Marx versus Bakunin - Part Four

In 1872 in response to the intrigues of Bakunin and his secret society, the Hague conference of the First International adopted a resolution prohibiting any organization with an independent programme to function within the body of the International and proceeded to expel Bakunin and his supporters, putting an end to the internal diatribe and intrigues and establishing the principles upon which the organisation would function.

The London Conference

The congress in Basle in 1869 had decided that the next congress should take place in Paris, and was now (1871) due, but under conditions of ferocious state repression, the General Council decided to hold a closed conference in London, similar to the one which had taken place in 1865. Under the general conditions of reaction, the Conference had to have a secret character. Marx wrote to the Russian Utin on 27 July 1871:

“Last Tuesday the General Council resolved that there would not be a Congress this year (in view of extraordinary circumstances) but that, as in 1865, there should be a private conference in London to which different sections would be invited to send their delegates. The convocation of this Conference must not be published in the press. Its meetings will not be public ones. The Conference will be required to concern itself, not with theoretical questions, but exclusively with questions of organization.” (Marx to Nikolai Utin, MECW, vol. 44, p. 178.)

The London conference took place from the 17th to the 23rd of September with only 23 delegates present, including six from Belgium, two from Switzerland and one from Spain. Thirteen members of the General Council were also present, but six of them had only a consultative vote.

It approved a resolution that the emancipation of the working class could be achieved only by constituting itself into a special political party against the bourgeois parties. The conference also declared that the German workers had fulfilled their proletarian duty during the Franco-Prussian War. And it rejected all responsibility for the so-called Nechayev affair. The resolution adopted on the question of the political struggle represented a total defeat for the Bakuninists, as we see from the concluding paragraphs:

"In presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working men, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it;...

"That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to insure the triumph of the social Revolution and its ultimate end ‑ the abolition of classes;

"That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political powers of landlords and capitalists ‑

"The Conference recalls to the members of the International:

"That in the militant state of the working class, its economical movement and its political action are indissolubly united."

The General Council was convinced that, despite Bakunin's protestations, his secret society continued to exist. The conference adopted a resolution prohibiting any organization with an independent programme to function within the body of the International.

The conference declared that the question of the Alliance was settled, now that the Geneva section had voluntarily dissolved itself. With regard to the Jura sections, the conference ratified the decision of the General Council, recognizing the Federal Council in Geneva as the only representative body for the Latin Swiss members. It advised the workers of the Jura sections to affiliate once again to the Federal Council in Geneva. Alternatively, they should call themselves the Jura Federation.

The conference further declared categorically that the International had nothing to do with the Nechayev affair, and that Nechayev had falsely appropriated and utilized the name of the International. This was directed at Bakunin who was well known to have been connected with Nechayev for a long time. Finally, the Conference left it to the discretion of the General Council to decide the time and place of the next congress or conference.

Marx regarded the results of the Conference as positive. He wrote to Jenny Marx on 23 September 1871 with a tone of palpable relief: “The conference is at last coming to an end today. It was hard work. Morning and evening sessions, commission sessions in between, hearing of witnesses, reports to be drawn up and so forth. But more was done than at all the previous Congresses put together, because there was no audience in front of which to stage rhetorical comedies.” (Marx to MECW, vol. 44, p. 220)

Attacks on the General Council

The London Conference brought the conflict with the Bakuninists to a head. For years the General Council had to fight against this conspiracy. Unable to prove what was going on behind the backs of the members of the International, Marx and Engels had to put up with the campaign of insults and attacks for almost a year. At last, by means of Conference resolutions I (2) and (3), IX, XVI, and XVII, it delivered its long prepared blow.

The Bakuninists now declared open war against the General Council. They accused it of rigging the conference and of forcing upon the International the dogma of the necessity of organizing the proletariat into a special party for the purpose of winning political power. The Bakuninists accused Marx and his followers as opportunists who were hindering the social revolution. They demanded another Congress where this question would be definitely settled.

In a barrage of circulars and letters, the Bakuninists publicly abused Marx in the most foul and disgusting language. In this furious campaign to discredit Marx and the General Council, they did not hesitate to accuse Marx of being an agent of Bismarck. They were even prepared to make use of anti-Semitism.

Bakunin felt threatened by Resolution XIV, and made strenuous efforts to get a protest started against the Conference decision. For this purpose he made use of some demoralized elements among the French political refugees in Geneva and London. Playing unscrupulously on the anti-German sentiments of the French, Bakunin compared Marx to Bismarck. He put out the slogan that the Geneva Council was dominated by Pan-Germanism.

