Elisée Reclus: Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel

In October 1885, the anarchist revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin, was in a French prison, having been condemned in 1882 for being a member of the by then defunct International Workingmen’s Association. Of course, the real reason for his imprisonment was that he was directly involved in reviving the French anarchist movement after ten years of state repression following the defeat of the Paris Commune. Kropotkin was the major contributor to the manifesto that he and his co-defendants issued during their trial. While in prison, his friend, the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus, put together a collection of Kropotkin’s essays under the title, Words of a Rebel. Here I reproduce Nicolas Walter’s translation of Reclus’ introduction. I previously posted some of Walter’s translations of Kropotkin’s preface to the 1904 Italian edition and the post-script to the 1921 Russian edition.

Preface to Words of a Rebel

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS Peter Kropotkin has been in prison, cut off from the society of his fellow-men. His punishment is hard, but the silence imposed on him concerning the things he cares about most is much harder: his imprisonment would be less oppressive if he were not gagged. Months and years may perhaps pass before the use of speech is restored to him and he can resume interrupted conversations with his comrades.

The period of forced seclusion which our friend has to undergo will certainly not be wasted, but it seems very long to us! Life quickly goes by, and we sadly watch the weeks and months running out when this voice-so proud and honest among the rest–cannot be heard at all. In its place, how many common places will be repeated to us, how many lying words will afflict us, how many biased half-truths will ring about our ears! We long to hear one of those sincere and forthright tongues which boldly proclaim the truth.

But if the prisoner of Clairvaux no longer has the freedom to speak to his comrades from the depths of his cell, they can at least remember their friend and recall the words he spoke before. This is a task which I am able to perform, and I have devoted myself to it with pleasure. The articles which Kropotkin wrote from 1879 to 1882 in the ‘anarchist’ paper Le Révolté seemed to me ideal for publication in book form, especially because they did not run after chance events but followed a logical order. The vigour of the thought gave them the necessary unity.

Faithful to the scientific method, the author first explains the general situation of society, with its scandals and defects, its elements of discord and war; he studies the evidence of collapse shown by states, and shows us the cracks opening in their ruins. Then he pushes the experience offered by contemporary history in the direction of anarchic evolution, indicates its exact significance, and draws the lessons which it teaches. Finally, in the chapter ‘Expropriation’, he sums up his ideas, which derive from both observation and experience, and appeals to men of good will who want not just to know, but also to act.

I do not wish to sing the author’s praises here. He is my friend, and if I said all the nice things I think about him I might be suspected of blindness or accused of partiality. It would be enough for me to report the opinion of his judges, even his jailers. Among those who have observed his life, from far or near, there is no one who does not respect him, who does not bear witness to his high intelligence and to his heart which overflows with kindness, no one who does not acknowledge him to be truly noble and pure. Anyway, is it not because of these very qualities that he has known exile and imprisonment?

His crime is to love the poor and weak; his offence is to have pleaded their cause. Public opinion is unanimous in respecting this man, and yet it is not at all surprised to see the prison gates closing remorselessly on him, so that it seems natural that superiority has to be paid for and devotion has to be accompanied by suffering. It is impossible to see Kropotkin in the prison yard and to exchange greetings with him without wondering: ‘And what about me, why am I free? Could, it be perhaps because I am not good enough?’

However, the readers of this book should pay less attention to the personality of the author than to the value of the ideas he expresses. These ideas I recommend with confidence to honest people who do not make up their minds about a work before opening it, or about an opinion before hearing it. Clear away all your prejudices, try to stand aside temporarily from your interests, and read the pages simply looking for the truth without bothering for the time being about its application. The author asks only one thing of you – to share for a moment his ideal, the happiness of all, not just of a few privileged people.

If this desire, however fleeting it may be, is really sincere, and not a mere whim of your fancy, an image passing before your eyes, it is probable that you will soon agree with the writer. If you share his yearnings you will understand his words. But you know in advance that these ideas will bring you no honour; they will never be rewarded with a well-paid position; they may well bring you instead the distrust of your former friends or some cruel blow from your superiors. If you seek justice, you can expect to suffer injustice.

At the time when this work is being published, France is in the middle of an election crisis. I am not so naive as to recommend the candidates to read this book – they have other ‘duties’ to perform – but I do invite the electors to take a look at Words of a Rebel, and I would particularly draw their attention to the chapter called ‘Representative Government’. There they will see how far their confidence will be justified in these men who are springing up on all sides to solicit the honour of representing their fellow-citizens in Parliament.

