Anarchism and Working Class Struggles

The Robber Barons

The Robber Barons

Continuing with the installments to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I describe how, in the 1880s and 1890s, anarchists renewed their involvement in working class struggles in Europe and the Americas, leading to the emergence of anarcho-syndicalism.


Anarchism and the Workers’ Struggles

The Haymarket Martyrs were part of the so-called “Black International,” the International Working People’s Association. The IWPA drew its inspiration from the anti-authoritarian International, and adopted a social revolutionary anarchist program at its founding Congress in Pittsburgh in 1883, openly advocating armed insurrection and the revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists by the workers themselves (Volume One, Selection 55). Following the example of the anti-authoritarian International of the 1870s, the IWPA sought to create revolutionary trade unions that would press for the immediate demands of the workers, for example the 8 hour day, while preparing for the social revolution. Around the same time, similar ideas were being propounded by the Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), and by anarchists involved in working class movements in Latin America.

But by 1894 in Europe, when Malatesta again urged anarchists to go to the people, many agreed with him that after “twenty years of propaganda and struggle… we are today nearly strangers to the great popular commotions which agitate Europe and America” (Volume One, Selection 53). One of those anarchists was Fernand Pelloutier (1867-1901). Sensing growing disillusionment among the workers with the electoral tactics of the socialist parties, some anarchists had again become involved in the trade union movement. Pelloutier argued that through participation in the trade unions, anarchists “taught the masses the true meaning of anarchism, a doctrine” which can readily “manage without the individual dynamiter” (Volume One, Selection 56). It was from this renewed involvement in the workers’ struggles that anarcho-syndicalism was born (Volume One, Chapter 12).

Pelloutier argued, as Bakunin had before him (Volume One, Selection 25), that revolutionary trade union organizations, unlike the state, are based on voluntary membership and therefore operate largely on the basis of free agreement. Any trade union “officials” are subject to “permanent revocability,” and play a coordinating rather than a “directorial” role. Through their own autonomous organizations, the workers will come “to understand that they should regulate their affairs for themselves,” and will be able to prevent the reconstitution of state power after the revolution by taking control of “the instruments of production,” seeing “to the operation of the economy through the free grouping,” rendering “any political institution superfluous,” with the workers having already become accustomed “to shrug off tutelage” through their participation in the revolutionary trade union, or “syndicalist,” movement (Volume One, Selection 56).

Also noteworthy in Pelloutier’s call for renewed anarchist involvement in the workers’ movement was his endorsement of anarchist communism as the ultimate goal of the revolutionary syndicalist movement. However, in France, after Pelloutier’s death, the revolutionary syndicalist organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), adopted a policy of nonaffiliation with any party or doctrine, including anarchism. CGT militants, such as Pierre Monatte, claimed that within the CGT all doctrines enjoyed “equal tolerance” (Volume One, Selection 60). The CGT focused on the means of revolutionary action, such as direct action and the general strike, instead of arguing over ideology.


This was in contrast to anarcho-syndicalist union federations, such as the Workers’ Federations of the Argentine Region (FORA) and the Uruguayan Region (FORU), which, as with Pelloutier, recommended “the widest possible study of the economic-philosophical principles of anarchist communism” (Volume One, Selection 58). The anarcho-syndicalists sought to organize the workers into revolutionary trade unions through which they would abolish the state and capitalism by means of general strikes, factory occupations, expropriation and insurrection. For the most part, their ultimate goal was anarchist communism, the abolition of wage labour, private property and the state, and the creation of free federations of worker, consumer and communal associations, whether in Latin America (Volume One, Selection 95), Russia (Volume One, Selection 84), Japan (Volume One, Selection 107), Spain (Volume One, Selection 124), or elsewhere.

Anarcho-syndicalists were behind the reconstitution of the International Workers’ Association (IWA/AIT) in 1922, with a membership of about two million workers from 15 countries in Europe and Latin America. At their founding Congress, they explicitly endorsed “libertarian communism” as their goal and rejected any “form of statism, even the so-called ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’,” because dictatorship “will always be the creator of new monopolies and new privileges” (Volume One, Selection 114).


Anarchists who sought to work within revolutionary working class organizations or popular movements adopted different approaches regarding the proper relationship between their anarchist ideals and these broader based social movements. Some, such as Amadée Dunois (1878-1945), argued that anarchists needed their own organizations to coordinate their activities, to support their work within the trade unions and to spread their ideas, infusing the workers’ organizations “with the anarchist spirit” (Dunois, 1907). This model of dual organization was similar to what Bakunin had advocated during the First International, when he urged his comrades in his revolutionary brotherhood, the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries, which adhered to Bakunin’s anarchist program, to join the International in order to steer it in an anarchist direction.

Antonio Pellicer Paraire (1851-1916), a veteran of the anarchist Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), acknowledged in an article from 1900 that, given the existing state of the workers’ movement, “parallel or dual organization has to be accepted,” with the anarchists maintaining their own revolutionary groups, but he argued that the primary focus must be on creating libertarian workers’ federations in which each worker is an equal and active participant, so as to prevent the development of a trade union bureaucracy and a de facto executive assuming control of the organization. Each organization must in turn retain “their autonomy and independence, free of meddling by other groups and with no one having methods, systems, theories, schools of thought, beliefs, or any faith shoved down his throat” (Volume One, Selection 57). Only through the self-activity of the masses can an anarchist society hope to be achieved.

In his posthumously published work, The Anarchist Conception of Syndicalism (1920), Neno Vasco (1878-1920), who was active in the Brazilian and Portuguese anarchist movements, warned of the dangers of self-proclaimed anarchist groups, “populated more by rebels than by anarchists,” seizing the initiative and forcing “emancipation” on the people by claiming “the right to act on its behalf,” instead of prompting the people “to look to its own liberation,” with “the persons concerned” taking matters “directly in hand.” For example, the provision of suitable housing “should be left to the tenants themselves,” a point later emphasized by Giancarlo de Carlo (Volume Two, Selection 18) and Colin Ward (1983), and “all the other production, transport and distribution services… should be entrusted to the workers working in each sector.”

Robert Graham



Means and Ends, War and Peace – November 11th


This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical origins and development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I discuss anarchist views during the 1880s-1890s on the relationship between means and ends and the need to remain engaged in popular struggles. I briefly refer to the execution on November 11, 1887, of the Haymarket Martyrs, four Chicago anarchists framed for a bombing at a demonstration against police violence at the beginning of May 1886. I previously posted one of Voltairine de Cleyre‘s speeches commemorating their executions and excerpts from their trial speeches.


