The 1st International and the Fight against Sectarianism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Alongside the struggle of Bolshevism against Menshevism at the beginning of this century, the clash between marxism and anarchism within the 1st International is probably the most famous example of the defense of proletarian organizational principles in the history of the workers' movement. It is essential for revolutionaries today, separated from the living organizational history of their own class through half a century of Stalinist counter-revolution, to reappropriate the lessons of this experience. This first article will concentrate on the pre-history of this confrontation, showing how Bakunin came to the concept of taking over the leadership of the workers' movement by means of a secret organization under his own personal control. We will show how this concept led necessarily to Bakunin's manipulation by the ruling class with the aim of destroying the International. And we will demonstrate Bakunin's fundamentally anti-proletarian roots precisely at the organizational level.

The second article will then deal with the struggle which took place within the International itself, showing the radical opposition on the concept of functioning and of militantism between the marxist proletarian and the anarchist petty-bourgeois and déclassé viewpoints.

The historical significance of marxism's struggle against organizational anarchism

The 1st International has gone down in history above all because of the struggle between Marx and Bakunin, which at the Hague Congress in 1872 reached its first conclusion with the exclusion of Bakunin and his right hand man Guillaume. But what bourgeois historians present as a clash of personalities, and the anarchists as a fight between "authoritarian" and "libertarian" versions of socialism, was in reality a struggle of the entire International against those who trampled on its statutes. Bakunin and Guillaume were excluded in The Hague, because they had constructed a secret "brotherhood" within the International, an organization within the organization with its own structures and statutes. This organization, the so-called "Alliance of Socialist Democracy" existed and acted in hiding, with the goal of tearing the International out of the hands of its members and placing it under the control of Bakunin.

A deadly struggle between different organizational visions

The struggle which took place within the International was thus not between "authority and freedom" but rather between two completely opposed and hostile organizational principles.

1) On the one hand there was the position most determinedly defended by Marx and Engels, but which was that of the General Council as a whole and of the vast majority of members, according to which a proletarian organization cannot depend on the will of individuals, on the whims of "leading comrades", but has to function according to binding rules agreed on by all and binding for all, called statutes. These statutes have to guarantee the unitary, centralized, collective character of such an organization, ensuring an open, disciplined form of political debate and decision-making involving all its members. Whoever disagrees with the decisions of the organization, or no longer agrees with points of the statutes etc, has not only the possibility but the duty to present his or her critique openly in front of the whole organization, but within the framework designed for this purpose. This view of the organization, which the International Workingmen's Association developed for itself, corresponded to the collective, unitary, revolutionary character of the proletariat.

2) On the other hand Bakunin represented the elitist, petty-bourgeois vision of "brilliant leaders" whose extraordinary political clarity and determination is supposed to guarantee the revolutionary "passion" and trajectory. This leadership thus considers itself to be "morally justified" in collecting and organizing its disciples behind the back of the organization, in order to achieve control of the organization and assure the fulfillment of its historic mission. Since the membership as a whole is considered to be too stupid to be able to grasp the necessity of such revolutionary messiahs, they have to be brought to do what is "good for them" without them being aware of it, even against their will. The statutes, the sovereign decisions of congresses or elected bodies, are there for the others, but are only in the way of the elite.

This was the point of view of Bakunin. Before he joined the IWA, he explained to his disciples why the International was not a revolutionary organization, the Proudhonists having become reformist, the Blanquists old, the Germans and the General Council which they allegedly dominated being "authoritarian". It is striking how Bakunin considered the International to be the sum of its parts. What was above all lacking, according to Bakunin, was "revolutionary will". It was this which the Alliance intended to provide, by walking roughshod over the International's program and statutes and deceiving its members.

For Bakunin, the organization which the proletariat had constructed through years of hard work was worth nothing. What were everything to him were the conspiratorial sects which he himself created and controlled. It was not the class organisation which interested him, but his own personal status and reputation, his anarchist "freedom" or what is today known as "self realization". For Bakunin and his like the workers' movement was nothing but a vehicle for the realization of his own individual, individualist plans.

Without revolutionary organization, no revolutionary workers' movement

Marx and Engels, on the contrary, knew what the construction of the organization means for the proletariat. Whereas the history books believe that the conflict between Marx and Bakunin was essentially of a general political nature, the real history of the International reveals above all a struggle for the organization. Something which appears to be quite a boring affair to bourgeois historians. For us, on the contrary, its something excitingly important and full of lessons. What Marx shows us is that without proletarian organization there can be neither a revolutionary class movement nor a revolutionary theory.

