Extracts from ‘Letter to Comrades of the Jura Federation’ - Mikhail Bakunin

In these extracts from a letter written in March of 1872, Bakunin criticises the nationalism of German socialists, including Marx and his followers, and particularly notions of favouring a State due to its supposedly 'progressive' or 'civilised' character. In doing so, he puts forward an anarchist analysis of the need for consistent internationalism and anti-imperialism, which is worth considering in light of 'Campist' forms of analysis finding renewed popularity in some circles.

Submitted by Matthew Crossin on September 3, 2020

Extracts from ‘Letter to Comrades of the Jura Federation’ 1

[Today] the Russian army is immense, much more numerous, better organised, armed and officered than ever before. It is not as strong as Russian and foreign statisticians make out, but nonetheless it constitutes a very respectable force. It would be unable to wage offensive war on its own against Germany, but it would be able to inflict serious injury, if it could find some powerful European ally, such as France. It might become powerful again if it roused racial and national passions, and nurtured a pan-Slav banner – as Prussia did in recent times when it raised up the pan-German banner against France, and in proclaiming Imperial unity in Versailles. In such a case Russia would find allies: friends and brothers even in the heart of the Empire – entire peoples even.

But that might be by virtue of some heroic method – one that the Russian Empire might doubtless resort to – perhaps in some distant future. Hitherto at least it has preferred the more regular and less perilous path of diplomatic alliances, and the greater part of its expansion westwards has been by virtue of its very crafty diplomacy, rather than by force of arms. Being uninterested in most of the internal questions which weary and divide Western Europe, like Achilles in this respect, it shows but one vulnerable point: Social Revolution. (A peasant revolution above all – much more than the revolution of urban factory workers, which in Russia forms merely a drop of water in the popular ocean.) Russian diplomacy meddles in every Western question, and never lets an opportunity pass to fish in troubled waters, naturally taking the part of the bad against the good, for reaction against revolution.

So it is on this account that German patriots censure Russia so bitterly, and in this they are in error. Russia, in acting as it does, both now and in the future, will obey its own particular nature as a despotic and military Empire. Such compulsions are inherent in a state, and let us be clear, in any state, be it monarchical or republican. By what right do Germans demand virtues of a Russian government that they have never had from their own? Have the rulers and cabinets of Berlin and Vienna ever embraced the party of revolution against reaction in Europe?

So in 1852, did we not see liberal Britain – represented by both its government and by the larger part of its bourgeoisie and nobility – greet Napoleon III with joy as he came to the imperial throne in France? Lastly, today, is not that great republic the USA in a close alliance with the two greatest despotic powers of Europe – Russia and Germany?

Why then demand from a government called barbarous such virtues that are not to be found in the most civilised of governments? Is this German justice? As they know imperial Russia has neither invented nor provoked reaction in Europe. It has neither the need nor the means of creating reaction. Reaction emerged and grew all by itself, like some magnificent native plant – its history, theology, politics, law, bureaucracy, military, depended on the aristocracy, and presently depends on the bourgeoisie. Imperial Russia found the latter all-powerful in Europe, and made it its ally, for its own use. Where is the European state that would have not acted in the same way? Lastly Russian diplomacy has always found European allies, and will always find allies as long as states continue. And this is what makes German patriots always despair. Innocent dreamers, they pray for an alliance of all European states against Imperial Russia.2 This is absurd. Where states exist they necessarily entail ongoing conflict, latent war or blatant war. Is it inconceivable that Russia might find some more or less powerful ally in Europe, today Germany, tomorrow France, and who knows – sometime later – Britain perhaps?