At the moment all is well. The candidates are omniscient and infallible – but what about the deputies? When they at last receive their share of the kingdom, will they not be fatally afflicted by the dizziness of power and, like kings, be deprived of all wisdom and all virtue? If they decided to keep all those promises which they made so lavishly, how would they maintain their dignity in the midst of a crowd of petitioners and advisers? Even supposing that they went into Parliament with good intentions, how could they emerge without being corrupted? Under the influence of that atmosphere of intrigue, they can be seen turning from left to right, as if they were impelled by an automatic mechanism-clockwork figures who come out looking proud and strike noisily in front of the clock face, then soon afterwards go round and disappear ‘pathetically into the works.

Choosing new masters is no solution at all. It is we anarchists, enemies of Christianity, who have to remind a whole society which claims to be Christian of these words of the man whom they have made a God: ‘Call no man Master, Master! Let each man remain his own master.’ Do not go to the offices of bureaucrats, or the noisy chambers of parliaments, in the vain hope for the words of freedom. Listen rather to the voices which come from below, even if they come through the bars of the prison cell.

Elisée Reclus

Clarens (Switzerland), October 1, 1885


The First International and the September 1871 London Conference

Marx v. Bakunin

Chapter 8 of my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, begins with a section on the September 1871 London Conference of the International, where Marx and Engels manipulated both the composition of delegates to the Conference and the agenda to ensure the adoption of their favoured political strategy for the working class, which was to form political parties that were to achieve state power through participation in electoral politics. Such a policy was in direct contradiction to the resolution at the 1869 Basle Congress of the International which called for the federated trade unions to abolish “the present wage system” and to create “the free federation of free producers,” an essentially anarcho-syndicalist program. Unfortunately, a number of typographical errors that crept into my manuscript during the copy editing process rendered my analysis of the composition of delegates to the London Conference a bit confusing. Accordingly, here I present a corrected version that I hope makes this clear: before the Conference began, Marx and Engels could count on the support of at least 12 of the 22 voting delegates (including themselves), while the federalists and anarchists who continued to support the Basle Congress resolution could count on the support of no more than 8 voting delegates, ensuring that Marx and Engel’s resolution, committing the International to a program of electoral participation through political parties with the aim of achieving state power, would be accepted.

The September 1871 London Conference of the International

By September 1871, when Marx and Engels convened the London Conference of the International, the political orientation of the majority of Internationalists in Italy, Spain and the Swiss Jura, was anarcho-syndicalist in all but name. Among the surviving French Internationalists, most of them were federalists and collectivists, and some were outright anarchists, such as Bastélica, Bakunin’s associate from Marseilles. The Belgians also favoured federalist collectivism, and can be considered revolutionary syndicalists. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels carefully orchestrated the adoption at the London Conference of a policy requiring the creation of workers’ political parties and their participation in national politics.

The London Conference was not a proper Congress of the International. It was a “private” conference organized by Marx and Engels. They were concerned that if a congress or conference were held on the continent, the federalists and anarchists associated with Bakunin would be too well represented. Marx and Engels took steps to ensure that Bakunin’s supporters would be held to a minimum, and that their supporters would be well represented.

The majority faction of the Romande Federation was not advised of the conference, despite having asked the General Council to resolve which group was entitled to call itself the Romande Federation. Being unable to send any delegates to the conference, the majority group sent a letter to the conference to be read by Robin, who was to attend the conference as a non-voting member of the General Council. The majority group asked that no decision be made at the conference regarding which section was the legitimate Romande Federation because the majority group was unable to present its case. The majority group took the position that the issue should be left for the next general congress of the International, but that in the meantime the General Council could investigate and prepare a report.[i] This proposal fell on deaf ears, as the General Council had already decided that the Utin/Perret group was the legitimate representative of the Romande Federation. That is why Utin and Perret were invited to the conference, and given full voice and vote.[ii]

In addition to ensuring Utin and Perret’s attendance at the conference, upon whose support Marx and Engels could rely, Marx easily persuaded the General Council to determine itself how many and which members of the General Council would be able to vote at the conference, against the objections of Bastélica, who argued that the issue should be decided at the conference itself.[iii] The General Council decided that all of its members could attend and speak at the Conference, but only seven of the Council’s corresponding secretaries and six other members of the Council would have the right to vote, with those six other members being chosen by a vote of the members of the General Council present at its pre-conference meeting.[iv]

The seven corresponding secretaries, which included Marx (for Germany), Engels (for Italy), Eccarius (for the U.S.), Hales (for England, as the English still lacked their own federal council), MacDonnell (for Ireland) and Dupont (for France), were appointed on the basis that they would represent “those countries not appointing” their own delegates, as Engels put it.[v] Marx and Engels were thus assured of at least six votes (the seventh corresponding secretary was Cohn, for Denmark, but he did not participate in the conference).[vi]