And indeed, the idea that organizational solidity, development and growth are the prerequisites for the programmatic unfolding of the workers' movement, lies at the very heart of Marx and Engels' entire political activity[1]. The founders of scientific socialism knew only too well that proletarian class consciousness cannot be the product of individuals, but requires a collective, organized framework. This is why the construction of the revolutionary organization is one of the most important, if also one of the most difficult tasks of the revolutionary proletariat.

The struggle over the Statutes

Nowhere did Marx and Engels struggle with such determination, and as fruitfully, for this understanding as in the ranks of the 1st International. Founded in 1864, the International appeared at a time when the organized workers' movement was still mainly dominated by petty-bourgeois and reformist ideologies and sects. The International Workingmen's Association was in the first instance made up of these different tendencies. The opportunist representatives of the English trade unions, the petty-bourgeois reformist Proudhonism of the Latin countries, conspiratorial Blanquism, and in Germany the sect dominated by Lassalle, played a leading role within it. Although the different programs and world views clashed with each other, revolutionaries at that time were under enormous pressure for regroupment, from a working class clamoring for its unity. During the first meeting in London hardly anybody had the least idea how this unification was supposed to take place. In this situation the truly proletarian elements, with Marx at their head, pleaded for temporary postponement of the programmatic clarification between the different groupings. The revolutionaries' long years of political experience, and the international wave of struggle of the whole class should be used above all to forge a unitary organization. The international unity of this organization, embodied through the central organs, especially the General Council, and through the statutes, which had to be accepted by all members, would enable the International step by step to clarify the political divergences and achieve a unified point of view. This large scale regroupment had a chance of success as long as the international class struggle was still on the rise.

Marxism's most decisive contribution to the foundation of the 1st International lay therefore clearly at the level of the organizational question. The different sects present at the founding meeting were not able to concretize the will to international ties which the English and French workers above all had called for. The bourgeois Atto di Fratellanza, the followers of Mazzini, wanted to impose the conspiratorial statutes of a secret sect. The "inaugural address" and the statutes, which Marx, commissioned by the organizational committee, then presented, defended the proletarian and unitary character of the organization, and laid the indispensable basis for the further work of clarification. The International's ability to go further in overcoming utopian, petty-bourgeois, sectarian and conspiratorial visions, was in the first instance due to the fact that its different currents, in a more or less disciplined manner, abided by the common rules.

Amongst these different currents, the Bakuninists' specificity lay in their refusal to respect the statutes. That is why it was the Bakuninist Alliance which came close to destroying the first international party of the proletariat. The struggle against the Alliance has gone down in history as the great confrontation between marxism and anarchism. That was certainly the case. But at the heart of this confrontation were not general political questions such as the relation to the state, but organizational principles.

The Proudhonists, for example, shared many of Bakunin's views. But they were in favor of the clarification of their positions according to the rules of the organization. They also believed that the statutes of the organization should be respected by all members without exception. That is why in particular the Belgian "collectivists" were able to approach marxism on some important questions. Their best known spokesman, De Paepe, was a principled opponent of the kind of secret organization considered necessary by Bakunin.

Bakunin's secret Brotherhood

Precisely this question was at the center of the International's struggle against Bakunin. It is a fact which anarchist historians also accept, that Bakunin, when he joined the IWA in 1869, had a secret fraternity at his disposal, with which he wanted to seize control of the International.

"We are confronted here with a society, which behind the mask of extreme anarchism directs its attacks, not against the existing governments, but against the revolutionaries who do not submit to its orthodoxy and its leadership. Founded by the minority of a bourgeois congress, its members crept into the ranks of the international organizations of the working class, first of all trying to take over its leadership, and working towards its disorganization as soon as they saw that this plan had failed. In the most shameless manner they tried to slip in their own sectarian program and their limited ideas in place of the global program, the great efforts of our organization; it organizes in the public sections of the international its own little secret sections, which, obeying the same slogans, through common action agreed on in advance, in many cases has succeeded in getting control of them; they publically attack in their papers all those who refuse to submit to their leadership; they provoke open war - those are their own words - in our ranks".

These are the words of the report on "A Plot against the International Workingmen's Association" which Marx and Engels were commissioned to write by the Hague Congress of 1872 (Marx-Engels-Werke, Volume 18 Page 333).