Russian diplomacy is vastly malicious, perfidious, shrewd, and roguish, say the Germans. No doubt; but where is the diplomacy which practices some more proper or more honourable arts? If Russian diplomats have such ‘exquisite’ manners – certainly one might not reproach them for lacking such ‘manners’, they are indeed the most brutish in the entire world – one might well ask where then are there European diplomats who do not exhibit, or do not try to exhibit, these very qualities? Politics, never having any goal other than exploitation and domination, can be entirely summed up in two words: deception and brutality.3 When it is not engaged in the one, it is necessarily engaged in the other, and too often it works in both ways together. When one looks at these matters more closely one comes to the conclusion that among the various reproaches that might be raised against the Empire of all the Russias there is not a single one that might not be equally – and sometimes with greater reason – addressed to every other government of one of the greater European states, and particularly to the current government of the German empire.

But, say the Germans, what makes Russian despotism so dangerous is that it commands a race of slaves used to obeying the least wish of their masters like robots, whereas in Germany… ah! In Germany, no doubt, you will only find people who are free, proud, and in revolt! The nobility, is it not both servile and arrogant? And the bourgeoisie, is it not a body of lackeys? Do peasants disobey the law – do they refuse to pay taxes or to deliver their sons for military servitude? So, to conclude, is it not the case that all of Germany is prostrated before its terrible Emperor?

Only the German proletariat is standing on its feet – and I acknowledge that with real pleasure. But if you have your proletariat, we have our peasants in whom we place all our trust. Your proletariat has as yet, never or almost never, revolted, whereas already on three occasions the Muscovite empire has been shaken by the immense revolts of our peasants; they were crushed – but they will not always be crushed. Last of all we have something that you do not have – enlightened youth. Not as enlightened as yours, but able to dedicate themselves to the popular cause, able to conspire and revolt.

So, Germans win prizes, even when it comes to servile obedience. And as for thinking, all thinking that is reactionary, obscurantist, despotic and destructive for the people and for liberty, all this is now being incubated in the ruling circles in Berlin, in the heart of the bugbear Emperor and in the powerful brain of the first chancellor of the Empire – neither citizen Karl Marx himself, nor any reasonable person in his party, can have any doubts on that score. How then can they seek to find the centre, the head of European reaction in Russia and not in Germany, in St Petersburg and not in Berlin?

We have seen that Russia’s power is weaker in material terms: less rich, less well organised and with less knowledge of science as compared with the formidable power of the German Empire. Recent events have shown us the reality of its transcendent corruption; and Mr Bismarck’s diplomacy leaves Russian diplomacy in the shade. We see, do we not, that those projects that most menace European liberty and independence emerge spontaneously on soil in Brandenburg and Pomerania. We see the great mass of Germany’s people, apart from the urban proletariat, waiting only for a signal from Berlin to join a frenetic, patriotic stampede on whatever area of Europe may be indicated. So really, why should the head and the brains of reactionary thinking be sought in Russia rather than in Germany, emanating from St Petersburg rather than from Berlin?
Such a view would exaggerate beyond any reasonable measure the intellectual capacity of Russian statesmen and would greatly underestimate the capacity of Mr Bismarck, who in comparison with them, is a true giant. It would be an impossible assertion, an absurdity, a fantasy, a ghost, a mystical monstrosity. Political mysticism – when it has for its author someone like citizen K. Marx, someone whose spirit is so severely rational – without doubt can only be either mystification, or a bad joke.

It was certainly a mystification and no mere joke on his part. It is his German patriotism that gives rise to his reasoning, but that is no excuse. Relying no doubt on workers’ ignorance he sought to arouse among them thinking that was erroneous, but served particular German purposes: he sought to aggrandise the Russian danger beyond its real measure, to turn the attention of the good public away from the ambitious projects of his homeland. He worked to promote acceptance of Germany’s conquests in the East and in the North as so many services rendered to humanity. He sought to procure from the European proletariat, if not their active cooperation, at least their sympathy for Germany’s projects. If one omits personal feelings, which no doubt may also and at the same time have worked on him, this was the patriotic goal that he sought to realise. While he devoted his own life to serving the International and had been its chief promoter, he was in turn not displeased to use the IWA as an instrument for the grandeur and future power of Germany.