Bastélica again objected, saying that he had the confidence of the Marseilles branch, and argued that the French refugees in London ought to be able to elect three delegates, as the Council itself had previously decided, rather than Dupont, one of Marx’s supporters, being designated to represent France.[vii] In fact, Dupont was not even the corresponding secretary for France and had let his membership on the General Council lapse.[viii] Robin also argued that the French were entitled to their own delegates. Despite the presence of several French refugees, some of whom were on the General Council, Marx successfully argued that the French were not entitled to any delegates of their own, no more than were “Italy, Germany and America,” ignoring the fact that no one from any of those countries was at the conference, other than the German exiles on the General Council, such as Marx and Engels themselves.[ix]

It is not clear if the Italians were even invited to the conference. In any event, Engels hardly represented their views, as most of them supported Bakunin. As for the U.S., an irrevocable split was already developing there between the German immigrants, loyal to Marx, and the English speaking Americans, such that Eccarius’ ability to represent their views was also highly suspect.[x] None of the General Council members who so generously gave themselves a vote at the conference had any mandate or instructions from any of the national councils, branches or sections and cannot be said to have acted either as their representatives or as their delegates.

Of the six members at large elected by the General Council to act as its own representatives at the conference, only one could be expected to support Bakunin and the Swiss federalists, Bastélica. The rest, with the possible exception of Thomas Mottershead, could be counted on to support Marx (Seraillier, Frankel, Jung and the French Blanquist, Vaillant).[xi] With respect to the issue of making participation in bourgeois politics mandatory policy, Mottershead was clearly a supporter of political action, belonging to several groups committed to working within the English parliamentary system, such as the Labour Representation League and the Land and Labour League.[xii]

The problem with having members of the General Council making important and mandatory policy changes for the International’s members was that, as Hales himself admitted, a majority of them had never been elected by the delegates at a general congress of the International.[xiii] Now here they were determining who would make up 13 of the 22 delegates at the London Conference.

There were six delegates from Belgium, including De Paepe, and one delegate from Spain, Anselmo Lorenzo. De Paepe did not play an effective role at the conference, where he proved “indecisive and easily succumbed to pressure.”[xiv]

Lorenzo was unfamiliar with the conflicts within the International but then witnessed first-hand Marx’s attacks on Bakunin and the Alliance at the conference. There he saw Marx “descending from the pedestal where my admiration and my respect placed him to the most vulgar level. Some of his partisans had fallen to even greater depths by practising adulation, as if they were vile courtiers facing their master.”[xv]

Just before the London Conference, the Spanish Internationalists had held a conference in Valencia at which they declared themselves in favour of “collective property, anarchy and economic federation,” by which they meant “the free universal federation of free agricultural and industrial workers’ associations.”[xvi] According to Lorenzo, the only matter to be discussed at the London Conference that had an authentically working class and emancipatory nature was the “Memoir on Organization” from the Valencia conference that he was to present, but the General Council and the majority of delegates were not interested in dealing with how to constitute a revolutionary force and to give it a form of organization adopting a line of conduct that would accomplish its goals. Instead, they were preoccupied with “the question of command” and of giving the International, this “great union of men,” a “chief.”[xvii]

Even before the conference began, Marx could count on the support of at least 10 of the General Council’s voting members, including himself and Engels, plus Utin and Perret, giving him a majority. At most, Bakunin could count on Bastélica, and as things turned out, he proved no match for Marx. Without anyone to advocate effectively on behalf of Bakunin, the Alliance, Guillaume or the majority Swiss federation, it was difficult for them to garner the support of the seven remaining delegates, the six Belgians and Lorenzo. Even if Bastélica had more effectively defended Bakunin and the Swiss federalists, at most he could have put together a block of about eight votes (himself, Lorenzo and the Belgian delegates), far short of the number needed to prevent the Marxist majority from having their way. Needless to say, the agenda for the conference was prepared by Marx and Engels.[xviii] As Carr comments, “it was clear that the dice had been well and truly loaded.”[xix]

With Marx’s support, the Blanquist, Édouard Vaillant, put forward a resolution on the inseparability of the political and economic struggles. The target of Vaillant’s resolution was the surviving group of French Internationalists who advocated federalism, abstention from participation in bourgeois politics, and opposition to the revolutionary dictatorship advocated by Blanqui. It must be remembered that within the International, as opposed to the Commune, the majority of French Internationalists had been federalists, and the Blanquists were in the minority, the opposite of the situation within the Commune itself, where the Blanquists and Jacobins had constituted the majority. Even more significant is that in his campaign against Bakunin, the Proudhonists and the federalists within the International, Marx allied himself with the authoritarian Blanquists to stamp out these anarchist heresies. Despite his qualified support of the Commune’s challenge to the French state, Marx was neither in favour of free federation within the International nor as a model for a revolutionary government.