In Britain and several of its former colonies, November 11th is celebrated as a day of remembrance for all the soldiers who have been killed fighting wars on behalf of their political and economic masters. Earlier this year I posted the International Anarchist Manifesto against the First World War. I have also posted Marie Louise Berneri’s critique of the hypocrisy of the politicians and patriots who condemn any acts of violence against the existing order as “terrorism” but venerate the mass slaughters known as “modern warfare” as great patriotic self-sacrifice.


Means and Ends

There were ongoing debates among anarchists regarding methods and tactics. Cafiero agreed with the late Carlo Pisacane that “ideals spring from deeds, and not the other way around” (Volume One, Selections 16 & 44). He argued that anarchists should seize every opportunity to incite “the rabble and the poor” to violent revolution, “by word, by writing, by dagger, by gun, by dynamite, sometimes even by the ballot when it is a case of voting for an ineligible candidate” (Volume One, Selection 44).
Kropotkin argued that by exemplary actions “which compel general attention, the new idea seeps into people’s minds and wins converts. One such act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets” (1880).

Jean Grave (1854-1939) explained that through propaganda by the deed, the anarchist “preaches by example.” Consequently, contrary to Cafiero, “the means employed must always be adapted to the end, under pain of producing the exact contrary of one’s expectations”. For Grave, the “surest means of making Anarchy triumph is to act like an Anarchist” (Volume One, Selection 46). Some anarchists agreed with Cafiero that any method that brought anarchy closer was acceptable, including bombings and assassinations. At the 1881 International Anarchist Congress in London, the delegates declared themselves in favour of “illegality” as “the only way leading to revolution” (Cahm: 157-158), echoing Cafiero’s statement from the previous year that “everything is right for us which is not legal” (Volume One, Selection 44).

After years of state persecution, a small minority of self-proclaimed anarchists adopted terrorist tactics in the 1890s. Anarchist groups had been suppressed in Spain, Germany and Italy in the 1870s, particularly after some failed assassination attempts on the Kaiser in Germany, and the Kings of Italy and Spain in the late 1870s, even before Russian revolutionaries assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. Although none of the would be assassins were anarchists, the authorities and capitalist press blamed the anarchists and their doctrine of propaganda by the deed for these events, with the Times of London describing anarchism in 1879 as having “revolution for its starting point, murder for its means, and anarchy for its ideals” (Stafford: 131).

The Lyon Anarchist Trial

The Lyon Anarchist Trial

Those anarchists in France who had survived the Paris Commune were imprisoned, transported to penal colonies, or exiled. During the 1870s and 1880s, anarchists were prosecuted for belonging to the First International. In 1883, several anarchists in France, including Kropotkin, were imprisoned on the basis of their alleged membership, despite the fact that the anti-authoritarian International had ceased to exist by 1881. At their trial they declared: “Scoundrels that we are, we claim bread for all, knowledge for all, work for all, independence and justice for all” (Manifesto of the Anarchists, Lyon 1883).

Perhaps the most notorious persecution of the anarchists around this time was the trial and execution of the four “Haymarket Martyrs” in Chicago in 1887 (a fifth, Louis Lingg, cheated the executioner by committing suicide). They were convicted and condemned to death on trumped up charges that they were responsible for throwing a bomb at a demonstration in the Chicago Haymarket area in 1886.

When Emile Henry (1872-1894) threw a bomb into a Parisian café in 1894, describing his act as “propaganda by the deed,” he regarded it as an act of vengeance for the thousands of workers massacred by the bourgeoisie, such as the Communards, and the anarchists who had been executed by the authorities in Germany, France, Spain and the United States. He meant to show to the bourgeoisie “that those who have suffered are tired at last of their suffering” and “will strike all the more brutally if you are brutal with them” (1894). He denounced those anarchists who eschewed individual acts of terrorism as cowards.

Malatesta, who was no pacifist, countered such views by describing as “ultra-authoritarians” those anarchists who try “to justify and exalt every brutal deed” by arguing that the bourgeoisie are just “as bad or worse.” By doing so, these self-described anarchists had entered “on a path which is the most absolute negation of all anarchist ideas and sentiments.” Although they had “entered the movement inspired with those feelings of love and respect for the liberty of others which distinguish the true Anarchist,” as a result of “a sort of moral intoxication produced by the violent struggle” they ended up extolling actions “worthy of the greatest tyrants.” He warned that “the danger of being corrupted by the use of violence, and of despising the people, and becoming cruel as well as fanatical prosecutors, exists for all” (Volume One, Selection 48).

Malatesta at the Magistrate's Court

Malatesta at the Magistrate’s Court

In the 1890s, the French state brought in draconian laws banning anarchist activities and publications. Bernard Lazare (1865-1903), the writer and journalist then active in the French anarchist movement, denounced the hypocrisy of the defenders of the status quo who, as the paid apologists for the police, rationalized the far greater violence of the state. He defiantly proclaimed that no “law can halt free thought, no penalty can stop us from uttering the truth… and the Idea, gagged, bound and beaten, will emerge all the more lively, splendid and mighty” (Volume One, Selection 62).

Malatesta took a more sober approach, recognizing that “past history contains examples of persecutions which stopped and destroyed a movement as well as of others which brought about a revolution.” He criticized those “comrades who expect the triumph of our ideas from the multiplication of acts of individual violence,” arguing that “bourgeois society cannot be overthrown” by bombs and knife blows because it is based “on an enormous mass of private interests and prejudices… sustained… by the inertia of the masses and their habits of submission.” While he argued that anarchists should ignore and defy anti-anarchist laws and measures where able to do so, he felt that anarchists had isolated themselves from the people. He called on anarchists to “live among the people and to win them over… by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings,” for the anarchist social revolution can only succeed when the people are “ready to fight and… to take the conduct of their affairs into their own hands” (Volume One, Selection 53).

Robert Graham

malatesta anarchist spirit

Additional References

Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Henry, Emile. “A Terrorist’s Defence” (1894). The Anarchist Reader. Ed. G. Woodcock. Fontana, 1977.

Kropotkin, Peter. “The Spirit of Revolt” (1880). Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets. Ed. R.N. Baldwin. New York: Dover, 1970.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Anarchist Communism


This is the latest installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I continue my survey of the development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I describe how the doctrine of anarchist communism arose from the debates within the anti-authoritarian sections of the International, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress.

carlo cafiero

Carlo Cafiero

Anarchist Communism

It was from among the debates within the anti-authoritarian International that the doctrine of anarchist communism emerged in the 1870s. François Dumartheray published a pamphlet in February 1876 advocating anarchist communism, and Elisée Reclus spoke in favour of it at the March 1876 Lausanne Congress of the anti-authoritarian International. By the fall of 1876, the Italian Federation considered “the collective ownership of the products of labour to be the necessary complement of the [anarchist] collectivist” program of common ownership of the means of production (Nettlau: 139). Anarchist communism was debated at the September 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, with Paul Brousse and the Italian anarchist, Andrea Costa, arguing in favour, and the Spanish anarchists, Tomás González Morago and José García Viñas, defending the collectivist view, shared by Proudhon and Bakunin, that each person should be entitled to the full product of his or her labour.