Something which seemed incomprehensible to me at first, was that German patriots of the International, not content with wishing to put a stop to Russia’s threatening expansion to the west, also wanted to prevent its extension to the east. Indeed, is it not remarkable that before even mentioning Poland, the paragraph of the Address just cited bitterly reproaches Russia for ‘seizing as prey the mountain-fortresses of the Caucasus’. In setting out this criticism citizen Karl Marx seems to disregard the inherent tendency of every great state to expand, spread and fortify its frontiers, to the detriment of its smaller neighbours. What else was at stake in the recent war against Denmark [of 1864]?4 We have seen that to reach the Baltic, Germany did exactly the same thing to detriment of the Poles and Slavs who certainly – as far as civilisation is concerned – were worth as much as the Circassian peoples. Why then should the Germans be allowed what is forbidden to the Russians? What a sample of German justice!

I would have nothing to say if Germans once and for all, without reticence, wanted to condemn outright the principle of conquest – in every instance – whatever nation was doing the conquering or whatever people were being conquered. In that case I would gladly sign with both hands every curse and condemnation that was cast against the conquests of the Russian Empire. I would have no difficulty in doing so, as conquest is a facet inherent in the state principle, and, like you dear comrades and friends, I am an enemy of every state, be it Russian or non-Russian. But the German patriots of the International do not share at all our hatred for the State principle; and being partisans of the State, they do not categorically reject conquest, rather they want to allow it only as the exclusive right of nations that represent modern civilisation, i.e., bourgeois civilisation (there is nothing else as yet, either in Europe or beyond).

Civilised nations’ conquest of barbarous peoples: that is their principle. It is the application of Darwin’s law to international politics. As a consequence of natural law, civilised nations, being ordinarily stronger, must either exterminate barbarous people, or dominate them to exploit them, or so to say, civilise them. So, in such a way, permission was given for North Americans to gradually exterminate Indians, for Britons to exploit Indians of the East, for the French to conquer Algeria and lastly for the Germans to civilise Slavs – willingly or not, in ways we are well aware of. But it should be expressly forbidden to the Russians that they should ‘acquire as prey the mountain-fortresses of the Caucasus’… 5

So, again, why should the German patriots of the International concern themselves with the conquest of Bukhara, Khiva [Central Asia], and a part of China by the Russians, having no patriotic interest to pursue beyond the Urals on the central Asian plateau? Ah! It is because they wish to arouse British patriotism – to consider the threat to its hitherto unchallenged domination of the Indian subcontinent – to drag them into making common cause with their anti-Slav and anti-Russian campaign.6 In this they act patriotically no doubt, but in so doing directly contrary to the principle of justice which should inspire the International. They seek to present all this to European workers, if not as one of the final objects, then at least as one of the main aims, one which the great Association is called on to accomplish immediately.

Thus the protest against Russian power and its invasions in Asia, which had it spring from a general condemnation of all conquests, whoever the authors or victims might be, and had it been addressed at the same time against every state, would have been perfectly legitimate, became profoundly unjust from the moment it was directed against Russia only. Complacently, silently it passed over the crimes of other powers. This protest, I say, had as its ostensible object the cementing, within the International itself, of a particular and intimate alliance between German and British patriotism.

This emerges in the recent evidence of the discussion of this matter at the first congress of the International, held in Geneva in September 1866. The official report7 on the session is so short that I can reproduce it in its entirety:

