Marx versus Bakunin - Part Three

After the defeat of the Paris Commune different ultra-left and opportunist tendencies emerged within the First International, who intrigued against the General Council and attempted to use the name of the International for their own ends. This was finally resolved with the expulsion of these elements with strict powers established for the General Council and clear rules on how the International was to be run.

Problems in England

The triumphant reaction in Europe rained blows down on the International. The correspondence of Marx and Engels reflect the increasingly desperate position: “In Spain many people have been imprisoned and others are in hiding. In Belgium the government is trying with all its might to give free rein to the law and even more against us. In Germany the followers of Bismarck are even starting to play this game too.” (Engels to Carlo Cafiero, 16 July 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 171)

There were internal problems everywhere, including in England. The war between France and Germany had benefited the English capitalists, who were able to give a part of their enormous profits to a section of the working class. As a sign of the confidence of the English bourgeoisie, several of the old anti-union laws were abolished. The idea of class collaboration began to take firm root among trade union leaders, including some who were members of the General Council.

As the International was becoming more radical, many of the union leaders were becoming increasingly moderate. To tell the truth, the alliance of these reformist union leaders with the revolutionary socialists was never very firm or wholehearted. Now it was put under extreme pressure by the Paris Commune. Some of the trade union leaders were alarmed by the Commune and the ferocious reaction that followed the defeat frightened them even more.

The intensity of the attacks on the International in the bourgeois press made them uneasy. It threatened their good relations with the bourgeois liberals, and they were anxious to put some distance between the General Council and themselves. Marx’s Address, The Civil War in France. was the last straw. Although it had been written by Marx at the request of the General Council, two English Council members, Lucraft and Odger, disassociated themselves from it and resigned in protest. Engels wrote to Carlo Cafiero on 28 July 1871:

“If Mazzini calls our friend Marx a ‘man of corrosive… intellect, of domineering temper’, etc., etc., I can only say that Marx’s corrosive domination and his jealous nature have kept our Association together for seven years, and that he has done more than anyone else to bring it to its present proud position. As for the break up of the Association, which is said to have begun already here in England, the fact is that two English members of the Council, who had been getting on too close terms with the bourgeoisie, found our address on the civil war too strong and they withdrew. In their place we have four new English members and one Irishman, and we reckon ourselves to be much stronger here in England than we were before the two renegades left.” (MECW, vol. 44, p. 186)

The fact is that the trade union leaders were already beginning to seek a rapprochement with the Liberals, in order to win seats in Parliament. Even in 1868 Marx had complained of these “intriguers”, naming Odger, who stood for Parliament on several occasions, as one of them. After they split, Marx accused them of having sold themselves to the Liberal Ministry.

This caused a split in the English section of the International. However, not all the English trade union leaders broke away. Applegarth signed the Address of the General Council on The Civil War in France and remained a member of the Council to the end. But now there were serious problems with John Hale. He was pushing strongly for the establishment of a special Federal Council to be formed for England. Marx opposed the proposal, fearing, rightly, that it would become a tool in the hands of radical bourgeois members of Parliament.

Conflicts in the American section

Marx placed great hopes in the prospects for the International in the USA, where a young and fresh proletariat was developing rapidly with the growth of industry. But even in the New World there were problems. They were the exact opposite of the problems the IWA faced in Europe, where after the Paris Commune the bourgeois and middle class were ferociously hostile to the International. In America on the contrary, socialism was becoming quite fashionable among the cultured middle classes.

Here the International was seen, not as a threat, but rather as an interesting novelty. It attracted the attention of all sorts of middle class “progressives”: liberals, pacifists, feminists, temperance societies and even religious preachers. In New York, Section 12 of the IWA was taken over by a wealthy bourgeois feminist by the name of Victoria Woodhull, who Marx described as “a banker's woman, free-lover, and general humbug [hypocrite]”, and Tennessee Claflin her sister.

Section 9 was founded by her sister and was of the same kind. Woodhull was the first woman along with her sister to operate a brokerage firm in Wall Street and then open a weekly newspaper called modestly Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, advocating among a hotchpotch of demands including sex education, free love, women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. But its main purpose for the sisters was advertising themselves and their bourgeois-liberal ideas.

Marx referred to Section No. 12 as a group “founded by Woodhull, and almost exclusively consisting of middle-class humbugs and worn-out Yankee swindlers in the reform business”. On August 30, 1871 the journal published "An Appeal of Section No. 12" (to the English-speaking citizens of the United States) signed by W. West, secretary of Section 12. The following excerpts are from this Appeal:

"The object of the International is simply to emancipate the laborer, male and female, by the conquest of political power."(…) "It involves, first, the Political Equality and Social Freedom of men and women alike."

"Political Equality means the personal participation of each in the preparation, administration, and execution of the laws by which all are governed." (…) "Social Freedom means absolute immunity from impertinent intrusion in all affairs of exclusively personal concernment, such as religious belief, the sexual relation, habits of dress, etc."