At the October 1880 Congress of the Jura Federation, the delegates adopted an anarchist communist position, largely as the result of Cafiero’s speech, “Anarchy and Communism” (Volume One, Selection 32). Cafiero defined the communist principle as “from each and to each according to his will,” with everyone having the right to take what they will “without demanding from individuals more work than they would like to give.” With production being geared towards satisfying people’s wants and needs, instead of the financial demands of the military, the state and the wealthy few, there will be no “need to ask for more work than each wants to give, because there will be enough products for the morrow.”

Cafiero argued against the collectivist position on the basis that “individual distribution of products would re-establish not only inequality between men, but also inequality between different kinds of work,” with the less fortunate being relegated the “dirty work,” instead of it being “vocation and personal taste which would decide a man to devote himself to one form of activity rather than another.” Furthermore, with “the ever-increasing tendency of modern labour to make use of the labour of previous generations” embodied in the existing economic infrastructure, “how could we determine what is the share of the product of one and the share of the product of another? It is absolutely impossible.” With respect to goods which are not sufficiently abundant to permit everyone to take what they will, Cafiero suggested that such goods should be distributed “not according to merit but according to need,” much as they are in present-day families, with those in greater need, such as children and the elderly, being given the larger portions during periods of scarcity (Volume One, Selection 32).


Kropotkin further developed the theory of anarchist communism in a series of pamphlets and books, the best know and most influential being The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33), and Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). The Conquest of Bread helped persuade many anarchists, including former collectivists in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Selections 58, 84, 95 & 114), and anarchists in Japan, China and Korea (Volume One, Selections 99, 106 & 108), to adopt an anarchist communist position, sometimes referred to, particularly in Spain, as “libertarian communism” (Volume One, Selection 124).

In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin set forth his vision of a decentralized anarchist communist society “of integrated, combined labour… where each worker works both in the field and in the workshop,” and each region “produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.” At “the gates of your fields and gardens,” there will be a “countless variety of workshops and factories… required to satisfy the infinite diversity of tastes… in which human life is of more account than machinery and the making of extra profits… into which men, women and children will not be driven by hunger, but will be attracted by the desire of finding an activity suited to their tastes” (Volume One, Selection 34). This remarkably advanced conception of an ecologically sustainable society inspired many subsequent anarchists, including Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in Germany (Volume One, Selection 111), and through him the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Buber, Volume Two, Selection 16, and Horrox, 2009), the anarchist communists in China (Volume One, Selection 99), the “pure” anarchists of Japan (Volume One, Selection 106), and the anarchist advocates of libertarian communism in Spain (Volume One, Selection 124).

communitas cover

Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30).

There is another aspect of Kropotkin’s conception of anarchist communism that had far-reaching implications, and this is his vision of a free society which “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects.” These “ever changing, ever modified associations” will “constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all” (Volume One, Selection 41). Some Italian anarchist communists, such as Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), argued for an even more fluid concept of voluntary association, opposing any attempts to create permanent organizations, whether an anarchist federation or a revolutionary trade union, arguing that any formal organization inevitably requires its members to “submit for the sake of discipline” and unity to “provisions, decisions, [and] measures… even though they may be contrary to their opinion and their interest” (Volume One, Selection 35).

As Davide Turcato points out (2009), the debate between “anti-organizationalists,” such as Galleani, and the “organizationalists,” such as Malatesta, “was a debate of great sophistication,” which developed many ideas which were to “become common currency in the sociological literature, particularly through the work of Robert Michels,” who recognized that “anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchic consequences of party organization.”

Most anarchist communists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, believed that nonhierarchical organization is possible and desirable, although one must always be on guard against oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies. In our day, Colin Ward (1924-2010), drawing explicitly on Kropotkin’s theory of voluntary association, has endeavoured to show that anarchist ideas regarding “autonomous groups, workers’ control, [and] the federal principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organization which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical institutional philosophy which we see in application all around us” (Volume Two, Selection 63).

Robert Graham



Additional References

Goodman, Paul & Percival. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. San Francisco: AK Press, 2009.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Turcato, Davide. “Making Sense of Anarchism.” Introduction. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.

The Split in the First International

The Workers Themselves

The Workers Themselves

Continuing with the installments from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas in which I survey the origins and evolution of anarchist ideas, in the excerpts below I briefly describe the split in the First International between the authoritarians who supported centralized political parties and revolutionary dictatorship, and the anti-authoritarians, the majority of whom were anarchists.


The Split in the First International

Following the suppression of the Commune, the conflict in the International between the anti-authoritarians and the supporters of top down political organization, such as Marx and his followers, came to a head. In response to Marx’s attempt to consolidate power in the International’s General Council, and to make the conquest of political power by the working class a mandatory policy of the International, the Swiss Jura Federation denounced the fictitious unity the Council sought to create through “centralization and dictatorship,” arguing that the “International, as the embryo of the human society of the future, is required in the here and now to faithfully mirror our principles of freedom and federation” (Volume One, Selection 26).

After Bakunin and Guillaume were expelled, largely at Marx’s instigation, from the International on trumped up charges at the 1872 Hague Congress, the anti-authoritarian sections of the International held their own congress at St. Imier in Switzerland. The Congress declared “the destruction of all political power,” rather than its conquest, as “the first duty of the proletariat,” whose “aspirations… can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all” (Volume One, Selection 27).

The St. Imier Congress extolled the benefits of militant trade union organization, for “it integrates the proletariat into a community of interests, trains it in collective living and prepares it for the supreme struggle.” The Congress embraced strike action “as a precious weapon in the struggle,” because it exposes “the antagonism between labour and capital” and prepares “the proletariat for the great and final revolutionary contest” (Volume One, Selection 27). Whether the final revolutionary contest would be an insurrection, a general strike, or a combination of the two remained open to debate. At the time, many anarchists favoured insurrection, particularly those associated with the Italian Federation, which attempted insurrections in Bologna in 1874 and Benevento in 1877.

The proto-syndicalist elements in the anti-authoritarian wing of the International, exemplified by Guillaume, emphasized the need for organized working class resistance to the State and capital. This approach was particularly prominent in Spain and various parts of Latin America, where anarchists were involved in creating some of the first trade unions and workers’ federations.

In Spain this doctrine became known as anarchist “collectivism,” which the Spanish veteran of the First International, José Llunas Pujols (1850-1905), defined as “a society organized on the basis of collective ownership, economic federation and the complete emancipation of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 36). The “unit of organization would… be the trades section in each locality,” with administrative tasks performed by delegates who would be replaced if they failed to adhere to the mandates given to them by their respective sections (Volume One, Selection 36). This form of working class direct democracy, similar to the “Worker Democracy” advocated by Proudhon in On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes (Volume One, Selection 18), was later taken up by the anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Chapter 12).

