Mikhail Bakunin

Bakuninist hatchet job

Mike Macnair takes issue with Dave Douglass over the First International

On December 10 2015 this paper published Dave Douglass’s rave review of René Berthier’s Social democracy and anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864-1877.

The review led me to buy and read the book myself. I thought it was potentially interesting, since I have argued myself in Revolutionary strategy (London 2008, chapter 2) that the ‘mass strike strategy’ of the ‘Bakuninist’ wing of the First International and its successors expressed legitimate concerns about electoral strategies leading to corruption of the workers’ representatives - although in that very outline discussion I came to the conclusion that this approach could not work. Perhaps Berthier would have more useful information and ideas about the issue?

Alas, it was not to be. Berthier’s book is merely a hatchet job, primarily characterised by rhetoric and spin against Marx and Engels as individuals, in the service of what is ultimately a cold war idea that ‘Marxism leads to Stalinism’ (by pushing further the pre-1914 German ‘Lefts’ idea, revived by the 1950s-60s New Left, that Engels, via Kautsky, led to social democracy and Stalinism).

To this approach, traditional among anarchists, Berthier adds two specific arguments. The first is that Marx’s and Engels’ decisive vice was to break up the First International as a ‘broad front’ and convert it into a ‘sect’ by insisting that the workers’ movement needed to participate in elections. The second is that their opponents, having saved what (he alleges) was the majority of the “anti-authoritarian international”, proceeded after Bakunin’s death to destroy it by the symmetrical error of voting through commitments against electoral participation and in favour of ‘propaganda by the deed’ (direct actionism).

An appearance that Berthier’s arguments are backed by evidence is created by the presence of 372 endnotes (as well as an appendix of a selection of documents added by the translator). In reality, however, these do not do this job. The point of footnotes or endnotes in polemical historical writing (writing which is making an argument rather than merely offering a narrative), is to enable the reader to ‘replicate the experiment’ by going to the sources on which the author has relied to confirm or deny whether they do in fact back the point. But Berthier’s most damaging allegations against Marx and Engels are simply unsupported by references.

Much of Berthier’s narrative, where it is backed by references, is taken uncritically from James Guillaume’s L’internationale: documents et souvenirs (Paris 1905-09). Since Guillaume was an immediate participant, on Bakunin’s side, in the split, Guillaume is the opposite of an unbiased witness. This is not to say that he is not a witness at all: merely that he should not be used uncritically.

Berthier uses Franz Mehring’s biography of Marx as constituting “admissions” from the Marxist camp (eg, p9); but fails to recognise in this context that, as Hal Draper has shown, Mehring was strongly influenced in his treatment of Marx in this period by his own Lassallean sympathies.1 Again, this does not rule Mehring out of court as a witness; it merely means that Mehring’s adverse comments on Marx’s conduct cannot be used as providing strong evidence against Marx, in the way that Berthier uses them.

Draper in Karl Marx’s theory of revolution has offered a savage critique of the version of the story of the split in the First International which Berthier repeats. He argues that Bakunin’s followers suppressed a good deal of his correspondence and that, from correspondence which did survive, unpublished till the 1960s, it became clear that the charges Marx and his supporters made against Bakunin and his supporters - of running an entry operation in the First International and planning a split - were substantially true.2 Draper’s arguments may be false - or may be the one-sided ‘Marxist’ equivalent of Guillaume’s one-sided ‘Bakuninist’ arguments. But in a book written in 2012 they need an answer.

Mark Leier’s full biography of Bakunin, Bakunin: the creative passion (New York 2006) also does not respond to Draper’s arguments, but equally gives an account of the struggle and split in the international which is inconsistent with Berthier’s version. Again, some response is called for in a book written in 2012.

A related, symptomatic feature of Berthier’s treatment of the subject is his handling of the roles of the ‘Lassallean’ German General Workers Association (ADAV) and the ‘Eisenacher’ Social Democratic Workers Party of Germany (SDAP) - groups which were, in 1875, to fuse to form the precursors of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). These groups’ lack of commitment to the International are used as evidence that the ‘Marxists’ did not have a majority (p74).