The struggle of Bakunin and his supporters against the International was both the product of the specific historic situation at that time, and of more general factors still existing today. At the basis of his activities lay the infiltration of petty-bourgeois individualism and factionalism, incapable of submitting to the will and discipline of the organization. To this was added the conspiratorial attitude of the declasse Bohemian, who cannot do without maneuvers and plots in favor of his own personal goals. The workers' movement has always been confronted with such behavior, since the organization cannot completely shield itself from the influence of other social classes. On the other hand, Bakunin's plot took on the concrete historical form of the secret organization, something which also belonged to the past of the workers' movement of that time. We will have to look at the concrete history of Bakunin, in order also to be able to understand what is more generally valid, what is important for us to understand today.

Bakuninism opposed to the proletariat's break with petty-bourgeois sectarianism

The foundation of the International, signaling the end of the period of counter revolution after 1849, provoked the strongest (according to Marx even exaggerated) reactions of fear and hatred among the ruling classes: the remains of the feudal aristocracy and above all the bourgeoisie as the direct and historic opponent of the proletariat. Spies and agents provocateurs were sent to infiltrate its ranks. Coordinated, often hysterical slander campaigns were whipped up against it in the press. Its activities were wherever possible harassed and repressed by the police. Members were put on trial and in prison. But the ineffectiveness of these measures soon became clear as long as the class struggle and revolutionary movements were on the rise. It was not until the defeat of the Paris Commune 1871 that disarray in the ranks of the association began to get the upper hand.

What alarmed the bourgeoisie most, apart from the international unification of its enemy, was the rise of marxism and the fact that the workers' movement was abandoning the sectarian forms of clandestine organization and becoming a mass movement. The bourgeoisie felt much safer as long as the revolutionary workers' movement took the form of closed sectarian secret groupings around a single leading figure, representing some utopian scheme or plot, more or less completely isolated from the proletariat as a whole. Such sects were much more easily observed, infiltrated, misused and manipulated than a mass organization finding its main strength and security in its anchorage in the working class as a whole. For the bourgeoisie, it was above all the perspective of revolutionary socialist activity towards the proletariat as a class, something the utopian and conspiratorial sects of the prior period could never assume, which posed a danger for its very class domination. The link between socialism and class struggle, between the Communist Manifesto and large strike movements, between the political and the economic aspects of the class struggle of the proletriat - this was what caused the bourgeoisie so many sleepless nights from 1864 on. This was what explains the almost unbelievable savagery with which it slaughtered the Paris Commune, and the force of the international solidarity of all fractions of the exploiting classes with this massacre.

Thus, one of the main themes of bourgeois propaganda against the International was the accusation that in reality a powerful secret organization was behind it, and that the latter was conspiring to bring down the ruling order. Behind this propaganda, which also was an additional excuse for repressive measures, was above all the attempt of the bourgeoisie to convince the workers that what it still feared most were the secret conspirators and not its mass movement. It's clear that the exploiters did all they could to encourage the different sects and conspirers still active in the workers' movement to exert themselves at the expense of marxism and of the mass movement. In Germany Bismarck encouraged the Lassallean sect in its resistance to the strike movements of the class and to the marxist traditions of the Communist League. In France the press, but also the agents provocateurs, tried to whip up the ever present suspicion of the conspiratorial Blanquists against the mass activity of the International. In the Latin and Slavic countries a hysterical press campaign was whipped up against the alleged "German domination" of the International by the "authoritarian state-worshipping marxists".

But it was above all Bakuninism which felt encouraged by this propaganda. Before 1864, Bakunin had, despite himself, at least partly recognized the superiority of marxism over his own petty-bourgeois putschist version of revolutionary socialism. Since the rise of the International, and with it of the bourgeois political onslaught against it, Bakunin felt confirmed and strengthened in his suspicion towards marxism and the proletarian movement. In Italy, which had become the center of his activity, the different secret societies, the Carbonari, Mazzini, the Camorra etc. who had begun to denounce the International and combat its influence on the peninsula, acclaimed Bakunin as a "true" revolutionary. There were public declarations advocating that Bakunin take over the leadership of the European revolution. Bakunin's pan-slavism was welcomed as the natural ally of Italy in its struggle against the Austrian occupation forces. As opposed to this it was recalled that Marx considered the unification of Germany more important for the development of the revolution in Europe than the unification of Italy. Both the Italian and the more farsighted parts of the Swiss authorities began benevolently to tolerate the presence of Bakunin, who prior to this had been the victim of the most brutal European wide state repression.

