Chapter 5 Michael Bakunin and the First International

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

THE GROWTH OF libertarian thought in the nineteenth century cannot be attributed to any one man, but although the influences of Godwin, Proudhon and many lesser figures were important, it was with the rise of Michael Bakunin that revolutionary anarchism emerged as a social doctrine and that an anarchist movement grew in Europe and became the vanguard of revolutionary endeavour.

Bakunin was a Russian nobleman by birth, but his whole life and work were characterised by great intolerance of injustice and coercion and a passionate devotion to personal freedom and integrity. Gigantic and commanding in stature, before his years of imprisonment and suffering Apollonian in physical handsomeness, by nature simpleminded, eloquent, courageous and generous to a fault, Bakunin had all the attributes that might have made him a successful man of the world, a commanding statesman or the hero of a national revolution, like his friend Garibaldi. Yet he sacrificed all prospect of a prosperous or distinguished future for the suffering and poverty, the misrepresentation, obloquy and apparent failure that fall to the lot of the social revolutionary. He had neither the scientific, methodical mind of a Kropotkin nor the talented cunning of a Marx, but for the devotion and personal heroism by which he built the libertarian movement in Europe, he remains probably the greatest and certainly the most dynamic revolutionary figure of modern times.

Bakunin’s father was an ex-diplomat who held an estate of five hundred serfs in the Russian province of Tver, and who had planned for Michael, his eldest son, a respectable and patriotic career in the Tsar’s army. It was in the family that Michael first attacked authority, and his early years were filled with stormy incidents in which he incited the Bakunin children to rebel against the parental will.

Michael himself was sent to the St. Petersburg Artillery School, where he showed little zeal for military studies. Although he gained a commission in the Artillery, he left the service of the Tsar at the first opportunity. He decided to devote himself to academic studies, and became a keen student of philosophy and a disciple of Hegel, then the fashionable sage of intellectual Europe. Soon he became restive in the frustrated atmosphere of Russian society, and in 1840, when he was 26, he left Russia to study the Hegelian philosophy in its own German environment.

He departed a loyal subject of the Tsar, but in Berlin he soon fell, like Marx, under the subversive influence of the young Hegelians and began to move towards a revolutionary outlook. He studied the early socialist and communist movements that flourished in France, and first manifested himself as a revolutionary in 1842, when he published in Arnold Ruge’s Deutsche Jahrbücher an article entitled ‘Reaction in Germany’. This article contained the famous phrase ‘The desire to destroy is also a creative desire’, which has been used by many of the more unscrupulous opponents of anarchism to misrepresent Bakunin as a monster who desired violence above all and for its own sake. In fact, Bakunin meant merely that the old form of society must be ended before the new can be built. That he should have been devoted to violence for sadistic motives is contrary to all we know of his character. Indeed, he said on more than one occasion that violent revolution was at best an unpleasant and unsatisfactory necessity. “Bloody revolutions are often necessary, thanks to human stupidity; yet they are always an evil, a monstrous evil and a great disaster, not only with regard to the victims, but also for the sake of the purity and the perfection of the purpose in whose name they take place.”
In 1843 Bakunin was in touch with Weitling, whose authoritarian communism he eventually rejected, and when Weitling was arrested in Switzerland; Bakunin’s name was found among his papers. The Swiss police informed the Russian authorities, and in due course Bakunin was summoned home. He refused to obey, and in his absence was condemned to deprivation of his title of nobility and his inheritance, and also hard labour in Siberia. For his defiance the Russian government became thenceforward his most implacable enemy.
In the same year he met Proudhon and Marx in Paris. He was impressed by the two men, and in the following years his ideas, as they grew slowly through much effort and experience, were influenced by both of them. From Marx he learned that economics were more important that politics and religion, a fact which Marx revealed in his scientific analysis of society and forgot when he came to formulate revolutionary methods. From Proudhon he acquired the main bases of his future anarchism, the opposition to government and the doctrine of social decentralisation.

The following years saw Bakunin attempting to intervene wherever revolution appeared in Europe. At first he supported the Poles, until he was discredited in their eyes by a rumour spread by the Russian secret service that he was one of their own spies - a slander which followed him for many years and was afterwards revived by the Marxists to serve their own particular ends.

Then in February 1848, he hastened to Paris for the revolution against the regime of the Citizen King. He assisted enthusiastically at the barricades, but when he began to preach the anarchist ideas that were already beginning to appear in his mind, the Jacobins found him an embarrassment, and one of them remarked of him, “What a man! What a man! The first day of the revolution, he is a perfect treasure, but on the next day he should be shot!” The new ‘revolutionary’ authorities did their best to get rid of him, and when Bakunin realised the reactionary nature of the state that arose from the Parisian revolution, he decided to return to his efforts to foment the Polish insurrection.