"The proposition involves, secondly, the establishment of a Universal Government... Of course, the abolition of... even differences of language are embraced in the program."

These extracts are sufficient to give an accurate idea of the class content and ideas of these people.

Immigrant workers

The most militant, class conscious and revolutionary sections of the young American proletariat were refugees from Europe: Germans, Poles, Russians, Irish, Jews, etc. Many did not speak English. By contrast, Section 12 was dominated by middle class English-speaking Americans with political ambitions. Section No. 12 invited the formation of "English-speaking sections" in the United States on the basis of this programme. In practice, this was an attempt by bourgeois careerists to use the name of the International for place hunting and electoral purposes:

"If practicable, for the convenience of political action, there should be a section formed in every primary election district."

"There must ultimately be instituted in every town a municipal committee or council corresponding with the common councils; in every state, a state committee or council corresponding with the state legislature; and in the nation, a national committee or council corresponding with the United States National Congress."

"The work of the International includes nothing less than the institution, within existing forms, of another form of government, which shall supersede them all."

This Appeal led to the formation of “all sorts of middle-class humbug sections, free-lovers, spiritists, spiritist Shakers, etc.” It caused a split in the American section, when Section 1 (composed mainly of German-speakers) of the old Council demanded 1) that Section 12 be expelled and 2) that no section be admitted to membership unless it consisted of at least two-thirds workers.

Marx considered it imperative that the IWA should purge its ranks of these elements. He wrote to Bolte: “Obviously the General Council does not support in America what it combats in Europe. Resolutions I (2) and (3) and IX now give the New York committee legal weapons with which to put an end to all sectarian formations and amateur groups and if necessary to expel them. ” This was what was done. Five dissidents formed a separate Council on November 19, 1871, which consisted of English-speaking Americans as well as Frenchmen, and Germans.

On November 19, 1871Woodhull's journal protested against Section 1 and declared, among other things:

"The simple truth is that Political Equality and Social Freedom for all alike, of all races, both sexes, and every condition, are necessary precursors of the more radical reforms demanded by the International." (our emphasis)


"The extension of equal citizenship to women, the world over, must precede any general change in the subsisting relations of capital and labor."


"Section 12 would also remonstrate against the vain assumption, running all through the Protest" (of Section 1) "under review, that the International Working Men's Association is an organization of the working classes...." (Marx, Notes on the American split)

In these few lines the bourgeois-liberal character of this trend stands out clearly. Here we have very similar ideas to that of the “trendy lefts” today: feminists, pacifists, ecologists and all the other petty bourgeois movements that have infiltrated the labour movement in a period when the class struggle was at a low ebb. These elements tend to be highly eloquent and assertive in pushing their particular views. They elbow the workers to one side and seize positions, which they use for their own advantage.

For these people, the struggle for socialism is always subordinate to their particular hobby, in this case, feminism. Although they were very far removed from anarchism, like Bakunin, they were very keen to assert their “autonomy” against the General Council, and their absolute right to “do their own thing”. This is very characteristic of middle class tendencies at all times – the assertion of “my” rights as an absolute and inviolable principle as against the rights of the majority. In the pages of Woodhull's Journal, October 21, 1871, Section 12 asserted:

"The independent right of each section to have, hold, and give expression to its own constructions of said proceedings of the several Congresses, and the Rules and Regulations” (!) “of said General Council, each section being alone responsible for its own action."

This is how these people understood the role of the proletariat. In Woodhull's journal, November 25, 1871, we read the following:

"It is not true that the 'common understanding or agreement' of the workingmen of all countries, of itself, standing alone, constitutes the Association... The statement that the emancipation of the working classes can only be conquered by themselves cannot be denied, yet it is true so far as it described the fact that the working classes cannot be emancipated against their will [!]."

This is the authentic voice of the bourgeois socialist, loud and clear!

On December 3, 1871, the new Federal Council for North America was formally founded. The very next day it denounced the bourgeois swindlers in a circular to all sections of the International in the United States. It states, among other things:

"In the Committee" (of the old Central Committee) "which was to be a defense against all reform swindles, the majority finally consisted of practically forgotten reformers and panacea-mongers....

"Thus it came about that the people who preached the evangels of free love sat fraternally beside those who wanted to bring to the whole world the blessing of a single common language ‑ land co-operativists, spiritualists, atheists, and deists ‑ each striving to ride his own hobbyhorse. Particularly Section 12, Woodhull... The first step that has to be taken here to further the movement is to organize and at the same time arouse the revolutionary element to be found in the opposing interests of capitalists and workers...

"The delegates of Sections 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 16, 21, 23, 24, 25, and others, having seen that all efforts to control this mischief were in vain, decided, after the adjournment of the old Central Council sine die (December 3, 1871), to establish a new one, which would consist of real workers and which would exclude all those who would only confuse the question". (New Yorker Democrat, December 9, 1871)

The break with Section 12

The two rival Councils appealed to the General Council for recognition. This obviously caused some confusion. Various sections, for example, the French Section No. 10 (New York), and several Irish sections, withdrew their delegates from both councils until the General Council made its decision.