Lorenzo and Bastélica opposed Vaillant’s motion on the ground that such a significant policy position could only be adopted after an open debate at a properly convened congress of the International with full representation from the various sections. Furthermore, the Conference was not supposed to deal with matters of principle, but only organizational matters.[xx] Marx brushed aside these criticisms, claiming that the General Council had the power to present “a programme for discussion at the [general] congresses” of the International.[xxi] He supported Utin’s motion that the resolution be given to the General Council “to draw up the final text of the resolution.”[xxii]

This enabled Marx to refine the wording of the resolution, which was then published to the various sections of the International at the beginning of October 1871 as the official policy of the International.[xxiii] The final version of the resolution provided that, against the “collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party;” consequently, the “constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the Social Revolution and its ultimate end—the abolition of classes.”[xxiv]

The Marxist majority effectively overturned the resolution from the Basel Congress that the General Council was “to provide for the alliance of the trade unions of all countries” for the purpose of replacing “the present wage system” with “the free federation of free producers.”[xxv] One of the non-voting delegates at the London Conference, Pierre Louis (or Victor) Delahaye (1838-1897), a member of the Paris Federation and a refugee from the Paris Commune, proposed, in opposition to the resolution directing the formation of working class political parties, that the Basel resolution be implemented, as it ought to have been, by the organization of an international trade union federation, based on “administrative decentralisation,” that would eventually lead to the creation of the “real commune of the future,” based on workers’ self-management.[xxvi]

Marx opposed this resolution by initially denying that any resolution to this effect had been passed at the Basel Congress. After he was corrected, he then dismissed the proposal as “a pious wish” that could never be achieved because trade unions could only represent “an aristocratic minority” of workers, not the vast majority of poor workers and peasants. He therefore argued that trade unions “can do nothing by themselves,” remaining a “minority” without any “power over the mass of proletarians—whereas the International works directly on these men.” The International did not need trade unions “to carry along the workers,” as the International was “the only society to inspire complete confidence in the workers.”[xxvii] Marx’s statements make clear that either he did not read or he chose to ignore the Spanish Internationalists’ “Memoir on Organization,” which showed how revolutionary unions can be organized that are not limited to skilled trades, but can include poor workers and peasants.

Marx’s position clearly foreshadowed that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with the “Communist Party” standing in the place of the International, that “only the political party of the working class, i.e., the Communist Party, is capable of uniting, training and organising a vanguard of the proletariat and of the whole mass of the working people.”[xxviii] Marx’s choice of words is very telling: trade unions “have no power over the mass of proletarians,” in contrast to the International, which presumably did. And there was no doubt in Marx’s mind that the General Council was “a governing body, as distinct from its constituents,” not simply an administrative body.[xxix]

Marx and the other delegates understood that endorsement of Delahaye’s proposition would be inconsistent with the resolution mandating political action by the proletariat. Consequently, Delahaye’s proposal was voted down. In its place the majority of delegates passed a resolution inviting the General Council “to assist” trade unions in entering “into relations with the Unions of the same trade in all other countries,” with the General Council acting merely as an “international agent of communication between the national Trades’ Societies.”[xxx] This fell far short of providing “for the alliance of the trade unions of all countries” for the purpose of replacing “the present wage system” with “the free federation of free producers.” Yet again a small group of largely self-appointed “delegates” were changing policies agreed to by the delegates at a general congress who, unlike the delegates at the London Congress, had genuine mandates from their respective councils, branches and sections.

The London Conference also purported to ban secret organizations, sects and “separatist bodies under the name of sections of propaganda,” reaffirmed the alleged power of the General Council “to refuse the admittance of any new group or section,” and threatened to “publicly denounce and disavow all organs of the International” which had the temerity to deal with “questions exclusively reserved for the local or Federal Committees and the General Council.”[xxxi] The targets of these resolutions were not just Bakunin, the Alliance and the French speaking Swiss Internationalists who opposed the reformist Geneva section, but a new section of the International that former members of the Alliance, such as Zhukovsky, and Communard refugees, including Gustave Lefrançais, had tried to form in Geneva in September 1871, the “Section of Revolutionary Propaganda and Action.”[xxxii] The Geneva Alliance had been dissolved in August 1871, so Marx took the opportunity to ensure that neither it nor any similar organization would be able to join the International again, despite the original statutes containing no prohibitions regarding the names that sections of the International could use to identify themselves.[xxxiii]

Marx’s other targets included Robin and the Swiss federalist papers, Solidarité and Progrès. Utin had by now told Marx that it was actually Robin and not Bakunin who had written the (relatively innocuous) articles in L’Égalité in the fall of 1869 that had so infuriated Marx that he had denounced them in his “confidential” communications to the various national councils in 1870, ascribing them to Bakunin.[xxxiv] The London Conference specifically denounced Progrès and Solidarité for publicly discussing issues that the Council claimed should be kept secret (presumably the same sort of issues the discussion of which had earned Marx’s previous condemnation, such as whether federal councils, national branches and their respective sections and members of the International should be required to participate in bourgeois politics).[xxxv]

