The First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement

The First International

The First International

In this installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the First International and the emergence of a European anarchist movement. I am currently finishing the manuscript to We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, in which I deal with these matters in much more detail.

Paper of the French International

Paper of the French International

The First International

Bellegarrigue, Déjacque and Coeurderoy were dead or forgotten by the time the International Association of Workingmen (the First International) was founded in 1864 (Volume One, Selection 19). It was only after the emergence in Europe of self-identified anarchist movements in the 1870s that Pisacane’s writings were rediscovered. Of the anarchists from the 1840s and 50s, only Proudhon and Pi y Margall continued to exercise some influence, but by then both identified themselves as federalists rather than anarchists (Volume One, Selection 18). Prouhon’s followers in the First International supported his mutualist ideas, advocating free credit, small property holdings and equivalent exchange. They agreed with Proudhon that a woman’s place was in the home and argued that only workingmen should be allowed into the First International, which meant that intellectuals, such as Karl Marx, should also be excluded. They shared Proudhon’s critical view of strikes, regarding them as coercive and ineffective, but in practice provided financial and other support to striking workers.

Within the First International there were more radical elements that gave expression to a renewed sense of militancy among European workers. These Internationalists, such as Eugène Varlin (1839-1871) in France, were in favour of trade unions, seeing them as a means for organizing the workers to press their demands through collective direct action, such as strikes and boycotts. The ultimate aim was for the workers to take control of their workplaces, replacing the state and capitalism with local, regional, national and international federations of autonomous workers’ organizations.

Opposing these “anti-authoritarian” Internationalists were not only the orthodox Proudhonists, but Karl Marx and his followers, as well as some Blanquists, who favoured centralized organization and the subordination of the trade unions to political parties that would coordinate opposition to capitalism and seek to achieve state power, either through participation in bourgeois politics, revolution or a combination of both. Disagreements over the International’s internal form of organization and participation in politics would lead to the split in the International in 1872.

By 1868 the International had adopted a policy in favour of strikes and collective ownership of the means of production. However, collective ownership did not necessarily mean state ownership, as many Internationalists advocated workers’ control of industry through the workers’ own organizations and continued to support other aspects of Proudhon’s mutualism, such as workers’ mutual aid societies, cooperatives and credit unions. Varlin, for example, organized a cooperative restaurant with Nathalie Lemel (who later converted Louise Michel to anarchism). Some Geneva Internationalists proposed that half of the cooperatives’ profits be paid into the workers’ “resistance” funds, with the cooperatives also providing workers with financial aid and credit during strikes (Cutler, 1985: 213, fn. 69).


Bakunin: “We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it”

Bakunin had begun to articulate a revolutionary anarchist position in the mid-1860s, prior to his entry into the International in 1868. He advocated socialism and federalism based on “the most complete liberty for individuals as well as associations,” rejecting both bourgeois republicanism and state socialism (Volume One, Selection 20). He rejected any “call for the establishment of a ruling authority of any nature whatsoever,” denouncing those revolutionaries who “dream of creating new revolutionary states, as fully centralized and even more despotic than the states we now have” (Volume One, Selections 20 & 21).

“We do not fear anarchy,” declared Bakunin, “we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction.” The new social order will be created “from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center… not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin opposed any attempts to justify the sacrifice of human lives in the name of some ideal or “abstraction,” including patriotism, the state, God or even science. Someone who is “always ready to sacrifice his own liberty… will willingly sacrifice the liberty of others” (Volume One, Selection 20). The revolutionary socialist, “on the contrary, insists upon his positive rights to life and to all its intellectual, moral, and physical joys.” In addition to rejecting any notions of individual self-sacrifice, Bakunin argued against revolutionary terrorism as counter-revolutionary. To “make a successful revolution, it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods, to destroy property and the State. It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and be condemned to suffer the sure and inevitable reaction which no massacre had ever failed and ever will fail to produce in every society” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin argued that the means adopted by revolutionaries should be consistent with their ends. Accordingly, the International should itself be organized “from the bottom up… in accordance with the natural diversity of [the workers’] occupations and circumstances.” The workers’ organizations would “bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” Consequently, he rejected the view that the majority of the workers, even within the International itself, should accept the “fraternal command” of those who claimed to know what is best for them, as this would divide the International “into two groups—one comprising the vast majority… whose only knowledge will be blind faith in the theoretical and practical wisdom of their commanders,” and a minority of “skilled manipulators” in control of the organization (Volume One, Selection 25).

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin’s anarchist critique went well beyond attacking property, religion and the state. In addition to arguing against hierarchical and authoritarian organization within the revolutionary movement itself, Bakunin sought to free women from their domestic burdens, with society taking collective responsibility for raising and educating children, enabling women to marry and divorce as they please. Bakunin rejected patriarchy in general, denouncing the “despotism of the husband, of the father, of the eldest brother over the family,” which turns the family “into a school of violence and triumphant bestiality, of cowardice and the daily perversions of the family home” (Volume One, Selection 67).

With respect to education, Bakunin argued that “one who knows more will naturally rule over the one who knows less.” After the revolution, unless differences in education and upbringing are eliminated, “the human world would find itself in its present state, divided anew into a large number of slaves and a small number of rulers” (Volume One, Selection 64). Bakunin looked forward to the day when “the masses, ceasing to be flocks led and shorn by privileged priests,” whether secular or religious, “may take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Bakunin argued against the rule of the more learned, the savants, the intellectuals and the scientists, whether within the International or in society at large. His targets here were the followers of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx, with their pretensions to “scientific government” and “scientific socialism.” To confide “the government of society” to any scientific body, political party or group would result in the “eternal perpetuation” of that group’s power “by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently in need of its government and direction” (Volume One, Selection 24). Bakunin was perhaps the first to develop this critique of the role of intellectuals, the “new class,” and their rise to power, either by taking over leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement or through control of the state bureaucracy, for the “State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the priesthood, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and finally, after every other class has been exhausted, the bureaucratic class, when the State falls or rises… into the condition of a machine” (Volume One, Selection 22).

Noam Chomsky has described Bakunin’s analyses and predictions in this regard as being perhaps “among the most remarkable within the social sciences” (Volume Two, Selection 68). Subsequent anarchists adopted Bakunin’s critique (Berti, Volume Two, Selection 67) and his suggestion that the inequalities that arise from differences in knowledge can be prevented by “integral education,” which breaks down the barriers between practical and scientific education, and by the elimination of any distinction between manual and “intellectual” or “brain” work (Volume One, Selection 64). In his highly influential book, Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898), Peter Kropotkin set forth practical alternatives to the present “division of society into brain workers and manual workers,” with all its “pernicious” distinctions, advocating, much like Fourier had before him, a daily combination of manual and intellectual work, human-scale technology and the integration of the fields, factories and workshops in a decentralized system of production, providing for “the happiness that can be found in the full and varied exercise of the different capacities of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 34).

Bakunin was instrumental in spreading anarchist ideas among revolutionary and working class movements in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia and within the International itself. According to Kropotkin, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who “established in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (1912).

Robert Graham

The Anarchist International

The Anarchist International

Additional references

Cutler, Robert. Ed. From Out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.

Kropotkin, Peter.  Modern Science and Anarchism (1912). In Evolution and Environment. Ed. G. Woodcock. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995.


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