The organizational debates on the question of conspiracy

Michael Bakunin, the son of small gentry, broke with his milieu and his class above all because of this great thirst for personal freedom, something which at that time could be achieved neither in the army, nor in the state bureaucracy nor on a landed estate. Already this motive shows how far away his political career was from the disciplined, collective character of the working class. At that time there was hardly any proletariat in Russia.

When Bakunin, at the beginning of the 1840s, reached Western Europe as a political refugee, with a history of political conspiracy already behind him, the debates within the workers' movement about organizational questions were already in full swing. Especially in France.

At that time the revolutionary workers' movement was mainly organized in the form of secret societies. This form arose not only because the workers' organizations were outlawed, but also because the proletariat, still numerically small and hardly yet separated from petty-bourgeois artisanry, had still not found its own road. As Marx wrote about the situation in France:

"It is a known fact that until 1830 the liberal bourgeoisie was at the head of the conspiracies against the restoration. After the July revolution the republican bourgeoisie took its place; the proletariat, already educated to conspire under the restoration, moved to the foreground to the extent that the republican bourgeoisie was scared off from conspiracy by the futile street battles. The Societe des Saisons, with which Barbes and Blanqui made the Uprising of 1839, was already exclusively proletarian, and so was the Nouvelles Saisons formed after the defeat (...) This conspiracy of course never embraced the great mass of the Paris proletariat" (Extracts from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx-Engels- Werke Vol 7 page 273).

But the proletarian elements did not restrict themselves to this decisive break with the bourgeoisie. They began to question, in practice, the domination of conspiracies and conspirators.

"To the extent that the Parisian proletariat itself came into the foreground as a political party, the conspirators lost their leading position, were broken up, found a dangerous competition in the proletarian secret societies, which were aimed, not at an immediate insurrection, but at the organization and development of the proletariat. Already the Insurrection of 1839 had a decisive proletarian and communist character. After it the splits began, about which the old conspirators complained so much; splits which arose from the needs of the workers to clarify their class interests, and which expressed themselves partly in the old conspiracies themselves, partly in the new propagandistic groupings. The powerful communist agitation which Cabet began soon after 1839, the controversy which arose within the communist party, soon went over the heads of the conspirators. Both Chemu and De la Hodde admit that the communists at the time of the February revolution were far and away the strongest fraction of the proletariat. The conspirators, in order not to lose their influence over the workers (...) had to follow this movement and adopt socialist or communist ideas" (Marx, ibid, Vol7, page 275).

The intermediate conclusion of this process was the Communist League, which not only adopted the Communist Manifesto, but also the first proletarian statutes of a class party freed of all conspiracy.

"The Communist League was thus no conspiratorial society, but rather a society, which went about the organization of the proletarian party in secret, since the German proletariat igni et aqua was publically outlawed from writing, speech and association. When such a society conspires, this takes place only in the sense in which steam and electricity conspire against the status quo" (Marx, "Revelations concerning the Communist Trials in Cologne", Werke Vol.8 P.461)

It was also this question which led to the split of the Willich-Schapper fraction.

"From the Communist League a fraction split off, or was split off, as you wish, which demanded, if not conspiracy, so at least the appearance of conspiracy, and therefore direct alliance with the democratic heroes of the day - the Willich-Schapper fraction" (ibid).

What made these people dissatisfied was the same thing that separated Bakunin from the workers' movement:

"It goes without saying that such a secret society, which aims at the formation of the future oppositional party and not the future government, is of little attraction for individuals who on the one hand hang the theatrical cloak of conspiracy over their own insignificance, and on the other want to satisfy their parochial ambitions on the day of the next revolution, but above all want to appear important, share in the booty of demagogy and be welcomed by the democratic market hawkers" (ibid).

After the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848-49 the League demonstrated one last time how far it had gone beyond the sect. It tried through a regroupment with the Chartists in England and the Blanquists in France, to found a new international organization: the Societe Universelle des Communistes Revolutionnaires. Such an organization was to be governed by statutes applicable internationally to all members, abolishing the division between a secret leadership and a base membership seen as a mass to be manipulated. This project, like the League itself, broke up because of the international retreat of the proletariat after the revolutionary defeat. That is why it was only more than a decade later, with the appearance of a new proletarian wave of struggle and the founding of the International, that this decisive blow against sectarianism could be struck.