Following the defeat of the Paris Commune, the International was outlawed in much of Europe, making it extremely difficult for anarchists to maintain or create revolutionary working class organizations. Although the anti-authoritarian International outlasted the Marxist wing by several years, it eventually split between the anarchist communists, who favoured insurrectionary methods, the proto-syndicalists who favoured federations of revolutionary unions, and more moderate federalists who eventually embraced state socialism, such as César de Paepe from Belgium.

Robert Graham


The First International and the Paris Commune


Returning to my series from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, this installment deals with the effect of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune on anarchist theory and practice.

The Paris Commune - Street Barricades

The Paris Commune – Street Barricades

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 had a significant impact on emerging anarchist movements. Bakunin argued that the War should be turned into a mass uprising by the French workers and peasants against their domestic and foreign masters. To bring the peasants over to the side of the social revolution, Bakunin urged his fellow revolutionaries to incite the peasantry “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil and military institution,” to “throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others” and to seize the land. He rejected any notion of revolutionary dictatorship, warning that any attempt “to impose communism or collectivism on the peasants… would spark an armed rebellion” that would only strengthen counter-revolutionary tendencies (Volume One, Selection 28).

Although it was Proudhon who had first proposed an alliance between the workers and peasants, it was Bakunin who saw the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary force. Bakunin and subsequent anarchists did not believe that a social revolution was only possible in advanced capitalist societies with a large industrial proletariat, as Marxists claimed, but rather looked to the broad masses of the exploited and downtrodden to overthrow their oppressors. Consequently, anarchists supported the efforts of indigenous peoples to liberate themselves from colonial domination and the local elites which benefitted from colonialism at their expense, particularly in Latin America with its feudalist latifundia system which concentrated ownership of the land in the hands of a few (Volume One, Selections 71, 76 & 91). In Russia, Italy, Spain and Mexico, anarchists sought to incite the peasants to rebellion with the battle cry of “Land and Liberty” (Volume One, Selections 71, 73, 85, 86, & 124), while anarchists in China, Japan and Korea sought the liberation of the peasant masses from their feudal overlords (Volume One, Selections 97, 99, 101, 104 & 105).

Bakunin argued that the best way to incite the masses to revolt was “not with words but with deeds, for this is the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda” (Volume One, Selection 28). In Mexico, the anarchist Julio Chavez Lopez led a peasant uprising in 1868-1869, in which the insurgents would occupy a village or town, burn the land titles and redistribute the land among the peasants (Hart: 39). In September 1870, Bakunin participated in a short-lived attempt to create a revolutionary Commune in Lyon, proclaiming the abolition of mortgages and the judicial system (Leier: 258). He made a similar attempt with his anarchist comrades in Bologna in 1874.

In 1877, Bakunin’s associates, Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and a small group of anarchists tried to provoke a peasant uprising in Benevento, Italy, by burning the local land titles, giving the villagers back their tax moneys and handing out whatever weapons they could find. Paul Brousse (1844-1912) described this as “propaganda by the deed,” by which he did not mean individual acts of terrorism but putting anarchist ideas into action by seizing a commune, placing “the instruments of production… in the hands of the workers,” and instituting anarchist communism (Volume One, Selection 43).
The inspiration for this form of propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris proclaimed the revolutionary Commune, throwing out their national government. Varlin and other Internationalists took an active part in the Commune. After its bloody suppression by the Versailles government, during which Varlin was killed, several Communards were to adopt an explicitly anarchist position, including Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel.

Paris commune journal

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International supported the Commune and provided refuge for exiled Communards. Bakunin commended the Communards for believing that the social revolution “could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses” (Volume One, Selection 29). James Guillaume thought that the Commune represented the revolutionary federalist negation of the nation State that “the great socialist Proudhon” had been advocating for years. By 1873, the Jura Federation of the International was describing the Commune as the first practical realization of the anarchist program of the proletariat. However, as David Stafford points out, the “massacre of the Communards and the savage measures which followed it (it has been estimated that 30,000 people were killed or executed by the Versailles forces)” helped turn anarchists further away from Proudhon’s pacifist mutualism, which was seen as completely unable to deal with counter-revolutionary violence (Stafford: 20).

Louise Michel (1830-1905) had fought on the barricades when the French government sent in its troops to put down the Commune. The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded issued a manifesto calling for “the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital” (Volume One, Selection 30). At Michel’s trial after the suppression of the Commune, she declared that she belonged “completely to the Social Revolution,” vowing that if her life were spared by the military tribunal, she would “not stop crying for vengeance,” daring the tribunal, if they were not cowards, to kill her (Volume One, Selection 30).

Anarchists drew a number of lessons from the Commune. Kropotkin argued that the only way to have consolidated the Commune was “by means of the social revolution” (Volume One, Selection 31), with “expropriation” being its “guiding word.” The “coming revolution,” Kropotkin wrote, would “fail in its historic mission” without “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings; [and] the return to the community… of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others” (Volume One, Selection 45).

With respect to the internal organization of the Commune, Kropotkin noted that there “is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.” Instead of giving themselves a “revolutionary” government, isolating the revolutionaries from the people and paralyzing popular initiative, the task is to abolish “property, government, and the state,” so that the people can “themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it in common,” and “form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself” (Volume One, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Additional References

Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas, 1987.

Leier, Mark. Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

150th Anniversary of the First International

International anniversary

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), better known as the First International. In the following excerpt from my forthcoming book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke it': The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, I discuss the founding congress of the First International in London, England on September 28, 1864. I dealt with the anarchist background to the founding of the International in a previous post. I included the original statutes of the First International in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, together with several other selections that provide contemporaneous anarchist perspectives on the structure and purpose of the International, which I summarize in the Afterword to Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology, The Anarchist Current.”

The Founding of the First International

At the beginning of September 1864, English workers announced that a congress of European workers would be held on September 28, 1864 at St. Martin’s Hall in London (Mins, 1937: 54).

Prior to the meeting, the French exile, Le Lubez, asked Karl Marx if he could, in Marx’s own words, “supply a German worker to speak at the meeting” (Mins, 1937: 46). Marx nominated his friend, Johann Georg Eccarius (1818-1889), a German tailor and former member of the Communist League, to attend as a representative of the German workers. It was only on the day of the meeting that the English trade unionist, Cremer, asked Marx himself to attend (Mins, 1937: 57). Marx sat on the main platform but did not speak at the meeting. He did manage to get himself appointed to the newly constituted General Committee of the International (later the General Council), with Eccarius as the Vice President, and later persuaded its members to entrust him with writing the Inaugural Address and provisional Statutes of the Association.