The federalist majority of the French speaking Swiss Internationalists protested through Robin against the General Council’s recognition of Utin’s minority group as the Romande Federation, and asked that the dispute between the two groups be left for resolution by a full Congress of the International.[xxxvi] Utin personally attacked Guillaume, Bakunin and the Alliance, with the support of Marx and Engels.[xxxvii] Unsurprisingly, the General Council continued to side with Utin’s group. Guillaume’s majority faction would either have to join the Utin group, or reconstitute themselves as a separate section, under the name of the Jura Federation, which is what they ultimately did.[xxxviii] For standing up to the Marxists on behalf of the majority of the French-speaking Swiss Internationalists, Robin was expelled from the General Council soon after the London Conference, with Bastélica then resigning in solidarity.[xxxix]

Utin accused Bakunin of being an “aristocratic pleasure seeker… totally ignorant of Russian affairs,” in the pay of the Russian secret police and responsible not only for writing Nechaev’s notorious Catechism of a Revolutionary, but for Nechaev’s murder of the Russian student, Ivanov.[xl] Marx, who had been collecting this misinformation from Utin since 1870, disingenuously agreed with De Paepe that Bakunin “could not be condemned without hearing his defense,” but then persuaded the General Council to authorize Utin to prepare a full report on the so-called Nechaev affair.[xli] Marx then used Utin’s handiwork as the basis for expelling Bakunin from the International at the Hague Congress in September 1872.

Marx and Engels had published accusations that Bakunin was an agent of the Russian secret police as far back as 1848, and various allies of theirs had attempted to revive these false charges to discredit Bakunin prior to the 1869 Basel Congress, including Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was forced to admit there was no basis to them.[xlii] The charges were then repeated in German language, pro-Marxist, papers in Leipzig and New York in 1870.[xliii] Marx and Engels’ Spanish operatives again “tried to revive the rumour that Bakunin was a police spy” in 1872, around the time of the Hague Congress.[xliv] At the beginning of the Hague Congress in September 1872, the German social democrats actually republished the story from Marx and Engels’ 1848 Neue Rheinische Zeitung that had accused Bakunin of being a Russian agent provocateur.[xlv]

One of the “administrative” measures adopted at the London Conference gave the General Council the power to send its own delegates to attend the meetings of all federal councils, branches and sections.[xlvi] However, the Conference made clear that the federal councils, branches and sections had no right to elect delegates to represent them at meetings of the General Council. The General Council retained the power to determine who could be on the General Council. To allow the councils, branches and sections to choose who represented them on the General Council would be to substitute “the influence of local groups… for that of the whole International,” as if the General Council was somehow more representative of the membership as a whole.[xlvii]

The “Federalist French Section of 1871,” in exile in London, was subsequently denied admission into the International because it had, among other things, included in its statutes a requirement that it be able to send its own delegates to the General Council. As its name implies, the “Federalist Section” was committed to the principles of working class democracy and federalist organization. Its members included surviving members of long standing in the International, such as Camélinat.[xlviii]

Marx also used the London Conference to change the wording of the French version of the International’s Statutes, despite the fact that the original French version of the Statutes had been adopted by the French delegates to the Geneva Congress in 1866.[xlix] He had added to the provision regarding “the economical emancipation of the working classes” being “the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate” the concluding words contained in the English version of the Statutes, “as a means.”[l]

Marx of course had known of the differences in wording between the French and English versions of the Statutes for years, but had never raised the issue at any congress of the International, either the 1867 Lausanne Congress, the 1868 Brussels Congress, or the 1869 Basel Congress. Instead of putting the issue to a democratic vote of the delegates to a general congress, he waited until the London Conference where he had virtually guaranteed himself a majority of the so-called delegates, none of whom had a mandate from the French speaking members of the International to make such a change.

After Marx had the change in the wording of the French statutes confirmed at the September 1872 Hague Congress, Émile Aubry (1829-1900), the moderate Proudhonist from Rouen, pointed out that the original French sections of the International had joined the International on the basis of the version approved at the 1866 Geneva Congress. And yet the French sections were not consulted regarding the change to the statutes upon which their original affiliation to the International had been based.[li]

Robert Graham

[i] Guillaume, Vol. 2: 188-190.

[ii] General Council, 1870-1871: 448; Stekloff: 208.

[iii] General Council, 1870-1871: 269.

[iv] General Council, 1870-1871: 276.

[v] General Council, 1870-1871: 276.

[vi] Katz: 89.

[vii] General Council, 1870-1871: 271 & 275.

[viii] Katz: 89.

[ix] General Council, 1870-1871: 276.

[x] Messer-Kruse: 158-166.

[xi] General Council, 1870-1871: 276.

[xii] Collins and Abramsky: 95 & 165.

[xiii] General Council, 1870-1871: 269-270.

[xiv] Katz: 94.

[xv] Katz: 92.

[xvi] Guillaume, Vol. 2: 199.