Bakunin used national prejudice without scruples. He argued that all Germans held authoritarian views, and repeatedly compared Marx to Bismarck. He also repeatedly accused Marx of advocating a universal dictatorship, and a socialism "decreed from the top down." This accusation had not the slightest basis in fact. All his life Marx insisted that "the emancipation of the working classes can only be the work of the working classes themselves." But as the hack journalists say: why let the facts spoil a good story? Lies and slanders are the stock-in-trade of all intriguers. And if a lie is repeated with sufficient insistence, some people are sure to believe it.

In slandering Marx, Bakunin did not even stop at racist and anti-Semitic smears, which he raised on more than one occasion. For example, he wrote in 1872:

"Proudhon understood and felt liberty much better than Marx; Proudhon, when he was not dealing with doctrine and metaphysics, had the true instinct of the revolutionary – he worshipped Satan and proclaimed anarchy. It is possible that Marx might theoretically reach an even more rational system of liberty than that of Proudhon – but he lacks Proudhon’s instinct. As a German and a Jew he is authoritarian from head to foot. Hence come the two systems: the anarchist system of Proudhon broadened and developed by us and freed from all its metaphysical, idealist and doctrinaire baggage, accepting matter and social economy as the basis of all development in science and history. And the system of Marx, head of the German school of authoritarian communism.” (James Joll, The Anarchists, p. 90)

Marx refers to all this as “the intrigues of this bunch of scoundrels”, a description that, as we see, was fully justified.

Bakunin had a base in Italy and the French region of Switzerland. His main base was among the skilled watchmakers of the Jura region of Switzerland who were beginning to suffer from the competition of the developing industries.

The London Conference had given the General Council authority to disown all alleged organs of the International which, like the Progres and the Solidarité in the Jura, discussed internal questions of the International in public. The Bakuninists changed the name of Solidarité to La Révolution Sociale, which immediately began a ferocious attack on the General Council of the International, which it described as the “German Committee led by a brain à la Bismarck.”

This was a scandalous attempt to play on the anti-German prejudices of the French. Marx wrote to an American friend: “It refers to the unpardonable fact that I was born a German and that I do in fact exercise a decisive intellectual influence on the General Council. Nota bene: the German element in the General Council is numerically two-thirds weaker than the English and the French. The crime is, therefore, that the English and French elements are dominated (!) in matters of theory by the German element and find this dominance, i.e., German science, useful and even indispensable.” (Letter to Bolte)

The Bakuninists then tried the trick of changing their name. On the 20th of October the new Section for Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action appeared in Geneva and approached the General Council with a request for affiliation. After the General Council had consulted the Federal Council in Geneva the request was rejected. In the end the Bakuninists set themselves up as the Jura Federation. Marx wrote to the Belgian César de Paepe on 24 November 1871:

“On the other hand, there will be the Jura Federation in Switzerland (in other words the men of the Alliance who hide behind this name), Naples, possibly Spain, part of Belgium and certain groups of French refugees (who, by the by, to judge by the correspondence we have had from France, would not appear to exert any serious influence there), and these will form the opposing camp. Such a split, in itself no great danger, would be highly inopportune at a time when we must march shoulder to shoulder against the common foe. Our adversaries harbour no illusions whatever about their weakness, but they count on acquiring much moral support from the accession of the Belgian Federal Council.” (MECW, vol. 44, p. 264)

The Jura sections organized a congress on the 12th of November in Sonvillier, although only 9 out of 22 sections were represented by only 16 delegates. However, to make up for their small numbers, they made more noise than ever. They expressed resentment at the fact that the London Conference had forced a name on them, but for tactical reasons they decided to call themselves in the future the Jura Federation.

In Switzerland many members of the International supported the London Conference. On December 21-2, Marx’s daughter Jenny wrote to Kugelmann as follows:

“In Geneva, that hotbed of intrigants, a congress representing thirty sections of the International has declared itself for the General Council, has passed a resolution to the effect that the separatist factions cannot henceforth be considered to form parts of the International, their acts having clearly shown that their object is to disorganize the Association; that these sections, who, under another name, are only a fraction of the old Alliance faction, by continuing to sow dissentions, are opposed to the interests of the Federation. This resolution was voted unanimously in an assembly of 500 members. The Bakuninists who had come all the way from Neuchatel to be present would have been seriously ill-used, had it not been for the men whom they style ‘des Bismarckians’ Outine, Perret, etc., who rescued them and begged the assembly to allow them to speak. (Outine of course was well aware that the best means of killing them altogether was to allow them to make their speeches.” (Documents of the First International, p. 530, notes)

However, in revenge, the Sonvillier congress sent out a circular to all the Federations of the International attacking the validity of the London Conference and appealing from its decisions to a general congress to be called as quickly as possible. They began to spread the rumour that the International was in a mortal crisis and on a downward path. In their view, the IWA had been formed as “a tremendous protest against any kind of authority,” and that every section had been guaranteed complete independence. They argued that the General Council was only an executive organ, but now the members had come to place a blind confidence in it. As a result, the Basle Congress had given the General Council authority to accept, reject or dissolve sections, pending the approval of the next congress.