The meeting at St. Martin’s Hall was packed. There was standing room only, with some 2,000 people in attendance, (Archer, 1997: 19). Odger read out the address from the English workers welcoming the French delegation. Tolain responded on behalf of the French workers, calling for “the people’s voice” to “make itself heard on all the great political and social questions, thus letting the despots know that the end of their tyrannical tutelage has arrived” (Mins, 1937: 8).

Tolain decried how, under capitalism, “the division of labour tends to make of each workman a machine in the hands of the high lords of industry,” with the workers being “reduced to starvation” (Mins, 1937: 9-10). He urged “labourers of all countries” to unite against the division of “humanity into two classes—an ignorant common people, and plethoric and big-bellied mandarins,” for the only way for the workers to save themselves was “through solidarity” (Mins, 1937: 11)

Le Lubez, on behalf of the French delegation, then proposed that workers’ commissions be established throughout Europe, with a central commission in London to “suggest questions for discussion” (Mins, 1937: 11). George Wheeler, on behalf of the English workers, endorsed the proposal to create an international workers’ association, and a resolution was passed to create a committee (which became the General Council), “to draw up the rules and regulations for such an association” and to organize a congress for the following year in Brussels (Mins, 1937: 16).

Marx regarded the International as a useful vehicle for spreading his ideas, particularly among the English workers, whom he regarded as the most advanced proletariat in Europe. He had little respect for anyone else’s ideas, describing a draft “declaration of principles” that Le Lubez prepared based on the statutes of the Mazzinian Italian Workers’ Societies as “appallingly wordy, badly written and utterly undigested… crusted over with the vaguest tags of French socialism” (Mins, 1937: 48). Marx “was firmly determined that if possible not one single line of the stuff should be allowed to stand” (Mins, 1937: 49).

Marx ensured that he was appointed to the subcommittee responsible for drafting the provisional statutes of the International, and persuaded the subcommittee to have him prepare, in addition to the provisional statutes, an “Address to the Working Classes,” which became known as the Inaugural Address of the International Workingmen’s Association, despite the fact that it was written several weeks after the actual inauguration of the International (Mins, 1937: 49). He was careful to couch the Address in terms that would not alienate the English trade unionists, avoiding “the old boldness of speech” found in his earlier writings, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party, at least for the time being (Mins, 1937: 50).

Nevertheless, the Address was carefully crafted by Marx to incorporate, among other things, elements of his thought antithetical to Proudhonism and anarchism. Immediately after extolling “co-operative factories” as a “victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property,” something with which Proudhon and his followers would agree, Marx then argued that “cooperative labour,” without the assistance of the state, “will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries” (Mins, 1937: 36).

Contrary to Proudhon’s mutualist schemes, Marx argued that cooperatives, dependent on what he somewhat dismissively referred to as “the casual efforts of private workmen,” could never displace capitalism (Mins, 1937: 36). To develop “co-operative labour” on a scale capable of supplanting capitalism required “national,” i.e. governmental, “means.” Consequently, Marx claimed, to “conquer political power has… become the great duty of the working classes.” This, in turn, would require “the political reorganisation of the working men’s party” (Mins, 1937: 37). Thus, the seeds of the conflict in the International between Marx, the Proudhonists and later, the anarchists, were planted by Marx himself in the Inaugural Address.

True to his word, Marx was able to “throw out” Le Lubez’s “declaration of principles,” despite the fact that the subcommittee had endorsed the “sentiments” contained within it (Mins, 1937: 49-50). All that remained were two phrases from the statutes of the Italian Workers’ Societies which Marx “was obliged” to include in the preamble to the provisional statutes of the International: the acknowledgment of “truth, justice and morality” as the standard of conduct for the International and its members, and the Mazzinian slogan, “no rights without duties, no duties without rights” (Mins, 1937: 40 & 50).

Marx also managed to repeat in the preamble to the provisional statutes, albeit more ambiguously, the commitment to political action, writing that “the economical emancipation of the working classes is… the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means” (Mins, 1937: 39). But this was far too subtle for the French members of the International, who often translated this part of the preamble simply to read: “the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate.” The French language version of the Statutes of the International adopted at the 1866 Geneva Congress used this wording, which was later relied upon by the anarchist tendencies in the International in support of their rejection of the Marxist insistence on the need for working class political parties (Anarchism, Vol. 1: 78).

Robert Graham


Kropotkin: The Action of the Masses (1890)

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Every once in a while one of my older posts starts generating traffic. The most recent example is Peter Kropotkin’s article on “Workers Organization.” In that article, now included in Iain McKay’s anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press, Kropotkin emphasizes the need for revolutionary working class organizations controlled by the workers themselves for any revolution to be successful. The following excerpts are taken from a later article by Kropotkin, “The Action of the Masses and the Individual,” in which he responds to a letter regarding increased strike activity among the workers in conjunction with May Day demonstrations. I included several selections by Kropotkin on anarchism and revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Many thanks to Iain McKay for making this translation available, and for providing the footnotes.

May Banner Jpeg

The Action of the Masses and the Individual

Our comrades are perfectly right to say [in their letter] that the May strikes are a consequence of general economic conditions. If the return of work to the mines and in the iron industry, and if dreadful poverty in the other trades did not exist, there wouldn’t have been any strikes at all, as there weren’t any on such a large scale ten years ago. But what our comrades ignore is that, outside all socialist organisations, right now, within the workers of all nationalities, an immense work to press on to a general strike is taking place. Democrats, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, have absolutely nothing to do with it. – “We are overwhelmed by this movement” we were told, two years ago, by a Belgian socialist. In England, in a big city, at least socialists took hold of this movement. They were well received at first; but when people realised that they wanted to enlist it to an electoral aim, they threw them overboard.[1]

Whether it is enough to say that this international movement comes from America; [2] that it is taking form outside all [existing] organisation; and that we find ourselves faced with one of these facts that have always characterised the great popular movements – tacit understanding that becomes established outside newspapers, committees, agitators. A word put out in a workshop is enough and they tell each other: “So be it, see you on the 1st of May!” Then a worker goes from England to Austria, or from Austria to England, and expresses the same idea, and the idea – since it results from an economic necessity – is accepted straightaway.

Every strike of the last two years, in Belgium, in England, in Moravia[3], etc., etc., are due to this spontaneous spreading of the idea. If ever there was a movement anarchist by its essence and a propaganda essentially anarchist in its processes, it is this one. Because there is no secret – it is a tacit agreement that becomes established.

Our comrades from Geneva are mistaken to attribute the 1st May to the Paris Congress.[4] It was made absolutely outside of the Congress, against the will of the social-democrats, against the will of trade-union committees and despite indifference of socialists, anarchists and authoritarians. It is precisely for that reason that we attach significance to it.