Marx’s and Engels’ criticisms of Ferdinand Lassalle (for playing political footsie with rightwing Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck), and of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel of the SDAP for ‘Kleinstaaterei’ (calling for socialism in one small country) and for failing to break decisively with the Saxon liberals, are treated not as in any sense calling into question Marx’s and Engels’ supposed commitment to electoralist reformism and bourgeois coalition politics, but are used rather merely as evidence of their isolation (p89).3

On the other hand, the flirtations between the ADAV and the International in the early 1870s are not used to interrogate how far the “anti-authoritarian international” was acting in a principled way (given that the ADAV, unlike Bebel and Liebknecht, voted for war credits for Bismarck’s war with France in 1870), but merely as more evidence of the ‘breadth’ of the “anti-authoritarian international” (p129).

‘Fantasy organisations’

Dave Douglass says: “The ‘federalist’ concepts around Bakunin and the international forces he represented were anathema to Marx and his team, who responded by expelling practically the entire affiliated international membership.” In saying this he is pretty faithfully paraphrasing Berthier. The problem, however, is that Berthier does not actually supply any evidence for this view, except for the fact that the “anti-authoritarian international” lasted longer than the ‘Marxist’ version - though on his own account it rapidly got very small, so that this might mean merely that the ‘Marxists’ were first to give up on what was, on both sides, plainly a dying project.

The true answer is probably that we do not know who had the majority in 1871-72. The First International at its height was numerically dominated by British trade unionists and French Proudhonists, with other groupings relatively marginal. The 1867 Reform Act drew the British trade unions towards Liberal Party politics, while the fate of the Paris Commune and Marx’s support for it in The civil war in France4repelled them; the French movement as a whole, Proudhonists included, was crushed by the repression in the wake of the Commune. Under the circumstances the majority of the International had been lost, and it would have been extraordinarily difficult to ascertain what, if anything, the mandates of congress or conference participants represented.

Precisely in order to reject the charges (of running a secret split faction) on the basis of which Bakunin and Guillaume were expelled at the Hague, Berthier argues that Bakunin tended to create “fantasy organisations” without real memberships and the ‘Marxists’ improperly exploited this against him (pp9-11, 75-77). But, once it is conceded that Bakunin before (and into) the period of the First International created fantasy organisations without real memberships, we cease to have any grounds for believing the claims about the number of members backing them made by Bakunin’s supporters in the period of the split and afterwards.

Why did the “anti-authoritarian international” collapse? Berthier’s story (pp131-51) is partly one of nasty, sectarian manoeuvres by the Germans; partly one of the ‘anarchists’ (as opposed to the revolutionary syndicalists) imposing a political line on it. But the narrative he gives also suggests rather strongly that the Belgians, who were a major component, were from the mid-1870s more attracted to the ‘German’ ‘electoralist’ line.

This is, of course, the other side of the story of the German ADAV and SDAP: in spite of Marx’s and Engels’ criticisms of the 1875 Gotha unification, it triggered a ‘snowball effect’ which turned two groups, with around 20,000 in total membership, into a much larger organisation, serious enough to be (partially) banned by the Anti-Socialist Law in 1878. Moreover, Bebel and Liebknecht had abstained rather than voting for credits for Bismarck’s war in 1870; so a Social Democratic MP could chart a line independent of the regime of parliamentary manoeuvres. (Electoral) political action now looked like a basis on which to build serious organisations.

I make these points not in order to reach the opposite conclusion - that Marx and co were the ‘true majority’ (as Draper does) - but merely to establish that Berthier’s argument, here following Guillaume, is unsound, and that the book is generally characterised by rhetorical spin. There are numerous other points of the same sort which could be made, but I do not have either space or time to “joyfully take time to pick it apart”, as Dave Douglass puts it.

The question which is posed, however, is why it is worthwhile in 2012 for Berthier to do a ‘spin doctor operation’, claiming that the ideas of Marx and Engels led to social democracy and Stalinism, when even a sympathetic early 21st-century biographer of Bakunin (Meier) does not carry criticism of Marx and his co-thinkers to this length. Why does this split in a (fairly short-lived) international workers’ organisation 144 years ago still matter to us?

The answer is, fairly straightforwardly, that the actual political issues in the split - as opposed to questions such as who had a majority, whether Bakunin was running a secret faction, whether Marx was engaged in bureaucratic manoeuvres (or was a pan-Germanist) or whatever - are still live in the 21st century. Is it true that “electoralism” (ie, running serious campaigns for election to bourgeois parliaments) and attention to issues of constitutional design necessarily lead to bureaucratic control and corruption by the capitalists? If so, does revolutionary syndicalism - building broad-front, pure trade unions, with a ‘revolutionary’ minority group working within them - represent a workable alternative strategy?

