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.

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