He went to Breslau, near the Polish border, but again he found that the Poles distrusted him, and he went on to Prague. Here he was involved in another rising and fought on the barricades with the Czech students, but the insurrection was soon defeated, and he fled back to Germany, where he found a temporary refuge in Anhalt, a tiny liberal principality islanded in Prussian territory. He still intrigued with his friends in Bohemia, and in 1849 went illegally to Dresden in order to maintain closer contact with them. Here he was again overtaken by revolution and, although he had no sympathy with the German liberals, who were rising to maintain their constitutional democracy, he offered his services with a remarkably disinterested willingness and, when most of the leaders fled, remained at the barricades and assumed control of the revolution. He conducted himself so well that even Marx and Engels praised his ability and coolheadedness and, according to Bernard Shaw, Wagner, who fought beside him, was so impressed by his heroism that he used him as the model for Siegfried.

The Dresden revolution was defeated and suppressed with great brutality by Prussian troops sent to assist the Saxon king, and the surviving rebels - the majority had either been shot or thrown into the Elbe - fled to Chemnitz, where most of them, including Bakunin, were arrested during the night. Wagner was one of the few who escaped.

For Bakunin capture meant the beginning of an imprisonment which was to last eight years, in the most terrible prisons of four countries, and to be followed by years of exile in the spiritual desert of Siberia. First he was kept in prison for more than a year by the Saxon authorities, then sentenced to death, taken out to execution, and reprieved at the zero minute. Then he was handed on to the Austrian government, who desired their revenge for his part in the Prague rising. Nearly another year passed in Austrian prisons, first the citadel of Prague and then, when a rescue was feared, in the castle of Olmütz, where he was chained to a wall for three months. Again he was tried and condemned to death, and again reprieved and extradited to the next country that desired to torture this formidable rebel.

This last country was his own land, from which, as he had already been sentenced, he could not even hope for the mockery of a trial. What he expected was an execution, this time stayed by no reprieve. Instead, he was condemned to the exquisite psychological torture of solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul fortress and the even more rigorous prison of Schüsselburg, where the enemies of the Tsar lived and died in solitary confinement for many generations of revolutionaries. He remained in these prisons some six years, during which he suffered terribly from his privations and became toothless and prematurely aged from the ravages of scurvy. He began to lose all hope of ever leaving his prison to rejoin the struggle for human liberty, which, even in his greatest despair remained always in his thoughts. In 1857, however he was released from his cell and sent to Siberia for a life’s exile. He stayed there for four years, and then staged a sensational escape and returned, via Japan and the United States, to London, where his friends Ogarev and Herzen were living. Bakunin returned to freedom with a spirit, unlike his body, preserved in all its integrity and enthusiasm throughout the years of his long suffering.

Life on Paddington Green and the editing of a liberal paper with Herzen soon tired him, and he wished to resume the revolutionary struggle, which had been torn from his hands in Dresden twelve years before. When the Polish insurrection started in 1863 he endeavoured to assist the insurgents, but again the Polish leaders would have nothing to do with him, this time because his dream of a great federation of liberated Slavs ran counter to their own imperialist aspirations and his idea of a peasant uprising was diametrically opposed to their plan of an aristocratic class government. Bakunin would not accept their rebuffs, and went to Stockholm to join an expedition of Poles who planned to land in Lithuania. The project never matured, and Bakunin’s experiences with the Poles finally taught him that the social revolution could not be achieved through nationalist movements. Thenceforward he moved rapidly towards the idea of an international revolutionary movement based on the working class.

During the ensuing years he lived mostly in Italy, where he gained a number of followers, and founded his first organisation dedicated to the achievement of an anarchist revolution, the secret International Brotherhood. This was followed by his joining the League for Peace and Freedom, an organisation of liberals with a vaguely pacifistic policy which held its first congress at Geneva in that year and which Bakunin hoped to influence with his revolutionary ideas.

Bakunin’s attendance at the conference was the first public appearance of this now famous conspirator and revolutionary, and the aura attached to his name, as the hero of so many revolutions, of so many prisons, and of the sensational escape from Siberia, combined with his gigantic presence to rouse the greatest enthusiasm. One of those present wrote “As he walked up the steps to the platform... a great cry of ‘Bakunin’ went up. Garibaldi, who was in the chair, arose and went forward to embrace him. Many opponents of Bakunin’s were present, but it seemed as if the applause would never end.”