In a Congress where Liebknecht[5] enjoyed royal rights, an unknown coming from Australia makes the proposal. The flabbergasted chiefs do not dare to renounce it, because the worker delegates – the unknowns – acclaim it unanimously. Then, the proposal is forgotten. The watchword of the socialist press is to not breathe a word of it. Socialists and anarchists treat it as a joke. Democrats oppose it. And meanwhile the workers spread the call [for a general strike] amongst each other: see you on the 1st of May. And fifteen days before the 1st of May the trade unionist, socialist and democrat leaders learn with dread that the working people will be on the street on that day. So they put on a brave face at this bad news, then they try to curb the demonstration and they end up joining it. But still, they expect a demonstration of no significance – and there is the whole of working London coming out of its hovels, a third of Vienna going to the Prater[6], the whole of Hamburg on its feet, and a general uprising of miners starts in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, etc.

In fact, we are persuaded that what the popular initiators of the movement wanted for the 1st of May was the general strike – as they had wanted it, a few years ago, in America. And we are persuaded that the idea of a general strike has only been postponed and that popular agreement will find in a year or two another date, unforeseen by those in power, to start the general strike.

* * *


We think that these facts are generally unknown and are the best reply to our comrades’ letter and for that very reason we had to set them out at length

“Individual initiative?” – Damn it! Let us practice it as much as possible! Let us not talk: let us act! But when we face a spontaneous movement of the masses – in front of an individual initiative of millions of workers – let us not put a spanner in the wheels of what is being done without us in the name of individual initiative, which will be excellent when it is taken but which, on its own, will not make the revolution. The strong point of individual initiative is to awake the spirit of revolt in the masses – because without the masses, no revolution. But once the masses awaken, once they move and descend onto the street, at the risk of sleeping that night on the barricades (it was the idea in Vienna), where does individual initiative have to go?

The answer is obvious – Where the masses are! And on the very day when the masses arrange to meet up! For us, it is absolutely obvious that in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, in Barcelona, in Valencia and elsewhere, those amongst the workers who really have some individual initiative and who wait for the watchword from the anarchists no more than from the democrats, told themselves: “While the troops are in Vienna or in Madrid, we will start the revolution here, in Moravia, in Barcelona or in Bilbao. And we will do it precisely on the 1st of May (or rather on the 2nd of May) whilst the troops are still in Vienna or in Madrid, and not on the 15th of May or on the 15th of June, when they will be back in our provinces”.

They have not been supported, precisely because the initiative was lacking elsewhere.

As for the arrests of anarchists – it is time to anticipate them in advance. Every time there is agitation in the masses, wherever it is from, the government will arrest anarchists – if they do not take precautions. That will take place before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. We need only to remember Marat[7] and so many others, less known, who were forced to live in cellars right in the middle of 1793, while aristocrats were guillotined by the dozens. Anarchists will be arrested because – sometimes wrongly, but most often rightly – governments will tell themselves this: “When the people are in the street and that individual initiative is lacking amongst these masses marching to storm society, it is from the anarchists that the initiative of a movement will be able to come, not from the legalists”.

And, let us note, that it will be absolutely the same thing during the revolution itself, as long as the revolution, in its development, has not reached the anarchist phase. Therefore, let us not speak of it.

* * *


Let us also add that if, on the day of a large popular demonstration, a movement in a big city hardly ever takes place, it is always a few days after such a demonstration that the movement starts. We counted ourselves, we understood its strength, we were offended by the brutality of the police, we were enraged by the blood shed at a peaceful demonstration: the soldiers themselves are furious at the leaders who made them shoot women and children; and then, on a call that, once more, is born spontaneously in the masses – we prepare another demonstration. But, before that day, the revolution already breaks out.

In short, let us turn the question over and over as much as we like, but we cannot reach another conclusion than this one: “whether we are the partisan of individual action or action of the masses – and it is obvious that both are necessary – the man of action’s place is where the masses are. If he carries out an individual act; if he responds to a policeman’s kick with a pistol shot; if he rebels against such iniquity; if he extinguishes the fire in some working factory, or if he breaks its windows (as was done in Moravia); if he goes to prison for spreading some propaganda amongst the troops or if he carries out quite another act of individual courage – his act will only have more impact, since it was done in the eyes of the masses, openly and publicly, while the press will talk about it in all details, while every worker will talk about it in the workshop”.

It is so simple, and we are so certain that all revolutionaries are of the same opinion, that there can only be debate on it by misunderstanding.

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte, 24th of May 1890


[1] A reference to the 1889 London Dock Strike (see Kropotkin’s article “Ce que c’est qu’une gréve” [“What a Strike is”], La Révolte, 7th of September 1889. (translator)

[2] A reference to the 1886 eight-hour day movement in America that called upon workers to strike on the 1st of May. The Haymarket event in Chicago – a police attack on a strike meeting, a bomb being thrown and subsequent framing and hanging of five Anarchists, was a part of this strike wave. (translator)

[3] Moravia was a historical country in Central Europe in the east of the Czech Republic and one of the historical Czech lands, together with Bohemia and Czech Silesia. (translator)

[4] A reference to founding congress of the Second International held in Paris during July 1889. This congress designated the 1st of May as an international holiday for labour to be marked by demonstrations and parades. It was inspired by the American Eight-Hour movement of 1886. (translator)

[5] Wilhelm Martin Philipp Christian Ludwig Liebknecht (1826-1900) was a leading German social democrat. Under his leadership, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) grew from a tiny sect to become the country’s largest political party. (translator)

[6] The Prater is a large public park in Vienna’s 2nd district (Leopoldstadt). (translator)

[7] Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was one of the one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. He was a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes and published the newspaper L’Ami du people (Friend of the People) which was renowned for its fierce tone and advocacy of political and economic rights for the working classes. He was Marat assassinated while taking a medicinal bath and became a revolutionary martyr for the Jacobins. Kropotkin quoted him favourably in his classic 1909 history, The Great French Revolution. (translator)

The First International: The Anarchist Background

Founding Congress of the International, September 28, 1864

Founding Congress of the International, September 28, 1864

September 28, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (Association Internationale des Travailleurs–IWMA/AIT). Contrary to popular belief, Karl Marx was not one of the founders of the International. He was only invited to attend its founding Congress shortly before it began, and then was able to insinuate himself onto the committee that was created to draft its provisional statutes. Here I reproduce an excerpt from my forthcoming book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, to be published by AK Press. In this excerpt, I describe the role the earlier “International Association” played in setting the stage for the creation of the International in September 1864. As with the International, of which it was a precursor, the International Association had republican, centralist and anarchist tendencies which eventually led to a split in the organization. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections regarding the First International and the emergence of European anarchist movements, including excerpts from its original statutes. I also discuss the relationship between the First International and the development of European anarchism in the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology, in which I survey the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day.


