formed the bulk of Marx's support. Again Marx had engineered a conference that was packed with his own supporters. But it was clear that Marx aimed to defeat Bakunin- and the ideas he propagated- not only by weight of numbers, but also by destroying his personal reputation. To this end, Engels drafted a long report at the request of the General Council aiming to demonstrate that Bakunin had founded a secret society, the Alliance, (the main organ of which was the Central Committee of the Jura Federation), whose aims whose aims were incompatible with those of the International which it sought , it said, to disorganise and dominate. Engels therefore proposed that the congress should expel Bakunin and all present members of the Alliance of Social Democracy (including the Jura Federation) from the International Working Men's Association. On the last day of the congress- after one third of the delegates had already gone home- this proposal was put before congress and by a vote of twenty seven for and seven against- with eight abstentions- Bakunin (along with his friend Guillaume) was expelled from the International.

Although there was little evidence that the Alliance had existed as a secret society after 1869, Bakunin was nevertheless condemned. What seemed to have swayed the committee of inquiry that had been set up to examine the allegations was that Marx produced-behind closed doors- a copy of the letter that Nechaev had written to Bakunin's publishers regarding the translation of Marx's Das Capital.

Bakunin was therefore unfairly dismissed from the International on two grounds:

1. That he had tried to establish and perhaps succeeded in establishing a society in Europe named "the Alliance" with rules , social and political matters entirely different from those of the International.

2. That Bakunin had made use of deceptive tricks in order to appropriate some portion of another person's fortune, which constitutes fraud.7

It was clear that Marx was determined to remove Bakunin from the International even if he had to use the most underhand methods to do it.

But the bombshell at the 1872 Congress was the startling proposal, presented by Marx and the General Council, that the seat of the General Council of the International should be transferred to New York. It came as a complete surprise to most of the delegates, although they voted for the proposal nonetheless. What Marx's motives were for such a move has been debated, but it effectively killed the International. But at least, by removing it to New York, he had saved the International from the influence of Bakunin.

Immediately after the Hague Congress, the anarchist members of the International held their own congress in the Swiss town of St Imier. It comprised delegations from Spain, Italy and the Swiss Jura. It was a small gathering and the delegates unanimously rejected the decisions of the Hague Congress and the powers given to the new general council. They constituted themselves into a free union of federation of the International, bound together not by an autocratic council, but by solidarity and mutual friendship. For a while, two rival Internationals continued to exist, but by the end of the decade the First International Working Men's Association had essentially ceased to function. The International congress held in Geneva in September 1873 was perhaps the last viable meeting. The congress dissolved with the General Council and declared the International a free federation of autonomous sections each with a right to reorganise itself as it saw fit.

  • 1Thomas, P. 1980 Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London RKP, p319
  • 2Cole, G.D.H., 1954. History of Socialist Thought, Vol.II, Marxism and Anarchism 1850-1890. London, Macmillan, p.197
  • 3Cole, op.cit., p.193
  • 4Thomas, op. cit., p.320
  • 5Guillaume in Dolgoff, S., ed., trans., introd., 1973 Bakunin on Anarchy, New York; Knopf, p.45
  • 6Hostetter, R. 1958. The Italian Socialist Movement. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, p.284
  • 7Guillaume in Dolgoff, op. cit., p.47