First principles of proletarian organization

When Bakunin arrived back in Western Europe from Siberia at the beginning of the 1860s, the first main lessons of the proletariat's organizational struggle had already been drawn, and were available to anyone who wanted to assimilate them. These lessons were acquired in years of bitter experience during which the workers had consistently been used as cannon fodder by the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in its own struggle against feudalism. During this struggle, the proletarian revolutionary elements had separated from the bourgeoisie not only politically but organizationally, developing principles of organization in accordance with their own class nature. The new statutes defined the organization as a united, collective and conscious organism. The separation between the base, composed of workers unaware of the real political life of the organization, and a leadership composed of professional conspirators, was overcome. The new principles of rigorous centralization, including the organization of illegal work, excluded the possibility of a secret organization within the organization or at its head. Whereas the petty bourgeoisie, and above all the radicalized déclassé elements, had justified the necessity of a secret functioning of a part of the organization in relation to the whole as a means of protecting it from the class enemy, the new proletarian understanding showed that precisely this conspiratorial elite led to the infiltration of the class enemy, in particular the political police, into the proletarian ranks. It was above all the Communist League which demonstrated that organizational transparency and solidity is the best protection against destruction through the state.

Marx drew a portrait of the conspirators from Paris before the 1848 revolution which could just as easily be applied to Bakunin. Here we find a clear expression of the critique of the petty-bourgeois nature of sectarianism, which opened the door wide not only to the police but also to the déclassé Bohemian.

"Their wavering existence, dependent in some cases more on luck than on their activity, their life without rules, whose only fixed points of reference are the pubs and wine merchants - the habitual meeting place of the conspirator - their unavoidable acquaintance with all kinds of dubious people, places them in that circle which in Paris is called "Bohemia". This democratic Bohemian of proletarian origin - there is also a democratic Bohemian of bourgeois origin, the democratic dossers and bar props - are either workers who have given up their work and thus become dissolute, or people from the lumpen proletariat, who bring all the dissolute habits of this class into their new existence. One can understand how under these circumstances we find a few jailbirds involved in almost every conspiracy.

The whole life of these professional conspirators expresses the most marked characteristics of the Bohemian. Recruiting officers of conspiracy, they go from one pub to the next, feeling the workers' pulse, picking out their people, cajoling them into their conspiracy, burdening either the society treasury or their new friends with the cost of the inevitable drinks (...) He can at any moment be called to the barricades and fall, at each step the police lay traps for him which can send him to prison or even to the gallows. Such dangers actually comprise the attraction of this craft; the greater the insecurity, the more the conspirator hurries to hold on to the pleasure of the moment. At the same time the habit of danger makes one to the greatest extent indifferent towards life and freedom" (ibid p.273).

It goes without saying that such people "despise most profoundly the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers about their class interests" (p.272)

"The main characteristic in the life of the conspirator is the struggle with the police, to which they have exactly the same relationship as the thief or the prostitute. The police tolerate the conspiracies, and not only as a necessary evil. They tolerate them as easily observed centers (...) The conspirators constantly maintain feelers to the police, they come into collision with them at every moment; they hunt the informers just as the informers hunt them. Spying is one of their main occupations. It is no wonder, therefore, that the small leap from the artisan of conspiracy to paid police spy, facilitated by misery and prison, by threats and promises, is made so often" (ibid, p.274).

This was the understanding at the basis of the statutes of the International, and which worried the bourgeoisie enough to make it openly express its preference for Bakuninism.

The politics of conspiracy: Bakunin in Italy

In order to understand how Bakunin could end up being manipulated by the ruling classes against the International, it is necessary briefly to recall his political trajectory, as well as the situation in Italy after 1864. Anarchist historians are full of praise for Bakunin's "great revolutionary work" in Italy, where he set up a series of secret sects, and attempted to infiltrate and gain influence over different "conspiracies". They generally agree that it was Italy which hoisted Bakunin onto the pedestal of a "pope of revolutionary Europe". But since they carefully avoid going into the details of the reality of this milieu, we will have to go to the trouble here.

Bakunin earned a reputation for himself within the socialist camp through his participation in the revolution of 1848-49 as a military leader in Dresden. Imprisoned, extradited to Russia, and finally banished to Siberia, Bakunin did not reach Europe again until he fled in 1861. As soon as he arrived in London he went to Herzen, the well-known Russian liberal revolutionary leader. There he immediately began, independently of Herzen, to group the political emigration around his own person. It was a circle of Slavs, which Bakunin attached to himself via a pan-slavism tinged with anarchism. He kept away both from the English workers' movement and from the communist, above all German workers' educational club in London. Lacking an opportunity for conspiracy, (the foundation of the International was approaching) he set off for Italy in 1864, in search of disciples for his reactionary "pan-slavism" and his secret groupings.