The Woodhull journal (West, etc.) lied unashamedly when it asserted that it was sure of the support of the General Council. An article of December 2 carried the headline: Section 12 Sustained. The Decision of the General Council. This was a direct fabrication. On the contrary, the decision of the General Council, November 5, 1871, sustained the Central Committee against the claims of Section 12, which tried to replace it.

The fate of the International in the United States depended on carrying out a complete break with Woodhull and Co. As soon as the resolutions reached New York, they began to follow their old tactics. First they had discussed the original split in the most notorious New York bourgeois papers. Now they did the same against the General Council (presenting the matter as a conflict between Frenchmen and Germans, between socialism and communism), to the joy of all the enemies of the International.

The middle class elements particularly resented the proposal of the General Council that two-thirds of the members of any section should be made up of workers. Very characteristic were the marginal comments in Woodhull's journal on December 15 1871:

"No new test of membership, as that two-thirds or any part of a section shall be wage slaves, as if it were a crime to be free, was required."

The journal dated May 4, 1872 commented on the resolution of the General Council:

"... In this decree of the General Council its authors presume to recommend that in future no American section be admitted of which two-thirds at least are not wage slaves. Must they be politically slaves also? As well one thing as the other...."

To these complaints of the petty bourgeois elements, Marx replied: "The intrusion into the International Working Men's Association of bogus reformers, middle-class quacks, and trading politicians is mostly to be feared from that class of citizens who have nothing better to depend upon than the proceeds of wage slavery."

Presidential ambitions

Ignoring the clear repudiation by the General Council, Woodhull and her supporters continued to organize a ceremony of confusion, arguing, without the slightest justification, that the International had accepted her feminist views. In an article signed W. West, in Woodhull's, etc., journal, March 2, 1872, one reads:

"The issue of the 'Appeal' of Section 12 to the English-speaking citizens of the United States in August last was a new departure in the history of the International, and has resulted in the recognition by the General Council of Political Equality and Social Freedom of both sexes alike, and of the essential political character of the work before us."

Meanwhile, as the Presidential elections approached, the cloven hoof showed itself ‑ namely, that the International should serve in the election of ‑ Madame Woodhull! She decided to run as the first woman for the United States Presidency in 1872 but it turned out to be a farce. In order to get support for her campaign, she flirted with the bourgeois Liberals. On March 2, 1872, under the title, "The Coming Combination Convention", we read the statement:

"There is a proposition under consideration by the representatives of the various reformatory elements of the country looking to a grand consolidated convention to be held in this city in May next, during Anniversary week... Indeed, if this convention in May acts wisely, who can say that the fragments of the defunct Democratic party will come out from them and take part in the proposed convention... Every body of radical [mind] everywhere in the United States should, as soon as the call is made public, take immediate steps to be represented in it."

The Appeal was headed by the signature: Victoria C. Woodhull, followed by Theodore H. Banks, R. W. Hume (Banks was one of the founders of the Counter Council). In this Appeal: the convention will consider "nominations for President and Vice-President of the United States". Specially invited were:

"Labor, land, peace, and temperance reformers, and Internationals and Women Suffrages ‑ including all the various suffrage associations ‑ as well as all others who believe the time has come when the principles of eternal justice and human equality should be carried into our halls of legislation."

The whole affair was the laughing stock of New York and United States. Section 2 of the IWA stated:

"Recognizing the principle of women's right to vote, in view of the insinuations of Citizeness Woodhull, at the meeting in Apollo Hall, leading the public to believe that the International supports her candidacy.


"That for the present the International cannot and should not be taken in tow by any American political party; for none of them represents the workers' aspirations; none of them has for its objective the economic emancipation of the workers.

"Section 2 had thought:

"That our sole objective ought to be, for the present, the organization and the solidarity of the working class in America."

Under the title "Internationals, watch out!", the same issue of Socialiste states, among other things:

"The International is not, and cannot be, persecuted in America; the politicians, far from aiming at its destruction, think only of using it as a lever and supporting point for the triumph of their personal views. Should the International let itself be dragged into this path, it would cease to be the Association of Workers and become a ring of politicians.

"For a long time now, there have been cries of alarm; but the convention in Apollo Hall, nominating, in the name of the International, Madame Woodhull as candidate for the Presidency, should henceforth open the eyes of the less perceptive. Internationals of America, watch out!"

Ms. Woodhull tried to use her money to buy herself an International. But it proved to be too expensive. The bourgeois policies advocated by Section 12 were sufficient grounds for the expulsion of the Woodhull group and its supporters from the First International. The Hague Congress ratified the expulsion of these middle class interlopers and recognized the new, proletarian Council.


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