Eleventh Question:8 Of the necessity of annihilating the influence of Russian despotism in Europe through the application of the rights of peoples to decide things for themselves and of the reconstitution of Poland on a social and democratic basis. The French delegation expressed the opinion that no vote should be taken on the matter; that congress should limit itself to a declaration that opposed all forms of despotism in every land; that discussion of such complicated matters as nationality should not be entered into. Emancipation in Russia is to be welcomes (and desired) as much as in Poland; old politics9 – opposing one people to another – is to be rejected.10 British delegates expressed themselves in favour of the Polish cause, a cause that had always had the sympathies of the intelligent and democratic part of the British people. They added that the initial unity of British and French workers for common action came about when they demonstrated their feelings against Polish oppression, and this was also the first step towards the foundation of the IWA. Nevertheless, the feelings of the congress majority swung visibly towards the French proposition. Mr Becker (the German delegate) spoke next. He regretted that congress had decided nothing on this matter. The Russian Empire is a permanent threat to Europe’s civilised society, and Poland would be a barrier against it. There had been a vote to supress permanent armies, but it would be impossible to suppress them so long as Poland was not reconstituted. He added that this Polish question was a European question, but it was of special interest for Germany and it might be called – in some respects – a German question. So he proposed11 a declaration only in this sense,12 signed by German members and others who shared these opinions, and that this should be added to the [congress] report. The French delegation’s proposition and the amendment of Mr Becker were agreed.

So it is in this way that the Geneva congress buried the Germans’ first attempt to give the International an essentially Germanic orientation. The very manner in which this question had been posed translated this goal. If the General Council had been less preoccupied by the particular and political interests of Germany, and had had in view only human justice, only international justice, the same for all nations – which can become reality only on condition that it is applied equally to civilised peoples, as well as to those whom, from the great heights of a very bourgeois civilisation, one is pleased to call barbaric peoples – this eleventh question, which it believed should be submitted to the first congress of the International, should at least have been presented in the following manner:

Considering the necessity of destroying every European despotism, recognizing that each people, large or small, powerful or weak, civilised or not civilised, has the right to decide for itself and to organise spontaneously, from bottom to top, using complete freedom, beyond all forms of influence and every diplomatic and political pretension, independently of every type of State, imposed from top to bottom by any authority at all, be it collective, or individual, be it foreign or indigenous, it accepts as law and as a basis only the principles of socialist democracy, justice and international solidarity.

No doubt it would be longer, but it would be clear and just, and would have entirely excluded all equivocation. It would have been a truly international declaration of principles, not patriotic, but human; and Citizen Jean Phillipe Becker, one of the founders of our great Association, would have had no need to come and declare, and avow, that this was a question that ‘interested Germany especially’.
If the General Council had wished to be even more explicit, calling things by their real names, if it had wished to address the international question honestly, considering its real and immediate consequences, it might have submitted the following proposal for discussion in the Geneva congress:

[To resolve to work] for the abolition of States through the entirely free organisation and federation of communes and autonomous labour organisations; for the necessity of destroying and abolishing European despotism in its every legal and political institution, which has for its perfect ideal the principle of authority and which has as its real source economic exploitation.

This, I believe, would have been the programme of the Paris Commune, and, at the same time tour own, dear brothers and comrades. But in restricting the matter and in imprinting it with an exclusively Germanic tendency, the General Council of London prepared the way for an inevitable fiasco. The first congress of our great Association had to repel this bizarre proposition of the General Council, or face betraying its international character, placing itself in flagrant opposition to those principles of human justice and morality which formed the very basis of the IWA programme.

The French delegates, with the lively instinct that characterises their nation, noted first the Germanic features proposed by the General Council among its cosmopolitan and philanthropic phrases. They rejected and had others reject that proposal, after which citizen J. Phil. Becker, the intimate confidante of the Germanic tendencies within the International, came to affirm their logic declaring that – in the form this matter had been posed by the General Council in London – this question was: ‘of special interest for Germany and it might be called – in some respects – a German question’…13

As for those powers and means which German patriots pretend to believe in – things which might force Germanised Prussia, or rather Prussianised Germany, to turn precisely against Russia, promote European civilisation, and contrariwise which might prevent it from turning against socialist, democratic, liberal Europe, for the profit of heavy fisted military and bureaucratic Knouto-Germanism – German patriots have always failed to show us just what these things are. Before 1871 the Russian Empire was the leading light of that brutalism in Europe, whereas today it is only in its second string. The first place, the place of honour, the leading role in every reactionary initiative against Western Europe belongs now, without doubt, to Prussiafied Germany.