"In Italy he found a lot of political secret societies; he found here a déclassé intelligentsia ever ready to get involved in all kinds of conspiracies; a peasant mass always on the verge of famine, and finally a pullulating lumpen proletariat, in particular the Lazzaroni of Naples, where he soon moved from Florence, and where he lived for several years. These classes appeared to him to be the real motor of revolution" (Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of his Life, p.411, 412).

Bakunin fled from the workers of Western Europe to the déclassé of Italy.

The secret societies as vehicles of revolt

In the period of reaction after the defeat of Napoleon, during which the Holy Alliance under Metternich pursued the principle of armed intervention of the great powers against every attempted social upheaval, those classes of society excluded from power were obliged to organize themselves in secret societies. This was not only the case for the workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, but also for parts of the liberal bourgeoisie and even dissatisfied aristocrats. Almost all of these conspiracies, from 1820 on, whether the Decabrists in Russia or the Carbonari in Italy, organized themselves according to the model of freemasonry, which arose in the 17th century in England, and whose goals of "international brotherhood" and resistance to the Catholic church attracted European enlighteners like Diderot and Voltaire, Lessing and Goethe, Pushkin etc. But like so many things in this "century of enlightenment", like the "enlightened despots" Katarina and Friedrich the Great or Marie-Therese, freemasonry possessed a reactionary essence in the form of its mystical ideology, its elitist organization in different "grades of initiation", its aristocratic character and its murkiness, its leanings towards conspiracy and manipulation. In Italy, at that time the Mecca of the non-proletarian, unbridled maneuvering and conspiring secret societies, the Guelfi, Federati, Adelfi and Carbonari were sprawling from the 1820s and 1830s on. The most famous of them, the Carbonari, was a terrorist secret society which advocated catholic mysticism, and whose structures and "symbols" were taken from freemasonry.

But at the time Bakunin came to Italy, the Carbonari were already in the shadow of Mazzini's conspiracy. Mazzinism represented a step forward in relation to the Carbonari, since it struggled for a united, centralized Italian republic. Mazzini not only burrowed underground, but also agitated towards the population. After 1848 workers' sections were even formed. Mazzini also represented a progress organizationally, since he abolished the Carbonari system according to which the base militants had to follow blindly the order of the secret leadership on pain of death. But as soon as the International rose as a proletarian force independent of his control, he began to combat it as a threat to his own nationalist movement.

When Bakunin arrived in Naples, he immediately took up the struggle against Mazzini - but from the point of view of the Carbonari, whose methods he defended! Far from being on his guard, Bakunin plunged himself into this whole murky milieu, in order to take over the leadership of the conspiratorial movement. He founded the Alliance of Social Democracy, and as its leadership the secret International Brotherhood, an "order of disciplined revolutionaries".

A milieu manipulated by the reaction

The déclassé revolutionary aristocrat Bakunin found in Italy, much more even than in Russia, a suitable terrain. It was here that his organizational concept ripened to its fullest flowering. It was a murky swamp which brought forth a whole series of anti-proletarian organizations. These groupings of ruined, often depraved aristocrats, déclassé youth, or even of pure criminals, appeared to him more revolutionary than the proletariat. One of these groupings was the Camorra, which corresponded to Bakunin's romantic vision of revolutionary banditry. The domination of Naples by the Camorra, a secret society which had developed out of an organization of convicts, had become quasi-official after the amnesty of 1860. In Sicily, at about the same time, the armed wing of the dispossessed rural aristocracy infiltrated the local secret organization of Mazzini. From then on it called itself "Mafia" according to the capital letters of its slogan of battle: "Mazzini autorizza furti, incendi, awelenamenti" ("Mazzini allows us to steal, bum and poison"). Bakunin failed to denounce these elements or clearly distance himself from them.

Direct state manipulation was also not missing in this milieu. We can safely assume that this manipulation played a part in the way the Italian milieu celebrated Bakunin as the true revolutionary alternative to the "German dictatorship of Marx". Indeed, this propaganda was absolutely identical to that spread by the police organs of Louis-Napoleon in France. 