[xvii] Guillaume, Vol. 2: 201.

[xviii] General Council, 1870-1871: 268 & 315-316.

[xix] Carr: 442.

[xx] Katz: 90-91.

[xxi] Marx, Vol. 22: 616.

[xxii] Marx, Vol. 22: 618 & 706, fn. 415.

[xxiii] Katz: 94.

[xxiv] Bakunin, 1974: 283, fn. 20.

[xxv] Rocker: 72.

[xxvi] Marx, Vol. 22: 688, fn. 271.

[xxvii] Marx, Vol. 22: 614.

[xxviii] Lenin, in Marx, 1972: 327.

[xxix] General Council, 1870-1871: 270.

[xxx] General Council, 1870-1871: 443.

[xxxi] Leier: 263.

[xxxii] Vincent: 46-47.

[xxxiii] General Council, 1870-1871: 447-448.

[xxxiv] General Council, 1868-1870: 399-407.

[xxxv] General Council, 1870-1871: 449.

[xxxvi] Katz: 91.

[xxxvii] Guillaume, Vol. 2: 195-196 & 201.

[xxxviii] Katz: 92.

[xxxix] Guillaume, Vol. 2: 195-198.

[xl] Katz: 92-93.

[xli] Katz: 93.

[xlii]Guillaume, in Bakunin, 1980: 28 & 38.

[xliii] Bakunin, 1974: 283, fn. 18.

[xliv] Bookchin: 74.

[xlv] Bakunin, 1974: 248.

[xlvi] General Council, 1870-1871: 441.

[xlvii] General Council, 1870-1871: 490-491.

[xlviii] Lehning, 1965: 442-446.

[xlix] General Council, 1870-1871: 463.

[l] General Council, 1870-1871: 451.

[li] Aubry, in Freymond, Vol. 3: 137.

César De Paepe: From Mutualism to Collectivism

Man of the Day

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Brussels Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called First International). It was one of the most important congresses of the International. The majority of the Belgian members hosting the Congress had been developing a libertarian socialist approach that presaged anarcho-syndicalism. One of their more eloquent speakers was César De Paepe, who had been influenced by Belgian and French socialists, including Proudhon, whose “anarchy” De Paepe had extolled in 1863 (see Shawn Wilbur’s full translation here). At the International’s Laussane Congress in 1867, De Paepe had used Proudhon’s own arguments about property to convince Proudhon’s “mutualist” followers in the International to support the collectivization of land in addition to the collectivization of larger enterprises like mines and railways. The issue remained undecided until the Brussels Congress the following year, when a majority of delegates voted in favour of the collectivization of land as well as of industry. This position became known as “collectivism,” which was contrasted with mutualism and, later, libertarian or anarchist communism. Here I present Shawn Wilbur’s translation of an article published by De Paepe in 1869 after the Basle Congress setting forth the arguments for collectivism that he made in the International. I review these debates in more detail in my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.


Thanks to a dialectics put in the service of a method more often metaphysical than scientific (which it is necessary to avoid confusing with the historical and objective method of Karl Marx), Proudhon has discovered in the social world some laws that observation confirms more from day to day; it is, however, incontestable that hypothesis still plays an infinitely more considerable role in the works of that thinker and that often he has concluded a priori or from insufficient observations: witness the conclusions of his last works relative to the social role of strikes and trades-unions, and those relative to the tendencies of modern production towards association and thus towards the collective appropriation of land and the large instruments of labor, two phenomena of which Proudhon has misunderstood the immense scope from the point of view of the organization of the future, and that he condemned even in the name of reason and logic, while Marx, already well before 1848, in the name of observation and history, considers them the two principal elements of the solution of the social problem. The majority of the writers of Liberté have made the defects of Proudhon their own by sacrificing, so to speak absolutely, his scientific side.

The article of Liberté of September 26, titled Conclusion, is a striking example of these “conclusions [that are] a priori or based on insufficient observations.” Liberté has been informed, by us, as well as by l’Egalité of Geneva, that the account of the Congress of Basel that it published from the Réveil, contained many errors, and that in particular the arguments of the collectivists were presented in a more or less false light; its observation of what is called the “Basel Congress” can thus only be insufficient, since it ignores in large part the reasons which have pushed the majority of the Congress to vote in favor of collective property. Well, despite that insufficiency of observations, Liberté nonetheless presents its “conclusion” which thus can only be a conclusion a priori. That “conclusion” is a work of high fantasy, where shines a disdain for the observation of reality, which is equaled only by the puerile pretention of imposing on humanity purely subjective laws, such as the antinomic laws of Capital and Property, born in the brain of their author and destined to never extend their real existence outside of that small, fantastic and imaginary world.