The International Association and the First International

The workers who created the International in 1864 did so on their own initiative, without ideological guidance from any particular political faction. Although Marx was eventually delegated the task of drafting the Inaugural Address and founding Statutes of the International, he had only been formally invited to attend the Inaugural Meeting in September 1864 hours before it began (Mins, 1937: 57). As Benoît Malon (1841-1893) later put it, the International had no founders: rather “it came into existence, with a bright future, out of the social necessities of our epoch and out of the growing sufferings of the working class” (Katz, 1992: 2).

The founding of the International had been years in the making. In the mid-1850s, a delegation of French workers travelled to England to meet with English workers and European exiles for the purpose of establishing a “Universal League of Workers” (Stekloff, 1928: 29). The French delegates were followers of Proudhon, and sought in effect to create an international mutualist association, with the aim of establishing a transnational network of workers’ productive and consumer cooperatives that would eventually displace the capitalist economic regime. They denounced capitalism as a system “in which riches are only for those who do nothing to produce or earn them, and crushing poverty is the lot of the producers of the riches!” (Lehning, 1970: 233). They therefore sought “the emancipation of workmen from the tyranny of employers” (Lehning, 1970: 234). Although an “executive committee was elected,” and it was “resolved to issue an appeal to the trade unions,” the League never became a functioning organization (Stekloff, 1928: 29).

In England there already existed an “International Committee” with English, French, German, Polish, Italian and Spanish representatives. Although its main purpose was to champion democracy in Europe, one of the Committee members, Ernest Jones (1819-1869), made clear his view that the Committee was “no mere crusade against aristocracy. We are not here to pull one tyranny down, only that another may live the stronger. We are against the tyranny of capital as well” (Stekloff, 1928: 28). Jones, a former Chartist who had earlier been imprisoned for his labour agitation, later joined the International, but focused his activities on achieving universal male suffrage in England.

After the April 1856 meeting with the French delegates to establish the Universal League of Workers, the International Committee issued a manifesto “To all Nations,” which, among other things, proclaimed that “monarchy is not only in the Government, it is in the workshop, in property, in the family, in religion, in the economy, the manners, the blood of the people. It is from everywhere that we must turn it away: and everywhere, for all the people, the social problem is the same; to substitute labour for birth and wealth as origin and warranty of and right in society” (Stekloff, 1928: 29-30). The Committee therefore called for the establishment of an “International Association” of “socialist and revolutionary national societies” that would coordinate their propaganda “and so prepare the success of the future revolution” (Stekloff, 1928: 31). Several branches of the International Association were established, representing various countries, including sections in the United States, where Joseph Déjacque became a member (Lehning, 1951).

The most radical members of the International Association were French refugees in London and the United States, many of whom, including Déjacque, were anarchists. Déjacque published articles in Le Libertaire setting forth their position. They believed that the workers could achieve their liberation only by adopting a revolutionary socialist program that clearly separated them from the bourgeois republicans who had betrayed them in June 1848 (Lehning, 1970: 200).


Under the influence of the French anarchists, the Association itself began moving toward an anarchist position, publishing an appeal “To the Republicans, Democrats and Socialists of Europe” in December 1858. From their perspective, there was “no difference between an absolute monarchy and a bourgeois republic: where there are classes and privileged castes, there is slavery and despotism” (Lehning, 1970: 201-202). The Association criticized the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), for calling on the workers to support the bourgeois republicans who would simply replace Europe’s monarchies with “oligarchic” regimes where the workers would continue to be “robbed of the fruits of their toil” (Lehning, 1970: 202). They were skeptical of the republican trinity of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as long as one “social class is forced to sell its labour” and “one man is master and others slaves” (Lehning, 1970: 202).

Ultimately, divisions arose within the Association between the anarchists, the republicans and those who favoured centralized organization. The anarchists persuaded other members of the Association to replace its “Central Council” with a “secretariat” that would serve only as a correspondence bureau coordinating communications between the various branches (Lehning, 1970: 203-204). Women were to have equal status in the Association, a position long championed by Déjacque and his associates. The purpose of the revamped Association was “to propagate the principles of the social revolution,” by which was meant: “Absolute negation of all privileges; absolute negation of all authority; liberation of the proletariat” (Lehning, 1970: 203). Existing forms of government were to be replaced by “an administration nominated by the people, submitted to their control, and at any time revocable” (Lehning, 1970: 203).

The members of the International Association who favoured more centralized organization reconstituted the Association’s Central Committee under the old rules of the Association. However, both the anarchist and centralist Associations petered out after many of the French refugees returned to France when they were amnestied in August 1859 (Lehning, 1970: 205). By “the beginning of the sixties both the International Committee and the International Association had disappeared from the political arena” (Stekloff, 1928: 32).

The French anarchists who did not immediately return to France formed the “Club of Free Discussion” in London. Déjacque published reports of their meetings in Le Libertaire until he himself returned to France in 1861 (Lehning, 1970: 206). At their meetings they continued not only to denounce the bourgeois republicans but also state socialists, such as Louis Blanc, for vainly seeking reforms through government institutions. The Club adopted a revolutionary socialist stance, remaining “faithful to its conviction that everything that is evil in civil society is the fatal consequence of established authority” (Lehning, 1970: 329). They would close their meetings with cries of “Vive l’Anarchie!” (Lehning, 1970: 330).

Several “former members of the International Association” later joined the International Workingmen’s Association (Lehning, 1970: 209). Among them were Alfred Talandier (1822-1890), an advocate of producers’ cooperatives who regarded them, as did Proudhon and later Bakunin, “as a means of substituting the political organization of society by the industrial organization of labour, which would ultimately result in the liquidation of the national state” (Lehning, 1970: 174 & 190). At one time Talandier also became a member of Bakunin’s “revolutionary brotherhood,” for which Bakunin prepared an anarchist program in 1866 (Lehning, 1970: 174; Bakunin, 1974: 64-93).

Robert Graham

Déjacque's Le Libertaire

Déjacque’s Le Libertaire

Godwin’s Philosophical Anarchism

William Godwin

William Godwin

This is the next installment of the “Anarchist Current,” my Afterword to Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, that appears in Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012). Here I discuss William Godwin’s philosophical anarchism in relation to the French Revolution (1789-1795). Previous installments dealt with Daoism and anarchism in ancient China, Etienne de la Boetie’s critique of voluntary servitude and the Diggers in the English Civil War, and anarchism in the French Revolution. Godwin’s companion was the early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and their daughter became Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and other literary works.