As Engels informs us, the Carbonari and many similar groups were manipulated and infiltrated by the Russian and other secret services (see Engels: "The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsarism", Werke Vo1.22). This state infiltration was reinforced above all after the defeat of the European-wide revolution of 1848. The French dictator, the adventurer Louis Napoleon, who after the defeat of this revolution, became the spearhead of the ensuing counter revolution, allied himself with Palmers ton in London, but above all with Russia, in order to hold down the European proletariat. From 1864 on, the secret police of Louis Napoleon was active above all in order to destroy the International. One of its agents was "Herr Vogt", an associate of Lassalle, who slandered Karl Marx in public as allegedly being the head of a blackmail gang.

But the main axis of the activity of Louis Napoleon's secret diplomacy lay in Italy, where France was trying to exploit the national movement to its own ends. In 1859 Marx and Engels pointed out that the French head of state was himself an ex-member of the Carbonari. ("The monetary policy in Europe; The Position of Louis-Napoleon". In Werke Vol. 13).

Bakunin, who was up to his neck in this swamp, of course believed that he could manipulate this rubbish heap for his own revolutionary purposes. In reality it was he himself who was manipulated. To this day we do not know in detail all the "elements" with whom he "conspired". But there are some indications. For example he wrote his "freemason's manuscripts" in 1865, "a text which aimed at presenting Bakunin's ideas to Italian freemasonry" as the anarchist historian Max Nettlau tells us.

"The freemason's manuscript refers to the infamous Syllabus, the papal damnation of human thought from 1864, and Bakunin wanted to connect up with the rage against the pope whipped up by this, in order to push forward freemasonry or at least that part of it capable of development; he begins by saying: in order to again become a living and useful body, freemasonry must once again seriously take up the service of mankind" (Nettlau, Geschichte der Anarchismus, Vol.2 p. 48, 49)

Nettlau even proudly tries to prove, through a comparison of different quotations, that Bakunin had influenced the thought of freemasonry at that time. In reality it was the other way around. It was at this time that Bakunin adopted parts of the reactionary, mystical, secret society ideology of freemasonry. A world view which Engels already perfectly described at the end of the 1840s concerning Karl Heinzen:

"He sees the communist writer as a prophet, priest or vicar, who possesses a secret wisdom of his own, but which he withholds from the uneducated in order to keep them on leash (...) as if the literary representatives of communism would have an interest in keeping the worker ignorant, as if they were simply using them as the Illuminati wanted to use the populace in the last century" (Engels, "The Communists and Karl Heinzen" , Vol.4 Werke, p.321)

Here also lies the key to the Bakuninist Mystery, according to which in the future anarchist society without state and authority a secret society will still be needed.

Marx and Engels, without having thought of Bakunin, expressed this in relation to the English philosopher and once pseudo socialist Carlyle:

"The historically created class difference thus becomes a natural difference, which one has to recognize and honor as part of the eternal laws of nature through bowing before what is noble and wise in nature: the cult of genius. The whole view of the historic process of development flattens into the shallow trivialities of the Illuminati and freemason wisdom of the last century (...) With this comes the old question, who then is supposed to rule, which is broadly discussed with the most self-important staleness and finally answered, that the noble, wise and knowledgeable shall rule" (Extracts from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Werke Vol. 7 p.261).

Bakunin "discovers" the International

From the very outset the European bourgeoisie had attempted to use the swamp of Italy's secret societies against the International. Already at its foundation 1864 in London, Mazzini's supporters had attempted to impose their own sectarian statutes and thereby seize control of the Association. The representative of Mazzini in this action, Major Wolff, was later to be exposed as a police agent. After the failure of this attempt, the bourgeoisie started up the League of Peace and Freedom, using it to attract Bakunin into the cobweb of the underminers of the International.

Bakunin was expecting the "revolution" in Italy. While he was maneuvering in the swamp of the ruined nobility, déclassé youth, and the urban lumpen proletariat, the International Workingmen's Association had, without his involvement, risen to become the leading revolutionary force in the world. Bakunin had to recognize that, in his attempt to become Europe's revolutionary pope, he had backed the wrong horse. It was now, in 1867, that the bourgeois League of Peace and Freedom was founded, very obviously against the International. Bakunin with his "brotherhood" joined the League with the goal of "joining up the League, with the Brotherhood within it as its revolutionary inspiring force, with the International" (Nettlau, ibid, p. 100)

With this step, logically enough, but without even noticing it himself, Bakunin became the spearhead of the ruling classes' attempt to destroy the International.