It is these powers and means that the socialist-patriots of Germany lack. But they dream. Later I will speak of that lovely means of activity and propaganda that they have invented and which they call legal political agitation. It fills an important office in the academic economy of the new Empire: that of a safety-valve. And they hope for miracles. So far they have achieved a few lovely, sterile speeches in the desert, delivered by two or three socialist deputies in the swamp of the massively bourgeois national parliament. In all this time pan-Slavist Russia and pan-German Prussia tenderly united in a reactionary embrace, have spoken little, but acted much.

Let it not be said that, being a Russian patriot myself, I in turn strive to draw the attention of Western European workers towards the harmful and ambitious activities of the new German Empire as it promotes bourgeois civilisation with the sole aim of turning it away from the very real and serious danger posed by despotic, Tsarist barbarism that today evidently threatens the cause of human emancipation and this burgeoning human civilisation of the popular masses, which is the only one which I can reasonably defer to, but which the bourgeoisie calls revolutionary barbarism - the foolishly and audaciously revolting mass.

Such is not my intention at all. Moreover, it would be to deny myself. From my first step in public life, I.e., from 1842 to today, during my thirty years of incessant activity for revolutionary socialism, I have let no occasion pass without protesting with every strength of my heart and spirit against that Russian power, against that Muscovite empire. I have been unmasking its ever turpitude and brutality, be it internal or external, presenting them always in conformity with historic truth, not as the arbitrary or accidental acts of this or that person – Tsar, minister, or some other great or small state functionary (clerical, civil, or military) – but as the fatal consequence of an entire system, as an inherent necessity and as the very principle of that monstrous empire. At the first Slav congress held in Prague in June 1848, in which I was honoured to take part, and in a pamphlet published in October, when Vienna was besieged by Prince Windisch-Graetz – the man who shelled Prague – I did everything I could to make Austria’s Slavs understand that, infallibly, they would ruin their very just cause if they attempted to make the powers in Moscow their ally, and that its cause – that of the real emancipation of the popular masses, united in demands for national autonomy, had no more determined, more ferocious, more dangerous enemy than the Russian empire.14

* * *

When one wishes to organise one’s forces one must first carefully establish one’s aims, because the fashion and form of one’s organisation arises from and flows as a consequence form the nature of one’s aims! And this is where we separate ourselves completely from the Socialist-Democrats of Germany. Being above all Socialist patriots and politicians they seek, through the hands of the German people, to create a great, new state, one that is called popular, republican and Germanic, which means, according to us, that they propose to establish a new prison for the German people, a fortress threatening the freedom of all neighbouring peoples. And we seek the destruction of all fortress prisons, the disappearance of all political homelands in a fraternal unity, in a free federation of peoples liberated from the yoke of states. We oppose our negative politics, calling for the liquidation of states, to their positive politics.

Given that we have such different aims, the means that we propose to the working masses must be essentially different to theirs. Wishing not the abolition but the transformation of the state, pursuing a goal that is positively political, they have to ally themselves to the political classes, naturally the most advanced, but bourgeois. And, on every occasion, whenever workers’ associations ally themselves with the politics of the bourgeoisie, they can only become, willingly or unwillingly, their instrument. Thus it is that groupings of sections of the International in Geneva and in Zurich, which have adopted, as we know, the programme of the German Socialist-Democrats, have become conspicuous instruments of bourgeois radicalism.

We believe that this is a deplorable misdirection. We believe that the proletariat whose principle enemy – one might say single enemy – is bourgeois exploitation, the state itself, with all its force for compression and repression and whatever form it may take, is nothing but, at one and the same time, the consequence and guarantor of that exploitation. We believe that the proletariat must seek every element of its strength exclusively within itself and that it must organise wholly beyond the bourgeoisie, working against both the bourgeoisie and against the state, which the bourgeoisie consider quite correctly as the last and most powerful means of their salvation.