All the reasoning of the anti-collectivists has for point of departure a hypothesis! The very social necessities which have formerly demanded the constitution of individual property, still demand and will doubtless always demand the support of individual property. That support is fatal; the force of things demands it; divisions or successions parcel out the soil, it is true; but the drawbacks of parceling will not lead to association, to the putting-in-common of the parcels, etc.; that is to say: the soil tends to be divided more and more, and we conclude from it that there may be a natural limit to this division. Why do you conclude that? By what right, on what basis, do you claim that individual property in land is alone practical? Do you know another means of remedying the division, to the parceling out of the soil, but the reunification of the parcels, whether that reunification is made for the profit of a single proprietor who makes the other proprietors of parcels his waged workers (a system that we all recognize as contrary to the aspirations of our era), or for the profit of several by means of co-proprietorship, that is a sort of collective property, however large or narrow this co-property may be? Is there in agriculture itself, that is to say, independent of the effects produced in France and in some adjacent countries by the sale of national properties and the law regarding successions,—two political, extra-economic facts.—Is there in agricultural industry the least tendency to purely individual labor? Is that this industry like the others, does not demand the application of the collective force, the division of functions, the use of machines, production on a grand scale and with unity? Are not the harvest, haymaking, and grape-picking the types par excellence of collective labor?

You want the contrary, and that is why, taking your wish for a positive tendency of society, you misread the facts, and believe that the natural evolution is diametrically opposed to what it is in reality; and that idea well-fixed in your brain, that the natural evolution conforms to your desires, you go so far as to reject revolution which is the thoughtful and intelligent intervention of men to hasten the dénouement of a natural evolution, even, if need be, putting force in the service of the new ideas and not, as you describe it, the violent intervention of a higher and foreign will in society.

And you call yourself revolutionaries! Alas! Your maxims and your method are borrowed from the code of the bourgeois economists, who have also not wanted the intervention of men in the blind play of economic laws, and laugh at the spontaneous and collective efforts of the workers to hasten the period of necessary modifications; laissez faire, laissez passer.

You think that Society has the right to maintain individual property of the soil and to oppose itself to its return to collective property.

In the name of what society do you speak? And if it has the right to do it, does it have the power? If at a given moment it can intervene in a revolutionary manner to regulate its own affairs and make all at once a great step forward towards its natural destinies, can it overturn the natural order of things? Society has only one right, which is to conform to its own laws, to the laws of its historic development; to hasten or slow the natural tendencies that follow the facts, by modifying in one sense or another certain institutions, such is the power of the body of individuals who make up society at a given moment, a power in which each participates to a certain degree according to their greater or lesser influence on their contemporaries. When the anti-collectivist Proudhonians have proved to us that their individual property without rent either to the profit of individuals, or to the profit of society as a whole, that their leveling of the land-rent, is an observable phenomenon; when they have studied and classified the relations of that force that we have thus far encountered among the proprietarian phenomena; when they have classified and generalized these relations in order to draw some laws from them, we will bow before these laws, unless we can neutralize them by contrary laws; until then were are right to say that the rent is a natural fact resulting from the unequal fertility of the soil, an inequality that one can, certainly, diminish by means of certain agronomical procedures, irrigation, rotations, enrichments, etc., but that one can never level because they result from forces placed beyond the power of man, such as the exposure of a plot of land to the south or north, the vicinity of mountains, waters, forests, etc.; until then we will be right to say that their system is only an abstraction and that they are themselves only abstractors of quintessence.

It is otherwise with collective property, that is an observable phenomenon. Mr. Bakunin has cited the example of the Russian commune, and Mr. Cowel-Stepney a tribe of Indians. Certainly, the Russian commune is not observable in France, Belgium, Italy or England; nor are we Indians, and we do not live in the United States. But what does that prove? If collective property is not an observable fact among us today, does that demonstrate that it does not conform to the most imperious social necessities, those most generally felt, and that consequently it will not be observable tomorrow. — In England, is there the least tendency towards our system of small farmer-proprietors; is there not actually, in fact, a tendency to the greatest concentration of property in land between an always more restricted number of landlords; and doesn’t that very present tendency already produce today a contrary tendency in minds that demand the return of the soil to collective property, a demand which tomorrow some minds will transform into deeds, because it alone conforms to the social necessities that, on the one hand, want large-scale agricultural production and, on the other, demand equality between men. It is certain that the English people, on the day when they have worn out the system of large individual property, can only choose between collective property with large-scale agricultural production, or small-scale property with small-scale production, and that this last alternative is hardly probable in a country where they are accustomed to all the advantages of large-scale agriculture. And if in Belgium and France, the division still continue in many places, don’t we already see certain facts that indicate that the period of division nears its end and that those of association and collectivism will commence? These facts are, on one hand, cooperative association, the pooling of the parcels recognized as useful by the élite among our cultivators, and on the other the application of the public company to agricultural industry. For the first case, let us cite this passage from the January 17, 1869 issue of the Journal de la Société agricole du Brabant the editors of which are certainly not complicit with the laborers of the Basel Congress!