At first Bakunin had high hopes of the League for Peace and Freedom. He was elected to the Central Committee of the League, and gained a small following therein including the brothers Elisée and Elie Reclus, who were later to become famous in the anarchist movement. But very soon he realised the essentially bourgeois nature of the League as a whole and, although he attempted some kind of fusion between it and the International, which he joined in 1868, he found that the membership of the League could not keep pace with his own development. He had now come into the open as a declared enemy of capitalism, and demanded the expropriation of the land and means of production, which would be worked collectively by workers’ associations. At the Second Congress of the League he put forward proposals for the expropriation of wealth and the establishment of a classless society. When, as he had expected, these proposals were rejected, he left the League with his few followers, and turned to the International as the instrument of his revolutionary activity.

While he was still a member of the League for Peace and Freedom, Bakunin had founded his International Alliance of Social Democracy, whose nucleus was the membership of the old secret International Brotherhood and which grew to a strength of some thousands among the revolutionaries of Italy and Spain, and the Russian exiles in Switzerland. Bakunin sought for the admission of the Alliance as a whole into the International, but the General Council, led by Marx who was already regarding Bakunin as a menace to his own authority, rejected this proposal, and Bakunin had to dissolve the Alliance and allow its various sections to enter the International as separate branches.

Through the entry of Bakunin the International grew numerically, for he gained many members in Italy and Spain, where its influence had previously been negligible. But to Marx his value as an ally was more than counter-balanced by his danger as a potential rival. For Bakunin entered the International not as a member of the rank and file, but as the representative and mouthpiece of a large section of libertarian opinion. Not only did he retain his influence over the Italian and Spanish members, but he also gained the adherence of the internationalists in French Switzerland and also of many workers in France, notably in the Jura, Lyons and the Midi, and in Belgium.

The struggle between Bakunin and Marx did not, however, lie entirely or even primarily in the matter of personal influence or in the incompatibility of their widely differing personalities. There was also a deep and fundamental cleavage between their doctrines on the vital question of authority and the state. Bakunin expressed this difference clearly when he said:

“I am not a Communist because Communism unites all the forces of society in the state and becomes absorbed in it, because it inevitably leads to the concentration of all property in the hands of the state, while I seek the abolition of the state - the complete elimination of the principle of authority and governmental guardianship, which, under the pretence of making men moral and civilising them, has up to now always enslaved, oppressed, exploited and ruined them.”

The prophetic truth of these words is borne out by a consideration of the achievements of Marxist Communism as they exist in Russia today.

The first open battle between the Marxists and the Bakuninists took place at the Basle conference of 1869, which Bakunin attended in person, Marx only by proxy. Bakunin submitted a proposal for the abolition of the right of inheritance. This was opposed by the Marxists and defeated by a narrow margin. A counter proposal by the Marxists for a programme of increased death duties was also rejected by a narrow majority. The situation was somewhat ridiculous, but the fact that a resolution of the Marx-controlled General Council had been defeated for the first time, showed that the influence of Marx was at last challenged. Marx’s chief lieutenant, the German tailor Eccarius, went away exclaiming “Marx will be very displeased!”
During the period immediately following the Basle conference both groups manoeuvred for influence and position. Marx and his followers, particularly the malicious Utin, who later made his peace with the Tsar, spread as many calumnies as they could invent regarding Bakunin. But these failed to influence any of the supporters of Bakunin and in the eyes of neutrals tended to discredit the Marxists themselves rather than their opponents.

The struggle was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and the revolution in France that deposed Napoleon III. Bakunin, scenting revolution from his retreat in Locarno, set off to Lyons where his followers were numerous, and late in September the anarchists of this city set up a Committee for the Salvation of France, which immediately declared the abolition of the State. There was a bloodless rising in Lyons, and for a short time the city was in the hands of the insurrectionaries. Preparations, however, had been inadequate, and certain members of the Committee turned out to be police, or Bonapartist agents. A body of the National Guard soon put an end to this very minor revolution, and Bakunin was captured and imprisoned. He was, however, rescued by his followers, and, after remaining in hiding for a time, escaped from France, without his beard and disguised in blue spectacles.

The struggle within the International continued in minor skirmishes until 1872, when Marx, alarmed at the progressive increase of Bakunin’s influence and embarrassed by discontent among his English followers, decided to precipitate a showdown. In September of that year he called a conference of the International at The Hague. The Bakuninists protested that Switzerland would be a better locale, as most of their delegates had to travel from Mediterranean countries and some, including Bakunin, would be unable to reach The Hague in time as they could not enter the intervening countries. The General Council, however, refused to alter its proclamation, and the Italian anarchists then took the unfortunate step of boycotting the conference and thus reducing considerably the anarchist forces.

At the conference itself, the General Council admitted the falseness of its own position by refusing to allow voting on the basis of numerical strength. Marx had made his plans carefully, and the meeting was packed with his supporters, returned by fictitious branches of the International and by sections specially formed for the purpose of returning delegates.