The League of Peace and Freedom

The League, originally the idea of the Italian guerilla leader Garibaldi and the French author Victor Hugo, was founded in particular by the Swiss bourgeoisie, and supported by part of the Italian secret societies. Its pacifist disarmament propaganda and its demands for a "United States of Europe" were in reality mainly aimed at splitting and weakening the First International. At a time when Europe was split between a western part developing capitalistically, and a feudal part under the Russian knout, the call for disarmament was a favorite demand of Russian diplomacy. The International, like the whole workers' movement, had from the beginning adopted the slogan of the reestablishment of a democratic Poland as a bulwark against Russia, which at that time was the mainstay of European reaction. The League now denounced this policy as "militarist", whereas Bakunin's pan-slavism was presented as being truly revolutionary and directed against all militarism. In this way the bourgeoisie strengthened the Bakuninists against the International.

"The Alliance of socialist democracy is truly of bourgeois origin. It did not originate from the International; it is a branch of the League of Peace and Freedom, a stillborn society of bourgeois republicans. The International was already solidly founded, when Michael Bakunin took it into his head to play the part of emancipator of the proletariat. It could only offer him the field of activity common to all members. In order to acquire a reputation within it, he would first of all have had to win his spurs through consistent and self-sacrificing work; he believed that he would find better prospects and an easier path on the side of the bourgeoisie of the League" ("A Plot Against the IWA - Report on the Activities of Bakunin", Werke Vol. 18, p.335)

The proposal that Bakunin himself made, of an alliance of the League with the IWA, was however rejected by the Brussels Congress of the International. At this time it was also already becoming clear that an overwhelming majority would reject the abandonment of the support for Poland against Russian reaction. Thus there was nothing left for Bakunin but to join the International in order to undermine it from within. This orientation was supported by the leadership of the League, within which he had already set up a power base.

"The alliance between bourgeois and workers should not be limited to an open alliance. The secret statutes of the Alliance (...) include indications, that Bakunin laid the basis, in the midst of the League itself, for a secret society which should rule over the latter. Not only are the names of the leading groups identical with those of the League ... but also it are declared in the secret statutes that the founding members of the Alliance are for the most part ex-members of the Bern Congress" ("A plot..." ibid p.337)

Those who are acquainted with the politics of the League can assume that from the outset it intended to use Bakunin against the International - a task for which Bakunin was well prepared in Italy. Also the fact that several activists in the proximity both of Bakunin and the League were later exposed as police agents, speaks for this. Indeed, nothing could be more dangerous for the International than its corrosion from within by elements who themselves were not agents of the state, and who had a certain reputation in the workers' movement, but who pursued their own personal goals at the expense of the movement.

Even if Bakunin did not want to serve the counter revolution in this manner, he and his like carry the full responsibility for this through the way in which they put themselves close to the most reactionary and murky elements of the ruling class.

It is true that the Workers' International was conscious of the dangers represented by such an infiltration. The London Delegate Conference, for instance, adopted the following resolution:

"In those countries where the regular organization of the International is presently not possible due to governmental interference, the Association and its local sections can reconstruct themselves under some other name. However, any formation of international sections in the form of secret societies is and remains forbidden" (Werke Vol. 17.P.422).

Marx, who proposed this resolution, justified it as follows:

"In France and Italy, where such a political situation exists, that the right of assembly is a penal act, people will be strongly inclined to let themselves get drawn into secret societies, the results of which are always negative. Apart from this, such kinds of organization stand in contradiction to the development of the proletarian movement, because these societies, instead of educating the workers, submit them to authoritarian and mystical laws which hinder their independence and lead their consciousness in a wrong direction" (Intervention by Marx at the London Conference, September 1871).

Nevertheless, despite this vigilance Bakunin's Alliance succeeded in penetrating the International. In the second article in this series we will describe the struggle within its ranks, going to the roots of the different conceptions of organization and militantism between the proletarian party and the petty-bourgeois sect.

Kr, December 1995



[1] Clearly, the starting-point for the formation of a revolutionary organization is agreement on a political program. Nothing is more foreign to marxism, and to the workers' movement generally, than regroupment without programmatic principles. This being said, and contrary to the Bordigist vision, the proletarian program is not given once and for all. On the contrary, it is developed, enriched, and its mistakes corrected through the living experience of the class. When the IWA was formed, in other words in the early days of the workers' movement, the program's essential elements - that which determined an organization's membership of the proletarian camp - came down to a few general principles, contained in the preamble to the International's Statutes. Bakunin and his followers did not call these principles into question. Their attack on the IWA was essentially against the Statutes themselves, the IWA's rules of functioning. However, this does not mean that program and statutes can be separated. The latter express and concretize the essential principles of the working class, and no other, and are therefore an integral part of the program.