Abolition of the state – this then is the political aim of the International, and its achievement is the precondition and necessary concomitant of the economic emancipation of the proletariat. But this will not be achieved all at once, because in history, as in all physical nature, nothing happens all at once. Even the most sudden revolutions, those that are most unexpected and radical, have been prepared always by a long process of decomposition and recomposition, a process that is visible or going on underground, but never interrupted and always increasing… 15

  • 1Extracts from a long text written in February-March, 1872. Adapted from the partial translation by A.W. Zurbrugg in Bakunin: Selected Texts, 1868-1875. Footnotes taken from Zurbrugg listed as AWZ and those from Bakunin as MB.
  • 2See for example Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 20 August 1848, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works: 7, 352-353; and a call for European war against Russia. [AWZ]
  • 3Part of the manuscript reviewing texts written on Polish freedom in 1863 is omitted here. [AWZ]
  • 4Schleswig-Holstein was annexed by Prussia two years later. A plebiscite was promised, it was not held at the time, but only after the First World War, and resulted in North Schleswig being returned to Denmark. [AWZ]
  • 5Four paragraphs of polemic against Borkheim are omitted here. [AWZ]
  • 6Maltman Barry served briefly as the chairperson of the IWA. Marx worked closely with him and described him as his factotum. Barry stood for election to parliament as an anti-Russian conservative. [AWZ]
  • 7Congres ouvrier de l’Association Internationale des Travailleurs tenu a Geneva du 3 au 8 septembre 1866. [MB]
  • 8It was the General Council in London of which citizen K. Marx was then, as now, a very influential member, which drew up the questions discussed by congress. [MB]
  • 9The politics of States. [MB]
  • 10One can see that the report does not reproduce the speeches of each country’s speakers on each matter, but only their general conclusions. On the Russian-Polish question an exception was made only for the speech of Citizen Becker. But French delegates – among whom are some of those who took an active and honourable part in recent revolutionary movements in France, in both Lyon and Paris, amongst them I will name just the most eminent member of the Paris Commune, our friend Varlin, shot by the troops of Versailles – the French delegates I say published soon after the Geneva congress a collective memoir, in which their thinking was much better presented on all matters addressed by this congress. (It appeared in Brussels under the title: Congres de Geneva – Memoire des Delegues Francais (Bruxelles – Parent et Fils, Editeurs – 17. Montagne de Sion. 1886). They plainly expressed their ongoing sympathy for Polish independence and freedom, and their wishes for its future emancipation on the basis of a real and complete social, political, and economic emancipation – for both urban workers and for peasants. But they refused to cast out Russia as a whole, government and nation from Europe, as British and German delegates proposed. They did not believe it needful to identify the Russian Empire with the Russian people, rightly thinking that if this was done for Russia, then it should be done so equally for every other European land, which would not have turned to the advantage of the French people, governed still at the time by Napoleon III, as it is now by Versailles, nor to the advantage of the German people above all. This was the meaning of their negative vote on the question. Mazzini, who evidently had read neither this Memoire, nor the official report on Geneva, took the opportunity to accuse French delegates of having refused to vote in favour of Poland. Once again this proves that he has brought into bis judgements targeting the International much shallowness and bad faith. [MB]
  • 11No doubt to disguise an honourable retreat. [MB]
  • 12i.e, in the sense of exclusively Germanic nationality on this question. [MB]
  • 13Two pages concerning J.P Becker are omitted here. [AWZ]
  • 14Some pages omitted here reproduce a speech made by Bakunin to the Leauge for Peace and Freedom, in Bern, in September 1868. Bakunin went on to ask questions about minorities and ethnically mixed areas – e.g. how would Polish speaking areas currently in the German empire be treated in the future? Would Germans refrain from trying to Germanise regions peopled by Danes, Czechs, Moravians, Silesians? He called for rights of secession for associations and communes, provinces and nations. [AWZ]
  • 15The final sentences included by Zurbrugg have been omitted here from the main text, as they seem to form an incomplete thought, likely expanded upon in the original letter: “So to, for the International, what is on the agenda is not the destruction from one day to the next of every state. To endeavour to achieve all that, just to dream of it, would be madness.”