Marx first surprised the Conference by demanding a transference of the General Council from London to New York, and sweeping extensions of its powers. This he realised would weaken the International, but he felt a move of such a nature would release it from the European Scylla and Charybdis of anarchism on the one side and English trade unionism on the other. The motions were carried by a narrow margin, after an extremely acrimonious debate. At this point the French Blanquist delegates resigned in a body.

In the political debate that followed, the anarchist programme was defeated and the General Council’s proposal for a programme of political action was accepted. The remaining item on the agenda was the expulsion of Bakunin and his associate Guillaume on the ground that they had attempted to maintain a separate organisation within the International. The decision for expulsion was only obtained after Marx had appealed to the fundamentally bourgeois standards of the delegates by raking up Netchaieff’s blackmailing letter to Lioubavine in connection with Bakunin’s translation of Das Kapital into Russian. There was no real evidence that Bakunin had any hand in this letter, but Marx succeeded in so misrepresenting the case that the conference decided to expel Bakunin and Guillaume.

The anarchists refused to recognise the decisions at The Hague and the federations of the Latin countries seceded and held a congress at St. Imier, in the Jura, where they agreed on an anarchist programme. The anarchist section of the International continued until 1878, by which time the increasing reaction in the Latin Countries made it difficult for open mass movements to continue. The Marxist rump, split by dissensions in its new home in America, had already expired in 1874, killed by its leader’s megalomaniac desire for complete domination of the working class movement.

The years following the break-up of the International were, for Bakunin, dominated by misfortune and disillusion with the results of his efforts. His health began to break, and he was forced to live in poverty and often almost in starvation. He quarrelled with most of his friends and disciples, who could not understand his natural profligacy with money whenever it came into his hands and the way in which he would spend the money of others as if it were his own.

In 1873 the Spanish Revolution occurred, and Bakunin, in spite of his illness, desired to go there to fight what he felt must be his last struggle at the barricades. But he was penniless, and his friend Cafiero, who had been subsidising him, refused to find the money for his venture.

The following year, 1874, a rising in Bologna was planned by the Italian anarchists, and Bakunin decided to take part in it. His health had now completely broken down, he had just quarrelled with his closest friends and disciples, Guillaume, Sazhin and Cafiero, and he had little faith in the prospects of the rising. But he realised his death was near, and wished to end fighting in the streets as he had fought in Dresden a quarter of a century ago. He wrote a farewell letter to his friends in Switzerland, which ended on the note of resignation. “And now, my friends, it only remains for me to die. Adieu!”

The Bologna rising however was completely abortive and Bakunin had to return to Switzerland, this time disguised as an aged priest. It was the last of his revolutionary efforts and the remaining two years of his life were spent in abject poverty and declining strength. He despaired of the revolution taking place until the masses were impregnated with revolutionary feeling, and realised that the growing reaction in Europe made that more and more difficult. But he saw intuitively the shape of the future when he wrote to Elisée Reclus, “There remains another hope, the world war. Sooner or later these enormous military states will have to destroy and devour each other. But what an outlook!” He died on July 1st, 1876, in the hospital at Berne, and was buried quietly in that city.

Bakunin was essentially a revolutionary of the deed, a fighter at the barricades, an eloquent and inspiring orator. As a hearer said of him on one occasion, “The man was a born speaker, made for the revolution. The revolution was his natural being. His speech made a tremendous impression.”

Perhaps it was because he was so much the-man for action, for the impulsive deed, the impromptu appeal to the feelings of Men, that his best expositions of ideas are found in documents of such immediate importance as articles, speeches and memoranda to conferences, rather than in his fragmentary theoretical works.
Bakunin’s teachings differed from those of his early master, Proudhon, on two principle points. Firstly, he realised that with the development of large-scale industry, Proudhon’s idea of a society of small proprietors owning their own means of production and exchanging their products through exchange banks, was not longer practicable. He therefore envisaged what he called collective production under which the means of production would be owned and worked collectively by co-operative associations of workers.

The means of production were thus owned in common, but Bakunin did not reach the later stage of common ownership of the products of labour, advocated by Kropotkin a few years later, and in his theory the producer would be entitled to the value of the product of his individual labour.

The second point on which he differed from Proudhon was that he believed the State could not be abolished by reformist methods or by the power of example, and therefore proclaimed the necessity of revolution for “the destruction of all institutions of inequality, and the establishment of social and economic equality”. He did not, however, advocate the political revolution of Jacobins and Marxists, carried out by organised and disciplined parties. “Revolutions are never made,” he declared, “either by individuals or by secret societies. They come automatically, in a measure; the power of things, the current of events and facts, produces them. They are long preparing in the depth of the obscure consciousness of the masses - then they break out suddenly, not seldom on apparently slight occasion.” He spoke as an expert in revolution.