What the author of the circular (Guillaume) did not mention was that this decision had been adopted after Bakunin had spoken enthusiastically in its favour, and that Guillaume had been in complete agreement with it. The reason was quite simple: the Bakuninists, who were strongly represented at Basle, believed that the General Council was going to be moved to Geneva, and they could control it. It is usually the case that the “anti-authoritarian” tendency is only against authority when they are in a minority. When they are in the majority, they are invariably despots and bullies.


The Congress of Sixteen proceeded to "reorganize" the International by attacking the Conference and the General Council in a "Circular to All Federations of the International Working Men's Association". The Sonvillier circular used demagogic arguments to “prove” the dictatorial nature of the General Council, which had consisted of the same men and met in the same place for five years. This was cited as proof that the General Council now regarded itself as the (Bismarckian) “brains” of the International. Why were the ideas of the General Council regarded as the official theory of the International? Why were they considered to the only ones permissible? Why did the General Council regard the different opinions of other groups and individuals as heresy?

A stifling orthodoxy had developed in the International and in the members of the General Council, they argued, which prevented creative thinking and oppressed the free spirits of everybody else. The omnipotence of the General Council necessarily had a corrupting effect. It was impossible that a man like Marx who held such power could retain a moral character. This was a recipe for tyranny, and so on and so forth.

The decisions taken at Basle were bad enough, they said. But now the London Conference had taken further steps to transform the International from a free association of independent sections into an authoritarian and hierarchical organization in the hands of the General Council. It had decided that the General Council should have power to determine the time and place of the next congress, or of a conference to replace it. Thus the General Council had the power to replace the congresses with secret conferences.

They demanded that the powers of the General Council be reduced to those of a simple bureau for correspondence and the collection of statistics, and dictatorship and centralization be replaced by a free association of independent groups “without any directing authority, even if set up by voluntary agreement”

The General Council was to be no more than a “simple statistical and corresponding bureau”. The International must be the very image of the future communist society:

“The future society should be nothing but a universalization of the organization which the International will establish for itself. We must therefore try to bring this organization as close as possible to our ideal […] The International, embryo of the future human society, must henceforth be the faithful image of our principles of liberty and federation, and must reject any principle leading to authoritarianism, to dictatorship.”

This whole line of argument (which is still repeated today, even by people who think they are Marxists) is false from start to finish. The revolutionary party is a necessary tool for overthrowing capitalism. Must a tool resemble what it produces? In order to make a chair, a saw is required. But a saw that resembled a chair would never produce a chair or anything else.

This is not only nonsense but dangerous nonsense, and particularly so at the time we are considering, when, following the defeat of the Commune, the International was under attack from the bourgeois State, its members in many countries facing arrest and imprisonment or deportation.

As Marx remarked: “The Paris Communards would not have failed if they had understood that the Commune was ‘the embryo of the future human society’ and had cast away all discipline and all arms — that is, the things which must disappear when there are no more wars!” (op. cit., p. 115)

The real attitude of the “anti-authoritarians” was shown by the following incident. When the IWA representative, the Russian Utin, went to Zurich, he was attacked and beaten by eight men, who would have killed him, except that four German students happened to appear and saved him. It appears that this attack was organized by Slav supporters of Bakunin, whose activities were to be investigated by Utin. This kind of conduct was not only considered acceptable by Bakunin. He actively encouraged it, as we see in the case of Nechayev.

The Jura circular did not achieve its aim. The demand for the calling of a congress met with no support. Only in Belgium was it decided to call for a change in the Statutes of the International, to turn it into an association of independent federations and make the General Council “a Centre for Correspondence and Information.”

The Sonvillier circular provided welcome ammunition to the enemies of the International and was widely publicized by the bourgeois press, which, particularly since the fall of the Paris Commune, had been assiduously spreading lies about the sinister power of the General Council. These fairy stories were now confirmed from within the ranks of the International. The Bulletin Jurassien, which now took the place of the Révolution Sociale reprinted the articles of approval of the bourgeois newspapers.