Indeed, we are not only concerned with the revolutionary syndicalism of the sort Berthier defends, or that of the old Industrial Workers of the World. The reality is that, if we read Berthier, his interpretation of Bakunin is strikingly close to the ideas of the modern ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Trotskyist’ left. Against ‘electoralism’ - check. For ‘broad fronts’ and against taking any decisions which might conceivably lead to a split - check. For a ‘revolutionary minority’, operating clandestinely or semi-secretly within the ‘broad front’ (or presenting themselves in public, not as group supporters, but of the delegates of this or that front organisation) - check. All of these attitudes are shared by the Socialist Workers Party and other groups, including those operating within the majority in Left Unity.

‘Original sin’

In this context, looking either for a ‘Marxist’ original sin from around 1870, as Berthier does, or for a ‘libertarian’ original sin from the same period, as Hal Draper did, is rather unhelpful. Both the ‘Marxist’ and the “anti-authoritarian” versions of the First International collapsed in the short term. What we have to do is, rather, attempt to abstract from the immediate issues in debate to the underlying principles - and this Berthier rightly, but not accurately, attempts in his first chapter, ‘Key questions’ (pp12-63) - and then look at the success or failure of the rival perspectives with the benefit of hindsight over the whole period between c1870 and today.

We have to look with the benefit of hindsight, as I argued in Revolutionary strategy, because the exercise is not about passing moral judgment on our predecessors in the movement. It is more like the sort of activity an engineer has to do when a bridge falls down. Why did it fall down? What changes can we make to prevent its replacement suffering the same fate?

However, the underlying issues are, it seems to me, two. The first is whether ‘electoralism’ should be rejected as tending to lead to corruption by capital (not, Berthier argues, in favour of anarcho-terrorist direct actionism, but in favour of revolutionary syndicalism). The second is the question of ‘broad fronts’ and the ‘invisible dictatorship’ of the small group of those who have theoretical superiority.

As to revolutionary syndicalism as a superior alternative to electoralism, it seems that the evidence is unambiguously that it is not. The ‘non-political’ British trade unions between their various breaks with the First International and the beginning of Labour formed a political tail to the capitalist Liberal Party. The phenomenon of anti-political trade unions ending as tails for the dominant political party forces was displayed again in 1930s Spain with the anarchist-led Confederación Nacional del Trabajo forming a tail to the People’s Front government; in the US with the unions and the Democratic Party; and in 1950s Bolivia - to give only one ‘third world’ example - with the syndicalist leadership of the Central Obrera Boliviana and the left-nationalist Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. In pre-1914 Germany, the material base of the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the SPD - and the first part of the SPD to agree to support the war effort in 1914 - was the trade union leaderships. In 1914 France, the majority of the syndicalists of the Confédération Générale du Travail, originally a revolutionary syndicalist organisation (James Guillaume worked for its press from 1909) backed the ‘war effort’ just as promptly ...

As to ‘broad fronts’, it is plainly untrue that making elementary political choices (eg, whether to stand in elections) prohibits the creation of large mass organisations. Consider the German SPD, but equally the mass communist parties of France, Italy and so on at their height.

On the contrary, the idea that it is necessary to preserve the broad character of the front by avoiding basic political decisions requires the presence of Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’. When the SWP, Socialist Resistance or whatever hide their party affiliations behind front organisations and vote against their own views for fear of imagined split dangers, the result is to poison internal life and create an atmosphere of suspicion. The end result is splits and not the creation of mass organisations.

Berthier’s interpretation of the history of the First International, then, does not provide us with a useful guide - either to the past or to the future.



1 . H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 4: Critique of other socialisms New York 1990, special note C.

2 . Ibid, special note B.

3 . The material in question is contextualised in RH Dominick III Wilhelm Liebknecht and the founding of the German Social Democratic Party Chapel Hill 1982.

4 . The civil war in France is characterised by Berthier as merely cynically opportunistic - p16; if so, it was a piece of ‘opportunism’ which had remarkably adverse consequences - in fact predicted in private correspondence by its author, Marx - for his own immediate political alliances.