Godwin Enquiry

Godwin’s Critique of Coercion

Jean Varlet’s English contemporary, William Godwin (1756-1836), developed an anarchist critique not only of revolutionary violence but of coercion as such, whether the institutionalized coercion of the law with its penal systems, or the individual coercion of a parent toward a child. Godwin wrote and revised his great philosophical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Volume One, Selection 4), during the French Revolution, publishing the final revised edition in 1797, around the time that Napoleon was coming to power, three years after the fall of Robespierre.

Godwin argued that coercion, and its positive correlate, inducements offered by those with wealth and power, distort political debate and moral discussion by causing people to evaluate a policy or course of conduct in terms of the punishments or rewards attached to them, rather than on their intrinsic merits. Coercion and inducements also have a debilitating effect on both persons in power and the people who obey or accept them.

“Dressed in the supine prerogatives of a master,” those in power are “excused from cultivating” their rational faculties. Those who are forced to obey their rulers become resentful and fearful. Instead of being encouraged to think for themselves, they learn how to avoid detection and seek power for themselves so that they can effect their own purposes.

The deleterious consequences of coercion and inducements are not surmounted by parliamentary debates, or what is now referred to as “deliberative democracy” (Dryzek, 2000). In the first place, the laws and policies of the government are not the result of direct debate among the people, but the result of the debates of elected representatives who represent particular interests. Decisions are made by majority vote of the representatives, who invariably vote along party lines. Even when a debate is not cut short by the ruling party, the “minority, after having exposed, with all the power and eloquence, and force of reasoning, of which they are capable, the injustice and folly of the measures adopted, are obliged… to assist in carrying them into execution,” since all the representatives are required to uphold the law. For Godwin, “nothing can more directly contribute to the deprivation of the human understanding and character” than to require people to act contrary to their own reason.

During parliamentary debates, which must come to a close with a vote of the assembled representatives, the “orator no longer enquires after permanent conviction, but transitory effect. He seeks to take advantage of our prejudices than to enlighten our judgement. That which might otherwise have been a scene of patient and beneficent enquiry is changed into wrangling, tumult and precipitation.”

This is particularly true during revolutionary upheavals. Reasoned and impartial debate “can scarcely be pursued when all the passions of man are afloat, and we are hourly under the strongest impressions of fear and hope, apprehension and desire, dejection and triumph.” Revolutions invariably provoke counter-revolution. When “we lay aside arguments, and have recourse to the sword,” amidst “the barbarous rage of war, and the clamorous din of civil contention, who shall tell whether the event will be prosperous or adverse? The consequence may be the riveting on us anew the chains of despotism.” To combat the counter-revolution, the revolutionaries suppress freedom of expression and resort to terror, organizing “a government tenfold more encroaching in its principles and terrible in its proceedings” than the old regime.

Despite regarding revolutions as being “necessarily attended with many circumstances worthy of our disapprobation,” Godwin recognized that “revolutions and violence have too often been coeval with important changes of the social system.” While we should “endeavour to prevent violence,” during revolutionary upheavals we cannot simply “turn away our eyes from human affairs in disgust, and refuse to contribute our labours and attention to the general weal.” Rather, we must take “proper advantage of circumstances as they arise, and not… withdraw ourselves because everything is not conducted according to our ideas of propriety.” Godwin’s critique of revolutionary violence must not therefore be misconstrued as tacit support for the injustices which the revolutionaries are seeking to overturn.

Since Godwin’s time, anarchists have continued to struggle with questions regarding recourse to violence and the role of anarchists during revolutionary struggles. The validity of Godwin’s warning, based on his own observations of the French Revolution, that revolution may result in a new tyranny because it is the strongest and not the most just who typically triumph, has been borne out by the experience of anarchists in subsequent revolutions. In the 20th century, both the Russian (Volume One, Chapter 18) and Spanish (Volume One, Chapter 23) revolutions resulted in dictatorships even more “ghastly” than that of Robespierre, despite the presence of significant anarchist movements.

When anarchist movements began to emerge in 19th century Europe, Godwin’s work was relatively unknown. It was largely through the work of the anarchist historian, Max Nettlau (1865-1944), that the ideas of de la Boétie and Godwin were introduced to European anarchists, well after anarchism had emerged as an identifiable current of thought (Walter, 2007).

Robert Graham

Anarchist Writings Godwin

Additional References

Dryzek, John S. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Walter, Nicolas. The Anarchist Past and Other Essays. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2007.

Bakunin: For Reasons of State

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

As part of the 200 hundredth anniversary of the birth of the revolutionary anarchist, Michael (Mikhail) Bakunin (1814-1876), I have been posting some of his writings. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections by Bakunin on libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, science and authority, revolutionary action, the Paris Commune, integral education and the nature of the state. One of the passages was taken from Bakunin’s critique of Rousseau’s social contract theory of the state. I am reproducing a portion of it here in response to the various wars that continue to grip this planet, and as an antidote to the propaganda celebrating the 100 hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the First World War.


For Reasons of State

The existence of one sovereign, exclusionary State necessarily supposes the existence and, if need be, provokes the formation of other such States, since it is quite natural that individuals who find themselves outside it and are threatened by it in their existence and in their liberty, should, in their turn, associate themselves against it. We thus have humanity divided into an indefinite number of foreign states, all hostile and threatened by each other. There is no common right, no social contract of any kind between them; otherwise they would cease to be independent states and become the federated members of one great state. But unless this great state were to embrace all of humanity, it would be confronted with other great states, each federated within, each maintaining the same posture of inevitable hostility.

War would still remain the supreme law, an unavoidable condition of human survival.

Every state, federated or not, would therefore seek to become the most powerful. It must devour lest it be devoured, conquer lest it be conquered, enslave lest it be enslaved, since two powers, similar and yet alien to each other, could not coexist without mutual destruction.

The State, therefore, is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. It protects its own citizens only; it recognizes human rights, humanity, civilization within its own confines alone. Since it recognizes no rights outside itself, it logically arrogates to itself the right to exercise the most ferocious inhumanity toward all foreign populations, which it can plunder, exterminate, or enslave at will. If it does show itself generous and humane toward them, it is never through a sense of duty, for it has no duties except to itself in the first place, and then to those of its members who have freely formed it, who freely continue to constitute it or even, as always happens in the long run, those who have become its subjects. As there is no international law in existence, and as it could never exist in a meaningful and realistic way without undermining to its foundations the very principle of the absolute sovereignty of the State, the State can have no duties toward foreign populations. Hence, if it treats a conquered people in a humane fashion, if it plunders or exterminates it halfway only, if it does not reduce it to the lowest degree of slavery, this may be a political act inspired by prudence, or even by pure magnanimity, but it is never done from a sense of duty, for the State has an absolute right to dispose of a conquered people at will.

This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue. It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one’s own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.

This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries – statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors – if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

Michael Bakunin, 1868

smash the state


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