It was the noisy campaign of slander and disinformation initiated by the Sonvillier circular that caused the General Council to issue an answer to it, also in the form of a circular, entitled Fictitious Splits in the International (Les prétendues Scissions dans l’Internationale.) In this circular the General Council answered all the lies and distortions of the Bakuninists.

The London conference’s acknowledgement that the German workers had done their proletarian duty during the Franco-Prussian War, this was used as an excuse for the accusation of “Pan-Germanism,” which was said to dominate the General Council.

These ridiculous accusations were brought forward in order to undermine the centralization of the International, which, in practice, would have meant its complete dissolution. Particularly in the prevailing conditions of counterrevolution, state repression and the systematic infiltration of workers’ organizations by police spies, centralization was the only possibility of saving the organization, as Marx explained:

“It [the Alliance] proclaims anarchy in the ranks of the proletariat as the infallible means of breaking the powerful concentration of political and social forces in the hands of the exploiters. Under this pretext and at a moment when the old world is seeking to destroy the International it demands that the latter should replace its organization by anarchy.”

But such considerations made no difference to the anarchists, whose unprincipled and baseless attacks on the International leadership from within served to reinforce the attacks of the bourgeois state from without. Marx systematically exposed the machinations of the intriguers, and in particular Bakunin.

The Hague Congress

This Congress was convened in September, 1872. For the first time Marx was present in person, but Bakunin stayed away, probably because he knew he would be heavily defeated. The resolution of the London Conference on political action was ratified. There was one small addition which was copied verbatim from the Inaugural Address of the International. It reads:

"Since the owners of land and capital are always using their political privileges to protect and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave labour, the great duty of the proletariat is to conquer the political power."

On the 5th of March 1872 the General Council had announced the calling of the annual congress for the beginning of September. In a letter to Kugelmann on the 29th of July Marx wrote: “The international congress (Hague, opens on the 2nd of September) will be a matter of life or death for the International and before I withdraw I want at least to protect it from the forces of dissolution.”

Part of Marx’s plan to protect the International from the destructive activities of the Bakuninists was the proposal to move the General Council from London, where it was becoming increasingly bogged down in rows and conflicts, to New York. The Bakuninists were not represented on the General Council, but they had succeeded in causing such confusion among the German, English and French members that the Council was obliged to form a special subcommittee to deal with the constant disputes.

The Hague congress met from the 2nd to the 7th of September. There were 61 delegates and Marx had a certain majority. With the exception of Lafargue, all five Spanish delegates were Bakuninists, as also were the eight Belgian and the four Dutch representatives. But the Italian Bakuninists sent no representatives to the congress, since their Rimini conference in August had broken off all relations with the General Council. The Jura Federation sent Guillaume and Schwitzguebel.

The rows began immediately, with the preliminary examination of the mandates, which lasted three days, so that the actual business of the congress began only on the fourth day with the reading of the report of the General Council, which was drawn up by Marx. The report detailed all the acts of repression against the International, the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, the terrorism of the English government against the Irish sections. It also reported on the steady progress made by the International in Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland and Scotland, and its growth in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Buenos Aires. The report was adopted with acclaim.

It is interesting to note the attitude of Marx and Engels to the question of imperative mandates: that is, the practice of mandating delegates to vote in a particular way. This is an essentially undemocratic practice, which prevents delegates from arriving at their own conclusion as a result of participating in a debate and listening to the arguments of all sides. Engels wrote on the subject:

“We shall only note that if all electors gave their delegates imperative mandates concerning all points on the agenda, meetings and debates of the delegates would be superfluous. It would be sufficient to send the mandates to a central counting office which would count up the votes and announce the results. This would be much cheaper.” (Engels, Imperative mandates at the Hague Congress, 17th September 1872, MECW, vol. 23, p. 277)

Nowadays, when it has become fashionable in certain quarters to revive anarchist theories on organization, using the pretext of modern technology and particularly the Internet, these lines have a great relevance. If all that is required is the click of a mouse, congresses, conferences, debates and so on, are quite unnecessary. They can be replaced by emails. How Engels would have enjoyed that idea!

There followed the discussion on the General Council. Lafargue explained that the daily struggle of the working class against capitalism could not be conducted effectively without a central leadership. Opposing this, Guillaume denied the necessity for a General Council except as a central office for correspondence and statistics and without any authority. The International was not the property of one clever man, and so on and so forth.