“The possible situation of the agricultural populations has awakened the concern of the governments and the economists in recent years. But the remedies that they have proposed, if they tend to attenuate the evils, cannot always make them disappear entirely. It is in freely formed association that must be found the most effective means of combating the drawbacks that we have highlighted. The association would aim to pool capital as well as land, which by their situation are particularly suitable to make up a single operation. Then it could carry out a division of labors that would be set out again between the different chiefs of the operation, in conformity with the special aptitudes of each of them.

“Let us arrange ourselves; and since it is impossible to make a suitable division of the lands that we use, the good lands being found on your side, the poor ones on mine, let us work them all in common. In this way we will avoid competition, we could distribute the rotation in a manner to gather in a single bloc all the homogeneous crops. It would be possible for us to employ those machines of recent invention that function with so much speed and economy; the transportation of fertilizer and return of the harvest would be must easier; and we would no longer be forced to race constantly from one parcel to another, from one end of the commune to the opposite extremity.”

For the second case, we will content ourselves with citing the public companies of the vineyards in France, and notably the one that spent 12 million on small properties in the Gironde and transformed them into one great rural operation (see the Rive Gauche for June 3, 1866).

Just as in manufacturing industry we see the small boss or artisan who labors alone and directly for their clientele, give way to cooperative associations of laborers or associations of capitalists, public or joint-stock companies, we can expect to see the small farming boss and the small proprietor, cultivating their own land, give way to the cooperative association of the rural laborers or to the public agricultural company. That is to say that here again, although by other means than in England, the new tendencies that we can already see here and there push towards a system of collective property and agriculture, rather than the system of the individual possessing proprietor, dreamed of by Liberté. Certainly, these forms of collective property are not those of the collectivism of the Basel Congress, — the earth belonging to the whole of humanity — but they can be a movement towards the collective appropriation of the soil by society, while certainly they are not a movement towards individual property. All this only proves that, although everywhere the earth must be the collective property of society, the solution does not seem as simple to the collectivists as one might say, and that the means of transition between that collective property and present property seem to them to differ necessarily according to the particular constitution of property in land in the different regions.

Whatever the case, a little earlier or a little later, depending on the country, the phenomena of agricultural industry and property in land unfold before our eyes according to the same law as those of manufacturing industry and capital, and form with those two series of analogous, if not completely identical facts. That analogy is one of extreme importance, and Liberté has not even glimpsed it; if it had done so, perhaps it would not have so lightly, with the stroke of a pen, abolished an economic phenomenon.

First series of phenomena. The profits collected by capital in the form of dividends, interest, profits, bribes, etc. increase more and more; labor’s portion decreases, for if the nominal wage has increased for certain workers, the real wage has diminished. Capital tends to centralize, manufacturing work to become collective.

Second series of phenomena. The revenue of the agricultural proprietor increases; the wage of the agricultural workers decreases, although their nominal wage has generally increased. Agricultural property, which tends to centralize in certain countries, also tends to parcel out in others; but even in these latter countries a new tendency begins to show itself beside the other: agricultural property, in order to meet new needs, will centralize, and agricultural labor, by the use of machines, the division of functions, the application of the theory of crop rotation, tends to become collective in all its parts, labor, sowing, reaping, hoeing, clearing, etc., as it has always been, more or less, in some of its essential parts, harvest, haymaking, etc.

Thus, we are in presence of two orders of facts which may seem contradictory at first, but which, after a little deeper analysis, appear to follow the same course.

We do not claim to have resolved here, in a few lines, the problem of the collectivity of the soil; we have simply shown:

l° That the observation of actual facts, of present tendencies, as well as the observation of social necessities that these facts create, alone can lead to solutions.

2° That contrary to the opinions of Liberté, agricultural property, like all capital (machines, workshops, factories, mines, teamsters, etc.) tends to become collective.

3° That a rational comparison of laws, contradictory in appearance, but analogous at base, such as the laws of agricultural property and capital, is often enough to lead to the solution of social problems.

4° That not only is the system of individual property without rent, by the equalization of land, an impossible solution, but that, if it was possible, it would not be not a plausible solution.

The inequality of the land-rent of the individuals brought to the same level by the attribution of all the rent to the social collectivity, the application of scientific processes to agriculture, the transformation of the landlord and tenant, agricultural employers, cowhands, and all the small proprietors—the transformation of everyone into co-proprietors of the soil and into co-workers accomplished, the mutualists can reassure themselves, man will no longer be exploited by man, no more by the individual than by the human collectivity, given that society will deduct nothing from the labor of the farmers, but will be content to use the soil in conformity with the general interests and to allocate the rent, which is not the fruit of the individual labor of the cultivators, but rather the combined result of the forces of nature and of society.

César De Paepe

From mutualism to ?