The discussion ended on the fifth day of the congress in a closed session. In a long speech Marx demanded that the previous powers of the General Council should not only be maintained, but increased. It should be given the right to suspend, not only individual sections, but whole federations, under certain conditions, pending the decisions of the next congress. It had neither police nor soldiers at its disposal, but it could not permit its moral power to decay. Rather than degrade it to a letter-box it would be better to abolish the General Council altogether. Marx’s viewpoint was carried with 36 votes against 6, with 15 not voting.

Engels then moved that the General Council should be moved from London to New York for at least a year. The proposal caused consternation, particularly from the French delegates, who succeeded in getting a separate vote first on whether the seat of the General Council should be moved at all, and secondly whether it should be moved to New York. In the end, the motion that the seat of the General Council should be moved was carried with a small majority. Twelve members of the new General Council were then elected and given the right to co-opt seven other members.

In the same session the discussion on political action was opened. Vaillant brought in a resolution in the spirit of the decision of the London conference, declaring that the working class must constitute itself its own political party independent of, and in opposition to, all bourgeois political parties. He pointed to the lessons of the Paris Commune, which had collapsed for the lack of a political programme. Guillaume, on the other hand, wanted to have nothing to do with this. The anarchists wanted to destroy political power, not to conquer it.

The Blanquists Ranvier, Vaillant and the others left the congress in protest at the decision to remove the General Council to New York. Serge took the chair in place of Ranvier and Vaillant’s proposal was then adopted with 35 against 6 votes, and 8 votes not cast. Some of the delegates had already left for home, but most of them had left written declarations in favour of the resolution.

The last hours of the last day of the congress were taken up with the report on Bakunin and the Alliance. The problem had been hanging round the neck of the International like a heavy millstone. It is one thing to engage in internal discussions about political differences, something that can be highly educational, but it is another thing to be involved in the kind of constant wrangles with intriguers whose aim is not to fight for ideas but to confuse, disorient and disrupt because they cannot convince the majority.

Such a phenomenon does not educate or raise the level, but spreads demoralization. Marx already pointed to the destructive effects the Bakuninists were having in Switzerland, when he wrote Fictitious Splits in the International that “the Geneva Federal Committee […] was exhausted after its two years of struggle against the sectarian sections” (MECW, vol. 23, p. 93). It was not the only case.

A committee of five declared with four votes against one (a Belgian) that it considered that a secret Alliance had existed with statutes directly contrary to the statutes of the International, although there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the Alliance still existed.

Secondly, it was proved by a draft of the statutes and by letters of Bakunin that he had attempted to form a secret society within the International with statutes differing fundamentally from the statutes of the International. Thirdly, Bakunin had adopted fraudulent practices in order to obtain possession of the property of others, and either he or his agents had used intimidation. On these grounds the majority of the committee then demanded the expulsion of Bakunin, Guillaume and a number of their supporters from the International.

This was accepted. The Congress had ample reasons for expelling Bakunin on purely political grounds. But there is one final point to make: in addition to the above-mentioned grounds Bakunin was expelled also for a "personal reason."

This "personal reason” refers to matters related to the Nechayev affair. While in Switzerland, Nechayev had been involved in an act of blatant blackmail. In order to earn some money, Bakunin had promised to undertake the translation of Das Kapital for a Russian publisher, who paid him an advance of three hundred roubles. The translation was never done, but Bakunin agreed that Nechayev should arrange to release him from his contract. Nechayev then wrote a letter to Lyubavin, the publisher's agent in Switzerland, threatening him with “the vengeance of the People's Justice” (i.e. death) if he continued to bother Bakunin.

Marx alludes to this in a letter to Nikolai Danielson, dated 15 August, 1872):

“Bakunin has worked secretly since years to undermine the International and has now been pushed by us so far as to throw away the mask and secede openly with the foolish people led by him — the same man who was the manager in the Nechayev affair. Now this Bakunin was once charged with the Russian translation of my book [of Volume I of Capital], received the money for it in advance, and instead of giving work, sent or had sent to Lubanin (I think) who transacted for the publisher with him the affair, a most infamous and compromising letter. It would be of the highest utility for me, if this letter was sent me immediately. As this is a mere commercial affair and as in the use to be made of the letter no names will be used, I hope you will procure me that letter. But no time is to be lost. If it is sent, it ought to be sent at once as I shall leave London for the Haag Congress at the end of this month.” (MECW, vol. 44, p. 421)

The Hague Congress settled this question once and for all.

« Part three Part five »